How do Japanese otaku make meaning in being otaku? How do they make meaning in the things they do and create? Otaku are “obsessive fans of anime, manga and video games.” It’s a cultural phenomenon that emerged in the 1970s during the post-war era – consumers became fascinated in subcultures like anime, manga, computer games, gadgets, music, movies, etc.
What’s with this obsession? Well, consider the range of human creativity in terms of fantasy. Fantasy is a form of escapism in which otaku indulge themselves in order to break away from typical Japanese social structures (group-oriented, orderly, obedient). Otaku entertainment is very bewildering, focusing more on the individual and their unreal/mundane fantasies. There’s a common need to “step-out” of a group setting, to express uniqueness and to be inclusive, although expressions vary depending on gender, age and occupation.
Places in Japan, like Akihabara, provide the playground for fantasy; as Charlie Brooker would put it, anime/manga “oozed a demented spirit… (with) Unfathomable, futuristic madness.” Japan is “a place where being a geek is comfortably mainstream… everyone’s staring at their smartphones, texting, playing games, or reading.” There’re manga cafes for otaku on the move, each room containing “a TV, a BluRay player, a computer, a games console, a stereo… right down to the bed.” Because cities like Akiba are so rich with otaku culture, it’s easy for one to feel a sense of belonging; you’re free to express your fantasies however you want, “loud” behaviour or not. And for someone like me, it’s absolute geek-paradise.
One of the most common ways of expressing fantasy is through cosplay, where a person dresses as an anime/video game character and can partake in role play with other cosplayers. It’s a form of behavioural openness consciously engaged for the sake of fun, entertainment and passion.
Another way of expressing fantasy is through a “condition” called chuunibyou (or “Middle-school 8th-grade Syndrome”). Chuunibyou is rather hard to explain, so I’ll let the video do it:
A brilliant example:
Another form is through love for virtual idols (Vocaloid). They’ve become a world-wide phenomenon, loved by otaku everywhere.
This sparked some debate about whether or not otaku are delusional, 2-D loving freaks. But what really set the fire was a Japanese man named SAL9000 whom “was joined in holy-ish matrimony with (sic) Nene Anegasaki, an imaginary character from the video game Love Plus… for the Nintendo DS.”
Despite the ever-growing controversy, one thing’s clear to me: people are quick to judge otaku based on their own views/beliefs shaped by their own societies. It’s not that otaku can’t tell between reality and fantasy; it’s because they can tell reality from fantasy that they choose to indulge in the latter. Virtual idols, moe video game & anime characters are real to them; to people like SAL9000 and myself. That’s what it comes down to. No matter the cosplay, anime/manga, games, gadgets, or chuunibyou, they’ll all forever have a “playfulness [that] can allow us to have generous curiosity, to cross borders between cultures, beliefs, genders, ages.”
And that’s how otaku create meaning.