Otaku: The Obsessed Culture

There was once a time when I was an adolescent that I found comfort holding a Playstation controller playing video games, being engulfed by the light of the computer screen in the dark, shamelessly watching “Spirited Away” when I’m bored, or enclosed by headphones in a self-contained world of the soundtrack of “Final Fantasy VII.” Does that make me an obsessed fan or does it make me an otaku?  In Japan there is a fine line that separates between the otaku and the obsessed. Further investigation of the otaku culture will offer a better understanding of how post-war innovations influenced Japanese culture and progressed to spread all across the world, proving that anyone can be an otaku.

Ever since my first time I played Final Fantasy VII, I have immersed myself in the interest of RPGs (role-playing games). RPGs are video games that put you in control of a character (or several) and progress in the game’s storyline while developing your characters through battles. You could say that it was the root of my interest in the otaku culture, in which it spawned an eagerness to see what else it has to offer. In my experience I have discovered animes, such as Akira, and started renting VHS copies of different anime movies. When I was even younger I collected and sold Pokémon cards, practically a Westernized-revolution in the late 1990s. I suppose I can consider myself an otaku, however I regulate my interests and typically don’t have the luxury of time to immerse myself with the culture due to work and academics. Despite that, you can see evidence of such influence in my art works and academic studies.

The meaning of otaku can be quite dichotomous in itself. More specifically, otaku refers to obsessive fans of anime, manga, video games, and just about anything else who spends the majority of their time at home pursuing those hobbies and interests (Schimmel 67). Otaku is a Japanese word referring to the cultural group that originated in the 1970s (Azuma). It consisted of enthusiastic consumers that are fans, and almost obsessed, of various post-war Japanese subcultures such as manga, anime, Sci-Fi, films, computer hacking, electronic gadgets, and so on (Azuma).

Ever since World War 2, the Japanese have suffered a heavy blow to the pride of their cultures and a sense of traditional identity (Azuma). From there spawned the otaku culture. The boom generation began to be taught to reject Japanese history (Izawa). That is why otaku is a form of collective expression of post-war Japanese nationalism and response to American popular culture (Azuma). Anime and manga became the main medium to communicate this reaction. Right at the beginning of post-war, Akihabara (a district of Tokyo) had black markets selling electronic parts and tube radio (Torakichi). Eventually it became “Electronics Town,” and became a center for home electronic goods (Torakichi). Akihabara evolved into markets selling entertainment products which includes mangas, animes, video games (even erotic ones), pornography, toys, and collectors’ items (Torakichi). The otaku industry was born, and fed the trend to the people of Japan… and the otaku themselves (Torakichi).

Animes and mangas started evolving alongside the boom generation, and began to include scenes of excessive violence, racism, rape, and poverty in children’s television shows (Izawa). To clarify definition, the term “anime” refers to animations of mangas (Eng 12). Manga is comics and cartoons printed in novels or comic books (in that particular “anime” style (Izawa). As you see the two terms have a intertwining relationship, which the otaku embraces as well. Individuals embraced the childhood of what once found peace and simplicity, then thrown into a very adult environment. Adults themselves, didn’t mind their kids watching these shows (Izawa). I remember a time when I religiously watched Dragon Ball Z as a child (in Okinawa), and remember seeing scenes of mild sexual intercourse and nudity (even in men and boys). Not only this, but the animators themselves enjoys fan-made, copyright infringing, artwork based off their characters (Azuma). Most of the time, they’re depictions are highly and excessively eroticized. Compared to the United States, if you marketed something with Mickey Mouse on it you bet that Disney will go after you! Hayao Miyazaki however, admired the early animation of “Superman” (despite the numerous anti-Japanese propaganda) (Izawa). “Superman” was the pinnacle of animation, and greatly influenced the animes we have today (Izawa).

