When one thinks of the word otaku, a number of primarily negative images immediately come to mind—overweight, socially-awkward, thirty-year-olds and still living in his mother’s basement, and the list goes on. But this was not always the case. “The original meaning of otaku is ‘your home’ and by association, ‘you’, ‘yours’ and ‘home’” writes Sharon Kinsella in Adult Manga (128) while discussing the origins of the term. In 1983, however, dojinshi artist/critic Nakamori Akio adopted the phrase as a means to describe one “who is not accustomed to close friendships and therefore tries to communicate with [his] peers using this distant and over-formal form of address, and to someone who spends most of their time on their own at home” (Adult Manga 128), and since then it has become a sort of equivalent to the English term “nerd.” But not just any nerd—the word otaku carries a heavy connotation linking it ubiquitously with the Japanese manga culture. “Otaku,” Kinsella writes, “…was a slang term used by amateur manga artists and fans themselves in the 1980s to describe ‘weirdoes’” (Adult Manga 128). But while the term “weirdo” has the potential for negative connotation in and of itself, the term was colored even more negatively upon the abduction and murder of four infant girls by a 26-year old manga aficionado named Miyazaki Tsutomu. The Japanese media immediately began linking the manga otaku with this potential for horrific depravity, and the term has mostly remained tainted ever since, finding association with a variety of different sexual perversions and immaturities, among other unsavory conditions (see Thomas LaMarre’s “Otaku Movement” for greater detail).
In America, however, the term has taken on a different light. As is common throughout history, when a typical subculture is slandered long enough its members often begin to take the insults being thrown at them and distort them into a positive celebration of their community—which is exactly what happened with otaku. Here in the U.S., early manga and anime fans subverted the term from its original negative connotation and turned it into a celebration of their subculture, as explained in the film Otaku Unite! In this film, many otaku—from here on printed without italics to symbolize its incorporation into the American lexicon—are conveyed as proud of their label, using it as a means of demonstrating recognition of intense devotion and fandom. This is not to say, however, that all negative connotations have been eradicated. On the contrary: the film’s presentation of these otaku is anything but positive, seemingly choosing the most aloof, physically unattractive, and biggest all-around “weirdoes” to represent the stereotypical dedicated manga and anime fans. Regardless of the way these fans see themselves, it remains inevitable that, to the objective non-obsessed observer, the mention of the word “otaku” still conjures quite the negative image.
In light of this, my trip to the recent Anime Central (ACen) held just outside Chicago in Rosemont, IL on Saturday, May 12 was quite the surprise. For, while in many ways the convention was very similar to the anime/dojinshi conventions demonstrated in Otaku Unite!, ACen 2007 differed in one key aspect: the normalcy of the attendees. Now, it goes without saying that the idea of “normalcy” is very much a subjective concept; nevertheless, the overweight, disconnected über-nerd depicted in the film was conspicuously in the minority. Instead, most of the convention-goers looked indecipherable from everyday people one might meet on the street, at work, or in the classroom—minus the costumes, of course. And yes, there were people in costumes; so many, in fact, that they made up the clear majority of the attendees. Most of the participants looked to be in their late teens/early 20s, but younger children, middle-aged otaku, and even whole families came decked out in their October bests to celebrate the Japanese anime/manga culture. Surely a far cry from the early days of such conventions, ACen 2007 bustled with thousands of attendees, filling workshops to capacity and bustling around the enormous convention hall filled with row upon row of dojinshi vendors and other various booths looking to make some cash selling a variety of manga- (and non-manga) related merchandise.
Despite the normal-looking appearance of many of the participants, however, the intensity of their dedication was nevertheless very much apparent. One college student named Hillary, decked out in a full red leather suit that she’d designed herself (she was dressed as a character from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), had come all the way from Minnesota on a Megabus to attend the convention—and she didn’t even have a ticket to get inside the dojinshi center. Apparently, she’d just come to hang out and talk to other like-minded fans, as well as show off her costume. She seemed all-too-eager to share the details of its creation: she’d been preparing it since 2002, she explained, and it took about 70 hours over six months to actually put it together. Surprisingly, she didn’t even plan on competing (in the competition for best costume); in the past she used to compete, but now simply dressed up for fun. “I try to bring three costumes to every convention,” she explained with a smile. “And I’ll wear [one costume] up to five times—then I trash it or sell it.” Clearly, Hillary has the costume-designing aspect of the anime convention down to a science, and it’s interesting to note how that includes not only helping herself look her best for the event, but potentially helping others—granted, for a fee—as well.
