Friday, October 07, 2005


You Too Can Be Otaku

It's always interesting to learn what American friends think of Japan and Japanese culture -- especially when they have never been to Japan. People make comments about panties in vending machines (which is so ovah, by the way), and cartoon pornography (which is still around).

My favorite guidebook to Japan makes the point that while many Americans might be fascinated by manga and anime, these things are not really part of mainstream culture. The authors make it very clear that while we in the States might find these things interesting, it is not the best idea to try to using anime as an overture to friendship. I guess it would sort of be like a Japanese person coming to America and assuming that everyone here loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or something like that.

This is not to say that there aren't people in Japan who love anime. There is in fact a term for the mainly-boys who adore action figures, games, cartoons, etc. They are called otaku, and a brief history of the term helps explains mainstream Japan's ambivalence toward these young people. (If you click on the hot-linked word otaku, you'll get Wikipedia's excellent definition.) Basically, a serial killer named Tsutomu Miyazaki, who killed several young girls, was found to have an obsession with games, and the pre-teen girls who dominate manga and anime. He was considered an otaku, and after that, anything otaku had creepy connotations.

Since then, however, otaku are getting a second look. A book, TV series and movie have all been written around the supposed real-life experiences of an otaku, who rescued a beautiful girl from the advances of a drunken man on a train. The otaku posted about his experiences on a popular Japanese message board, under the handle "train man." I've been completely hooked on the TV series, which is called Densha Otoko (Trainman). The acting is good, the story is fun and the opening song by ELO is absolutely killer. Part of the drama in the story comes from the man (Yamada-san) coming clean about his otaku identity, and the girl (Aoyama-san) accepting it. Every Japanese girl I talk to tells me how much she loves this show, and, if she is single, how very much she would like to find a nice man like the "train man."

The term otaku has also started to enter the English language, where, among hipsters, it has far more positive connotations. I recently found a guidebook titled "Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Tokyo."

So, now English speakers can go to Tokyo and find all the places and shops where Japanese otaku hang.

Last year, I also went to the Tokyo Video Game Show, which, not surprisingly, has its fair share of otaku participants. There are even special tours organized to help Americans travel to Tokyo to get the maximum "otakuness" possible out of that modern city.

So, what does all of this mean? I think it's interesting to see how culture is flowing between our two countries. It used to be the case that we all laughed at the Engrish T-shirts and signs that the Japanese created. But when I told my Japanese friends about the Otaku Guidebook, they were stunned, and found that truly bizarre. Ditto for the tendency among some Americans to get Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies with the characters for "crazy diarrhea."

Cheap airfare has narrowed the distance between our two countries, and I imagine we'll see more and more of this kind of cultural borrowing and reinterpretation.

OTAKU also means in a formal-term Japanese YOUR PLACE or HOME. It is fascinating to learn how the meaning of such word changes.
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