Eventually, a man named Osamu Tezuka (considered the father of modern manga) brought forth “Tetsuwan Atom (“Mighty Atom” or “Astroboy”) to the Japanese airwaves (Izawa). Bringing animation to Japanese viewers meant low economical productions plus the need for toy makers and sponsors to help cover the cost of production in exchange for marketing the characters (Izawa). This would eventually lead up to the concept of massive consumerism referring to the marketing of major franchise on a lower scale (think Hello Kitty). It was just in time for the baby boomers of post-war (Izawa). Eventually, anime evolved into different genres, such as robot anime or “mechas” (“Gundam” and “The Super Dimension Fortress Macross” series). Mr. Miyazaki himself have created award-winning movies such as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Princess Mononoke.” “Pokemon” became a major hit in Japan when it was introduced in the late 1990s as well as the United States, and conjured up a marketing storm. We come to an era where the otaku has a deep “database” of media to be a fan of, and the evolution would be evident in the rising popularity of the viral culture.

The otaku culture has progressed through a series of evolution, enough to be immortalized in today’s fine art. “Superflat” was born, risen from a Japanese artist named Takashi Murakami who boasts a PhD in Nihonga (Japanese painting). Takashi Murakami’s groundbreaking essay, which shares the same title, brought forth the “Superflat” movement. It was complimented by an exhibition, also named “Superflat,” with art and sculptures opening a window to the popular culture in Japan and otaku. The term itself is defined as an art movement based off of Murakami’s manifesto utilizing different forms of graphic design, popular culture, and fine arts (Drohojowska-Philp). In his own sense, the art derived from this concept is “flattened,” and has a more metaphorical meaning behind it which includes a two dimensional perspective (Drohojowska-Philp). To specify the concept more, Murakami himself coined the term “poku,” a combination of pop art and otaku (Matsui 95). Based on his essay, “Superflat” is an amalgation of post-modernity Americanization, otaku, Japanese post-war Nationalism, and contemporary pop art (Azuma). It establishes the marriage of high and low consumerism, reminiscent of Andy Warhol (Azuma).

▽GEISAI http://www.geisai.net/

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Murakami’s characters in his often large-scale paintings and sculptures are depicted in the style of kawaii and anime. Kawaii is the Japanese word for “cute,” and often suggested by cute cartoon characters or big-eyed anime girls (Schimmel 76). The depiction of the otaku culture doesn’t just end at kawaii, but the notion of obsession over erotica. Japanese history has proven that erotica exists in all art forms, for example shunga (erotic prints made in Japanese history) portrayed nude couples in various sexual positions. In 1998, Murakami created a sculpture called My Lonesome Cowboy (Murakami 71). It was a naked anime young male with spiky blue hair ejaculating a stream of semen that transforms into an encircling lasso, a depiction of exaggerated sexuality the otaku embraces (Schimmel 72). The sculpture fetched an impressive $15.2 million dollars at Sotheby’s (Goldstein). In the reign of his major success, he continues to push the otaku cultures between the high art and low consumer products. The influence is much like a virus; you can see it everywhere in the streets of Tokyo.

"Army of Mushrooms", Frank Cohen Col...

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One of the activities the otaku righteously participate in is cosplaying. Cosplay is short for costume role-playing (Scott). It involves an otaku dressing up in a costume of a character from an anime, video game, movie, and/or manga. Some of the cosplayers’ favorite animes that they derive a costume from are anime television shows such as BLEACH, Cowboy Bebop, and Naruto (Scott). Female cosplayers love to depict themselves in the kawaii style fashions (Scott). Typically you can find them at anime conventions, such as Otacon, Comiket, and Animazment in Japan (Scott). However, don’t be surprised if you see cosplayers in other countries, especially the United States. It has become a very popular community in the past several years (Scott). Perhaps you remember Lady Gaga’s music video of “Bad Romance” in the scene where she is in a bathtub with big-eyed, kawaii, and anime inspired contact lens. If you really want to cosplay yourself and you happen to be in Japan, there exist several venues to accommodate this trend. Tokyo has plenty of cosplay restaurants, where they incorporate a theme such as maid’s costumes or vampires (Scott). One place, called Alcatraz E.R., was featured on America’s Food Network and famous for the theme of prison and hospital costumes (Scott). This concept is part of the culture for an obsessed fan to dress up in their favorite character and imagine between parts of that world in the particular anime. Again, this is in reference to Japan’s sensitive identity struggle played out in a more flamboyant fashion.

