May 1, 2008
When an anime fan proudly describes themselves as an otaku I usually wince a little. I realize that language evolves, especially around loan words—the term anime is a classic example—but I've always found it odd that a word with such negative connotations in Japanese is worn as a badge of honour in the English-speaking world. I usually point to the case of Tsutomu Miyazaki (no relation to director Hayao Miyazaki), who molested, killed and mutilated four girls in the late 1980s. Among his massive video collection were pornographic anime and slasher films, and he was something of an outsider; the Japanese public linked the term otaku with dangerously antisocial behaviour.

However, the term existed before then; less sensationally, but still negative. Over on Néojaponisme, Matt Alt has translated the first two parts of a series of articles in which the term "otaku" was first applied to extremely obsessed fans with few social skills. The articles, written by Akio Nakamori, first appeared in 1983, and you can read them in "What Kind of Otaku Are You?" and "Can Otaku Love Like Normal People?".

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But even before that, otaku was/is simply a polite way of saying 'you' or 'your house' in Japanese. one that was not frequently used by the general population, but apparently was by the Otaku of the early eighties. So during the last few decades, the word has evolved in Japan too.
(Thinking about it even the nerds in north America could be seen to have speech patterns that were more polite and formal than those of their schoolmates)

Otaku may also be losing some of its negative connotations in Japan. This may be partly due to the fact that self described Otaku elsewhere in the world are responsible for the boom in Japanese cultural exports (not just anime and manga, but J-pop, J-rock, dorama, etc...). And just like everywhere else in the world, what was once seen as good only for a group of misfits (computers, gaming, anime, etc...), is now either a part of everyday life, or is seen as cool by more and more people.
Great links. It's easy to sit back, get too comfortable, and forget the origin of an entire lexicon used to propel social interest in a medium.


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