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Guide to Anime – Otaku

February 02, 2012 By: Nopy Category: Anime

Whenever you talk about anime, and in particular, the anime fandom, the term “otaku” almost always comes up. Those new to the anime scene have probably been bewildered by the conflicting uses of the term, so I will try to clear up some of the confusion here.

The reason why it is difficult to grasp the meaning of “otaku” is because there seems to be two main definitions that contradict each other. In Japanese, the word evolved into slang to describe people obsessed with a certain hobby, not necessarily related to anime (ie: military, idols, games). Calling someone an otaku in Japan was similar to calling someone a geek in the 80’s, before it became cool for everyone to call themselves a geek as they do now. It’s mainly used as an insult and conjures up images of smelly, fat, pedophilic men that may or may not be child killers (a famous string of crimes from 1989 is to blame for that).

How would you feel being around this man?

For a time, use of the term otaku in and out of Japan was consistent with the Japanese slang meaning. However, over the last two decades, the usage of “otaku” in the English-speaking anime community has changed from the Japanese meaning. A vast majority of people outside Japan now consider the term to be synonymous with being an anime fan and take pride in calling themselves otaku. This idea was promoted with events such as Otakon, publications such as Otacool, and TV series such as America’s Greatest Otaku. Nowadays, seemingly everyone with even a remote interest in anime calls themselves an otaku.

Words do change and gain new meanings over time though, and right now otaku is at the end of a transition phase. Otaku is a lot like the term nonplussed, which has gained a second meaning opposite to its original due to incorrect usage by the masses (fyi, nonplussed is the perfect word to use to confuse people). So many people have embraced the new meaning of otaku and use it to describe themselves that they outnumber those that still view it as an insult. Even in Japan, which was seemingly immune to changes to Japanese words used in English, has gained a new perspective on otaku thanks to the huge Densha Otoko movement (a romantic story of how an otaku won the heart of his beloved, based on real-life events).

With this in mind, I advise using the term with caution. A lot of anime fans still think of the negative meaning when they hear otaku. I try to avoid the term as much as possible because of its double meanings, but if you decide to call someone an otaku, make sure they don’t view it as an insult. As for calling yourself an otaku, just make sure the people you’re talking to consider an otaku to be just a fan and not some guy married to his 2D waifu (which could make a conversation very awkward).

For a more descriptive history of the term ‘otaku’ and its evolution, visit the Otaku Elimination Game’s explanation of it. In case their site goes down, I have also saved a text file.


This post is part of the Guide to Anime project. For more guides on various topics related to anime, check out the project page.

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16 Comments to “Guide to Anime – Otaku”

  1. This post definitely serves as great guide to the newbies out there especially with the contradicting meaning within and outside Japan. I remember being surprised at how different the meaning is after I read a few articles debating on the term “otaku”.

    I guess anime series itself didn’t help much in portraying the true meaning of the term in Japan. I mean, look at Konata and Kirino – would anyone think of an image of smelly, fat, pedophilic men that may or may not be child killers?
    Hoshiko recently posted..Let The Animation Talks

    • Some anime certainly favour one definition of the term over the other. While Lucky Star and Oreimo seem to have gone with the “fan” meaning, Welcome to the NHK and Haganai used the “dirty” meaning.

  2. It’s bad that the word had such a scary meaning in japan.

    In an old western documentation from the 80’s I’ve seen last year, it was told that the otaku term was more related to software and electonic geeks.

    I just imagine this scene:
    Person A says” Im an otaku” and the person B has the picture of child killer in mind XD
    Fabienne recently posted..Princess Bitch by Orchid Seed (nsfw)

    • Yeah, back in the 80’s it was used more for people obsessed with computers, the term was almost synonymous with geeks. I’m not sure how it became more associated with anime over time.

      You definitely need to be sure that whoever you’re talking to is thinking the same definition of otaku as you are, or else it could cause some confusion.

  3. I think I’ve heard it used in both negative and proud contexts before, both in Japanese media and in the west.

    Perhaps it’s matter of intonation. “Have a nice day” can sound very friendly or very menacing depending on HOW you say it. Either way, using the word carelessly could be social suicide haha.
    exilehero recently posted..Why We Blog – The Art of Attention-Whoring

    • That’s true, I guess it really depends on how you use it. Saying something like “he’s an otaku” could have several meanings based on how you say it (ie: normally or sinister-sounding).

  4. I live in a pretty secluded part of the world, especially in terms of anime and other Japanese cultures. I’m 100% sure most of the citizens don’t even know the term “otaku”. It’s ironic since there’s not much Japanese culture in here and because of that, I don’t need to worry about addressing someone else as otaku or anything, since they don’t even understand it.
    Kai recently posted..Black Rock Shooter “The Game” figure

    • I guess having no one around you that’s familiar with anime can be both a good and bad thing. The worst is when you have a lot of people who think they know what anime and otaku are, but they really don’t.

  5. Like “geeks” and “nerds”, the term “otaku” sure is a funny word. The way it becomes from a derogatory term to something that people were insulted by use it proudly. The way the term is being promoted sometimes worry me a little, especially after OEM highlights the details here and there.

    I personally would avoid using this term, even along with “fan”. People claiming they themselves are fans and claim what they think are correct can be pretty destructive to community, and I feel that in some ways this is the case with “otaku” as well.

    It’s funny how calling each other such names can have such an effect :\

    It’s worth noting that the term often refers to anime-related hobby, while others such as military or trainspotters are seriously overlooked. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard the term had been used in those context other than anime in English.
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    • I’m like you in that I try to avoid using otaku and fan as well. When I talk to people I just tell them that I watch anime. I think that otaku became associated with just anime because it was people who watched anime that started using it, even though it’s used for all other types of hobbies in Japan.

  6. I’ve always been fairly comfortable with the term, but I also didn’t mind being called a geek and such as a youngster. I suppose it depends on your audience and how you carry yourself. I see humor in nearly everything, including the idiosyncrasies that are part of fandom. If you can’t laugh at yourself for spending absurd amounts of money on bedsheets, figures, a pillow, or doujinshi etc. then perhaps you need to lighten up a bit, right?

    As for that picture up there… there’s always fringe elements that take things to the extreme. This is true with any grouping ^__^;
    kgods recently posted..NTR Radio: OH GOD MUGI POOPS ;_;

    • If everyone lightened up a bit, I’m sure a lot of things in the world would be better. Unforunately, a lot of people like using “otaku” as an insult and a lot more people take offense to the way it is directed at them.

  7. I am proud to say that I am a OTAKU! It really has a very interesting background.. Thanks for sharing them with us! :)

  8. Great article on the brief history of the term “otaku” for those new to the anime culture. I think of the current use by the western audience more as a reclamation of the word than incorrect uses, but the idea is the same–otaku is now a glorified label here. I tend to avoid the label myself because I don’t think I have hit the level of obsession yet, but I guess nowadays, that levels is much looser.
    Yi recently posted..Fashionable Nudity in Mawaru Penguindrum

    • It does seem that “otaku” is not only reserved for the extremes of fandom anymore, with seemingly everyone who likes anime being called that now.


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