What Kind of Otaku Are You?

Otaku

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 popularity until 1989, after a one-two PR punch of Nakamori using the term in his biography of notorious serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu, combined with the publication of pop-culture commentator Machiyama Tomohiro’s bestselling book Otaku no Hon (“The Otaku Book”) the same year.

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.

Otaku Research #1
“This City is Full of Otaku”
by Nakamori Akio
(Translated without Express 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?

Matthew ALT
April 2, 2008

Matt Alt lives in Tokyo and is the co-author of Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan and Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, among others. His blog can be found at http://altjapan.typepad.com.

35 Responses

  1. claytonian Says:

    Don’t suppose you have a link to the original online somewhere?

  2. LS Says:

    There’s some “grassroots” culture for you.

    Here’s a question: is the rise of “hikkikomori” as a stigmatic label related to a post-densha mainstreaming of “otaku?” Or are they really distinct ideas? And how is it that such fundamentally uncool people seem so involved with “cool japan?”

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Claytonian: I added the link, but it’s here just in case.

    LS: Yes, the otaku seemed to have existed before they got a label.

    And how is it that such fundamentally uncool people seem so involved with “cool japan?”

    Well, “Cool Japan” is a label attached by the outside by people who have no understanding of internal Japanese cultural divisions. And it’s not that “otaku” are cool, but what they like – anime, manga, and games – is cool, and they are therefore cool by default. It’s definitely complicated.

  4. M-Bone Says:

    There is also the idea that anime is created by otaku (some is – Oshii, Anno, etc.) and that since the creations are cool, the creators must also be cool.

  5. Anymouse Says:

    Cool
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=f9uX6nt4g78

    Cool, in proper company
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=7UilVMrFVAI

  6. J Grefe Says:

    Thank you for this translation. I look forward to further translations.

  7. LS Says:

    it’s too bad that gyaku seems to be on its last legs:

    http://gyaku.jp/en/

    there was some interesting dual-language content there particularly with respect to freeter:

    http://gyaku.jp/en/index.php?cmd=contentview&pid=000220

    English coverage of emerging Japanese economic identities seems to me to be limited to the Marxy media complex (every once in a while) and the Economist.

  8. Anime Home Planet Blog » Blog Archive » Néojaponisme " Blog Archive " What Kind of Otaku Are You? Says:

    [...] Dark Diamond wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt [...]

  9. LS Says:

    Pretty much never cool:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=uJHRtklMRwc

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    Hey, it’s based on a true story. You can’t just make reality cool for the purpose of profit.

  11. LS Says:

    Good point.

  12. Jessant Says:

    It’s not good to label yourself an otaku when talking to a Japanese person. It has definite ‘perv’ connotations in some places in Japan. It’s really not the same as ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’. You’ll get some definite odd looks. I had a friend who labeled himself as such and well, it didn’t go well with him. It’s like saying ‘I’m a perv’ and I’m proud. The girls will flee.

  13. Akihiro Ito Says:

    Hi. Let me look at the site. Very interesting.
    Japan recently introduced an information site. Foreigners who are relatively unknown in Japan to introduce the information. Surprise is full of information.
    We hope once the link please.
    (URL)http://japanesefood-cultuer-history-anime.blogspot.com/

  14. W. David MARX Says:

    Mr. Ito:

    I am not sure how helpful your site is. To be honest, I think “spam site” is not the aesthetic you are going for.

    Best,
    W. David Marx

  15. On Otaku, On Kotaku [Culture] Says:

    [...] Swing over to Néojaponisme. It’s worth a read. Tell ‘em Kotaku sent cha. Read The Essay [Néojaponisme via AltJapan] [...]

  16. neogeisha Says:

    interesting, thank you for doing this.

    one thing that leapt out at me was the emphasis on bad fashion. i had never understood this aspect of otaku-ism– the failure to consume in a balanced manner. it seems the original crime of otaku is the exclusive consumption of the loved product (say manga) to the exclusion of more socially acceptable consumption, like sneakers and pants.

  17. Mistakes of Youth: The Blog (Powered by Spirit) » Blog Archive » Are you オタク? Says:

    [...] Matt Alt recently put a translation up on NéoJaponisme of the first ever article to use to word “otaku” as a reference to anime fans and geeks in general. The article itself is nothing much, but it’s a very interesting snapshot of history. Give it a read. [...]

  18. jackle Says:

    Kotaku sent me

  19. Otaku, The Roots Of The Word Says:

    Today I came accross this great essay by Matt Alt, a Japanese(the language, not the nationality) translator and freelance writer, he takes a look at the word Otaku and goes backs to it’s roots.[...]

  20. Matt Alt Says:

    While they share some similarities, it is my understanding that “hikikomori” are only tangentially related to the otaku. “Otaku” may be a pejorative term in some (most?) contexts, but it’s like “Trekkie” in that way — someone out of step with mainstream taste/society/fashion/consumption patterns/etc.

