Otaku is a word that seems deceptively straightforward at first glance. Adopted into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007, it is defined as follows:
(In Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.
It is notable that the dictionary definition includes the negative perceptions surrounding the word. According to the OED, the otaku is “obsessed” and lacks “social skills.” This description is essentially no different from the columnist Akio Nakamori’s use of the word “bizarre” (異様) when he defined otaku as a label in 1983. While it has become more socially acceptable to identify as an otaku these days, it still retains an air of eccentricity.
One could argue that this is very much the point of adopting it as a loan word—otaku captures a nuance that “geek” or “fan” can’t quite muster. But adopting loan words from another culture is not a simple copy-and-paste process. Otaku has transformed significantly on its Journey to the West (ahem), a sure indication that the meaning of the word was contentious to begin with.
And that’s the theme of this week’s Found in Translation column. Translation is not a simple additive or subtractive process. By its very nature it is both transformative and elusive, a constant reminder that words may not always mean what we assume they mean at first glance.
What’s in a Spelling?
One reason why adopting otaku as a loan word is translation is because the word has multiple spellings in Japanese, each with a different nuance. Even when you leave the word as otaku in English, it is not the same word as it was in Japanese.
These days in Japanese writing, otaku is often written in katakana as オタク. Katakana is typically used for extra emphasis or to indicate words of foreign origin. Think of it as an equivalent to italics or block letters. When written in katakana, otaku’s Japanese origins are obscured and its connections to a hip and cool youth culture are emphasized.
It wasn’t always that way, however. Otaku derives from the polite form of address お宅 (or 御宅) and literally means “your house/family.” Hardly anyone writes it that way, though, except when pointing out the word’s origins. When otaku first emerged as a disparaging label for hardcore anime/manga fans in the 1980s and early 90s, it was frequently written in hiragana as おたく.
In reaction to the stigma, prominent cultural commentators such as Toshio Okada (the former president of Studio Gainax and self-proclaimed “Otaking”) began writing otaku in katakana, in order to reclaim the word in a positive way. His side eventually won the spelling war; オタク is now the accepted spelling even in government documents.
All these complexities in the spelling are flattened out when the word is rendered in English as otaku. On the other hand, the English spelling introduces a new layer of complexity to the label—the foreign gaze. The debate around “what is an otaku?” has only become more complicated now that there are more players involved.
As usual when it comes to stories of cross-cultural exchange, neither side has access to the whole story. As a translator, I’m more interested in seeing how people deal with the gaps than in providing an “objective” account of what otaku “really” means. While otaku has become global, its adoption in the American fandom is well-documented, so let’s start this story in the United States, at a time when anime fandom was only just starting to kick off.
What does Otaku mean in the United States?
Contrary to the popular stereotype, the first Americans to use the word were aware of the stigma surrounding it. According to the otaku studies scholar Lawrence Eng, the oldest mention of otaku from the Usenet archives dates from 1990: “‘Otaku’ sounds kind of perverted,” wrote the message. “I hate that word.”
The disparaging tone is unsurprising, given that the word was initially imported from contemporary Japanese sources in the wake of the infamous “otaku murderer” case of 1989. (More on this in part two.)
At what point, then, did American anime fans get the impression that otaku was a badge of pride? Probably from watching anime itself. One of the earliest mentions of otaku in a subtitled anime came from Gunbuster’s initial U.S. release in 1990, but it wasn’t until Otaku no Video’s release in 1993 that the word entered fandom consciousness in a major way.
Otaku no Video has been a huge hit among American anime fans ever since it was first released. In his memoirs, the Gainax anime director Yasuhiro Takeda remarked that Otaku no Video is “widely regarded as the otaku bible” in the U.S. Even today, this two-episode OVA remains a cult classic. Case in point: a kickstarter for a Bluray release last year raised over $100,000.
In some ways, it is ironic that Otaku no Video has gained such a positive reputation among American anime fans. One controversial segment depicted a so-called gaijin (“foreigner”) otaku in an extremely unflattering light, completely altering his words in a dubbed-over “translation.” To be fair, however, the OVA made gleeful fun of everyone identifying as otaku, presenting them as hapless and delusional misfits. At the same time, the otaku were ambitious, filled with the potential to revolutionize the world. For many American geeks, perhaps, Otaku no Video represented a banner of self-deprecating pride.
