There are a lot of words in the world to describe a person with a love of Japanese culture.
Anime nerd. Weeaboo. J-culture addict. Japanophile.
And of course, a word that originated in Japan: Otaku.
For a member of the J-culture movement in America, "otaku" may have seemed like a password that allowed access to a secret club, in which all the other members understood the strange language that was being spoken and one could feel at ease.
T-shirts popped up proudly bearing the word in America, worn by fans to conventions and in daily life.
In the meantime, you’d hear on occasion the reaction of a Japanese native who was anywhere between puzzled and disgusted to see people flaunting the word on their chests like a banner of pride. Murmurs of confusion wouldn’t be uncommon. If you overheard it, you’d think, “Wait - but didn’t these trends originate in Japan in the first place? Why would a native react that way?”
In Japan, otaku is a dirty word.
While the word first tumbled out of the mouth of Lynn Minmay during an episode of the seminal sci-fi/mecha anime “Macross” in 1982, it was the work of a man named Nakamori Akio that cemented the term into place.
His series “An Investigation of Otaku” ran in a manga magazine in 1983, and while it was originally used as a second person pronoun in its original context, eventually the term was adapted for slang use and became widespread.
So what does otaku actually mean? In Japan, the word can be most closely equated to the English word “geek,” but the meaning is not as simple as that. Otaku is also defined in Japan as a word that defines a person who has obsessive interests, and can apply to a wide variety of topics, including anime, manga, cosplay, collectibles and more.
Each of these has its own term in Japan, such as “tetsudou ota” (meaning train otaku) and “gunji ota” (meaning military otaku and including interest in military weapons, vehicles and more). A series of videos from popular Japanese idol Shoko Nakagawa sheds some light on the details of these different types of otaku, as well as providing some Japanese perspective.
Japanese culture enthusiast and website founder Danny Choo shared his thoughts on the use of the word: “I think folks outside of Japan use the term otaku to generally refer to folks who enjoy anime culture by watching, consuming and being creative with anime culture through cosplaying or drawing fanart. Generally speaking, more folks outside of Japan would call themselves an otaku. In Japan, otaku is used in the same sense – a person who enjoys anime culture. In Japan however, less people are willing to admit that they are an otaku as they generally care about what others think.”
Danny also believes that the market for otaku media and collectibles is driven by a large percentage of women, as well. “Out of the otaku population, female otaku have the most spending power, which is one of the reasons why you see an increase of boy love publications and anime featuring good looking guys.”
Boy Love publications, also known as yaoi, are manga and anime featuring two males as each other’s main romantic interests. As of 2010, this market generated 21.3 billion yen in revenue.
What’s wrong with having a hobby, then?
Essentially, nothing - but understanding the difference between the American and Japanese usage of this word is critical for any fan of J-culture.
The dark side of the word’s definition refers to the level of the obsessive interest reaching extreme levels. For instance, the word became better known in American culture when attention was drawn towards a trend where Japanese men chose to actually marry collectible pillows with images of their favorite anime characters on them (called “dakimakura” or “body pillows).
Some believe that Japanese men choosing to “marry” fictional characters signifies their inability to relate with people in the real world. When these people are referred to as otaku, they are judged for their behaviors - and people suddenly see an “otaku” as a person unable to relate to reality.
"Right or wrong, the negative perception of otaku is that people are taking individual play and consumptive pleasure beyond acceptable limits, up to the point of upsetting their social functioning," says Patrick W. Galbraith, who conducts research on contemporary Japanese culture at the University of Tokyo and wrote the book An Otaku Encyclopedia. "People who are perceived to let hobbies get in the way of taking on 'adult' roles and responsibilities at work and home are often called otaku."
Despite what Japanese may think about the connotation of the word, they still make billions of dollars off the otaku market. Animate, a multi-story retailer located in 92 different locations in Japan, sell every variety of anime related goods and are highly profitable.
Japan’s Akihabara district, known as a mecca for otaku goods, is a popular district shopped by natives and tourists alike. America also flourishes with its sales of Japanese import goods, sold through online shops such as Play Asia and J-List. There are also countless anime-themed conventions in Japan and the U.S. every year, which are also highly profitable.
There’s no question about it: The anime fan industry makes money, and it caters to people who may or may not identify as otaku. Regardless of whether or not they relate to this word, they still enjoy watching anime, cosplaying, meeting friends with the same interests and sharing the things about the culture that give them happiness.
Being an otaku in Japan or in the states has its own set of similarities and differences, but the vibrance of the culture and the people that choose to participate in it does seem to be present in both places.
How do you feel about the word otaku?