Delving into the Life of the American Otaku: A Survey Study through Internet Fora

In October of 2005, the Nomura Research Institute published a report that classified Japanese otaku, economically referred to as the “domestic enthusiast consumer group,” into twelve general fields based on the media of their passion (i.e. anime, manga, pop idols). Additionally, the report defined five sub-categories based on commonly observed otaku personality traits and otaku-relevant behaviors (i.e. social awkwardness, collecting toys, attending conventions, etc.). While “otaku” in Japan is a derogatory term linked to the broader category of “geek” or “tech nerd,” its connotations in American slang are more commonly associated with fans of Japanese comics or animation, and range widely from mild derogation to reverence for one’s fanboy/girl superiors. Subject to these variations in the definition of otaku, it seems almost impossible to classify an American by the same standards implemented in the 2005 NRI study. However, I’d like to argue that studying the American otaku in a Japanese context—or at least in a context more closely related to Japanese manga and anime culture than everyday American life—is operationally sufficient for the scope of this investigation. Based on a message board survey and information garnered from the fora of the Anime Central 2007 convention, held in Chicago, Illinois, this study seeks to examine and classify the American otaku.

My self-written survey, while nowhere near comprehensive (as that would have required far too many questions), was circulated on three different message boards of the Anime Central 2007 forum (ACen Discussions/Questions, Help Wanted, and Meet up Zone). Based on a series of simple open-ended questions, it sought to determine the social and personal implications of attending an anime convention, paying particular mind to responses’ relevance to the aforementioned otaku definitions:

+ What made you decide to go to the con? A particular manga, anime, the social/dating scene, location/proximity, newfound interest? What about ACen is most attractive?
+ At the convention, did you talk to and meet a lot of new people? What were those interactions like—fun, scary, awkward, sweet, romantic? Did you find a new romantic partner at the convention?
+ Was money an issue for you? Did you have to limit your spending, or was this convention a chance to splurge?
+ Did you cosplay? What is the significance of cosplay for you – is it a way to express yourself or a way to promote your hobby (i.e. wearing your creations to get people to buy from you)? Is cosplay a way to make money for your otaku desires (e.g. to support the purchase of more anime or manga paraphernalia)?
+ Do anime conventions make you feel more connected to Japanese culture? If so, how? After going to ACen do you have a stronger desire to go to Japan? Do you speak any Japanese?
+ Would you consider yourself an otaku? If so, what kind? What is your calling?

The typical responses were fairly consistent with the six basic factors of otaku behavior defined by the Nomura Institute: desire for common identity, desire to collect, desire to stand out, desire to be independent, desire to be creative, and desire to belong (NRI 2005). American cosplayers, specifically, want to go to conventions for the purpose of meeting and spending time with other cosplayers and anime enthusiasts like themselves. They want to be recognized for designing the best costume, to create the coolest paraphernalia to sell at convention booths, to support their anime habits with anime (by selling their products), and to feel that they are enveloped and welcomed in a community of people just like themselves.

A respondent who goes by the name of Vash wrote that anime conventions are especially important because they provide a substantial and comfortable arena for otaku to share similar interests. To quote, “My favorite thing about ACen is knowing I can walk up to anyone and have something to talk about.” Conventions like ACen allow people from all across the Midwest (and the United States) to gather and partake in their shared hobby, whether it is cosplay, reading manga, or stalking anime artists and voice actors. In addition, conventions are a safe haven for personal expression, and essentially guarantee convention-goers acceptance or support—sometimes even awe. As a shy cross-dressing cosplayer named Magicreaver added, being able to cosplay is a way for otaku to communicate their interests to others and prove their courage and dexterity at becoming something they’re not. Fellow cosplayer Iyonobu added that cosplay is “a form of fun…and acting while in costume is normal and can be done at anime conventions.” While a middle-age man dressed as Sailor Moon on the street might garner strange looks and callous side commentary, he might be asked for a photo-op with a genuinely impressed fan at a convention like ACen. A respondent named Sentinel wrote, “I cosplay because it’s fun… and basically I’m an attention whore who wants to get his picture taken. Which didn’t happen very much. I really need to cosplay as somebody else. Somebody more sexy. Like Sailor Bubba.” Convention attendees have also adopted cosplay as a way of increasing the popularity of enthusiast groups and fan clubs. Vash cosplayed as a “Toy Soldier in the army of a man named Doctor Steel” in order to spread the word about his group and recruit a few new members. Cosplayers like Vash devote incredible amounts of time and money to perfecting their costumes for display and competition, and also use costumes to inform others of the greatness of their particular group. Of the five NRI sub-categories, Vash (as well as at least one of his army mates) seems to fit perfectly with otaku type four—“the outgoing and assertive otaku” (2005). He is very interested in involving other otaku and using their shared hobby as a means to gain recognition from others (e.g. Vash dresses as a Toy Soldier to alert others to the group he identifies with). He admits to being an otaku without “the social awkwardness that goes along with it,” which is consistent with the type four otaku’s seemingly normal growth in other aspects of social life (NRI 2005).

