Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Identity Crisis, what does "Otaku" mean?

The label of “Otaku” and what it means for community and industry.

For the sake of clarity let’s just stick to the strictly American definition of “Otaku.”

Long ago, there was a Ninja Consultants podcast which asked if one of the hosts, Erin, could be both a hipster and otaku at the same time. My answer was yes, but thanks to the late hour of the recording session (and totally not because of that vodka I drank), I wasn’t able to articulate why I came to that conclusion, even though I was the only one who thought so. Recently I had a little epiphany about how to correctly explain how one can be a hipster and otaku at the same time. My inspiration came from an incident about a week ago, where I was actually able to spot a purebred douchebag in the wild.

A Douchebag in the wild. Crikey!
Mmmmmm, smell that TAG Body Spray.
The train was moving, so the photo isn’t great... but still, just look at that.

From the retarded looking sunglasses in the subway, to the sneakers that are trendy enough to get into the night club, this guy had the whole d-bag gambit covered. Energy drink, hoody under a sport coat, stupid hair, giant ring, and the date-rape apology flowers, all combine to make this an amazing find so far from Jersey Shore territory.

“Hipster” is basically the same, a hollow vapid set of criteria that are the result of specific and quantifiable brand profiles and manifested marketing matrices in the deliberate choices in outward appearance and social activity of the individual. Though the Hipsters themselves will tell you the opposite and insist that they are so indie that their shirt don’t fit. They project this outward appearance and subscribe to a limited set of behaviors because the commercial media they consume has told them to. The true irony of the term “hipster,” is that it singularly describes a very specifically defined market demographic cluster.

“Otaku” is not like that. While “Hipster” and “Douchebag” define specific singular groups defined by the multiple aspects they project, “Otaku” labels a diverse group unified only by a singular activity of liking anime and manga. So “Otaku” is too diverse and too broad to be an effective target of concerted marketing efforts. This is not to say that there is no top of the pyramid within this group, just look at anime conventions. But even at these conventions, while the lion’s share of attendees do fit into a rather narrow demographic set (age and so on), if you really look at who’s there, you’ll see many different clusters which respond to very different marketing.

It is impossible for Otaku and Hipster to be mutually exclusive, because the defining activities one can engage in to be both to not conflict or cancel each other out. So although it’s very possible to be one and not the other, this is not a zero-sum situation, much in the same way that people of the same ethnicity or nationality can be different religions.

This isn’t “indefinability” or even “intangibility” that makes Otaku a valuable thing that can’t be fully penetrated by commercial marketing mechanics, but rather this quality of formlessness (yeah, I know all those words are next to each other in the Thesaurus). "Otaku" as a phenomenon is like water, in the sense that it takes the shape of whatever vessel it’s in, and so as a business, you’re marketing to that more definable vessel, not the Otaku-ness inside. This is why Apollo Smile and similar creations have failed in the past. The imagined target cluster is actually a combination of other clusters that have a more dominant role in customer behavior. This was the true source of that flavor of disingenuous which seemed to cover everything that Apollo was. Much like the buzzword new media marketers will talk about "organic brand creation," the only effective brand ambassador entities that can be called “Otaku” are ones that come from bottom-up and not top-down. Being an otaku is going to be a lot less fun if that quality is ever taken away, since the obvious logical thing it’s going to turn into is “Weaboo,” a terrifying prospect to say the least. But like the term “Hipster,” “Otaku” is sometimes intentionally used when describing one’s self, and also deliberately not used by other people, so it's got that going for it at least.

Again, all of this is prefaced on my own definition of Otaku for this particular case, which is not the Japanese definition (which is horrifying) and of which there exist English speaking examples like this freak here. (That link is dead because the nutjob who made it got all butthurt, but you can see bits of it here ... the crazy starts about 1:45 in).  He's obsessed with a jpop star he'll never ever be in the same room with). Yes that’s real and yes that’s 11 kinds of messed up. I would define “Otaku” here as a combination of media consumption habits, accumulated knowledge, and some other stuff. I hesitate to get too far into defining it with quantitative measurements, which leads to the problem I just mentioned of what happens of Otaku loses its portability between other groups. That is the strength which keeps this term out of the realm of being a commoditized managed-brand, and as much as I like business, I am happy to leave “Otaku” right where it is, an intangible product of the collective identity of fans.

See, an Otaku can have this in their office, and Hipsters don't work in offices (they write indie music while keeping the beard hairs off of their ironic ipads while being noticed by other hipsters and the occasional member of the stroller mafia at coffee houses). ...actually, I don't know what happened to this thing... it's gotta be around somewhere.
- I actually did have a much more thorough written explination with some ven diagrams based on actual data from icv2 and some Japanese sources, along with trend and perception mapping... but then I realized that that's giving it away for free. So if you want them, I'll send them your way when the check clears.


Daryl Surat said...

Your Youtube link exhibit of the true otaku as I would refer to them is invalid. For now, before you fix it, I offer this potential substitute candidate:

The Angry Otaku said...

Fixed. Yeah, that's a good example, but I'm jaded by that kind of thing (people who look/talk like that, getting into conversations regarding nuances of 2D striped panties on fictional characters of questionable age). You see this kind of thing at cons all the time.

That being said, Perfume444 seems to rachet up the crazy way more than the normal expected "Otaku" level.

Lauren said...

The reason I think "otaku" isn't like "hipster" is because NOBODY wants to be a hipster. But I know plenty of people like you (and me!) who use the word otaku proudly on our blogs and titles.

The Angry Otaku said...

That's more or less true, especially when considering the American definition (no one in Japan wants to be called that though, it would be like calling someone a troglodyte). But it's important to note it's really not about what individuals want to be called by their own choice, but rather the soulless demographication and marketing research operating for the sake of fiscal progression of anime and manga as a commercially viable commodity. For better or for worse.