The Evolution of the Word “Otaku” – Some Personal Reflections
It’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!
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.