There’s a cycle that plays out in anime fandom that, on the surface, looks benign, and mostly is benign. Despite that, however, there are subtle issues with it that bother me in that it tends to prevent a real discussion from occurring.
A young anime fan, one who’s just newly really into anime, might refer to themselves as an “otaku,” up until a more experienced fan tells them that “otaku” is actually a derogatory term in Japan, and that they shouldn’t self-identify as one; that the term “otaku” is unlike the term “geek” or “nerd” here in the US, in that there’s still a significant stigma attached to it and it hasn’t quite been “reclaimed” by the community that was often saddled with that label like “geek” and “nerd” have.
Most anime fans will take that at face value, and therein lays the problem. Plenty of fans are aware that the perception of the term “otaku” is different in Japan than it is here, but few go so far as to investigate why that is, or even if that assessment is really accurate.
In the modern Western fandom, and especially on the internet, there’s been something of an effort to give the term a stigma similar to what it is purported to have in Japan: That of an overly-obsessive, anti-social louse who does nothing but mindlessly consume media and indulge in fringe interests.
But what is “otaku,” really? Who are “otaku?” What kind of people are they? We all understand that they’re supposedly a blight on the fandom, and the term is supposedly a pejorative in Japan, but how far have the people pushing that perspective really gone into investigating the reality?
What is “Otaku?”
So, what does otaku mean? The closest words we have in English really are “geek” and “nerd,” and, while that works from a definition standpoint, the word’s development follows a different path. The first instance of “otaku” being used to describe fans is attributed to a 1983 article in “Manga Burikko” (A lolicon hentai magazine) by Akio Nakamori. Originally, “otaku” was intended as a derisive term. Nakamori chose that word because “crazies,” “fanatics,” or “introverts” didn’t quite cut it to him for describing the weird, awkward, antisocial people he saw at Comic Market (A.K.A. “Comiket,” a semiannual fan-works or “doujinshi” convention). “Otaku,” in particular, was chosen because, when anime and manga fans socialized with each other at events like Comic Market, they would use the formal-sounding second-person pronoun “otaku” to refer to each other, rather than more familiar pronouns.
Fast-forward to 1989. The arrest of serial child murderer Tsutomu Miyazaki launches a news media frenzy. When photographs of his room surface, he is dubbed “The Otaku Murderer,” as his apartment was full of pornography, manga, and thousands of videotapes.
The media whirlwind surrounding Miyazaki’s arrest helped fuel a new public perception of otaku. The manga, anime, and horror films Miyazaki watched and read were thought to inspire him in his murder of four grade-school girls.
Despite media vilification, however, “otaku” media continued its growth, up through the “moe boom” of the mid-2000s. A study conducted by the Hamagin Research Institute estimated the 2003 market for moe products to be at a worth of 88.8 billion Yen (Roughly $851 million at today’s exchange rate). The Hamagin study only factored in anime, manga, and videogames, however. Factoring in not only anime, manga, and videogames, but also figures, character goods, and services such as maid cafes, one analyst estimated the actual worth of the moe industry at 2 trillion Yen (Just over $19 billion).
Those are significant numbers. As a market force, otaku cannot be ignored. Despite the antisocial tendencies, awkwardness, and negative media attention, otaku’s “collector” nature and love for media and merchandise make them fantastic consumers and easy to market to. Socially, otaku retain their reputation for anti-sociability, but when it comes to the anime, manga, and character goods markets, otaku are at the top and their spending power determines what succeeds and fails.