On a practical level, too, otaku was a useful word for English speakers who wanted to communicate their niche interests. In Japan, one can identify as a train otaku, a stamp otaku or as anything in-between, but in English, at least, the word came to indicate anime/manga fandom specifically. Given that anime and manga were borrowed from Japanese, it makes sense that a word referring to anime fans would be borrowed from Japanese as well. In that sense, any Japanese-sounding word would probably have done the trick.
Yet the otaku label has never been simple for English speakers. For every fan who adopted the word as a neutral or positive label, another fan would point out that otaku “means something different in Japan.” When Western anime fans talk about the word, they often have wildly different and conflicting interpretations, as can be seen in the “True Otaku” documentary.
The debates around what it means to be an otaku are further complicated by the issue of cultural appropriation. Some Westerners believe that otaku can only describe a Japanese person and that it would be wrong for a Westerner to identify themselves as such. There’s a great deal of stigma around being single-mindedly obsessed with Japanese culture. Nobody wants to be a “weeaboo,” after all. Social pressure might dissuade some people from identifying too closely with otaku when they don’t fit the perceived Japanese image to a T.
The stereotypes themselves are another reason why a Westerner might feel cautious about describing themselves as otaku. Unless these fans live in Japan and/or speak Japanese, they will probably get their primary image of how otaku are perceived in Japan from anime. Unfortunately, the otaku characters that typically populate anime are almost never intended to be realistic portrayals of what anime fans are actually like in Japan. They are exaggerated figures, created more for performance art than for documentary purposes. They are also almost exclusively male and heterosexual.
This creates problems for those who see themselves as hardcore anime fans but otherwise do not share the same traits as the otaku characters in anime. Even if the otaku is shown to be female, she is either stereotyped as a fujoshi (a fan of “Boys’ Love”) or is clearly more of a male’s “geek girl” fantasy than a believable character in her own right (e.g. Kirino from Oreimo). And even if the otaku character claims not to be interested in “3D” girls, he will never show interest in “2D” boys. The gender roles in anime can be strict at times.
The word otaku, at least from the way it is currently used, appears to be too narrow and confining to accurately describe the diverse identities and interests of people who are passionate about anime. The word otaku might have become global, but the prevailing image of “nerdy Japanese men” remains at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Someone who is unfamiliar with the debates around the word in Japan might therefore be tempted to conclude that otaku have always been described this way, and that the Japanese otaku subculture is so unique that it cannot be replicated elsewhere without seeming like a forced imitation.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
“Otaku are Dead”
In 2008, Toshio Okada, the former president of Studio Gainax, published a book called Otaku wa sude ni shindeiru. In English, the title translates to “Otaku are Dead.” As you might recall from last week’s column, Okada was one of the individuals who pushed to rehabilitate the image of otaku in the nineties. He also wrote the screenplay for Otaku no Video, which means that his influence in shaping the discourse around otaku has been felt across the globe.
And yet, in “Otaku are Dead,” Okada claimed that otaku are no longer what they used to be. As a big science fiction enthusiast and a Gainax-era otaku, Okada was disillusioned with the rise of moe anime. As far as he was concerned, the mainstreaming of moe anime has led to the public embracing a skewed image of what it means to be an otaku.
“That stereotypical image of a guy who loves his 2D girls is too narrow to describe what an otaku is!” But then, what is an otaku?
When “Otaku are Dead” was first published, it was widely criticized for lacking coherency; but on the other hand, it’s that very lack of coherency that makes it a rather revealing statement about otaku. The widely-received image of the otaku as a heterosexual man who likes anime girls—that is, the moe-type otaku—is not the default at all.
Earlier Visions of Otaku
While the word otaku emerged as a label in the 1980s, hardcore anime and manga enthusiasts existed long before then. And while they arguably lacked a group consciousness, they were pioneers of a burgeoning art form. Many people involved in the anime and manga industries during the 1960s and 70s were activists from the student protest movement of the 1960s, and so the scene developed something of a “counter-culture” vibe. The manga critic Eiji Ootsuka, for instance, called it “converted leftist culture” (転向左翼の文化).
The enormous popularity of Mobile Suit Gundam introduced schisms into the anime viewer base. While Gundam itself contained a strong left-wing and anti-war slant, it was arguably Amuro’s character in particular that spoke to the young generation. Amuro was the poster boy of the now classic mecha anime archetype—the geeky boy turned reluctant soldier. Gundam made visible the obsessive sci-fi nerds who would later be deemed otaku.
