Otaku (オタク) is a term in Japanese used to describe someone with an obsessive interest. Usually referring to pop culture and more specifically anime and manga, the term is generally viewed as being derogatory in Japan while international communities have adopted it to mean a more general “interested in manga” definition.
The original form of Otaku is found in the word for someone else’s home or family (御宅, otaku) which can also often be used to describe a second person pronoun in the honorific. The current form of the world, which is often written in katakana as read above, came into heavy use in the 1980s. Two good touchstones are the 1982 Macross series in which a character used Otaku as an honorific and the 1983 series of essays in Manga Burikko by Akio Nakamori in which the author wrote about how often the term was used by those who were obsessively interested in anime and manga.
The modern use of the word Otaku came into being in 1989 in Japan when Akio Nakamori wrote “The Generation of M – We and Mr. Miyazaki”, a book about [Tsutomu Miyazaki]]. Miyazaki was a serial killer who was known to be reclusive and obsessed with pornographic manga and anime – leading to a much greater negative connotation in the word.
In 1996, the word was used by William Gibson in his novel, Idoru, and came to mean someone who was obsessed with the new era of technology and pop culture to the degree of being social deficit. From here, many in the English speaking world have taken the word to mean someone obsessed with Japanese pop culture, especially anime.
In today’s Japanese culture, Otaku refers to a fan of anyone who is obsessed with a particular topic or hobby. The world will often come coupled with the hobby with which they are obsessed in the form of “anime otaku” or “gemu otaku” for the very particular obsession. Other common hobbies the word is used with include manga, personal computers, pop singers, clothing, and military. In addition, the word is sometimes used to describe obsessions with music, cooking, martial arts, and any number of other hobbies.
While some individuals will often us the word to describe themselves, many will shrink from having it used for them as it has so many negative connotations. In many social circles, the word is considered an insult. Recent pop culture has explored the concept of the Otaku more thoroughly though, giving the individual a more in depth psychological profile in films like Train Man and in popular anime not promoted directly toward Otaku.
Another subset of modern Otaku culture is the proliferation of Dojinshi throughout Japanese culture. These fan created manga have had a major impact on the industry, shaping how new manga are crafted and what topics are taken up by major publication houses.
Generally, in English, the word Otaku refers specifically to a “geek” or “nerd” who is obsessed or overly interested in anime and manga. It’s broader meaning can often be made to be the obsession with Japan in general. However, the growing awareness of the word’s negative connotations in Japan has caused the word to become slightly less accepted among those who are true otaku and deemd an insult in some cases.
A convention held in the United States every year in Baltimore, MD, Otakon is short for “Otaku Convention” and was started in 1994 as a small festival in State College, PA. The festival has now become the largest such convention focused on anime and manga held in the United State annually.