Carnegie Mellon University

Perceptions of Otaku Culture

Nya Lewis
Carnegie Mellon University – Japanese Studies


This paper compares how America and Japan perceive the otaku community. It was initially inspired by stereotypes I had myself, and evolved into this project. I compared stereotypes of the otaku community between both countries, attempted to explain the origins of those stereotypes, and provide some insight into the community’s formation as a whole.


The purpose of this project is to analyze the impact of otaku on Japanese cultural perception. Otaku are a Japanese subculture that revolves around a love of anime, video games, and manga. I became interested in investigating stereotypes of otaku and their impact on culture after previously describing them as fat anime nerds that live in their Mom’s basements - after which I was promptly informed that most people do not have basements in Japan – and decided to look into the perception of the otaku community in Japan and beyond. I will do so by looking at otaku culture and its effects on Japan, the differences between Japanese and American otaku communities, and finally discuss perceptions and stereotypes of otaku in both countries respectively. Japan tends to value cultural conformity, so I operated under the assumption that many would view otaku subculture negatively. This assumption comes from conformist societies tending to not view subcultures well, as they do not fit in to the traditional values they typically try to uphold. My working hypothesis is that Japanese people will have a negative perception of otaku, and Americans will have similar stereotypes of  otaku culture. Stereotypes tend to travel along with ideas, so I assume the stereotypes initially formed in Japan will carry over to the United States as well.


The otaku community has a short but eventful history in Japan. Initially starting as a word that was seen as taboo, otaku culture is now something the government has made initiatives to promote globally. The otaku community primarily inhabits a district in Tokyo, Akihabara, which originally served as a black market technology district. Over time it has morphed into the hub of otaku activity, and attracted foreign visitors. A 2007 survey places Akihabara as the tenth most popular place in Japan for foreign tourists, even more popular than Tokyo Disneyland. The same survey revealed that 8.6 percent of foreign visitors came to Akihabara, 69 percent for the first time (Galbraith 12).  Akibahara was marketed to be the new “Silicon Valley,” of Japan, focusing primarily on digital creative content. Digital creative content was worth 11 trillion yen in 2000, and after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government invested 100 billion yen in IT development in the region, otaku were named as the driving force behind Japan’s creative content industries. Anime and manga remain a strong source of soft power for the Japanese government, and has entered into their marketing strategies for Japan (Galbraith 9). The 2007 UK Japanese embassy Creative Japan pamphlets promotes Japanese contemporary culture, and included things like anime, games, and technology instead of previous themes like Mt. Fuji, geisha, and kabuki (Daliot-Bul 8). Otaku culture is often promoted by the Japanese government, and enhances the soft power of the country while spreading the subculture overseas.

There are fundamental differences between otaku culture in the West and Japan, however. Japanese otaku culture focuses on the practice of doujin, self-funded works that are created and distributed without professional publishing. Doujin in the otaku community serve as a form of fanfiction. They can be paintings, manga, pamphlets, games, or any other creative medium made by amateurs that base themselves on their favorite anime or manga. Massive markets - the most famous being Comic Market (Comike or Comiket) which holds the title as the largest in the world (Tamagawa 4 ) – are funded by fans to distribute these works and fuel the community. Unlike the traditional hierarchal structure in Japanese society, and “in contrast to fan conventions, where participants called professionals sensei out of respect, Comic Market had a more democratic and nonhierarchal culture,” which may appeal to many amateur creators (Tamagawa 11). Consignment bookstores, which carry and sell doujin based on individual deals with their creators, help spread otaku culture. Some aspects of otaku culture, like maid cafes, in which characters dress up as anime or fantasy characters in maid uniforms have also gained international attention (Tamagawa 6).  The otaku community seems to focus on breaking the hierarchy in traditional Japanese culture, and that appeal attracts new members.

The American otaku community is a relatively newer community, and based on different ideals. While there are large fan conventions in Japan, American fan conventions seem much more common, and doujin markets are almost completely unheard of. Anime as a commodity is more commercialized. People go to conventions, go to panels, anime screenings, purchase merchandise, and leave (Tamagawa 7). Almost nothing is bought from small scale distributors. The popularity of otaku culture in America spread rapidly after the screening of the documentary Otaku no Bideo, which revolves around a young otaku and his successes (Galbraith 9). The community is strong but almost unheard of in some circles. Many people will know the term anime or Japanese animation due to the popularity of series like Pokemon or Dragon Ball Z, but are unfamiliar with the term otaku itself. Thus, gaining the general public’s perspective on the community may be difficult, as few surveys are available on the topic.