But no matter how normal an otaku might appear in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, come ACen no one would be able to mistake the level of intense passion that many of the convention-goers harbored for all things anime. One girl dressed up in a sandwich board that read “I went to ACen instead of prom,” while a young woman, scantily-dressed as the cat-like Felicia from Dark Stalkers, explained how she’d seen people come all the way from Texas to attend—in fact, she mentioned, “a friend of mine flew in from Atlanta.” Girls could be seen with purses that read “I [heart] Yaoi” and T-shirts proclaiming “Yaoi: my anti-drug.” And most impressive of all: one woman’s costume consisted of a tight leather dress that fit scandalously over the tips of her breasts, had a hole cut out to expose the stomach and upper pelvic area, and rounded out with a long, long cut in the back that extended well beyond her waist to expose the upper half of her derriere. If you ask me, nothing shouts dedication like walking around with a good portion of your rear-end exposed.
For these dedicated fans, however, ACen must be nothing short of a paradise. The Hyatt hotel where it was held devoted a great number of rooms to the huge assortment of workshops thrown for the pleasure of the attendees: everything from inking comics to “Superflat” ideologies to speed dating and presentations on individual manga were held, and costumed attendees could be seen waiting patiently outside doorways to get a coveted seat before the room quickly filled to capacity. Meanwhile, in the enormous dojinshi center, row upon row upon row of vendors packed the room—easily the size of multiple gymnasiums—selling not only manga of the professional and homemade variety (ranging from typical boys’ manga to yaoi to hentai and other pornographic varieties), but nearly every other manga-related commodity an otaku could shake a stick at. Messenger bags adorned with anime characters, stuffed dolls, swords, trading cards, action figures, DVDs, trinkets, posters, and even J-Rock CDs were available for anyone willing to shell out the cash—and many otaku were definitely willing, including one girl who could be overheard shouting “I just spent over one hundred dollars on manga!”
In this regard, one might see the otaku as similar to any typical consumer strutting down Michigan Avenue with bags on each arm; only instead of spending their money at H&M or Nordstrom, these consumers choose to spend it purchasing merchandise related to their favorite manga and anime creations. And while it may be a tad simplistic to compare the devotion of the stereotypical love-to-shop teenage girl to the devotion of the otaku, the analogy works insofar as one can see the two as simply choosing to spend their money on their respective areas of interest—albeit the difference in intensity of interest on behalf of the two groups may be (rightfully) debated.
All in all, Anime Central was quite the success. Drawing dedicated fans from the Midwest and beyond, ACen clearly fills a gaping hole in the otaku subculture, giving these “weirdoes” a place to come together and “let their freak flags fly.” But while they may seem like freaks to the average uninformed observer, it’s clear that these are just (more or less) normal people who just happen to really like manga and anime and are simply looking to spend some money and have a good time. To that extent, perhaps the otaku really isn’t so different from the average “normal” member of society. But at any rate, if there was any one conclusion to be drawn from my day-long excursion into ACen 2007, it was that maybe, just maybe, being an otaku might not be such a bad thing after all.
 While the merchandise was primarily of a Japanese nature, the joys of capitalism didn’t let the convention’s theme prevent a number of Johnny Depp posters and other seemingly-random American goods from being presented for purchase next to the more anime- and manga-related wares. But then again, considering the surprisingly large number of people dressed in Aqua Teen Hunger Force costumes, perhaps Depp wasn’t so out of place after all. In fact, one guy at the convention was even dressed up as Depp’s character in the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What on earth he was doing there, I couldn’t say—I mean, at least the Aqua Teen squad consists of cartoon characters. It seems that the idea of supporting one’s favorite anime by donning a costume has been transformed somewhat into simply a celebration of the costume in general—but the implications of this phenomenon are multifold, and fall beyond the range of this ethnographic account.