OP/ED: The Evolution of “Otaku-ness”

The many people of AX 2018

The Los Angeles anime convention, Anime Expo, is one of the biggest conventions to hit the US. This year, a whopping 110,000 people came to enjoy cosplay, listen in on panels, rock to concerts, and hit the merchandise stalls. It was a beautiful sight. When I climbed up the stairs and looked down, all I could see was a sea of people. Excitement and impatience tinged the air. Black hair, brown hair, blonde hair, and red hair dotted the area like mushrooms after a rainy day. How much of the hair are real or are wigs, that I will never know. However, this definitely made me realize just how much things have changed since I started watching anime…and how powerful the anime industry has become.

Like many otakus in the world, I started watching anime at a fairly young age. Five, in fact. Unaware that Doraemon was actually an anime as it was dubbed in Chinese, I spent my childhood watching Japanese animation right before my eyes. It took me until middle school to realize that I had been not watching “Chinese cartoons”, but actual Japanese anime…and that I’ve always been obsessed with Japanese anime. And even worse…

I was an otaku.

Only a decade ago, the meaning and the culture of “otaku” was drastically more negative. They were either uncool Asian nerds who did nothing but worry  about grades, games, anime, and only had Asian friends if any. Or they were even more uncool white people who locked themselves away in their mother’s basements with their waifus. Was that necessarily true of the population at that time? Without a doubt, no. However, that was definitely the connotation that spread throughout the US with slightly friendlier interpretations in states with a higher Asian population, notably California and New York.

My own terrifying self-realization

When the realization of me being an otaku hit me, I did everything I could to deny and hide that fact. Of course I wasn’t an otaku, I reasoned to myself. Sure, I love anime a lot, but I love American movies just as much. I have lots of friends of all different ethnicities. And more than that, I don’t even like games! And even more important, I had plenty of other hobbies. I played the violin, I loved writing on my own, and I loved hanging out with my friends. I was everything but an otaku.

Then the internet shook the world, opening up avenues to younger generations that historical people would’ve never been capable of imagining. Starting with instant messaging, then to forums, and eventually social media, information became more instantaneous and accessible. This powerful method of communication changed the very culture and connotation of “otaku” right before my eyes. Gradually. Year by year.

That is because anime is inherently deeply embedded in Japanese culture. In an extension, it is also deeply associated with Asian culture. As it happens, Asian cultures and Western cultures are more than just different – they are often opposite. Though it may seem obvious nowadays, this “obviousness” could not have happened without the pioneering of the internet. Through sites like Wikipedia or even simple Google searches, the gaps between two very different cultures have bridged, allowing those who once did not understand the concept of anime to understand the passion and love for this particular story medium.

At the same time, it was also through the internet that simply exposed more people in general to anime. Anime streaming sites soon popped up everywhere. Youtube also heavily influenced the exposure with clips of popular anime such as Cowboy Bebop, Naruto, Bleach, and Fullmetal Alchemist across its channels. And as more people discovered a new form of media, social media contributed even more to the world of anime and thus “otaku” with the sharing of tweets and posts.

Cowboy Bebop, an anime classic that pioneered the acceptance of a new art form

So the internet grew. And the people learned. And cultures collided in understanding. And by high school, “otaku” became a thing. There was still a negative connotation attached to it, particularly the “nerdy” aspect, but it was no longer looked upon as isolation and ostracization. An otaku could be nerdy white, nerdy black, nerdy Hispanic, nerdy Asian, or even nerdy alien. Anime had become a known media form. And more importantly, an accepted one.

And time continued to flow.

Suddenly, one day in college, a realization dawned upon me. I didn’t care that I was an otaku anymore. And other people didn’t care either. In fact, they were proud. They expressed their passion and love for anime and games. They wanted to introduce new friends to the anime world. They were excited about having their hobbies out in the open. Otakus were no longer the loner, weird nerds of school. They could be that popular girl in high school with plenty of boys on her tail.

“Now sparkle. Like an anime character” — Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle 2017

Within just a decade, the term “otaku” changed from the people you avoid and disassociate yourself with to a group of friendly, passionate people. AX 2018 is the proof and the result.

I had never attended LA’s anime convention before. And in a way, I guess I was scared to because somewhere, deep in the back of my mind, I still held onto that fear of what was once associated with “otaku”. But after this AX, I can safely say that the fear has completely faded away.

Every panel, every hall, every event was filled with people of all ethnicities. The positive energy overfilled the entire convention building and poured itself onto the streets. I felt my heart literally swell up as I stood on the balcony, looking down at people decked in gorgeous cosplay, photographers flashing their cameras at the overcrowded panels, and strangers laughing, joking, and discussing the latest trends in anime.

Then came the special guests, usually voice actors from Japan or the US, directors, producers, and artists. Whenever they walked across the stage at the panels or concerts, a thunder of joy and welcome exploded all around me. So enticing and addicting was the energy, I found myself unable to remain distant. I hollered and clapped with the audience. I jumped and laughed whenever the special guests said something particularly riveting.

The much sought cosplay of AX 2018

Of course, this wonderful experience couldn’t have been without Anime Expo continuously feeding the energy. Friendly staff and volunteers never shirked or sounded annoyed whenever someone approached them for help. An extraordinarily wide range of activities rounded the clock everyday, catering to every possible interest that existed in the anime community. And even though I was on my feet for the entire event, I somehow woke up early everyday without feeling a drop of exhaustion, unable to contain my own optimism of what I was about to encounter in this culture of “otaku”.

Yet, what stood out to me the most was the one night as I waited in front of the JW Mariott for a ride back as a family dropped in. “What’s going on out here tonight? There’s so many people,” asked a father of two teenagers.

“The LA anime convention is going on right now,” an employee explained.

Both teenagers jumped in absolute excitement. “Can we go!?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure you can as long as you buy tickets,” the employee replied.

“Are you a fan of anime?” the father asked them in surprise.

Both teenagers shook their heads. “No, but a lot of my friends absolutely love anime. They’re always talking about it to us, and they say they’re called otakus. I really want to see what it’s like and the cosplay they always mention! Then I can tell them about it as well!”

Anime Expo 2018, a beginning and an end. The end of an evolution of “otaku”, from negative to positive. The beginning of a new era. From curiosity to bridging differences.

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