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Otaku Subculture History

by David Fox

A wide range of youth subcultures have appeared in Japan since World War II, many of them shocking polite sensibilities and subverting mainstream society with behaviors considered self-centered, hedonistic and deviant.

Among the subcultures that attract the most attention, both among the public and in academic circles is the otaku, the notoriously obsessive fans of anime, manga, video games and other forms of Japanese popular culture.

Otaku Subculture History
Otaku Subculture History

Otaku: The Social Phenomenon

Since their emergence in the 1970's and 1980's, otaku have become a major social phenomenon, engendering widespread fascination as well as fear, disapproval and misunderstanding.

The rise of an otaku identity in Japan has inspired films, books, and art movements, that both demonize and celebrate fervent fan subculture.

Generally styled as "geeks" or "nerds'", otaku are pictured in Japan's collective imagination as socially maladjusted young men dressed un-stylishly (often sporting backpacks and anoraks), physically unattractive (usually overweight and gawky), and unnaturally fixated on some narrow corner of mass culture.

I am Otaku
I am Otaku

Otaku is a vernacular term used by amateur manga and anime fans and artists to refer to themselves. Otaku is a polite, almost stiffly formal way of saying "you" in Japanese.

Combining the honorific prefix o- with taku, meaning "house", it literally translates as "your house" and carries connotations of detachment and impersonality.

In English, the equivalent might be referring to someone as "sir" or "ma'am".

How this word, generally associated in postwar Japan with the kind of scrupulously polite language housewives would use with neighbors and acquaintances, came to describe obsessive, introverted young fans of popular culture is uncertain and continues to be the subject of much speculation and debate.

Otaku: The Social Phenomenon
Otaku: The Social Phenomenon

The first publication of the term "otaku" outside of the fan culture is generally credited to Akio Nakamori, who, in 1983, adopted the term to describe the social phenomenon of hardcore fandom in Japan during this time.

Nakamori chose the term otaku to describe what he identified as the particularly driven characteristics of fandom, in preference over the more conventional term, nekura ( maniac or enthusiastic fan).

Nekura means 'black' and 'dark'
Nekura means 'black' and 'dark'

Nekura means 'black' and 'dark' and evokes the quality of a melancholic and extremely introverted character.

Miyazaki Tsutomu AKA The Otaku Killer

The widely publicized arrest of 27-year-old Miyazaki Tsutomu in 1989 was a key marker for the negative perception of otaku in public discourses.

Miyazaki was arrested for the abduction, murder and mutilation of young girls. Searching his home, police found evidence that he had murdered four young girls. They also found a collection of 5,763 videotapes and pornographic and pedophilic anime filled from floor to ceiling.

Public debates focused on Miyazaki as a socially alienated youth who was disconnected from reality and immersed within an otaku fantasy.

Japanese media persistently associated Miyazaki with otaku and dubbed him ''The Otaku Killer''; the image of his room-unoccupied and windowless with videotapes stacked to the ceiling around a small, rumpled bed - became the dominant impression of an entire otaku subculture.

Miyazaki Tsutomu AKA The Otaku Killer
Miyazaki Tsutomu AKA The Otaku Killer

The outcome of his trial hinged on the question of his sanity, with the court concluding he understood the consequence and severity of his crime and sentencing him to death. He was executed in 2008.

The figure of Miyazaki still haunts the public perception of otaku.

Degrading Values over the Decades

This subculture associated strongly with antisocial fantasies and habits both violent and sexually perverted became a lightning rod in intense and histrionic public debates over social decay and the deteriorating values of Japanese youth.

For many Japanese, otaku meant an increasing number of sullen youth who would voluntarily taken leave of reality.

Degrading Values over the Decades
Degrading Values over the Decades

In 1960, youth were involved in radical political movements and new popular cultural activities such as manga consumption.

In the early 1970s in parallel with the expansion of these culture industries, youth were considered to be self-consciously immature, regressive, and dysfunctional, because they emphasized individualism and a lack of affiliations with organizations.

In the 1980's, the mass media and culture industries were criticized for encouraging youth culture for its individualism.

For example, the 'crystal tribes' who were considered to be passionless cultural connoisseurs.

shinjinrui (new human race)
shinjinrui (new human race)

In the mid 1980's, a new term emerged to differentiate a new generation of affluent, consumer oriented youth - shinjinrui (new human race).

