Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Evolution of the Otaku Concept

It has been over two decades since the word 'otaku' was introduced to the Japanese public, and even longer since science fiction and anime fans in Japan began using that form of address to refer to each other. Nonetheless, debate continues regarding the implications of otaku culture, and opinions regarding the word itself remain widely divergent.

It can be argued that otaku culture in Japan has recently become more mainstream than it ever has been. Citing just one example out of many, Densha Otoko ("Train Man") was a smash hit in 2005. Cashing in on the otaku love story's popularity, Napoleon Dynamite is being marketed in Japan as "Bus Otoko". (If Densha Otoko ever makes it to the US, will people call it a Japanese Napoleon Dynamite?)

I'm one of the people who thinks that understanding the otaku phenomenon will give us new tools and strategies for living (and being empowered) in today's information society. Other writers with similar thinking include Toshio Okada and Mizuko Ito.

Being aware of the positive potential of otaku culture has not blinded me to the rest of the discourse surrounding it, however. I am well aware that there is still a cloud of darkness that hovers over the public perception of otaku.

Very recently, we were reminded of the case that initially soured the mainstream image of otaku. Tsutomu Miyazaki, who kidnapped and murdered four young girls in Japan in the late 80s, was sentenced to death by the Japanese courts, and that sentence was upheld last week by the Japanese supreme court.

The image of the otaku, fairly or not, took a big hit when the Miyazaki case was publicized, but times have changed since then. Since the otaku panic, new social problems and new subcultures emerged to make Japanese adult society really nervous, and otaku have been reclassified as being slightly eccentric but very good for the economy. Overly obsessed with cartoons or not, they spend a lot of money, according to research by the Nomura Research Institute.

Geek culture in the UK has been getting the same kind of attention lately:

"The anorak has gone," says Betts and a "new, more chic geek has emerged from the bedroom."

(In a way, I'm kind of sad he said that. I like my anorak. Given that 'anorak' is probably the closest English equivalent to 'otaku', I had hopes that anoraks would become an international otaku uniform of sorts. Is it too late?)

These days, people are more concerned about hikikomori, which was the topic of a recent article by Maggie Jones of the New York Times. Even if we're not much closer to a solution, we've been aware of the hikikomori problem for several years now, and the subcultural landscape of Japan continues to mutate, giving us social scientists plenty to analyze.

Last week, Journeyman Pictures released a really interesting short segment called "Generation Z" that talked about Japan's latest subcultural trends. Here's the summary from their site:

Japan is at a turning point. As its economy struggles to gain momentum, the young are turning to a myriad of subcultures to express their alienation. "I had no hobby and wanted something I could be absorbed into. And by chance it was wrist cutting", states Kiyomi. She's a member of Goth-Lolita, one of Japan's biggest youth trends. Unable to cope with the real world, many young Japanese are retreating to an imaginary one. "This is my inner brain wife", says Toru Honda, an 'Otaku' or uber-nerd, pointing at a picture of a cartoon. "I've never been treated kindly by real women." He also has virtual sisters, a virtual pet, even a virtual maid. Then there are the NEETS - 'Not in Employment, Education or Training' - a tribe who have lost the will to work and the 'Freeters' who have rejected the corporate rat race.

Obviously, otaku culture is still on the radar as something that is troublesome to the Japanese mainstream, but it's not the same as before. The air of "otaku panic" (as described by Sharon Kinsella) has long since passed. If anything, it seems that Toru Honda, who I have mentioned previously, is intentionally trying to revive the notion of otaku as being dangerous and edgy. Toru Honda is leading the backlash against popular culture's co-optation of otaku subculture. He wants to be perceived as dangerous, but in this interview he comes off as slightly comical, not really a threat to anyone except maybe himself. Then again, I'm speaking from my own perspective as an American who values non-conformity, and someone who is already familiar with otaku culture. It's possible that many Japanese would indeed find him scary, and other accounts I've read do make Honda seem a bit more dangerous than he appeared in the "Generation Z" short. His presence in the short does not indicate to me a growing concern about otaku in society. Instead, it seems to represent otaku culture's last stand against those who would make it mainstream.

