Nowadays, Otaku culture is an important element of mainstream culture not only in Japan, where it originated, but also in Korea. Initially, Otaku was a derogatory term to describe people with intense interests, belittling them as anti-social. Its meaning has evolved and now refers to those with a profound interest in a particular area. How did this culture develop and permeate into the Korean society?
Otaku, which refers to people obsessed with a specific interest beyond the level of mania, have changed from isolated minorities into major targets of cultural enterprises. For example, products related to K-Pop idol groups or animation characters have become successful sellers for the companies that manufacture them. It is quite interesting to observe how this term, which even included negative connotation, transformed into a widespread term that represents mainstream culture. In order to understand the social phenomenon of Otaku culture, it will be important to first understand the history and social background behind the appearance of Otaku.
The History of Otaku
Otaku in the Japanese language literally means you. Until the 1980s, anime and game fans called each other Otaku during their conversations. The word’s altered usage as a description of a particular group of people first appeared in 1983 when Akio Nakamori, a Japanese columnist for the Manga Burikko, used it to derogatorily refer to obsessed caricature followers in his column An Investigation of “Otaku”. Regarding its initial usage, Professor Park Sam-Hun (Japanese Language Education, Konkuk University) explains that “Until the 1980s, Otaku was even a taboo word among Japanese broadcasting networks. It mostly referred to individuals who secluded themselves from the society by forming their own world with their interests.”
▲ Professor Park Sam-Hun. Photographed by Lee Hye Min.
The negative association became stronger in 1989 when Tsutomu Miyazaki, a Japanese serial killer who murdered four girls, turned out to be an Otaku. Throughout the investigation, some media outlets pointed to his obsession with anime and horror films as the reason behind his murders, labelling him “The Otaku Murderer.” Furthermore, through numerous media reports on Otaku, the general public became acquainted with the culture and the term, which many associated with crime and other antisocial behaviors. Consequently, negative public perception surrounding the term intensified as Otaku was recognized as potential criminal.
▲ Poster of Evangelion. Provided by pininterest.com.
The definition encountered a turning point in 1995, when Evangelion (1995), a Japanese SF animation series, was released. Tremendous popularity followed, and this animation formed the basis of “Cool Japan,” a term referring to Japan’s globalized culture industry in anime and game. As the capital strength of Otaku was proven through the success of Evangelion, its meaning neutralized into active prosumers (consumers who contribute to production of new products through reorganization of existing contents) beyond the level of manias. “After the release of Evangelion, it became difficult to eliminate Otaku from mainstream culture. This eventually led to government’s support of Otaku culture as a part of ‘Cool Japan’ project,” commented Professor Park.
Various interpretations regarding indirect principles behind the transformation of Otaku’s meaning exist. Professor Park suggested “The clarification of the term Hikikomori as a mental illness allowed the public perception toward Otaku to become positive.” Originally, Hikikomori, which refers to people suffering from isolation, was considered as a part of Otaku culture. However, through continuous research and investigations, Hikikomori was eventually distinguished as a medical term referring to a mental disease. Professor Park explained that “The separation of Hikikomori from the meaning of Otaku extinguished existing interpretation that associated Otaku with anti-sociality and contributed to the neutralization of its “meaning”.
▲ Television show Get It Beauty. Provided by naverdrama.com.
Otaku Comes to Korea
The term Otaku entered Korea via online communities in the late 1990s. Koreans pronounced and wrote it Oh-duk-hoo, which first appeared among online anime communities in 2005. In 2009 it was mentioned on the TV show Martian Virus*, which revealed the lives of people with unique hobbies. One segment was about a Japanese anime fanboy, who was referred to an Oh-duk-hoo. While the term became widely known, unsociable impression regarding Otaku spread among the public. As a result, the term’s initial usage in Korean society was also mostly concentrated on its derogatory meaning.
While first used to ridicule Koreans obsessed with Japanese anime, once it was shortened to Duk-hoo for convenience, Koreans began using it in all sorts of ways. Its demeaning connotation diminished and it has been used in various circumstances to describe people with deep interest in any cultural subject. Duk-hoos were popularized on the TV show The Manias** that disclosed the lives of celebrity and ordinary Duk-hoos. Since private lives of renowned celebrities were also introduced as Duk-hoo through this show, the word began to take on more positive connotations. Since then, many different Dukhoos have existed in the society, most notably those who have been fixated on K-pop idols or sports, two areas with large followings.
