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Japan’s Perceptions of Otaku: Then and Now

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Japan’s Perceptions of Otaku: Then and Now

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A brief analysis between changes in how otaku are perceived in Japanese society and the increasing populary in stories depicting otaku characters.


From Tokusatsu Gagaga to Pops Loves Kawaii Stuff to Princess Jellyfish, stories about otaku (a Japanese term meaning nerd or geek) have become increasingly popular. Why are we seeing this trend, and why have they become so well-received by viewers? How has perception of otaku changed over time, and what is their appeal now?

Otaku Characters in the 1990’s

Otaku characters in media are not new, but past depictions have been portrayed negatively or harshly.

For instance, the 1992 drama I’ve Always Loved You (Japanese, romanized: Zutto Anata ga Suki Datta) showed Shiro Sano playing Fuyuhiko Katsurada, a husband as well as an otaku with a mother complex. Katsurada’s character became a social phenomenon because of Sano’s discomforting yet entrancing acting, ranging from pouting and grunting to riding a rocking horse.

Another example can be seen in episode 5 of the 1997 drama Bayside Shakedown (Japanese, romanized: Odoru Daisousasen). Tatsuo Noguchi (played by Hikaru Ijuin) loves beautiful anime girls and stalks the female lead Sumire Onda (played by Eri Fukatsu) because he can’t distinguish between Sumire and anime characters. This negative light is further perpetuated by the great detective Heihachiro Waku, played by Chosuke Ikariya, saying to a criminal “You’re not some kind of fanatic, right?”

It is likely that these images of otaku are linked to Tsutomu Miyazaki, a serial killer who kidnapped and murdered young girls in the late 1980’s. A large number of anime works were found in his possession, and a negative image of otaku took root in Japanese society. This prejudice against otaku can then be seen reflected in dramas in the 1990’s as demonstrated earlier.

This negative view on otaku began to shift most notably in 2005 with the drama Densha Otoko (literally Train Man). This story of the protagonist, Train Man, saving a woman in trouble was spun positively in favor of the otaku main character. Thanks to the story of Densha Otoko, many celebrities have come forward as otaku, gradually erasing the surrounding prejudice of and popularizing the label of otaku.

Examples of Recent Dramas Depicting Otaku

The 2018 Princess Jellyfish drama follows Tsukimi Kurashita (played by Kyoko Yoshine), a hardcore jellyfish otaku who lives with other otaku women. After meeting Kuranosuke Koibuchi (played by Kamen Rider Kiva‘s Koji Seto), she tries to develop a new sense of self and new way of living.

Tokusatsu Gagaga, adapted from a manga of the same name, aired in 2019 starring Fuka Koshiba as office worker Kano Nakamura. The series follows Kano as she hides her love of Japanese tokusatsu (special effects) shows from her co-workers while making friends who share the same or similar interests. (Fuka Koshiba returns to tokusatsu as Kei Fukai in the upcoming tokusatsu drama Chousoku Parahero Gundeen. This drama begins airing June 26.)

The drama Pops Loves Kawaii Things (romanized: Ojisan wa Kawaii Mono ga Osuki) stars Hidekazu Mashima as Mitsutaka Oji, a middle-aged office worker who adores the character Pugtaro, a yellow pug character. Similarly to Kano Nakamura of Tokusatsu Gagaga, he hides his love for Pugtaro from his coworkers and eventually meets someone (Kenta Kawai, played by Tsubasa Imai) who understands his interest. Kamen Rider W‘s Renn Kiriyama also stars in this drama as Wataru Naruto, one of Oji’s coworkers and a secret frequenter of cat cafes.

Rise in Acceptance

Narratives about otaku characters have continued to increase in number and popularity, but what attributes to their popularity now? The Television identified three reasons as to why this may be.

1) Increase in Self-Identification

On April 5, 2020, SHIBUYA109 Lab and CCC Marketing shared the results of a poll about people identifying as otaku. Of the 8201 women (ages 15-24) polled, 67% answered that they would call themsleves otaku.

Poll: Would you call yourself an otaku? (Otaku being defined here as “fan” or “someone who spends a lot of time and/or money on their interests”.)

While the target of this poll is biased towards young women, it is still indicative of just how many people are comfortable identifying as an otaku. As more stories about otaku are made, more people can relate to them, and in turn, the stories become more accepted by the public.

2) Otaku as Humble and Humorous

In many stories, the protagonist feels guilt or shame for being an otaku. This may or may not be reflective of otaku in reality, but in the context of these stories, these characters can be seen as humble or modest.

In addition, otaku and their lifestyle are often presented in comedic ways. Take, for example, Kano Nakamura of Tokusatsu Gagaga. As she makes her way to a capsule machine for the toy she seeks, she waits until the coast is clear, not wanting to be caught be even elementary school students who may be interested in the same machines. That she puts in so much effort to avoid notice is both humorous and even relatable to viewers, so characters like Kano are more well-received.

3) Stories of Self-Acceptance

Underneath the humor, these stories are also often stories of growth and of these otaku finding themselves. In Pops Loves Kawaii Stuff, Oji can’t reveal his love for Pugtaro, but when he meets someone who has a similar love of cute things, viewers can watch as their friendship unfolds and grows. Tokusatsu Gagaga has a similar element with Kano finding similar-minded friends over the course of the drama, and Tsukimi of Princess Jellyfish, even after trying to hide her interests, is able to find a happy ending without needing to change herself.

In these ways, dramas depicting otaku have narratives that accept these characters as they are, their values, and their interests. We live in an era of diversified values and lifestyles, and as we proceed through the Reiwa era, hopefully otaku will continue to become more accepted as these kinds of dramas continue to be made.

Source: The Television


Toku fan living in Japan who also enjoys karaoke, papercraft, and dramas.

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