The Otaku Myth

You’ve heard about “America’s Greatest Otaku”– or maybe you haven’t. It’s Tokyopop’s newest marketing tour, where they travel across the country in a bus looking for the biggest anime fan. Once they find this supposed pinnacle of fandom culture, they will reward them with a trip to Japan.

At heart, this contest has positive intent (or at least, I sincerely hope it does, because I like to assume the best about corporate intentions). However, I take issue with the use of the word otaku in this campaign– as well as the usage in many other forms of marketing used by the American companies.

Many people are unaware of the real meaning of the word otaku. In the US, it has become something to be proud of; a person uses it to describe themselves as an expert, or a person who is more obsessed with anime and manga than their peers. It’s become somewhat synonymous with the word “guru”. But the avid Japan-lovers that apply this word to themselves have not bothered to research the origin of the title, as happens with many things in American fandom– but that is something to save for a different post.

According to Anime News Network‘s lexicon, an otaku is described as follows:

…used to refer to hardcore anime/manga fans and later to hardcore fans of any hobby. Although its origins are uncertain, the earliest known examination of the word appeared in 1983 when Akio Nakamori published a series of articles titled “Otaku no Kenkyu”, describing the socially inept males who referred to each other as otaku.

While the word otaku always had a negative connotation, in 1989 it took a whole new dark dimension. Following the kidnapping and murder of four young girls, the home of the main suspect Tsutomu Miyazaki was searched and, in addition to evidence, revealed large amounts of anime and manga. The mass media latched on the label of “otaku” to describe the murderer and in the public consciousness the word quickly came to be associated with sociopaths.

In the years following this incident the stigma associated with the word otaku gradually died down. But even today it remains an unconventional lifestyle choice and labeling oneself as otaku is done with no small amount of defiance and/or self-deprecation.

Wikipedia (though certainly never the end-all-be-all of sources), states:

In general colloquial usage […], most Japanese would consider it undesirable to be described in a serious fashion as “otaku”; many even consider it to be a genuine insult.

Yes, kids. Otaku is a word that you should not be using in your cute like “watashi wa ___ desu!” sentences. You shouldn’t be using it to describe your friends, or people in general– unless they really are completely socially deficient, never leave their homes, and do absolutely nothing that does not center around anime/a similar interest. If someone has that kind of unhealthy obsession, you should be worried about them; not lauding their dedication.

The real concern I have seen raised in America with the rise of this word’s usage over the last few years is the attempt of the industry to glorify this ideal. The industry is promoting the otaku as something cool, something fun to be.As if it isn’t hard enough to be successful in business and social endeavors in this country already, we have several generations of fans being told that it’s okay if they want to sit in their rooms and watch anime all day. Exercise? Who needs that when you can watch our poorly translated dub of this series or that! And don’t get me started on the promotions about eating nothing but ramen and Pocky. (Protip: Ramen wasn’t meant to come in a packet full of sodium and starches that make you fat. There are supposed to be vegetables and meat in there!)

If you use this word a lot, maybe it’s time to stop and think about how you want people to think of you— and, of course, how embarrassing it would be if you insulted someone by calling them an otaku. The pop culture industry of anime and manga distributors in America may want to herd you into the fringe demographic mentality that they believe is their customer base, but if you really want to be an individual, take a stand against the use of words that are downright degrading to American fans.

I send my condolences to the Greatest Otaku, whoever they may be. I sincerely hope that Tokyopop’s branding does not hold true, and they are perfectly capable of leading a productive life outside of their fandoms.

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