“In modern Japanese slang, the term otaku is mostly equivalent to ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’, but in a more derogatory manner than used in the West. However, it can relate to any fan of any particular theme, topic, hobby, or form of entertainment. ‘When these people are referred to as otaku, they are judged for their behaviors – and people suddenly see an “otaku” as a person unable to relate to reality.’”

There have been times I probably met the Wikipedia definition of otaku – although it implies a degree of specialization I haven’t often been capable of. Yes, I was nuts for Star Wars in 1978, but so was basically every kid in America – and frankly there wasn’t that much to be nuts over. One movie, another tie-in novel, a Marvel comic that I didn’t read – it didn’t even have the depth of canon of Star Trek with its three seasons and cartoon and seeming endless supply of novels. Come to think of it, I seem to have a vague recollection of the 70s – and into the 80s – that all sci-fi got lumped together, to the point where one bookstore downtown advertised “Star Trek/Wars” goods. But anyway.

I had other nerdish interests after that – there was a run of comics, mostly Marvel, from about 1984-88. There were TSR role-playing games, of course, Dungeons and Dragons from 1981-84 and Star Frontiers from 1984-85 and then Marvel Super Heroes from 1985-87 to the exclusion of everything else…and then all that just blew away around 1988. Probably because the Scholars Bowl team was sucking up all my stray CPU cycles for general-knowledge brainpower that might otherwise have gone for a focus.

I suppose you could say “sports” in the 1990s but I wasn’t any more obsessive than your typical American male, especially as I was catching up and making up for the 1980s. I suppose you could say “politics” but grad school proved that wasn’t nearly as much of an interest as I thought, and at root it mainly consisted of just a heightened awareness of my surroundings rather than genuine interest. And my wife will attest that I was something of a phone obsessive for most of the first seven years or so of our relationship, but the arrival of the iPhone put paid to that pretty much for good.

The thing is, as I cast about looking for hobbies and whatnot, is that the otaku mode is sort of the new default in fandom. Even in things I used to follow closely and don’t anymore – not having been raised on Madden, I can’t discuss the merits of defensive patterns and the virtue of four-verts offense, so I’m on the outside of a lot of college football talk. But then, I start looking around at other things…I have an incomplete on the MCU. I still haven’t seen Spider Man: Homecoming or the 2008 Hulk movie, it took six months for me to catch up to Doctor Strange or Thor: The Dark World, I still haven’t seen the Iron Fist series and don’t have any particular urgency for Inhumans or The Defenders. Never mind the thirty years of actual comic books I’ve whiffed on. I went out and got myself a Ravenclaw scarf from Platform 9 3/4, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any Harry Potter movie more than once and I couldn’t swear I’ve actually seen all eight. I’ve certainly not tried to sort myself via Pottermore or anything like that. 

One of the side effects of the Internet is that it’s enabled this degree of otaku specialization, and in doing so raised the threshold for fandom – or even for what might be considered more than just general interest. The running gag online is “oh name three of their albums” but it’s kidding on the square: casual fandom is almost impossible and there are issues of belonging and authenticity around everything, especially things with a canon of knowledge and any sort of historical depth.

In other words, it’s hard out here for a polymath. Of which.

One Reply to “Otaku”

  1. This has been my struggle my whole life. I’m a generalist, not a specialist. I like a little bit of everything, but I don’t get specialized and go deep in any one thing. I struggle with this with:

    work/career. At least my current job is good for a generalist, but lord help me if I wake up and decide someday that I want to do something different. WTH would that be?
    hobbies. I never did get past “beginner” level on the guitar, sewing, or swing dancing.
    volunteering. I want to volunteer, but where do I decide to expend my time and energy? I can only do so much, and anything I do has to be something I really believe in. But I want to help so many things, so where do I start? There are too many options, so between that, my current health issues, and the lack of inertia, I haven’t done nearly as much volunteering as I’d like.
    fandoms. Like you, I have interest in several fandoms, but none of them raise to the level of desiring to attend a particular con or joining a group. I love going to Disneyland, but I’m not a Disney fanatic. I love the steampunk aesthetic, but I’m not committed to it enough to create an outfit or spend time making steampunk looking artifacts with real life application like my brother (this also plays into the hobby challenge above).

    Even as a teenager this was odd for me. I was never in any one particular social clique. I mostly associated myself with mods, but I rarely ever looked like one. I was on the inside, but not the outside. I was in the band, but I didn’t only hang out with band people. I was in the honors classes, but that also wasn’t necessarily my group, either. I wasn’t a preppy, or popular, or whatever the other big and medium size groupings were. I just… was there.

    So, if the threshold for any particular group or fandom or whatever is raised even higher now (and I agree with you that it has), then I’m even more screwed. You and I are both generalists, and it’s hard out there for us.
    There’s more to this, but that’s best for in person conversation.

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