What is Otaku? Meaning, History, Types and More
What is a Otaku in your mind? If you live in Japan, you may think of chubby, long-haired men with glasses in a plaid shirt walking in Akihabara. If you live in America, you may think of someone who dresses like it is Halloween every day and talks in a weird way. But these could just be biased views or stereotypes of Otaku. Well then, what does “Otaku” really mean? What kind of person is a Otaku?
What Is an Otaku?
According to Cambridge Dictionary, an Otaku is a young person who is very interested in and knows a lot about computers, computer games, anime, etc., but may find it difficult to talk to people in real life. According to the definition, aside from having an obsessive interest in something, “Otaku” also has the nuance of being less social or lacking basic knowledge in other areas.
However, you may find that this definition is not agreed upon by everyone. Actually, the meaning of Otaku varies according to different people. One example is that people nowadays are using “xx Otaku” to describe someone who has a strong interest in different areas. But in this article, we will mainly focus on Anime Otaku.
The History of Otaku
The word Otaku is derived from a Japanese honorific, 御宅（Otaku）, which means “you” or “your house”. Now it is normally written in hiragana “おたく” or katakana “オタク” to show a distinguished meaning from the original word “御宅”.
The modern slang form was first used by the humorist and essayist Nakamori Akio in 1983 in his essay “Research for Otaku”. He used the word in a pejorative way to refer to unpleasant anime fans. After that, anime fan groups started to use the term “Otaku” to label themselves in a self-mockery way.
In 1989, the word “Otaku” attracted wide public attention as Otaku murderer Tsutomu Miyazaki randomly selected and murdered four girls. In his bungalow, the police found 5,763 videotapes, including anime and slasher films. Thus, the media labeled Miyazaki as an “Otaku murderer” and the event generated a moral panic against Otaku, marking them as dangerous, aberrant murderers. Even now, some Japanese still hold negative views of Otaku because of this event.
More recently, Hachiro Taku, a freelance writer who calls himself “Otaku Critic”, appeared on a bunch of TV programs where he acted like a madman. His neurotic performance on TV is considered to be a major factor for Otaku to be labeled as “a person who became abnormal or mad due to being overly absorbed in his hobbies.”
Since the 1990s, the negative connotation of the word “Otaku” has gradually diminished. People have started to use the word affirmatively to refer to a person with a passionate interest in something.
When the Otaku culture started to boom in English-speaking countries, people tried to translate the Japanese word “おたく” into “geek” or “nerd”, but they find both are unable to express the whole original meaning of Japanese word “Otaku”. “Geek” cannot express the feeling of the subculture, while “nerd” is a derogatory term describing people’s personalities. As a result, the romaji of the Japanese word “おたく” became widely used in the West.
Otaku in Hiragana and Katakana
Interestingly, though Otaku is written as “おたく” in hiragana or “オタク” in katakana, the two forms are slightly different. Since the hiragana word was once frequently used to describe people who love Erotic Manga, in many middle-aged Japanese people’s minds, the word still has a pornographic meaning. In contrast, the katakana word is now used by the Japanese government to promote “Otaku Economics” or “Otaku International Soft Power”, which makes the word more formal and approvable. However, for the younger generation, either form is OK.
Best Places for Otaku
The district of Akihabara in Tokyo is a notable attraction center for Otaku. There, you will find dozens of maid cafés featuring waitresses who dress up and act like maids or anime characters, as well as stores specializing in anime, manga, retro video games, figurines, card games and other collectibles. When talking about Otaku, “Akiba (Akihabara)” is the typical place that most Japanese people will think of.
By the way, if you live in America, Seattle could be a good place for you to get a taste of Otaku culture, as well as Japanese culture as a whole. You may find yourself immersed in Japanese culture through all kinds of large events such as the Summertime Cosplay Picnic, the Seattle International Butoh Festival, Japan Fair, the Dragon Festival, and the Bon Odori Festival.