The scope of Duk-hoos has not been restricted to leisure or culture; it has expanded into the area of daily lives, and one good example can be Co-Duks (Co from cosmetics and Duk from Duk-hoo). Co-Duks are people with professional knowledge regarding cosmetics and makeup, and the number has rapidly increased through online communities. Since 2006, the TV program Get It Beauty, a renowned talk show in which celebrities test different cosmetic products, has provided CoDuks with abundant information and widespread popularity. In addition, several popular Youtube stars who have shared their makeup technique in Youtube channels have functioned as effective source of knowledge for CoDuks.
While the range of the term has expanded as it came into Korean society, the meaning of Otaku, or Duk-hoo, in Korean society, has been relatively blurred and weakened compared to that in Japanese society. Otaku in Japanese society has functioned as principal agent of both consumption and production, but Dukhoo in Korean society tends to enjoy one’s hobby in a more passive way. Professor Park explains that, “Even in the show The Manias, those who were introduced as Duk-hoos were simply individuals who possessed more knowledge about a particular subject than ordinary people. Duk-hoo in Korean society has not become a term beyond the level of mania yet.”
▲ Nightscape of Akihabara. Provided by muzachan.net.
Otaku as a Social Phenomenon
While Otaku has been a ter m to describe individual behaviors, collective efforts of these Otakus have created influential social phenomenon as well. In Japan, Otakus have initiated the expansion of cultural hubs. As image culture rapidly expanded through the influence of Otakus, various cultural hubs of Otaku appeared in reality as well. Akihabara, for example, is a Japanese town considered the Mecca of Otakus. The entire city is full of anime and game characters or advertisements for them, and everyday local stores ring up the sales. Other places, including Gundam Front Tokyo, a large museum in Tokyo themed after the Gundam robot, have opened new markets to satisfy the demands of the Otaku population and have become popular tourist destinations.
▲ Gundam Front Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan. Provided by flickr.com.
Even though Otakus are a relatively small proportion of the consumer population in Japan, their purchasing power is significant as well. As mentioned before, Evangelion can be an excellent example. More than one million manias visited cinema to watch the series, and the cumulative profit was approximately 30 billion yen. This example clearly demonstrates how Otakus in Japan have possessed influential purchasing power, becoming major targets of producers in culture market.
Another way Otakus exert economic influence is by forming their own markets. While the culture existed as small clubs or communities until late 20th century, Otaku culture itself became commercialized in Japan nowadays. In various regions of Japan, exhibitions where Otakus gather together to exchange anime or game related products are frequently hosted. In these places, Otakus function as both consumers and producers of various goods such as character collections or costumes. Professor Park explains that, “These exhibitions create an enormous size of market only designated for Otakus. In some regions, anime characters are even used as government service mascots as well since publicity effect is guaranteed.”
In Korea, the culture market is also experiencing diversification through the influence of Duk-hoos. One example can be SM Town Artium in Gangnam that is anticipated to turn a profit of 10 billion won a year. The place includes shops where K-pop idol goods are sold and experience centers where K-pop Duk-hoos can experience the lives of idol singers. Like this, Duk-hoos are functioning as pioneers among consumers with their efforts leading to unprecedented contents in culture market. It is not an exaggeration to state that Otakus are creating a society with bountiful cultural lives by making various cultural activities available to the public.
In addition, Otakus have functioned as key developers of the term “prosuming.” As mentioned before, the difference between Otaku and mania is that mania possesses particular interest as a consumer, whereas Otaku even contributes to production beyond passive consumption. Otaku develops professional perspective regarding a certain subject, and is able to produce products based on existing ones, creating additional profits. Regarding this characteristic, Professor Park says that “Otakus are becoming paragons of 21st century consumer model through their active participation in both consumption and production. Because of their profitability, they will continuously attract attentions of various parties in the culture market.”
However, as aforementioned, Duk-hoo culture in Korean society, compared to Otaku culture in Japanese society, still displays some limitations. Infrastructure regarding most Dukhoo culture, including cultural hubs or communities, is insufficient, simply relying on imports and making active consumption like pro-suming impossible. The major reason behind such superficial culture seems to be the problem regarding social structure of Korea. Professor Park explains that, “Under the harsh educational system, Korean teenagers are unable to develop profound interests in cultures such as anime. In order to develop Korean Duk-hoo culture into a more flourishing one, reforming educational system and social structure will be unavoidable.”
