What is Otaku culture?

Otaku culture has conquered the world in just a few decades. It has become one of the main components of Japan’s cultural radiance. Despite this resounding success, few people are able to clearly define the contours of this neologism and the reasons that drive individuals from all over the world to adopt a lifestyle in which Japanese popular culture plays an important part. That’s why I’ve written this article, in which I cover as much of the subject as I can.

Cet article couvre la plupart des questions que vous pouvez vous poser sur la culture otaku. Il est donc très long. J’ai créé cette table de matière pour vous aider à naviguer à l’intérieur de ce texte. Si votre question n’est pas abordée sur cette page, n’hésitez pas à écrire un commentaire à la fin de l’article, je tacherai d’y répondre (si je le peux).

Definition of “otaku”

“Otaku” comes from a (rather outdated) Japanese honorific term that could qualify a household or family. By extension, it can also be used as a second-person singular or plural pronoun.

Today, the definition of the word “Otaku” has totally changed. The term is now used to designate people who tend to have an obsession with a specific part of popular culture. The preoccupations of these individuals are mainly focused on media such as manga, anime and video games. In short, activities that are mainly carried out at home.

The term was first used in the sense in which it is still used today, in 1983. It was journalist Akio Nakamori who first used it publicly in an article for Manga Burikko, a hentai magazine. But it turns out that the term was already being used privately by manga fans.

How do you spell “otaku” in Japanese?

The change in the word’s meaning also had an impact on its written transcription. The honorific pronoun used to be written “お宅” with the character 宅 meaning “house”. The new definition is mostly written with kanas, the Japanese phonetic characters. Thus, we obtain two new transcriptions:

  • おたく in hiragana.
  • オタク in katakana.

There are no differences between the last two versions. They are therefore totally interchangeable.

A word borrowed from many languages

This word of Japanese origin is commonly used on the web by speakers of other languages, including English and French. The concept of otaku has no real equivalent in most of these languages, which explains this almost systematic borrowing.

The closest terms in English are “geek”, “nerd” or “anorak” (the latter is only used in Great Britain). As for Spanish speakers, they sometimes use the word “friki” to designate people with obsessive passions.

Despite the fact that the word “otaku” is often used on forums and occasionally by journalists, its definition is not clearly established. As a result, the term can be used both positively by those who belong to the movement, and pejoratively by its detractors.

What’s life like for an otaku?

Without going into the stereotypes of the recluse at home, the otaku has passions that can be realized indoors. This means they can spend a large part of their free time at home without getting bored.

Otakus’ favorite activities always have a cultural aspect, since the media they enjoy most are (Japanese) video games, anime and manga, or music.Not only do otakus consume these products in their spare time, they also take time out to learn about upcoming cultural products and reviews of new releases.

The most avid collectors can spend hours searching for products to add to their treasures on specialized websites and retail outlets.

Otaku communities

Whatever their profile, they’re guaranteed to find information of interest to them on niche forums. There are many subreddits dedicated to topics related to otaku culture.

Even if most of the activities performed by an otaku can be carried out at home, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this type of individual has no real social relationships. In fact, there are many events in Japan and the rest of the world that reflect this culture. These include conventions such as Tokyo’s Comiket, Paris’ Japan Expo, and to some extent San Diego’s Comi-Con. These gatherings are moments when otakus can share their passions with other initiates and laymen alike.

A group of amateur photographers capture a cosplayer at Comiket. Photo by Bastien Mosur for Nipponrama.

This differentiates them from hikikomori, another Japanese phenomenon, where people cloister themselves in their rooms for very long periods. These victims often consume the same types of cultural products. This explains the confusion between these two terms, which describe totally different profiles.

The main passions of otakus

As we said earlier, the definition of the term “otaku” is not clearly defined. That’s why there’s no such thing as a typical otaku profile. The otaku phenomenon encompasses very different obsessions with media that have nothing to do with each other.

Making a list of all the passions that drive otakus seems an impossible mission. That’s why I’m only focusing on the most popular media in this section. I invite you to add to this list, if you wish, by leaving a comment to this article.

Anime and Manga

When it was first coined, the term “Otaku” specifically referred to the most obstinate fans of manga and their anime adaptations. This is still the case today. The manga industry is regularly linked to otaku culture, which it feeds with fan service and derivative products.

Many otakus form fan circles to produce works inspired by their favorite universes. These groups are called “Doujin”. They regularly present their work at “doujinshi” conventions, the best-known of which is Tokyo’s Comiket.

These fan circles also feed the shelves of hentai, erotic or pornographic manga and light novels inspired by popular works. Doujins develop romantic relationships between characters from the same manga or from different series. These romances can be homosexual, in which case the works are categorized in the Yaoi (gay) and Yuri (lesbian) genres.

Some otakus suffer from “Nijikon”. They have more visual and sentimental attraction to anime and manga characters than to physical people.

Video games

Like manga, video games are among the favorite activities of otakus in Japan. In fact, many video game series are inspired by anime, particularly in the typically Japanese game genres. For example, the character designs of J-RPGs and fighting games are often inspired by manga.

Japanese cities are also overrun with arcades. These are meeting places for hardcore gamers to indulge their addiction to video games. It’s not uncommon to see gamers spending their days on arcade terminals trying to achieve perfect scores.

Idols

Abroad, Japanese popular music is best known for its idol groups made up of dozens of young girls. Even if J-Pop isn’t limited to this genre, it’s this type of formation that some otakus obsessively admire.

AKB48 is the archetypal watered-down idol group that obsesses tens of thousands of Japanese people with their often monotonous lives. The most assiduous fans escape their daily lives by listening to and following the lives of these (very) young singers.

