A couple of days ago, two members of the Japanese pop idol group AKB48 were attacked by a saw-wielding maniac. The man slashed the faces and hands of two members, and also injured a member of staff who attempted to restrain him. The victims are said to be stable and recovering swiftly. However, when most people heard of the attacker’s details, (he is an unemployed 24 year old man), they dismissed him as being “just another otaku freak”.
For those westerners who are familiar with Japan and Japanese Culture, but have never spent a long time here, “Otaku” is just another way to say “nerd” “guru” or “geek”. Most are unaware of the pejorative implication it carries, less of a “nerd”, but more of a “basement-dwelling, obsessive-compulsive loner”. To identify yourself as “Otaku” in Japan can cause a great deal of apprehension in Japanese people, but why? I mean, isn’t it normal to want to marry a pillow with your favourite cartoon character printed on it?
Let’s look at the word itself. Taku means a person’s house, and Otaku refers to a person who never leaves their house, passing their time alone. In the west, individualism is prized, and people are often assessed on their ability to function independently, the opposite is true for Japan. Japanese culture is built around consensus and harmony, called Wa (和) in Japanese.
As such, being an outsider is something to be avoided in Japanese society. Outsiders find it difficult to get employment, start relationships, or even just bond with other people. So, being labeled an Otaku is something people generally strive to avoid. They have a reputation for being strange people who take a hobby to the extreme.
Otaku people have a reputation of being essentially “overgrown man-children”, think of the “Bronies” or “Neckbeards” in western culture, and you’re on the right track.
A lot of people have an image of Japan being a technological wonderland, full of strange fashions and oddments, and while this may be true for Tokyo, and some areas in the bigger cities, it is not true for all of Japan. Japan is a country, and like all countries, it has office workers, it has policemen, it has farmers, it has doctors and it has nerds. It is important for people to remember that not all of Japan is like Akihabara (the famous electronic district in Tokyo).
Many Japanese people actually get upset when people assume that all of Japan is like Tokyo, and that the modern anime-scene (which is viewed as being childish) is all Japan has to offer. These people will be quick to point at the hundreds of years of history and culture that survives in Japan today.
So remember, it may be fun to call yourself an Otaku at home, with friends, or at conventions, but should you find yourself in Japan, stick to safer terms, like fan, guru, nerd or geek.