Otaku culture emerged within these contexts, and came to embody in the public imagination a particular section of youth who were considered the embodiment of fragmentation, individualism, and infantilism.

The interpretation of fans as symbolizing the decline of community, with audiences being passive consumers of mass media, resulting in pathological fans who are unable to differentiate between fiction and reality, is also considered to be an unacknowledged critique of postmodernity.

Trivia Addicts

From the start, what seemed to characterized otaku, beyond their apparent social ineptitude and isolation, was the compulsion to amass huge amounts of trivial information on obscure, narrow and often juvenile subjects from animated television series to pop music idols to tropical fish.

What set otaku apart from previous generations of devoted fans, was the power and connectivity afforded by the Internet. It provided new means for collecting information and sharing it with like-minded enthusiasts.

At least 100,000 (and perhaps as many as one million) hard-core otaku
At least 100,000 (and perhaps as many as one million) hard-core otaku

What was also striking about this new social formation of highly wired and technologically adept fans, was its sheer size: from the 1980's on, Japan was said to have a population of at least 100,000 (and perhaps as many as one million) hard-core otaku.

Some scholars describe a long-running power politics surrounding the subculture. The 'bad' otaku shuts off from society, in a room with the objects of consumption, not participating in 'normal' forms of social formations.

Miyazaki embodied this stereotype and his prominence strengthened it.

In addition, we think of otaku as a male, but before 1989, they were often describes as both women and men behaved in ways the older fans or outsiders found unacceptable.

Before the killings, the otaku men were often portrayed as failures - economically, socially and sexually.

Only after Miyazaki did it take on the stronger implication of social pathology
Only after Miyazaki did it take on the stronger implication of social pathology

The term came out of the subculture as a negative self-description, but only after Miyazaki did it take on the stronger implication of social pathology.

Roots of Otaku

Many social critics and psychologists have argued that the roots of otaku behavior lay within Japan's highly structured, even oppressive, educational, and social systems.

The roots of otaku behavior
The roots of otaku behavior

They have suggested that the information fetishism of otaku stems from the rigid routines of Japanese schooling, which emphasize rote learning and the memorization of vast quantities of fragmented facts.

The social awkwardness and reclusive tendencies of otaku, meanwhile, were widely understood to be reaction against the pressure for conformity, emphasis on the group, and elaborate standards of decorum that characterize Japan society.

Japan has always been known to be a strict culture, with high suicide rates compared to other countries, especially in modern times.

Japan has always been known to be a strict culture, with high suicide rates.
Japan has always been known to be a strict culture, with high suicide rates.

Japan's otaku subculture has evolved in a variety of new directions. While many early otaku were fixated on science fiction, the imaginative and visually rich realms of manga and anime soon became the most widespread obsession.


By the start of the new millennium, otaku interest became overtly sexualized. There was a proliferation of gyaru-ge ('girl games', dating simulation software) and female fantasy characters introduced in manga, anime or as collectible plastic models.

A proliferation of gyaru-ge
A proliferation of gyaru-ge

The characters are generally depicted as cute, vulnerable and sexually alluring.

Otaku adopted the almost indefinable term moe (derived from two homophonic verbs meaning 'to burn' and 'to bud') to describe a kind of profound infatuation for these fictional female creation - perhaps platonic, or rooted in frustrated sexual desire.

The discourses around otaku culture shifted as intellectuals such as Otsuka Eiji and Okada Toshio began to emphasize otaku culture as a symbol of Japan's information society.

Eiji Otsuka
Eiji Otsuka

This shift also contributed to and was influenced by a transformation in defining manga, and the promotion of certain forms of manga artistic lineage, as part of national culture within and outside of Japan.

Surging Into The Mainstream

The long-term transition in otaku tastes, from science-fiction and animation to pursuits viewed by the larger society as perverted, pornographic, and pedophilic, was driven by the mainstreaming of anime and manga in the 1900's.

As the Japanese public came to accept forms like anime, otaku felt compelled to move on to more outrageous and offensive obsessions in order to maintain their distance from polite society and their resistance to its niceties.

Today, the image of otaku in Japanese media is quite consistent in general. The label has lost some of its sting.

The Akihabara district of Tokyo, known as 'electric town' for its high concentration of stores selling household appliances, has become a well-known otaku destination since the late 1990s.

