Otakus are a consumer based subculture, strictly adhering to buying the merchandise of anime, manga, and video games. This has been viewed by outsiders as reclusive behavior. They are often met with animosity and confusion. Forced to operate on the fringes of society, they develop into their own subcultures. By piggybacking of the commercialization of mediums such as anime and manga, they are able to challenge nationalistic pressures by creating a culture of escapism. This has allowed them to redefine the role of the individual in society and spread the Otaku subculture around the world.
Otaku are those who don't and can't conform: they're seen to be uncool, weird, ugly and outcast. In short, Otaku are everything the normal person ought to revile (Cloutman). In the early days of its creation Otaku was seen a pejorative term for calling someone a nerd or geek. Otakus took the word and owned it, being proud of their subculture. Otaku culture is passionate about the genre of anime, games, and manga. This expansion of the Otaku culture can be traced back to the Japanese economic miracle.
After World War II, Japan had been crippled economically. They were occupied by the US to oversee reconstruction. Because of this the Japanese citizens had a huge loss of morale. However due to the strategic positioning of Japan, as well as help from other countries. Japan quickly recovered very quickly and became the second largest economy in the world. Despite this success, it was difficult for the populous to feel a sense of nationalism since their country had suffered a total loss and committed war crimes. The country's people felt abandoned from any strong organization and this caused its society to crumble. The rapid industrialization caused by the economic boom left its workers feeling disconnected from their jobs.
They also had the fundamental rules of their society changed by a new global economy but high military sanction placed upon them. This lack of social norms and commodification of vocations led to anomie in the Japanese society. Many replaced their nationalistic pride with a growing pop culture market. This consisted of manga, anime, games, and music. These mediums painted a new world for its young men. They were able to forget about the burdens of daily life and escape into a fantasy world. They no longer had to tie themselves to weak government, instead they could feed their happiness with merchandise. They became hooked on this consumer culture, and were indoctrinated into this mercantile religion. This was the beginning of the otaku.
The escapism in the otaku movement allowed the Japanese people to create cultural capital needed to kick start their economy. Given that almost every class in Japan had encountered hardship after the war, desperately ate up some sort of distraction. The pursuit of entertainment and material goods allowed Otaku to move on from wartime recovery and create a new culture in Japan. The ability to forget the past and move forward served as resistance within the Otaku subculture. By actively seeking out refuge from their new post-war environment, male Japanese youth demonstrated their disappointment in their country for being forced to pick up the pieces of a broken country with little hope for the future. These individuals were viewed as being worker drones, existing only to achieve the goals of their country or companies platform. Therefore, by dropping out, the Otakus were able to gain a sense of identity that existed outside of being a cog in the machine.
The Mecca of Otaku culture is based out of the district of Akihabara in Tokyo. There are maid caf©s featuring waitresses who dress up and act like maids or anime characters. These are prominent attraction centers for Otaku. Akihabara also has dozens of stores specializing in anime, manga, retro video games, figurines, card games and other collectibles. While Akihabara does rely on tourism, the people who inhabits has actually created a self-sufficient bubble economy within Japan. This demonstrates on important commerce is within the Otaku subculture.
The US had heavily influenced these markets during the reconstruction and was an important trading partner that globalized Japan's economy.
Many of Japan's indigenous art forms were combined with American pop themes. They also experienced American commercialism at its finest through things like product placement. This mishmash of Eastern and Western pop culture slowly took form into their own entity. Japan had started creating their own cartoons (anime) and music (J-pop). When these hybrid art styles entered the global market they were an immediate success. Anime and J-pop were exported to the US. This was a huge economic success for the otaku culture and allowed them to flip the script on the US/Japan pop culture trade industry. This victory was larger than just otaku, but affected all of Japan. They were able to resist against the control the US had over them. Due to this, anime has become an essential icon to the Japanese identity.
Otaku culture started coming to the United States during this period of Japanese exportation. Small groups of people would watch anime with no subtitles or English dubbing and try to speculate on what the plot was. From there it picked up speed with the great works of studio Ghibli becoming very popular, such as My Neighbor Totoro. This caused anime to enter the mainstream and even be broadcast on Cartoon Network in a segment called Toonami. It was hugely popular with 90's kids in show like Pok©mon and Yu-Gi-Oh on WB's 4kids, these shows were created to sell merchandise to children, and were a massive success.
