+49 (0) 7721 9896-96 ✔ Delivery time 3-5 working days

Otaku, Japan's Identities in Transition

Otaku, Japan\'s Identities in Transition | ORYOKI

Japan has a deeply rooted history full of traditions and myths. Modern Japan is pure futurism, breaking with everyday structures. It is traversed by figures who peacefully rebel and carve out new freedoms, both in play and in real life, using expression as their tool.

Otaku - A concept of silent revolution

More and more young and older Japanese individuals are navigating between two worlds. One adheres to the prevailing norms of Japanese society, while the other disrupts them. Increasingly, people are transforming within the everyday flow of things into an Otaku (お宅 おたく; pronounced Owtakoo). Coined by Nakamori Akio in 1983, the term itself has undergone a transformation. Fueled by the pursuit of freedom, its negative connotation has given way to a positive one. Otaku is translated in some media as home and originally symbolized obsession and associated home isolation.

One might think of the Hikikomori at this point, but unlike them, the early Otaku, originally predominantly male, voluntarily stayed at home. Here, in sheer obsession, they pursued their hobby: the fandom of Anime (アニメ あにめ = Japanese animation), such as Gainax, one of Japan's most famous production companies, and Manga (漫画 まんが = Japanese comics). Through images, books, quizzes, series, DVDs, Blu-rays, video games, the internet, Twitter, and more, they indulged in their preferences and did not perceive their self-imposed isolation as negative or burdensome but as a retreat into a different reality. Surrounded by posters and fan items like T-shirts, Otaku girls and boys escaped from overwork, unemployment, and economic worries that threatened their societal existence. A backdrop that still persists today while the dimensions of Otaku life have long exceeded the real world. Otaku is thus distinguished from a simple anime enthusiast, whose consumption is limited and does not further influence their identity.

Hikikomori|Blog read in Japan-Magazine »

The immediate connection to the serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki in 1989 has also long overshadowed the term. His extensive collection of anime and manga earned him the nickname Otaku Killer. The extraordinary nature of the quadruple murder of girls, which included necrophilia, cannibalism, and vampirism, suggested a connection to this obsession, which was never professionally confirmed. A more plausible explanation for the crimes is the mental state in which Miyazaki found himself. However, for the media of that time, a quicker and less complex explanation was needed. Technology and what it enables are still all too gladly used as a scapegoat.

Shadows of the past that have long since faded away with new conceptual differentiations, such as that of the Hikikomori. With each passing year and the colorful abundance of Otakus across the country and beyond its borders, the negative connotation diminishes, along with its stigma. The Otaku has flourished and, in a unique way, lives out the deep-rooted myths of an entire culture, which is why broad acceptance is now extended to them. This is supported by the increasing visibility since the 1990s, which brought more and more fans to the subculture and redefined the term Otaku. Today, it refers to a person who has shifted their fan and fantasy world into reality and openly lives it out. Someone who proudly stands out, embracing their uniqueness and creating their own happiness.

Personality development instead of manga fandom

Describing Otakus as merely big or even extreme fans would be too narrow in this context. The difference between the two categories is that the latter revolves exclusively around material goods, while the former possesses broad knowledge within their area of interest and is capable of playfully engaging with it. Creative expression is essential here and highly valued in the community. Otakus often give wings to the vision of their idols, such as Hayao Miyazaki, interpreting works like Sword Art Online or Sailor Moon. They transform art instead of just consuming it, a practice known in Japan as Nijisousaku (二次創作 = secondary creation). In this case, it's not a matter of copyright infringement, as the subculture has gained broad acceptance and is now a integral part of Japanese culture. Otakus also enjoy creating their own works, such as Dojinshi (同人誌 = magazines), made for like-minded individuals and self-published. Being an Otaku, therefore, means not only participating socially but also being part of an art form and engaging in active exchange, i.e., lived interaction. In this context, the translation "your home" or "your family" is much more accurate. Hence, those who disappear into a different world within their own four walls are, in a sense, returning home in their encounter with themselves. That is inner freedom by definition.

