Thursday, 23 January 2014

Interview with a Japanese Otaku

Something which might interest people some is an essay I wrote while I was studying at University in Japan. I was thinking its a shame to have these actually interesting essays and no one to see them apart from my professors. SO here you go! This is for anyone who's interested in otaku and has time, or is just a masochist and wants to kill time. Enjoy!

An Otaku in 2010
– The new generation of ‘otakuness’ -

Within this interview I wanted to look at a normal Japanese person and find out ‘what makes them otaku’, how they think other people view this identify and how it is expressed in their everyday life.

A "collection of useless things"
The term otaku originated from the word meaning ‘your home’ which was used to refer to someone whose position to oneself was unclear. It carries the connotation of being equal but also being distant from them. In the 1980s the term began to be used largely between fans of anime, manga and computer games. The media then began to use this term to describe people (mostly teenage men) who were socially inept, who did not care about their looks and who were into “collecting useless things” such as anime, manga and computer games (Grassmuck 1990); a negative image which grew to be connected to an incident, know as “The Miyazaki incident”, in 1989 where a man whom the media labelled as being otaku killed 3 little girls in horrific ways (Grassmuck 1990; Schodt 1996, p.45). This negative image was predominant in the 1990s and so I was particularly interested in seeing how things have changed in the last decade from the perspective of a modern day otaku.

Yuuki (for the sake of anonymity this is not her real name) was hardly the unclean anti-social image associated to otaku when I met up with her one lunch time. She seemed like an average 19 year old Japanese girl with her tights, short shirt, smart top and a big grin across her face, although she looked quite nervous she seemed happy to talk to me. When I first met her she appeared to be an average Japanese girl but after a few months she mentioned off hand that she was an otaku. This had caught me completely off-guard because her outward image was not what I had expected, and considering she was the first otaku to ‘come out’ to me, I asked her if I could interview her. She agreed and we met a few days later. I told her that the interview was anonymous and she seemed to relax a bit.

At the beginning of the interview I wanted to know what she thought made her otaku and how it was different to other people. She said that she was familiar with otaku culture and knew that otaku are otaku to their fandom’s, such as train-otaku, computer-otaku, and in her case she was an anime-otaku. There are people who just watch anime but otaku get involved more, and in her case she does so by going to events and enjoys watching cosplay (although she herself does not partake in cosplay). Other otaku also spend a lot of time on the internet browsing sites of their interests such as anime sites, but she said she does too sometimes but hasn’t had much time for recently. Considering that the image of otaku is associated with men I found it interesting that she made the comment that a while ago otaku is only men, but now it’s also women. “There are many woman but they don’t say as much as men. Women take care of their fashion, but boys don’t, so it’s hard to tell if woman is otaku”. But when I asked her why it was now also women she did not know.
Typical image of "typical" otaku in Japanese popular media

I then wanted to know how she became an otaku. When she was in elementary school she got into anime that was on TV such as Sailor Moon, Ranma ½, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Mezon Ikoku. It was an interest she developed on her own, which was normal among elementary school children. What was not normal was that she maintained her interest in anime through junior and high school until the present day. It was not normal for her to be interested in anime after elementary school and that was when she knew she was otaku.

She had one friend who was otaku in high school, who did not appear to be otaku and she knew her for a long time in junior high before she found out. One day after they had graduated from junior high her friend went up to her one day and said “why don’t you go to an event with me?” and since then she has gone to events in Osaka every year and one time she and her friend wrote a manga and tried to sell it as Comiket (a large doujinshi event in Tokyo). Although her friend has now moved away they still sometimes talk online. I asked if she had any other friends online and she said that although many otaku might because it is easier to be yourself online, she does not and prefers to talk to people face to face.

Her other friends in high school were not otaku though, and although they knew in high school that she was an otaku her university friends do not. I asked her why not and she said was embarrassing and that there’s a ‘bad feeling’ associated with being otaku. In general anime-otaku are seen as being very anti-social and get this bad impression. Although there are some ‘good’ impressions of otaku such as history-otaku or animal-otaku, where being otaku is a profession. I asked if she was ever bullied for being otaku and she said although there is a bad feeling she was never bullied. If people were not interested in the same things they either tended to not get to know that person or can get along despite different interests.
The "typical" fashionable girl in Japan

As she had mentioned her university friends did not know she was otaku I decided to expand on why that was. She said that Kansai Gaidai was famous for its fashionable girls, and her friends here are all fashionable. She thinks that they would not be surprised and would understand if she told them she was otaku, but “real otaku don’t say they are otaku”. This statement I found interesting and when I asked her why that was she replied that “if people go round telling everyone they are otaku then people don’t think they are otaku. Otaku are shy and quiet and don’t say they are otaku. That is why it is difficult to know if a person is otaku.” She said that she did not think there were any otaku at Kansai Gaidai because of this.

