INSiGHT | Otaku? Whotaku? A Look into the Japanese Sub-Culture

By André Eriksson 22.03.2015 11

Few sub-cultures are as parodied and have such an over the top stereotypical picture as the otaku community. What is an otaku, though, and are they all really that over the top at all times? Read on if curiosity got the better of you!

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What Does Otaku Mean?

First of all, the most important thing to point out in this article is that the word 'otaku' has different meanings depending on where it is used. In Japan, the word otaku typically means geek/nerd and often in the context of a person who takes their special interest too far and often neglects other aspects of their lives. Basically, people who put their special interests before everything else, not only videogames, though, as it can stretch into other areas covering everything from anime fandom to military history. Needless to say, it is usually not a positive thing to get called over there and the word is almost synonymous with different forms of autistic spectrum disorders.

However, that is not what is going to get covered in this article. In this latest INSiGHT, what is going to get covered is the otaku culture that plays on the Western meaning of the word, which pretty much means someone who is obsessed (or 'enjoy' as some may prefer) Japanese culture. This is due to the fact that when the word got introduced over here it was almost exclusively used by 'nipponphilies' (or 'weeaboos' to use common tongue) and, therefore, the word got a positive meaning in those communities and a generally positive meaning overall.

What defines the otaku culture, then? Japanese pop culture, of course! Especially Manga and videogames are high profile objects in the Western otaku culture, but even to some degree music and live TV shows.

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Common Stereotypes and Misunderstandings of the Otaku

There are, however, some common stereotypes of the "typical" otaku that are going around in non-otaku circles that, while understandable, are unfair for the community as a whole. Below are some pretty common negative stereotypical traits enforced upon the otaku community, along with a short theory about why they exist and they are over-reactive:

1.) Otaku are workless people with no live, staying in their parents' basement

This must be the most common stereotype about the otaku community, and it is most likely because the Japanese word otaku is used pretty much in this way, and a lot of the more "well-known" otaku here in the West are actually those with no life and most often living in their parents' basements and try to do nothing about it. This is because they are the only ones who are seen, though. Many readers will likely have passed by otaku on the streets without realising they are actually otaku, because most do not go around in full cosplay 24/7 and most do talk about other subjects with non-otaku. Simply go to any anime convention and ask around. Many will be surprised about how often the otaku have high level degrees and good, well paying jobs and are highly functioning individuals in society. Personally, at day I am at an IT company and do computer repairing and then on top of that I am a reviewer/article writer here at Cubed3 and politically active in my spare time and try to write short stories and poems whenever inspiration strikes. Therefore, it could be said that I do anything but nothing.

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2.) Otaku have waifus and bodypillows and are perverts

This is another very common stereotype, once again implemented by the more infamous otaku on the Internet and the fact that many ironic pictures are posted online to fan the flames. While I personally have a character I consider my "waifu," the biggest part of the otaku group I know do not have that and some even frown upon it. This is, however, nothing too dissimilar to celebrity crushes that are pretty common even in mainstream media culture, and at least to me, my "waifu" is not someone I see as a sexual object, but rather a role model for how I want to be and someone I do identify with - rather like an idol, which, once again, is very common in mainstream culture. The only difference is that the character is fictional and that, therefore, there is seldom any stalking going on (as the character is fictional). The waifu serves pretty much the same role in otaku culture as idols and celebrity crushes in mainstream culture does.

3.) Otaku are over the top, always cosplaying and always wearing extremely outlandish clothes

This is a common misunderstanding as most of the time someone is seen as being an otaku when they do this. However, the lady at the office or the college teacher is seldom identified as an otaku in their daily life, even if they, indeed, are otaku and might even go to those very conventions and maybe even cosplay in their spare time. Personally, my everyday fashion is pretty much a black shirt, black jeans and maybe some cool accessories, or a suit if I have an important meeting. Pretty common clothing. At conventions, though, I do not hesitate to cosplay or dress up in over the top ways. Of course, some cosplay accessories and clothes can turn up when I hang around with friends, but in work and things like that, I follow the very same, if not stricter, clothing code as everyone else. Just like ordinary followers of other sub-cultures.

