[History] The diversification of otaku in Japanese media

What are otaku? In the west, we have our own general impressions and ideas of what that word means: antisocial men who watch anime, and girls who identify as fujoshi. However, Japanese people tend to have a different concept of the term. “Otaku” can define anyone (male or female) who is obsessed with a single interest, though the stereotypical image swings more towards anime and games.

While as a westerner it’s difficult to have a truly nuanced understanding of those cultural norms, we can get an idea of how stereotypes and expectations have changed by looking at how otaku are portrayed in anime and manga, and how those portrayals have evolved to include more diverse, sympathetic, and positive depictions over the years.

A bunny girl with a sword posing in front of a backdrop of what looks like the destroyed Death Star

Japanese Society’s Impression of Otaku in the 1980s and 1990s

The term “otaku” as it’s used today was coined in Japan in the 1980s. According to western academics of the time (specifically Volker Grassmuck in his 1990 article “Japanese Otaku-Kids colonize the Realm of Information and Media: A Tale of Sex and Crime from a Faraway Place”), it referred to men who were socially awkward and collectors of “useless artifacts” and information. But this definition really reflected the stereotypical outsider’s impression of who otaku were.

Society’s impression of otaku as socially awkward, creepy recluses only worsened when a series of horrifying pedophilic murders were carried out in 1989 by one young man with an obsessive grotesque media collection. The media jumped on this incident, labeling him “The Otaku Murderer.” This then led to the “otaku panic” of the 1990s, which furthered fear and alienation of otaku. Male otaku were seen as not only creepy, but perverts and potential murderers. While female otaku certainly existed in the 1980s and 1990s, they were mostly overlooked by the public, neither represented nor subjected to scare-mongering stereotypes.

This otaku panic meant that there were no popular narratives about otaku in the 1980s and early 1990s. The closest example we can see of a celebration of otaku are in the cult favorites Daicon III (1981) and Daicon IV (1983) (made before the otaku murderer incident) and Otaku no Video (1991), a parody of the Daicon shorts that quickly escalates from depicting hobbyists (all men, notably) to becoming a parodic power fantasy about taking over the industry. These three animations celebrate otaku passions and desires rather than telling narratives about their day-to-day lives.

These early works fantasized otaku more than humanized them and fed into the stereotypical images society held. Otaku were not “normal,” and no one who was “normal” could be an otaku. This stereotype still lingers today.

A young woman wearing a traditional Chinese dress (it looks like cosplay) poses in front of three male photographers, winking and flashing a "V" sign with one hand.

The Rise of Otaku Narratives in the 1990s and 2000s

It wasn’t until the late ’90s and early ‘00s that narratives with otaku characters at the center began making their way into popular media, presumably as young self-identified otaku grew from being fans to becoming creators. One of the most popular depictions at the time was the 1999 dating sim Comic Party, which was adapted into an anime and manga in 2001.

Comic Party is about Comiket, the world’s largest doujinshi fair: a place where people sell their handmade and self-published comics, art work, games, crafts, and more. The story revolves around the male protagonist going to Comiket with his male friend and meeting all the female doujinshi creators. At the same time, his “normal” female childhood friend tries to stop him from falling off the deep end and get him to finish writing his own doujinshi (which he does).

The characters in Comic Party are fairly two-dimensional, with the male otaku getting overly passionate about everything and the female otaku fighting over the protagonist, while the main childhood friend love interest functions as the “normal” girl. It was a simple and male-focused narrative, but arguably the first well-known one which focused on otaku characters.

Comic Party was also the first popular series that depicted women as otaku. However, their roles as love interests in a harem anime meant that the show was still being targeted to a straight male audience. They were ideals, not actual representatives.

The club members of Genshiken sitting at a table, surrounded by anime memorabilia

Comic Party was followed by Genshiken, a manga (2002-2006) and anime (2004, 2007) about a club of otaku in college. The story is mostly about their interactions with one another. It portrays them as normal people who share the media they all enjoy, although most of them are socially awkward and have issues functioning outside of their circle. They also struggle to communicate their ideas and passions with the non-otaku (and initially the only woman) of the group, Saki, who serves as the outsider who needs everything otaku-related explained to her.