This commercialization followed anime and the otaku subculture. It eventually gained momentum amongst teenagers and young adults with the advent of action oriented shows such as Dragon Ball and Naruto. Slowly, adults started becoming more and more interested and started finding seinen (adult-themed) anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion. The internet anime streaming websites such as Crunchyroll and manga reading sites has allowed the American fan base to be just as caught up and immersed into the anime culture as those in Japan. This has allowed the Otaku culture and anime appreciation to spread worldwide without being picked up by specific T.V networks.
After Japan's economy began to settle in the late 1990s, people began to view the Otaku subculture as a social problem. Due to the rise of the internet, Otakus activities can be completed from their room. This has perpetuated a stereotype of otaku being shut-ins. This has been seen as dysfunctional by Japanese society.
It is often associated with anti-social behavior, no sense of ambition, and a weight on society. People who show these symptoms are seen to have a predisposition for failing in school, work, or relationships. Despite this, the Nomura Research Institute classifies Otaku based off of the medium of choice they subscribe to. This means that manga Otaku are fundamentally different from anime Otaku. NRI also has classified many different archetypes of Otaku. For example, the family-oriented Otaku, does not allow his interests to surpass his duty to his family, they also tend to be "closet Otaku" (NRI). These subgroups exist because neoliberal capitalist societies tend to have a low tolerance for non-productivity. This encourages members of these subcultures to assimilate to the mainstream by getting jobs and working.
The stigma against Otaku in Japan was strengthened after the 1989 "Otaku Murderer" case. The identification of Otaku turned negative when Kaoru Kobayashi kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered a seven-year-old first-grade student. Japanese journalist Akihiro ??tani suspected that Kobayashi was member of the Otaku, due to his collection anime figurines. Although Kobayashi was did not represent the larger Otaku subculture, the degree of social hostility against them increased. When this combined with the fact that anime is often rife with themes of sexual perversion, pedophilia and incest. Otaku were seen by law enforcement as possible suspects for sex crimes, and local governments called for stricter laws controlling the depiction of eroticism in Otaku materials (Whaley 135).
The prevalence of sexual themes in the media that Otaku's consume is important in understanding how Otakus interact with society. Since the typical Otaku profile is a middle to upper class single young man, their desired mediums will reflect what young men have always wanted, sex. This male dominated subculture has acted like an echo chamber for misogynistic sexual themes in anime and manga (Brett).The fact that the characters they were creating were not real allowed for a wider variety of what was legally allowed (such as the sexual objectification of children and animals). They also change certain characteristics (such as the classic large eyed anime girl) to give them more emotional appeal. This has led to the preference of these 2D mediums to real women. The inclination to begin to focus on 2D characters over human women in integral to the Otaku identity. This reinforces their rejection of society and they commodified their biological desires into marketable products of fictional characters.
Despite these stigmas against the otaku, the otaku rarely, if ever, become politically motivated. They will often meet with likeminded individuals, however this is different from the organizing required in Social Justice Youth Development (Ginwright). SJYD key features is examining institutions and how they oppress groups that the youth identify with. Otaku organize to buy and sell products. While they do have a sense of community at these meetings (e.g. Comiket) the underlying reason for gathering is commerce. Otakus do not critically examine their society or seek to undo injustices. They live in a culture of escapism through commercialism. This lack of productivity as a social movement is often looked down upon by the societies they reside in, alienating the otaku more.
It is important to note that Otaku do have a sense of community and are not just mindless consumers. They have their own vernacular and jargon when discussing anime. They are also prone to write their own manga, and occasionally will dress up as their favorite characters. This is known as cosplay and it is a very popular activity and pillar within the otaku subculture. The ability to transform into a different person is a fitting activity for a subculture of escapism. However, cosplay also brings the community together and allows these reclusive individuals to make connections.
This community has grown exponentially over the last few years. Transforming the Otaku from being a localized subculture to an international phenomenon. This seems to have been sponsored by the Japanese government and promoted by corporations in hopes of relocating the centers of global interest in commerce back to Japan. Another reason why cosplay and otaku culture has spread globally is due to a change in how the world has come to consume cultural products. Those who cosplay are no longer passive consumers, they dedicate a lot of time in effort recreating the looks of their favorite characters. This provides an intimacy with the products and the culture surrounding it.
