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The Evolution of the Word “Otaku” – Some Personal Reflections

art clubIt’s been a while, guys! The last few weeks have been busy for me so I’m sorry for the lack of content on the blog, but I did manage to produce some articles for Crunchyroll in the meantime. I recently finished a three-part history of the word otaku, which you can read below!

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

My history differs from a lot of other Japanese and English-language histories of otaku because it’s about the way words are used in different cultures rather than about “actual” otaku. I hope that even seasoned anime fans and academic junkies alike can see the word with a fresh perspective.

That said, there is a lot more I’d love to say on the subject, but due to time and space reasons, I couldn’t go into too much detail. I also didn’t talk about my personal feelings on the subject at all, even though otaku is a very personal subject for me. In fact, my main motivation for writing the articles was my frustration with the identity politics tied up with otaku, but which everyone seems to take as a given instead of questioning further.

Frankly, it’s ridiculous to expect a heterosexual Japanese man to speak for all otaku in the same way that it’s ridiculous to expect a heterosexual white man to speak for all gamers and geeks.

Otaku is a word that has evolved to be inclusive and exclusive at once. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. We could all retire the use of the word from our vocabularies because it is too loaded, or everyone could call themselves an otaku until the label loses its association with “a certain kind of male.” Neither outcome is likely to happen, because a) that’s not the way words work, and b) the anime industry continues to be dominated by men at the higher levels. Even anime critics and cultural commentators tend to be mostly men, and so their voices end up having more weight.

While I do find this situation regrettable, I also think that the spread of otaku overseas can help overturn the assumptions around the word. This would require overseas commentators to be critical of the context in which the word developed in Japan, but unfortunately many of us don’t have access to the voluminous writings on the subject. And so we inevitably end up enforcing the stereotypes ourselves, by placidly accepting the images we receive from anime and manga. Anyone who seriously thinks that otaku can “only be Japanese” or even that most Japanese anime consumers fall into the “otaku” group should really think twice about that assumption.

I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to write my history of otaku as a polemic, but these are my honest thoughts on the subject.

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Posted on September 6, 2016, in Editorials. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I’m now thinking about the question you asked on Twitter about whether people thought you were an otaku or not. I remember I said know and you wondered if that was because the word has too many negative connotations, and while that wasn’t it in specific to you, I do think it was true for me in general. It’s been a while since I unofficially decided this, but I think I just stopped using the word altogether because of the stereotypes around it. I didn’t identify myself as an otaku and I didn’t really call anyone else an otaku. And yeah, it was because I wanted to avoid the stereotypes personally and didn’t want to enforce them on someone else.

    In any case it seems the word has, unfortunately, lost of a lot of its utility because of the the conflicted history and the way it’s used to blanket large groups of people. Heck, I feel like otaku in general use probably doesn’t even include fujoshi for most people, even though it probably should.

    I have no conclusion to these thoughts.

    • Something to remember: fujoshi isn’t a catch-all word for hardcore female anime fans. It’s a subset of female anime fans. It only means a girl who likes BL a lot. It shouldn’t be used to distinguish girls from “otaku”.

      On topic, I think that your feelings about otaku are quite understandable. And I have no conclusion to this reply either~

      • Oh, yeah, I’m on board with you there. I was just using that as an example of how otaku has become limited in meaning for many by noting that people likely don’t consider fujoshi otaku. Which is incorrect! But that’s where we’ve ended up, unfortunately.

  2. First off, I want to say fantastic work on all three parts of your Crunchyroll articles. They were all really fantastic, and your thoughts and words were really nice to hear. And the subject matter was ultimately really interesting to read.

    I guess I share your hopes that with the spread of otaku overseas the assumptions and stereotypes that come with will disappear. Though, I don’t believe I’ve ever used it to describe myself. But I don’t really belief it was because of any associations with the word. Just something I had never even put a lot of thought into. When ever I’ve referred to my self its usually been things like young man, Artist, & Dreamer. And when I’m feeling self-deprecating, idiot, fool, dreaming fool, and the like but that only ever comes up when dealing with my own personal issues.

    Anyway, its certainly an interesting subject to consider considering how inclusive and yet exclusive it is.

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you found my articles worthwhile!

      Our identities are very complex. Some of us may be attracted to labels to help understand ourselves, while others may choose to reject the labels. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about it.

  3. Its interesting. I’ll admit I always just looked on it as japanese for geek in terms of media consumption, and in the context of non japanese that simply just being geeks who had a strong interest in japanese pop-media. Otaku and fujoshi just seeming like an oddity of needing different words to describe male and female geeks for japanese pop-culture.

    Of course thats a bit hypocritical of me seeing as how I have been bothered by how geek went from a fairly specific term (at least in my mind) to something much wider in scope in terms of topic and dedication. I’ve gotten over that for the most part though.

    • Otaku and fujoshi just seeming like an oddity of needing different words to describe male and female geeks for japanese pop-culture.

      See my response to iblessall where I said that fujoshi refers to a subset of female anime fans with specific interests. it’s not a female equivalent to otaku. For some reason, it seems to be a growing trend in the English fandom to refer to fujoshi as such, however. A testament to how the word “otaku” has become so male-dominated in the minds of fans?

  4. When you say that we “enforce the stereotypes ourselves”, are you referring to when we openly and casually make fun at ourselves for our interests? Because I can attest to that 120%. My usual group of anime buddies (primarily male) like to interact by talking about how bad the anime they’re watching is, or heckling each other for having “bad taste”. Common words in our dialogue include “salt”, “cancerous”, “weeb”, “GG”, “your waifu is ****”, “kys”, and other confrontational terms. From my perspective, it seems like the culture thrives on recognizing that “anime was a mistake”, which I personally find hilarious.

    And yet, we as a group seem to avoid using the term “otaku”, including myself. This seems almost contradictory considering that these guys love to get into controversy. In my case, I like to avoid using the term since it often initiates a conversation on the history and stereotypes of the term, which never ends differently or pleasantly. Makes me wonder if it is simply those political aspects that deters anime fans from the use of the term since it’s not like the stereotypes are wrong in our case.

    We call ourselves “weebs” instead, even though hardly any of us are white. I don’t know if we use it simply as a substitute or just because it’s a fun word to say.

  5. I think the word is fine the way it is, because you can always position your identity somewhere in the vicinity of the stereotype. If you think of it like this, the word hasn’t lost any real meaning at all.

    • That’s what I said in the Crunchyroll article itself. Even when the word is problematic, it’s useful for people negotiating their own identities.

      But as a subject of academic discourse? We have to go much deeper. Ootsuka has a more extreme position than me; he wants to dismantle “otaku” as an object of discourse altogether, but I can’t say I don’t sympathise with his feelings.

  6. I’m only really annoyed by the usurping of it by commercial forces, aka Japan, aka what Otaku Elimination Game’s problem with it was about.

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