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    Cultural Identity (what defines us?)

    Otaku: A Silent Cultural Revolution

    Nozomi Hayase  |  01.Jul.10
    If a tourist walks down the street in Tokyo, moving from the office district into the Harajuku or youth district, in a moment they are transported into a sort of surreal scenery that stands in stark contrast to the grey formal face of Japanese corporate culture. A kind of virtual reality blends into the scenery as anime characters and role-playing games find their way into the public space. Especially popular is a costume play known as Cosplay (Kosupure in Japanese) being taken up by Japanese youth. It is a kind of performance or fashion art with elaborate costumes where participants act out dramas, dance and move in ways that express their favorite animation characters. For Americans to get a sense of this social trend, it might help to imagine this as a kind of weekly Japanese version of Halloween. People who share this fad gather together to create a stage in public places, primarily expressed through their costumes. Sometimes they just hang out or even create a kind of flash mob experience where a group spontaneously starts a stylized dance routine or role-play in the street.

    Japanese culture is notorious for starting new popular trends. From sushi and karaoke to anime, Manga and youthful fashion, significant global interest and demand has sprung up, crossing borders to find new expression on other shores. These 'Made in Japan' exports have become part of the undercurrent of modern global trends, as if playfully calling attention to something deeper beneath the waves of dominant corporate culture. Some of these trends are a bit bizarre, yet apparently alluring to people in other parts of the world.

    The Japanese "Otaku" culture and the phenomena associated with it is one of the latest exports. The word Otaku in Japanese is derived from the honorific word of Taku (home). Otaku was coined to describe someone who stays at home for long hours with obsessive interests with their hobbies such as video games, Manga and role-playing games online (Urban Dictionary, 1999).

    In the age of technology, the Otaku finds likeminded people through the internet. This virtual social network has helped to bring what has been a private obsession at home out in public and express a new social impulse. There is something in the creative aspects of Japanese Otaku that transcends its roots and hints at a quality in young people that is more universal. This is shown by the fact that Anime, Manga and Japanese computer games have gained unprecedented popularity in America and other parts of the world. These exports invite diverse individuals into a vortex of the emerging Otaku subculture. Comic shops and street displays have become a kind of tourist attraction in their own right. Events like Manga and Anime conventions are held regularly and bring in thousands of people, not just from Japan, but from all over the world.

    Stepping into this collective virtual reality is like entering a fantastical social space that the youth themselves have created. It is a freeing experience for many Japanese teens who have grown up under rigid expectations of a society that puts a high value on conformity. By trying on costumes that express an aspect of their individuality, these Otaku enter into a highly stylized caricature. This allows them to feel and see the world in a different way than the scripted dominant discourse would allow.

    Another role-playing wave that is sweeping Japan is something called "history girls" (reki-jo in Japanese). It has been characterized as "a new urban subculture that some believe signals a kind of empowerment for female Japanese hobbyists." (Kuhn, 2010). Young Japanese women turn to male historical figures and theme parks, dress up like samurai and practice sword fighting, games and share novels in this popular obsession. They found the past in their fantasy to escape from a modern world that labors under limited ideas of the roles of women.

    This interest in research and reenactment of a particular historical era is seen in the growing popularity of Japanese films that brings historical context into modern consciousness. Sakuran is a film based on popular Manga series that was set in a particular historical time known as Edo era. It was released in 2007, with colorful costumes, traditional kimonos and dramas that depicted women's lives as vastly different than what Japanese women experience today. The portrayal in the film of a rich inner life, fantasy and romance of the women of that time made it possible for these modern women to engage emotionally beyond their own lives.

    These young people also take what was depicted in the media and films off the screen and enact them as a kind of otherworldly street-theater. They dance or act a part of a scene from the animation stories, wearing fashion and trying on characters from the traditional Japanese cultural context. In a sense, these women have created a kind of street Kabuki that subversively challenges and even reverses the stylized sexism of traditional Kabuki, which only allows male actors even for female roles.

    Weird, eccentric and riveting might be words used to express the experience in encountering these cultural phenomena in Japan. In the age of globalization, corporate values have become a dominant force shaping the social scenery of Japan. As a result, Japan, like other post-industrial nations, suffers a kind of cultural obliteration, a vacuum of history. The dry formalized landscape of corporate work life has shaped adult society and identities, monopolizing a rich cultural heritage into a soulless, cookie cutter global franchise, where people are cut off from their own history and culture. As a result many find themselves uprooted in a kind of wasteland.

    Many of these youthful trends can of course be looked at as just another superficial pop culture that is co-opted by the entertainment industries. Yet pop culture itself has its place in the wider social context as a hint of something emerging within the context of universal cultural evolution as a whole. The worldwide cross-cultural appeal of these emerging Otaku pop cultures is a testament to the struggle of young people everywhere trying to create something that they sense society as a whole is losing.