As the show progresses, a female otaku joins their ranks, followed by another in Season 2. These two women, Oono and Ogiue, have different personalities and interests from one another, and can be as socially awkward as the male club members at times. They are also portrayed as fully-fledged characters, with lives and interests outside of their relationships to the male characters, and who enjoy otaku interests such as anime, manga, cosplay, and BL.

Through these characters, Genshiken introduced otaku concepts to popular media, such as discussing the deeper meanings of a show, sharing pornography, cosplaying (both making and wearing), and enjoying BL. These might all seem like obvious tropes for otaku in manga and anime today, but Genshiken was arguably the first time otaku were portrayed not as outlandish jokes or two-dimensional perverts, but as seemingly real, everyday Japanese people (which is backed up by the more realistic art design).

A group of young women of varying shapes and sizes (one has an afro, one is wearing a kimono, one is stylish, one is wearing glasses and a sweatsuit) pose in front of a pink background.

Prominent and Diverse Portrayals of Female Otaku in the 2000s

Female otaku have always been around, even before media began portraying them. Genshiken showed that they’re not just side characters for the male otaku to fawn over (such as in Comic Party), but main characters with their own unique personalities and interests beyond men.

Series such as Doujin Work (2004-2008 manga; 2007 anime), Lucky Star (2004-present manga; 2007 anime), and Princess Jellyfish (2008-2017 manga, 2010 anime) also focus on female otaku. Notably, Princess Jellyfish ran in a josei magazine, meaning it was not only a story about female otaku, but was directly targeted at a female audience as well.

This shift is most evident at the end of the 2000s with the return of Genshiken. The new series, Genshiken Second Season, began three years after the original manga ended and was followed by an anime adaptation in 2013. The original Genshiken members graduate and move on to get full-time jobs, and the new club has a very different feel.

The club of the second season is mostly made up of women with two male characters (the opposite of the previous series) and introduces the concept of fudanshi: men who are interested in BL. In a way, this showed the evolution of otaku, challenging the stereotypical gendered image by involving more women and depicting men who were interested in things previously depicted as being for women only (such as BL, shoujo comics, and cosplay).

The show even portrays a gender-nonconforming male character (Hato) who loves BL and crossdresses, but is never the butt of the joke. Instead, the other characters try to understand his perspective and welcome him into the group.

The media that focused on female otaku following Genshiken and Comic Party in the 2000s told more diverse narratives about female otaku lives. They looked more at their interests as people rather than treating them solely as subjects of male otaku desires. Genshiken Second Season also began to introduce the idea that men could be interested in “female” interests and started to portray queer otaku as layered characters in their own right.

A close up of the protagonist of Watamote, who has bags under her eyes and long hair

Shifting the “Creepy” Otaku Trope in the 2000s and 2010s

In addition to these shifts towards more diverse otaku representation, the trope of the male otaku as a creepy shut-in with no social skills began to change into a more complex (though not necessarily positive) portrayal in the 2000s. Series like Chaos;Head (2008) and Welcome to N.H.K (2003-2007 manga, 2006 anime) display and discuss the crippling social anxieties many otaku face, and although they have comedic moments or moments of unbelievable heroism, they portray anxiety and paranoia as things which impact the characters negatively.

This trope is used again in WataMote (2011-present manga, 2013 anime), where it’s applied to a female character. WataMote is arguably popular because it twists the old trope, but also feels relatable to many female otaku in Japan who also have anxiety and social struggles.

Using social anxiety, paranoia, and other mental illnesses as an element of narratives about otaku can be both a blessing and a curse. Works of fiction often make fun of mental illnesses, largely because many societies (Japan and the U.S. included) have been historically dismissive of them, treating people (including otaku) with mental illnesses as lazy and not worth taking seriously.

