What’s an Otaku?
An otaku is someone passionate about their unconventional interests, and spends considerable time, thought, and/or money in support of them. People usually think of anime and manga fans, but in Japan it would also include trains, martial arts, traditional/historic clothing, gaming, etc.
The term literally means “Your Honorable Home” in formal, traditional Japanese, and was used as a polite way to say “you.” Fans interacting with other fans they hadn’t met might say “Does Your Home enjoy this show?” because it’s indirect and more polite than saying “you”. Similarly, it’s impolite to point at other people, or even yourself, in Japan.
In the late 70’s and 80’s a love of cute characters took over Japan, and it’s still going strong. Many manga, and anime artists gravitated to a cuter style, stylistically short, with large eyes- a style we now call “chibi“. There was a disagreement between men who liked the fun & romantic shojo manga read by girls and women, and the men who read hard SF, dark gekiga stories. In what should be an award winner in the “most unfortunate use of a foreign word” category, the shojo manga-reading men referred to themselves as “lolicons” – short for “lolita complex”. That went into the mix for an attitude that otaku were weird and unsavory. (if you want to read a great article on the history of bishojo, lolicon, and moe, this is the best one I’ve seen).
The other problem was that otaku didn’t like the things they should, and they spent too much time and money on other things. One of the strengths of Japanese culture is a strong cooperative tendency, but it can be a negative when it stresses conformity too much. If you don’t like the things you officially should, you won’t do well in conversations because there’s nothing to say. If somehow a sports fan gets surrounded by people who only want to talk about Legend of the Galactic Heroes, they’re confident enough to dismiss the others.
The government and business got in on the outaku-criticizing act too. There was the expectation that males should stand up and get into the whole suicidal karoshi work culture. Things only got worse when the Bubble Economy collapsed, and the promise of secure lifetime jobs evaporated. Female otaku had the same problem, but the media ignored them for the most part. They weren’t that enthused with getting married and dedicating their whole lives to taking care of the kids, but by that time a large segment of the female population felt the same way.
To top if all off, the Miyazaki Murders case unfairly branded otaku as dangerous perverts (though a search of Japanese newspapers at the time found that the case was rarely called “Otaku Murders”. News stories showed a collection of pornographic manga in Miyazaki’s appartment. But some curious otaku began to research the case. (It’s almost a given that otaku have epic research skills.) The official police inventory mentioned live-action porn and slasher movies, several VCR’s, and a large collection of boy’s baseball manga and anime episodes. Looking up the perverted manga titles, they discovered that they hadn’t been published at the time of Miyazaki’s arrest, but they would have been on newsstands on the day reporters were allowed into his apartment. Finally in 2015, journalist Kobayashi Toshiyuki admitted to planting the material to sensationalize the case. The whole otaku-as-murderer association with the case was a hoax!
A more positive spin
Gradually the Japanese government recognized the economic power of pop culture, and began to promote it with their Cool Japan initiative. The presence of female otaku got more notice with the skyrocketing popularity of cosplay (a 4.6 billion dollar global market in 2020), and the printing industry that sprung up to facilitate mostly-female-written doujinshi. There’s been a realization that if all the otaku stopped collecting and buying it would crash the Japanese economy.
The media image of otaku has improved considerably over the years, from the self-parody of Otaku no Video (1991), with its unflattering satirical live segments and descent-into-social-unacceptability theme. The Densha Otoko (2003) media franchise tells the tale of an otaku protecting a young woman from a drunk on a train, and their continuing relationship as he reforms his image. Princess Jellyfish (2008) features a group of female Otaku with diverse interests, who support each other. Genshiken (2002) follows the antics of a male & female college students who join “The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture”, with their NSFW doujinshi interests, because they don’t fit in with the anime or manga clubs. Saki is the fish-out-of-water non-otaku who joins to be near her handsome otaku boyfriend. Finally, Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki (2016-present) takes a new spin on the ‘reforming an otaku’ trope, when a fellow gamer challenges him to treat real-life as a game to conquer. Her solution for him isn’t to hide his interests and become a different person, it’s to learn new skills to better his life.
Many fans, especially young ones, avoid the term Otaku because they think it’s a “bad word” in Japan, preferring “weeaboo” or “weeb”. From what I understand, that has contexts of “rude, ignorant mocker of Japanese culture”, “people not proud of their own heritage”, and someone who objectifies Japanese people. I know which term I prefer.
Here’s a street interview by That Japanese Man Yuta, asking young people what they think of otaku. One of them mentions Densha Otako (Train Man):
Do you consider yourself an Otaku? What things are you passionate about?