For those of us who watch anime or read manga, those of us who love Japanese videogames, those who enjoy J-Pop or idols, or frequent Japanese culture-related websites, the term otaku feels like a comfortable badge of recognition; an indication that you’re in a relatively safe space with like-minded people who share your interests, where they might otherwise be cause for undue ridicule or ostracism. However, it’s no secret that Japan has had a complicated, somewhat checkered history with the term otaku, and the people who are identified, or self-identify, that way.
The following article is an exploration of the term otaku, and what it means both inside and outside Japan, as well as the implications the actions of individuals who were identified (or identified themselves) as otaku have had on the otaku community and societies at large. It will ask questions regarding the responsibility of the sometimes heinous actions associated with this social subgroup, and as such, I just wanted to put in a brief trigger warning: we’re going to be discussing some events that are graphic. Sometimes violently, sometimes sexually, and (unfortunately) sometimes both. If you are sensitive to subjects of this nature, perhaps this article isn’t for you. With that said, I hope this can start a thoughtful, respectful conversation about a topic that causes a lot of personal and societal discomfort.
What’s in a Name?
First, it’s important to identify what otaku actually means, for those not in the know. Otaku (おたく/オタク) is derived from the polite Japanese word for a person’s house. Contemporary usage was coined in the early 80s, reportedly in association with the publication Manga Burikko, to refer to a particularly obsessive brand of nerd, typically associated with anime and manga. This obsession could take many forms, such as obsessive reading/viewing habits, obsessive collection of magazines, videos, or figures associated with a particular brand or series, and a general sort of overzealousness about the things the nerd was interested in. Because of that, the general perception was that people so obsessed were socially awkward and somewhat unpleasant to interact with.
While we’ll get into the point where the term changed from an in-word used by like-minded fans to a brand of societal stigma in just a moment, I wanted to talk about the difference between the Japanese usage of the word, and Western usage. Although the term “nerd” was never a particularly positive word in the West, the term otaku, which was simply a nerd interested in aspects of Japanese culture, didn’t carry any additional weight or stigma.
In fact, in recent years the term “nerd” has come to be used in a more positive way, indicating a level of enthusiasm for an interest that goes beyond the average, but not necessarily into the aggressive or detrimental, and has come to envelope a wide-variety of interests, including typically non-nerdy things (ranging from sports, fashion, alcohol-connoisseurship, etc.). Perhaps it’s because of how globalized our world has become (and subsequent ease of information/cultural exchange), but I think the change is a positive one, and generally seems to have buoyed perception of otaku in the West as well.
The Turning Point
There was a very distinct moment in Japanese history that lead society from viewing otaku culture as a benign aspect of two cultural products that everyone consumed on a daily basis, to a threat to public safety and symptom of a greater societal problem. An almost year-long string of horrific murders between August 1988 and June 1989, of girls between the ages of 4-7, culminated in the arrest of Miyazaki Tsutomu, or The Otaku Murderer, as he came to be infamously known.
At the age of 27, after sexually assaulting an elementary schoolgirl who was subsequently rescued by her father, Miyazaki was apprehended by police in Saitama prefecture, where he resided. When they raided his apartment, alongside remains of his victims taken as trophies of his murders, they found almost 6,000 videotapes, which included anime and slasher-films, and were quickly offered up as inspiration and motivation for his monstrous acts. A collection of child pornography helped cement the association between otaku and hentai, as well.
This lead to a wave of moral outrage that swept the nation, and the true stigmatization of otaku culture at large. During his trial, he blamed his actions (which he referred to as acts of benevolence) on an alternate persona called “Rat Man,” which he drew throughout. Courtroom proceedings lasted almost two decades, until Miyazaki was hanged in 2008. But it was only the first of many incidents publicized on the national and global level where anime, and otaku culture specifically, were used as (at best) incidental explanations or (at worst) scapegoats for heinous actions against others.
Aum Shinrikyo and the Tokyo Subway Attacks
On March 20 in 1995, a series of domestic terror attacks involving deadly sarin gas were carried out on Tokyo subway lines during rush hour by ten members of the fringe “new religious” cult group Aum Shinrikyo. These attacks resulted in the deaths of 12 people, with dozens more seriously injured, and hundreds temporarily blinded. It was (and still is) considered one of the deadliest acts on Japanese soil since WWII, and shook the nation to its core.
