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I, Otaku: Identifying as a J-culture enthusiast

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When I first started watching anime, I had never heard of the word otaku. However, in 1983 Japanese author Akio Nakamori wrote a little series called "An Investigation of Otaku" in loli manga mag Manga Burikko, and the word caught on as a Japanese slang word referring to a person with an obsessive interest, specifically in manga, anime or videogames. Sound familiar?

One thing a lot of American Japanophiles may not know, however, is that otaku is often considered a disparaging term by the Japanese. That would definitely be news to people proudly toting their copies of Otaku USA and wearing their clever logo baseball caps to cons, and rightfully so -- how much do these fans truly know about Japanese culture? And what does it mean to be an "otaku", anyway, since the meaning is clearly so variable depending on what country you're in when you utter it?

Hit the jump to hear my take on it.

Okay, so let's start at the beginning. To you, an otaku may be a chick you see at a con dressed as Lucky Star's Konata or your best friend who dutifully watches each new season of anime and discusses the semantics of moe and lolicon. However, Japan have a very different image of what an otaku is, which you've likely seen but I will illustrate here for you anyway.

                                     True fact: this guy pretty much stole Dale North's hair

Is this true to form? Apparently, in Japan it is. I wondered during my trip to Tokyo last year if I would see these stereotypes when I visited Akihabara, and sure enough, I did. However, it's also worth noting here that the word otaku is more comparable to an English slang term like anorak than it is to the word geek. This suggests a high degree of social inability, and while you may know some fellow anime nerds who sport those tendencies, I'll bet you for the most part they aren't as bad as what true Japanese otaku show symptoms of. The body pillow thing, for instance.

                      I hate to break it to you, but I don't think she eats, pal

Now, once a photo like this is captured, there's really no going back. And yes, this is one kind of otaku -- a guy who would rather hump a body pillow than a real girl.  30 Rock made fun of the stereotype, and then you have a billion people who have never heard of the word moe suddenly talking to their friends at work about how sick the world is. And I'm not going to defend them, because on some level they're right. You can't help but feel sad for a dude who prefers fantasy girls to real life ones .. but you can't quite say you don't understand him a little bit, either.

                               How much did that FUCKING COST is what I want to know

Then, there's the toy otaku bedroom, which once was considered a den of shame. Thanks to the folks at Danny Choo and Kotobukiya, however, a little book called Otacool has been changing all that (at least, in some circles). I admit, I'm a toy collector myself, but there does come a point where I might even wonder if the size of a toy collection like the one shown above is a symptom of a healthy human being.

                                                                 Hey Danny ... call me.

Speaking of otaku, I would hardly do the subject justice if I didn't mention this guy. Rather than follow in the fashion footsteps of famous father Jimmy Choo, Danny cut his own path and now runs one of the largest websites dedicated to Japan and otaku culture on the internet. Happily married and running his site full time, he seems to be perfectly successful -- not exactly fitting the image of the drooling backpack-toting geek hanging around Akihabara for hours. What's the similarity between a Danny Choo and the typical otaku stereotype? There has to be one, right?

Well, there's a major key to be grasped here: it's the difference between the Japanese description of an otaku and the self-ascribed American version. I think we've clarified why the word is a bit on the undesirable side for the Japanese, as it refers to a person with little to no social skills, which is something that's unpopular no matter where you live. If you have a chance to visit Tokyo, make sure to stop by the Animate store for an illustration of what I mean. As I walked around inside, I realized that this is a true fantasy world that many men who cannot actually relate to women (or for that matter, other people) willingly descend into. And that says more about the current state of Japan's cultural mores than anything else -- which is a topic so meaty I don't want to digress into it here.


Sure, when you see these girls (or is that a guy? I think it might be), you might cringe a little, and you might think they're socially awkward. And they might be. But they use the word otaku (if they know it) because they learned it somewhere on the internet. To them, it means they like anime, or manga, or like to cosplay, or maybe all of those things. It's not even comparable to the guy with the body pillow, although I'm sure there are some of those breeds here too -- just like there are American hikikomori.

In my mind, the unifying thread that binds us all is a simple one -- enthusiasm. Sure, perhaps it's more of a challenge to meet like-minded types when your passions are slice-of-life shows and J-rockers than football and beer. There's nothing to be ashamed of about identifying as a J-culture fan -- you certainly aren't alone. Whether you call yourself otaku, J-nerd, Johnny's fangirl (ahem) or cosplayer, it's likely that you've discovered you have a passion for something. And that's a great thing.

As I write this, I'm waiting for my flight to Otakon, one of the biggest US cons, to meet dozens of friends (not to mention thousands of congoers) who share the same interests as I do. The timing seems particularly apt, considering this article. In the end, identifying as an otaku means the ability to express what I love with other people that love it. Around here, that means we gush about our favorite anime on Japanator AM, babble like monkeys when a j-drama gets our attention proper, and squeal with excitement when a new Hatsune Miku concert video makes the rounds on the internet.

Does that make me a nerd? Yes, it does. Or an otaku. Or a Japanophile. Whatever word you use to describe it, it brings happiness into my life. And I'll bet it does the same for you. In that case then, the word otaku is just that: a word. However you choose to represent what you love, state it boldly. Even if you're the body pillow guy. Maybe we can't understand your passionate love for Makino-chan and her cottony folds, but by God, we'll do our best!

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Colette Bennett
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Filed under... #Japanator Original #otaku culture

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