Evolution of an Otaku: Conflict of Identity

If you had asked me at the age of fourteen if I considered myself an otaku, I would have raised one snarky eyebrow at you and said, “Obviously.”  And it was pretty obvious, too, what with my too-big anime T-shirts and the constant presence of a sketchbook full of fan art, not to mention my…speech quirks (I promise that I can’t remember the last time I screeched “Kawaii!” unironically).

But what about now?  I write about anime weekly, but my anime T-shirts are in a box in my mother’s attic, stored away but kept for nostalgic reasons.  I have only recently forayed back into fan art, having been doing mostly original stuff for years now.  I haven’t cosplayed since I started college (and even so, my last two costumes were Sweeney Todd and Gaiman’s version of Death).  But I still have eighteen years of experience as a fan of anime.  Eighteen years.


Me at ConnectiCon 2007 dressed as Vincent Valentine from the video game Final Fantasy VII.
Me at ConnectiCon 2007 dressed as Vincent Valentine from the video game Final Fantasy VII.

Am I an otaku?

Trying to define an identity of any kind is really very difficult.  There is the perception of otaku from a societal viewpoint (one that is similar both in the States and in Japan), and there is the reality (which is sometimes closer to the societal viewpoint because it’s perpetuated by members of the subculture).  But to quote Jason Thompson’s book Manga: The Complete Guide (I knew this book would come in handy):

In Japan, it’s considered normal to read comics, but hard-core manga and anime fans have their own name: otaku. The term was invented by Akio Nakamori, who in 1983 wrote a short-lived column in the adult manga magazine Manga Burikko, in which he complained about the nerdiness of modern manga fans.  As Nakamori recounted from his experiences at Comic Market, this new crop of fans was so socially awkward, even among themselves, that they addressed one another with the stiff, pretentious word otaku (a very formal way of saying “you”).  Thus, Nakamori titled his column Otaku no Kenkyu (“Otaku Studies”).  Mania, short for “maniac,” was the more polite Japanese slang for “fan,” but otaku quickly became the new name for sheltered youths obsessed with their fantasy worlds.

So that really leaves us with the impression that the word otaku was coined for the express purpose of defining this obsessive and socially inept group of people with poor to moderate grooming skills.  It may not be fair, but that is what Nakamori saw in the hordes of fans at ComiKet – and judging by some of the behavior I’ve seen at conventions, I can see why this would be a somewhat logical definition.  I certainly don’t match that definition, though.  Aside from regular baths and the ability to not fail miserably in every social encounter (which I really do believe are both more stereotype than reality), I don’t look or act the part of your standard otaku.

I work in retail (bear with me, this is relevant), and a young lady came into the store one day with a purse in the shape of a Dragon Ball.  Naturally, I thought this was great, and I told her so – without mentioning that I recognized it.  She thanked me, told me that she made it herself (so cool!), and that was it.  She didn’t ask me if I knew what it was; she probably assumed that a young woman working in a women’s clothing and accessories store had an eye for cute purses.

And yet, I was one of the first anime bloggers for Amazing Stories!  I was probably watching Dragon Ball Z while this young woman was still in diapers (which isn’t too much of a stretch, because I was also pretty young at the time).  But if I walked up to a group of 14-year-old otaku now, my lack of knowledge about Naruto would probably earn me the title of “poser,” or worse, “fake fan.”  Never mind that my manga collection is probably worth a few hundred dollars at least, and that I have made it a point to educate myself about Japanese culture beyond what I have seen in cartoons.  I don’t have all the merchandise, and I don’t watch any and every series available and I don’t fetishize Japanese culture.  In fact, my friend and fellow ASM blogger Tom reminded me of this when I asked about identifying as otaku on Facebook:

…I think it boils down to just how damn uncritical most otaku are. Or, rather, how they’re critical of the things I don’t care about (character redesigns between media, whether or not real Japanese cars are used–this happened recently) and aren’t critical of things I *do* care about, like narrative structure and social issues. I see plenty of otaku complaining about things because they don’t like suspense, or how they don’t like things to look certain ways, and it’s like dudes, you can think more deeply about your media than that.

So there you have it – I’m not that kind of otaku, the kind that we see as being uncritical, who consumeconsumeconsume but never think to question or consider.  I could easily have become that kind of otaku, and was well on my way as a kid.  But somewhere along the line, I realized that animanga was a huge interest of mine for many reasons, not the least of which was that it inspired me – and the higher quality the story and the artwork were, the more I was inspired.

I’ve already mentioned that anime is what got me started drawing; I think I also have to give it at least half of the credit for my love of writing as well (and so appropriate that I should be writing about it now).  I might have gone down the artistic path anyway (though I really wanted to be an archaeologist growing up), but anime – and to a greater extent, manga – was the catalyst.  And now it’s my goal to make books and comics, among other things.  Because I watched Sailor Moon and Pokemon and Gundam Wing.  Because I could not stop reading manga, to the point where I expect every comic book to read from right to left, even now.  Because, at one point, I was the nerdy girl with the too-big glasses and frizzy hair who needed an outlet for her thoughts and her worries and her dreams.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I don’t always fit in with the otaku crowd, especially in terms of how I express my obsessiveness.  I don’t know if I would considering myself an “otaku“; my paycheck goes entirely toward rent and groceries and paying the bills instead of buying Gundam models and wall scrolls and plushies (though I still buy manga compulsively, and I definitely have a Chococat decal on my iPod).  But I’m not at all ashamed to announce that I love anime and manga – that I’ve loved it ever since I started, that it’s brought me very much to where I am today, and that I will continue to care about it for the rest of my life.  I don’t know how to define myself, but I know where I stand – on the side that wants to see this art form continue to grow and change and inspire many people for generations to come, even if that means they start out as mildly annoying fangirls and fanboys (and let’s be honest, teenagers will find something to be annoying about anyway).

Eighteen years.  Maybe it’s not that I’m no longer an otaku, but that my otaku has grown up in all this time.  She still loves the art form, still wants to go to conventions and meet like-minded people.  But she’s picky and she’s precise, ’cause she’s been at it for a while now.  And maybe there’s still room within otaku-dom for fans like this – fans like me.

Just look at all that manga behind my head!
Just look at all that manga behind my head!
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  1. Heh. Yes, Morgana, you are an otaku. Nothing wrong with that! Great minds and all … I’m currently writing a post about weeaboos.

  2. I think a major part of that is just growing up. A lot of anime is aimed at teenagers, and while I can’t speak for every fan around 30, I can say that I no longer fit the demo. But we’re supposed to get older, become more complex people, and be harder to please.

    Also, I think in the earlier days it was actually foreign and intriguing. It wasn’t a part of mainstream culture, and I remember the artwork on a VHS case would solely justify purchasing it. Whereas now, it’s very a pedestrian style and familiar to any casual viewer of cable TV. So that mysterious, explorative allure has been diminished greatly over the last decade — which was a major part of the reason I, and my friends, loved it growing up.

    Anyways, good article. It really made me feel like less of an outsider looking in for enjoying some of the few shows I do.

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