While the perpetrators were (eventually) arrested and punished, and Aum Shinrikyo came under critical scrutiny, during the trial it was highly publicized that their headquarters was a computer shop in Akihabara. Affectionately nicknamed “Electric City,” and considered a mecca for otaku the world over, this fact once against stirred up societal frenzy and outrage regarding otaku culture.
While there were some defenders such as Murakami Haruki, perhaps the most famous Japanese novelist, who wrote a book in 1997 (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche) criticizing the way the media sensationalized portrayals of the perpetrators, rather than showing sensitivity towards the victims and those affected by the attacks, at the time of the trials the damage had already been done. Otaku culture was implicated, if only peripherally, and any reconciliatory goodwill since previous incidents evaporated once again.
For the most part, reactions to these incidents were outsiders looking into a world they didn’t understand, and responding with suspicion and fear. The same can’t be said, however, for Katō Tomohiro, admitted otaku and perpetrator of what came to be called the Akihabara Massacre, in 2008.
The incident took place on a Sunday, which is when Akihabara famously closed some of its busiest roads for shoppers to make it easier for all of the pedestrian traffic. After posting his intentions on an online forum (where he had posted increasingly negative posts regarding his life, and society at large), and preparing for the attack by selling his personal computer to pay for knives and a truck rental, Katō drove said rental truck into a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians. After, he exited the vehicle and proceeded to stab passersby. Police eventually gave chase and cornered him in an alley where he surrendered himself into their custody, but not before he killed seven people and injured twenty.
This incident started a media frenzy as well, since it proved that not even fellow otaku were safe from the misguided wrath of would-be friends. Anti-social and criminal behavior were even more strongly associated with otaku culture. The country came under a lot of international scrutiny, since Japan had always been considered a comparatively safe haven for residents and tourists alike. As a further result, the execution orders for previously mentioned criminal Miyazaki Tsutomu were expediently fulfilled. Akiba’s 35 year practice of closing certain streets to motor traffic to make it easier for pedestrians to congregate was put on a hiatus that lasted for years. Katō himself was sentenced to death, and his execution was carried out earlier in 2015.
The “Trend” Continues
As recently as this year, events that have continued to fan the flames of the public’s negative perception of otaku culture have transpired. In an article posted on this very website (which you can read here:https://honeysanime.com/anime-otaku-murdered-a-high-school-girl/, the story of Masahiro Aoki murdering former co-worker, 17-year-old Kana Iwase, in cold blood was recounted.
Masahiro killed Kana on November 12 by strangling her to death in his apartment, after apparently inviting her in to talk about their shared interest, anime. He called the police himself to confess his crimes. Possible motive for the murder seem to be the financial strain Masahiro was under while overindulging his hobby, spending thousands on anime-related merchandise (including hundreds of DVDs and figures) and several personal computers, although he admitted to police after arrest that he had been contemplating murder for some time.
Once the national news stations obtained images and video of his room, it didn’t take long for the scapegoating of Otaku culture to renew. A sentence regarding the case is still pending.
The practice of using popular culture and the type of media consumption individuals engage in as a potential reason for heinous acts and criminal activity isn’t a strictly Japanese custom by a long shot. Incidents throughout U.S. history have explored the notion that interest (healthy or otherwise) in certain genres of music, television, videos, and more recently, video games, have a causative relationship with violent crimes and criminal activity.
Take, for example, the Columbine High School Massacre in April, 1999, in which two seniors at the school armed themselves with firearms and explosives and killed twelve students, a teacher, and injured dozens more before taking their own lives. Many things changed in the wake of the shootings, but it was their interest in videogames and Marilyn Manson that the media latched onto, sparking a similar sense of misplaced moral outrage, which went so far that some people attempted to sue videogame manufacturers, record companies, and Marilyn Manson himself.
