Historically, a great emphasis has been put on Japan’s national autonomy, which has resulted in over 200 years of self-imposed isolation. But for the last century, the people of Japan have begun to view their country as an interconnected, wealthy global superpower. Their products are now seen around the world and have accumulated a reputation for efficiency, productivity, and ingenuity. (Sullivan, 2005) The emergence of Japan as a global power also entails the massive success of Japan’s digital media industry, namely the ACG (Anime, Comics, and Games) industry, which enjoyed great popularity since the 1980s with the emergence of influential corporations such as Toei and Nintendo.
Along with the boom of the ACG industry, came its diverse groups of followers. In this paper, I will set off to explore the social perception and the reality of one of such groups, namely the Otakus, from a sociolinguistic perspective, and show that the formation of Otaku’s fascination with ACG is a result of the industry’s misrepresentation and hyper-sexualization of gender roles.
The ACG Subculture An acronym for Anime, Comic, and Games, ACG is a vital subculture of the Japanese society. The three terms are put together because of their deeply related nature, commonly referred to as Nijigen(2次元), meaning two-dimensional space, or alternatively, MAG (Manga, Anime, and Games). (Cyzo, 2011) It is vital for us to comprehend the significance of the ACG subculture in the Japanese context: in the eyes of the observer, ACG has become almost synonymous with Japan. The prevalence of this representation in its presence not only in the personal space, but also in formal settings such as business and politics.
Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, dressed up as Super Mario, one of the most popular Nijigen characters created by Nintendo, at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games. (Photograph: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters) While greatly popular both domestically and internationally, the production of ACG and their influence to and reflection of the Japanese society are in fact, a complicated matter. But it is exactly its significance and complexity that makes it worth studying.
For example, many distinct communities of followers have emerged over the years, such as the Fujoshi, the Moe, the Hikikomori, and of course, the Otaku. (Tamaki, 2007) Separated by their difference in interest, the complex ACG fandom presents an intriguing research opportunity regarding the social impact of its various factions. In particular, the ambition of this paper is to unpack the ACG subculture and its fandom with a focus on better understanding the formation and socialization of the Otaku subculture. Otaku Linguistics First, let us examine the formation of the word “Otaku” itself. Otaku is a word that seems deceptively straightforward at first glance. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2007), the Otaku is “obsessed” with certain things and lacks social skills as a result of that obsession. This description is essentially consistent in its negative connotation with the columnist Akio Nakamori’s inclusion of the word “異様” (bizarre) when he offered a definition on the label “Otaku” in 1983. (Morrissy, 2016)
While it has become more socially acceptable to identify as an Otaku in the 21st century, the word still indexes an appearance of eccentricity. In current Japanese writing, Otaku is often written in katakana as “オタク”. Linguistically speaking, katakana is typically employed to indicate words of foreign origins. It can be argued that when written in katakana, Otaku’s Japanese origins are obscured and subsequently its connection to a hip and cool young culture is emphasized. Yet, it is curious why Otaku, a word of Japanese origin, is written as a foreign form. Initially, Otaku derived from the polite form of Address/Second Person Pronoun お宅 (or 御宅), which means “your house/family.” When Otaku first emerged as a disparaging label for hardcore anime/manga fans in the 1980s and early 90s, it was frequently written in hiragana as おたく. In resistance to the stereotypes related to this written form of Otaku, prominent cultural commentators such as Toshio Okada (the former president of Studio Gainax and self-proclaimed “King of Otaku”) began writing Otaku in katakana, in order to reimagine the term under a positive light. His side eventually won the spelling war, with オタク now as the agreed upon spelling even in official records. (Morrissy, 2016
) Social Perception of Otaku While the word Otaku emerged as a labeled stereotype of ACG fanatics in the 1980s, the hardcore anime and manga enthusiasts that “Otaku” describes existed long before. Before Otaku was brandished as a label, the word mania (short for “maniac”) was often used to describe members of this community. While they lacked a group consciousness, they were arguably the pioneers of a burgeoning art form. Many people involved in the anime and manga industries during the 1960s and 70s were activists from the student protest movement of the 1960s, and so the community saw an emergence of the “counter-culture” sentiments. The manga critic Eiji Ootsuka, for instance, dubbed it “converted leftist culture” (転向左翼の文化). For example, the then popular anime show “Mobile Suit Gundam” itself contained a strong left-wing and anti-war slant, it was arguably the main character, Amuro, that spoke to the young generation in particular. Amuro became the first example of the now classic mecha anime archetype—the geeky boy lacking conventional masculinity turned reluctant yet capable soldier. (Morrissy, 2016)
It was Gundam that first made visible to the general audience the obsessive sci-fi nerds who would later be deemed Otaku. While sci-fi mania did have a reputation for social awkwardness, their image was not overtly negative in the first place. In fact, they were innovative and cutting-edge. According to Morrissy (2016), it was these “geek” consumers who would later transform the Akihabara region from a district known mainly for selling home appliances into the hub of consumer electronics and media. However, things changed dramatically in 1989 when a man named Tsutomu Miyazaki was arrested for committing the murder of four underage girls. He was also discovered to be a cannibal and a necrophile. The Miyazaki Incident, as it was called, drew instant attention from the media and subsequently the public, to the Otaku community that Miyazaki represented.