As another example, otaku like Sentinel report spending extravagant amounts of money on multiple anime media, including knick-knacks, books, and DVDs, and fit the description of a type three otaku—“the media-sensitive multiple interest otaku.” Sentinel works two jobs (one in the hotel business and one as a part-time professor), to provide him with “plenty of money to spend on crap [he doesn’t] need.” He is interested in many different aspects of anime conventions, including artists’ and voice actors’ panels, purchasing things from the dealer room, and watching new anime in the viewing rooms; and he is eager to experience and spend money on any (and every) new thing he enjoys. Sentinel also uses anime as a way to support his own otaku habits: “So far, I’ve made $4000 off teaching anime to people, which basically has paid for the four ACens I’ve attended.” Furthermore, he wrote, “I confirmed my otakudom to myself when I realized that getting to ACen this year was an obsession. I even threatened to quit my job and damn near had a heart attack when Amtrak arrived early at my boarding station—I thought I would miss the train for sure.” While a similar attendee named Mustang cosplayed in a “pretty decent sized group that usually kept to [themselves],” she also noted that all her interactions with non-group members were very comfortable and easygoing. Even as a recent inductee to the society of anime enthusiasts (she claims to have just gotten into anime last September), Mustang has already affiliated herself with a cosplay group and assumed the title of otaku. Like Sentinel, she seems to accurately represent the type three otaku defined by the Nomura report. Mustang appears to possess “a strong tendency to fixate on acquiring information or material goods” (NRI 2005), and admits she “went a bit overboard” and spent “about twice as much [at ACen] as [she] did for Wizard World.” She demonstrates the type three otaku’s reliance on what is currently popular (i.e. fads) and desire to expand her collection of unique imported wares—ones that can’t be found anywhere else. This behavior is supplemented by her quip that she cosplayed as Misa from Death Note (a current and very well-known anime character) “along with the other thousand Misa’s [sic] there.” Further, Mustang identifies her costume and anime preferences with her self-image: She is a self-admitted “yaoi fangirl.”

Even though the Nomura Research Institute’s report accounts for different types of Japanese otaku and analyzes their impact on domestic Japanese economy, it cannot validly measure the extent to which American otaku use conventions for making or spending money, assimilation, or becoming an “expert” on some aspect of Japanese culture. Pertaining to this, Vash wrote, “In a sense I feel more connected to Japanese culture every year [at ACen] because of so many other people who are there sharing an interest in that culture.” Mustang, too, felt that the common ground of otakuism made it much easier to connect and let loose with fellow convention-goers. She expanded on Vash’s comment, saying that not only do anime conventions make her feel more knowledgeable and connected to Japan, but they also “reaffirm [her] desire to take Japanese classes.” Thus, not only do conventions provide a physical space to mingle with other anime enthusiasts, but they also present new ways to learn and share information about both modern and traditional Japanese society. On the whole, conventions appear to be one of the main conduits for the spread of fandom, particularly as it relates to Japanese culture. Even though many convention-goers like Vash begin the weekend knowing a limited number of colloquial Japanese phrases (i.e. “not enough to hold a conversation”), many leave with a newfound knowledge of relevant popular terms, casual speech suffixes, and Japanese pet names. Moreover, survey responses suggest that American conventions might be comparable to the Japanese market in terms of their economic outlook. Taking the limited time available for buying and selling goods at conventions into account, American otaku seem to contribute an amount of money that is proportional to the amount spent by otaku in the Japanese market. While the NRI report cannot measure American spending or economic power, respondents’ admissions to “splurging” or “going overboard” seem to attest to their desire and willingness to spend as much money as they can.

The Nomura report also distinguishes three other kinds of otaku, but they are definitely underrepresented on the Anime Central 2007 forum boards. In accordance with the American definition of otaku, a vast majority of board posters are strictly followers of anime, manga, and fan work (i.e. doujinshi or “dubs”). Granted, this is most likely due to the fact that ACen is “The Midwest Anime and Manga Convention” and not the “Midwest Japanese Technology Convention”—but is still reason enough to question the presence of minute differences between American and Japanese otaku. True—there are many different genres of anime and manga that draw crowds to conventions like Anime Central; but they still only represent one specific medium for an otaku-intensity obsession. Why aren’t mobile IT equipment and PC assembly otaku present in America and at American conventions like they are in Japan? It is difficult to ask if America really has “leaving my own mark on the world” or any other kind of otaku in the same sense that Japan does. This is because it is essentially impossible to analyze the different varieties of otaku present in American society without observing them in a setting that mimics Japanese conditions and caters to all five standardized otaku types—an environment which, to date, has not been engineered in the United States. For the most part, however, the context of Anime Central (and presumably other anime conventions) provides preliminary support for the argument that the Nomura Research Institute’s 2005 classifications of otaku might be globally generalizable. Whether they deem the term derogatory or deferential, otaku appear to hold the same intra-group theory of self regardless of American or Japanese upbringing.

Fujinuma, Akihisa. “New Market Scale Estimation for Otaku: Population of 1.72 Million
with Market Scale of ¥411 Billion.” 6 October 2005. Nomura Research Institute, Ltd. 14 May 2007.

“Anime Central Convention Forums.” Anime Central: The Midwest Anime and Manga
Convention. 14-17 May 2007.

(Jorie Epstein)


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