This post concerns my curiosity about the beingness of an otaku. I’ve comfortably referred to myself as such over the past 4 years, ever since I went nuts over Evangelion. I realize that I’ve never really gotten how extreme this kind of geekness is, or what kind of impression it makes on people. I’ve seen how Lucky Star makes fun of otakus, as well as Densha Otoko which I feel exaggerates the pathos. What really makes otaku otaku?
I’ve linked to this post before, but I find it useful to do so again. What follows in an excerpt from Lawrence Eng’s “Otaku-ism: The Politics of Being Otaku” (2001).
“What defines an otaku?” is a complicated question that resists quick and easy answers. Media sensationalism aside, “otaku” has gone from simply being what hardcore fans used to call each other to being a general concept of how individuals use information for their own ends. William Gibson calls otaku “passionate obsessive(s)”. Volker Grassmuck describes them as “information fetishists”. Personally, I prefer my own definition: “self-defined cyborgs”. In the most basic sense, an otaku is someone who is highly dedicated to something and uses information from anywhere and everywhere to further his or her understanding of that thing for fun and maybe even profit. In a world where deep intellectual curiosity is considered strange and usually unprofitable, the otaku lifestyle has a lot to offer that is different. To promote negative stereotypes of otaku (or any group) amounts to a subtle form of bigotry–so subtle, it might even be unintentional.
I’m most inclined to latch on to the positive spin in the definition provided above, making me a person who is “highly dedicated to something and uses information from anywhere and everywhere to further his or her understanding of that thing for fun and maybe even profit.” But is this spin, if used as a standard definition, divorces the word from its particulars: Japanese culture (or specific parts of it including but not limited to anime). Am I prepared to suggest that the word otaku enter the english dictionaries the same way sushi and karate have.
I don’t think the beingness of an otaku extends merely to the geeking out over the subject (anime, toys, etc.), whether the behavior is amassive/accumulative or expressive. There seems to be no such stigma attached to a hardcore fan of music, film, theatre, books, tv shows, etc. Or, at least, the stigma is only that of a nerd/geek. I somehow detect pots calling kettles black in the discrimination of other geek subcultures against otaku; specifically those they identify as weeaboos. I’ve never traveled to the west, so I only see Trekkies and Star Wars geeks made fun of on TV. I can’t go into depth re the nuanced distinctions between Western and Japanese geeks.
It seems to me that what marks the otaku is the social castigation. It’s the pathos that distinguishes him. But isn’t the pursuit of the subject supposed to provide the distinction? But a connosieur of fine art won’t be immediately treated as a weirdo in our Gladwellian ‘blinking’. But a connosieur of Gunpla, well, it screams otaku. But if social impairment pathos is the tag applied to the otaku, can I simply call myself an anime connosieur? Will I suddenly lose my social capital if I let people in my shameless otaku lifestyle?
The litmus test seems to be when people come up to my place. My wife is into dolls in a big way (Jenny, Licca, Barbie – especially the comic book licensed ones, Disney Princesses, dollhouses, anime figurines), but people assume that the extensive Lelouch collection is mine! My wife isn’t an otaku (she’s like Kagami to my Konata) despite her quirks. She asks ‘normal’ friends to shop abroad for her dolls and no one considers her strange in any way. They come up and see the dolls, the figurines, the robots, and get the impression that only one of us is a bit on the eccentric side.
I put these musings to work over last week. I hosted two young adults taking part of the Ship for South East Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP), an annual cultural exchange activity to promote friendship and mutual understanding among delegates. Part of this is staying for at least a full 24 hours in the home of a host family in each country part of the tour. I never knew about this program back when I was qualified to participate, so I readily agreed to become a member host family. My charges, among over 300 possible Participant Youths (PYs) include a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity (Nimalesvaran, or Nim) and a Japanese (Koichi).
When we were first getting to know each other, I preempted myself by talking about anime and self-deprecatingly calling myself an otaku (it’s not that big a risk because they need me, I’m their host). Both were incredulous, especially Koichi who was a very ‘normal’ finance major even though he looked geeky to me. But after my continuous weeabooisms (bakana! mada mada, yare yare/ara ara – I was channeling my favorite undine as well), I could tell he was seriously considering my claim.
I took them around Manila, fed them our delicacies, and got Koichi drunk (it didn’t take much). I kept asking him what music he liked (Mr. Children), and what he did for fun (drinking). There was no trace of otakuness, save for liking manga which isn’t really a big deal.
When they got to the house they saw the toys: the Revoltech Gurren Lagann, Eva Unit-01 and Macross robots; the Gunpla, the figurines. Nim said, “You weren’t kidding about being an otaku,” but Koichi only politely smiled.
Over the next two days I needled him about it until he gave a nervous laugh, smiled, and said yes. Then he and Nim started taking pictures of our flat, specifically the toys my wife and I put on display on various shelves along with our books. I suspect that to him I’m this foreign curiosity, someone proud of things he or his friends may make fun of back home. As to the attitude of Japanese towards foreign otaku, I’ve only seen in the Nodame Cantabile Specials (dorama), where the French piano student Franc was a significant side character who happened to be quite the otaku and had mistakenly romanticised otakus and their lifestyle.
While I cannot really speak for Nim and Koichi, the whole experience was quite intense and we did connect in ways I don’t think is probable with the host families in their previous stops (Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, and Indonesia), primarily due to our closeness in age. I was more like a consenting older brother than a parental figure. The second day, the one they stayed with me the whole time also happened to be Koichi’s birthday! I got him even more drunk than the day before (it took just one more beer total), and did my best to make his day a memorable one.
I obviously feel enriched, having made new friends. The relationship at any point never became between Japanese person and a weeaboo. It was really just guys hanging out, with me doing my best Alicia impression (not that they’d ever get the reference).
See the Japanese SSEAYP delegation do their cheer for the Philippine leg of their tour:
Wasn’t that awesome! I got to congratulate Koichi too at the end, just when he thought I won’t be able to make it there and we wouldn’t see each other again.
While I have no problems relating to myself as an otaku, it isn’t what defines the totality of my identity. I don’t hide what shows I like and what fictional characters I enjoy, but people somehow don’t relate to me merely as the sum of my hobby. Admittedly, older people have more difficulty understanding all of this, and when dealing with them (some of them business contacts) I don’t invite a discussion about anime (the same way I don’t invite a discussion about poetry). But let me be clear, I’m not putting myself up as some kind of template for behavior – far from it. I just want to share how I live what I write about.
Now how about you?
- Do you refer to yourself as an otaku? Why/Why not?
- If you don’t does it really mean you aren’t one?
- If/when you go (have gone) to Japan, what would your trip be like?
- Do you know people who refer to themselves as otaku, but watches far less anime and does far fewer anime/manga related activities than you? How do you feel about them?
- Do you know people who don’t refer to themselves as otaku, but watches just as much if not more anime than you or does more anime/manga related activities than you? How do you feel about them?