Answerman
Why Is It Socially Unacceptable To Be An Otaku In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

I have seen a rather large number of anime and manga series in recent years in which a character (either male of female) is extremely popular and successful at school and with their friends, but hides the fact that they are an otaku (approximately the Japanese equivalent of a nerd in western culture), but I wonder why that is; what is wrong with being an otaku? Given that nerd subculture is now "cool" and mainstream in the west, why is it not now "cool" to be an otaku in Japan?

Editor's note: this answer has been rewritten. Please check out the revised version here.

Being an otaku is not "cool" in Japan, and likely never will be. "Otaku" itself is a derogatory term and always has been -- even if a few people consider it a badge of honor. For those who don't know, its original meaning is "your house," giving it a connotation of "shut-in." It can mean any kind of obsessive, not just one of anime and manga and pop culture. There are train otaku and military weapon otaku and stereo gear otaku and just about every other kind of otaku you can imagine. There are even otaku for the bento boxes they sell at different train stations in Japan.

In Japan, people tend to not be very open about their hobbies, especially if there's a perception that they'll be frowned upon. Home and work life are kept very separate, and so those who are otaku end up living something of a double life. This is part of a yin and yang of overall cultural necessity known as "honne" (本音), which are your true feelings and desires, and "tatemae" (建前), which is the face you show to the world. Japanese society mandates that honne and tatemae are kept walled off from each other to a large extent. It's all for the sake of living in harmony with others when you're sharing very little space.

There's a long-held stereotype about Japanese fans being antisocial, and there is still some truth to that. Otaku culture has become a lot more social just in the last decade - fandom explosions like Comiket and the enormous wealth of special promotional events and meetups have brought otaku together like never before. Otaku culture appears to be changing - but it hasn't changed completely, nor has the social stigma disappeared. A lot - certainly not all of it, but a lot - of otaku culture is still a salve for being alone: the countless "virtual girlfriend/boyfriend" anime and games, the piles of hentai material of all kinds, and the time spent online are all very much solitary activities. Even late-night anime, which usually broadcasts at a time when almost nobody is awake -- works largely because people can time-shift those programs and watch them in secret. Japanese society -- and Asian societies in general -- tend to favor collectivism and social harmony over individualism. It's a lot more of a "thing" to shame or shun people who throw off harmony, who are antisocial. So while otaku culture might be changing, in many palpable ways we're still waiting for society to catch up.

Otaku culture also tends to be favored by the young and nerdy, which makes it something that many older people don't "get" and generally disapprove of. The local media has played up this angle: there have been scare stories about maladjusted otaku doing everything from attacking people on the street to any number of other crimes. Some younger fans have also started to reject honne and tatemae, proudly waving their "freak flags" about being otaku -- causing no end of disapproval from the older and conservative crowd that makes up most of the country.

Fed by these media scare stories, parents worry about their kids becoming otaku. The extreme cases of hikikomori -- societal drop-outs -- are the ultimate otaku, after all, and for those who are not into the subculture, it could seem like the logical conclusion of getting into late night anime and manga. The idea of someone innocently just liking these things is not the concern -- the idea that it will lead you down a road of social decay, is.

You also must remember that the Japanese "otaku" market involves a lot more erotic delights than it is overseas. The anime and manga from mainstream sources are generally not reliant on smut, but the subculture is practically swimming in it. If you walk through random shops in Akihabara, you will see a TON of graphic sexual imagery, boldly and openly displayed in many shops. There are whole stores dedicated to immaculately designed figurines in ridiculously graphic poses. Eroge (erotic visual novels) are far more pervasive. A huge percentage of doujinshi -- the main attraction at Comiket -- is porn. You and I might be sex-positive heroes, but this is still a recipe for social stigma in both Japan and America.

Otaku, fujoshi, and all of the other sub-groups of hardcore fans are nerds, after all. Even as small parts of the otaku world cross over into the mainstream and gain broader societal acceptance, the majority of this content, and the fans that consume it, will always be looked at as strange outsiders. This mentality itself has become part of the content: what easier way is there for a fan to relate to a character than to make that character an otaku? Or better yet, a lonely otaku, living in fear that they'll be shunned by society?

I don't see any major push to fight these attitudes, even as more and more people quietly consume this content, and more and more of it is proudly and loudly consumed overseas. Japanese fans seem (for the most part) happy to enjoy it quietly, underground. For many, it's still their secret delight at the end of the day.


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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