    When the 80's housing bubble collapse hit the Land of the Rising Sun, it was like an earthquake. It shook up the imported illusion of the materialistically driven American Dream. Perhaps Japan was the first nation to experience the crumbling house of cards, the facade of corporate culture. Many started to question their obedient allegiance to materialistic consumerism imported from and incorporated by the US. Once corporate logos dominated young people's fashion, but now that is changing into a new trend toward more originality. The youth now find their own avenues of creativity through inventing their own clothing lines and styles and in this case it can be seen even as an emerging art form. Beneath the surface and bland masks of the business world, young people are weaving a thread of a unique culture, tapping into the past and charting possible futures. They dialogue with new self-images, caricatures and social groupings that are circulated in an increasingly interactive digital media. Their imagination takes them into a co-creative fantasy world of digital animation, where they are given a space to explore various presentations of the self that were once denied in a one-sided commercially driven culture.

    Otaku as a label initially indicated a somewhat derogatory cultural stigma. It has a marginalizing connotation to it, with similar nuance to nerd or geek. Yet, this has become one of the more influential cultural phenomena in modern Japan. That said, in Japan, the Otaku trend and the activities identified with it are still stigmatized as antisocial behavior, as strange and eccentric, which are qualities that go against the accepted Japanese virtue of the highly socially adaptive personality. Not standing out from the group has always been the oil that lubricates the smooth social harmony of Japanese culture.

    While Otaku attributes are often seen in a negative light, positive qualities in this Otakuness exist as keys to understand and explore the emerging sense of self in world culture. What is behind the veil of Otakuness? Can this be seen as an agent for creating a participatory evolution of identity? People associated with Otaku demonstrate non-conformity, as a sense of going against the grain, not allowing a dominant mainstream experience to dictate their way of being. As more freedom of the individual emerges, the prospect of moving from worn Japanese school uniforms straight to the business suits of a prescribed monotone life is becoming more and more unacceptable for today's youth.

    For traditional Japan, group conformity is regarded as a virtue. Yet as with many youth cultures, Otaku offers resistance to obedient group-think expectations of the older generations. Considering the originality and creativity expressed in the costume making and dances, it can be said that Otaku is a visible cultural shift that heralds the budding of individuality that was thought of as lacking or non-existent in such a homogeneous society as Japan. The Otaku phenomenon as youth expression is a subversive form of revolution through shared activity and fashion, with an internal tribal conformity that is a trait of many new impulses. The other side of this style revolution is that it still fits into basic Japanese tradition and culture, in that there is an emphasis on maintaining harmony and avoiding confrontation.

    The Otaku first goes inward and then comes out to break the silence. She shows a playful new approach to self-expression and counters the dismissive mainstream attitude that made them to be simply a product of predefined value. Otaku is the gesture of reaching within, grappling with and reorganizing one's identity and gaining inspiration from disparate cultural elements. It is this self-organizing principle of Otaku that is a harbinger for the future. Perhaps by retreating from social norms held by mainstream culture, going deep inside and then emerging within a fantasy world to find forms for new aspirations, one may find the beginnings of an antidote to the comodification culture of the last several decades.

    The Otaku reaches back in time and then creatively blazes forward, turning fashions and icons of the past into futuristic images that are uniquely their own. It is a new kind of art. Instead of being carried by cultural norms of the past, these artists actively engage in the transmission and transformation process of culture through redefining identity, while challenging and dialoguing with mainstream culture.

    Beneath hardened and colorless cityscapes, there is a fermenting cultural revolution. What has become a global fad of Japanese pop subculture is perhaps a hungering call from each person's hidden Otaku inside. The global reach of this Japanese export is quietly joining existing underground movements for cultural transformation. Like the spring after a long winter, from the deep soil, the Otaku seed is growing into her social niche, daring others to come out and join the celebration of a flowering new world.


    Kuhn, A. (2010, April 19). For Japanese women, the past is the latest fad. NPR. Retrieved,
    April 19, 2010,

    Squidoo, LLC. (2010). Sakuran-Japanese movie. Retrieved April 19, 2010, from

    The Mainichi Newspapers. (2009, June 14). New wave of 'history girls' wooed by warlords' masculinity. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from

    Urban dictionary. (1999). Otaku. Retrieved April 19, 2010,


    Comments :

    1. Posted on 25.Feb.13   From: Toni Marquis


    I cannot fully express how much your words have moved me. I am speechless and I want to thank you for writing this article. I was researching Otaku for a paper I am doing for my Intercultural Communications class at SCC when I stumbled onto it. My family and I are huge anime and sci-fi/fantasy fans and my 10 year old daughter has fully embraced this even more so in the last year. Reading your article has put everything into perspective and into words that I was unable to express half my life. Thank you!

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