While neither long, in-depth, nor politically correct, the following 1983 article by essayist Nakamori Akio represents a watershed moment in subcultural journalism: the official debut of the word “otaku” as the definition of a then-new social demographic. Prior to its introduction, this anime- and manga-obsessed group was known under a variety of names, including mania (“maniacs”), nekura-zoku (loosely, “the gloomy tribe”), and even byōki (a play on the word “sick”), but none captured the diverse crowd’s distinctive esprit de corps — or lack thereof — symbolized by the word “otaku.”
When this first installment of “Otaku no Kenkyu” (『おたく』の研究, “Otaku Research”) first appeared in the pages of an obscure weekly soft-core porno comic magazine called Manga Burikko, Nakamori probably had little idea that the word would eventually take a life of its own. It’s important to note that he didn’t coin the actual word, which is nothing more than a politer-than-polite way of saying “you” in Japanese. Perhaps because of this, “otaku” wouldn’t gain widespread notoriety until 1989, when the mass media seized on the word to describe notorious serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu. The resulting societal backlash sparked an (eventually) successful subcultural movement to “reclaim” the word, including the bestselling 1989 book Otaku no Hon (“The Otaku Book”), edited by Tomohiro Machiyama, and the 1991 mockumentary Otaku no Video (“The Otaku Video”), directed by Toshio Okada.
From humble roots, “otaku” flowered to become the de facto term for individuals who pursue their hobbies with a single-minded passion bordering on obsession. As part of a series, here is our original translation of Nakamori’s first column in “Otaku no Kenkyu” — which we believe has never before appeared in English.
“This City is Full of Otaku”
by Nakamori Akio
(Translated with permission by Matt Alt)
Ever heard of “Comiket” (also abbreviated as “Comike”)? I only went for the first time myself last year, at the ripe old age of 23, and let me tell you: it was a trip. It’s like a festival for manga freaks. More to the point, it’s a place to sell amateur comic books and fanzines. As to what was so surprising, it wasn’t so much that over ten-thousand young men and women gathered from all over Tokyo, but rather their eccentricities. How can I put this? They’re like those kids — every class has one — who never got enough exercise, who spent recess holed up in the classroom, lurking in the shadows obsessing over a shogi board or whatever. That’s them. Rumpled long hair parted on one side, or a classic kiddie bowl-cut look. Smartly clad in shirts and slacks their mothers bought off the “all ¥980/1980” rack at Ito Yokado or Seiyu [discount retailers], their feet shod in knock-offs of the “R”-branded Regal sneakers that were popular several seasons ago, their shoulder bags bulging and sagging — you know them. The boys were all either skin and bones as if borderline malnourished, or squealing piggies with faces so chubby the arms of their silver-plated eyeglasses were in danger of disappearing into the sides of their brow; all of the girls sported bobbed hair and most were overweight, their tubby, tree-like legs stuffed into long white socks. Now these unassuming classroom corner-dwellers with their perpetually downcast expressions have come out of the woodwork and swelled their ranks into a really rather surprising TEN THOUSAND PEOPLE. And just because they’re here, they’re channeling all of their normal gloominess into freaking out. Some are dressed in costumes of anime characters, others look like a shady character from a Azuma Hideo comic, still others constantly try foisting off their “lolicon” fanzines on unsuspecting girls, the shit-eating grins never leaving their faces all the while. Others just run around aimlessly… Man, it’s enough to make your head explode. The vast majority are in their teens, mostly junior and senior high school students.
Come to think of it, manga freaks and Comiket are only the start of it. There’s those guys who camp out before the opening day of anime movies, dudes who nearly get themselves run over trying to capture photos of the “blue train” as it comes down the tracks, guys with every back issue of SF Magazine and the Hayakawa science-fiction novels lining their bookshelves, science fair types with coke-bottle glasses who station themselves at the local computer shop, guys who get up early to secure space in line for idol singer and actress autograph sessions, boys who spent their childhoods going to the best cram-schools but turn into timid fish-eyed losers, guys who won’t shut up when the topic of audio gear comes around. These people are normally called “maniacs” or “fanatics,” or at best “nekura-zoku” (“the gloomy tribe”), but none of these terms really hit the mark. For whatever reason, it seems like a single umbrella term that covers these people, or the general phenomenon, hasn’t been formally established. So we’ve decided to designate them as the “otaku,” and that’s what we’ll be calling them from now on.
The question of why we’re calling them “otaku,” and the debate over exactly what “otaku” means, we’d like to explore in leisurely detail over subsequent installments. But in the meantime, take a good look around yourself, and we think you’ll see them — that’s right, there they are — the o…ta…ku….
So, what kind of otaku are you?