Like with any language, the meanings of certain Japanese words change over time. Take the word “otaku,” which is originally a polite way of saying “you.” It’s so polite that overusing it can make a person sound a little wishy-washy, giving the impression that he’s not really comfortable with interpersonal relationships in general. Of course, if someone isn’t spending his time interacting with other people, then what does he fill his days with? Presumably, his solitary, or at least niche, hobbies such as watching anime. And so otaku picked up a second meaning of “obsessive nerd.” That was 30 years ago though, so a recent survey sought to answer this question: What do Japanese people imagine when they hear “otaku?”
Japanese corporation DIP (which stands for Dream Idea Passion) runs a group of employment websites where job hunters can look for part-time and full-time positions. Recently, though, Dip held a survey about Japan’s otaku, garnering a total of 1,843 responses from men and women between the ages of 10 and 49. While only 37.4% identified themselves as otaku, it’s hard to imagine the remaining two-thirds decided to take the time to fill out a questionnaire on the subject without at least some experience with the hobbies most commonly associated with otaku in Japan, which include anime, manga comics, video games, idol singers, trains, and technology in general.
While the increasing number of self-proclaimed otaku in Japan means the label has lost some of its stigma in recent years, many apparently still feel it’s not something to be particularly proud of in certain circles. More than 30% say their friends don’t know about their otaku leanings. Almost 40% said their parents were in the dark, and only a hair more than half answered that their siblings were in on the secret. Nearly one in 10 responded that no one knows about their burning yet concealed otaku passion.
This of course begs the question, what negative perception are Japan’s otaku trying to avoid by not letting it be known that they’ve got an apartment full of Gundam models or a brain full of fighting game combos? To find out, Dip asked all of the survey participants to answer another question, “What comes to mind when you hear the word “otaku?” Following are the top 15 responses.
15. Pants with a lot of pockets – 4.8%
We start off with a bit of a surprise, as cargo pants have become pretty ubiquitous in Japan. Still, when you’re lugging around at least one handheld video game system, a cutting edge smartphone, and a fistful of 100-yen coins to drop at the arcade or bank of anime trinket vending machines, it’s nice to have enough pockets to keep everything separated.
14. A recent jump in stylishness – 6%
As previously niche hobbies like anime and video games move more and more into the mainstream, the odds of a hot guy or cute girl also being an otaku are climbing higher and higher, with some even arguing they make ideal dating partners.
13. Paper shopping bags – 13.7%
Japanese supermarkets only use plastic bags, but anime shops regularly place customers’ purchases in long bags made of thick paper, so that their goodies don’t get bent or scratched on the way home.
12. Plaid shirts – 13.9%
Combine one with a pair of multi-pocket pants for double otaku-ness.
11. Bandanas 14.5%
When you spend so much time wrapped up in your hobbies, it’s hard to find the time to go for a haircut, so a bandana or headband to keep your bangs out of your eyes is essential. Extra points if it’s emblazoned with the nickname of your favorite idol singer or voice actress.
10. An increasing number of girls – 18.9%
For most of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the otaku world was largely a boys’ club, but the increasing number of anime and video game titles designed for girls, spurred on by their willingness to pay for them, means you’re more likely than ever to find female otaku.
9. Backpacks – 23.5%
Because you’ve only got two hands, which means there’s a limit to how many paper bags of gear you can hold.
8. Someone who likes video games – 37.8%
While more and more cross-promotion and merchandising is blurring the line between video game, manga, and anime series, games remain the least likely of the three to be associated with the word “otaku.”
7. Someone who likes manga – 38.8%
Manga just barely hangs onto the second-place spot among the big three otaku hobbies.
6. They’re entering their golden age – 41.5%
At least some people don’t think being an otaku is anything to be ashamed of.
5. Akihabara / Akiba – 45.6%
Akihabara remains the worldwide mecca for all things anime, video game, and maid-related. The neighborhood has gone along wholeheartedly with the perception, and even the nickname Akiba, which started out as strictly a part of otaku parlance, is now widely understood in Japan.
4. Someone with his or her own world – 46.8%
Whether it’s for better (a well of passion they can go to at any time) or for worse (a delusional refusal to face reality), there’s no denying that otaku are well-versed in escapism.
3. Someone who knows a lot about one thing – 47.9%
A lot of the things that otaku get so wrapped up in are actually pretty prevalent in society. In Japan, almost everyone rides a train or uses a computer daily, and you can’t watch TV or go into any shopping center without hearing at least a few songs from the most popular idol groups. What makes someone an otaku, though, is a time and energy commitment strong enough to seek out all there is to know about the subject.
2. Someone who likes anime – 50.4%
This one was bound to come up eventually. Survey participants were far more likely to think of an anime lover than a manga reader or gamer when picturing an otaku in their mind’s eye.
1. Someone obsessed with his or her hobby – 61.9%
The top response, though, showed that the most common image of an otaku had less to do with liking something, but more to do with not liking anything else. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter if you’ve got a bookshelf of manga or line up overnight when a new video game console gets released, as long as those aren’t the only things that get you fired up.
So even if you’d rather not be called an otaku, if you feel like filling up your DVR with the newest anime or your SD card with photos of rare trains, go right ahead. Just make sure those aren’t the only things filling your calendar.
Sources: Livedoor, Iroiro, Dip
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