The Japanese media latched onto Miyazaki’s anime collection, and consequently, while the word Otaku might have become global, the stereotypical imagery of “nerdy/perverted Japanese men” remains at the forefront of the public perception. Since the incident, the Otaku are labeled as a socially deviant subculture that is individualistic and amoral. Their struggle for autonomy is represented by their possession, circulation, and consumption of manga and anime. Otaku Desire While obsession is not necessarily detrimental to Otaku’s self and others as some suggest, it is undeniably a major part of the Otaku lifestyle. Generally speaking, contemporary Otaku’s obsession is predominantly with characters and objects taken from the ACG subculture, and most notably, characters of the opposite gender and their objects. Male Otaku refers to their affection for anime heroines with a special term, moe, which when translated literally, means “budding.” When a fan of a character called Asuka says “I’m Asuka moe,” it means “I have affectionate feelings for Asuka.” Something that deserves special mention here is otaku sexuality’s estrangement and separation from everyday life. For example, there are many varieties of the unconventional sexuality (tosaku) depicted in the eighteen-and-over genre, including an attraction to older women or men, and a feeling of Moe toward little girls (termed lolicon) that could be seen as pedophilic.
(Tamaki, 2007) It is around this issue that the revulsion directed at otaku becomes most intense. Many people immediately associate this with the aforementioned incident involving the anime and porn-obsessed serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu, but contrary to popular belief, the Otaku people, while some self-identify as lolicon, are not pedophiles in real life. They are said to choose respectable partners of the opposite sex and to have the kind of sex lives one would deem healthy. (Tamaki, 2007) In the following paragraphs, I would like to show that the obsession and desire that the Otaku people exhibit toward Nijigen characters, could have stemmed from the hypersexualization in the Japanese ACG industry. Sexual Exploitation in Manga and Anime While according to Tamaki (2007), the female sexualization of male characters, known as Yaoi or Fujoshi (a predilection for male-male love stories, created by and for women), is also a significant existence, in this paper we shall focus on the male sexualization of female characters. In 1968, the first modern erotic manga, Harenchi Gakuen, was created by Nagai Go.
Intended as a comedy, it depicts the voyeuristic main character “bearded Godzilla” and his outlandish attempts, or sexual harassments by today’s standards, to look at women’s private body parts. Although heavily criticized by the Parent-Teacher Association as objectifying and degrading women, Go’s Harenchi Gakuen became very successful, gaining popularity particularly among teenage boys with its inclusion of borderline nudity and sexually charged characters. (Cang, 2017) In light of its success, Harenchi Gakuen quickly became an inspiration for other manga and anime artists. The industry saw the appeal of pseudo-erotic content to its primarily adolescent audience, and by the 1970s, a large number of titles have adopted this practice, adding to their content both accidental and deliberate acts of sexual harassment on women. It had become clear that in the dimension of Nijigen, it is acceptable to desire and obsess over women’s sexuality. In the realm of anime, even productions targeting relatively younger audiences have included characters with qualities similar to the original “bearded Godzilla”.
