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In 2006, I completed my PhD dissertation on otaku culture, focusing on American anime fandom. For more information on that, please see Lawrence Eng's Anime Fandom Research

The current status of "otaku" and Japan's latest youth crisis

By: Lawrence Eng (09/04/01)

While engaged in discussions about otaku recently, I was reminded of an article I read in Yahoo magazine. In it, the authors described antisocial Japanese kids who locked themselves in their rooms, didn't talk to anyone except maybe their families every once on awhile, and watched TV, listened to music, played video games, or did other solitary activties all day. Are we talking about otaku? No, we already established that otaku aren't like that necessarily--that it's a stereotype at best. No, there's a new segment of Japanese youth scaring adults these days. These kids are known as "hikikomori" (people who withdraw) and they attracted widespread media attention when some of them (surprise surprise) committed various violent crimes.

As far as I know, unlike "otaku", "hikikomori" is almost entirely free of positive connotations--people don't and haven't ever proudly referred to themselves as hikikomori, except perhaps to cause a public stir. The main point of controversy here is not whether these kids are extremely withdrawn from mainstream society, but whether or not they are more likely than others to commit acts of violence. This point is also where stereotypical perceptions of hikikomori as being killers come into play.

Unlike otaku, hikikomori and their condition are well-defined. People used to be afraid of otaku and their fanatical devotion to anime and manga (and etc) because such behavior was unfamiliar to them, and otaku were therefore a possible cause for any number of (sometimes imaginary) social problems. Since that time, however, when it turned out that blaming otaku for everything was unproductive, more concrete problems and causes have forced their way into the public eye.

It seems that the Japanese public has now become more aware that otaku-ish fanaticism does not necessarily imply antisocial and violent behavior, and that deeper social problems (economic uncertainty, the pressure to fit in, cutthroat academics, bullying, overly busy parents, etc.) are more likely to cause real psychological damage in youth. In comparison to hikikomori, otaku seem like well-adjusted members of society, if only slightly weird.

An article on TIMEasia.com ("Staying In and Tuning Out") reveals the changing perception of otaku, especially in light of new understanding of hikikomori:

A decade ago, another social phenomenon, the rise of otaku, troubled Japan. Roughly translated, otaku means nerd. It refers to people who shut themselves away, spending their days absorbed in anime, manga and video games. They were considered freakish, and a high-profile crime blamed on otaku triggered considerable hand-wringing, much like the concerns about hikikomori. Yet the nerds are considered normal now, even trendy. "The old way of thinking was that the physical world was the real world," says Tamura. "But now we can create two or three or more virtual worlds. Those who stay at home and have no one to talk to in the physical world may be able to connect in a virtual world. We cannot say it is right or wrong. It is one way of living."

In fact, upon closer inspection, the hikikomori seem very different from the otaku. Although people have criticized otaku for being socially inept and unable to make friends, when we consider the types of connections they do make (which can be quite impressive in scope), this is clearly not the case, especially in contrast to the hikikomori who don't talk to anyone if they don't have to. The (super-interested and super-involved) otaku has a purpose and therefore an identity. The (uninterested and uninvolved) hikikomori has neither, and as Marshall McLuhan might suggest, might therefore be more prone to (desperate) violence(1).

Otaku are not so distant from their hikikomori cousins in one sense, unfortunately. It is not so difficult to see the otaku--who is unfairly shunned and abused by society--wanting to withdraw from society (including otaku society) altogether and become a hikikomori.

Instead of stereotyping otaku as being sociopathic, and blaming anime and manga for creating monsters, the Japanese public has been forced to acknowledge that problems amongst their youth are complex and resistant to simple solutions. Instead of looking towards otaku in search of pathologies, the culture has been forced to take a closer at itself.

1. An article in The Age reports: The Health Ministry survey also suggests a link between hikikomori and a rising youth crime rate. Eighteen per cent of the recluses had been violent to their parents.

Recommended reading:

Asahi Shimbun. The scary 'real world' of reclusive youngsters (2000)

Barr, Cameron W. Young Japanese retreat to life of seclusion (2000)

Chujo, Maiko. A Community Essay (2001)

Larimer, Tim. Natural-Born Killers? (2000)

Larimer, Tim. Staying In and Tuning Out (2001)

Millet, Michael. Missing: the hermit closeted behind the bedroom door (2001)

Murakami, Ryu. Japan's Lost Generation (2000)

Rider, Shawn. Hikikomori: Homicidal Teens of Japan (2000)

Last updated on July 5th, 2009
Lawrence Eng