Surging Into The Mainstream
Surging Into The Mainstream

Akihabara now has hundreds of businesses, including 'maid cafés', where young female waitresses costumed as servants or anime characters wait on costumers, which cater to fan obsessions.

Local authorities have embraced that identity, welcoming fans and holding frequent festivals.

Increased public recognition has helped broaden culture; no longer confined to the image of a person-less room overstuffed with pop-culture cargo, otaku can take on more positive meanings.

It's not just the obsessive, withdrawn loner, although that picture may never completely dissipate; now it can be the passionate expert.

Despite the positive image of otaku that is emerging, particularly in relation to the export of manga and anime, attention needs to be given to the persistently negative images of otaku and its continued marginalization within Japanese society.

Surging Into The Mainstream
Surging Into The Mainstream

Otaku are also often linked in the public imagination with hikikomori (reclusive shut-ins), chronically unemployed NEETs ('not in employment, education or training') and freeters ( youth floating between dead-end, part-time jobs).

All groups are stigmatized in public discourse as symbols of the alienation and drift of Japan's younger generation today.

The positive image of otaku conflicts with otaku self-definition that emphasizes, as matter of positive subjectivity, their social unacceptability.

Whether it is conceived positively or negatively the continual emphasis is still identifying otaku as different to other consumers of media forms.

Here are two videos related to otaku you might like to watch. First there's Akihabara Geeks, the 2005 documentary.

Also, check out the 1994 documentary, simply called "Otaku".

Definition of Otaku

Definition of Otaku
Definition of Otaku

An otaku is a person who has an extreme or obsessive interest in a certain topic, usually anime or manga. Otaku are typically associated with being socially awkward and geeky, as well as having a tendency to collect various items related to their obsession. In Japan, otaku culture is highly regarded by some people within the anime and manga community, but it is generally looked down upon by mainstream society. As such, many Japanese companies have made efforts to cater to the tastes of otaku fans via things like special merchandise, marketing campaigns, and even entire television networks devoted exclusively to anime and manga programming. Additionally, the fashion world has been influenced by otaku culture through things like cosplay outfits and other pop culture references appearing in high fashion runway shows.

The Start of the Otaku Culture

The otaku culture began in the 1980s, when a group of anime and manga fans started to self-identify as otaku. This was largely due to the influence of the groundbreaking anime series, "Akira", which depicted a future where society was divided into two classes: the normal people and the otaku. The otaku were seen as outcasts and nerds, and this image has stuck with the term ever since.

In recent years, however, the otaku culture has undergone a major resurgence, thanks in part to the popularity of shows like "Attack on Titan" and "Sword Art Online". Today, there are Otaku festivals all over the world, where fans can come together to celebrate their love of all things anime and manga.

If you're thinking of getting into the otaku culture, there are a few things you should know. First and foremost, Otaku are passionate about their hobbies, so it's important to be respectful of other people's interests. Secondly, don't be afraid to show your own otaku side! Wear cosplay costumes, buy merchandise, and most importantly, have fun!

Evolution of the Otaku Culture

The otaku culture in Japan has undergone a number of transformations since it first emerged in the late 1970s. In its early days, the term otaku was used to refer to people with obsessive interests in particular hobbies or topics, such as anime and manga. However, over time, the meaning of the term has changed somewhat, and it is now used to describe a wider range of nerdy or geeky interests.

Rise of Cosplay

One of the most notable changes in the otaku culture is the rise of cosplay. Cosplay, which is short for "costume play", is a type of performance art in which participants dress up as their favorite characters from anime, manga, video games, and other pop culture media. Cosplay has become a huge part of the otaku culture in Japan, with numerous conventions and festivals held throughout the year to celebrate it.

The Growing Prevalence of Manga Cafes or "Otaku Hotels"

Another major change in the otaku culture is the growing prevalence of manga cafes or "otaku hotels". These cafes offer visitors a comfortable place where they can read their favorite manga and browse online forums dedicated to their favorite fandom interests. A number of these cafes also offer overnight stays for those who want to extend their cosplaying experience into late-night escapades.

