They’re everywhere! In our schools, in our churches, and even living next door, they are weird creatures that are all about collection and obsession. Chances are, you’ve seen one and never even knew what secrets they were hiding from the real world. They are otaku, and though they started in a strange land known as Japan; they have integrated themselves into American society. You could even be reading an article by an otaku right now. (Cue horror music)
“Otaku” is a Japanese slang term for anyone with obsessive tendencies towards hobbies or a type of media. It is usually used to describe those who are obsessive with Japanese anime, but it can be used for anyone who shows an obsessive personality towards anything, such as Star Trek or My Little Pony. Even those people who went nuts for Beanie Babies when they came out can be considered otaku. Although the definition of otaku seems pretty black and white, the execution of the word and its usage has evolved. In Japan, the word otaku, while commonly used for anime and manga fans, is regularly used for any obsessive hobby, while in America and other places, it is only associated with anime, manga, and, by extension, video games. For those who like to use simple labels, otaku is just a fancy word for a geek or nerd.
A Little History Lesson
The origin of the term otaku is a little unclear, and there are a couple different places people have insisted the word itself first showed up. It is derived from the Japanese word meaning “house” or “family” (otaku), but it could also be used as a metaphoric honorific literally meaning “you.” The first anime to use the term Otaku was Macross, originally released in 1982. The first known slang usage, as referring to a geek or nerd, was seen in a 1983 series called “An Investigation of an Otaku” which was written by the humorist Akio Nakamori and was printed in Manga Bunkko, which was a lolicon (AKA, lolita complex, which describes an innate attraction to underage girls) magazine. Another potential origin of the word is through the science fiction author Matoko Arai. In her novels, she used the word as a second person pronoun, and some of her readers began to use the word towards themselves.
While it is hard to pin point exactly when the term came into existence, it is easier to nail down when the subculture as we know it originated. The subculture was born about the time that anime became a big deal in Japan , with the release of certain popular anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam, which is now one of the molds for the modern Mecha anime genre. What started the otaku movement was the changing of social mentalities, mainly in Japanese culture. Their schools tend to function based on hierarchy in their classes; however, they have social or after school clubs which cater to their interests and allow students to associate themselves with other like minded individuals. Even outside of schools, Japan works on a social standing hierarchy where everyone is judged based on their success. Say you were an unattractive male with no athletic ability; you wouldn’t be able to excel in any sports, so to improve your social standing, you would have to study hard and find success through hard work. Others might try to turn their hobby into a career in hope of gaining success through those means as well. Those school clubs and careers based on various hobbies let people nurture their interests, possibly excessively, until their hobbies became a major part of their lives or even full-blown obsessions.
The World’s Anime Super Powers (Japan vs. USA)
If you listen to American anime fans, a lot of them say that they love anime so much that they want to visit Japan for that main reason. What they don’t realize is that even in this modern age, a lot of otaku in Japan are ridiculed and looked down upon by those in “normal” society. The stereotype about nerds living as shut-ins and not contributing to society isn’t terribly accurate in America or Japan, but if you look closer into the otaku culture, there are a few of those who do match it. And even though there have been studies and documentaries on this subculture, there are always those handfuls of people that will make the rest of them look bad and reinforce those stereotypes.
Even the most antisocial of otaku like to be among others of their kind to celebrate their favorite obsessions. In the Japanese otaku culture, there are two shining symbols that have become synonymous with the otaku world: Akihabara and Comiket.
Akihabara, located in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo, is considered to be the epicenter of the otaku culture and influence. After World War II, Akihabara was originally a place where you could buy only household electronics and certain black market items. As the 1980s rolled around, electronics started to lose their futuristic look and appeal, and it became only suited to hobbyists and computer geeks. With this specialization and transformation, it was only natural that it started to attract anime and manga otaku, and slowly, it transformed into the modern Akihabara.
