FEATURE: Found in Translation - The Evolution of the Word “Otaku” [PART 3]

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

Welcome back to Found in Translation! Today’s the third and final installment of our history of otaku—or at least how the word has evolved. As we’ve seen throughout this series, not everybody has the same definition in mind when they use the word otaku, which makes the word very interesting to explore even when it’s not terribly helpful as a distinct category of people.


In part one, I talked about some of the debates around the word in the United States, and in part two I focused exclusively on the debates in Japan. Today, I’ll bring the two sides of the story together. The spread of otaku overseas has had a huge impact on the way the word is discussed in Japan. Once again, I can’t capture all the nuances in a brief column, but I hope it makes clear that the word otaku has been shaped by factors both inside and outside the country.


How Otaku Became “Cool”


The period of peak otaku bashing in the Japanese mass media was, in all honesty, rather brief. By September of 1989, there were barely any articles about Miyazaki in the newspapers and tabloids. Miyazaki continued to be discussed among anime critics and professionals in the industry, but the mainstream public discourse had moved on to other issues for the most part, such as the recently introduced consumption tax.


Nevertheless, otaku continued to have a negative reputation in the 90s. Popular writings on the subject helped affirm the connection between otaku and personality problems. For example, in 1991, the sociologist Shinji Miyadai identified otaku as “unbalanced specialists” (アンバランスなスペシャリスト) based on research he had conducted in 1985 on the social lives of university students. Kaoru Kurimoto, the author of the popular fantasy novel series Guin Saga, claimed that otaku needed to socialize more in order to break out of their media addictions.


So when did otaku become “cool,” then?


The short answer: around the time when TV anime started making lots of money.




The success of Neon Genesis Evangelion was a turning point in the history of Japanese animation. It was so successful, in fact, that it became known in Japan as a “social phenomenon” (社会現象). While nobody could have anticipated Eva’s success at the time, it was not too surprising in retrospect. By the 1990s, the animation industry was maturing, and many of the industry’s most capable individuals worked on Eva. Furthermore, the deeply personal story struck a nerve with the Japanese populace. Eva verbalized the anxieties of the disenfranchised youth; in that sense, it had something for everyone, not just the so-called otaku.


Nevertheless, otaku made up a noticeable portion of Eva’s fanbase, and it was often pointed out that the creators of Eva were otaku themselves. Of course, Eva’s popularity did not in itself rehabilitate the otaku’s reputation—the director, Hideaki Anno, infamously criticized his otaku fans for missing the point of the anime—but Eva’s financial success did pave the way for a new narrative about otaku to emerge. In the gloomy post-bubble years, the otaku became the saviors of the Japanese economy.


Eva was not just a success in Japan. It became part of a wave of anime exports that made shockwaves internationally during the 90s. While anime did enjoy some moderate success in the West beforehand, the process accelerated drastically during the 90s thanks to big hits like Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z. Their popularity was reported on in Japan, where they were portrayed as national success stories.


dragon ball z


I mention anime’s success in the West in particular because it has always been very popular in Japan’s neighboring countries. Despite the existence of a formal ban on Japanese media until 1998, Japanese anime was far more influential in South Korea than homegrown animation for many years. The success of Japanese pop culture in East Asia was taken as a given; success in the West was regarded as a sign that anime had reached the world stage.


The result was an outpouring of books and journal articles scrutinizing the success. As one would expect, Toshio Okada led the way. In 1996, he published a book called Introduction to Otakuology, which described otaku as a new “tribe” of people. Otaku culture was able to impress international audiences where most Japanese pop culture failed because it was more than mere imitation or pastiche. In other words, otaku culture represented a unique aspect of Japanese culture, and it was this very uniqueness that made it so successful outside East Asia.


Introduction to Otakuology was almost farcical in its attempts to draw a direct line between traditional Japanese art from the 1800s and modern anime, but it was certainly influential among Japanese writers. Even in English-language scholarship, it’s quite popular for histories of anime and manga to make similar claims. This isn’t the place to debate the validity of such theories, but I will note that they were particularly popular during the late 90s and early 00s, when otaku theories (otaku-ron) were only just starting to gain momentum. In other words, writers in both English and Japanese used theories of Japanese uniqueness in an attempt to validate otaku as an object of serious academic study.


