In Japan, otaku culture is typically seen as totally male-dominated. But women have always been involved with it, and they're increasingly starting to embrace the term.
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In 1989, Tsutomu Miyazaki was charged with the murder of four young girls from the Saitama and Tokyo prefectures of Japan. When his home was searched, nearly 6,000 anime films and boxes filled with manga comic books were found. As a result, he became known as the Otaku Murderer.
The word otaku, broadly considered to refer to a kind of geek "whose hobbies border on the excessive," already had negative connotations. The term first came about in the 1970s and referred to a subculture of overly enthusiastic fans, particularly of anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comic books). Before the Otaku Murderer case, the word conjured images of social misfits, nerds—people so unable to deal with the real world they immersed themselves in fantasy. Afterwards, it took on a new layer of negativity: Otaku culture became linked with perversion. Some Japanese television stations, such as NHK and Asahi Shimbun, even banned use of the word in the subsequent years.
In the early 2000s, though, things began to change. "The market began to recognize the value of these fans," says Patrick W. Galbraith, author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan. "And, globally, you had anime and manga fans referring to themselves as otaku pretty casually," he adds. Steadily, the term became more socially acceptable—cool, even. In Tokyo and Osaka especially, otaku cafes and cosplay restaurants started appearing in droves.
Generally an otaku cafe is themed, with employees dressed up as manga or anime characters, who treat each individual customer as master or mistress of the house. Some are little more low-key, with manga comics and anime films for customers to read and watch on site. Arguably the most popular type of otaku cafe is the "maid cafe," where female waitresses dress up in French maid costumes, adopt very high-pitched voices, and lavish a lot of attention on generally (although not explicitly) male customers. (A popular trope in otaku media is young, innocent female characters.)
Throughout the recent changes to the landscape of otaku culture, however, one thing has remained fairly constant: It's generally considered to be a man's world. But this perception has never been totally accurate. "If you just go back to the 1970s when all of this starts, some of the first registered fan clubs for anime were dominated by women," says Galbraith. "The Comic Market, now one of the biggest fan gatherings in the world, when it started in 1975, 90 percent of attendees were women. Today, 60 to 70 percent are women." Women have never been absent from otaku culture, argues Galbraith—more often, they've merely been ignored.
"Otaku [culture] is popular with both genders," agrees Ruku, the co-manager of Ataraxia, the first girls-only otaku cafe in Japan. "And one famous type of manga, yaoi, is actually more popular with girls. That's one of the reasons we wanted to set up the cafe—so there's a space where like-minded women can indulge their passion."
If you just go back to the 1970s when all of this starts, some of the first registered fan clubs for anime were dominated by women.
The yaoi, or "boys' love" genre of manga and anime focuses on romantic relationships between two men, typically involving a seme, or dominant, figure and an uke, or passive, figure. While yaoi can contain explicitly homoerotic content, it is targeted to a female audience and is distinct from the bara genre, which is aimed at a gay male audience—bara tends to involve large, muscular, stereotypically masculine men, and to more closely explore the taboo nature of homosexuality in Japan.
Originally, the name created for female yaoi fans was fujoshi, meaning "rotten girl." "This discourse was used among fans in a playful way—I'm a rotten girl, I have such a dirty mind, I'm in love with these beautiful boys who love each other, how twisted am I?" says Galbraith. "But it was also used as a way to undermine a heteronormative patriarchal kind of relationship."
However, the term "fujoshi" never really stuck. Now women are simply called "otaku," like their male counterparts. "But," says Ruku, "women are a little ashamed to admit it, and in mixed-gender otaku cafes, [they] can feel self-conscious and unable to relax."
This self-consciousness arguably stems from two places, argues Galbraith: firstly, from discomfort at mixed-gender spaces in general. "A lot of Japanese people grow up in homo-gender environments, where you're surrounded by mostly women or mostly men for a lot of your life," he says. "And you become really familiar and comfortable with that. So the mixing thing is in some ways found more difficult."
The second reason for self-consciousness, according to Gailbraith, stems from a sense of shame at being a woman involved in this strange world. "A group of 'boys' love' girls I worked with said, "'For us, it's not OK to not care about appearance, to not read fashion mags, to not bother with pleasantries," he says. "We are held to a higher standard to 'pass' as normal."
It's frowned upon for a woman in the workplace to admit they are otaku.
"It's also frowned upon for a woman in the workplace to admit they are otaku," notes Ruku. "[This is] another reason we wanted a space where women feel that they can express themselves freely."
More than just being a hobbyist venue, then, Ataraxia has been set up to make a stand. But, while similar establishment, Nadeshico Sushi, the first all-female Japanese sushi restaurant, can be accused of leveraging on its unusual status to appeal to men, Ataraxia is notably more understated. It hasn't been created to look stereotypically feminine, and there didn't appear to be anything kawaii (cute) about it.
Perhaps the ultimate sign that the women behind Ataraxia are taking what they're doing seriously is the quiz that potential patrons have to take before they become a member. A list of questions asks users to what extent they agree with certain statements such as: "The 'largest festival' for geeks is the three-day Obon at the end of the year." While I assumed this might be a slightly tongue-in-cheek marketing ploy, Ruku quickly set me straight. "We only want real otaku here. It's easier to communicate that way."
Going against the grain isn't always the most popular move in Japan, but the women at Ataraxia betray a quiet but genuine determination in their mission to encourage women to be proud of their passions. But has it actually worked? Are women taking them up on their offer? "We're getting there," says Ruku. "Little by little."