4.) Otaku are man-children

A common misunderstanding as otaku usually enjoy Manga and anime cartoons. The misunderstanding comes in since in Western culture most, if not all, cartoons are aimed at children, while over in Japan there are several popular genres aimed specifically towards adults. In Japan, cartoons are not something solely enjoyed by preteens in the same way as over here, and it is not quite as stigmatising to watch anime as a grown up as it is over here. Also, one quote worth keeping in mind when discussing the topic of childish things overall:

"Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
- C.C. Lewis.
While yes, some aspects of otaku culture can be seen as childish, that does not necessarily make them into man-children. That unashamed approval of "childish" stuff might very well be the proof of a healthy adult. Personally, I am not ashamed about enjoying playing Pokémon, a game targeted at kids, but I can still enjoy deep, more mature themes in other media, completely unashamed.

5.) Otaku are social rejects

Once again, this stereotype comes from the Japanese meaning of the word, and some of the more infamous examples on the Internet do not help the situation. While it would be a lie to say that the otaku culture does not have very many people with social skills that are below average, it is nowhere as bad as the mainstream media wants it to look like. Most otaku can communicate with other people just fine and have the common sense to discuss things with people that have close to no interest on the subject something other than what anime girl is the hottest or how superior Japanese culture is to Western culture.

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What is Hot and What is Not? The Factions and Diversity in the Otaku Subculture

Now those stereotypical pictures have been discussed, what is hot or not in the otaku community? This is a very difficult question to answer due to the fact that the otaku sub-culture is very diverse and wide as it covers most, if not all, Japanese popular culture. There is simply so much since the otaku umbrella is a wider one than many might at first believe. There are otaku who have never touched a videogame, for example, even though JRPGs, Visual Novels and Touhou are a pretty big part of the otaku culture overall. There are otaku who have never watched any anime besides the most mainstream ones like Naruto, Pokémon and Sailor Moon. Some rough-necked otaku might not even call those people otaku to begin with, but stick with me here. Otaku here in the West basically means someone obsessed with Japanese pop culture, not someone who knows all about every single aspect of it and/or watches obscure anime that nobody else knows about.

Then there are those that know it all, be it all, that have read hundreds of Manga comics covering everything from mainstream Manga like Naruto, Death Note and Sailor Moon to some that here in the West are more obscure, such as Gamble Fish, When They Cry, Girl Friends, and other even more out-there ones that not even some of the more well-read otaku might know about. There are also those that play so many JRPGs that they can tell how the story will progress as they start up the game.

The easiest thing to do here to cover this subject is to split it up into some different factions/stereotypes to easier get an understanding of just how wide the otaku fandom truly is, even though usually there is a strong dislike to the use of stereotypification. Please, keep in mind that the paragraphs below are stereotypes used to get an understanding in different aspects of the otaku community and that is part of what makes it diverse and what decides what is popular and what is not in different otaku circles.

"The J-Gamer"

The one most likely to read this article, as it is on a gaming related site. The Gamer enjoys Japanese games and mostly JRPGs. Usually pretty obsessed with complexity in titles and enjoys deep numerical systems that JRPGs are well known for. Have played most known JRPG franchises out there and might have gone on to some pretty obscure ones, and might even import some. Might or might not read anime or Manga, and if that is the case, it is mostly the popular on-going ones like One Piece and Naruto.

"The Mainstream One"

It is hard to find any other name for this kind of otaku, the most common one to find. Usually enjoys a mix of different branches of Japanese culture, but usually only the recent and/or popular series and games. This is the typical Naruto and Kingdom Hearts fan. Might know a lot of these common anime shows and games, but seldom have much knowledge outside what is currently popular. This does not make them any less of an otaku and they might be a hardcore otaku and go to all the conventions and enjoy them to their fullest even if they are only watching what is popular.

"The Fashionista/Cosplayer"

The one into it for the clothes; might usually be a lolita, as it is the most well-known Japanese fashion branch outside of Japan, but might wear pretty ordinary clothes in their everyday life. This person usually enjoys many different aspects of the otaku culture in their hunt for inspiration for their next outfit. Might, to some otaku, not be considered a "real" otaku, and they might in rare cases not even consider themselves as otaku as they are "no geeks."

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"The Fanboy"

The person who watched that one anime or played that one game and has been totally obsessed about it, often to the degree that the person consumes little to no other aspects of otaku culture. This person is usually within the mainstream part of the otaku culture, partly because of their fandom of that one series prevents them from digging deeper. However, they might very well have their fandom in one of the more obscure anime shows or games out there. This is pretty much that Naruto fanboy who learned Japanese just to re-read it in its mother language as well, and who bought "101 different ramen recipes" just because Naruto loves ramen and they want to live life just like that.

