FEATURE: Found in Translation - The Evolution of the Word “Otaku” [PART 1]

Everybody has heard of otaku, but does the word mean what you think it does?

Otaku is a word that seems deceptively straightforward at first glance. Adopted into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007, it is defined as follows:


(In Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.


It is notable that the dictionary definition includes the negative perceptions surrounding the word. According to the OED, the otaku is “obsessed” and lacks “social skills.” This description is essentially no different from the columnist Akio Nakamori’s use of the word “bizarre” (異様) when he defined otaku as a label in 1983. While it has become more socially acceptable to identify as an otaku these days, it still retains an air of eccentricity.




One could argue that this is very much the point of adopting it as a loan word—otaku captures a nuance that “geek” or “fan” can’t quite muster. But adopting loan words from another culture is not a simple copy-and-paste process. Otaku has transformed significantly on its Journey to the West (ahem), a sure indication that the meaning of the word was contentious to begin with.


And that’s the theme of this week’s Found in Translation column. Translation is not a simple additive or subtractive process. By its very nature it is both transformative and elusive, a constant reminder that words may not always mean what we assume they mean at first glance.


What’s in a Spelling?


One reason why adopting otaku as a loan word is translation is because the word has multiple spellings in Japanese, each with a different nuance. Even when you leave the word as otaku in English, it is not the same word as it was in Japanese.


These days in Japanese writing, otaku is often written in katakana as オタク. Katakana is typically used for extra emphasis or to indicate words of foreign origin. Think of it as an equivalent to italics or block letters. When written in katakana, otaku’s Japanese origins are obscured and its connections to a hip and cool youth culture are emphasized.


It wasn’t always that way, however. Otaku derives from the polite form of address お宅 (or 御宅) and literally means “your house/family.” Hardly anyone writes it that way, though, except when pointing out the word’s origins. When otaku first emerged as a disparaging label for hardcore anime/manga fans in the 1980s and early 90s, it was frequently written in hiragana as おたく.  



From Nakamori's article in Manga Burikko


In reaction to the stigma, prominent cultural commentators such as Toshio Okada (the former president of Studio Gainax and self-proclaimed “Otaking”) began writing otaku in katakana, in order to reclaim the word in a positive way. His side eventually won the spelling war; オタク is now the accepted spelling even in government documents.


All these complexities in the spelling are flattened out when the word is rendered in English as otaku. On the other hand, the English spelling introduces a new layer of complexity to the label—the foreign gaze. The debate around “what is an otaku?” has only become more complicated now that there are more players involved.


As usual when it comes to stories of cross-cultural exchange, neither side has access to the whole story. As a translator, I’m more interested in seeing how people deal with the gaps than in providing an “objective” account of what otaku “really” means. While otaku has become global, its adoption in the American fandom is well-documented, so let’s start this story in the United States, at a time when anime fandom was only just starting to kick off.


What does Otaku mean in the United States?


Contrary to the popular stereotype, the first Americans to use the word were aware of the stigma surrounding it. According to the otaku studies scholar Lawrence Eng, the oldest mention of otaku from the Usenet archives dates from 1990: “‘Otaku’ sounds kind of perverted,” wrote the message. “I hate that word.”


The disparaging tone is unsurprising, given that the word was initially imported from contemporary Japanese sources in the wake of the infamous “otaku murderer” case of 1989. (More on this in part two.)


At what point, then, did American anime fans get the impression that otaku was a badge of pride? Probably from watching anime itself. One of the earliest mentions of otaku in a subtitled anime came from Gunbuster’s initial U.S. release in 1990, but it wasn’t until Otaku no Video’s release in 1993 that the word entered fandom consciousness in a major way.


otaku no video


Otaku no Video has been a huge hit among American anime fans ever since it was first released. In his memoirs, the Gainax anime director Yasuhiro Takeda remarked that Otaku no Video is “widely regarded as the otaku bible” in the U.S. Even today, this two-episode OVA remains a cult classic. Case in point: a kickstarter for a Bluray release last year raised over $100,000.


In some ways, it is ironic that Otaku no Video has gained such a positive reputation among American anime fans. One controversial segment depicted a so-called gaijin (“foreigner”) otaku in an extremely unflattering light, completely altering his words in a dubbed-over “translation.” To be fair, however, the OVA made gleeful fun of everyone identifying as otaku, presenting them as hapless and delusional misfits. At the same time, the otaku were ambitious, filled with the potential to revolutionize the world. For many American geeks, perhaps, Otaku no Video represented a banner of self-deprecating pride.


On a practical level, too, otaku was a useful word for English speakers who wanted to communicate their niche interests. In Japan, one can identify as a train otaku, a stamp otaku or as anything in-between, but in English, at least, the word came to indicate anime/manga fandom specifically. Given that anime and manga were borrowed from Japanese, it makes sense that a word referring to anime fans would be borrowed from Japanese as well. In that sense, any Japanese-sounding word would probably have done the trick.


Yet the otaku label has never been simple for English speakers. For every fan who adopted the word as a neutral or positive label, another fan would point out that otaku “means something different in Japan.” When Western anime fans talk about the word, they often have wildly different and conflicting interpretations, as can be seen in the "True Otaku" documentary.



The debates around what it means to be an otaku are further complicated by the issue of cultural appropriation. Some Westerners believe that otaku can only describe a Japanese person and that it would be wrong for a Westerner to identify themselves as such. There’s a great deal of stigma around being single-mindedly obsessed with Japanese culture. Nobody wants to be a “weeaboo,” after all. Social pressure might dissuade some people from identifying too closely with otaku when they don’t fit the perceived Japanese image to a T.


The stereotypes themselves are another reason why a Westerner might feel cautious about describing themselves as otaku. Unless these fans live in Japan and/or speak Japanese, they will probably get their primary image of how otaku are perceived in Japan from anime. Unfortunately, the otaku characters that typically populate anime are almost never intended to be realistic portrayals of what anime fans are actually like in Japan. They are exaggerated figures, created more for performance art than for documentary purposes. They are also almost exclusively male and heterosexual.


This creates problems for those who see themselves as hardcore anime fans but otherwise do not share the same traits as the otaku characters in anime. Even if the otaku is shown to be female, she is either stereotyped as a fujoshi (a fan of "Boys' Love") or is clearly more of a male’s “geek girl” fantasy than a believable character in her own right (e.g. Kirino from Oreimo). And even if the otaku character claims not to be interested in “3D” girls, he will never show interest in “2D” boys. The gender roles in anime can be strict at times.


art club


The word otaku, at least from the way it is currently used, appears to be too narrow and confining to accurately describe the diverse identities and interests of people who are passionate about anime. The word otaku might have become global, but the prevailing image of “nerdy Japanese men” remains at the forefront of everyone’s minds.


Someone who is unfamiliar with the debates around the word in Japan might therefore be tempted to conclude that otaku have always been described this way, and that the Japanese otaku subculture is so unique that it cannot be replicated elsewhere without seeming like a forced imitation.


Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.


And on that cliffhanger, I’ll end today’s column. Look forward to the continuation next week, where I take the otaku debate to Japan and explain just how the stereotypes took hold and what is being done to challenge them.


In the meantime, it's interesting to pause and think about your own otaku identity. How do you feel about the word? Would you describe yourself as an otaku? Sound off in the comments!



Kim Morrissy is a freelance writer and translator. He writes about anime, light novels, and Japanese culture on his personal blog. You can also follow him on Twitter at @frog_kun.

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