What is an Otaku?
If you Google the definition, you will be treated with this flattering description:
(in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.
Based on that definition, you would think people should be avoiding that label like the plague, Right?
Quite the contrary actually.
There are millions of people around the globe that are more than happy, or even proud to call themselves otaku. In Japan the general consensus is that an otaku is simply someone who has an extreme passion for a particular subject. There are military, car, music, even train otaku, but internationally the word has been adopted and is almost solely used to describe people who like anime and Japanese pop culture. Most of what I will be referring to, or touching on in this post will be speaking strictly about the international version of otaku, what it is to be a part of this fandom, and the perception of us in the public.
I am an otaku; even though I was not aware of this title growing up, or in reality the title didn’t exist outside of japan, I have always been an otaku. In America, the best word to describe someone with my interests was always “nerd,” and I do consider myself a nerd, though, as a kid, it wasn’t exactly something that I could shout from the rooftops. Being called a nerd was humiliating, but back then girls were hanging posters of NSYNC on their bedroom walls, and I was secretly watching the VHS of Can’t Hardly Wait on my 15” CRT before I went to sleep at night, so obviously things have changed.
Being called a nerd or geek these days has basically risen to the point of being a badge of honor. The same glasses that practically defined the nerd in decades past have become a bonafide fashion statement, and a guy like Chris Hardwick is living the life of a rock star on the back of his company called “Nerdist Industries,” of all things. Even the sports world is being taken over by the nerds, with e-sports surging in popularity. Long gone are the days of getting thrown in the pond in front of school, or stuffed in a locker because you liked reading comic books or wore your Star Wars t-shirt. These days nerds are the trendsetters, the new cool, and I for one could not be happier (I guess it could have happened a couple decades sooner, that pond was damn cold!).
It’s not a surprise that this shift in perspective has taken place when you think about it. Our world is ruled by technology, and who do you think is developing all the apps we practically need to live these days, or designing the websites that you spend most of your day trolling? From the moment that alarm on your cell wakes you up in the morning, to those final facebook posts before bed, the technology developed by the guys and girls who got beat up for their lunch money has an undeniable impact in our lives. The culture-bending, marketing behemoth that is Disney didn’t start scooping up companies like Marvel and Lucasfilm for no reason; they didn’t have to read tea leaves to see this coming, and their influence is only making the stuff rise further into popularity.
But we’re talking about otaku, and unlike the modern day nerd, being an otaku carries a fairly serious stigma; it’s a label placed on a particular brand of social outcast, one who the ignorant may assume a blemish on the great face of society. Pervert, deviant, freak, creep, someone who couldn’t possibly have friends much less toy with idea of having a romantic relationship. Otaku live in a life of fantasy, far removed from the day to day of an average person’s life. Otaku are pedophiles who fantasize about adolescent girls, and people may even worry that they’re potentially dangerous for their children to be around. We have all been there… someone at work may find out that you watch anime, and either they shoot you a disapproving look, or flat out say something like “Oh you watch that cartoon porn?”. Make no mistake, behind those eyes are thoughts full of judgment, but is it fair?
First we have to identify where these notions are coming from. To start, we have the original otaku of Japan to thank, or more accurately the western media that portrayed them. How many times has the subject of Japan come up in conversation, and the person you were talking to excitedly busts out some fact like, “You know those people buy used girls panties in vending machines.”, or “I saw that this Japanese guy got married to a cartoon.”? Almost every single time I am speaking to someone outside of our fandom, and the subject of Japan comes up, I have to correct the notion that this kind of thing is the norm among otaku. While unfortunate, It’s not even something we can really get mad at the media about, because they are in the business of generating clicks, and writing these outrageous stories about the far east, a culture that could not be more different than our own, undoubtedly drums up people’s curiosity. While stories like these probably play a factor in public perception, at this point I should probably jump straight to the heart of the issue… Female sexual objectification.
Whether you like it or not, it’s an undeniable fact that a majority of anime contain at least occasional scenes with the sole purpose of titillation. It could be in the form of minor sexual innuendo in the dialogue, but more often the female anime characters are visually depicted as hypersexualized symbols of male desire. The entire ecchi genre, which is unique to anime, is dedicated to this as its main draw, and of course we have hentai, which touches on every fetish to its fullest extent, regardless of how socially unacceptable it may be. Among the different circles of otaku fandom, the reception on this facet of anime runs the gamut, from fully embracing it as a part of the medium, to a subject of ire. Regardless of where you stand on the matter, the fact is that it’s nearly impossible to avoid; even the seemingly most innocent shows occasionally inject bits of this fan service into their episodes, and if you do a Google search of any anime girl you are practically guaranteed to be served a handful of fan art and merchandise depicting them provocatively. With this in mind it’s not hard to imagine where otaku stereotypes come from, as this simply does not gel with the west (or at least America) and our feigned puritanical ideals. Plus we all grew up on cartoons of some variety, and historically they have always been entertainment for children. While this seems to be changing thanks to my generation which refuses to grow up, it’s still a conviction that is ingrained deep into our culture. When you combine this with a parent’s desire to preserve the innocence of their offspring, in a sense, anime can come across as quite a threat, and It’s not uncommon for parents to forbid their children from watching it because of this.
Is this public perception of otaku fair? In my opinion, absolutely not. Video games have been attacked for years over the idea that they are too violent, and are breeding sociopaths and serial killers which is an assertion that has never had even an ounce of truth. People think anime is either too violent, too provocative, or just flat out too fantastical, but what many don’t realize is that it’s arguably home to some of the most beautifully artistic media ever created. Just like the now fashionable nerd, otaku often possess an above average intelligence, but they also tend to be extremely artistically inclined, and quite frankly I’ve never met one that isn’t kind and more than welcoming to those interested in the fandom. Otaku are simply people who have a passion for a particular medium, and while some of us may go overboard with our collections, if its something that brings happiness and it doesn’t hurt anyone it shouldn’t be a problem.
There are plenty of you who are probably thinking to yourselves, “why should I care what other people think of anime”? I can think of a few reasons. I don’t think there is anyone out there who likes to be incorrectly labeled as a creep or a pervert; you can brush it off, but that doesn’t mean it feels nice. The stigma also inevitably has an effect on the ability to bring new people into our fandom, which means less money for the industry, which of course leads to less or inferior quality anime. Most importantly it makes it difficult to meet other otaku, and sharing your passion with like minded fans is when being an otaku truly becomes its most satisfying.
I will do my best to channel the spirit of a legendary poet here… To be or not to be… an otaku? Well if you call yourself one already, this isn’t even a question. I am an otaku; the passion for the things I love flows through my veins, judgement be damned. If you feel the same way, its time to embrace it. It’s time to stop turning down the volume on Miku when people are around; to take that wall scroll of your waifu out the plastic, and hang it proudly, because that’s what you love, and there’s nothing wrong with it. This fandom is moving in the right direction; conventions are continuing to give people a place to open up and be themselves, and their attendance only continues to swell. More exposure can only be a good thing, and as more closet otaku come out of hiding, the veil will be lifted, exposing all the good that both our community, and the medium that we love, have to offer.
I’m hoping that one of the things that we can accomplish here at Anime Arcade is expose some of the amazing qualities of the things we all adore, whether that be anime, video games, or whatever else comes to mind. Maybe in time, just as the nerd name has risen to the heights of admiration, so can otaku. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments, and move out my brothers and sisters! Expose the good word, and raise your banner high!