Culture Note: Otaku

In English, otaku is a loan-word from Japan that means an obsessive fan of anime, manga, Japanese video games, or Japanese culture. But do you know about its Japanese origins?

In Japan, an otaku (おたく or オタク) is more equivalent to “geek” in English. The word is derived from the term for another person’s house or family (お宅, otaku), and is often used as a second person pronoun (our equivalent to “you”). The “geek” definition of the word is usually written in either Katakana (オタク) or Hiragana (おたく) without the kanji, or Chinese letters, (お宅) to distinguish it from the original word. The term developed in the 1980’s as an essayist, Akio Nakamori, used it to describe fans because the misuse of the word otaku (お宅, the formal version) indicated social awkwardness, a common trait in geek culture. Another source of the “geek” use of otaku was due to the popularity of the novelist, artist and Gundam chronicler Yuka Minakawa, who used the word as a second-person pronoun and her fans adapted the term to address themselves.

As stated before, in Japan, otaku is the equivalent of “geek,” but not just anime and manga fans. Anyone who is an obsessive fan of pretty much anything can be an “otaku.” Reki-jo, are female otaku who obsess over history, and there are people who obsess over sports and are considered otaku. However, the traditional negative stereotype of “otaku” is the overweight, lazy male with moe (cute) girl figurines.

Unfortunately, there are some very negative connotations to the word otaku. A large part of it is the “Otaku Murderer,” Tsutomu Miyazaki, who killed several little girls and considered himself an anime and horror fan (which he said inspired him to commit the killings). This sparked a public backlash against the culture similar to American culture’s backlash against violent video games, whenever a killer claims to be influenced by them. This panic was so severe, that when another murderer of a little girl, Kaoru Kobayashi appeared a journalist claimed that he was an anime otaku before his arrest. This turned out to be false, but resulted in public panic and police investigating otaku as possible sex offenders without cause.

While these horrors resulted in very negative public reactions against otaku, time has worn away some of the hostility. While otaku are still considered geeks, the word and the people are gaining more acceptance in the normal community, especially with anime and manga being a very popular export from Japan to the rest of the world. While it is not a word to call a stranger by (it would be like shouting to someone, “NERD!”), many gladly call themselves otaku and take pride in their geek status.

Akihabara, staff advertising maid cafes

Akihabara, staff advertising maid cafes

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4 thoughts on “Culture Note: Otaku

  1. A friend of mine was telling me about this the other day but I couldn’t quite figure out why this it was the case that the word Otaku was seen negatively in Japan but after reading this I understand why. Thanks for the information. It was quite useful.

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