Whether we’re talking Boom Tubes or retcons, there’s plenty of jargon in our geekcentric little world. The PoP! Stars are here to ensure you’re not left scratching your head, saying “It’s All Geek to Me.”
If you’ve ever attended an anime convention (or gone to a dual anime/comic con like NYCC/AF), then you might have heard the word “otaku”, as in, “OMG, that guy is a total Cowboy Bebop otaku!” But if you’re not really into the fandom, you might wonder what the heck that word means.
The word “otaku” in English is used to reference fans of Japanese culture: anime, manga, video games, music, etc. They’re easily recognizable at cons: wearing multicolored, gravity defying wigs, cartoonish costumes, and the propensity to give the “peace” sign when taking pictures. They’re the younger versions of us cranky, old comic fans; Spirited Away is their Star Wars, and they come across infuriatingly perky to us old grumplepotami.
The most insidious weapon in the otaku arsenal: the “Free Hugs” sign. *grumble grumble*
The name for these quirkily perky fans comes from the Japanese slang word for “geek”, although it’s not just reserved for anime or manga fans in Japan. There, it can be used in the same way we use “nerd” or “geek”, like “history nerd” or “tech geek”. However, it’s a bit more harsh in its usage in Japan than those two words.
“The term otaku is close in connotation to the English nerd, but the closest English-language analogue to otaku is probably the British English term anorak. Both of these English-language terms have more emphatically negative connotations of poor social skills and obsessive interest in a topic that seems strange, niche or boring to others. It is not applied to a socially awkward intelligent person who appears fairly ‘normal,’ and merely has an interest in certain typically ‘geekish’ pursuits (video games, comic books, computers, etc.).”
In Japan, otaku were once even considered harmful to society, a worrying epidemic to a culture obsessed with conformity. Now, otaku who pursue their geekish pursuits in addition to normal life are considered less destructive than the hikikomori, people who lock themselves away from the outside world, and only live in the digital world.
“A decade ago, another social phenomenon, the rise of otaku, troubled Japan. Roughly translated, otaku means nerd. It refers to people who shut themselves away, spending their days absorbed in anime, manga and video games. They were considered freakish, and a high-profile crime blamed on otaku triggered considerable hand-wringing, much like the concerns about hikikomori. Yet the nerds are considered normal now, even trendy.”
Otaku in Japan are also often associated with being a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). They’re often seen as relying on parental help, spending what little money they have on their obsessions. While that isn’t true for everyone, it’s one of the more negative connotations of the term. A popular manga (and later anime) series called Princess Jellyfish used this as a main focal point of the plot, with the main characters residing in an apartment where the only tenants are otaku women. During his first visit to the apartment, the cross-dressing Kuranosuke can’t contain his surprise and exclaims, “You’re all NEETs?”
Although the term isn’t always the most welcome identifying label of a fanboy or fangirl, it still tends to be embraced by many American aficionados. Many fans of anime, manga, and Japanese culture self-identify as otaku, and even conventions embrace the title with names like “Otakon”.
Not to say that every Nipponophile wants to be considered an otaku. In fact, some proponents of Japanese culture don’t like the label, and dislike the negative connotations of the word, feeling that the term stereotypes the more extreme aspects of the fandom (see: “free hugs”). It’s like how the term “Trekkie” conjures the image of a pasty-skinned man in a too-tight Captain Kirk uniform clutching a plastic phaser. It’s not accurate… but not entirely fictitious, either.
While the otaku are sometimes maddeningly adorable, and we can’t understand why they’re so smitten with that “anime stuff”, it’s good to remember that they’re just nerds like us. Still, it’s OK to pass on the free hug.