What Manga Tokyo’s ‘Redefining Otaku’ Article Gets Wrong

A few weeks ago, anime fansite Manga Tokyo launched a new column with its first article, Redefining ‘Otaku’ in the Modern Era. Within it, columnist Tim Rattray (who also writes for Crunchyroll, and his personal blog) takes aim at the stereotype of otaku as extremely anti-social, which he claims is still prevalent in how ‘otaku’ are discussed. He believes that the English-speaking sphere of the anime community needs to take responsibility in ‘redefining’ the word that has been loaned to us, and that we likewise need to set an example for the future of ‘otaku’ worldwide: “Let’s show the world why being otaku is great”.

Tim’s more recent article for this column asserts simply, and correctly, that when it comes to talking about otaku from as an ‘outsider’, “the fine line comes down to but one thing: respect” – but I don’t think Tim’s discussion of “Redefining ‘Otaku'” is respectful at all.

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Tim asserts that “the word ‘otaku’ is used as a pejorative in Japan, heavily connoted with the misconceived ‘obsessive’ and ‘detrimental’ aspects of those definitions”. Those definitions are however from English dictionaries. He fails to cite which. The first – ‘one with an obsessive interest in something, particularly anime or manga’ – comes from Wiktionary, under the subheading of ‘English’ definitions. Wiktionary definitions are often the product of inaccurate, crowdsourced information: for ‘オタク’ (‘otaku’), it gives usage notes that state that “in English, the word otaku is often used by anime lovers when referring to a big fan of anime or manga. In Japanese however, it is always derogatory”. This may be the source (not cited, if it is) for his assertion that otaku is only used as a pejorative in Japan, but it does not capture modern usage in Japan itself. Otaku themselves ook to using the term affectionately for each other while its broader use became negative towards, and they have since worked hard to destigmatize the notion of their particularly obsessive nerdiness: works like Densha Otoko have also depicted these fans as good, hardworking individuals.

Moreover, in the original, unedited article, Tim did not even mention the name of Miyazaki Tsutomu, the ‘Otaku Killer’ that inspired a vast amount of otaku-bashing in the 80s. He also claimed, pre-edit, that there were multiple ‘killers’, which acts as evidence of further co-opting mass media narratives: because of the legacy of Tsutomu, journalist Akihiro Ōtani had suspected that Kaoru Kobayashi, a serial killer who followed in the footsteps of the ‘otaku killer’, was a figurine collector before his arrest. Kobayashi wasn’t an otaku at all, but his murders regardless helped fuel hostility against these fans. It wasn’t long at all before everyone otaku was being considered a potential murderer: Kaichiro Morikawa gives the example of one reporter calling the one hundred thousand otaku gathered at the 36th Comiket, which opened right after the otaku killer’s arrest, ‘Miyazaki Tsutomus’ (Morikawa p.8). There is now a mention of Tsutomu’s name in the Talking Otaku article, but he is only explained through a comparison to the West’s ‘violence in video games’ debacle. A rhetorical move is made away from the specific history of Japanese otaku and towards a generalization of these fans as simply sharing the history that Western geeks have experienced and contributed to.

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Tim is likewise incorrect when he states that “the reason this negative connotation made sense in the public eye” is that “the word translates literally to ‘your home'”. Otaku was an honorific before it was co-opted by Aiko Nakamori, and he chose it for the social awkwardness with which some of these fans used it – at Comiket and elsewhere – instead of other titles, not in any sense because of its connotations to a literal home. Tim went as far as mentioning these ‘essays’ as only a sidenote in the first published version of the article. The edited version continues to ignore the fact that Manga Burriko wasn’t a mainstream magazine: as Morikawa has emphasized, the readership of the magazine was “the very otaku that Nakamori was ridiculing” (Morikawa p. 3). Tim’s narrative was, when the article was first published, absolutely backwards, and the fact that edits have been made to somewhat rectify this without any notes affirming these changes at the bottom of the article is a classic case of unethical journalism. How much more will the article have changed by the time you’ve read my thoughts on it here? Who knows.

Another edit that was made in order to include a mention of “other aspects of otaku culture beyond the scope of this quick history overview such as the female-dominated fujoshi” is similarly unaccounted for, and similarly wonky insofar as he parses the term as a ‘pejorative’ while simultaneously introducing the fact that fujoshi happily use the word to refer to themselves. They’ve already changed the ‘definition’ of the word, just as otaku have changed what the word means to them and for them. Why do Western readers of an English-language website need to take any action here, other than picking up what otaku efforts have already produced as a backlash against mass media? Why is someone writing for a mass media platform trying to take credit for work that’s already been done?

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The article also embraces the mass media myth of otaku as simply antisocial, even though he criticizes how otaku have been ‘frowned upon’ by the result of Nakamori claiming they are “always sitting off in a corner of the class, virtually invisible, with a gloomy expression, without a single friend”. Tim introduces the internet as an invention that offers a ‘cure’ to this supposed condition of being doomed to isolation, claiming that “something that differentiates the modern otaku to those of past decades is that the Internet enables them to seek out like-minded peers”. But as Lawrence Eng has observed, “contrary to the stereotypical image of the otaku as socially isolated” anime fan communities have always been “highly social and networked, relying on combinations of online and offline connections”; Eng himself uses the US ‘otaku’ scene since the 60s as a case study, but does so respectfully and productively.