The word otaku is often used as a derogatory term in Japan, regarded as anti-social, perverted, intelligent, obsessive, and selfish (Azuma). They can be compared to “nerds” or “computer geeks.” They are often lacking in any real communication or social activities (Azuma). In the most extreme cases, they themselves have a strong, collective discrimination towards those who do not share their interests or ideals (Azuma). Those stereotypes don’t necessarily define an otaku anymore, especially after the boom in such generation in the early 1990s. Even after such evolution, the stereotypes remain due to unfortunate circumstances and crimes against humanity.

One can question if the otaku culture can influence individuals negatively, raised by acts of violence and crime that was rooted from that culture. Strong prejudice against the culture began to rise, especially when a famous serial killer named Tsutomu Miyazaki raped 4 children and consumed parts of their bodies (Azuma). He turned out to be a typical otaku, and reaffirmed the prejudice among the public of Japan. The terrorist cult called Aum Shinrikyo scatter poison gas in the Tokyo metros in 1995, creating panic and harm to the present patrons (Azuma). They were known for their biblical belief system rooted deeply by the mangas and animes originating in the 1970s and 1980s (Azuma). Unusually, they gathered vast sympathy from the otaku generation even after their act of terrorism (Azuma).

To fully understand the culture, one must immerse themselves in the same level of interests. The otaku not only has a vast database of elements of individual traits they love to dip into (like the anime characters derived by putting together components like “spiky hair” or cat’s tail), but a natural intercommunity that remains very protected and closed off to everyone else (Azuma). One way to better understand the culture is to read about it. There are many articles out there on the culture with plenty of credible sources. Another way is to go to Akihabara and immerse yourself in the traditional culture and the otaku culture. If possible, attend any of the anime conventions like Otacon (in Japan) or Sakuracon (which is in the United States). Have fun and do a little cosplaying of a favorite character, it doesn’t matter if they are of Japanese origin or not. There are prominent figures out there that are highly regarded by the otaku. “Otakings” include Toshio Okada (one of the most credible scholar on otaku), Hayao Miyazaki (highly esteemed animator), and Takashi Murakami himself. They themselves are otaku and are heavily involved in such conventions.

It is already evident that America has lead a heavy influence on Japanese post-war cultures, but you may find it strange to hear that Americans themselves indulge in the obsessions of a particular interest. While in Japan the term otaku can be derogatory, but some Americans idolize the otaku culture. According to Toshio Okada, he feels Japanese people have no idea that Americans love anime (Izawa). Despite its misconceptions, otaku is everywhere. From the “Trekkies” (obsessed fans of the Star Trek series and Sci-Fi) to the fan girls of J-POP idols (J-POP is a more flamboyant genre of music in Japan, similar to American pop music). I myself am in love with authentic ramen, and wishes they had ramen bars here like they do in Japan. Not only the otaku enjoys sushi, but Americans can obsess over the same thing. It is something we don’t fully understand, yet we are so intrigued by its mystery. One thing is known after having a better understanding of the otaku culture. It is the fact that anyone can find an idol in anything, and therefore become a fan of. Perhaps we all have a little obsession we keep locked away in our minds, and also a little otaku as well.

Works Cited

Azuma, Hiroki. “Superflat Japanese Post modernity.” MOCA. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.  5 April 2001. Lecture.

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. “Superflat.” Arnet.com. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 18 Jan. 2001. Web. 21 July 2010.

Eng, Lawrence. “Otaku Engagements: Subcultural Appropriation of Science and Technology.” Diss. Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2006. Proquest Dissertations & Theses. Web. 15 July 2010. <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?did=1221726101&Fmt=7&clientId=79356&RQT=309&VName=PQD&cfc=1&gt;.

Eng, Lawrence. “The Origins of Otaku.” Lawmune’s Netspace. Lawrence Eng. Web. 12 July 2010.

Goldstein, Andrew. “Takashi Murakami Watches From the Wings at Sotheby’s.” NYMag.com. New York Media LLC, 15 May 2008. Web. 16 July 2010.

Izawa, Eri. “Toshio Okada on the Otaku, Anime History, and Japanese Culture.” Mit.edu. MIT, 1 Oct. 2003. Web. 17 July 2010.

Lubow, Arthur. “The Murakami Method.” NY.com. The New York Times Company, 3 April 2005. Web. 15 July 2010.

