Otaku are people, who have largely cut themselves off of the rest of society and use most of their time and energy to pursue their object of interest, usually a phenomenon of contemporary popular culture. What would be a hobby to others often becomes the only purpose of life for an otaku. Although similar people and groups can be found in all corners of the world, the otaku, in his very specific manifestation, is of Japanese origin. Against their profound tendency to shut themselves in they have in time become an international phenomenon with an international fan base. Due to their seizable economic consume power they have also become a significant economic factor.

The Rise of the Otaku Phenomenon

The Origins

The first bay boom generation, Japanese born between 1947 and 1949, were in their youth, when Japan was in an economic power phase during the 1960s. Japanese households had a considerable spending budget and their kids were often bestowed large amounts of pocket money. At the same time their mothers worked more and more and the baby boomers were often left to themselves in their free time. Consequently they were often free to spend their money as they wished.

Japanese publishers used that trend to their advantage and produced a growing number of mangas in magazine form. As time went on the numbers of sold magazines grew to a strong and steady income for the publishing houses. Hence the second baby boom generation, born in the 1960s, already grew up in a Japan, where manga was a mass consume article. They became a generation that considered manga an integral part of their culture.

In time the most fanatic of them grew into a subculture of their own, the first signs of that movement becoming visible in the 1970s. A mass of people addicted to everything connected to manga and anime, a horde of collectors and usually very seclusive individuals formed. At that time they were still a nameless phenomenon and didn't draw a lot of attention to them. They got some first large scale publicity when they succeeded in lobbying for a cinema version of the manga series Space Battleship Yamato and their support lead to an unforeseen boom for anime on the big screen.

The Term Otaku

The word otaku means “your home” or a very polite, distanced “you” in the Japanese language. Supposedly the collectors of anime pictures first started to use the word to address each other and to give weight to the distance they felt to their peers. They were connected only by their hobby and tried to avoid any sense of nearness, the word otaku was a fitting term to that end.

In 1983 Akio Nakamura wrote a column in his magazine, aptly titled “Otaku Studies”, and the term stepped into the light of a broader audience. Not in its traditional dictionary definition, but in the sense that it is used almost exclusively by now, as the name of secluded nerds. In that column Nakamura talked about his impressions of the amateur manga movement. Many media outlets sensed a new trend and quickly turned the word otaku into a label for a mass of degenerated young people, characterized by infantility, negligence and nonconformism.

Fall and Rise of a Subculture

The public discussion about the otaku phenomenon turned into a moral panic when the 26 years old Tsutomu Miyazaki was convicted of rape and murder of four young girls in 1989. When his apartment was searched a large quantity of manga and anime tapes were found, many depicting very young girls. It turned out that his late grandfather had basically been his only connection to another person and since the old man had died Miyazaki cut off all contact to other people.

He still was a regular in the manga scene though, with all its interpersonal distance, and the otaku scene became publicly known as a crowd of dangerous psychopaths. Later, when Japan's economic bubble burst and the depression set in during the 1990s, the otaku reputation changed quickly. They were still spending large amounts of money for their hobby and were basically rediscovered as a strong and reliable target audience for products and publications. Especially anime and video games developed into a profitable economic force, while other market segments were continually shrinking. During that time more and more voices began depicting the otaku and their habits in a positive light, in stark contrast to the media attention Tsutomu Miyazaki had generated.

Otaku and Pop

One of the first to consider the otaku a central part of Japan's self image was the sociologist Toshiya Ueno. For him they were an integral part of Japanese pop culture early on.

When the Japanese government sought to improve Japan's image abroad as a “soft power” the otaku movement played a key role. The popularity of manga and anime in other parts of the world was used to good effect and the government started to actively support the industries that had formed around the otaku and their interests.

Some popular figures, like the modern artist Takashi Murakami known for his “Superflat” works, publicly proclaim to be otaku nowadays. Long gone are the days when otaku were shunned and shamed.

The otaku culture has since become amalgamated to a certain degree with Japanese pop culture and the phenomenon widens its grasp beyond Japan's borders. In its wake it delivers manga, anime, video games, pop music and a whole lifestyle to fans all over the world.

The phenomenon otaku has gone through significant changes since its early beginnings. A smattering of seclusive, anti-social hobby fanatics grew into a cultural movement and a significant factor of Japanese economy and society. The whole situation is a little paradoxical and it is quite unlikely that such a trend movement could have been created strategically from the ground up to serve economic interests.

Today many call themselves otaku just because they are somewhat interested in manga and anime, but there is still that hardcore group of the old days and it remains to be seen how they will survive as a subculture within the culture they helped to create.


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