A young man is curled up on his side on a bed with his hands between his legs. His room, seen from above, is a mess, littered with trash, notebooks, empty cans, and other items.

However, Japanese media made by otaku don’t appear to use this trope in a way that makes fun of these characters. There are certainly amusing moments caused by the character’s anxieties, but the narratives are ultimately about how the characters function in society. This may be because many in the industry were otaku themselves who understand struggles with mental illnesses (such as the WataMote creative team, who have discussed their own lonely teen years in interviews).

Not all otaku are shut-ins with social anxieties like the characters in these shows, of course, but this was the first time these qualities had been addressed as serious issues. Many otaku in Japan struggle with anxiety and external pressures to conform to society, which is possibly why these types of shows are popular.

Not only do people relate to them, but they give people a medium to discuss these types of situations and feelings with one another online with fellow otaku, which furthers a sense of community and camaraderie. Online media has made this more possible than it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s as well.

The cast of Dragon Maid at comiket--Kobayashi looks exasperated, Takiya like a stereotypical otaku with swirly glasses and buck teeth; there is a crowd of people milling around in the background
Diverse Otaku Characters in the 2010s: Productive Members of Society (and Power Fantasies)

The media discussed from the 2000s with otaku as central characters were all popular, but narratives about otaku seem to have boomed in the 2010s as more facets of otaku life and fantasies began to be represented in more diverse narratives. Recent years have seen an explosion in stories with various otaku at the center of them, particularly from light novels and their anime adaptations.

This is possibly because the internet makes it easier for otaku to write their own novels on Yomou Syosetu (similar to fanfiction.net) and manga on Pixiv (similar to deviantart). Then, when these have become popular enough, they get picked up by companies and published (i.e., Log Horizon, GATE, Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashi). Any otaku now could theoretically become a member of the industry they built their lives around—just like way back in Otaku no Video.

One recent and popular depiction is that of otaku characters as functioning members of society. Moving in the opposite direction from the “anxious shut-in” trope, many more recent narratives portray their otaku protagonists as incredibly skilled and capable people, often with amazing social skills.

Power fantasy narratives of otaku as overpowered, capable people (such as Youji from GATE and Shiroe from Log Horizon) have become increasingly popular in recent years. This is possibly due to the influence of previous anime such as Otaku no Video’s depiction of otaku becoming powerful and influential people. It also may be a reaction to male otaku’s feelings of disenfranchisement, including the assumption that otaku men cannot get girlfriends, which is evident in the frequency of harems in these narratives. Despite the increase in female otaku characters over the years, (straight) male otaku desires still greatly shape the anime and manga media industry in Japan, as it’s still heavily controlled by men.

A man in a military uniform stands surrounded by young women: one is wearing a similar military uniform, one is wearing Gothic lolita clothing and clinging to his arm, one is wearing European fantasy-style robes and peering at the camera, and the final is an elf with long hair wearing a T-shirt that shows her belly.

GATE serves as a perfect example of this trend. Originally a 2011 light novel that got popular enough for its own anime and manga, it tells the story of Youji, an otaku and extremely talented soldier in the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) who travels to a fantasy land and quickly builds up a harem of girls who are amazed by his skills. This is an obvious power fantasy, as the author Takumi Yanai is a JSDF otaku and idolizes them, which is clearly reflected in GATE (even more so in the original light novel).

That said, not all media about otaku as functioning members of society portray them as overpowered Marty Stus. Kobayashi from Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2013-present manga; 2017 anime), for example, not only has a steady job as a skilled programmer, but her own apartment and social life. She’s portrayed as a “normal” person with otaku interests who’s thrown into ridiculous circumstances without making her out to be superhuman.