Before otaku was brandished as a label, the word mania (short for “maniac”) was often used to describe such people. While sci-fi mania did have a reputation for social awkwardness, their image was not overtly negative. In some ways, in fact, they were innovative and cutting-edge. According to the otaku scholar Kaichirou Morikawa, it was these geek consumers who would transform Akihabara from a district known mainly for selling home appliances into one that sold personal computers. At a time when personal computers were still a niche product, the mania led the way for change.
As I mentioned in the first part of this column, otaku was coined as a label in 1983 by Akio Nakamori. But the magazine it was published in, Manga Burikko, had a small circulation, and so it escaped mainstream attention. In fact, most sci-fi and anime fans probably didn’t know of the word’s use as a label either. The primary use of the word otaku then was as a polite form of address among people who shared interests but didn’t know each other well personally, and it is still used that way in some circles today.
Things changed dramatically after 1989, when a man named Tsutomu Miyazaki was arrested for murdering four young girls. He was also a cannibal and a necrophile. It really doesn’t bear even thinking about, but you can imagine why the media would be so fascinated with it. Just as the American media latched onto Elliot Rodger’s connection to video games, the Japanese media latched onto Miyazaki’s anime collection.
As you can imagine, this event changed the discourse around otaku forever. For one thing, the word entered mainstream consciousness. When Eiji Ootsuka, the former editor of Manga Burikko, came out to defend anime fans from negative comparisons to Miyazaki, he introduced the word otaku to mainstream journalists. Because it was Ootsuka’s intent to defend this particular image of otaku, he had to invoke the caricature of Miyazaki before he could disassociate otaku from it: “Yes, an otaku might be a nerdy man with unusual tastes, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
The first part of the sentence is necessary in order to say the second part. In other words, in order to defend this idea of otaku, Ootsuka helped affirmed the stereotype. This was something he came to regret, and in later publications he would scorn the discourse around the otaku label.
Ootsuka wasn’t the only person who attempted to rebrand the stereotype into something more positive. Toshio Okada, for instance, emerged as the “Otaking” during this period because of his insistence that only an otaku is qualified to speak for otaku. By turning himself into a representative example of otaku, he helped turn a vague concept into something tangible. But he also essentially rejected anyone who did not resemble himself from his definition of otaku.
Had the infamous “otaku murderer” been a woman, would the word have evolved differently? It’s worth thinking about. After all, Nakamori’s original article explicitly refers to both men and women as otaku. Yet the public discussion around otaku in the wake of the Tsutomu Miyazaki case occurred in a male-dominated arena. For example, the first otaku-related book published after Miyazaki’s arrest (called Otaku no Hon) was a collection of essays written by men and edited by a man. Even when discussing otaku in a positive way, these writers helped affirm the gendered connotations of the word.
Otaku Culture Arose from Girl Culture
What often goes unacknowledged in histories of otaku is that women were a driving force in the fandom from the early days. Sci-fi series like Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato were just as popular among women as they were with men. Their active participation in the anime fandom continues today. According to the Yano Research Institute, girls were estimated to make up at least 40 percent of all Japanese otaku in 2012, as well as a majority of all otaku in the doujinshi, cosplay, and Vocaloid fandoms.
What is particularly significant for the history of otaku is that female artists like Moto Hagio were extremely influential among both men and women in the 1970s. The first Comiket (short for “Comic Market”) was dedicated in large part to shoujo manga. Teruo Harada, the first president of Comiket, was such a big fan of Moto Hagio that he participated in the fan production of an animated version of her manga November Gymnasium that was screened at the first Comiket in 1975.
The styles of female artists helped shape the “beautiful girl” aesthetic that any anime fan would be familiar with today. Male artists would consciously attempt to copy the beautiful girls in shoujo manga and make them their own. Manga Burikko, the magazine that coined the otaku label, was one such magazine for male artists drawing in the shoujo style (although it did have plenty of female artists too).
These men were only the minority of shoujo fandom, so how did they end up taking over the otaku label? Perhaps it was because it was more transgressive for men to be into such things, and so their presence became more visible to the eyes of outsiders. According to Kimio Ito, a gender studies professor at Kyoto University, shoujo manga was appealing to some men because it provided them an alternative to the strict gender roles in Japanese society. The feminist anime critic Mari Kotani has a similar opinion on male otaku, saying that they are marginalized in their own society. Unlike female otaku, who can hide their interests and generally fit into society better, male otaku are betrayed by their perceived social failings.
