“Otakus (お宅),” those who have a diehard enthusiasm for some pursuit, are being forced underground in Korea. One who is a dedicated follower of fashion is called a fashion otaku, and one who is a great fan of soap operas is called a soap opera otaku. However, the problem is that those labeled as otakus feel offended, some to the point of hiding from the world because of the negative connotation it holds in Korean society.
Originally, the term otaku means your house in Japanese. More generally, it is also a very polite way of saying you. Since 1970, Japanese people who had similar interests in animations, cartoons, or games started to form clubs, calling each other otaku as a sign of politeness. They have expanded the term to include maniacs who have profound knowledge in some forms of popular culture. However, within Korea, the meaning of otaku has been distorted as a term to tease others. So when Koreans think of an otaku, they tend to associate it with an image of a fat and lazy person who wears glasses and has zits.
This negative image of otakus has been made because in our society, overflowing with anti-Japanese sentiments, an otaku is simply viewed as a Japanese sympathizer. However, the term otaku no longer simply refers to fanatics of Japanese culture, but rather to ones with a wider range of interests.
Another common stereotype people have of otakus is that they cannot distinguish between the real world and their imaginary world. Eventually, they become so obsessed with these imaginary worlds that they start to neglect their real lives. For example, when an otaku extremist appeared on the Korean television show “Virus on Mars,” he shocked viewers. This particular otaku carried around a life-size cushion of his favorite animation character, believing it to be his girlfriend.
Extreme otakus argue that their unusual behavior is a part of their individuality which must be respected by others. Moreover, since their actions do not directly harm others, they find them to be justified. However, these otakus must also realize that their actions actually harm others, as they arouse in many a sense of aversion. They also distort the general image of otakus as perverted or abnormal people. We must make sure to make a distinction between otakus who simply enjoy a certain field as a hobby and those who turn their interests into unhealthy expressions. Although we may criticize extreme otakus, we have no right to force them to change.
The most fundamental reason we think of otakus in a negative way is because of the stereotype that they are social misfits. However, this is actually a misunderstanding we have as we confuse the concept of otakus with hikikomoris. Hikikomoris are defined as people who refuse to leave their home, isolating themselves from society. At times, the symptoms can be intensified to agoraphobia or even to a state of depression. On the other hand, otakus have a social life in which they interact actively with others. In fact, otakus bring a positive impact on our society because they activate sub-cultures such as the game or animation industry by spending money lavishly on their interests. So through them, fields that did not used to receive much attention suddenly become recognized, guaranteeing cultural diversity.
If extreme otakus overcome their confusion between reality and their imaginary worlds, they could be potential content producers who can bring a new vision to our society. Anno Hideaki, for example, is an example who in Japan successfully transformed from a mere otaku to a successful producer. In his popular anime series, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” Anno criticizes the negative aspects of otakus, calling on them to emerge from their hidings. Towards the end of his series, a black screen appears which shows the reflection of the audience in their seats. By reflecting on the audience, Anno wants to show the audience that animations are merely an illusion and not the reality.
In a similar vein, otakus in Korea should also re-enter society and create contents which can encourage other otakus to live freely and confidently. Koreans also have to do this, but because of certain social attitudes prevalent in our society, the production of new contents seems to be oppressed. Therefore, in order for otakus to become a positive force, there is a need for both sides to put in effort. Not only must our social perceptions change, but otakus themselves must overcome their limitations and feel less daunted by how others view them.