Narratives about otaku being tossed into larger-than-life situations have become incredibly popular in recent years, but there’s a distinct difference in feel between the otaku characters who act as power fantasies and those that reflect reality more (even if their situations are not based in reality). In both of these approaches to the trope, we see otaku who hold steady jobs and aren’t students or shut-ins, expanding the range of otaku narratives.

the cover of the upcoming anime WotaKoi, featuring three sets of male/female couples and centering confident looking professional women

Diverse Otaku Characters in the 2010s: Men as “out,” Women as “closeted”

Depictions of otaku in anime have continued to expand and diversify in recent years in terms of genres, character types, and targeted demographics (with shoujo like Kiss Him, Not Me! and josei like Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii being written for an assumed female readership). In 2017 alone, we saw a number of popular rom-com and school narratives centered around otaku, such as Recovery of an MMO Junkie, Gamers!, and Anime-Gataris.

All of these narratives have a mixture of male and female characters who are more open about their otaku natures (at least when they find out someone else is an otaku, too). Unlike the power fantasy harems discussed in the previous section, these are all generally positive narratives that center around romances and interactions with friends. They also continue the trend of diversifying otaku representation, as MMO Junkie stars a 30-year-old gamer woman and Anime-Gataris features its Japanese protagonists bonding with female anime fans from the United States and China.

Three teen girls in casual clothes stand in front of a locker bay. One with longer hair leans down and studies the bag of a girl with short curly hair. The subtitles read: "This anime's from Japan, right?"

Although stories about otaku are becoming increasingly diverse, there is one notable difference between how modern male and female otaku are represented: male otaku tend to be open about their otaku nature, while female otaku tend to hide it from the public at-large, only opening up to close friends or fellow otaku (and even then sometimes reluctantly).

In GATE and The World God Only Knows (another power fantasy anime driven by male otaku desires), the male characters are fairly public about their interests. But the female otaku in Himouto! Umaru-chan and Kiss Him, Not Me try to hide their interests as much as possible. For example, in Kiss Him, Not Me, protagonist Serinuma has her friend help her be fashionable and tries to act “normal” on a date to hide her true self, only for her to finally crack and run into an Animate for a limited-edition body pillow.

Being interested in otaku things is still considered strange by society, but is seen as relatively normal for men partly because they’ve been depicted in mainstream media for so long. But Japan still socially segregates the genders in subtle ways (as does the U.S. and other nations, of course), and according to the Japanese female otaku I’ve interviewed and spoken with over the years, it’s seen as strange and unattractive for women to be otaku.

This is possibly because they haven’t been in the media as much as male otaku (whether in a positive or negative way), leaving fewer widespread cultural narratives that it’s “acceptable” for women to fit into. When a female otaku does come into the limelight, it’s seen as incredibly odd. Which is possibly why a number of female otaku characters in manga and anime often reflect real “closeted” female otaku, fueling a cycle of continued closeting.

a list of anime featuring otaku characters laid out in spreadsheet format (mostly the series mentioned in the text of the article)

Otaku Into the Future

Otaku characters at the center of manga, anime, and light novel narratives have become more and more popular among otaku in Japan. These stories have evolved from featuring socially inept, shut-in stereotypes into more diverse narratives that portray otaku as capable, intelligent people and celebrate their hobbies and passions. They also include fujoshi, fudanshi, men interested in shoujo, women interested in mecha, and many more.

This isn’t to say that newer otaku narratives are flawless. Many otaku stories still feature male power fantasies and harem tropes, thus perpetuating sexist stereotypes, harmful gender norms, and the “creepy” otaku image as seen by many in Japanese society. The path towards more diversity and complexity in otaku portrayals isn’t perfectly straight. Nevertheless, it is moving forward, as recent shows like MMO Junkie and the manga (soon-to-be anime) Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii indicate.

Narratives written by otaku about otaku for the consumption of otaku are ever-transforming, shaped by the perspectives and desires of the people who make them and consume them. We are seeing a boom in otaku narratives that I think have yet to hit their peak. As evident from most recent years, we’ve seen more otaku narratives in other genres such as romance, fantasy, and sci-fi. I think we will begin to see many more central otaku characters in all genres of manga and anime. Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing what the otaku as a central character will evolve into next.


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