Young Japanese Cosplay

In the jungle of terminology

Expressing such freedom are places like Akihabara or Nakano Broadway in Tokyo. With their maid cafes, live conventions, game centers, and diverse events, they epitomize the versatility of modern Otakus today. They are no longer secluded manga and anime junkies but encompass individual and public expressions of passion, from funny and aesthetic to frivolous. Some immerse themselves in films (Anime Otakus), others in comics (Manga Otakus) or games (Video Game Otakus), while some find enjoyment in collecting figures (Figure Otaku) or similar. Others breathe life into their favorite characters through cosplays (コスプレ こすぷれ = dressing up). Here, people don elaborate costumes to embody different identities (Cosplayers or Cosplay Otakus) and encounter each other at conventions. In some cases, it's not the characters they cling to, but their voice actors, who have enchanted Seiyu Otakus literally with their voices. Wota or Idol Otakus, on the other hand, are those that are probably most familiar to us in the West. They favor pop idols and attend their concerts and meet-and-greets. The boundaries between these different types are fluid, allowing their dynamic borders to be rediscovered continually.

Essentially, every intensive engagement with a specific theme constitutes the Otaku world, whose landscape of interests is multifaceted and largely value-free. They celebrate with wild passion, together and not lonely, the freedom to be oneself. This circumstance triggers international enthusiasm, attracts tourists, and draws people who want to escape the Western world to find themselves in the Otaku mecca. External freedom arises in action.

Cosplay girl with pink hair and pink fur ears
Pikachu mascot
Anime plastic figures
Cosplay girl with blue hair

Reservations and value judgments

Anyone can and may be an Otaku. However, non-Japanese individuals in this category who have a strong interest in Japanese culture are often referred to by outsiders as Weeaboos or Weebs, originally derived from Wapanese, a combination of white and japanese. The meaning is somewhat negative. Non-experts use the term to describe the distinctiveness of the subgroup, which is perceived with some unease by some. This is similar to the former use of Western-influenced terms like Nerd or Geek, categories with which Otaku is often equated. These subgroups have also experienced an upward trend in their meaning.

Also framed negatively is the open handling of so-called Hentais, the pornographic version of classic manga and anime art. The sexualized form of idols is kept more private. Sex remains private, and its public display is viewed critically and by some as perverse. This is for various reasons, one of which could be of a feminist nature. Female characters are portrayed in an exaggeratedly proportioned and fundamentally girlish manner, i.e., childish, cute, lovable, and yet attractive, which is referred to in the Japanese language as kawaii. Circumstances that can be deemed objectionable. However, Boys' Love mangas or animes are also notorious, leading to their Otakus being called Fujoshi (腐女子 = corrupted woman).

Clouds on the horizon of new possibilities

The shadows of newfound freedom in creative expression become evident when you see real people drifting into the virtual. Some even forget their own physicality, merging with manga girls in unreal love relationships and taking them on real dates with cookies in the park. They hold conversations with them as with real people. Often, the Otaku here regresses to their own adolescence; their virtual girlfriend is not older. Dreams are being lived out. The teenage relationship is integrated into present-day life, actively shaping it.

One background for this form of escapism can, as interviews show, be, on the one hand, the strict societal norm of the obligation to marry, which comes with real-world relationships. Virtuality means freedom from commitments and societal pressure that one does not want to withstand. Also, because actual family life is associated with economic success that many Japanese believe they cannot achieve. Or because the multiple burdens of household, motherhood, and career for Japanese women are so significant that they want to protect themselves from it. This leads to them no longer meeting potential partners in the real world, significantly reducing the market supply and creating a domino effect. On the other hand, traumas caused by bullying in adolescence and adulthood or the social phenomenon of Hikikomori are also depicted in the media. Love through a click makes affection and closeness possible again. The escape into the virtual orbit means liberation from external and internal expectations, from various fears. Against this background, the marriage and birth rates in Japan (2%) have drastically decreased. Otakus fuel demographic change. Even within real marriages, some Japanese men and women escape into unreal relationships, forsaking real touch for virtual kisses. A relatively new phenomenon in light of this development is virtual weddings, where Otakus dedicate themselves to their video game and app characters until death do them part.

The phenomenon of Otaku girls and boys is based on the economic challenges and overwhelm of a country that, on its way to modernization, is stuck in old norms and values. The question remains whether the new lack of contact in Japanese society will lead to new alienation or whether it will dissolve in the individual worlds of the Otakus, enabling real encounters.

Japanese murals View now »
Geisha | Blog article read in Japan-Magazine »
Newsletterbadge Newsletterpfeil

Newsletter subscribe now

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to be informed!!

News about products, manufacturers & designers
and cultural topics relating Japan

Japanese Culture


Our newsletter will inform you about
exciting new posts about the
Japanese culture!

Sign up now!

The latest   blog entries