The geek will not inherit the Earth

There are some tenacious misconceptions about Japan that seem to crop up again and again. One of them is the idea that games, manga and anime are staples of Japanese life and that everyone plays, reads, watches them all the time. In a sense, this is truer about Japan than anywhere else, but it’s not quite as clear cut as all that.

The word “otaku” means “geek” and though many westerners have appropriated the word and turned it into something harmless meaning “manga lover” or “serious games enthusiast” in Japan, where the word originated, it still has a derogatory meaning. “Otaku” is what you call those overweight, spotty kids with no life and an unhealthy obsession with dubious manga and DoA hug pillows.
Nothing is more hilarious than witnessing the reaction of Japanese people when some foreigner proudly proclaims himself to be an “otaku”. It is somewhat akin to changing the word “wanker” to mean something like "funny guy” but if you go to the UK and proclaim yourself to be a “wanker”, well, it’s a fairly similar reaction.

Yes, you will see people of all ages read manga on trains, go to certain anime feature films and play the occasional game, but to say it is a fully accepted part of society, well, yes, but within reason. Most anime are aimed at kids. Most games are aimed at kids. A lot of manga is aimed at kids. When you see a grown man read a kids' manga, well, he gets some odd looks. If a guy spends a large portion of his monthly income on games, people will “ummm” and “aahhhh”. If someone watches every anime available on television, people will cross the street to avoid him.
In short, liking manga, games and anime is fine, but being a geek just means you’re a geek; being in Japan doesn’t somehow magically change that.

Otaku are risible characters and are made fun of. Whenever colleagues are browsing gaming websites I teasingly call them “otaku” and they immediately jump into a friendly defensive war of words. I ask my colleagues what cosplay they’ll wear to the game show and they pretend to be shocked and protest, “What kind of person do you think I am?”

Now obviously the foreign geek has the one redeeming feature of being foreign, but that sadly cannot save you from being seen as a geek eventually. It’s easy to pick up girls, being a foreigner, but if you start chatting to them about which anime you like most or how many games you have, well, you’ll end up a lonely single man anyway.
This wasn’t always the case. In a fairly recent fad the novel “Train Man” was briefly popular. Revolving around the romance between a train spotter and a real-life actual woman, this firstly self-published novel became somewhat of a hit, being turned into an actual novel and a television drama. It even made Akihabara, the geek’s ancestral homeland “electric town”, the geek shopping center of Tokyo, into a cool and acceptable place to hang out and, shock horror, the geek was briefly elevated to the rank “desirable”, with young women hanging around hoping to pick themselves up a nice geek boyfriend.
Sadly, though Japanese fashions usually only last a few months and as far as I can tell, the geek has been relegated back to “undesirable” status, where he belongs.

If you’re an insufferable geek and wish to move to Japan, you’ll love it here. There are more toys, manga and anime than you can ever hope to buy and plenty of maid cafes to make you feel like you have a girlfriend, for the right price. But if you a geek escaping from persecution, I'm afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. Though the Japanese obviously won't bully you they still have a special place for their geeks, and that place is at the bottom of the social ladder, despite of what you may have heard.

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Good to see someone call out Densha Otoko fad and the "otaku" phenomenon in non-Japanese countries.

    Also, it's quite depressing to see young men wearing the "Looking for a Japanese girlfriend" t-shirts seriously.