American fans of Japanese anime, manga, and even games claimed the loanword otaku for themselves years ago, and they argue about it the way people with better priorities argue about racial slurs.
Who are otaku? Who is allowed to call themselves otaku? Should we call someone otaku without their permission? Is every fan really otaku enough to be called otaku? It gets pretty ridiculous, and I don't enjoy the endless fights over the technicalities.
I don't remember when I first saw Gainax's classic fictionalized autobiography Otaku no Video, but I know I've seen it many times since. By some fans it's thought of as an initiation film-- other candidates include the cheerful Genshiken and the bleak Welcome to the NHK-- and Otakon (“The Convention of Otaku Generation!”), one of the biggest East Coast conventions, makes sure to run it in a video room every year. Stop by that room every year and it'll be packed and likely playing in a huge auditorium. Maybe some of them have seen it before, maybe some of them are being newly indoctrinated.
But if you're in that room, Otaku no Video is probably resonating with you. If you care enough to have booked the long trip to Baltimore, paid out the nose for a hotel room, and already essentially scheduled an anime-themed vacation, then Otaku no Video is going to work on you.
It's about people for whom going too far is a way of life. When the hero ditches his tennis club, his average social life, his girlfriend and his personal hygiene to seek the elusive title of the Otaking... that's overdoing it. When we see the fictional interview with the guy who built his own special glasses to unscramble the mosaics in his porn... that's overdoing it. But for better or worse, everybody in that room will probably see themselves somewhere in Otaku no Video. So we must be otaku, right?
Even the fans who weren't exposed to that kind of autobiographical work see something special and very different in Japanese animation and comics from their Western counterparts, and with this difference comes a feeling of community with other fans. Otaku place themselves apart from the mainstream geek culture, and the mainstream geek culture does the same with otaku. We go to different conventions. (But that's a story for another day...)
So the loanword is out there being used by people, but nobody can really figure out what it's supposed to mean, exactly.
Is it a pejorative? “Do you smell that? Damn otaku are stinking up the convention floor!”
Is it a rank to be achieved? “You built a Perfect Grade Gunpla? You're a real otaku now!”
Is it just an in-group? “I'm so glad to be seeing my otaku friends, I just can't talk about Bodacious Space Pirates with anyone else...”
Otaku has become a catch-all for us, but we're still nerds. We need to categorize! We need to define! And so English-speaking otaku online will never stop fighting over whether otaku means a mark of pride, a secret society, a slur, a religious movement, or a tragedy the size of a single human life. Is it the same over there?
Ask me what otaku means to me, and you get a story. That'll be tomorrow's column. Take care.