Data Collection:

For information about the history of the perception of otaku, I looked at historical accounts of the community and its development over time. I also looked at the two events that defined the perception of otaku culture for a significant amount of time, the Miyazaki murders and KyoAni fire, and their impact. I was also able to find surveys of Japanese citizens and their opinions of otaku, as I am unable to survey people directly. The first I used was an interview from the YouTube channel, Nobita From Japan, in which the interviewer asks various people on the streets questions revolving around otaku. Responses are shown below:

What is your honest impression of anime geeks in Japan?

Well, my impression is that they look so desperate and spend a lot on anime goods. I think they’re so passionate and into it, which can be a good thing, right?

I’ve never had a strong passion like that. So I think they’re great. I’m not that type though. I’m quite different from those people. 

Well, I’m personally not so into anime. So I feel like they’re living in a different world. But actually, I just watched Weathering With You the other day. Surprisingly, I found it interesting. Some of my friends are into anime, but we don’t talk much about it because I am not into it.

To me, they’re like special experts. They spend a lot of money on anime products. They’re pursuing their passion which may be the same as me as I’m into music.

They don’t care about self-cleaning because they don’t need to meet a lot of people. They all indulge themselves in their world. When it comes to anime or manga, it’s a very individual activity. You do it alone. You just spend time alone. It seems to me that you’re shutting down other people. Like, you are purposely disconnecting from others. I guess that’s my impression. 

My impression is that they don’t hesitate to talk about what they really like which is quite rare in Japan. I do think it’s great. 

Overall, do Japanese people have a positive or negative opinion of anime geeks?

They do have a negative image. It’s much more on the negative side.

I’d say it’s more on the negative side in my mind. If you’re an anime painter, artist, or performer or something, like you’re going to an anime exhibition or something, if that’s the case, you’re kinda connecting or contributing to society somehow. But if you’re just  an anime geek, what does it mean for society? My image is that they’re dancing quite awkwardly, I may sound rude, but it looks quite silly.

What association do they have for anime geeks?

Very gloomy people, or unsociable people.

Do you feel uncomfortable with them?

I used to see them like that before. But as I get older I think I relate to how they feel more since I’ve been getting into music. Now, I kinda feel more comfortable with them.

I don’t feel uncomfortable with them because I sometimes watch anime. I’m not so into it, but I don’t dislike watching anime. So I think they’re fine. 

What is your impression of westerners who are really into anime? 

My impression? I just think they seem to be having fun. I don’t see them in a negative way at all. 

I think they’re great. The fact that they appreciate and like Japanese culture makes me happy. As a Japanese person, I am so happy with that. As I said earlier, anime geeks are seen negatively in Japan, and Japanese who are into anime, they feel embarrassed to talk about it. But westerners who are into anime, they say loud and talk about it just like some people are into cars. They’re not embarrassed to show their passion openly, which makes me happy. 

Some of them know about anime much more than us, right? I’m just happy they’re so into Japanese culture. 

Anime cosplay looks better on them than on Japanese. It suits them more. 

I’m really happy to see them. You know, anime is part of Japanese culture. As a Japanese person, its great to see foreigners interested in our culture. So I want anime to be more popular all over the world. 

Every time I see them, I realize how influential to other countries anime is. The KyoAni fire has been making big news and got so much attention. It made me realize more how great anime is.

Regardless of nationality, race, or gender, it would be great if people all over the world connected through anime.

Note that these are direct translations from the video, and may have been edited slightly for grammatical purposes. Source: Nobita From Japan. “The Perception of Anime Geeks/Otaku in Japan.” Youtube, 19. Aug, 2019, 

I also included another study on the image of otaku and their perceptions by Japanese respondents. Parts of the survey were asked to otaku and some were asked to those not associated with the community. Common phrases associated with otaku include disgusting/sickening, good for the economy, anime, manga, games, two-dimensional matters, fashionable/light otaku are increasing, fat/sweaty, potential criminals, lolicon (a form of manga/anime focused on the underage girls, often sexualized), and subculture (Welin 33). The survey also shows a clear pattern of respondents mentioning otaku fixation on their subjects. Responses shown below: 

Being well-informed in a non-professional way regarding a specific field

An image of people with knowledge in a specific field, and also abnormally well-acquainted with matters that regular people seldom show interest for

