Toshio Okada on old-school, hundred-proof "Otaku 1.0" from the Eighties: "individuals who chose to pursue childish hobbies as a means to intellectually and emotionally isolate themselves from society."
Toshio Okada on the current generation of otaku: "a growing ghetto of weak individuals who blame society when others fail to understand their personal interests."
Toshio Okada on himself: "I'm done."
Has the Otaking hung up his crown?
Famed otaku critic/commentator Toshio Okada has a new book out: Otaku wa Sude ni Shindeiru (a play on a classic Fist of the North Star line that roughly translates into "You Otaku are Already Dead"). If you believe the hype, it's the third and supposedly final chapter in his quixotic, on-again-off-again quest to unhitch his wagon from the star of otaku culture. For those keeping score, the first was 2007's Sekaiseifuku wa Kanouka? ("Is World Conquest Possible?") The second was his bestselling weight-loss book Itsu Made Mo Debu to Omou Na ("Don't Think You Have to be Fat Forever."), which gained him mainstream fame for detailing how he successfully shed more than a hundred pounds over the course of a year.
If the newly svelte Okada is really going out, he's going out swinging. He portrays the rise and fall of Japan's otaku in three stages. The first generation are called "otaku aristocrats" -- early adopters from the late Seventies and early Eighties who felt the need to proselytize and convert their friends to the lifestyle. This sense of noblesse oblige eventually gave rise to the second generation of "otaku elite" from the late Eighties through the late Nineties, who spurned and scorned anyone without the good sense to share their taste in entertainment. And finally, this self-centered attitude reached its apex in the current generation of "moé-otaku," purveyors and consumers of anime, comics, and video games that hyper-focus on young girls instead of plotlines.
Okada defines the otaku crowd he grew up with as a group of "individuals who chose to pursue childish hobbies as a means to emotionally and intellectually isolate themselves from society," defending their behavior as a form of rebellion and empowerment. According to Okada, this early generation of otaku weren't outcasts but rather noble outsiders, individuals who were more than willing to face public scorn rather than give up the things that were important to them. Essentially discriminated against by society at large, they had no choice but to circle their wagons and wall themselves off from it, like native Americans (yes, that is his parallel) forming reservations in an attempt to preserve their way of life. In other words, it wasn't a hobby, it was an cultural group, a tribe. History is rewritten by the victor, I suppose. For anyone familiar with the origins of the otaku, it's amusing to watch Okada use the otaku-driven development of "Japan cool" to recast a group of social misfits as iconoclastic rebels.
In contrast, Okada takes the current generation of otaku to task for continuing to "ghettoize" themselves, retreating ever-deeper into individual virtual worlds when they encounter any sort of resistance to their interests. Where's the sense of pride, of camraderie? he wonders. He decries their inward focus, their passivity, their apparent lack of desire to learn about or interact with subcultures outside of their own tiny worldviews. (The last is a hallmark difference, at least in Okada's idealized view, between the moe-otaku and traditional old-school otaku, who actually forced themselves to partake of genres or titles they didn't particularly like in order to broaden their horizons.)
Of course, the youngsters aren't taking this lying down. Bloggers and commenters are accusing Okada of everything from over-sentimentality to blind nostalgia to simple laziness ("tip for the author: stick to writing about old stuff instead of modern trends you can't understand" being one of the more cogent complaints.) For his part, Okada is unrepentant. "I'm done being the Otaking," he declares on the final page of his book, "and starting a search for my own personal culture." (Cynics will wonder if this recent personal awakening has anything to do with the immense popularity of his weight-loss book, which briefly made him a staple of the variety show circuit.)
In the end analysis, Okada's swansong is as much about the collapse of Japan's bubble era (which fueled the super-consumerism that allowed the otaku to flourish) as it is about the collapse of a subculture. Whether you consider him an astute analyst or a sentimental relic pining for times long gone by, there's no question that Okada played a key role in articulating the subtleties of otaku culture to the outside world. Now that he's officially declared Otaku 1.0 dead and buried, who will speak to the secret lives of their modern counterparts?