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