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Youth Subcultures in Japan

In this article, we look at what William M. Tsutsui discusses in his article “Nerd Nation: Otaku and Youth Subculture in Contemporary Japan”.
© Keio University

What is otaku? What kind of people do you think otakus are?

This article seeks to understand how academics view and analyze Otaku, hardcore subculture fans and their relationship with youth culture in Japan.

Youth Cultures and Otaku

Some of you might have some ideas that the Japanese subculture is popular only among those who are, so-called, “nerds,” or “otaku.” Now, what is “otaku” identity? What is “otaku-ness”? William M. Tsutsui discusses as follows:

A wide variety of youth subcultures have appeared in Japan since World War II, many of them shocking polite sensibilities and subverting mainstream society with behaviors considered hedonistic, self-centered, and deviant. Among the subcultures that attract the most attention, both among the public and in academic circles, is the otaku, the notoriously obsessive fans of manga, anime, video games, and other forms of Japanese popular culture.
Generally styled as “nerds” or “geeks,” otaku are pictured in Japan’s collective imagination as socially maladjusted young men, physically unattractive (usually gawky or overweight), and unnaturally fixated on some narrow corner of mass culture.
Otsuka are commentator, “socially inept loners. . . fanatically knowledgeable in one abstruse field, be it Godzilla movies or the history of sumo wrestling”; they are “chronically shy,” “sickly pale,” and “socially inept, but often brilliant technological shut-ins.”(1) An otaku, the journalist Tsuzuki Kyoichi concluded, is “someone who doesn’t look good, who has no girlfriend, who is collecting silly things, and . . . who is into something useless.”(2) In the more evenhanded words of the Oxford English Dictionary, which added a definition of otaku in March 2008,
Originally in Japan: a person extremely knowledgeable about the minute details of a particular hobby (esp. a solitary or minority hobby); . . . one who is skilled in the use of computer technology and is considered by some to be poor in interacting with others.”(3)
Since their emergence in the 1970s and 1980s, otaku have become a major social phenomenon, engendering fear, disapproval, and misunderstanding, as well as widespread fascination. The rise of an otaku identity in Japan has inspired books, films, and art movements that both celebrate and demonize fervent fan subcultures.
Around the world, admirers of Japanese pop culture (above all, anime and manga) proudly embrace the label otaku and emulate the practices of Japan’s intense fanatics. Meanwhile, the prominence of otaku culture has spurred handwringing among the Japanese public, contributing to longstanding concerns over the degeneracy and self-absorption of Japan’s youth.
Understanding the world of the otaku can provide insights into the impact of affluence, technology, and the media on young Japanese, the globalization of Japan’s vibrant youth culture, and the diverse social challenges confronting millennial Japan.

New Directions of Otaku

As a youth culture, the Japanese subculture has a significant subversive power against social systems, especially that of education. You will see one of the roots of Japanese subculture in the next section in Tsutsui’s essay.

Many psychologists and cultural critics have argued that the roots of otaku behavior lay within Japan’s highly structured, even oppressive, educational and social systems. They have suggested that the information fetishism of otaku stems from the rigid routines of Japanese schooling, which emphasize rote learning and the memorization of vast quantities of fragmented facts.
The social awkwardness and reclusive tendencies of otaku, meanwhile, were widely understood to be reactions against the pressure for conformity, emphasis on the group, and elaborate standards of decorum that characterize Japanese society. And while some commentators have insisted that otaku are, in fact, remarkably sociable (especially with fellow enthusiasts), other scholars have argued compellingly that otaku tend to form impersonal networks rather than convivial communities. . . .
Since Japan’s otaku subculture began to attract public attention in the 1980s, it has evolved in a variety of new directions. While many early otaku were particularly fixated on science fiction (whether the Godzilla movies or television series like Ultraman), the imaginative and visually rich realms of manga and anime soon became the most widespread obsession. By the start of the new millennium, otaku interests became more overtly sexualized.
There was a proliferation of garu-ge (“girl games,” dating simulation software) and female fantasy characters introduced in anime, manga, or as collectible plastic models. . . . As many analysts have suggested, the long-term transition in otaku tastes, from sci-fi and animation to pursuits viewed by the larger society as perverted, pornographic and often pedophilic, was driven by the mainstreaming of manga and anime in the 1990s.
As the Japanese public came to accept forms like anime, otaku felt compelled to move on to more outrageous and offensive obsessions in order to maintain their distance from polite society and their resistance to its niceties. As one scholar has observed, “Today’s subculture chooses videogame wars over street-riot opposition, deviance over activism. . . . erotic fantasy over sexual freedom, and hollow identity over existential angst.” (4)
If you’d like to learn more about Japanese subcultures, check out the full online course from Keio University, below.
© Keio University
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