Explorations in Japanese Culture
As someone who studies Japan from both an academic and hobby perspective, I am always a little sensitive in keeping my love of Japanese otaku culture and my love of traditional culture separate. There is a lot of stigma that comes along with a passion for anime and manga and I often worry that people will not take my studies seriously, because they think I am one of “those people” who see Japanese culture as only anime. For many, the idea of an otaku often conjures images of many for a lonely and poorly kept person who obsesses their hobby in social isolation. Though, there are many who are ignorant to the history of the word, or even to its meaning. Today the word is used more with pride and self proclamation as it becoming more accepted especially with the advent of the otaku culture’s economic buying power in Japan and abroad.
In Japanese, adding “o” or お to the beginning of a word is a way of making it more honorific. Otaku then is a combination of the Japanese word for home, taku, with the addition of the honorific “o.” Written in hiragana Otaku is written おたくtherefore translates to an honorable way of referring to someones house, but may also be used to refer to another person. The closest english equivalent is the use of “thou” when talking to some one. The word is rarely used in mainstream Japan. While the older meaning is written in Hiragana, the more modern usage of the word is written in Katakana (as a loan word) is appears as オタク which is the geek, nerd enthusiast meaning that more are familiar with. As the word becomes more mainstream in Japan and more widely adopted, it is almost solely associated with the anime and manga sub-culture.
The first published usage of otaku amongst fans came in 1983 when Akio Nakamori wrote a series of articles called “オタクのけんきゅ” (Otaku no Kenkyu or Studies of Otaku) in Manga Burikko. He referred to the hardcore fans as otaku, and this is one of the first articles to stereotype the otaku as being anti-social, unkempt and unpopular. The phrase was not catapulted into the mainstream until the infamous incident involving Tsutomo Miyazaki in 1989. Miyazaki who was 26 (and is should NOT be confused with the legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki), kidnapped and murdered four little girls. When he was arrested the police found a massive collection of various anime, manga and hentai in his apartment.
The media repeatedly referred to Miyazaki as an otaku which was the first exposure to the term for much of the public. As a result, otaku became associated with sociopaths like Miyazaki, and in the panic the media began to blame the behavior of Miyazaki on anime and manga. Many Americans can relate, as video games have had a similar experience since the tragedy at columbine in the 90s. Of course, since then the definition has been reclaimed by fans, but at its essence, really what is an otaku?
My favorite definition of an otaku comes from Lawrence Eng, who describes the otaku in the most basic sense as someone who is highly dedicated to something and uses information from anywhere and everywhere to further his or her understanding of that thing whether it is for fun or for making a living. Taken in the sense of anime then, the otaku is a fan who seeks to learn and consume everything that they can about anime. They enjoy watching anime, reading manga, and collecting all the things that come along with it. I do not include the possible social implications of this, because that is simply a stereotype based on a few cases. I think American’s can best understand otaku in the sense that the closest thing our culture has is the classic comic book nerd. The nerd who knows everything about comics and enjoys collecting everything involved. Otakus are gaining more legitimacy in Japan today as the sub-culture continues to become part of the mainstream.
Today in Japan otaku is far from being an isolated sub-culture and instead has a growing influence on Japanese popular culture and the economy of Japan. In 2004, the otaku market generated an estimated $4 billion dollars according to the Nomura Research Institute. In an interview with WIRED one otaku tells of spending 3/4 of his disposable income as well as nearly all his free time on his otaku hobby. Even looking at anime and manga markets alone they add up to more than $900 million. Otaku have joined the mainstream in Japan are easily visible within Japan and the exports of Japan. Otaku are no longer viewed simply as socially inept nerds, but are now a legitimate group in Japan and abroad.
While I would not say that I am nearly as big of an otaku as many, I will admit to being a bit of one as I do collect anime, manga and figures. I have recently started to build my own otaku space pictured above. I will continue to update this picture as I add more to it. Are you an otaku? Feel free to share pictures of your own otaku space and I will gladly add them to the post!