Otaku is a dirty word. It is forever linked to Miyazaki Tsutomu, represents a culture that is uniquely and inherently Japanese, and will never translate to anyone else—no matter how hard Otakon or fans want to believe.
The term has evolved over time from a social stigma to its mis-translation during the mid-1990s anime boom. Being otaku was a statement in America, to wear the freak flag and let it fly—almost a nerd counter-culture where (I’m paraphrasing from a panel I sat in on at the New York Anime Festival) some are so nerdy that they go elsewhere for their fix. It originated as the polite term for “you,” but was redefined by columnist Akio Nakamori to mean much more. He’s the one responsible for tying it to Miyazaki, then, according to the primer at Néojaponisme, publishing “The Otaku Book” in the same year. Matt Alt provides a translation of Nakamori’s inaugural column, “This City is Full of Otaku,” first published in a soft-core porno mag. A sample passage describes how to spot an otaku:
“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 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 [supermarkets], 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. The boys were all either skin and bones as if borderline malnourished, or squealing piggies with faces so chubby the arms of their silver-plated eyeglasses were in danger of disappearing into the sides of their brow; all of the girls sported bobbed hair and most were overweight, their tubby, tree-like legs stuffed into long white socks. Now these unassuming classroom corner-dwellers with their perpetually downcast expressions have come out of the woodwork and swelled their ranks into a really rather surprising TEN THOUSAND PEOPLE. And just because they’re here, they’re channeling all of their normal gloominess into freaking out.”
(i.e. anyone ever at the Tisch School of the Arts.)
Basically, Otaku was the equivalent of saying “nerd,” but with even darker intent. They weren’t just nerds. They were outcasts in a society that demanded uniformity. Nakamori states that the usual names suited for these people—“the gloomy tribe,” maniacs, fanatics—weren’t accurate. They were so degenerate in their costumes and hand-me-downs that saying “You,” as if one is speaking to a leper, is the best term. Treat them with respect or, like Miyazaki, they will lash out and strike.
Otaku were frightening for being so committed to their outcast status. Alone you could bully them around, but at 10,000? Not a chance, Ogre. Over time, fans—and media—have tried ret-conning the origin, placing equal claim over Super Dimensional Fortress and Gundam characters by using the honorific. But otaku has become a bastard offshoot—now, to be otaku is to be little more than a fan. According to Toshio Okada, co-founder of Studio GAINAX and frequently referred to as the King of Otaku, this has resulted in the watering down of the term. As reprinted in Takashi Murakami’s addition to his series, “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture”:
“Back then [during the 1980s and early 1990s], there were a hundred thousand, or even one million people who were pure otaku—100-proof otaku, if you will. Now we have close to ten million otaku, but they are no more than 10-or-20-proof otaku…[t]he otaku mentality and otaku tastes are so widespread and diverse today that otaku no longer form what you might call a “tribe.”“
Murakami himself admits otaku “are different from the mainstream” and describes how an executive at Kaiyodo, a model company responsible for figurines and sets, once related the 1995 Kobe earthquake to a scene from Gamera: “I know it’s insensitive to say this [after such terrible disaster], but I think Gamera got it wrong.” And Okada observes that to fully understand how to create fantasy, one must know reality, describing how the production team behind the 1984 Godzilla “sequel” covered a volcano explosion to get the effect just right. “They were true filmmakers,” he said.
Murakami next enters into a discussion of moe and how he had to escape being an otaku. Because to truly be considered one is almost as daunting as an entrance exam—so much so that Murakami wonders if there is any difference between otaku-dom and mania. (I’ve bastardized this into an idea for a Neo-Otaku concept, which my roommate claims is the basis for Neon Genesis Evangelion—how people are now painfully aware of their social stigmas and use them willingly. Maybe we’re all just orange juice, too. I don’t know. I just write these things.) Nakamori ends his column asking, “So, what kind of otaku are you?”
The zen kind: to be otaku without truly being otaku. Everyone is a “10-to-20-proof Otaku” these days, even if you can rattle off your favorite directors and debate the merits of authors. No one truly dedicates their life to a single thing anymore, which is a good thing. I think. Néojaponisme editor W. David Marx tries to sum it up:
“Well, “Cool Japan” is a label attached by the outside by people who have no understanding of internal Japanese cultural divisions. And it’s not that “otaku” are cool, but what they like—anime, manga, and games—is cool, and they are therefore cool by default. It’s definitely complicated.”
And lo, why do we keep using it? Why is there even a magazine, as Alt notes (and contributes to), called Otaku USA?
Well, we’re idiots for one thing.
For the other, the U.S. has come to adapt to the nerd culture. Who knows the real reason why or how, but now that nerdy is ’in demand’ we assume that such a term, even if foreign, can mean the same thing. On the bright side, at least we didn’t co-opt “pikadon” to mean “winner.”
Either way, the term should be left in the dust, especially since conventions are filled with little kids screaming useless phrases and glomping each other while I sit in my wheelchair on the sidelines shaking my old man cane. But more so, we should put it to rest so I can publish The Neo-Otaku Book, cash in, and finally get David Hudson to friend me on Facebook.
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.