Cosplay

Cosplay is regularly equated with otaku culture, since it is often inspired by Japanese works popular within this community. Otaku conventions are the best opportunity for cosplayers to show off their work and win the approval of fans of the original licenses.

Goodies

The companies that own the rights to the above-mentioned media have realized that it’s in their interest to offer a wide range of derivative products. After all, many otakus indulge their obsessions by collecting objects inspired by their favorite series. It’s not uncommon for these collections to invade their living spaces. You can easily find photos of otaku bedrooms overwhelmed by piles of goodies on the web.

These products can take many forms. Figurines representing manga or video game characters are the most common. But these media are also available in the form of clothing, plush toys, pins, etc.

Otakus with Nijikon have their “waifu” (favorite character) on their dakimakura. These objects are giant pillows adorned with a blanket representing their favorite character.

Idol fans often turn to photobooks or trading cards. The J-Pop industry pushes the envelope by offering singles or albums with multiple covers. This is particularly profitable as many fans buy duplicate products. One copy is intended to be used, while the other will remain in its original packaging forever.

Akihabara, otaku paradise

Akihabara is a district of Tokyo known to all otakus for fulfilling the dreams of anime, video game and idol fans. In addition to specialized computer stores, the area around Akihabara station is home to numerous stalls selling anime and video game goodies, as well as arcades and maid cafés.

The JPop group AKB48 takes its name from this district, as it is in “Akiba” that the famous idols give concerts in a theater totally dedicated to them.

The main street of Akihabara, Tokyo. Photo by Michaël da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.

All types of otakus can be found in this unique Tokyo neighborhood. This makes it an unmissable tourist destination for all fans of Japanese popular culture.

How do you become an otaku?

As with everything else, you’re not born an otaku, you become one. There are an infinite number of possible paths to falling into one of the obsessions we’ve listed above. But not everyone has the same chance of becoming an otaku. In fact, there are several predispositions.

Access to Japanese culture

To begin with, it’s undeniably easier to fall into this universe when you’re in Japan. Even if the manga industry isn’t on every street corner, as some foreigners fantasize, Japanese popular culture is inevitably more accessible in Japan than elsewhere.

But not all otakus are Japanese. Japanese manga and video games have captured the hearts of fans the world over. The spread of Japanese culture internationally has not been the same in every country.

The French case

In my native France, Japanese cartoons very quickly appeared on the schedules of national TV channels. At the end of the 70s, my parents were already watching Japanese series such as UFO Robot Grendizer (called “Goldorak” in France) or Captain Harlock (“Albator” in French) on their cathode-ray TV sets. In the 90s, my youth was lulled by the many anime shows broadcast on the now legendary Club Dorothée morning show. It was thanks to this program that I discovered Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon and Hokuto no Ken.

A tag featuring the main UFO Robot Grendizer mecha in Paris. Photo by Sunny Ripert.

This early broadcasting of Japanese works on TV is certainly one of the main reasons why France is now the world’s second biggest consumer of manga, behind Japan.

Thanks Internet

More generally, the Internet has played a major role in the spread of Japanese popular culture. Numerous international fan communities have sprung up on forums, Facebook groups and sharing sites. These fans succeeded in converting laymen to Japanese JPop, video games and animation.

The 2000s were the golden age of online piracy. It was very easy to share anime, Japanese dramas or manga scans, thanks to the work of fansubs, fan groups that translated Japanese works into other languages.

Legal streaming platforms and mass entertainment

In recent years, legal streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crunchyroll have facilitated the democratization of Japanese culture in many countries. Some of these web giants are even beginning to produce works inspired by Japanese pop culture. Netflix, for example, produces animated series like Castelvania and reality shows like Terrace House.

Japanese programs have never been so easily accessible. As in France, it’s this worldwide accessibility that explains the rise of Otaku culture beyond Japan’s borders.

Japanese manga and anime in the hearts of teenagers worldwide

Most foreign otakus become interested in Japanese culture when they are teenagers. The main reason for this is that manga publishers offer a wide range of works aimed at this age group.

Strangely enough, there are relatively few Western TV programs, books or comics aimed at this age group, compared to the size of this population.

The “Shonen” and “Shojo” styles of manga (and Japanese anime) tell stories about boys and girls in their teens. They deal with the problems faced by teenagers trying to understand their place in the world.

Japanese video games, a gateway accessible to all

Video games, another activity enjoyed by many teenagers, is a sector dominated by numerous Japanese companies. Nintendo, Sony and Sega produce the most popular video game consoles.

A store selling vintage video games in Akihabara.Photo by Michaël da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.

In addition, many Japanese publishers, including Square-Enix, Konami and Capcom, have produced successful series on each of these machines.Some of their games feature styles found nowhere else in the world, such as fighting games, rhythm games or J-RPGs.

So it’s only natural to consider the world of video games as one of the main gateways to otaku culture, and even Japanese culture in general. In any case, this is how I began to familiarize myself with Japan.

The differences between a weeaboo and an otaku

A weeaboo, also known as a kikoojap, is a person with an obsession for Japan and Japanese culture. These people idealize Japan to the point of questioning their own cultural identity.

Kikoojap are often the first to take offense at criticism directed at Japan, even when it is justified. Yet their attitude is often based on stereotypes conveyed by popular Japanese works.

Not all otakus share these attitudes. At least, they don’t define the otaku, who doesn’t necessarily have any interest in Japan outside the media he loves. Even so, there’s nothing to stop an individual from being both weeaboo and otaku.

I hope this article on otakus and their culture(s) has answered all your questions on the subject. If it hasn’t, or if you think an error has crept into this text, don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I’ll get back to you!

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