Continued from Part 5
The Pathologization of Otaku
Beyond a confirmation bias lies a more insidious reason behind the dynamic surrounding the use of the word “otaku” in the Western anime fandom. For years, it’s been seen as acceptable and sometimes necessary to pathologize otaku, even in the face of a growing body of research that challenges or downright upturns the generally accepted negative view of otaku.
Many of the negative points often made about otaku revolve around personal defects, character flaws, and insecurities: Otaku fall in love with anime girls because they’re afraid of real women; they collect figures and sleep with hug pillows because they need a surrogate girlfriend; they’re right-wing/socially-conservative; they hold misogynistic views on women, informed by the anime they consume; and so on.
So much of the commentary surrounding otaku occurs without an otaku voice in the mix, because so much of the commentary surrounding otaku only serves to heavily imply that their input is unwelcome and discourages their participation in larger discussions of otaku culture.
That it’s seen as acceptable to have conversations surrounding the culture that otaku have built while excluding otaku from those very conversations is bad enough, but ostracizing otaku and refusing to understand their perspective serves to push them further into the fringes in the minds of Western fans, causing a skewed, misinformed outlook that propagates in the minds of other fans and leaves hateful fans free to portray “otaku” as the bane of all anime: Right-wing, sexist, social-misfit, creepy fat male losers who can’t get a date and fawn over idols and hug pillows as a replacement for real women.
It’s a disgraceful way to talk about a group of people, especially without listening to their input. In the face of pile upon pile of evidence that otaku aren’t a simplistic group of obsessive mouth-breathers, many anime fans, including journalists and other opinion leaders, insist on perpetuating harmful stereotypes, reinforced by personal biases, outdated perspectives, and cynical works of anime and manga.
The Reclamation of “Otaku”
The desperation I see in some fans to cling to a perspective on otaku created by the Japanese news media of the early 1990s is disturbing to me. I’ve debated with people who take any example, however outdated or disproven by modern current events, to portray “otaku” (the word) as an insult, and otaku (the people) as a pathogen within the anime community, dodging positive examples and portrayals like a VF-1 Valkyrie dodges missiles.
The problem is, it’s very easy, especially in the Western anime community, to portray modern Japanese otaku as bad because their habits seem so different from our own.
We live in a very cynical society. We put a lot of value on “blunt, biting criticism,” while not affording equal value to more positive commentary (Or, quite often, to the media being criticized in the first place). The cynic is regarded as being more experienced, more worldly. Indeed, anyone with sufficient experience in a topic will no doubt have experience with the negative aspects of that topic, so one whose outlook has been soured by negative experiences must no doubt be wiser than one who approaches his or her chosen subject matter with enthusiasm and passion.
Too much enthusiasm is dismissed as “obsession” (Especially when that enthusiasm is directed at something not deemed acceptable). The question of “How much is ‘too much’?” is, of course, arbitrary, leading to many fans hiding their interest in anime when in public (“Hiding your powerlevel”).
To walk around Akihabara and unashamedly shop for anime paraphernalia (potentially of an erotic nature) is alien to many fans in the West. Such an unabashed display of one’s “obsession” with cartoons and cartoon characters is weird. Weird people, weird things, and weird concepts are remarkably easy to ridicule and vilify.
The magical thing is, however, that it is impossible to shame those who are unashamed about what they do. The otaku community survived the media witch hunt of the early 1990s and came out of it stronger and growing. They do what they want and don’t care what people think. While the global news media vilifies them for being in-part responsible for Japan’s declining birthrate, they continue to play Love Plus. While Western anime opinion leaders vilify them for in-part causing the proliferation of moé and harem anime, they continue to buy figures and hug pillow covers.
This is why, despite ridicule and shaming, “otaku” will likely never again be the pejorative term that it was decades ago. Their priorities are different. They’re concerned with their own happiness, rather than the appearance they put forth toward others.
We can learn a lot from otaku. Daily in the anime fandom, I see the sentiment that enthusiasm and obsession are bad things. That being too into something is as bad, if not worse, than cutting people down for liking the wrong show. People are shamed for owning anime hug pillow covers, or for watching hentai.
The solution is the otaku mentality.
Your hobbies are your hobbies because they make you happy. They’re not there as a show-and-tell to others. Embrace what makes you happy and dive in head-first, because you never know what might come out of it.
And, with the embracing of the otaku mentality, should come a respect for those who established it: The otaku themselves. We need to stop lying about otaku. Stop scapegoating them. Stop pretending that the term is an insult just to fuel the egos of a few jaded fans. Otaku have a lot of value to add to the conversation. To dismiss their perspective as we’ve been doing is a terrible disservice to the discussion surrounding otaku culture. The conversation deserves better, the community deserves better, and the otaku deserve better.
“Otaku” isn’t a dirty word.
Spread it around.