‘America’s Greatest Otaku': Japanese pop culture hits the road in U.S.

March 28, 2011 | 10:15 a.m.

otaku1 Americas Greatest Otaku: Japanese pop culture hits the road in U.S. In Japanese, otaku simply means “you,” but in America, it’s used to describe a fan of Japanese pop culture: anime, manga, video games, J-pop and/or cosplay. American otaku range from casual enthusiasts to hard-core fanatics; the latter are the subject of the eight-part reality series/documentary “America’s Greatest Otaku,” which premiered on Hulu on Feb. 24.

Stu Levy, the founder of TokyoPop, a major publisher of manga in the U.S., serves as host, assisted by six college students who are self-proclaimed otaku. Over eight weeks, they visit 20 U.S. cities, observing various aspects of Japanese fandom and interviewing candidates for the title of America’s Greatest Otaku.

It’s an uneven series, veering from interesting to just plain silly and superficial. In one of the better sequences, the apprentice reporters visit the Texas headquarters of Funimation, the largest U.S. distributor of anime. After interviewing professional voice actors who dub various series, one of the reporters shows just how tricky it is to deliver a line and create a performance while trying to match the “mouth flaps” of the animated characters. The group attends Anime Expo, the largest fan convention in America, held annually over 4th of July weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center. They talk to students of various ages, from elementary school to high school, at the Kansas City Art Institute as they proudly show their attempts to create Japanese-style graphic novels. By the end of the second episode, it’s clear New Yorker Stephan Cho offers the most professional reporting.

otaku Americas Greatest Otaku: Japanese pop culture hits the road in U.S.

But “America’s Greatest Otaku” loses its way at times: The popularity of sushi bars and Japanese martial arts predates the fan culture they’re supposed to be covering. Weekly challenges, including an eating contest, are simply irrelevant. More significantly, the participants sometimes confuse “otaku” with “hikikomori,” a term used to describe young people who shut themselves in their rooms for months or even years, with the Internet providing their only link to humanity. The syndrome was first observed in Japan but has begun to spread to the U.S.

The otaku subculture in America was initially dominated by Asian and white males, but in recent years, its fan base has grown more diverse. The contestants for the title of Greatest Otaku young men and women of varying backgrounds. They’re all rabid collectors of toys, books, DVDs, autographs and other paraphernalia. Many are cosplay participants who create elaborate outfits based on anime characters; they’re also avid gamers. But it’s not clear what makes one fan greater or more dedicated than another.

Otaku fandom has grown increasingly widespread in America in recent years, but it’s a phenomenon that’s largely been created by kids for kids, under the radar of their parents (and the mainstream media). “America’s Greatest Otaku” seems destined to find its audience among younger viewers who are already fans, rather than adults who might learn something from the series.

– Charles Solomon


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9 Responses to ‘America’s Greatest Otaku': Japanese pop culture hits the road in U.S.

  1. Jordan says:

    This seems like a contradiction. Regardless of what people think and say "Otaku" is still a bad thing. It's an insult and one people take offensively over in Japan. Just because it's here in America doesn't mean it's still not a bad thing. It's like taking the word "Moron" going to another country and trying to make it into something good, which it isn't. I mean "American's Greatest Otaku" is almost like saying "Americas Greatest Shut-in".

  2. Gelly says:

    I concur with Jordan. I lived in Japan for some time and if you called a Japanese person an 'otaku' they would get very offended. It's ironic how Americans would wear it with pride, when in actuality, the country of its origins disdains the term.

  3. Ryan says:

    Hikikomori? Are you kidding me? You obviously didn't do any research on the differences between American and Japanese otaku. I've noticed that a lot of the reporters that do write about AGO have the same sentiment, but most of you have not tried contacting any of us. One did, from Japanator… on the East Coast, and she right away got that American otaku are a different breed. But, for the most of you that have been reporting on AGO, you seem to just assume things. I'm here in So Cal. I represented LA in AGO. I read your publication. I'm close enough to drive to, heck, I can even drive to your office and do an interview with you.

  4. Hank says:

    I've also lived in Japan for sometime and I found that people were NOT offended when they were called an "otaku." In fact it was something that was much more widely accepted than I ever thought it would be. Furthermore, in the first sentence where the writer is "defining" otaku, he says it means, "you." That is correct, but that is only one definition. The other definition is the exact one that he credits the American's of having, one who is fanatical about anime and manga. Otaku's have crossed over into other areas of interest as well. You can be a "Beatles otaku" or a "computer otaku." This is a poorly researched article.

    • Guest from Tokyo says:

      This. Although, I've lived–and still live in–Japan. I just asked my husband about the word "otaku" and he didn't say he would necessarily use it to mean "you".

      I actually had a discussion about Otaku and the otaku culture with my high school class. They were amused that so many overseas would wear the name so proudly but did say that the older generation might be offended if you called them otaku but now it's more accepted. It's meant more as someone who is….not really a fanatic, but someone very into something.

      I'm seen as a bit of a game otaku. It's not precisely bad. I like playing video games in my spare time and can be found usually doing so. However the older crowd, (for example, the Japanese teacher I work with in that class), do still remember said word being seen as an insult.

      Really, I have to agree that people need to research a bit more. I stumbled across this article by accident and now I have to admit I'm a bit appalled by the lack of thought and work put into this.

  5. Pop Robot says:

    Is this Ryan fellow actively following America’s Greatest Otaku news and then attacking anything that insults the show? He should go outside and play or something else that’s productive. It would be incredibly sad if he were still following this article, and replied to this message.

  6. Jordan says:

    Did he really say the Otaku fandom is created by kids for kids? This guy clearly has no idea what he is talking about whatsoever. His ignorance is astounding, really. Otaku range from children to adults. And most of the fandom includes people from age 16-25. I mean wtf is this Guy talking about? O_o I go to three anime conventions a year and most of the times the “kids” are brought along by their parents and the parents are clearly more into it than the kids.

    Its funny how they let idiots like this Guy write about stuff he has no idea about.

  7. Jon - NY, NY says:

    count me as one 55 year old adult who found the hulu series interesting and informative. I never was or will be a Otaku….

    """""""""“America’s Greatest Otaku” seems destined to find its audience among younger viewers who are already fans, rather than adults who might learn something from the series.
    – Charles Solomon """""""""

  8. Anna says:

    I came apon this as a girl in the USA who calls herself an Otaku.
    i do see how the older folks could be offended by being called an Otaku.
    But now a days when we call ourselves Otaku the definition we use is more of: an avid collector or enthusiast, esp. one who is obsessed anime, video games, or computer and rarely leaves home.

    I personally get out quite a lot and stay very active. This is the basis of why we call ourselves as such and i think that some more thought should be put into what you are saying before you go out and tell people they are wrong. Not all people are as this article says and before you post such things id ask you to veiw it from our stand point, its the same as if you had any other collector of paintings or baceball cards; except we do the same with anime or video games.

    So please just watch what you say about what others strongly beleive in, i know from experiance that otakus can be very teritorial almost with these topics.

    My Best

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