Probably the most famous academic work about otaku is Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, which was first published in 2001 and translated into English in 2009. Azuma argued that otaku are the flag bearers of postmodernism. The book is quite interesting and is worth a read even if you’re not into academic stuff, but it’s also worth pointing out that Azuma takes the stereotypes around otaku as a given. He starts off the book by saying “I suppose that everyone has heard of ‘otaku,’” lists a few typical otaku interests such as comics and personal computers, and then promptly launches into a discussion of postmodernism. Perhaps understandably, the book has its fair share of critics who criticize his approach to otaku.


As all of this theorizing and debate about the definition of otaku was going on, the Japanese government poured money into promoting Japanese pop culture overseas. This ongoing effort is known as Cool Japan, and it has been regarded with varying degrees of ambivalence within Japan. Traditionally, anime and manga fans have not been fond of government intervention in any form, mostly because of censorship scares. They also take issue with the Japanese government promoting a subculture that it does not understand.


Cultural critics and academics have not been terribly impressed with Cool Japan either. Koichi Iwabuchi called it “brand nationalism,” while Eiji Ootsuka described it as propaganda. The former Prime Minister Taro Aso is a manga fan and famously addressed a crowd in Akihabara, a move that emphasized his coolness and also drew attention away from the controversial statements he had made about Japan’s neighboring countries and revising Japan’s constitution.



More recently, the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, dressed up as Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games.


There is good reason to be skeptical of Cool Japan, regardless of your political sympathies. For one thing, the initiative has lacked focus, achieving few tangible results. For another thing, there is almost zero coordination between the government and the anime industry itself in creating these positive images. The complexities around the subculture are ignored in the name of promoting Cool Japan and making a quick buck. It is little wonder, then, that anime’s huge international audience is barely educated about the industry and subculture that produces this stuff.


As the Cool Japan project keeps trucking onward, many Japanese and international anime fans will continue to struggle with the often contradictory images they receive of their fandom. Is it cool to be an otaku? If anime and manga are “uniquely” Japanese, does that mean only Japanese people can be otaku? But if that’s the case, then otaku can’t be hip and cool because the popular stereotype is so narrow and negative.


Many writings on otaku try to make sense of all of these contradictions; they try to carve out an otaku “essence” that can adequately describe what an otaku really does. The stereotype of the socially awkward male geek who loves anime girls hasn’t faded after anime became popular overseas. In fact, the image has only become stronger over time. What gives?


Here is my opinion: It’s easier to understand otaku when the definition is narrower, and so even when the word’s usage broadens, one can differentiate between a regular otaku and a “true” otaku. Given that many theories of otaku define their essence in relation to the stereotypes rather than historical analysis, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these stereotypes have persisted even though the majority of fans are not actually like that.



How much have things changed since Otaku no Video in 1991? 

As I’ve hinted throughout this column, it’s probably impossible to pin down the true essence of otaku. The contradictions embedded in the word aren’t going away anytime soon. Yet despite being so loaded and contradictory to the extent of being nearly useless as a label, the word continues to be widely used both inside and outside Japan.


Why is that? I suspect it is actually because the word has so much many contradictions. You can’t just call yourself an otaku and leave it there, after all. If you’re going to call yourself an otaku, the logical next question is “Why? And on what terms?” The same thing applies when you choose not to call yourself an otaku. You must have reason for using or rejecting the word, based on your understanding of it.


I’ll end this history of otaku with a quote from Kaichirou Morikawa, discussing the reader response to Akio Nakamori’s column all those years ago. How did the so-called otaku think of and describe themselves after coming across this strange and baffling term?


“When otaku used otaku among themselves, they were simultaneously self-deprecating and self-confirming. Using the word in this manner suggests that to some extent a self-consciousness was at work trying to gauge the nature of the difference between people who recognized themselves as otaku and―normal people. We find in various columns contributed by readers of anime magazines an attempt to create some kind of personal identity by appealing to a self-image that others regarded coldly, or to a self-image of a person obsessed with anime even though he was too old for such interests. The word otaku thus acquired the nuance of an introspective search for identity.” (Emphasis mine)


The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems!


What do you think of the word otaku? Have your feelings on otaku changed after reading this series? Share your thoughts 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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