"The Hardcore Otaku"

It is hard to find another fitting name for this group, but they are by no means necessarily more hardcore than any other group mentioned and neither are they deeper into the fandom. They are the ones who have watched so many anime shows they cannot even keep track of them. They are the ones who play all the obscure JRPGs. They are also the ones most likely to go to conventions (well, maybe besides "The Mainstream One" and "The Fashionista/Cosplayer" if they are into role-play dressing). This is basically the alpha geek or, rather, the one who wants to see themselves as the alpha geek. Knows a lot about many shows and is most likely into many branches of otaku culture.

These are only some branches, and many more can be uncovered, but this should give a nice overview. What is popular now shifts heavily between these groups. To mainstream anime consumers, of course Naruto is on the top, while "The Hardcore Otaku" might strongly dislike the show as they usually have found a genre and style that is more their style, which is a show made to appeal to a wider audience. Also, the gamer might not even have watched that show, plus - of course - many people are mixes of these stereotypes/branches. Personally, I fall into a mix between most of them, so to answer the question about what is hot in the otaku sub-culture, it depends on the sub-sub-culture. No matter what is liked in Japanese media, there is likely going to be someone that thinks individually.

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Conventions: The Place to Be

There are otaku who want to meet up at several conventions focused on Japanese pop culture. There are usually some each month for anyone willing to go, and the conventions are the heart and soul of the community. In here, each otaku is free to express their fandom (to a legal/decent degree, at least) and finding like-minded individuals. The bigger conventions have it all: anime showings, concerts with well-known artists, art contests, AMV contests, cosplays, videogames and tournaments, TCG playing. You name it, they have it pretty much.

This is where the otaku lives out their fandom to its fullest and where many stereotypes come from. It is like a double life to some, though. The open and bubbly person you met there might very well be extremely introverted and reserved in their everyday life. It is, however, a magical place to be and something that is worth checking out for any otaku out there interested in meeting others who share their hobbies.

At the last convention I attended, I played some board games, went on a cosplay parade, sang some karaoke, entered a cosplay contest, and just went around and socialised with people, both those whom I knew and those I got to know, just to give an example of what it can be like and what there is to do there.

Normal Life, Otaku Life. The Everyday Life for Me!

As mentioned above, even though I am an otaku, I also live a normal life just like everyone else outside of conventions when I go loose… with some exceptions when it comes to past-time activities and friend circles. So, what does a normal day look like for me? Well, first of all I wake up every morning and go to work on the days I have work. That much is clear. After work I usually hang around at Game Stop, or any other place where the geek population is high, to see if I can meet up with someone I know and hang around a little. When/if I meet someone, we hang around for a while. We might go home to play some games or watch some anime, or we could simply just walk around in town and talk and eat somewhere - it varies. The only difference is that the topics we talk about are usually geek-related.

After that, when I come home, what I do first is to sit down and read some of the latest news going on via Facebook and Cubed3, to keep updated. Then I watch an anime episode or two, and after that, if I have any reviews to do, I play or, alternatively, write the review if the game is finished.

On weekends I usually either hang out with some friends and/or my girlfriend, or sit at home catching up on the anime shows I follow and do some reviewing of games for Cubed3 - if I am not going to a convention or something like that.

So while I am an otaku, my life does not differ much from "normal" people's lives, except that I mainly consume Japanese media instead of Western media and am quite obsessed about it, to say the least. Other than that, I, and most other otaku, lead normal everyday lives, just like everyone else. Of course, with some differences, just like for everyone else.

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Conclusion: an otaku is quite normal after all! While there are many prejudices and misunderstandings about what an otaku is, most of them are just like you and me - pretty normal people. Like in every other sub-culture, though, there are also extremes, but most are not that extreme and most of them you pass by in everyday life without even knowing or thinking that they are indeed an otaku.

The biggest difference is the culture consumed and the level of obsession about that culture and the fact that it is a sub-culture with its own memes, norms, music, art, clothing, and so on. However, a very wide and open one with a big umbrella that fits several sub-sub-cultures within. Each with their own differences, which is what separates otaku culture and geek culture, overall, from most other sub-cultures.

Otaku is a wide term, and a wide umbrella with several sub-terms that would take thrice the size of this article to go through in full. This INSiGHT article is just scratching the surface of it all, but hopefully it is still informative and has been of help to understand what an otaku is and why they are not all too different from other sub-cultures.

