Otaku is usually translated in English as “nerd” or “geek”. Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, defines otaku as those “with obsessive interests, commonly the anime and manga fandom.” But is that all or do we need to dig deeper into the word??
To understand the world of otaku, you have to understand the world of manga and anime – a world that’s much deeper and more complex than most Western adults appreciate. In the West, cartoons and comics have traditionally been the preserve of young children and stereotypically nerdy adult males; in Japan, they are consumed and enjoyed by everyone from teenage girls to besuited businessmen. There is no shame in being seen reading a manga comic book on your daily commute to work, and every convenience store has a large collection of comics on display – never without a few readers loitering beside them, their noses buried in the pages of the latest serialization. The upshot is that in Japan, manga (and anime to a lesser degree) is taken seriously in a way that it just isn’t in the West.
Where did the word come from??
The term otaku first appeared in a 1983 essay by columnist and editor Akio Nakamori (real name Ansaku Shibahara) in the manga magazine Manga Burikko. As Nakamori rightly said -
“How can I put this? They’re like those kids — every class has one — who never got enough exercise, who spent recess holed up in the classroom, lurking in the shadows obsessing over a shogi [Japanese chess] board or whatever. That’s them. Rumpled long hair parted on one side, or a classic kiddie bowl-cut look. Smartly clad in shirts and slacks their mothers bought off the ‘all ¥980/1980’ rack at Ito Yokado or Seiyu [discount retailers], their feet shod in knock-offs of the ‘R’-branded Regal sneakers that were popular several seasons ago, their shoulder bags bulging and sagging — you know them.”
You don’t need to get his cultural references to recognize these playground stereotypes: Nakamori’s definition of otaku plays on the universal childish desire for acceptance; the need to blend in. Otaku are those who don’t and can’t confirm: they’re uncool, they’re unpopular, they’re weird, ugly and outcast. In short, otaku are everything the “normal” person ought to revile.
But the origins can be tracked further
Nakamori may have been the first to define otaku, but he was most certainly not the originator of the term.
In Japanese, the term otaku is an honorific second-person pronoun – basically an extra-polite, formal version of “you”. When Nakamori chose the term it was already commonly used by manga and anime fans to refer to one another – an atypical usage thought to have been inspired by the animators Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto, who used it to refer to one another while at university. Toshio Okada, the anime producer, foremost otaku expert and reigning “OtaKing”, has explained that members from different fan clubs originally began using the term otaku to refer to one another as a mark of mutual respect.
Nakamori thus took the term chosen by otaku to describe themselves and co-opted it for his own purposes, turning it from a mark of respect into a mark of derision.
How did being an otaku became cool?
Fast forward to 2016 and the picture looks rather different. Beginning in the 80s and picking up speed in the 90s, Japanese pop culture exploded into the worldwide mainstream – and this explosion was driven by manga, anime, and gaming. Nintendo won a place in our hearts with vastly successful franchises such as Super Mario and the Legend of Zelda; Sanrio tapped the global market for kawaii with Hello Kitty; crazes for Power Rangers, Transformers and Tamagotchi captivated playgrounds, anime cartoons like Sailor Moon and DragonBall Z enraptured young audiences across the world, and the phenomenon of Pokémon swept through the world like a plague of cute, yellow, electrified mice. Then, when the anime masterpiece Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (definitely not to be confused with Tsutomu Miyazaki) won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars in 2003, anime came to the attention of the adult population – and Studio Ghibli was suddenly a household name. Japanese animation was officially cool.
Throughout history, the world’s best and brightest have often been social pariahs – their views and lifestyles rejected by the general populace, forced into the fringes of society along with the mad and the criminal. The list of famous thinkers who were considered losers and crackpots in their lifetime is long.
So hooray for otaku, and long may they thrive! May they cease to be identified with the lunatic fringe and be embraced as the trailblazers they are. After all, nothing interesting ever came from following the herd.