Matsui, Midori. “Murakami Matrix: Takashi Murakami’s Instrumentalization of Japanese Postmodern Culture.” ÓMURAKAMI. Ed. Paul Schimmel. Rizzoli International Publications, 2008. 80-109. Print.

Murakami, Takashi. My Lonesome Cowboy. 1998. Oil, acrylic, fiberglass, and iron. Blum & Poe, Santa Monica. Sotheby’s. Web. 17 July 2010.

Schimmel, Paul. “Making Murakami.” ÓMURAKAMI. Ed. Paul Schimmel. Rizzoli International Publications, 2008. 53-79. Print.

Scott, Alan. “Cosplay.” JapanLinked.com. JapanLink.com. Web. 21 July 2010.

Torakichi, Yamaha. “History of Akihabara – Sacred Ground for Otaku.” Akibaangels.com. Akibaangels.com. Web. 21 July 2010.



About Julian Peña

I'm a visual artist and student currently in progress to attaining a Bachelors of Fine Arts. I've been creating fantastical works of art since I was at the age of 13 years old. My work is transcendent beyond the material world and life itself. The paintings are polychromatic and visually exciting, while still maintaining a level of harmony. The subjects in many of these works of art may not exist at all despite what we perceive. It is a play on perception, an attempt to engage the viewers. I has earned numerous scholarships, participated in several group exhibitions, and already organized my own solo exhibition (CMYK, 2011). My meticulous and unique style is visually arresting. New ideas are constantly being examined and then visually communicated. Come check out my works at www.julianpena.com! I am is also currently part of the 253 Collective (a co-op) in downtown Tacoma. I currently live and work out of my loft in downtown Tacoma, WA.


  1. Pingback: Eccentricity: The Realm Between the Normal and the Crazy « Reply2Julian

  2. When I was young my friend invited me over to watch “Ninja Scroll”. I had no

    • Sorry my cursor got off the box somehow when i was writing. But, I had no idea of the culture at all and from a budding drawing student’s perspective I couldn’t wrap my head around the amount of technical ability and the sort of time needed to invest in that overall project. (I also had yet to realize that I didn’t like to draw but it did consume me for some time, and I also hadn’t even started to explore the depth of my creative energy at a near obsessive order) Your article puts into perspective that an entire culture is responsible for this evolution in seemingly a combined effort. Now I can understand how such things could come into being. I guess it’s difficult from a Western perspective to be able to have the depth of sight to think of how a foreign subculture could develop so deeply and be responsible for so much creativity. Especially in America where creative avenues only seem to come about as a result of one or sometimes a group of people that remain mostly isolated and fade away after the money has been made… I’m not certain things will follow in the same footsteps in America because the view is altered and skewed without the knowledge or exposure of the preceding movies at least so the larger range of viewers would be able to begin to understand where these ideas come from because it seemed to be a spontaneous generation of ideas like the “Lion King” just showing up one day and then it never really came back to the same level on meaning because it was a sequel. Though it is yet to be seen how Harry Potter effects the next generation because like DBZ it grew up with them. I’m not sure if I’m done with this thought….

      • It’s interesting to find that I see otaku tendencies in my body of work and the process I undergo to create works of art. To be quite honest, I learned about this unique subculture also from a Western perspective. I had a little help during the short time I grew up in Japan and having a Japanese mother… and tons of research. Though otaku is very unique, we do see it in the Western civilization. Not only the likes of Pokemon, but native creations like D&D, Warcraft, Elder Scrolls, etc. In the West it’s more subdued and people look at a “Western otaku” differently than a “Japanese otaku.” I wouldn’t say I’m 100% otaku, considering I don’t follow 100% of their movement (considering I’m here in WA lol). However, otaku does exist somewhere in me throughout my life. Particularly in my early years of obsessing of the Final Fantasy series :). It can be treated like one’s heritage, and that’s where my influence in fine art starts. I hope to do tons more research and move toward contributing towards the future of art. Big goals for still being an art student, but I feel I’m slowly getting their. I really do appreciate other fellow artists taking interest in my writings. I always love to hear other people’s thoughts and reactions to what I think and say. To close, I can safely say the otaku subculture placed a nice foot hold in American entertainment where there’s animated cartoons now have evident anime styles.

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