Did this article open your eyes and do you have any further questions? Please feel free to write in the comment fields below. The expert is listening…


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An interesting read! I'm curious, how long have you been into the culture? It's boomed in the last 5-10 years or so but now seems to be slipping a little into decline once again. 


I went on my first con about 9 years ago I think. Before that I had been into Anime and Japanese games for about 3 years (like heavily into...) So I have been a die hard for about 12 years. I have been into Japanese pop culture for my entire life though, but back then I only watched what was currently on TV due to the obvious reason that Internet was not big enough. But JRPGs is something I have always been into and tried to get my hands on weird titles for as long as I can remember.

Depending on how one sees it, either 12 years or as long as I remember. I remember that the first time I cosplayed I was about 6 years old (which is about 16 years ago).

The difference between illusion and reality is vague to the one who suffers from the former and questionable for the one suffering form the later.

What's sad is that, as someone who could be classified as an Otaku, it's the only thing people see me for. I struggle with approaching people not because I can't, somehow, talk with them, but because I've been burned quite a lot by people I have approached and am surrounded by horror stories, so I shy away. As someone who focused so much on learning about many things I can now detail the history of the Earth, debate interstellar travel, cite twenty cursed objects in the world, and even know that the U.S. and Canada almost went to war over a pig once, but can't get a job because no one cares for someone without some advanced degree. Because I freed my mind from the notion of 'kid' and 'adult' and sought only quality I am now a 'weeaboo' despite that I am the very model of the modern cultured person, versed in science, theater, movies, music, and shows.

Yet all people see is a loser who lives in the attic, can't approach a woman, and is dumb while he watches RWBY ignoring the lively conversation he just had with them and how he picked out both a great game and a great show for them to watch, before selling them on clothes despite dressing in sweats. *sigh* the burdens of the Otaku.

I wish I had the money to go to a con. The chance to meet other people without fear of being given a weird look... plus the costumes look interesting as well.

Snowtwo said:
What's sad is that, as someone who could be classified as an Otaku, it's the only thing people see me for. I struggle with approaching people not because I can't, somehow, talk with them, but because I've been burned quite a lot by people I have approached and am surrounded by horror stories, so I shy away. As someone who focused so much on learning about many things I can now detail the history of the Earth, debate interstellar travel, cite twenty cursed objects in the world, and even know that the U.S. and Canada almost went to war over a pig once, but can't get a job because no one cares for someone without some advanced degree. Because I freed my mind from the notion of 'kid' and 'adult' and sought only quality I am now a 'weeaboo' despite that I am the very model of the modern cultured person, versed in science, theater, movies, music, and shows.

Yet all people see is a loser who lives in the attic, can't approach a woman, and is dumb while he watches RWBY ignoring the lively conversation he just had with them and how he picked out both a great game and a great show for them to watch, before selling them on clothes despite dressing in sweats. *sigh* the burdens of the Otaku.


*sigh* Sounds way too familiar... Know some people who are in an equal boat and I was pretty much in the same boat during my early teens. It is strangely enough better now even though I am more openly geeky than ever before. It is so sad how people judge the book on its cover so quickly though. Especially if one is anything that can be considered geeky and, especially, otaku.

The difference between illusion and reality is vague to the one who suffers from the former and questionable for the one suffering form the later.

It's been great to watch the scene develop, I started by watching anime on Channel 4 back around the mid 90s and fell in love, probably because of the crazy gorefest at the time, then discovered Ghibli and like most the Shonen classics. The wife and I go to Japan every year now (44 days to go!) and are taking our little arrival with us this year.

I plan on knocking up a few articles about what's going on in the world of gaming over there while there too.

Sasari said:
It's been great to watch the scene develop, I started by watching anime on Channel 4 back around the mid 90s and fell in love, probably because of the crazy gorefest at the time, then discovered Ghibli and like most the Shonen classics. The wife and I go to Japan every year now (44 days to go!) and are taking our little arrival with us this year.

I plan on knocking up a few articles about what's going on in the world of gaming over there while there too.