What types of otaku are there?
Now that you understand what Otaku means, let’s look at different subtypes of Otaku. Here are some interesting examples. You may hear these words now and then when talking to Japanese people.
- Vocaloid Otaku
- Gundam Otaku
Vocaloid Otaku refers to a person who is in love with Vocaloid. Vocaloid has become a trend across the globe within the past 15 years, with Hatsune Miku at the center of it all. Miku is a Vocaloid software voicebank with a moe anthropomorph that looks like a cute, big-eye teenage girl. But in the eyes of Mikufans, Miku is far more than a “voicebank”. “She” is alive.
Miku’s fans are doing anything you can imagine to show their love for Miku. They create music pieces using her voice, do cosplays of her, draw illustrations of her, decorate shrines of her and even marry her. An obsessive fan called Akihiko Kondo literally held a wedding ceremony for Miku and himself in Dec 2018. The ceremony cost around 2 million yen, which is almost all the money he had. After the ceremony, Akihiko started to live with Miku every day. He posted photos of Miku doing everything: reading, eating, sleeping, chatting on the phone, and playing with the Switch.
A Gundam Otaku is a fan of Gundam. The Gundam series is seen as the representative of robot anime. Many said they had not expected their hobby for Gundam to be so expensive. They said once you started collecting the first model kit, it was much more likely that you would continue collecting more and more. Maybe that is the reason why Gundam ranked as the top 15 highest-grossing media franchises of all time in 2018, estimated to have generated more than $20 billion in total retail sales.
The impact of Gundam can be seen in various other aspects. For example, you can find post stamps featuring Gundam, a train station playing Gundam theme music as its departure melody, cars themed around the Gundam mech cockpit, and even the “Gundam Project” of the Japanese Self Defense Force.
Fujoshi refers to female fans of yaoi, which focuses on homosexual male relationships. Fujoshi is sometimes used as a derogatory word for women who have Otaku hobbies.
Reki-jo are female history buffs. Initially, the term was used to describe women with Otaku tastes towards characterized Japanese historical figures, but now the meaning has been expanded to ordinary women who visit tourist spots and simply love history.
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Of course, there are many other Otaku, like pasokon (computer) Otaku, voice actress (seiyuu) Otaku, military Otaku, robot Otaku, and so on.
Am I a “real” Otaku?
At the end of the day, you may want to know if you yourself could be labeled as “Otaku”.
People may set different standards for “real Otaku”, but you can call yourself “Otaku” if you want to. The definition of the word just depends on who’s defining it. You may have watched 1000 different anime but you do not like to label yourself as “Otaku”, or you may watch anime or read manga once a week but you believe you are a true Otaku.
Is Otaku a Bad Word?
It depends on where you are. As previously mentioned, in Japan, Otaku is generally regarded as an offensive word for historical reasons. But in the West, the word is used to refer to passionate consumers of anime and manga.
It also varies according to different people. Even in Japan, the lifestyle of Otaku has gradually gained traction among Japanese youth and adolescents. The reason could be the intense work and academic culture in contemporary Japan.
What’s the difference between a Weeaboo and otaku?
An Otaku is someone who is obsessed with anime or manga, but a weeaboo is a westerner who wants to be Japanese. Weeaboos will usually pepper in some Japanese words they learned from anime or manga like “kawaii” “sugoi” or “baka” in daily speech and tend to speak like a manga character. Some other words similar to weeaboo are wapanese (wanna-be-Japanese) and weeb.
A person could be Otaku and weeaboo at the same time. This is because weeaboos usually love anime like Otaku do, which is why they want to act like anime characters.
Otaku vs. Hikikomori (shut-ins)
Hikikomori refers to people who withdraw from society to seek extreme social isolation. They prefer staying alone rather than hold events like anime conventions as Otaku do. Different from Hikikomori who tend to avoid all social connections, Otaku communities are highly social and networked.
Why Are There So Many Otaku?