I asked her why clothes were linked with otaku. She said that a person who is not interested in fashion shows that they are not interested in sanjiken or the 3D. They prefer 2D girls and are not interested in attracting real girls, so they do not need to pay attention to their looks. She said that personally she is not as fashionable as her friends and usually wears Uniqulo clothes (a brand of cheap clothes) and because of that her friends sometimes joke that she is otaku (that is why they would not be surprised if she told them she was an otaku). She prefers cheap and reasonable clothes where her friends prefer expensive fashion. This is because she likes to save money to spend on anime and manga, although she will also spend her money on trips, music and concerts.

TV Drama of Densha Otoko
I wanted to gauge her experience of the media and otaku. She said that before 2005 otaku did not appear in the media but since Densha Otoko became popular then the image of otaku has been one that is strange but acceptable. Densha Otoko or “Train Man” was a drama based on a manga which revolves around the story of an otaku trying to fit in with society and his love story with a normal woman (Pena 2006 p.12-14). It portrays otaku as being the socially inept anime obsessed image that people are used to seeing in the media, but also as being harmless people who have friends and can get girlfriends. Although Yuuki did say that the show portrayed a good image to some people, other people still think the obsession with anime, manga and game characters as being too weird. The media now broadcast otaku as being strange all the time, but at the same time show that many Japanese people are otaku so it is not unusual. I asked her what she thought of this ‘bad’ image of otaku, to which she replied “it can’t be helped if people think that way”.

My final question was if she would stop being otaku when she started full time work. She said that she didn’t know. If she stops being interested in anime and manga then she would give up on being otaku, but now, although she’s very busy she still spends her free time watching anime, and she’s been drawing manga since junior school, so she doesn’t think she will ever give that up. She said that although people have bad impressions being otaku is always fun. When she sold her comics in high school she got a lot of good feedback and the event was a lot of fun. “Almost all otaku are quiet, not energetic, but if they gather they can be energetic, excited, crazy.”

Miyazaki of the "Miyazaki Incident"
One thing which struck me in my conversation with Yuuki was that she never mentioned the Miyazaki incident from 1989 and when I asked her if there had been anything about otaku in the media before 2005 she said “not really” and that she had never heard of Miyazaki. Although most of the definitions linked to otaku mention this incident as being a key aspect in the negative images of otaku, I think I can understand why she did not make the connection. Yuuki was, like most of current teenager otaku generation, born in the late 80s/early 90s, so they would not have been conscious of the increasingly negative image associated with otaku. Their parents and the elder generation would and this negative feeling seems to have been passed down into the generation without any context. I think this is why shows like Densha Otoko and the modern media are able to portray the image of otaku as being ‘strange’ but overall harmless, because it is directed to a generation outside of the ‘dangerous otaku’ image.

Overall the interview went well. At the beginning I explained to her that she could speak in Japanese if she felt more comfortable doing so and to ask me any questions if she didn’t understand anything. I asked her to explain her details in as much detail as she could and to tell me about her experiences and feelings. As the conversation went on I adjusted my questions to fit in with what she was telling and now and then had to probe to get her to expand on a previous statement. She was fine for the most part apart from seeming very nervous, which I found out was due to the fact that she had never spoken about her otakuness in as much detail to anyone before. One problem I had with the interview was that she spoke mostly in English, and although this was helpful for me I felt like she could not explain herself as well in English. There were times where I asked her to explain it in Japanese but she would slip back in to English again.

In conclusion Yuuki’s ‘otakuness’ derives from her love of anime since a young age and had carried on through school, expressed through her hobby of drawing manga. She is a female otaku, showing that otaku does not necessarily equal men. Her identity as otaku is a central part to her and although she does not appear to be otaku in the way the media portrays them to be, she still hides this aspect of her from her friends. She is a generation born outside of the Miyazaki incident yet the negative connotations giving people a ‘bad feeling’ of otaku remain. I think hiding their identity is common among many modern day otaku who do not want to be associated with the negative images of being unclean, anti-social and strange, despite the fact that they are also portrayed as being common and harmless. Due to this many otaku do not know about other otaku that might be close to them which is why, as Yuuki explained, “when otaku gather at events they become different to how they are on their own”.


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.” Retrieved from, 1st November 2010

Pena, Joseph (2006) “Otaku: Images and Identity in Flux” Retrieved from, 1st November 2010

Schodt, Frederik (1996) “The Doujinshi World”/”Otaku” from Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkeley: Stone Brige Press, pp. 36-49

Interview Guide

1. What makes him/her otaku
-Why/How do you define yourself as ‘otaku’?
-How do you think this is different to other people?
-Do you think there’s a good/bad image of otaku in Japan? Why?
-Have you ever been bullied because of this?

2. How they became an otaku
-When did you start becoming interested in anime/manga/computer games etc?
-Did your friends introduce you or was it something you did on your own?
-Are many of your friends otaku? Why/Why not?
-Do you discuss your interests with your friends? Why/Why not?

3. The Media
-How does the media portray otaku? Good/Bad?
-Did you notice a difference in the past?
-What do you think of this image?

4. The Future and General Thoughts
-Do you think you will stop being otaku when you start full-time work?
-Any comments he/she wants to expand on?

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