Whether or not one thinks it is effective, the very existence of this otaku reactionism is interesting. Like so many subcultures before it, otaku subculture is becoming part of popular culture. Otaku-ism is about actively engaging the products of popular culture, but now, popular culture has appropriated the language, mannerisms, and trappings of otaku culture, repackaged it, and sold it back to the youth, many of whom created it in the first place.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Honda rejects cute and popular portrayals of otaku culture, portrayals that have no teeth. His strategy appears to be one of distancing otaku from the mainstream by engaging even more deeply with things that are unacceptable to the general public.

I understand where Toru Honda is coming from. I used to have a sig that said "It's not about mainstreaming otaku, it's about otakunizing the mainstream!" But although I appreciate Honda's sentiments, I don't necessarily agree with his strategy. Certainly, otaku are interesting for reasons beyond the fact that they spend a lot of money and create content that can be exported internationally, but I also think that portraying them to be extremely marginal (as potentially violent sexual deviants, for example) diminishes the subculture's true value. That type of self-marginalization is too reminiscent of those (both inside and outside of fandom) who use the word 'otaku' to label the worst excesses of fandom, whereas I prefer to use the term to describe some of the best and most interesting aspects of fans everywhere--their creativity, dedication, and spirit of discovery. The bad stuff will always be out there, and it needs to be addressed, but focusing too heavily on the negative blinds us to the positive aspects of otakuism that are just as real and important. There's so much more to otaku culture than the fact that some otaku relate better to 2-d women and figurines than real people.

Of course, it's not enough to simply say that otaku culture is a positive thing and then leave it at that. The inevitable question is "what is so good about being an otaku?" and given that we don't encourage everyone to be otaku, "what positive lessons can we learn from otaku culture?" I will be addressing such questions in my dissertation (in progress).


  1. Good morning sir. I'm Lynne, from Philippines. I'm also an anime fan. I'm studying in the University of the Philippines-1st year student. Can you please help me in my LRP(Library Research Paper)? I'm pretty much interested in the otaku culture, so I chose this topic for my LRP. While researching on it, I read some of your articles about it. I know you can help me, my problem is I'm lacking of sources(especially books) and I'm confused of what will be my specific topic and my premise?! Can you site some premise to be that I can contribute to otaku culture?

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  2. Good day, sir! im one of otaku fans here in philippines. Can you site some sources for me so that I can pursue my topic about anime social networking sites.. and how it affect us.. thank you..

  3. Hi, you might like to start with the book I contributed to.

    Details here: Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World

  4. I was 15 when you wrote this article...
    I was looking for information about Toru Honda and (after sifting through all the Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket results) this came to the top of the list.
    My studies are more around the "Waifu Movement" as some call it. To be more precise, it began as a study on people who have romantic relationships with silicone love dolls, then it transformed into studying romance with mannequins, landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, artificial intelligences, and finally 2d fictional characters. In that order.
    Of course, this extends beyond the reach of just otaku, though many see otaku as being almost wholly integrated into non-human relationships as such mostly because of bad media.
    However, that's not exactly why I'm here.
    You see, I have a way to study a subject from within. I'm capable of "psyching myself out" and enter realms that may push my boundaries of comfort. This is the only way I can see studies being wholly legitimate.
    If you have an interest in such things either study or personal, I'd be happy to have that discussion.
    Like I said, I believe jumping into a subject wholly is the best way to learn about it. I have firsthand experience.
    I do agree with you that focusing too much on the negative is harmful by losing focus on the positive, however I'm the sort who never sees anything wholly bad or wholly good regardless of situation.
    If I don't stop myself, I will blather on. If you are interested in a discussion, I have ideas you might find interesting relating to the "negative" aspects, like 2d relationships.
    Feel free to drop a line.

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