Demystifying Otaku – a closer look at Japan’s nerd culture

You have probably already heard of terms like Cosplay, Anime, Manga, Karaoke or even Sushi. But do you know what otaku means?

Since his first appearance in the 1980s the so-called otaku has become more and more well-known all over the world. Some people might think of a nerdy teenager locked away in a dark basement playing videogames or doing other things that people outside of Japan can only consider as weird. But is this true?

Let me give you a small insight into the Japanese culture and introduce you to a person that’s as much part of Japan as Karaoke or Sushi – the otaku.

What is otaku?

Defining an otaku is hard since he (or she) is not simply a Japanese nerd or geek. As it is with most trends in Japan, being an otaku became its own subculture with its own history and language.

First of all let me clarify that otaku aren’t exclusively interested in manga and anime. Rather, otaku is a term for extreme fans of every aspect of pop culture. This might be manga and anime of course, but there are also otaku interested in idols, videogames, action figures or even military minutiae. In other words, an otaku is someone able to focus on, fantasize about and sometimes even worship certain trends of Japanese pop culture. Also, unlike a maniac an otaku has knowledge about a broader spectrum of fields instead of obsessing over just one aspect.

This is still far away from a perfect definition of an otaku, but at least we have a point now from where we can start our journey into the daily life of an otaku.

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Where do we find otaku?

The stereotypical otaku will spend most of his time in or around Akihabara, the proclaimed Mecca of otaku culture. For those of you that don’t know, Akihabara (or Akiba for short) is located in Eastern Tokyo and is famous for its affordable electronic goods. No matter what you’re looking for, if it’s made of wires and circuits you will find it in Akihabara. Here, otaku come together like flies being attracted to light and roam around the busy streets.

Nowadays, there are a lot of specialized shops located in this area that especially cater to otaku culture. One of its main selling point is merchandise, ranging from high quality figurines of your favorite shows to bath towels with the faces of female idols on them. Some shops offer doujinshi, self-published manga that are mostly drawn by amateurs who wish to make it into the world of “real” mangaka. Also, there are multiple arcades stretching as high as seven floors as well as Karaoke bars to relax and unwind from the busy street life of Tokyo.

Other places usually associated with otaku are maid or manga cafés. Waitresses at maid cafés are dressed up as – you might have guessed it – maids and serve each customer with a smile and a little bit of small talk. Manga cafés on the other hand are usually solitary experiences where one can rent a small cubicle for a certain period of time to either browse the web or read ones favorite manga for a specified fee.

Is the otaku paradise falling apart?

 

Let’s face it – the golden era of otaku is over. What began as a huge hype at the end of the 20th century has already become widely accepted and almost ordinary in modern Japan. The special charm of otaku was the fact that they were obsessing over things that most people couldn’t appreciate and they knew facts that no one else has heard of. But the industry has discovered otaku as a new market and started producing specifically to satisfy their needs. What started out as a treasure hunt in the ocean of pop culture has turned into an abundance of commercial goods that can be easily obtained.

Don’t get me wrong, there will still be otaku en masse in Tokyo and outside of it and manga, anime and Co. are not disappearing. It’s just that the novelty of otaku is fading away and they are turning into a mere commercial market for different companies. Life in Japan is fast and new subcultures are created almost by the minute. The disappearance of one group is no big deal since a new one will certainly emerge in its place.

 

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What now?

Today, otaku aren’t restricted to Japan anymore. They have managed the jump abroad and otaku cultures are appearing in other Asian countries as well as in the US or Europe. Japan’s culture is still special and differs from Western ones in multiple ways. That’s why there are still enough people out there ready to learn the language and to encounter every aspect of its culture. Anime, manga and Co. are of course a part of it.

Nowadays there are foreigners that identify themselves as otaku, even if they haven’t visited Japan personally. It’s a trend that has become global with the help of mass media and social networks. Soon, otaku might be bigger abroad than they are in Japan, who knows. All I can say is that even though they are not as big nowadays as they’ve been some years ago, otaku are still a part of modern Japanese culture. Akihabara’s illuminated streets and buzzing arcade halls are still the heart of Tokyo and a safe harbor for otaku to come together and to live out their passions.

What are your experiences with otaku culture and has it already reached your country? Your input is always welcome in the comment section down below.

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