With the outlet of cosplay and a fandom of mostly-female cast anime. Otaku were able to explore non-normative adult male roles and deviate from typical images of masculinity. The Otaku found it easier to feel an attachment to anime because it was fully illustrated. Cartoons are able to convey emotion easier and suspend the disbelief of the real world. Another thing that attracts Otaku to the anime and challenges masculinity is the un-ironic appreciation for cute things. The girls from anime are small and colorful with big eyes, and are known for their cuteness by being labeled kawaii or moe. It has also become increasingly common for male characters to appear in the show indistinguishable from the girl character.
They too, appear feminine and cute. This has worked abolish the stigma against homosexuality in Japan as well as giving Otakus a channel to feel open about gender and sexual fluidity. This again gave the Otakus a new sense of identity in the post-war era. Japan had gone through a huge societal change that was supposed to suppress open sexuality among the Japanese population. Anime and cosplay encouraged experimentation with gender in ways that opposed the mainstream and encouraged individuals to view gender as a personal expression. Adult male fans of the show often face strong stigma because they violate not only gender rules, but age norms. (Robertson 2014). They change the identity of what it means to be an adult man.
Media will often ridicule them for not only for their distinct turn from traditional gender roles, but also for not complying with what society dictates about adult behavior. By watching anime and following J-Pop idols, seek to change what society dictates a man should enjoy. The Otaku subculture will often act in the themes their chosen genre, valuing kindness and friendship as well as acceptance for others. Through this medium, man are able to express themselves in a gentler way, rather than the hyper masculine nature of most societies.
Otaku resistance is not as outright as many other subgroups. They will often just try to escape into the medium of their choice rather than hold a protest. The Otaku's subculture has been defined as a counterculture as it deviates against the traditional values of Japanese culture, but it strictly adhering the demands of globalized capitalism. They focus of materialistic gains rather than long careers. They spend their days discussing cartoons and music rather than politics. They seem to have simply stepped out of the rat race of society to seek immediate happiness than plan for the future. This is the subculture that rebuilt Japans economy and spread across the world.
Broinowski, Adam. Otaku: Resistance and Conformity. In/Stead Journal, University of Melbourne, www.insteadjournal.com/article/otaku-resistance-and-conformity/.
Cloutman, Violet. An Introduction to Otaku: Japan's Counterculture Heroes. Japan Tours, Tailormade Holidays & Vacations | Inside Japan Tours, 10 June 2016, www.insidejapantours.com/blog/2016/06/10/otaku-japans-counterculture-heroes/.
Epstein, Jonathon S. Youth Culture: Identity in a Postmodern World. Blackwell, 2004
Ginwright, S. and James, T. From assets to agents of change: Social justice, organizing, and youth development. New Directions for Youth Development, 2002: 27-46.
Hack, Brett. "Subculture as Social Knowledge: A Hopeful Reading of Otaku Culture." Contemporary Japan - Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies, Tokyo, vol. 28, no. 1, Mar. 2016, pp. 33-57.
New Market Scale Estimation for Otaku: Population of 1.72 Million with Market Scale of ??411 Billion. New Market Scale Estimation for Otaku, Nomura Research Institute, 6 Oct. 2005, nri.com/global/news/2005/051006.html.
Otaku Culture in a Connected World: An Interview with Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, Izumi Tsuji, Henry Jenkins, Apr. 2012, henryjenkins.org/blog/2012/04/otaku_culture_in_a_connected_w_1.html.
Robertson, Venetia. Of ponies and men: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the Brony fandom. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 2014
U.S. Department of State, Japan Reconstruction, history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/japan-reconstruction.
Whaley, Ben. "Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons." Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, Winter2018, pp. 133-138.
Zappa, Marco. Otaku, Cosplay Is No Longer Just for Losers. Eastwest - Ultime News Dal Mondo - Opinioni e Approfondimenti, 2 Apr. 2015, eastwest.eu/en/opinions/next-station-ikebukuro/otaku-cosplay-is-no-longer-just-for-losers.
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