The Misconception of Otaku: East vs West Views of A Well Known Label

I'm an otaku. This is something I will fully and confidently admit to. I've loved anime and manga since I've been a kid and never even realized it. Yes, I was one of those children who watched Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc, etc. As I've grown older and learned more about anime, and Japan's culture in general, there's one fact that seems to still be misconstrued in the west and that is the label that I so confidently had given myself. While the term "otaku" places a label on western fans of anime and manga, Japan uses the term in a rather different, and almost insulting, context. Let's also not forget how otaku tend to be portrayed in the very same anime and manga that we love so dearly as there are two sides to that spectrum as well. Today, I wanted to clear up those misconceptions and discuss how Japan tends to portray the otaku stereotype that we've seem to come to know so well.

By definition, the word otaku, in Japan, means "people with obsessive interests, commonly the anime and manga fandom." This is the basic meaning that many people on both sides of the world can relate to. Some are of varying degrees more than others and we do also have other terms to describe different levels of otakudom such as the ever wonderful weeaboo, but the term otaku can summarize anime fans in general despite those varying levels. Now, as stated before, there is a darker side to this term that people outside of the fandom seem to have a version for, and one which Urban Dictonary also uses in order to define the term:

"Otaku is extremely negative in meaning as it is used to refer to someone who stays at home all the time and doesn't have a life (no social life, no love life, etc)." [Side note: Otaku is the honorific word for Taku (home) in Japanese] "Usually an otaku person has nothing better to do with their life so they pass the time by watching anime, playing videogamers, surfing the internet (otaku is also used to refer to a nerd/hacker/programmer). In the Western culture, people confuse otaku to be something positive like 'Guru'. If you think about it, it's not really good to be called a guru if it means you are a total loser who can't socialize with other people except through the Internet."

Yeah, not the best meaning to the word. I'll admit, I tend to have a bit of an antisocial personality and don't get out much from my apartment. However, in my own defense, I'm also an adult who works anywhere between 45 to 50 hours a week, who doesn't own a car so I use public transportation that can eat up another two hours out of my day. There's not a whole lot of room for me to really have a life. At the same time, I do try to get out of my apartment because I hate being cooped up in there all the time. And, while we're at it, there are days where I'm not the biggest fan of human interaction, but that's more because of my job in a retail/sales setting where I deal with customer service all the time. Anyone who has ever worked in this field will tell you they lose their faith in humanity from time to time because of unreasonable customers. If I had a rough day at work, the last thing I want to do is go out and meet more people. I'd rather just sleep off the long ten hours that I ended up working that day. So, sure, I can see both sides of the definition to be true as a living, breathing, example of it; however only up to a certain point.

The largest misconception about otaku is that it's solely based around a person's love of anime and manga. This is absolutely not the case! Going back to the first definition I gave you, it's common that otaku are associated with obsession over anime and manga, but it's not the set standard. An otaku could be anyone and everyone who has some kind of obsessive interest. For example, I call myself an otaku, however not just in regards to anime, but with theatre as well as it is something that I do obsess over as both an interest of mine as well as a career. A person who is obsessed with video games, by definition, can be considered an otaku. Someone who loves sports can be considered an otaku. It's not as restricting of a term as people make it out to be. Sure, you tend to see it used more when describing those who love anime and manga, but it's a lot more than that!

One of the best examples I can give when some one, who doesn't have an interest in anime and manga, is still considered an otaku, is the series Princess Jellyfish. Tsukimi as well as the other women in her apartment complex are all otaku and are referred to as such throughout the series. One of the women is obsessed with trains while another is obsessed with anything regarding the Three Kingdoms. Meanwhile, there's Tsukimi, herself, who is completely obsessed with jellyfish. Now it doesn't help that being an otaku also means you may be associated with being a hikkomori, or "the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement." A less insulting version of the Urban Dictionary definition, this can make people much more introverted and they can develop rather poor social skills, something that, when combined, Tsukimi exhibits all too well.

