We often hear the word “otaku” thrown around in various contexts, but what exactly does it mean to be an otaku? This term is frequently used to describe individuals with a deep passion or obsessive interest in specific aspects of Japanese pop culture, particularly anime, manga, and video games. However, the concept of otaku is much more nuanced and complex than a simple label for fans. It encompasses a subculture that has evolved over decades, reflecting unique social dynamics and personal identities within Japan and beyond.

Understanding otaku requires a look into its cultural and historical background, examining how it differs from other related terms such as hikikomori and weeaboo. Hikikomori refers to individuals who withdraw from social life, often isolating themselves in their homes for extended periods. Meanwhile, weeaboo is a term used to describe non-Japanese individuals who are infatuated with Japanese culture, sometimes to the point of disregarding their own cultural heritage.

In this blog post, we will look into the origins and evolution of the term otaku, its implications in both Japanese and Western societies, and the distinctions between otaku, hikikomori, and weeaboo. By understanding these differences, we can better appreciate the diverse and intricate world of otaku culture, shedding light on the various facets that make it a fascinating and significant part of contemporary society. So, let’s uncover all the things you should know about being an otaku and how it stands apart from other cultural phenomena.

Find out about Japan’s modern fashion, kimono culture, jikkyousha, the weeaboo culture, ninjas, geisha, samurai, horror legends, and folktales.

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What is Otaku?

Otaku (Japanese: おたく, オタク, or ヲタク) is a Japanese word that describes a group of people with an obsessive interest, especially in anime, gaming, or manga. The word itself does not have the same meaning as it does today and derives from “otaku” (Japanese: お宅), which means another person’s house.

The emergence of the term as we use it nowadays comes from an essay by Akio Nakamori published in Manga Burikko in 1983. This word illustrates a unique social phenomenon and constitutes a part of the Japanese subculture that draws large public attention.

The closest word in English is “geek” (or “nerd”), and just as we picture a geek, there is also a typical image of what an otaku looks like in Japan. A stereotypical otaku has long hair and wears thick glasses. A backpack, shirt, belt bag, and washed jeans are all things that might signal the person you see is an otaku.

(image source: https://davidcharlesfox.com/otaku-subculture-history/)

However, a stereotype is a stereotype. Just dressing similarly to an otaku does not necessarily mean that person is an otaku. Although otaku is not necessarily a bad thing and people do identify themselves as otaku, calling other people otaku can be upsetting for some of them.

Is Otaku a Bad Thing?

There is no simple answer to this question because it very much depends on the level of obsession. In general, otaku is not necessarily a bad thing because it is pretty much just a hobby. However, the word has a different perception in Japan compared to the Western world.

While most Westerners do not consider the word overtly negative, in Japan, the word can be seen as an insult. Some people believe that otaku do not have a realistic sense of the world and possess very poor social skills. As a result, these people find comfort in an artificial world such as anime and manga.

Otaku can also be used as a second-person pronoun in Japan, equivalent to “you.” So, it might not be the best idea to call someone in Japan otaku without knowing the person’s attitude towards the term. Researchers conducted a survey regarding the attitude and perception of the term otaku in 1998 and 2007. It turned out that over 10 years, 17% more young Japanese considered otaku positive and 21% fewer people viewed it as negative (pp. 155, Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons).

Furthermore, an increasing number of people self-identify as otaku. This indicates that otaku cannot be inherently bad, as everything can go to extremes, even though it started as an innocent hobby. Otaku is sometimes associated with the term “the otaku murderer,” Tsutomu Miyazaki, who targeted girls aged between four and seven and considered them nothing but characters from comic books.

While the murder case might be an insanely extreme example, there is an increasing number of otaku who claim that they eventually fall in love with a fictional character, and some of them even end up marrying the character.

Otaku vs Hikikomori vs Weeaboo

Hikikomori (Japanese: ひきこもり, hiki: to withdraw, komori: to be inside) is a psychological disorder used to describe young adults who barely have any social contact. It is an acute withdrawal symptom from social life and interaction. Unlike being an introvert who simply prefers more time alone, the extent of social isolation of a hikikomori is much more severe and abnormal. Hikikomori usually stay at home all day, every day; they either live with their family or have their own place. However, even the interaction with their family is minimal.