People who excel at knowledge regarding one thing (a thing they like themselves)

Deep knowledge in only a specific field

People who become engrossed in something

Welin, Andreas. “The Meaning and Image Of Otaku in Japanese Society, and its Change Over Time.” Göteborgs universitets publikationer - e-publicering och e-arkiv, 2014, Core,

Data Analysis:

For the first survey, results were based on the number of positive and negative responses. Due to the video format, some responses could have been left out by the uploader. Repeated stereotypes and phrases were also taken into account. The first stereotype shown in both surveys are the otaku obsession. Three respondents in the first survey mentioned that otaku were very passionate about their subjects. The second showed that there is a perception of otaku being very into or knowledgeable about their field. The second is the stereotype of uncleanliness, respondents mentioned that otaku do not need to bathe as they do not leave the house, are gloomy, unsociable, and do not contribute to society.  Otaku themselves seem to believe that they are perceived badly, as the majority of otaku surveyed stated they felt society had a negative opinion of them (Welin 33).

I think they’re considered to be bothersome people

I think they are considered to be fat men in their 20ies, clattering away in front of a computer in a dark room, with unkempt hair and wearing glasses

Welin, Andreas. “The Meaning and Image Of Otaku in Japanese Society, and its Change Over Time.” Göteborgs universitets publikationer - e-publicering och e-arkiv, 2014, Core,

Interestingly enough, while Japanese citizens have mixed opinions of otaku, there was an overwhelmingly positive response regarding American otaku. Respondents claimed they were spreading their culture, and were happy to see that they loved an aspect of Japan (Nobita).


While some Japanese people did have negative perceptions of the otaku community, the results were not universally bad. Many praised otaku for their obsessive nature and passion. Others criticized them for the same quality. Many have claimed that discrimination against otaku is result of “"the failure of the otaku to fit into, and contribute appropriately to, Japanese society, in terms of a traditional path of study, work, and marriage,” it became a problem “when obsessive interests such as manga and anime were at the expense of study, or an interest in cartoon erotic characters obviated seeking a marriage partner, then otaku became a socially deviant expression," (Hinton 5) and evolved into the stereotypes we have today. This may be the reason why Japanese people praise American otaku while criticizing Japanese otaku. Patrick Galbraith experienced this contrast first hand while working as a tour guide for international tourists in Akihabara while dressed as an anime character. Galbraith claims he experienced “the bodily tension of being a public otaku, in turn criticized as a nuisance and praised as a cultural ambassador,” (Galbraith 5) while leading his tours. It seems that Japanese people are able to praise American otaku in their home countries, where they are not expected to contribute to Japanese society or follow the traditional Japanese way of life, while criticizing those in Japan who choose to deviate from the norm.

"People have the strong fixed idea that otaku are certainly watching anime, don’t shower and are always unclean, are not interested in anything else but two dimensional girls, are certainly going to maid cafes, are all lolicon and potential criminals, etc are in majority."

Welin, Andreas. “The Meaning and Image Of Otaku in Japanese Society, and its Change Over Time.” Göteborgs universitets publikationer - e-publicering och e-arkiv, 2014, Core,