Individual and Social Reasons for Otaku Culture
Apparently, Otaku has become a wideknown global term since its first appearance in Japan, and it especially became prominent in Korean society. Like every other phenomenon, this also has several reasons, both in individual and social aspects. In an individual sense, ironically, many Otakus say that they identify themselves and achieve self-accomplishment through their passion towards something other than themselves. For example, some choose careers based on what they dig, succeeding thanks to their knowledge and interest.
▲ Television show The Manias (능력자들), provided by www.imbc.com.
As mentioned earlier, a Korean television program called The Manias has been successful by airing shows on different hobbies and interests such as cars, idol groups, bakeries, and even an erases. In this program, they are no longer viewed as weird or nerdy— rather, they are praised by all people for the thorough knowledge and affection in their own fields. Therefore, being an Otaku means that an individual is able to represent them with a certain key word and feel proud of it. This is one of the reasons why people especially dig in certain fields in today’s society. The program treats its subjects with respect, helping give Otakus greater legitimacy.
Some use Otaku culture as a means of building social relationships. Even though Otaku first signified a person having deep interests in a certain subject individually, now Duk-hoos in Korea are gathering together to further solidify their identity and professionalism. With the development of internet communities, it became much easier for people to form groups within their field. For example, Ruriweb, the biggest Korean online community for Otakus currently has more than three million registered members. Therefore, even though it is ironic that a social phenomenon of personal isolation is used as a method of socializing, people are more enthusiastic of the Otaku culture for now it does not necessarily mean being a lonely introvert.
As well as the microscopic reasons, the society itself is also contributing to this phenomenon, in a broader context. Since the industrial revolution, people’s leisure time and the amount of money they invest in themselves had grown significantly. Especially in today’s society, with the development of smart phone technology, it became much easier for every individual to access information about what they are interested in. Therefore, with the abundance of time and resources, individuals dig much freely into one’s hobbies or interests.
Furthermore, in Korea, people’s perception towards individual activity had changed much positively. Traditionally, Korean society is more characterized as communal than as individualistic. Therefore, the virtue of doing things together was constantly emphasized, thus viewing individual activities as anti-social or pathetic. However, nowadays, even if they don't hook up with other Otakus, doing things by oneself is becoming more accepted in Korea. There is even a word for eating alone, Honbap, which is easy to spot among Koreans today. Recent surveys show that the majority of Koreans spend their free time alone, so why not engage in a pursuit such as baking? It certainly beats the alternative—becoming addicted to one's smartphone.
▲ Duk-ming out—the Duk-hoos coming out of the closet, provided by www.sisunnews.co.kr.
This positively changed social perception on individual activities became the basic ground for Otakus to prosper, since the basic premise of being Otakus is to do something alone in their own homes. Even though now the Otakus in Korea are also socializing online as the concept of Duk-hoo broadened, the beginning of this phenomenon was largely due to the increased time that individuals spend on themselves without being criticized by the mainstream society.
The social atmosphere and the individual’s psychological state is also one of the reasons why Otaku culture strongly settled down in Korean society. In this extremely competitive, achievement-oriented society, many individuals suffer from severe stress. To escape from this stresses they get in everyday life, individuals turn their heads to different directions— something that makes them to forget their reality and relieve the stress. For example, kidults, a newly coined word for adults digging in toys like a kid, is one example of how people in modern society react to stress—they rather go back to their childhood by having these hobbies. Therefore, the stress and deficiency that individuals face in their daily life further encourages them to devote themselves to a certain field.
The Money-making Otakus
Since the Otaku culture has become prominent in current society, it also brought a big wave in the market business. In Japan, thanks to Otakus, the comic book, game, and animation markets, along with other Otaku obsessions, add up to a reported 18 billion dollars. Furthermore, with the support of Otakus, Japan consolidated its position as an animation powerhouse globally. Notably, the Japanese animation business reaped 16 trillion won in profits domestically and more than 40 percent of the global animation market profits.
