Otaku – Redefining A Societal Stigma For The Better

Since its inception, the term “otaku” has carried a notably negative connotation in the world to describe someone who’s taken a fascination with anime and manga past the point of “hobby” to the point of “obsessive/compulsive addiction”.

While many in the English-speaking world have chosen to adopt this term to themselves as a form of self-facing “honor”, it still carries a negative connotation to the general public due to the negative stereotypes that are commonly associated with it – both here in the United States and abroad.

One of the goals of the Otaku Central project here in the United States, since we’ve adopted the term “Otaku” as part of our organization’s name, is to provide ourselves as examples of how the term can be re-defined to show that perceptions and stereotypes aren’t blanket statements to slap onto everyone who calls them self an otaku. In addition, it’s also a way to show that there’s a handful of pretty normal folks out there who simply enjoy watching some anime every now and again – plain as that.

Half of the battle is getting the traditional stereotypes for “otaku” out in the open and addressing them, while the other half of the battle is determining how to show that many people who carry the term “otaku” are making positive differences in the world today in local communities, and around the world.

We’ll tag both of these concerns in this article, and arrive at some interesting conclusions in the process. The purpose of my thoughts here isn’t to accuse or belittle anyone for what they choose to do, but to offer some creative ways to demonstrate how people’s perceptions of otaku are shaped.

The U.S. Otaku Stereotype – In A Nutshell

To kick off our analysis of the typical “American” otaku, let’s look at a high-level stereotypical view of what most folks perceive an otaku as being, from the outside looking in:

John Doe defines himself as an American otaku, and is proud of this label. He’s 27 years old, and lives with two roommates in a smaller apartment. He works as a part-time graveyard shift stock worker for a local foods store, and makes just enough money to live on. His physique would be generally viewed as obese, as he doesn’t watch his diet too much and doesn’t get much in terms of exercise. Most principles of common hygiene are lost on him, and his physical appearance isn’t a far throw off from “somewhat repulsive” because of this.

He went to college and has a Bachelor’s degree in English, but was unable to find work related to his major upon graduation. He still carries several thousand dollars worth of debt from this venture, and blames this debt on his parents for not paying for his college in the first place. He claims that the English-major job market is “just hard” and “everything’s against him and his dreams”, although he undertook no apprenticeships, internships, or external education/certifications related to his degree and otherwise has no experience on paper for it in today’s world.

He doesn’t have a girlfriend (or boyfriend), and describes his past dating opportunities as failures on the part of the person he was with because “they just didn’t understand me” or “they weren’t a good fit for my expectations”.

His hobbies consist of anime, smoking marijuana, video games, Reddit and Twitter, and spending time lounging around down at the local gas station.

John watches a few hours of anime daily, and collects anime-oriented things to fill up his living space – such as figurines, posters, manga, and body pillows. He talks about having a “harem of anime girls as waifus” to his coworkers and roommates with comments such as “Nothing can come between our love!” and “No waifu, no laifu!”. He frequents anime conventions within a reasonable driving distance of his apartment, cosplaying as furry animals or as female characters from some of his favorite animes.

This is John Doe. He’s the stereotypical American “otaku”.

A very interesting individual, yes? While we could take away a lot of different observations from him and whether or not different personal or lifestyle traits of his are right or wrong, let’s condense things down into the following list of stereotype sub-components for further discussion:

  • Otaku fall in below the middle-class standard of living.
  • Otaku don’t have much money, and what little they have gets spent.
  • Otaku are overweight.
  • Otaku have made, or continue to make, poor life choices.
  • Otaku don’t have great work ethics.
  • Otaku aren’t driven people.
  • Otaku are social rejects.
  • Otaku are societal rejects.
  • Otaku are single, but not by choice.
  • Otaku are often caught up in illegal activities.
  • Otaku don’t lead a life that contributes to the greater good.
  • Otaku don’t really provide help to anyone around them.
  • Otaku are completely obsessed with anime to the point that they hold closer to it than to reality.
  • Otaku cling to anime tropes to the point that they ostracize themselves from society over them.

There’s A Measure Of Truth In Everything…

Stereotypes aren’t born without reason. Remember that.

