“Letters from the New York Otaku”
By David Cabrera
#3: What I Think About Calling Ourselves Otaku: “I’m Fascinated By Your Lifestyle!”
Last time we talked about the title of this column and the importance of the word otaku to many foreign fans. My feelings for the term are complicated, so I offer a story from my own life.
I used to see a girl who would say of me, full-time college otaku that I was, “I’m fascinated by your lifestyle!” That’s the kind of phrase that stays in your head, and not necessarily as a compliment. Did she like me, or was I a scientific study? I never really figured it out, but at worst I was a happy test subject.
Every so often she would come see me with the intent of observing the male otaku in his habitat. I was merely shocked by my luck. When she first said “fascinated by your lifestyle”, I sat her down and I showed her the Genshiken anime. Basic educational material. She was riveted.
“God, I hate that Saki. What a bitch!” she said to me after a few episodes, expecting an otaku to agree wholeheartedly. But I love Saki. Sure, we’d all like to date Ohno, but Saki’s the most human. Her cut-downs and her perpetual, eyebrow-twitching disgust keep everybody down to earth… and while she’s not going to drop Kosaka for Madarame or anything, it’s not like Saki truly hates the Genshiken otaku, you know?
“She’s so mean to them, though!”
“But they need her!”
“They don’t need her at all!”
“Ah, you just don’t get it,” I said to her, like maybe we were in fact different species.
We got along pretty well, and things went along this way for a while. One of those days she would say to me, “well, we’re both otaku…”. I reflexively replied “you can’t be!” and mentally shuddered a little bit.
That had to do with my feeling of the word otaku at the time. I feel like one shouldn’t induct oneself so proudly into that club. To me, that word– like “nerd” in English– still carries the sense of an outcast. I haven’t run under the banner of otaku: it’s something I’ve had to admit to myself over time. There is the sad feeling that I can’t talk to some of the things about which I am passionate to anybody outside of the subculture.
But that wasn’t the meaning of the word otaku that was on her mind. It didn’t have these complex connections to shame, it was just the fascinating lifestyle that she shared in when she came over.
So I regretted my statement—my wanting to sort her into a box far away from me labeled “not otaku”– right away. Our conversation wasn’t about some debate over the definition of a term. It was her looking to connect, and me denying her that because, dammit, she was wrong about a character in an anime that I liked. Ah, how otaku of me. How foolish.
So no, I haven’t figured out what American anime/manga fans mean when they use otaku… but I’ve decided to stop worrying about where to draw the lines. Next time we’ll talk less about what American otaku call themselves and a little more about what they’re doing. See you then.