Brain Diving
Otaku, Where Art Thou?

by Brian Ruh, Dec 14th 2010

Are you an otaku? Chances are, if you're reading this you've probably given some thought to this question. But the answers to this question will vary greatly based on what definition of “otaku” you use. So what is an otaku? Now that's really the million dollar question, isn't it?

Some would say that “otaku” by itself means a fan of anime and manga. If you want to go with this definition, then chances are good that if you're reading ANN then you'd fit the bill. However, some people would say that being otaku means having grown up in Japan being subjected to the many societal pressures over there and that there's no way non-Japanese can claim to be otaku just because we tend to like the same geeky things. Even in Japan the word can mean different things and have shades of meaning depending on if it is written in hiragana or katakana (two of the phonetic scripts in the Japanese language). There are similarly numerous theories about why fans in Japan began using the word among themselves decades ago. In order to begin to get at some of these issues, this week I want to briefly consider how “otaku” began to be popularized and then move on to a discussion of The Otaku Encyclopedia by Patrick W. Galbraith.

This week's Read This! is a short but historically important link if you're interested in otaku. Back in June of 1983, a column called “Otaku Research” began running in the magazine Manga Burikko; the first installment of the column by Akio Nakamori is supposedly the first use of the word “otaku” in print. (The link is to a post on the website Neojaponisme and was translated by Matt Alt. If you want to read it in its original Japanese, you can find it here.) It's pretty short – just three paragraphs and fewer than 600 words – but it does a good job of introducing the concept of the otaku to the magazine's readers. (Manga Burikko was a lolicon manga magazine, so chances are the majority of its readers would be categorized as otaku even if they didn't know the term.) The first paragraph describes who the otaku are and what they look like. Basically, they are the out-of-fashion people who blended into the woodwork in school and were obsessed with their hobbies. The second paragraph details all of the different interests otaku could be obsessing over. This is where it gets a bit more interesting. Although, the column was running in a manga magazine and the author begins by discussing Comiket, from the examples he gives we can see that even from the beginning “otaku” wasn't a term that was applied solely to the anime / manga crowd. Nakamori concludes by teasing the reader to keep up with future installments by saying that he is going to discuss why he uses the particular term “otaku” and will go into more detail about its meaning. I'd certainly love to read more along these lines – it looks like the site Burikko.net has some of the subsequent “Otaku Research” columns in Japanese.

The Otaku Encyclopedia
by Patrick W. Galbraith


Patrick Galbraith is one of those people like me that bridges fandom and academic studies of anime and manga. In addition to writing this book, he is also a PhD candidate in information studies at the University of Tokyo and he is one of the founders of the website Otaku2. I have a lot of respect for what Galbraith is trying to do by taking his obsessive hobbies and writing about them in both popular and analytic ways.

The bulk of The Otaku Encyclopedia is an alphabetical list of otaku-related terms followed by the words written in Japanese and then a short definition. These terms in the encyclopedia range from specific Japanese words (like otaku and seichi junrei) to people (like anime director Hideaki Anno and Japan scholar Sharon Kinsella) as well as places (like Akiharbara and Tokyo Big Sight) and specific anime titles. Interspersed throughout are interviews with otaku personalities Kaichiro Morikawa (architect and author), Yutaka Yamamoto (aka Yamakan, anime director), Koichi Ichikawa (one of the key organizers of Comiket), Yunmao Ayakawa (cosplayer and author), Bome (model figure maker), Haruna Anno (retro gamer), Himeko Sakuragawa (Akihabara idol), hitomi (famous café maid), Ako Hazuki (actor and café maid), Toshio Okada (Gainax founder and “Otaking”), Takashi Murakami (artist), and Shoko Nakagawa (singer, cosplayer, and all-around talent).

The book demonstrates a deep understanding of Japan and thorough knowledge of otaku culture in general. There is a strong current of otaku history running throughout The Otaku Encyclopedia, and although it's not presented chronologically, it still makes for entertaining yet well-informed reading. One of the things that jumped out at me reading the book this time around was the key role that the Urusei Yatsura anime and manga played in the development of otaku culture. The character of Lum is cited by both Bome and Koichi Ichikawa as formative influences. Ichikawa even claims that “Lum-chan is the source of moe, the queen. She's the first tsundere character.” I hadn't thought about it in that way before, but it makes complete sense. For better or worse, Urusei Yatsura is also the source of a lot of the otaku-bait harem anime, manga, and games you see these days. (Even though Rumiko Takahashi and harems are discussed in the book, Urusei Yatsura doesn't get its own encyclopedia entry.)