It’s incredibly difficult to say just how much of the anime-watching percentage of people that these stereotypes actually apply to since a formal study on this subject has never been conducted. For example, 37.4% of American adults are obese as of December 2017, which likely means that the odds are good that a decent percentage of American anime watchers are overweight – but it’s difficult to say how many for sure. Also, I can’t say as I know of anyone in my circle of personal contacts who’s making over $100,000/year and appreciates anime.

So, by contrast, does that mean that all anime appreciators must be in a lower-level standard of living and income bracket? Some would argue this statement is more true than false – but why is that?

See where I’m going with this? People have a tendency to make inferences based on insufficient data purely off of what they know based on a few examples they’ve seen personally (which is NEVER characteristic of the demographic as a whole). As such, the general populace tends to end up with a slightly warped picture of what anime watchers are actually like. It’s incredibly easy (even fun, if you’re the liberal news networks in America today!) to look at the most extreme 5% of society and their tendencies, and try to paint an image of this 5% as being larger than it actually is. Many people will latch onto it like hotcakes.

Let’s look at the example of anime conventions. You’ll find a lot of these stereotypes mentioned prior at your local anime conventions, but then again, you also won’t.

What I mean by that is the concept of shock/extremism in information relay. Take Facebook, for example. Very few people would take pictures of regular “Average Joes” wearing polo shirts and blue jeans at anime conventions because there’s nothing inherently flashy about that, even though there’s a lot of con-goers that dress normally or even in business casual attire. Pictures are commonly taken of flashy cosplay, gender-swapped cosplay, or particularly extreme examples of con-goers – and those are the pictures that end up on Facebook. So, if you’re purely using Facebook as an example of what kind of people attend anime conventions, you’re getting a notably skewed perspective of who attends cons.

​Continuing on the Facebook example, though, we do have photographic evidence on Facebook that a decent number of our listed stereotypes are actually out there at cons.

The moral of the story is that while there’s a notable measure of truth to the stereotypes, there’s really no way to tell how widespread they really are or reliable statistics on which groups may be more biased to some stereotype aspects than others. At the end of the day, you simply have to weigh things on a case-by-case basis.

Are These Stereotypes Bad?

One could argue that if you’re not directly harming another individual, that you’re free to do whatever you want to with your life. I, along with many other individuals, share this belief.

However, the one thing about this perspective is that it gives people the chance to be either passive to societal standards, or outright offensive to societal standards as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether this in itself is right or wrong.

The thing that most people will mention in view of these stereotypes is that while they might not be negative to others or your environment, they also aren’t passively positive, and most certainly are negative for you.

If you were to ask people who identify as “otaku” if it’s better to have a great work ethic or an absolutely terrible work ethic, most would answer that it’s better to have a great work ethic. Most would also answer that it’s better to be a healthy weight rather than overweight. In the same vein, most “otaku” would readily comment that it’s preferred to have a larger paycheck than a smaller one.

But for someone who doesn’t have these things and instead has withdrawn from many aspects of the world to pursue an obsession with anime that’s more or less disconnected from reality in itself, these desires and their lifestyle combine to form a neverending cycle of hurt that’s never going to get them anywhere towards these dreams unless an outside factor drastically intervenes.

In my opinion, I think this is why many people who don’t like anime take offense to those who call themselves “otaku”. Because of these stereotypes, which may or may not even be true depending on the person, the label of “otaku” on someone has, in essence, branded them as someone who’ll never really amount to anything in the grand scheme of the world, and that’s something that society in general doesn’t want.

If this is to be correctly identified as the core “problem” here, the question must again be asked as to if this is right or wrong in and of itself. I can only conclude that there may very well be no innate right or wrong answer here – only personal perspective. If I could be allowed one personal statement here, it would simply be that…

There’s a lot of people in the world that prefer to go through life passively, but only a pretty small handful of people who want to try and actively change their world for the better. Similarly, there’s a terrible lot of people in the world that are ready to point out and accuse in terms of the worlds problems, but an incredibly small measure of people who instead work on fixing those problems.

Whatever you choose to do with your life…       choose wisely.

The Unheard-Of “Other End” Of The Stereotype Spectrum

John Doe grew up in a rough circumstance with divorced parents, but did well in high school and qualified for a couple of scholarships to help get himself through college. While it was difficult, John managed to work himself through school financially with internships in combination with his scholarships, and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM field.