You can find the answer in the popularity of Japanese anime.
According to the Association of Japanese Animations, its 60 anime production company members are now providing products in 112 countries to around 87.2 percent of the world’s population.
People love Japanese anime mainly because it broke the convention that animation is just for kids. Since it is targeted to grown-ups, the anime always has intense storylines, complex characters, and real-life issues. Also, anime is illustrated, so it has the advantage of being flexible in creating facial expressions and silly visuals.
Otaku culture first started in Japan after World War Ⅱ. That was a time when Japanese people tried to seek hope and comfort, facing the reality of poverty and desperation. Anime and manga were seen as ways to escape from cruel reality.
Though Japan has achieved considerable development since then, people nowadays are still using anime and manga to escape from reality and seek comfort. Japanese society is considered one of the most stress-filled societies in the world. Due to the restrictive culture and stressful work life, suicide has become a major social issue in Japan. While reality makes you cry, anime and manga can provide you with a place to rest.
As an Otaku, you can not only be consoled by anime and manga but also find solace in fan groups. When communicating with friends who share common interests with you, the flames of hope could be ignited again.
Then why was Otaku culture able to gain popularity across the world?
As Susan Napier (2007) suggested in her book From Impressionism to Anime,
European and American otaku and 19th-century impressionists are united by almost the same theme: aesthetic pleasure, intercultural fascination, and Japanophilia.
On the one hand, the unique culture shown in Japanese anime and manga, like Zen Buddhism, Ninja, and Bushido is very attractive to Euro-Americans. On the other hand, modern Japanese culture has learned a lot from the Western world, which makes Japanese otaku culture much easier to accept by westerners. For example, Osamu Tezuka, the father of contemporary manga and anime, called himself a big fan of Disney animation.
From Subculture to Mainstream Culture
Though Otaku culture used to be perceived as a typical subculture, it now plays more and more of an important role in mainstream society. The Japanese government has also noticed the cultural influence of Otaku and now regards it as an important part of international soft power.
The Economic Value of Otaku culture
According to a survey by Nomura Research Institute, the market size of enthusiast consumers of Otaku in 2004 was 1.27 million in 12 major fields, amounting to 411.0 billion yen. Other institutions have estimated the economic impact of Otaku to be as high as ¥2 trillion ($18 billion).
Though the Japanese economy seems to have been on the decline for the past several years, the market for Otaku merchandise stays steady. The market could be even larger as Otaku culture becomes popular in other countries.
In addition, local governments all over Japan are starting projects to help promote hidden tourist attractions related to Otaku culture. They want to attract more Otaku to their city. There are already successful examples of this, such as “Moe okoshi” (to use Otaku or Moe culture to promote regional development) in Saitama.
In a word, though Otaku was once considered a subculture, it is now being accepted and assimilated into mainstream culture. Otaku is making great contributions to the economic development of Japan and other parts of the world.
Now, let’s think about the question again: what image of Otaku do you have?
More than Otaku
Japanese culture is not all about anime and manga.
Otaku is just one of the countless labels people have given to aspects of this country’s rich culture. Through their long history, Japanese people have created a splendid culture. If you approach it with an open mind, you will be fascinated by the elegant color of Ukiyo-e, the beauty of the Dancing Girl of Izu, the deep sound of Taiko, the aesthetic poems in the Tale of Genji, and so on.
If you want to truly understand Japanese culture, learning Japanese is an essential step. Firstly, talking to people in their own languages can lead your conversation to a deeper level. Secondly, the language itself contains numerous cultural messages.
Lingodeer aims to not only help you master the language, but also provide you with a window into Japanese culture. Start this extraordinary exploration with us.
Thanks so much. I am definitely an otaku.
1: semi social
2: watched over 50 full anime series (some of which have 10+ seasons)
3: love tons of video games (Japanese and otherwise)
And 4: I’ve actually been trying to learn Japanese for a while. Still have trouble with words that have abstract meaning in America :~/