What’s the difference between a “passion” and an “obsession?” What turns one into the other? It’s not a cut-and-dried, objective thing like how a chemical compulsion defines an “addiction.” The difference between “passion” and “obsession” is all in how we use words.
Words have not only meaning, but connotation. That is to say, if we want to portray something as bad, we’ll use a different word than when we want to portray something as good or neutral. “Nationalism” becomes “jingoism,” “appealing to” someone becomes “pandering to” them, and “passion” becomes “obsession.”
Among elements of fandom whose business is shaming people for liking the wrong media, “obsession” is one of many tools in the tool belt. “You like this thing too much” is a common mantra of those who can’t handle positivity toward things they can only see as negative. It’s what happens when the compulsion to point out flaws overrides the desire to appreciate the ways in which we enjoy things.
“How could anyone enjoy something that’s so flawed?!”
And then when someone expresses passion for whatever that thing is, they must be obsessed.
We portray “obsession” as irrational passion. Where we understand where passion comes from, we fail (or refuse) to understand where obsession comes from. As a result, when people encounter fan behaviours that they don’t engage in and don’t understand for whatever reason, it’s easy to write it off as an “obsession,” an irrational, impossible-to-understand passion.
Part of the negative portrayal of otaku by the Western anime fandom revolves around the difference between passion and obsession. To a fandom that’s relatively late to the party when it comes to activities such as figure collecting, dakimakura appreciation, and maid café patronage, it’s easier to dismiss those whose passion drives them to buy $250 1:4-scale anime girl figures as simply “obsessed” than it is to try and understand what fuels that passion.
Clinging to the concept of “obsession” to explain away misunderstood or disliked fandom behaviours only serves to drive a wedge between fans of differing stripes. Not only that, but it fundamentally doesn’t represent how otaku do things. It creates a false portrayal of people who engage with media in certain ways as voracious, indiscriminate consumers who just want more, more, more, with no regard for their health, wallet, or image to others.
In reality, what appears to many as otaku “obsession” manifests more as a disciplined, principled approach to life. Because the ideals otaku chase are so fundamentally impossible to truly achieve, acting out of obsession would only drive them into the ground. Passion, on the other hand, is sustainable. It’s a perpetual motion device, a motor that can drive the otaku lifestyle indefinitely.
It’s the difference between:
The young fan in their late teens spending their bottom dollar on plushies at their first anime convention.
The veteran in their late twenties or early thirties, with a room full of expensive high-quality anime figures.
One is young and obsessed, while the other has clearly let their passion drive them to create a life where buying a lot of expensive figures is possible and sustainable. The young and obsessed either burn out fairly quickly, or let their obsession eventually give way to passion and a more reasoned, deliberate method of consumption.
Calling other fans “obsessed” is what people do when do or like things that are alien to them. People fear what they don’t understand, and rather than make an effort to understand what makes those other fans tick, they’d rather dismiss and alienate.
Because it’s easier to do that than to accept that some people do things differently.