It’s worth mentioning here that not every male shoujo fan in the 1970s saw himself or was seen in such a negative light. As I mentioned earlier, the anime and manga scene had a “counter-culture” vibe during this period. When Akio Nakamori made fun of the so-called otaku, he did so from the perspective of someone who was into idols and shoujo himself. The difference was that he saw himself as a progressive and hip individual who was into those things for the “right” reasons, while the so-called otaku were simply uncool.
Right from the very beginning, then, otaku was a word filled with tension and anxiety. It was initially used to create a line between one kind of fan and another in what was already a niche fandom. And when the word entered the mainstream discourse, some men took the opportunity to carve their own identities onto the word. It was because of this context that otaku developed its narrow, gendered connotations despite technically being a gender-neutral term.
So then, what happened to the word in Japan after it became so well-known overseas, and after so many people started using it to describe themselves outside the original context?
How Otaku Became “Cool”
The period of peak otaku bashing in the Japanese mass media was, in all honesty, rather brief. By September of 1989, there were barely any articles about Miyazaki in the newspapers and tabloids. Miyazaki continued to be discussed among anime critics and professionals in the industry, but the mainstream public discourse had moved on to other issues for the most part, such as the recently introduced consumption tax.
Nevertheless, otaku continued to have a negative reputation in the 90s. Popular writings on the subject helped affirm the connection between otaku and personality problems. For example, in 1991, the sociologist Shinji Miyadai identified otaku as “unbalanced specialists” (アンバランスなスペシャリスト) based on research he had conducted in 1985 on the social lives of university students. Kaoru Kurimoto, the author of the popular fantasy novel series Guin Saga, claimed that otaku needed to socialize more in order to break out of their media addictions.
So when did otaku become “cool,” then?
The short answer: around the time when TV anime started making lots of money.
The success of Neon Genesis Evangelion was a turning point in the history of Japanese animation. It was so successful, in fact, that it became known in Japan as a “social phenomenon” (社会現象). While nobody could have anticipated Eva’s success at the time, it was not too surprising in retrospect. By the 1990s, the animation industry was maturing, and many of the industry’s most capable individuals worked on Eva. Furthermore, the deeply personal story struck a nerve with the Japanese populace. Eva verbalized the anxieties of the disenfranchised youth; in that sense, it had something for everyone, not just the so-called otaku.
Nevertheless, otaku made up a noticeable portion of Eva’s fanbase, and it was often pointed out that the creators of Eva were otaku themselves. Of course, Eva’s popularity did not in itself rehabilitate the otaku’s reputation—the director, Hideaki Anno, infamously criticized his otaku fans for missing the point of the anime—but Eva’s financial success did pave the way for a new narrative about otaku to emerge. In the gloomy post-bubble years, the otaku became the saviors of the Japanese economy.
Eva was not just a success in Japan. It became part of a wave of anime exports that made shockwaves internationally during the 90s. While anime did enjoy some moderate success in the West beforehand, the process accelerated drastically during the 90s thanks to big hits like Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z. Their popularity was reported on in Japan, where they were portrayed as national success stories.
I mention anime’s success in the West in particular because it has always been very popular in Japan’s neighboring countries. Despite the existence of a formal ban on Japanese media until 1998, Japanese anime was far more influential in South Korea than homegrown animation for many years. The success of Japanese pop culture in East Asia was taken as a given; success in the West was regarded as a sign that anime had reached the world stage.
The result was an outpouring of books and journal articles scrutinizing the success. As one would expect, Toshio Okada led the way. In 1996, he published a book called Introduction to Otakuology, which described otaku as a new “tribe” of people. Otaku culture was able to impress international audiences where most Japanese pop culture failed because it was more than mere imitation or pastiche. In other words, otaku culture represented a unique aspect of Japanese culture, and it was this very uniqueness that made it so successful outside East Asia.
