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 Origins of "Otaku"
By: Lawrence Eng (11/04/03)
This essay will discuss theories regarding the origin of the term "otaku" as it was used by Japanese enthusiasts of animation and manga in the early 1980s. It will also explore the implications of the historical details described here on the contemporary use of the term "otaku". This is not a general introduction to otaku. If the concept of otaku is new to you, please refer to some of the articles listed in the 'References and Recommended Reading' section of this paper.
Explaining the significance of "otaku"
Various accounts (Grassmuck 1990, Greenfeld 1993, Schodt 1996) have been vaguely consistent with each other regarding how the term "otaku" came to be associated with fans of anime, manga, etc. Journalist Akio Nakamori is frequently credited as being the individual who first publically wrote about the otaku-zoku ("otaku tribe"). He wrote about those strange, unkempt, and obsessive fans who referred to each other using the word "otaku"--considered to be an overly formal way of saying "you".
Less clear, however, is why the Japanese fans of anime and manga called each other "otaku" in the first place. A few theories have been put forth.
One theory is that the anime otaku exist and participate in large social networks within which they trade goods and information. Although they have many social contacts, the otaku are not intimately associated with most of them. The social transactions in otaku networks tend to be impersonal, short-lived, and businesslike. Cel traders, for example, don't need to become close friends with the various people they trade with. As an otaku's network grows larger, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain close personal relationships with most of his or her contacts. There is an emotional distance between otaku that is highlighted (and further established) by the formal and polite term "otaku".
Another common theory about the term "otaku" is that it refers to the fact that otaku rarely leave their homes, since "otaku" literally means "your home" as well as "you" (formal). This proposed etmyology of the term is generally used in a deprecating manner, negatively stereotyping otaku as being antisocial and isolated from the world at large. Given that "otaku" is something that the fans called themselves, it seems somewhat unlikely that the negative "homebody" etymology is the correct one, unless the otaku were deliberately making fun of themselves (which is not impossible). Another reason why I doubt this etymology is that otaku often left their homes to meet each other, whereupon they called each other "otaku", since computer networks (e.g. BBSes) were very rudimentary in the early 1980s.
The first theory attempts to provide a sociological explanation. The second theory appears to be another means of negatively stereotyping otaku--appropriating the very term the otaku used to refer to each other.
Neither theory takes an historical perspective.
The early history of "otaku"
A third theory sheds some light on the history of why and how the Japanese fans called themselves "otaku".
Takashi Murakami, the famous otaku/pop artist, cites his friend Toshio Okada, one of the world's leading experts on otaku culture, in explaining where the usage of "otaku" came from. Okada, Murakami says, links "otaku" to Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto, the creators of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982), at Studio Nue. Kawamori and Mikimoto were students at Keio University when they started working on Macross.
Keio is known as one of the more upstanding and relatively upper-class institutes of learning in Japan. In tune with their somewhat aristocratic surroundings, Kawamori and Mikimoto used the classical, refined second-person form of address, "otaku", in preference to "anata," the usual form of address. Fans of the studio's work began using the term to show respect toward Studio Nue's creators, and it entered common use among the fans who gathered at comic markets, fanzine meetings, and all-night line parties before anime movie releases. (Murakami 2001)
Tomohiro Machiyama (2004) suggests that the use of “otaku” as a form of address amongst anime fans was mimicked from the Macross anime directly. Machiyama says that the main character, Hikaru Ichijoe, frequently uses the extra-polite “otaku” when talking to other characters.
I recently heard Toshio Okada lecture at MIT, and he discussed this subject further. According to Okada, at science fiction conventions, otaku from various places (i.e. anime clubs from different schools) would meet each other. Out of respect for each other's clubs, they would refer to each other using "otaku", the extra polite form of address.
Even though Akio Nakamori would write about the otaku-zoku in a less than positive light, many otaku began using the label for themselves in proud defiance and half-joking self-deprecation. Otaku no Video (1991) provides an excellent example of sincere otaku pride combined with otaku making fun of themselves.
The radical implications of otaku-ism
This history of the term "otaku", if correct, serves to dispel the common misunderstanding that all American anime fans who call themselves "otaku" are either ignorant of the original Japanese meaning of the term (which many suppose is negative), or are deliberately ignoring that meaning in favor of their own. There are numerous arguments justifying the latter approach, but the important point to note here is that the original meaning and use of "otaku" within the Japanese fan community predates the negative connotations ascribed to "otaku" by the mainstream Japanese media. As such, the negative meaning of "otaku" could (very reasonably) be considered the incorrect one.
Negative stereotyping is not tolerated by most educated Americans. When it comes to Japan, however, many American anime fans seem all too eager to accept the negative stereotyping of otaku by mainstream Japanese culture--a culture which they have accepted a bit too uncritically, perhaps. Toshio Okada explained that many of the early prominent anime creators were politically outspoken and wanted to create political films. Because of their radical views, however, they were cut off from the film industry. So instead, they made anime. It seems ironic that many anime fans work so hard to defend the same Japanese status quo that many anime creators have sought to challenge through their works.
References and Recommended ReadingEng, Lawrence. 2001. "The Politics of Otaku". http://www.cjas.org/~leng/otaku-p.htm
Eng, Lawrence. 2001. "The current status of "otaku" and Japan's latest youth crisis". http://www.cjas.org/~leng/hikiko.htm
Eng, Lawrence. 2002. "Otak-who? Technoculture, youth, consumption, and resistance. American representations of a Japanese youth subculture." http://www.rpi.edu/~engl/otaku.pdf
Grassmuck, Volker. 1990. "'I'm alone, but not lonely': Japanese Otaku-Kids colonize the Realm of Information and Media A Tale of Sex and Crime from a faraway Place". http://www.cjas.org/~leng/otaku-e.htm
Greenfeld, Karl Taro. 1993. "The Incredibly Strange Mutant Creatures who Rule the Universe of Alienated Japanese Zombie Computer Nerds (Otaku to You)". http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.01/otaku_pr.html
Macias, Patrick, and Tomohiro Machiyama. 2004. Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press.
Murakami, Takashi. 2001. "Impotence Culture-Anime" in My Reality - contemporary art and the culture of japanese animation. Des Moines, Iowa: Des Moines Art Center.
Schodt, Frederik L. 1996. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, Japanese Comics for Otaku. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press.
Youmex/Gainax. 1991. Otaku no Video 1982 and More Otaku no Video 1985. translated by AnimEigo