It is indeed interesting how the Anime scene has changed over the years. What captured my interest in Anime at first though was Sailor Moon. I loved that show to death. Currently though my favorite genres are mystery, tragedy, gambling and to some degree Shoujo-ai. What I like about the changes in the scene over the last decade is the fact that even more serious shows, at least here in west, can get more mainstream attention. Especially Death Note comes to mind. Sure, the mainstream Anime scene is still dominated by whimsical shows like One Piece and Naruto, but even these does sometimes touch upon deep philosophical matters, if only briefly and in the most shallow of ways possible, but it still tries which is more than I can say about a large part of non-anime cartoons, and especially those targeting a young audience.

Sounds fun that trip to Japan! Smilie Maybe I and my girlfriend will go there too in the future. Currently though she wants to visit Amsterdam first. I hope you will get a lot of material for some great articles over there! Smilie

The difference between illusion and reality is vague to the one who suffers from the former and questionable for the one suffering form the later.

When it comes to Anime I have one simple rule. Be as awesome and fun as possible. When it comes to ANYTHING in general that rule applies. Kitty? Cute. Kitty with a jetpack. Awesome and fun! I recently finished RWBY (Yea, American-made, but anime through and through) and Sword Art Online (which really doesn't deserve the flack it gets) and am currently trying Magi (not that amazing but not bad either). For me my first 'real' anime was Cardcaptor Sakura and I've always been a fan of the magical girl genre. Show me Attack on Titan and I'll be meh... show me Slayers and you'll need a wall to keep me from getting more Lina Inverse!

This holds true to pretty much all shows and movies I watch actually. Magical girls are my bane and, should someone ever see me RPing a young girl with magical powers in any RP... STAY THE HECK AWAY! She's probably as OP'ed as heck and considering my last one curbed a magic goddess in two turns... Well...

To be fair the goddess shouldn't have given her blood-knights anti-magic swords thinking they'd just cleave through any defense my girl could muster THEN let me have the first move just to spite me and forgot that blood seals can be washed off by water which my girl excelled in, but to even merit going toe to toe was a mark of power. I've had to bench her because she's got an unbroken win chain. Water is ****ing overpowered when you know how to use it right.

Snowtwo said:
When it comes to Anime I have one simple rule. Be as awesome and fun as possible. When it comes to ANYTHING in general that rule applies. Kitty? Cute. Kitty with a jetpack. Awesome and fun! I recently finished RWBY (Yea, American-made, but anime through and through) and Sword Art Online (which really doesn't deserve the flack it gets) and am currently trying Magi (not that amazing but not bad either). For me my first 'real' anime was Cardcaptor Sakura and I've always been a fan of the magical girl genre. Show me Attack on Titan and I'll be meh... show me Slayers and you'll need a wall to keep me from getting more Lina Inverse!

This holds true to pretty much all shows and movies I watch actually. Magical girls are my bane and, should someone ever see me RPing a young girl with magical powers in any RP... STAY THE HECK AWAY! She's probably as OP'ed as heck and considering my last one curbed a magic goddess in two turns... Well...

To be fair the goddess shouldn't have given her blood-knights anti-magic swords thinking they'd just cleave through any defense my girl could muster THEN let me have the first move just to spite me and forgot that blood seals can be washed off by water which my girl excelled in, but to even merit going toe to toe was a mark of power. I've had to bench her because she's got an unbroken win chain. Water is ****ing overpowered when you know how to use it right.


To be fair, SAO is not that bad per se.. But .hack has been out for ages and does in my opinion tackle the subject in a deeper and more realistic way than SAO ever did. It does not deserve all that hate, but it most certainly does not deserve all the praise either.

RPing is great fun, and I aswell also usually ends up roleplaying magical girls. I do not know, but there is just something that makes them easy to relate to for me. I dislike roleplayng "manly" characters and I like intellectual snarkers so Magical Girls usually fits into what I want to do with my character personality wise and is easy for me to relate to. Smilie

The difference between illusion and reality is vague to the one who suffers from the former and questionable for the one suffering form the later.

Have any of you watched Log Horizon? Isn't that in a similar vein to .hack and SAO?

Adam Riley [ Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited ]
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter

Not yet sadly. It IS on my "too watch list" as I have heard a lot of good stuff about it from people that I can trust about important matters such as this. But my current almost religious following of the Gamble Fish manga and Kaiji manga is keeping many other shows at bay. Especially as I have also started to watch the Jigoku Shoujo live action show. It is not as good as the Anime, but still pretty nice.

( Edited 24.03.2015 16:32 by Andre Eriksson )

The difference between illusion and reality is vague to the one who suffers from the former and questionable for the one suffering form the later.

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