Otaku Diaries Part 2: Otaku! Threat or Menace?

Otakudom is all that I am.

The story in this portion of the Otaku Diaries starts almost at the very genesis of the project itself. When we sent out an initial call for people to participate in the Otaku Dairies, one of the first places we put up a request was in the forums at MyAnimeList. Several people spoke up saying that while they were interested in the project they felt that is was detrimental to call the project the “Otaku Diaries” because of the negativity surrounding the word “otaku.” This negative reaction threw me off guard. I was aware that there was a growing backlash against the English definition of otaku but I never realized it was that strong on the Internet. This incident along with several other conversations encouraged us to add a few question about how the participants of the survey view the word “otaku.” We asked the participants what their thoughts were on the word, if they considered themselves otaku, would they admit to being otaku to others, and would they be more or less willing to date or be friends with people who called themselves otaku.

. . . I tend to be sympathetic to the otaku personality traits that are often thought of as negative, and of course while “otaku” covers a wide range of interests, it probably means there are more things the potential friend/date and I could enjoy doing together.

I think of it as a word that Japanophiles apply to themselves to sound even more “different.”

Even though we called this the Otaku Diaries, it was interesting to see how everyone reacted to the word “otaku.” As you can see, 1/4 of the people who answered our call proclaimed themselves not otaku even with us leading the charge of calling the participants in our survey just that. I, too, was thrown by many complaints early on in the titling of this experiment but some of that can be chalked up to the Internet being a place where people love to argue. Some but not all. From many answers, we can tell that people are becoming more aware of the history of the word “otaku” in Japan. However, be that as it may the majority of people still found the word positive in their current state or were atleast middling. Afterall, “otaku” is used quite frequently in American anime fandom, just look around, we just got back from Otakon, many of us read OtakuUSA, and you can even find a date on OtakuBooty. I think you’d be hard pressed to say that the use of “otaku” in these instances is being bandied about in a negative manner.

I used to think it was a positive label, now I’m convinced otherwise. I’ve yet to see a convincing argument that would make me change my mind. Otakudom is often synonymous with social ineptitude and derangement.

It shows how dedicated you are to what you love. Although there are some who have made the term less than desirable, I think the term should be associated with good.

Loanwords are an interesting thing. Usually a language utilizes a foreign word because the word fills a niche in the language adopting the word but on occasion when a word is taken up by another language the meaning changes. Some times this shift in definition is subtle and other times it is a complete reinvention of the word. “Otaku” is is a clear example of a subtle but profound shift in the meaning. To make a very long story short, “otaku” usually means hardcore anime fan in specific and dedicated fan in general. The main difference between its meaning in America and Japan is that the Japanese see it more as a mark of shame with a distinctly negative connotation and Americans generally see it as a badge of honor with a distinctly positive connotation. The majority in this instance still considers “otaku” to be a positive word. Though several people did mention that at one time or another they had had only a rose-colored view of the word but have since stricken the word from their vocabulary when talking about themselves.

. . . I’ve never felt the Americanized version of the term applied to me . . . but the label itself fits me fairly well.

When I think of otaku, I think of the definition that seems to be focused here: a strong anime fan. I feel like there’s already a connection made by sharing the same interests, so it would be easier to relate to someone who calls themselves an otaku by that meaning.

I don’t describe myself as an otaku anymore. Am I a fan, yes. Am I a big fan, yes. Am I obsessed, no.

“Otaku” is a rare word that has become defined by the person saying it in this survey. Some people even mentioned that based on who was using the word “otaku” and the way in which it was said can make it an insult. But at the same time there is a very real chasm dividing people about it. Many said with 100% certainly that it was a badge of honor, proof that you were a proud and knowledgeable fan. And then some participants insisted that they are just a “fan” and the word “otaku” holds no place in themselves. But is fan not short for fanatic, a word synonymous with extreme devotion and obsession? Just as that word has taken on a more broad appeal (though we certainly see news reports of “crazed fans”), maybe the word “otaku” in the anime community will continue to diversify itself.

Being called an otaku is an insult. It’s not something you want to be. At the same time, I am one. I wish I wasn’t, but I am.

I don’t ever use the word otaku to describe myself and rarely use it to describe others—to me it is derogatory, as it is in Japan.

There’s no shame to me in using it as a badge of honor to explain what and who you are. So using it in a description might even make me more inclined to meet or date them because it means at least a shared interest in that sort of thing.

Of note is that several people mentioned they found the word “otaku” negative but would still attribute it to themselves and even mention it in casual conversation. Essentially they are in so deep that they could not hide it. Contributors to the survey listed co-workers as the most common group of people they were reluctant to mention their anime hobby to. There were a wide variety of reasons from shame to not talking about their personal lives at work. Most people either assumed the people they would not tell about their anime fandom either did not care, would not get it, or would look down on them. This is hardly limited to anime and manga, in general people are more likely to hide their hobbies if society in general labels those activities as nerdy. Everyone on the survey would tell someone else they knew who was into anime though. This goes to show why anime conventions and Internet sites about anime are so popular. Once people feel they are safe, they are willing open up. I think people want to share their fandom with others but have been burnt in the past and therefore guard what they see as vulnerabilities.

I do identify myself as an anime fan . . . online fairly readily . . . and in real life it’s fairly obvious, too. . . . Basically if you’ve met me for more than 30-minutes, I’ve probably made myself clear.

I don’t really like to share much about myself in general let alone what nerdy hobbies I am into.

It’s also important to mention that the age range of people who kept their fandom private varied greatly. Many people have attributed an overzealous nature to younger fans, but here we saw that even those still in high school or recently graduated had just as many qualms with the word “otaku” and/or sharing that they were indeed anime fans with the rest of their social circle. Equally telling were people saying they would befriend someone calling themselves “otaku” and also many inferring that they would know from the start they would have something in common with the person. This was rather refreshing to me as I’ve mentioned I see a splintering in fandom. In earlier days if you met someone who liked anime you would more than likely have some common ground, but now with so many choices out there many feel liking anime is not enough to build on. Here we found the inclination to be very much alive.

I haven’t told my friends, I’m worried they either wouldn’t know what it is or just judge me. . . .

I have used the word “otaku” to describe myself. I usually have to explain what that is to my family and friends. . . . Despite its offenses in Japan, the word “otaku” has come to represent a group that I identify with in America.

I still think that a majority of anime fandom still has a decent self image. Most people who answered the survey saw at least some benefit of being an anime fan. They had some amount of pride in enjoying what they liked. Yes, there were some people who saw their fandom as an albatross around their necks but overall people saw it and something that enriched their lives even if it was just by being something entertaining that passed the time.

There were a lot of people who answered plainly, and proudly, “I am an otaku.” This seems to correlate with a continuing movement in the U.S. of geeks/nerds/dorks/what have you coming together and embracing the words that were once hurled at them. Taking back words is a way to show strength and also show you can accept yourself. As we explore self-image further in subsequent posts you’ll see what we have seen, probably much like the rest of the world, people’s self-worth lies somewhere in the middle ground. But just looking at the results here, that should be apparent.

The question that interests me most coming out of these particular results is how would anime fans answer this same question 5 or 10 years from now? How much is this movement to return otaku back to its original Japanese meaning going to catch on? Or is this movement a passing fad that will mostly be forgotten by all but the most die-hard advocates? Also some Japanese fans and creators have noted they enjoy that English fandom has a mostly positive spin on the word otaku. What effect will the constantly changing definition of the word in Japan have on the English speaking fandom? How strong is the idea for people to take the word back in Japan? Only time will truly tell us the answer.

Look for a new Otaku Diaries Post
the first Monday of every month!

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