Japan has many strange, weird and wonderful phenomenon amongst its people but the most well known is probably the Otaku (おたく/オタク).
Roughly translated, an Otaku is someone with a morbid or excessive interest in a particular niche subject. In the UK, such sort of people are called anoraks, and in the US, nerds. Anoraks and nerds are normal people who just have a great fascination with a particular theme or interest and develop a vast amount of knowledge at their fingertips about it, like trainspotters, sports statistics or Star Trek.
They will go to great lengths to pursue their hobby.
However, while anoraks and nerds are regarded as relatively harmless and just sad, in Japan, otakus can have a very negative connotation. They were regarded as shy, hopeless people who could not relate to real life but were otherwise harmless, until 1989 when Tsutomu Miyazaki was arrested for the abduction and murder of 4 schoolgirls in Saitama and Tokyo. The media dubbed him “The Otaku Murderer” and the negative connotation has been attached to the Otaku community ever since. While not always justified, once the public`s perception has been shaped, it is always rather difficult to change this view.
In Japan, the Otaku subculture mainly centres around animeアニメ and manga漫画 paraphernalia. It all began in the 1980s, when the rapid economic growth of the Japanese economy left many individuals unable to cope with the demands of such growth and resigning themselves to being social outcasts in such a new world. The growth of this subculture also coincided with the boom of the anime industry. As their interests diversified, the Otaku world became more complex and its denizens could be found in anime, manga, camera, automobile, idol and electronics. In 2005, the Nomura Research Institute divided the Otaku community into 12 groups.
The word Otaku is derived from a Japanese term for another person’s house or family (お宅, otaku). This word is often used figuratively, as an honorific second-person pronoun. In this usage, its literal translation is “you”. There are many claims as to how the term arose. Some claim it was created by humourist and essayist Akio Nakamori, others assert it came from animators Haruhiko Mikimoto and Shoji Kawamori. Because the misuse of the word indicated social awkwardness, Nakamori used the word to label the fans of this subculture when he wrote a series of articles in the 1980s called `An Investigation of “Otaku” (『おたく』の研究 “Otaku” no Kenkyū)` for a manga appealing to those with a lolita complex. Kaichiro Morikawa, an author and professor at Meiji University, identified this as the origin of the word in contemporary usage.
In modern Japan, Otaku can relate to a fan of any particular them or topic, hobby or form of entertainment. People here see and judge Otaku for their behaviour and as people unable to relate to reality.
Professor Morikawa of Meiji University identifies the subculture as distinctly Japanese, a product of its school system and society. Japanese schools have a class structure of their own which functions as a caste system, but its clubs are an exception to the social hierarchy. Inside these clubs, a student’s interests will be recognised and nurtured, catering to the interests of otaku.
Sadly, the vertical structure of Japanese society identifies the value of individuals by their success. Up until the late 1980s, unathletic and unattractive males focused on academics, hoping to secure a good job and marry to raise their social standing. Those who were unable to succeed socially focused instead on their interests, often carrying on into adulthood, with their lifestyle centering on those interests. This furthered the creation of the otaku subculture.
The 1989 “Otaku Murderer” case gave a negative connotation to the term from which its fans have not fully recovered. The usage of “otaku”, however, is used for teasing or self-deprecation, but the unqualified term remains negative.
There have been some positive news about the Otaku subculture, however. Author Hiroki Azuma, in his book `Otaku`, observed that between 2001 and 2007, the otaku forms and markets quite rapidly won social recognition in Japan. In 2003, film producer and director, and animation and manga artist Hayao Miyazaki, won the Academy Award for his film, Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami won international recognition for his otaku-like designs. During the 2004 International Architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale, the Japanese pavilion featured “Otaku”.
In 2013, a Japanese study of 137,734 people found that 42.2% self-identified themselves as a type of otaku. This study suggests that the stigma of the word has vanished, and the term has been embraced by many.
Ground Zero for the Otaku subculture has been identified as the Akihabara district of Tokyo. Here, you will find maid cafes which feature waitresses dressed up or acting like maids or anime characters.
The area also has dozens of shops specialising in anime, manga, figurines, card games, retro video games and other collectible items related to the subculture. Also popular but less well-known is Otome Road in Ikebukuro, another district of Tokyo.
In the Otaku subculture, there are different types. Apart from the more well-known kind related to anime and manga, there are Fujoshi(腐女子, literally “rotten girl”) otaku. These are female fans of yaoi, which focuses on homosexual male relationships. Reki-jo(歴女) are female otaku who are interested in Japanese history. Akiba-kei 秋葉系 is a slang term meaning “Akihabara-style” and applies to those familiar with Akihabara’s culture. Wotagei or Otagei (ヲタ芸 or オタ芸), is a type of cheering and dancing otaku who are fans of Japanese idols that is part of Akiba-kei. Other terms, such as Itasha (痛車 literally “painful car), describe Otaku-owned vehicles which are decorated with fictional characters.
The Nomura Research Institute (NRI) has made two major studies into otaku, the first in 2004 and a revised study with a more specific definition in 2005. The 2005 study defines twelve major fields of otaku interests – manga (Japanese comics) was the largest, Idol otaku were the next largest group, Travel otaku, PC otaku, Video games otaku, Automobile otaku and Animation (anime) otaku. The remaining five categories include Mobile IT equipment otaku, Audio-visual equipment otaku, Camera otaku, Fashion otaku and Railway otaku.
While often sneered in public, there is no denying the economic impact of the Otaku subculture.
A study suggests that sales of the objects that inspire Moe萌え – such as comic books, video games, and anime DVDs – have become so great that their positive impact on the Japanese economy can no longer be ignored. Moe is a Japanese slang word that refers to feelings of strong affection mainly towards characters in anime, manga, and video games. Otakus have a strong penchant for amassing huge collections of the products they like and this interest has seen a huge upswing in recent times. They are also willing to spend large amounts of money doing so. Nomura Research Institute in August 2004 put the number of otaku in Japan at 2.85 million, accounting for a market estimated at ¥290 billion
($2.5 billion at ¥110 to the dollar at the time). In April 2005, the Hamagin Research Institute reckoned the market for moe-related content was worth ¥88.8 billion ($807 million) in 2003.
The Hamagin survey was based on only three types of content – comics, DVDs/videos, and video games, so this may be only part of the story. One economic analyst estimates that if products and services related to moe are included, such as character goods, figurines, trading cards, and the maid cafes, then the market is on the scale of at least ¥2 trillion ($18 billion).
So, the Otaku generation have managed to turn themselves from being a group of people that the mainstream Japanese turned their noses at to an economic powerhouse that the financial industry pays close attention to. In the past, otakus had almost always been men. However, nowadays, an increasing number of women are being attracted to the feelings of moe and the financial clout of the otaku subculture will ensure they are a group who have to be taken seriously.