After getting out into the professional workforce for the first time in his life, he encountered hardship with his first two jobs because his employers tried to take advantage of him since he needed work in order to build his resume and skillset. John had to suffer in the short-term working jobs that he wasn’t thrilled with, but gained the skills, certifications, and experience he needed after a year to move on to another employer that treated him better and equipped him with the income he needed to buy his first home.

Getting his career nailed down at last, John starts to look for some hobbies to fill up his personal time. While taking on a few more fun hobbies such as fixing up classic cars and working on his garden, he also finds time to help mentor kids coming from divorced homes in his community, knowing the hardships of this environment firsthand himself.

During this time, he got back in contact with one of his old highschool friends, and started a romantic relationship. Two years later, that relationship led to marriage, and John and his wife have a couple children of their own now. While the family picture for him is taxing on his time, and there’s some long days in store for them both, life isn’t too bad at all.

And, to top everything off, John finds a little time in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed and the house is cleaned up to watch a few specific animes that have some historical significance for the world, because he finds it to be a creative way to help “unwind” at the end of the day.

A bit of a different scenario from our stereotypes earlier, isn’t it? The “anime” bit at the end might almost seem to be a little out of place to some readers because it collides pretty hard with our anime stereotypes that we mentioned earlier – almost like it doesn’t fit the mold.

​This short story is actually based on the true life experience of a gentleman I formerly worked with, and there’s not an incredible degree of dissimilarity between it and the life stories of several other folks I know.

While it’s really easy to look at the extreme end of the anime-watching demographic and make a tremendous amount of assumptions, we also have to look at people like John in our second example, because they comprise a notable percentage of the demographic as well.

Perhaps we don’t commonly think of people like John as part of the anime community because they aren’t vocal or participative in the community to the degree that others are. After all, John’s life is pretty busy – where would he find the time to do cosplay, attend anime conventions, or buy anime merchandise? Anime for him isn’t a passion; anime is more of an outlet for stress for him alongside the rest of his life.

John more closely fits the Otaku Central staff’s idea of what the term “Otaku” can be re-defined as. Instead of being an “anime addiction” that carries an almost-magnetic attraction to some or all of the stereotypes we mentioned earlier, John being an otaku would imply that an otaku is simply someone who enjoys some anime as a hobby on the side, but otherwise has their life to worry about and other lives that depend on theirs.

While there’s a lot of negative opinions of the stereotypical otaku, it’s honestly hard to hate John.

“Otaku” – Improving Our World Through Anime

Almost sounds a little strange to be in the same sentence, doesn’t it?​ Otaku – improving our world.

​Otaku Central was originally founded by a pretty small team of normal, everyday folks who simply wanted to try and improve the anime landscape in the world. Since we’d been anime watchers for a while, we had a lot of ideas for how the viewer experience could be improved, such as:

  • No ads
  • Fantastic selection
  • Great anime database of information
  • Robust search feature that helps you find what you’re looking for

In the process of talking to anime studios over in Japan, we also found that they wanted an improved anime landscape as well, but for different reasons:

  • Not enough money getting back to anime studios; middleman taking too much
  • No streaming service providers really cater to the anime studios needs
  • Quality of living desperately needs to be improved for workers in the anime industry
  • Global market too constricted due to distributor’s limitations

​Around this time of talking to studios, Otaku Central’s core values as an organization started down a road of change – change that would eventually take us to the present time where we’re committed to trying to rectify the financial imbalance for the anime studios while also working to provide the best anime streaming experience to viewers that there is.

Our scope of support has also expanded far beyond simply the anime industry in general. Between our recycling efforts, local community service and involvement, commitment to renewable energy and efficiency, as well as our charitable donations to causes around the world to try and provide food for the hungry, environmental aid for our polluted work, or police funding to help stop atrocities such as human trafficking, we have our assets invested in a number of different causes to see our world become more than it is right now.

It’s our hope that we can help society as a whole see that there’s a small band of people around the world with anime in common who genuinely want to help in their communities, their countries, and around the globe to provide a better future for us all.

And it all started with a team of John Does who wanted to see a better future for anime.

    …so what’s on the agenda for your life today, fellow otaku?

Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, old-school guitar and amplifier builder, and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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