Introduction to Otakuology was almost farcical in its attempts to draw a direct line between traditional Japanese art from the 1800s and modern anime, but it was certainly influential among Japanese writers. Even in English-language scholarship, it’s quite popular for histories of anime and manga to make similar claims. This isn’t the place to debate the validity of such theories, but I will note that they were particularly popular during the late 90s and early 00s, when otaku theories (otaku-ron) were only just starting to gain momentum. In other words, writers in both English and Japanese used theories of Japanese uniqueness in an attempt to validate otaku as an object of serious academic study.
Probably the most famous academic work about otaku is Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, which was first published in 2001 and translated into English in 2009. Azuma argued that otaku are the flag bearers of postmodernism. The book is quite interesting and is worth a read even if you’re not into academic stuff, but it’s also worth pointing out that Azuma takes the stereotypes around otaku as a given. He starts off the book by saying “I suppose that everyone has heard of ‘otaku,’” lists a few typical otaku interests such as comics and personal computers, and then promptly launches into a discussion of postmodernism. Perhaps understandably, the book has its fair share of critics who criticize his approach to otaku.
As all of this theorizing and debate about the definition of otaku was going on, the Japanese government poured money into promoting Japanese pop culture overseas. This ongoing effort is known as Cool Japan, and it has been regarded with varying degrees of ambivalence within Japan. Traditionally, anime and manga fans have not been fond of government intervention in any form, mostly because of censorship scares. They also take issue with the Japanese government promoting a subculture that it does not understand.
Cultural critics and academics have not been terribly impressed with Cool Japan either. Koichi Iwabuchi called it “brand nationalism,” while Eiji Ootsuka described it as propaganda. The former Prime Minister Taro Aso is a manga fan and famously addressed a crowd in Akihabara, a move that emphasized his coolness and also drew attention away from the controversial statements he had made about Japan’s neighboring countries and revising Japan’s constitution.
There is good reason to be skeptical of Cool Japan, regardless of your political sympathies. For one thing, the initiative has lacked focus, achieving few tangible results. For another thing, there is almost zero coordination between the government and the anime industry itself in creating these positive images. The complexities around the subculture are ignored in the name of promoting Cool Japan and making a quick buck. It is little wonder, then, that anime’s huge international audience is barely educated about the industry and subculture that produces this stuff.
As the Cool Japan project keeps trucking onward, many Japanese and international anime fans will continue to struggle with the often contradictory images they receive of their fandom. Is it cool to be an otaku? If anime and manga are “uniquely” Japanese, does that mean only Japanese people can be otaku? But if that’s the case, then otaku can’t be hip and cool because the popular stereotype is so narrow and negative.
Many writings on otaku try to make sense of all of these contradictions; they try to carve out an otaku “essence” that can adequately describe what an otaku really does. The stereotype of the socially awkward male geek who loves anime girls hasn’t faded after anime became popular overseas. In fact, the image has only become stronger over time. What gives?
Here is my opinion: It’s easier to understand otaku when the definition is narrower, and so even when the word’s usage broadens, one can differentiate between a regular otaku and a “true” otaku. Given that many theories of otaku define their essence in relation to the stereotypes rather than historical analysis, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these stereotypes have persisted even though the majority of fans are not actually like that.
As I’ve hinted throughout this column, it’s probably impossible to pin down the true essence of otaku. The contradictions embedded in the word aren’t going away anytime soon. Yet despite being so loaded and contradictory to the extent of being nearly useless as a label, the word continues to be widely used both inside and outside Japan.
Why is that? I suspect it is actually because the word has so much many contradictions. You can’t just call yourself an otaku and leave it there, after all. If you’re going to call yourself an otaku, the logical next question is “Why? And on what terms?” The same thing applies when you choose not to call yourself an otaku. You must have reason for using or rejecting the word, based on your understanding of it.
I’ll end this history of otaku with a quote from Kaichirou Morikawa, discussing the reader response to Akio Nakamori’s column all those years ago. How did the so-called otaku think of and describe themselves after coming across this strange and baffling term?
“When otaku used otaku among themselves, they were simultaneously self-deprecating and self-confirming. Using the word in this manner suggests that to some extent a self-consciousness was at work trying to gauge the nature of the difference between people who recognized themselves as otaku and―normal people. We find in various columns contributed by readers of anime magazines an attempt to create some kind of personal identity by appealing to a self-image that others regarded coldly, or to a self-image of a person obsessed with anime even though he was too old for such interests. The word otaku thus acquired the nuance of an introspective search for identity.” (Emphasis mine)
The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems!