Otaku (オタク)

One of the Japanese words I learnt recently is オタク (otaku), which can be translated as geek, nerd or enthusiast, according to jisho, and which has been borrowed into English to mean someone who is keen on manga (漫画), anime (アニメ), etc.

otakufest - Akihabara

It comes from an honorific form of you, お宅 (otaku), and became popular in the 1970s and 1980s as a way for fans of manga and anime to address to each other. A 1983 article by Akio Nakamori (中森明夫) in Manga Burikko (漫画ブリッコ) called Otaku no Kenkyū (おたくの研究), or Otaku Research, popularized it, and gave it a derisive and insulting meaning as the article was very critical of otaku subculture. Thanks to a serial killer in the late 80s nicknamed the Otaku Murderer, who had a large collection of anime and manga, it gained further negative connotations.

Today otaku is considered an insult in Japanese and is used to refer to people with an unhealthy obbession with anime and manga. However, it doesn’t appear to be used in this way in my Duolingo Japanese lessons, so perhaps some people are proud to call themselves otaku, like some people (including me) proudly call themselves geeks or nerds.

There are different kinds of otaku with interests in various things such as manga, travel, computers, video games, cars, anime, phones, cameras, fashion or trains. You’re most likely to spot them in the wild in Akihabara (秋葉原) and Ikebukuro (池袋) in Tokyo.

In the West otaku apparently has few if any negative connotations and is used to used by fans of Japanese, Korean and other East Asian popular culture. Some might define otaku as meaning “reclusive and potentially dangerous” while to others it means “mostly harmless and quirky”.

The word お宅 (otaku) is a honorific / respectful form of you, and also can refer to your house, home, family, husband or organization. (taku) on its own means (one’s) house, (one’s) home or one’s husband. Unusually only has one pronunciation – most Japanese kanji have two or more. The (o) is an honorific suffix.

If you use otaku, what does it mean to you?

Sources and more information: https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/otaku/,
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-does-otaku-mean-in-japanese
https://japanyugen.com/otaku-japanese-obsessive-subculture-explained/
https://wikimili.com/en/Otaku
https://digitalworks.union.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1364&context=theses

2 thoughts on “Otaku (オタク)

  1. When I got into online anime fandom in the ’00s, otaku was widely and proudly used in by English-speaking fans to label themselves. Now it’s used much less and swinging back toward negative connotations. Anime shows which stick to the overused cliches of the moment are accused of pandering to otaku, which in this context means the core market of anime fans in Japan which sustain much of the industry by buying collectibles, Blu-Ray editions, etc. (While anime has become globally popular, most shows still concentrate on getting most of their money from the domestic market.)

    Another term which has risen in the meantime is “weeaboo” or “weeb”. It’s wholly negative; it can be used in a self-deprecating manner, but it generally is applied as a put-down to other fans. It implies the person described is a beginner-level fan who uncritically idolizes everything Japanese.

    The most common neutral-to-positive term for English-speaking anime fans now is just… “anime fan”.

  2. I never used “otaku”, but as someone who was in the computer industry for quite a while, the words “geek” and “nerd” were tossed around a lot, and they are definitely not the same.

    The simple definition of a geek or nerd is someone (usually, male) who is more interested in things than in people, and those “things” tend to be quite detailed and concern subjects that most people wouldn’t care that much about.

    The difference I have seen is that a “geek” still tries to maintain relationships with other people, while a “nerd” is willing to sacrifice their relationships for the sake of the things they view as more important. A “geek” may care about computers or cars or something else, but they still have their friends, while no one would be surprised to hear that a nerd was friendless.

    If you had to pick between the two, “geek” is much better than “nerd” any day of the week.

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