An Increase in Female Participation Within the Otaku Culture

In recent years, we are also seeing an increase in female participation within the otaku culture, particularly among fans of anime and video games. With shows like Sailor Moon and video games like Final Fantasy attracting more female fans, there is a growing demand for products and services that appeal to women. This has led to new opportunities for female entrepreneurs in the otaku space, with companies like Animate Women Town and Otome Sugoren serving as platforms where female fans can share their thoughts on anime, cosplay, and other aspects of the culture.

Overall, the evolution of the otaku culture in Japan demonstrates how technology is changing our interactions with pop culture media. As nerds and geeks around the world continue to explore new ways to express themselves through these mediums, it will be exciting to see where this cultural phenomenon goes next!

The Decline of the Otaku Culture

The otaku culture in Japan has been on the decline in recent years. This is evident from the dwindling number of otaku-themed events and the decreasing popularity of otaku-related media.

There are several factors that have contributed to the decline of otaku culture. One of them is the change in the Japanese society's attitude towards otaku. In the past, otaku were considered to be nerds or geeks who were not socially accepted by mainstream society. However, in recent years, there has been a growing acceptance of otaku culture, and it is no longer seen as something weird or abnormal. This has led to a decline in interest among people who were previously interested in otaku culture.

Another factor that has contributed to the decline of otaku culture is the change in the media landscape. In the past, otaku-themed manga and anime were only available in niche magazines and stores. However, with the advent of the internet, these titles are now widely available online, and they are no longer as exclusive as they once were. This has led to a decline in sales of otaku-themed manga and anime.

Lastly, the declining birth rate in Japan has also had an impact on the otaku culture. As the number of people interested in otaku culture decreases, so does the demand for otaku-related products and services. This has resulted in a decline in revenue for businesses that cater to otaku culture.

Despite the decline of otaku culture, there are still many people who are interested in it. There are several factors that have contributed to the decline of otaku culture, but there are also several factors that have kept it alive. The declining birth rate in Japan has led to a decline in the number of people interested in otaku culture, but the internet has made it possible for people all over the world to access and enjoy otaku-themed manga and anime. Additionally, the change in society's attitude towards otaku has led to a growing acceptance of otaku culture, which has kept it alive.

What Does the Future Hold for Otaku Culture

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in otaku culture around the world. What does the future hold for this unique subculture? Some people believe that it will continue to thrive and spread, while others think that it will eventually die out. Let's take a look at some of the arguments on both sides and consider which one is more likely to be accurate.

On the one hand, there are many factors that support the idea that otaku culture will continue to thrive over the long term. For example, anime and manga have become much more mainstream in recent years, which suggests that they are increasingly appealing to a wider audience. Additionally, new technologies like VR headsets and live stream platforms have made it easier than ever for people to consume and engage with otaku content.

On the other hand, there are also several reasons why otaku culture might not have such a bright future. For instance, some experts have argued that the current popularity of anime and manga is just a fad that will eventually die out. Additionally, as people get older, they often lose interest in hobbies like collecting figurines and watching anime. So, it's possible that the otaku demographic will gradually shrink over time.

At the moment, it's impossible to say for sure which of these two scenarios is more likely. However, given the large number of young people who seem to be interested in otaku culture, it seems safe to say that it will continue to be a strong presence in the entertainment world for at least the next few years. Overall, while it's difficult to predict what will happen to otaku culture in the future, there are a number of reasons to believe that it will continue to thrive and expand in popularity. After all, this unique subculture has brought joy and entertainment to millions of fans around the world, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon!

How to Join the Otaku Subculture ?

If you're interested in joining the otaku subculture, there are a few things you should know. First and foremost, otaku are passionate about their interests, which typically include anime, manga, video games, and other elements of Japanese pop culture. This means that if you want to join the otaku subculture, you need to be prepared to devote a significant amount of time and energy to your interests.

In addition to being passionate about their interests, otaku are also often very knowledgeable about the topics they love. This means that it's important to do your research before joining the otaku subculture. Be sure to familiarize yourself with all aspects of Japanese pop culture so that you can hold your own in conversations with other otaku.

Finally, it's important to remember that the otaku subculture is not for everyone. If you're not prepared to commit to your interests, or if you're not interested in learning more about Japanese pop culture, then the otaku subculture may not be the right fit for you. However, if you're willing to put in the time and effort, joining the otaku subculture can be a rewarding experience.

About David Fox

David Fox is an artist who created to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.

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