Striking the Root
I’ll put it simply: of course anime, or videogames, or any type of media isn’t responsible for the violent or criminal actions of others. When tragedies like those mentioned in this article do happen, it’s important to keep an open mind and a critical eye when trying to discern the motivation for such heart-breaking actions. While it’s understandable that in the wake of such tragedies victims and society alike try to find some measure of peace or comfort by blaming aspects of a culture they don’t participate in or don’t understand. Doing so is an act that is just as misguided as the actions of those responsible, although the effects aren’t necessarily felt in such pronounced ways.
There are so many complicated factors that go into determining what makes an individual or a group behave criminally, or violently, to seek to harm themselves or those around them. In the case of many of the individuals who carried out the crimes discussed, feelings of social and physical isolation, mental or physical disabilities, as well as a lack of understanding and an inability to explore their debilitating feelings in a positive manner are suggested to have played an important role in cementing their desire to carry out their crimes. The hopelessness of their actions caused others to feel are often the feelings they wrestle with themselves.
While it’s easy to understand the misguided finger-pointing towards anime, or videogames, or whatever type of media those involved chose to consume, and the knee-jerk reaction of the general public to view such media as dangerous or harmful, isn’t it just as easy to see that it’s in these inanimate things which those troubled individuals sought some measure of comfort? I mention this not as an excuse for their unforgivable actions, but as a more constructive avenue for understanding.
Types of media like anime and other staples of otaku culture aren’t the cause in cases like this, but are often a symptom of some greater underlying problem. By using media as a scapegoat, we are doing ourselves, victims, and even the perpetrators a disservice. By ignoring the complicated underlying factors at play and avoiding responsibility in favor of finger-pointing, we give rise to more opportunity for those who don’t receive the attention or care they desperately need to perpetuate this heart-breaking cycle of misunderstanding that too-often ends in violence.
Both Japan and Western countries alike have had a hard time destigmatizing perception and treatment of very real, everyday problems that we all face, like depression, social or mental disorders, or illnesses. It is easy to look at hikkikomori, or those with anxieties or disorders and dismiss them as unfortunate outliers, somehow rotten apples that won't spoil an otherwise delicious bunch. This is a huge disservice. They are our fellows, and by letting them know we hear their voice, by creating an environment where it’s ok for them to explore their feelings in a positive way, by giving everyone access to the tools they need to get whatever level of help or intervention is required, we can move forward past the senseless scapegoating, and begin to affect real, positive change.
Be The Change You Want to See
Terms like otaku and “nerd” came to represent a subcultural group of people who felt marginalized, but could come together in shared interests and engage in healthy, beneficial social activity without the anxiety of being dismissed or ridiculed. While it’s impossible to be constantly vigilant and stamp out all cases of violence, it’s important to try to foster an environment of understanding and positive enthusiasm for our interests, to help make ourselves and others feel included, like they have a real voice that is not only heard, but respected.
I’ll admit that even I am sometimes uncomfortable with my own interests, or rather, the way they are represented in otaku culture, or other subgroups that share them. Sometimes I think it would be easier to distance myself from the things that make me uncomfortable, or feel embarrassed. But I think it’s important to engage with these feelings, and try to explore them in a way that is positive, and create a shared sense of understanding. While I might not necessarily be the first writer at Honey’s to volunteer to write an article about the top ten best panty shots of shows that came out over the summer season, I’ll respect the author who does, because they’re engaging in a shared interest in a way that benefits them and others, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable. We’re all coming to the same place, even if we’re doing so for different reasons.
So I will try to explore these issues head-on. For example, it’s worth noting that recently Japan has come under scrutiny from the U.N. with regard to portrayals of child pornography in both anime and manga. Defenders and proponents were quick to react, voicing their opinions online regarding censorship, freedom of speech, and the importance of distinction between the consumption of fictional media and real world actions and consequences. These types of conversations make me (and others, I’m sure) uncomfortable, but they’re just as important to have. If we close our ears and turn off our minds, we can’t move forward. The only conversation that isn’t worth having is the one that implies that none of these conversations are worth having in the first place.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, I want to thank you. This article is a complicated one to explore, and I’ve felt a little nervous in writing it. I hope that I’ve approached it with appropriate sensitivity and thoughtfulness, and that we can spark a discussion beyond simply agreeing with each other that it’s wrong when something we care about and enjoy so much is blamed for increasingly complicated issues.