For those who have never heard of this place, the best way to picture it is to imagine the Las Vegas strip, but instead of casinos and hotels, you see anime and manga shops and maid cafés. Maid Cafés are little shops where waitresses dress up as maids and serve customers as if they were the master (or mistress) of a private house. The “maids” serve tea, coffee, snacks and other café related items, all while treating you like a king (within reason). I say within reason because some customers might try to get carried away in the illusion, but there are basic ground rules that should be followed, such as don’t touch the maid and don’t ask for the maid’s private information. This is to ensure the safety of the server but also helps maintain the illusion. There are also butler cafés where waiters dress up as butlers and essentially do the same thing.
Akihabara is also famous because it’s like a year round anime convention. Everyday there are different events and sales that attract otaku from all over Japan and the world. One day there could be a famous voice actor signing autographs, and the next, a famous cosplay idol could be doing a surprise performance.
Comiket or Comic Market is the world’s largest doujinshi fair. Doujinshi are self-published manga, novels, video games and art pieces and are a way for amateur artists to get their work out and promote themselves. The majority of doujinshi are fan comics of different anime, manga, video games, or television shows, and these doujinshi allow people to share their love of their favorite things by creating their own storylines and explore different avenues of character development. Comiket is a grassroots, do-it-yourself platform that allows those who create doujinshi to share their works with a lot of people at one time. If you have ever been to an anime convention and browsed the artist alley where artists set up shop to sell their creations, just imagine that but on a larger scale, and you have what makes Comiket. It has been around since 1975, and while it started with only 600 attendees, it has grown to about half a million people. Since Comiket is held twice a year, fans don’t have to wait long for the next one.
If you want to learn a little more about how doujinshi works or what Comiket is all about, I highly recommend the anime Comic Party, as it explores what it takes to make it as a doujinshi maker.
While Japan is the originator of all things anime, the one place to embrace the anime geekdom the most seems to be America. In the past couple of decades, we have seen the evolution of the American otaku subculture from being just a couple of geeks trading VHS tapes to being a famously recognized main stream fan base, like Trekkies. Unlike Japan, we do not have a couple big places where otaku like to congregate. Instead, we have spread ourselves out across the states and set up bases everywhere, invading comic stores and libraries and taking over hotels and convention halls.
At anime conventions, like-minded individuals come together over a course of anywhere from one to four days to go crazy about everything anime, manga or simply Japan-related. There are panels that allow you to learn more about different aspects of media and in some cases Japan, game shows and contests that test your otaku knowledge, and even panels that allow you to talk with voice actors and celebrities. Besides all that, there are autograph sessions, the artist alley, the shopping hall (where you can buy merchandise), dances, cosplay games, karaoke, and many other things to keep you going through the entire convention. Almost every state in the US has at least one convention a year, and while many are rather small, they still allow you to get your fix, because a lot of voice actors and artists like to tour conventions and tend to stop at the smaller conventions. Some of the biggest anime conventions include Anime Expo (Los Angeles, CA), Otakon (Baltimore, MD) (not to be confused with Otacon from Metal Gear Solid), and Anime Boston (Boston, MA).
Even with everything out there to celebrate what it means to be an otaku, this is only the tip of the iceberg because otaku reside everywhere around the world. They are of every race, gender, and age. It is a subculture that can be pure madness to those who look on it from the outside, but as they slowly become engulfed, they see it from a new and exciting perspective. For other takes and satires on the world of anime otaku, I would recommend watching This Is Otakudom, a mockumentary of otaku culture and the anime convention. If you want to see what it’s like to be one of the so-called “freak otaku,” you should read the manga My Girlfriend Is a Geek; it is based on a blog, which described the life a guy who dated a BL or boys love otaku (one who is obsessed with Yaoi, a genre that focuses on male-male relationships).
So, do you consider yourself an otaku? Is there anything you’re obsessed with? Tell us about how you celebrate your geekiness below so we can get another perspective on this fan subculture.