Culture | Are you an otaku too?

Nerdiness as a transcultural phenomenon

Being a nerd is in vogue these days. The word “nerd” – once a dreaded label on the playground – has been expropriated into something quirky and chic. Strangers on the street will compliment your Street Fighter or Super Mario T-shirt. And yet, though I proudly display my Boba Fett action figure in my apartment, there are still geek subcultures that continue to be marginalized in modern society. Fans of anime and manga in particular are often unjustly viewed as overgrown children with strange interests.

To explore society’s propensity to demean those with interests in Japanese culture, I spoke to members of Concordia’s otaku club. Otaku is a Japanese word that, in Western culture, has been used to designate fans of anime and manga, though in Japan its usage is closer to fans of all kinds. The Concordia club is the oldest anime and manga organization in Montreal, and boasts one of the city’s biggest anime libraries. Thinking that my avid appreciation and encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars (original trilogy) and its minutiae would help me connect with the group members, I realized that my knowledge of anime was sorely lacking – to the point of asking President Andrew Nelson-Mendez to explain what manga is. Nelson-Mendez explained the foreignness of Japanese culture and its role in the popular perception of it. “North American geek is more acceptable or understandable than Japanese geek,” says Nelson-Mendez. “Japanese culture is more foreign; it’s a different mentality and culture. I think it’s partially because it’s a foreign thing that it’s marginalized.”

Works of anime are often belittled as mere cartoons – as opposed to an art form or even a basic genre of pop culture – and its fans are debased as childish adults. Nelson-Mendez agrees, saying, “There’s a stigma about watching cartoons once you’re past a certain age. I usually wouldn’t tell an adult that I watch anime because there’s a belief that cartoons are for kids, though our generation is generally more accepting.” Indeed, the stigmatization of anime as childish is something of a special case. In North America, watching cartoons is no longer the mark of arrested development, now that so many are targeted toward adults and not strictly to children. McGill East Asian studies professor Thomas Lamarre weighed in, stating, “Every generation tries to redeem aspects of its childhood culture to make them more acceptable.” Comparing it to film studies, Lamarre related, “Film in the past 15 years has become a monumental art, but it’s because a generation of cine-philes grew up and want to teach it and study it in universities.” Nelson-Mendez concurs, saying, “I don’t think it’s ever going to become mainstream, but the subculture has nowhere to go but up. As people who watch it grow up, it’ll be less marginalized by the general public.”

To illustrate Lamarre’s point, things that were once considered geeky in North America have now become objects of nostalgia and endearment, and one could attribute that to the unabashed love bestowed on Star Wars and pop culture artifacts by popular mainstream tastemakers like Seth MacFarlane, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators respectively of Family Guy and South Park. As people like Tina Fey proudly flaunt their geekiness, mainstream perceptions have changed, especially in the younger generations. The stigma of being a Star Wars nerd is rapidly fading because the current generation grew up watching those films. However, as people’s impressions of North American nerds change, we continue having a hard time understanding and accepting anime culture because it is foreign to us.

“Mass media in North America tend to be very willfully ignorant about cultural production in other parts of the world, even major industries like those of Bollywood film, or Japanese anime and manga,” says Lamarre.  “If people are interested in something from abroad, those interests tend to be simplified, because people in North America don’t seem willing to see other kinds of cultural production as complex.”

In spite of his recognition that foreign cultures tend to be undervalued in Western society, Lamarre was less willing to characterize their devotees as marginalized. “What does it mean for otaku in North America to say that they are marginalized?  Is theirs a desire for mainstream approval of their hobbies or interests?  But then it is hard to know what constitutes the mainstream today, so I wonder from whom or what otaku feel marginalized, and from whom or what they really want recognition.” Beforehand, I had used the term “otaku” to encompass the subculture of people who are fans of Japanese anime and manga. Lamarre pointed out, “When it comes to talking about otaku, the two key questions are ‘Are we talking about a specific kind of relation to media?’ or ‘Are we talking about certain kinds of objects?’” Were we to use the proper meaning of the word “otaku” – a designation for hobbyists of every kind – then just about anyone could be termed as such. The generalization of anime fans as people who dress up in costumes and go to conventions is unfair. One, after all, could just as easily point to sports fans as doing the exact same thing; yet ardent emotional investment in the achievements of adult strangers and the memorization of trivial statistics seems normal.

Though anime and manga may seem foreign to someone born in North America, the development of obsessive interests is not exclusive to Japanese culture enthusiasts. It reaches across borders. And while people may possess the notion that anime fans are nerds – and not in the chic North America-2010s way – there is little that separates them from those with more socially accepted hobbies, like reading books and magazines, or watcheing TV. Regardless of what our interests are, we have a little otaku in all of us.