Korea is attempting to broaden the market. Not only Japanese or other nation’s characters but also domestic characters are popular with Duk-hoos. For example, the Kakao Friends offline store in Gangnam station attracted half a million visitors in its first month. Furthermore, the domestic character market is appealing to foreign travelers—the Line Friends store is now considered a destination in Korea for many Chinese visitors, attracting 22 million tourists last year.
“The Duk-hoos are now rising as a prosumer in Korean society, since they are new, faithful consumers and innovative idea-offerers at the same time,” said Kim Sun Tae, the head promoter of Daehong Incorporation. Therefore, many companies are paying particular attention to this new social group, studying their consumption patterns to make new marketing strategies. “Compared to the mass marketing strategies in the past, now it is all about individual targeting and specialization of the products,” added Kim.
▲ Kim Sun Tae, provided by Daehong Corporation.
Duk-hoos Change the Market
Along the lines of developing new market strategies, the collaboration of character companies and commodity producers targeting Duk-hoos is also on the rise. Many famous characters such as Moomin, Alice in Wonderland or newer domestic characters like Kakao Friends and Line Friends are being utilized by companies to attract more customers. Therefore, companies are now competing to sign up the most famous or beloved characters to attract this new consumer group.
▲ Collaboration of Beyond Cosmetics and Alice in Wonderland, provided by Beyond.
This new wave is especially prominent in the cosmetic market since last year. For example, cosmetic companies such as The Face Shop, Aritaum and Etude House have collaborated with Walt Disney, Angry Birds and BarbaPapa, and all have been getting an enthusiastic welcome from customers. The Face Shop sold 1.3 billion Disney face powders in just two days, and Apieu’s Rilakkuma products 9 sold out nationally. These remarkable results have definitely proven the consuming power of the new loyal customer group, Duk-hoos, which is also expected to grow even larger. Duk-hoos have demonstrated they will spend money on their obsessions, and companies are looking for more ways to help them do just that.
For that, some companies have hired Duk-hoos, their loyal customers, as an official employee. The Duk-hoos have much knowledge and affection towards the product—sometimes even more than the original manufacturers. Therefore they are able to sharply pinpoint the strength and weakness of the product, which the producers often miss to discover, straight from the horse's mouth, exactly what these new customers want and expect. For example, Hot-toy, a Hong Kong toy company, was able to grow as an international company by actively hiring their figure manias as manufacturers and consultants at an early stage.
Underlying cause of this phenomenon is the change of power structure between the customers and the companies. In the past, companies made product and customers bought them, therefore only having the opportunity of simple choice among the ready-made products. “However, nowadays, customers are the actual producers—they demand the products they want to buy, and companies make them to meet their needs,” said Kim. “In this process, the so-called Duk-hoo power is highly valued, since they are proven to be the most effective and valued customers.”
Target marketing is also noticeable in contents market such as game, movie, or musical industry. Among them, the idol industry is also focusing on winning the hearts of fandoms— idol Duk-hoos. Moreover, these star contents are combined with actual products to create significant profits. The idol goods market targeting fandoms is now worth more than 100 billion won a year. For example, the SM entertainment jumped into the food and groceries market by collaborating with E-mart and launching EXO noodles and Girl’s Generation popcorn. YG Entertainment is following their lead by launching the fashion brand Nonagon, designed by idol group members such as G-dragon.
The Proud Otakus and Society
The media has jumped on the Otaku bandwagon as well. As mentioned above, many television programs such as The Manias show Otakus as persons with an ability or specialty, instead of as a home alone nerd, like in the past. Furthermore, not only the products but also media programs are directly targeting potential new audience characteristics carefully by specifying and specializing the contents. For example, cable television networks are now investing more in channels that focus deeply on one specific subject, such as the O’live Food Channel or the Mnet Music Channel.
Even though the word Otaku at first had a negative connotation, in current Korean society, it is a concept with which an individual can proudly describe oneself. Moreover, as Otaku culture is no longer considered a subculture anymore, it is finding its place in the mainstream while serving as a way for individuals to express themselves in positive ways. Furthermore, as mentioned, it also shows much about the dominant social atmosphere and people’s psychological state. Therefore, in this society full of fierce competition, maybe Otaku culture is functioning just like its original meaning—in other words, by being an Otaku, people can get a sense of relief, feeling as if they are at home.