curtsey of FUNimation Entertainment

While this displays the classic case of otaku and hikkimori ways, this isn't the first. It's the first time we see this not involving anime and manga, yes, but this is well known behavior across the board that other series tend to use in order to create this archetype. Another well known example would be Renge from Ouran High School Host Club. While she is the rich and proper girl on the surface, she is a very avid visual novel player. And it's because of this, along with her obsession with her game crush look alike Kyoya, that she ends up introduced to the series fairly early on and, bringing along with her, a variety of references and moments for the sake of comedy and poking a little fun at otaku. Mostly because, since this series involves a group of rich kids who know nothing about the common every day man, they've also never encountered a being like Renge before.

curtsey of OTAKUcro
Licensed by FUNimation Entertainment

The portrayal of otaku in the anime medium can be ever vast depending on what you're looking for. The otaku can be seen as a kind of comedic relief such as the aforementioned Renge as well as Daru from the series Steins;Gate. There are series that have a strong focus on otakus such as Princess Jellyfish and the classic series Genshiken. But Japan and anime also do give the world a taste of the darker and, sometimes, creepy side of otakudom. One very good example of this is the series Welcome to the NHK. While this dark comedy series does boast an otaku character in Yamazaki, it also takes the negative sides of the term otaku and hikkimori and show us those effects first hand through main character Sato. He's always under the belief that everything in life is some kind of conspiracy which is causing his antisocial ways and holding him back from stepping outside into the world. The series is both a funny as well as, at times, tragic take on the term that many people can connect to whether they are a character like Sato or Yamazaki or another of the other major characters from the series.

And then there's also side that many outside of the fandom tend to see, and that is the creepy side of otakudom. While the stereotypical weeaboo tends to fall under this, there is also a few other versions that tend to freak out some people. The best way I can describe them is by using two additional anime series where this is seen, Paranoia Agent and Watamote. Watamote, while a comedy anime, does have a main character in Tomoko, an otaku who sees herself in a different light compared to others around her. She is obsessed with dating sims and visual novels to the point where she becomes rather delusional in how she perceives others around her and some of the schemes she comes up with in order to boost her popularity. If this wasn't a comedy series, it's humanly possible that Tomoko would be seen as a rather creepy otaku. But Tomoko's case isn't the one that tends to stand out in my mind as one of the most creepy otaku among the anime world. That actually falls to someone who isn't even a major character in a series...

Note: Skip to 8:40
curtsey of YouTuber DectectiveManiwa

Now this may not be the best example here, but considering director Satoshi Kon's well known themes of humanity and the fine line between reality and fantasy, this can subtlety portray the more freakish side of an otaku's nature without having to be over the top insane in order to do so. This otaku is obsessed with the Lil Slugger victims, even making figures of them to add to his collection. It's doesn't help that Maniwa has lost his own mind by this point in the series, but this quiet character doesn't help give much of a good image of otakus in the heads of others.

The concept of the otaku and the way it's viewed in this day and age seems to be ever changing. While the core meaning stays the same, the context that society has given the type of person that falls into this area has deviated drastically in the past decade or so. Some, such as myself, see it as a way to classify their interest in the anime field as well as their interest in other hobbies; while others see this as a reason for someone's antisocial personality and odd behavior. Even though the term labels anime and manga fans, the same sides of the definition can be used to talk about anyone with some kind of obsessive interest, both the good and the bad. Is it honestly fair to keep that negative connotation just for otaku when the same can be said for those with interests in other fields that can become just as unhealthy as any other hobby? Quite frankly, I don't think so. In the geek and nerd community, all otaku are typically seen as these obsessive weeaboos that are the most antisocial of the bunch. In reality, while some may be like that, the majority of otakus just love the medium they love and are the same as any other kind of nerd. I don't care if the label is nagative and gives off the sense that I'm antisocial! I'm an introvert to begin with, despite what people may think. All I can really say is,
And I hope you are too!


  1. I'm just proud to be otaku up in my crib idk about my real crew


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