I was recently talking to someone about an acquaintance who is an expert in autism. The expert had mentioned that almost all of her clients are interested in Japan and Japanese culture, which really got me thinking about what it is about the culture that draws people in. I mean, look at your stereotypical American Otaku (the term used for people who are obsessed or interested in some facet of Japanese culture, typically the animation or the comics. See also: weabo). The word “otaku” literally means “house” in Japanese, but has come to mean a person who is interested, nearly obsessive of a topic. Sometimes to the point of not leaving their house. In Japan (where otaku is used as a dirty word. I jokingly call myself otaku and my Japanese friends tell me not to), there are all kinds of otakus. There are train otakus or military otakus or (as my teacher taught me in Kumamoto) even castle otakus. It’s a catchall term for someone who has a deep and profound interest in something.
For an American example, remember that kid in elementary school who was obsessed with wolves or horses (and I mean no judgement by this statement) but they could be defined as a wolf or horse otaku. As for me, I’m a video game otaku. I haven’t quite reached the level of Dr. Who Otaku yet, but it’s close. Anyway, back to the point. In America the words “otaku” or “weabo” are often used to describe people obsessed with Japanese culture, almost always the animation and comic books (called manga). The stereotype of an American otaku is someone wearing outlandish costumes in everyday settings (I’m looking at you, high school student who wore a maid costume to Japan Society of Iowa meeting) and who uses a lot of mispronounced Japanese in their sentences (i.e. “This cookie is so oishiiiiii, ne?” Or, “Oh look at at this kawaiiiiii shirt!”).
Obviously, there are plenty of people who are into Japanese culture who don’t act this way. I mean, just by looking at me (minus my backpack) I don’t think you could peg me as an anime lover, even when I was at the peak of my obsession in high school. I don’t have any anime t-shirts, I only dressed up within the confines of the three anime conventions I attended (yes, this includes dressing up as a giant pikachu. Yes, there is a picture of this on my hard drive, but it would take a lot of bribery for me to post it). Throughout college my interest in anime died down and now I watch it only occasionally, but I try to stay in the loop about what’s popular at the moment.
But getting back to my question about the culture; what is it about anime and manga that draw in so many Western readers and viewers? Part of me thinks that so called otakus come from the niche of people that have always liked fantasy and scifi, but with the added layer of “extra foreign-ness.” Part of watching anime and manga is about escaping reality for a bit. Really, though, that’s what all entertainment is about. It’s about escaping your current version of reality. The great thing about anime is how diverse it is. Do you want to see a twelve year old ninja who secretly has a giant fox spirit inside of him fighting a guy who you are pretty sure is part snake? Naruto has you covered. Want to read a story of Jesus and Buddha as roommates? Saint Young Men will take care of that. Anime and manga are diverse enough that if you have an interest, there is an anime for that. Obviously this varies from person to person and it probably cannot be summed up in a paragraph or two, but I’m curious about what makes this subculture different than others. (Or the subcultures within the subculture.)
Well, it definitely has it’s own language and vocabulary. For example, if I were to say that, “Gundam is a mecha anime,” then for some of you the only comprehensible part of that phrase would be “is a.” Others would know exactly what anime I was talking about as well as what genre it is. There is a certain kind of stereotypical dress as well (as mentioned), though obviously not everyone will dress the same. If I had the time and resources to write an ethnography about this group, I would probably want to investigate the Western Otakus visiting Tokyo’s famed Akihabara and Harujuku.
So…yup. That’s my longish rambling for today. If I had to (I really kind of want to), I could probably milk a 30-35 page term paper out of this (for one of Brian’s classes, I’m sure). Maybe that’s something I can save for grad school. Also, I promise that the 16th’s post will be a faster and more amusing read.