For example, in Dragon Ball, the old master of Son Goku, Master Roshi, often find opportunities to take advantage of his female sidekick, which the writers intended to use as comedic relief. And in the classic manga and anime series Doraemon, one of the female characters, Minamoto, is often drawn or run into by the male characters when she is in the shower or other compromising scenarios. As Cang (2017) noted, Minamoto is often drawn more maturely and attractively in such scenarios, while in other scenes is drawn as the little girl she supposedly is. In recent years, anime and manga have featured a new form of “accidental harassments”: accidentally falling into a female character, or just happen to be witness to a breeze lifting up her short skirt. As we can see, these practices of women’s hypersexualization reaffirm females characters’ role as sexual objects in anime and manga. Gendered Speech in Manga Besides behavioral patterns, I would also like to look into how female manga characters’ speech index their gender role. As works of fiction, manga, like novels or films, have to deal with two seemingly conflicting tasks: engagement through realism, and characterization through stereotyping. (Unser-Schutz, 2015)
In particular, some of the previous research on speech patterns in manga has suggested that they are realistic. For example, Ueno (2006) found that young female characters in shōjo manga tended to use more neutral and masculine forms and older characters more feminine forms, suggesting the kind of graduated pattern noted earlier. On the other hand, others have argued the opposite, pointing out that role-language or yakuwarigo is extremely common in manga, with Kinsui (2003) himself arguing that they are “essential” to manga. In Unser-Schutz’s 2015 study focusing on first/second-person pronouns (1/2PP) and Sentence Final Particles in Shonen and Shojo Manga, it was noted that the central male 1PP was ore, whereas the central female 1PP was atashi. However, what is more intriguing is the fact that female characters in male-oriented series used the neutral watashi more commonly, which suggests that females characters are portrayed as more feminine in front of a predominantly male audience. (Unser-Schutz, 2015) When compared with the data on SFP usage, where female characters in both genres used primarily neutral and MM forms, covering an average of 87% of all SPFs in shōjo manga. In shōnen manga, however, this percentage was lower (69.15%), with female characters using a smaller percentage of neutral forms, which again, suggests that the female characters’ language is more marked for gender in the shōnen manga. (Unser-Schutz, 2015) In these ways, shōnen manga appeared to be more marked for gender than shōjo manga, especially for female characters. Unser-Schutz also notes that the differences in the speech patterns of female characters in shōnen manga are particularly stark given their distance from real life speech. (Unser-Schutz, 2015)
Otaku’s Illusion Given all the information above, I would like to make the claim that Otaku’s obsession stems from the illusion of gender and sexuality created by the ACG industry. And it is exactly because of this reason that obsessive Otakus, as previously mentioned, do not usually exhibit the same form of obsession in real life. In a way, terms such as ACG and Nijigen suggest their contents to be separate from our three-dimensional reality, yet designating an exclusive space to this subculture allows it the possibility to be subjectively real, namely from the perspective of its fans. A support for this claim is Otaku’s sensitivity. According to Tamaki (2007), Otaku seeks value in the fictional, but they are also extremely sensitive to different levels of fictionality. From within our environment filled with an increasing amount of stimulant, it is already difficult to draw a clear line between the real and the imaginary. Manga and anime both contain multiple imaginary layers: the world depicted in the text, the personal circumstances of the author that the text may also be influenced by, etc. When enjoying a work, the otaku takes pleasure in straddling all the levels of these layered contexts. If we are strictly talking about the enjoyment of the fictional, almost everyone is capable of it.
Even if the ACG content they consumed, as previously shown, includes explicit and enticing content, surely not every consumer of them became an Otaku. Then why does an Otaku appear to exhibit signs of obsession, while others do not? I would argue that it is because of socioeconomic issues unique to Japan that facilitated the emergence of Otaku. In recent years, with its modernization and recession, Japan is seeing a decrease in birth rate and an emergence of single-person households due to the financial burden of starting a family. The opportunity cost is simply too high. In her journal, Batuman (2018) describes people who find themselves incapable of forming a family opt to rent one instead: a substitution of uncertain reality with fiction, which is certain and more easily acquired. It is worth noting that some of the users do show obsession. Similarly, it could be argued that in the face of instability and uncertainty in general, fictional Nijigen realities, with their idealized narratives, appear to be “easier” and more enjoyable for a potential Otaku person, even without the backdrop of Japan’s recession. In other words, while ACG’s attraction to Otaku stems from the industry’s use of hypersexualization and idealized gender roles, Otaku’s characteristic obsession with ACG, however, could be a product of Otaku’s sense of uncertainty about reality.