Otaku stereotypes still hold strong in both Japan and abroad. The stereotypes shown in the survey, originate with the community in the 1980s, where “otaku were described as social rejects, those who failed to conform, communicate with others, and connect consumption and play to productive roles at home, school, and work,” through mass media campaigns (Galbraith 2 ). In 1983, author Nakamori Aiko created the article “Otaku Research,” in which they describe otaku as unsocialized misfits (Galbraith 8). The stereotype of otaku being violent was formed with the early 90s, with the Miyazaki murders, in which a man raped and killed four underage girls. After the media found his room covered in horror movies, anime merchandise, and pornography, they deemed him an otaku, and complained about the “Otaku Generation,” that caused this incident (Galbraith 8). For many Japanese citizens, that was their first introduction to the word otaku, and the stereotype stuck. Mass media campaigns spread the idea of the otaku murderer, over 750 articles were published about Miyazaki in just three national newspapers in 1989 (Hinton 6). While the early otaku conventions in America were starting to form, the NHK named otaku as a discriminatory word and banned it from broadcast (Galbraith 9). Outcry against otaku escalated after the attacks by Aum Shinrikyo, a cult that committed the biggest terrorist attack in Japanese history, was found with a computer store in Akihabara (Galbraith 14). The label of Aum Shinrikyo as an “otaku cult,” spread, especially after the cult’s references to sci fi and anime in their religion, and many were compelled to hide their otaku identity (Galbraith 14). The perception of otaku changed during the early 2000s, with the Akihabara boom, and the hit TV series Densha Otoko, in which a young otaku is “converted,” back to normal society after falling for a woman. About 26 percent of the national audience watched the finale of the show when it aired (Galbraith 11). Some otaku began to be featured on TV shows, and became more accepted into the mainstream, however, these otaku would appear on screen right next to crime reports of otaku (Galbraith 3). In 2008, a man ran down Chuo street in Akihabara with a truck, and stabbed multiple people, killing seven and injuring ten (Galbraith 17). After finding out he posted 3000 messages on an online chatroom, he was claimed as otaku (Galbraith 17). People began carrying knives in Akihabara, sometimes fake, in order to protect themselves against otakugari, the practice of mugging otaku for money (Galbraith 17).  In 2019, a man burned down the Kyoto Animation studio, commonly referred to as the KyoAni Fire, in which seventy people were trapped inside. Thirty three people were killed and thirty six were hospitalized. The man claimed the animation studio ripped him off and confessed to the murders (“Man” 1). The stereotype of otaku being lazy, drains on society, unsociable, and murderers, has had a long mass media campaign, so it unsurprisingly is reflected in the opinions of the survey respondents.

Stereotypes of otaku similarly persist in America. Otaku and anime, (Anime as in Japanese style animation) as a medium is relatively newer in America than in Japan, at least in the mainstream. However, most still adopted their perceptions of otaku from the originators in Japan. There are some slight differences however, with  a close duplication of stereotypes used to describe Otaku in Japan, where “some describe otaku as being some combination of socially deficient, unhealthily obsessive, concerned with childish things, and unconcerned about hygiene. Japanese otaku are sometimes depicted as hopeless introverts who are seeking escape from the world so they can indulge in their shameful hobbies, whereas American otaku (when "otaku" is used by some fans to mean the worst of the fandom) are more often depicted as loud, obnoxious, and brazenly outgoing about their hobbies, interests, and fetishists - so much so that they are seen as invading the comfort zone and personal space of others," in contrast to the shy otaku image in Japan (Lawrence 9).

Otaku stereotypes do share some similarities between the countries, with some mimicking some stereotypes I had myself, like “Otaku are obsessive nerds who are extremely passionate about their hobbies to the point of obsession. They are introverts that escape reality to the virtual world of technology. They appear disinterested in interacting with others and enjoy indulging  in media and technology. Thus they are considered socially inept but brilliant technological shut ins. They are also loyal customers who zealously buy merchandise associated with their passions (Garg 1).” Some had problems with aspects of otaku culture, particularly lolicon, (Manga or anime that focuses on underage girls, usually sexualized, also called a Lolita Complex or just Lolitas) considering it as a form of infantilism or even pedophilia (Hinton 4). While teaching a group of students in the 90s, Patrick Galbraith reported how some of his students loathed the anime section of his course, stating that they were “juvenile, misogynistic, or worse,” and rejecting the idea overall (Galbraith and Lamarre 3). With surging popularity for anime in the West, the culture will become more accepted and some of these stereotypes can be dismissed and replaced with positive ones, as has happened in Japan.


Traditional Japanese values of conformity are certainly questioned in any Japanese subculture. Otaku are constantly “othered,” and considered weird, abnormal, or nuisances in their own country. Instead of wasting time on anime, many question why they do not contribute to society, or follow the path of school, work, and marriage. It is not to say that otaku do not work, but merely ask why they are wasting time on anime instead of dedicating it to their work. However, societal changes have shifted from the otaku murderers of the 1990s. Acceptance by the general public has increased, with some positive stereotypes being formed and many even praising otaku for being passionate about their subjects. During class, we discussed a lot about Japan’s system of grouping. It was very clear that Japan made a distinction between American and Japanese groups when praising Americans for liking anime while criticizing Japanese otaku for not working hard enough to contribute to their society.


This assignment helped me learn a lot about the evolution of a subculture, but also the perspectives of Japanese people and how it changed over time. It was fascinating to see how perceptions changed so quickly and it shifted from murderers and weirdos to the new economic driving force in Japan, so much so that the government is starting initiatives to promote it overseas. Cultural perspective is a very difficult topic to discuss, but seeing the change of perspective in the Japanese community really helped me understand Japanese society a little bit better. 

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