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September 30, 2005 |

A brief essay in the monograph A Global Imperative resulting from the 21st Century Literacy Summit. National Media Consortium.

Otaku Literacy

I believe otaku are a new breed born in the 20th century ‘visual culture era.’ In other words, otaku are people with viewpoint based on an extremely evolved sensitivity toward images.
– Toshio Okada, Introduction to Otakuology

In the 1993 premier issue of Wired, a feature article introduced English-speaking geekdom to Japanese otaku, “the incredibly strange mutant creatures who rule the universe of alienated Japanese zombie computer nerds.” Since then, the term has taken on a life of its own in the US, shedding many of the negative and antisocial associations attached to the term in Japan. Web sites such as or use the term as a stand-in for anime fandom. Science fiction writer William Gibson suggests that otaku be understood more generally as “passionate obsessives,” and otaku scholar Lawrence Eng suggests that the “otaku spirit” is one of “exploration, innovation, curiosity, dedication, and individualism.”

Overseas anime otaku—fans of Japanese anime—represent an emergent form of media literacy that, though still marginal, is becoming increasingly pervasive among a rising generation. Anime otaku are media connoisseurs, activist prosumers who seek out esoteric content from a far away land and organize their social lives around viewing, interpreting, and remixing these media works. Otaku translate and subtitle all major anime works, they create web sites with hundreds and thousands of members, stay in touch 24/7 on hundreds of IRC channels, and create fan fiction, fan art, and anime music videos that rework the original works into sometimes brilliantly creative and often subversive alternative frames of reference. Curious? Check out sites such as,, or to get a sense of this burgeoning subculture.

Although fan cultural production is denigrated by media professionals as “merely” derivative and lacking in originality, it is worth considering what forms of knowledge, literacy, and social organization are being fed by these activities. To support their media obsessions otaku acquire challenging language skills and media production crafts of scripting, editing, animating, drawing, and writing. And they mobilize socially to create their own communities of interest and working groups to engage in collaborative media production and distribution. Otaku use visual media as their source material for crafting their own identities, and as the coin of the realm for their social networks. Engaging with and reinterpreting professionally produced media is one stepping stone towards critical media analysis and alternative media production.

The activities of otaku may seem extreme and marginal, but my sense is that otaku culture is one prototype for emergent forms of literacy. Much as the growing strength of digital technology was tied to the rise of geek chic, the growing visibility of otaku culture worldwide seems symbiotic with the ascendancy of visual culture and communication in the 21st century.