Japanese society first paid attention to this condition of many young people in the 1990s. One explanation for a large group of people becoming hikikomori could be the economic deprivation in the 90s, which prevented many aspiring adolescents from achieving their goals. The term was introduced by Japanese psychologist and critic Tamaki Saito. Saito believes hikikomori do not have diagnosable mental disorders, but they are nevertheless in a distressing and concerning state of withdrawal. A hikikomori is different from an otaku because an otaku does not necessarily have social withdrawal symptoms and does not cut themselves off from the outside world.

Weeaboo is used to describe a non-Japanese (some say non-Asian) person who is excessively obsessed with Japanese culture to an unhealthy extent. A weeaboo will consider Japanese culture “better” than their own culture, and most of their knowledge about Japan often comes from pop culture such as anime and manga.

Therefore, a weeaboo fetishizes and idealises Japanese culture without actually knowing what Japanese culture truly is. Many weeaboos tend to reduce Japanese culture simply to anime or gaming. Obviously, Japan has contributed significantly to these fields, but the scope of Japanese culture is much broader than what a weeaboo thinks. For example, many weeaboos will purposefully include a lot of Japanese words in their speech and often use these words incorrectly.

This is not to say that every person who loves Japanese culture is a weeaboo.

The biggest difference between a weeaboo and a cultural enthusiast is the latter has much more respect towards Japanese culture by actually learning it from multiple perspectives and seeing values in both Japanese and their own cultures. However, being called a weeaboo is not necessarily an insult.

The word has no clear-cut definition, and many people understand the word quite differently (it is certainly not a psychological disorder!). In fact, some people are even proud of being a weeaboo. Oftentimes, weeaboo is used on the internet to make fun of someone who is obsessed with anime and other subculture products.

Modern Japanese Culture and Otaku

Japan’s rich and diverse culture is fascinating and extends far beyond the realms of otaku, hikikomori, and weeaboo. Modern Japanese fashion, for example, showcases a blend of traditional and contemporary styles. The kimono, a traditional garment, remains an iconic symbol of Japanese culture. Despite its ancient origins, it has found a place in modern fashion, often reinterpreted in innovative ways.

Jikkyousha, or live streamers, are another aspect of contemporary Japanese culture that attracts otaku. These live streamers often share their gaming experiences or anime discussions, creating a community for like-minded individuals.

Ninjas, geisha, and samurai are also integral to Japan’s cultural heritage. These historical figures continue to capture the imagination of many, including otaku. Ninjas, with their stealth and martial arts skills, and samurai, with their code of honour, represent ideals that are often romanticised in manga and anime.

Geisha, skilled in traditional arts, embody the grace and elegance of Japanese culture. Otaku who appreciate the historical and cultural context of these figures often delve deeper into their stories, enriching their understanding of Japan.

Horror legends and folktales also play a significant role in Japanese culture. Stories of yurei (ghosts) and yokai (supernatural creatures) have been passed down through generations and continue to influence modern media, including anime and manga. Otaku often explore these tales, finding connections between the ancient and contemporary narratives.

Exploring Japan as an Otaku

For those interested in experiencing Japan as an otaku, Tokyo offers a plethora of opportunities. The city’s districts, such as Akihabara, are known for their otaku culture. Here, visitors can find numerous shops selling anime merchandise, manga, and gaming paraphernalia. Maid cafes and themed restaurants provide unique dining experiences that cater to otaku interests.

Flip Japan Guide’s Half-Day Otaku Tour for Anime and Manga Lovers in Akihabara is a perfect way to immerse yourself in the heart of Tokyo’s otaku culture, exploring iconic shops, themed cafes, and hidden gems that celebrate anime and manga.

A Deeper Understanding of Otaku Culture

Otaku, hikikomori, and weeaboo are terms that describe different aspects of people’s engagement with Japanese culture. While otaku are enthusiasts with a deep interest in anime, gaming, and manga, hikikomori are individuals who withdraw from social interaction. Weeaboos, on the other hand, are non-Japanese individuals who excessively idolise Japanese culture.

Understanding these terms helps in appreciating the diverse ways in which people connect with Japanese culture. Whether it’s through modern fashion, historical figures, or contemporary subcultures, Japan offers a rich tapestry of experiences for everyone.

What do you think of an otaku or a weeaboo? Do you consider them an insult or do you use them negatively? Comment below if you have different understandings of these terms.