- おたく Otaku/Geek
The English words closest in meaning to otaku are “nerd” and “geek.” The character type denoted by otaku is found in many nations and cultures, even though not every language has a precise name for it, and the common image the word brings to mind—an unattractive male obsessed with technology—can be traced back as far as Hephaestus, the ugly, crippled blacksmith-god of fire and the forge in Greek mythology. This universal type of course exists in Japan as well, but a number of unique factors during the 1980s—cultural structures, social conditions, educational institutions—were responsible for the coining of the derisive term otaku.
The contemporary usage of the word otaku originates in an essay titled “A Study of Otaku” (Otaku no kenkyū) that appeared in the June 1983 edition of Manga burikko (Cutie Pie Comics), an erotic manga magazine. Nakamori Akio, who was just starting out at the time, wrote the essay, which barely fills more than two pages in a light Shōwa style that vividly depicts the otaku type.1
Do you know about Comic Market? […] Well, it’s this festival for manga crazies, an exhibition of amateur manga and fanzines. More than ten thousand attended recently, young men and women from all over Tokyo, and they were so weird it really shook me up. How can I put this? You’ve seen this type in almost every class in your school. You remember…they’re the ones who are hopeless at sports, who stay locked up in the classroom during breaks, fidgeting in the shadows, utterly absorbed in a game of shōgi. You’d recognize them right away. Their hair is either long and stringy, parted on the side, or it’s some horrid buzz-cut a little boy might wear. Dressed in the neat shirts and slacks their moms bought for ¥980 or ¥1980 at some bargain store like Itō Yōkadō or Seiyū, wearing those pirated Regal sneakers with the R logo they got several years ago, trundling along with their shoulder bags stuffed to the point of bursting… [End Page 56] that’s them. They’re either so skinny they look malnourished, or they’re like laughing white pigs, the frames of their silver-rimmed glasses biting into their foreheads. […] Always sitting off in a corner of the class, virtually invisible, with a gloomy expression, without a single friend… just imagine ten thousand of them filing by on and on and on. You have to wonder, what tidal pool did they all bubble up from. […]
When you think about it, these types aren’t just manga fans, and they aren’t a species whose only habitat is Comic Market. Those creatures who line up outside the theatre the day before the opening of some anime film? Or those train spotters who nearly get themselves killed trying to get a picture of a Blue Train with a camera that is their pride and joy?2 Or those alien beings who have the back numbers of every SciFi magazine, not to mention the Hayakawa Gold Cover and Silver Cover SciFi Series lined up in precise order in their bookcases? Or the young science geeks with glasses as thick as the bottom of milk bottles—you know, the ones who hang around computer shops? Or the fans who go early in the morning to secure a spot at an autograph fair for some teenybopper idol? Or that timid preppie who, if you took away his studies at the famous cram school he goes to, would be nothing more than a bug-eyed idiot? Or a young man who is, let’s just say, a little “particular” when it comes to audio equipment? We have lots of names for people like this – crazies, fanatics, introverts—but none of them quite do the trick. In my opinion, we still don’t have an appropriate term that somehow covers both these particular variations and the general phenomenon of this character type. And so, for reasons entirely of my own making, I shall dub them otaku and hereafter refer to them solely by that word (Nakamori...