With a lot of information available on otaku activities available online for free, you might be wondering what the use is of having it all packaged together in one neat little book. Galbraith definitely presents his own point of view on otaku and their hobbies – although the book claims to be an encyclopedia, it's certainly not objective. I think this is a good thing, though. Galbraith's particular take on otaku, of which he obviously considers himself one, differentiates the book from a series if Wikipedia articles. Also, as seen from the “Moe-pon” character on the cover, there is original art to be found throughout the book, which should lure you in if you're a fan of ditzy moe maids. The art should also clue you in to the kind of otaku Galbraith is – in his introduction he relates being uncomfortable when talking with “Otaking” Toshio Okada when he says he doesn't understand “moe otaku” like Galbraith. Although he does an admirable job of trying to cover all of his bases, based on the entries in the book and the people he chooses to interview, Galbraith is obviously a “moe otaku” at heart.

However, this point of view can cause some problems, as one of the problems with the book is that it tends to try to put fandom in the best possible light. For example, the subtitle of the book is “An insider's guide to the subculture of Cool Japan.” This is bound to raise some eyebrows right there, since even in Japan otaku cultures are considered far from “cool.” Although it's true that in recent years both outside observers and Japanese bureaucrats have noticed the popularity of anime and manga abroad and have used this idea of Japan's “coolness” to try to bolster these creative industries, these recent efforts at rebranding have by and large failed to pick up much momentum. I think one of the reasons this doesn't—and can't—catch on is that the whole “cool Japan” idea is primarily a product of the Japanese government's wishful thinking. Sure, grants to help the anime industry would be great (and are desperately needed to attract new talent), but they can't change the image of anime, comics and gaming as a whole. I mean, when was the last time you decided something was cool because some government agency encouraged you?

Galbraith also tends to downplay the negative aspects of fandom. For example, in the section on “anmoku no ryokai,” or “unspoken agreement,” he discusses the idea that anime companies will often look the other way when it comes to copyright infringing fan activities such as doujinshi, fandubs, and fansubs. I wouldn't put these three types of fan activities under the same umbrella. There is a long tradition in fandom of creating fanfiction and doujinshi, and most doujin don't sell enough to trouble the original creators. Fandubs infringe more on the rights of the original producers, but they also stay relatively under the radar. However, Galbraith gives fansubs a pass without really critiquing them; they are certainly illegal and can unlike doujinshi and fandubs can actually cut into sales by foreign licensors. It's a bit odd that he doesn't give fansubs a bit more attention given the role they have played in the development of fandom outside of Japan. (He also says that the first fansub in English was Vampire Princess Miyu. However, according to Carl Horn the first fansub was Macross: Do You Remember Love? Of course, it's critically important to note that if you really care to argue this point, you're definitely an anime otaku.)

Although I just said that having a single authorial voice makes the book more valuable than information you may find here and there on the internet, at the same time I have to question the usefulness of putting the information in a paper book like this. Many of the entries are interconnected and reference animation and other elements that can't be properly conveyed in a dead-tree format. Also, due to the space limitations of the book, some of the entries seem like they deserve more space although there isn't enough room. (For example, the word “futanari” gets translated as “a hermaphrodite” with no additional context or examples that would explain the term within otaku culture.) It seems like The Otaku Encyclopedia would be more useful and functional as a website. Of course, I completely understand the reasons why an author and researcher like Galbraith would want to write a book rather than a website. The two have completely different cultures and economics associated with them. You can't go on a “website tour” when you've created a new site the same way you can go on a book tour. It's still more prestigious to be a published book author than to be known as a website author or editor, so the impulse to turn things into books is completely understandable.

Also, I have to question the inclusion of some of the entries in a book that is supposed to be about otaku, since some of them seem to be more about contemporary Japanese culture and subcultures rather than about otaku specifically. One example is the entry for “ganguro,” which Galbraith first translates as “black face” and then contextualizes a bit more in another three sentences. He makes links to the manga Peach Girl and Super GALS to give examples of characters that may fit the type, but in reality it's not probable that practitioners of ganguro styles and anime and manga otaku would be crossing paths all that often. Other words like “karaoke” and “pachinko” are probably common enough in Japanese culture at large that they really didn't need to be included here. I would much rather have had the room used by such entries for more detail on other topics or for additional terms detailing otaku-related minutiae.

Although The Otaku Encyclopedia veers too far into the contemporary Akiba, maids, and moe aesthetic for my tastes, I think it does an excellent job of covering otaku culture in general. If you're an old-school otaku, there's still plenty here for you to read about. Indeed, I feel much closer in my otaku tendencies to someone like Toshio Okada, who claims in the book that otaku are people “with general knowledge and a shared culture.” He contrasts this with a person who is a “mania,” who is “so enthralled with a single thing that he or she can't see beyond it.” In other words, although otaku were never the popular kids and were always on the edges of society, they managed to band together to create their own spaces where they could create and communicate. Okada also says that the otaku of old had wide-ranging interests, whereas the kids he sees today frequenting Akihabara and getting into contemporary anime are just interested in their own little corner of the world and are happy to exist consuming without giving back to the greater society. Admittedly, a good part of this could be the fact that Okada is in his fifties and this is a kind of a “hey you darn kids, get off my lawn” reaction to the changing times. Still, Okada's advice is sound. We may all be otaku of one stripe or another, and it's important for us to come together to communicate, create, and pay attention to the world around us.


Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.


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