    A “hikikomori,” on the other hand, is someone who utterly drops out of society, never leaving their homes due to stress from academic pressure, bullying, etc.

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    it seems the original crime of otaku is the exclusive consumption of the loved product (say manga) to the exclusion of more socially acceptable consumption, like sneakers and pants.

    I am not 100% sure on this, but my guess is the idea of being a “fashion otaku” (whether called by that name or just the idea) came later in the decade. In 1983, the very designer-heavy DC Boom had yet to happen, and Popeye/JJ style laid-back “preppie” clothing was still the standard. Maybe Nantonaku, Crystal was maniacal about those preppie brands, but I think the average upper middle-class kid at a private school could still get away with not obsessing over his clothing, beyond just buying some simple items from established brands.

  22. M-Bone Says:

    Some otaku may be hikikomori, but surveys of hikikomori include everyone who goes out only rarely – including the elderly and people who certainly do not fit with the otaku definition. Hikikomori generally gets discussed as a “youth” problem outside of Japan, but an Asahi feature on the problem that I read back in 2000 or 2001 suggested that the majority of Japanese hikikomori are over the age of 30 with a significant number over 50.

  23. Chuckles Says:

    I find cross cultural comparisons to be even more interesting – by which I mean the realization that Otaku doesnt really map unto Nerd or Geek or Dork or even your whatever cultural archetype comic book guy is supposed to represent(as has been hinted at in a previous comment). That is, stripped of its linguistic signifier, the symbolic performance of Otakuness doesnt seem to have a mirror in Western society. Is Otaku then the social outcast sans pareil? Fascinating stuff.

  24. W. David MARX Says:

    Does the “Yamanote Boy” have a mirror in the West?

    I think a comparison between American nerds and Japanese otaku is a good exercise for comparing how “social outcasts” add to society in the long run. With the emphasis on order and early-determination in Japan, I feel like a lot of otaku end up being left out of the chances to actually move into straight society. Nerds seem to come in the door in America because they have the skills necessary – rather than a pedigree. All my “super-nerdy, hopeless-dork” friends in high school all ended up dating girls and things, but the otaku stereotype seems to suggest a permanent virginity.

  25. polidread Says:

    hi! posted the link on our website,
    with credits linking back to here.

    thanks!

  26. Anymouse Says:

    >All my super-nerdy, hopeless-dork >friends in high school all ended up >dating girls and things, but the >otaku stereotype seems to suggest a >permanent virginity.
    It also seems that Otaku in Japan are farher seperated from historical mores than in the US. Of course that might be society in general which is farther from historical mores.

  27. Global Voices Online » Japan: Otaku Research #1 Says:

    [...] Alt at Neojaponisme translates a 1983 article by Japanese essayist Nakamori Akio, the first part of a series entitled “Otaku Research” entitled “The City is Full [...]

  28. 74x » Blog Archive » What Kind of Otaku Are You? Says:

    [...] from NEOJAPONISME.COM [...]

  29. de onde veio o termo “otaku?” | GOMA DE MASCAR | Quando explode faz pop! Says:

    [...] este interessante blog Jeojapanisme explica: [...]

  30. The path of hate - where did it all began? « orz - SWISS CHEESE PORN Says:

    [...] the seed of hate was planted in 1983, written in this article by Nakamori Akio (the article is translated in English). It would not be looked at until in 1989, [...]

  31. Easternity » Blog Archive » An Imagination Carnival through Asia Says:

    [...] smallest camcorder, a mere 1.3 by 4.7 by 2.5 inches Subcultures have been thriving this week, from a translated essay on the anime/manga Otaku, to those who have been visited by [...]

  32. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > even byōki (a play on the word “sick”)

    Since it’s wordplay, I suppose you’re not talking about 病気? What’s the kanji for that byōki?

  33. Lets take a look at Otakus » Blog Archive » What others have been saying about otaku Says:

    [...] http://neojaponisme.com/2008/04/02/what-kind-of-otaku-are-you/#comment-16017> even by?ki (a play on the word “sick”). Since it’s wordplay, I suppose you’re not talking about ??? What’s the kanji for that by?ki? [...]

  34. consoleer » Blog Archive » On Otaku, On Kotaku [Culture] Says:

    [...] Swing over to Néojaponisme. It’s worth a read. Tell ‘em Kotaku sent cha. Read The Essay [Néojaponisme via AltJapan] [...]

  35. On Otaku Nikki, the “otaku” identity, and me « Otaku Nikki Says:

    [...] humans and instead feels at home only in a world entirely mediated by images and fantasy. It is an epithet. I am old enough, socially functional enough, and pro-feminist enough to want to resist identifying [...]