In terms of Japanese otaku internet usage, the popular anonymous platform 2channel was launched in 1999, almost two decades from today, and though Tim believes that “otaku are increasingly finding both new and magnified ways to communicate”, the internet was came into being the very same year that Nakamori’s essays on otaku began to be released. The myth of otaku as simply socially inept is as old as the internet itself, and it’s hard to imagine that media-savvy otaku would have ignored the opportunities it presented; the rise of the use of ‘moe’ as a term for affection took place almost entirely online (Galbraith 2014 p.5), starting with the sento bishojo of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rei Ayanami.

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From the VHS trade to the long history of Comiket and other such meetings, otaku have always operated on what is better termed an alternative social life. How does Tim imagine that these fans navigated the media they loved and the derivations that (they) spilled out from it without constantly connecting? In his essay on the history of ‘otaku’, Morikawa draws attention to a 1981 essay in Fan Rōdo (Morikawa p.3), which predates Nakamori’s polemics, wherein author Shirakawa Shōmei derides hardcore fans: “they are far more informed about their own interests than is absolutely necessary, and as it turns out, that‘s all they know”. More importantly, Shirakawa frames discussion around culture clubs, which were the driving force for why otaku were seen as socially outcast, as attendants to these clubs were seen as failing to connect in the normative social spaces of sports and traditional arts. It’s not that they weren’t sociable – they were sociable around the wrong things, in the wrong places, with the wrong people.

As Galbraith has explored in his work on otaku’s history with the district, these fans dominated the Pedestrian Paradise of 00s’ Akihabara through coming together for mass street performances, cosplaying and crossplaying and bringing a uniquely media-centric matsuri to life so much that authorities had to shut these activities down to keep the streets peaceful. One could even say these people are connecting with each other from media too much; that their identity of over-obsession extends into an incessant need to be connected to fellow fans through through what they love, which is the inverse of isolation. Yet, spawned from the iconography of Tsutomu Miyazaki’s media portrayal, the stereotype of otaku as dangerously isolated pervaded most discussions of them from the outside: though he promises a ‘history of otaku’, Tim joins the ranks of these outsiders looking in, and reciprocates their narrative while claiming that he bears responsibility for changing it.

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The most concerning aspect of the article is its overall angle. From using Western dictionaries to describe global usage to asserting that the internet, mostly a white man’s invention (not to discount the impact that Jun-ichi Nishizawa and Izuo Hayashi’s work had on internet hardware), offers salvation from an issue otaku did not and do not even have, Tim’s polemic veers dangerously close to a White Saviour Complex. ‘Otaku’ does not need redefinition in the Western anime fandom: it was loaned to us as a positive and affectionate word for devoted fans because of the work of otaku in Japan, and the resistance of those fans – and fans over here – to mass media narratives. While discussing how ‘otaku’ needs redefinition in the West, Tim repeatedly implies that otaku can only be understood in the West by paralleling them to Western examples. He goes as far as using his own life experiences for an ‘otaku’ ethnography, forever eager to look away from the Japanese themselves. This, combined with the initial lack of Japanese names, speaks of a marked disinterest in representing Japanese otaku accurately or honestly, which correlates to the erasure of the efforts otaku have already largely succeeded in when it comes to getting their fan identities out of stigmatization. One could even say that showing ‘the world’ that ‘being otaku is great’ is tantamount to an erasure of what being proud to be an otaku means in Japan: after being stigmatized and assumed to be serial killers, passionate Japanese manga and anime fans didn’t clamor for cohesion with normal society . They gave the middle finger to mainstream acceptance. That’s what’s been loaned to Western anime fans, as a positive word: an affectionate term for a fan who marks their difference to what’s normal, and what’s normally considered ‘enough’ passion for anything. Nothing needs to be redefined here.

We need to be talking about otaku, but it’s vital that we navigate away from the negative stereotypes that have been popularized by mass media and those outside of Japanese fandoms. If ‘respect’ is the keyword, and we acknowledge how we stand on the ‘outside’, it’s probably not a good idea to place ourselves as the focus for otaku life, or claim we need to do work that they have already done. Fans over here are already using ‘otaku’ in a positive sense, and so are otaku in Japan. What we need is a much louder outcry against myths like those Tim cooperates with – the idea that otaku were, at any point, a legion of lonely men needs to be scrubbed from public consciousness. This ‘Talking Otaku’ article is only going to be a set back to such an enterprise.

If you’re ‘Talking Otaku’ without letting any otaku talk, you’re part of the problem, not the solution, when it comes to how passionate Japanese fans have been misrepresented by the media.

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Stuff Cited:

  1. Galbraith, Patrick W., The Moe Manifesto (Clarendon: Tuttle, 2014)
  2. Galbraith, Patrick W., ‘Akihabara: Promoting and Policing “Otaku” in “Cool Japan”‘ in Introducing Japanese Popular Culture (Routledge, 2018) [https://www.academia.edu/36573806/Akihabara_Promoting_and_Policing_Otaku_in_Cool_Japan_]
  3. Morikawa, K. (2012). おたく/ Otaku / Geek. UC Berkeley: Center for Japanese Studies. [https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5zb9r8cr]
  4. An archived version of the ‘Redefining Otaku’ article as it stands today is available here, in case it changes again. I have screencaps of the original in case anyone doubts my discussion of it.

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