Like many anime fans of my generation, I grew up watching Dragon Ball Z. At the time, I didn’t think of it as anime, or even as Japanese. It might have had a lot of funny names, but a lot of cartoons had characters with funny names. While I could vaguely sense that something about Dragon Ball Z was different from the other shows I was watching, I had a very limited conception of foreign cultures back then.
To date, I still haven’t watched Dragon Ball Z since my childhood. But my perception of the series has changed enormously as I’ve gotten older. Not only did I realize that Dragon Ball Z originated from Japan, I also realized that the series drew from a wide range of cultural influences, and that not all the things that struck me as “different” or “unique” about the series as a child were due to it being Japanese. The fighting styles and moves are loosely based off Chinese martial arts, and many characters have Chinese-sounding names or are named after Chinese foods and drinks.
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.