Geeks, Otaku & Weeaboos: The language and range of fandom

I

Ian Wolf

Guest
“Those of us who are geeks, OK, real geeks, who earned our geekhood at school through sweat and loneliness and wedgies will no long stand idly by and watch our geekly identity taken from us be people who think geekhood is nothing more than wearing cute glasses and an asymmetric fringe – particularly not when they are the very people who gave us the wedgies at school!” – John Finnemore

While I’ve been having many of the ideas for this piece for some time, the main impetus for writing this feature comes not from an anime, but from the new series of stand-up comedy show Dave Gorman: Modern Life is Goodish.


In the first episode of the new series, starting on Dave on 8th November at 22.00, Gorman deals with the subject of guilty pleasures, fandom and why he is not a geek when loads of other people mistakenly think he is. When discussing fandom, he talks about those annoying groups of fans that seem to suck the joy out of a subject you might have an interest in, or as he calls them: “extractor fans”.

I would advise everyone to watch the episode, but for those of you living outside the UK and are unable to access the episode, here is a quick explanation. Gorman claims that “extractor fans” fall into three groups:

  • “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of…” – e.g., someone who is outraged by the fact you haven’t heard of a particular thing and then show off that they know all about it.
  • “Unless you like them as much as me, then you’re not a real fan of…” – e.g., annoying completists, which if you are an anime fan is troublesome because that also means the expense of importing expensive stuff from Japan.
  • “I don’t like them now everyone else likes them…” – e.g., people who hate anything once it becomes mainstream.

Now we in the anime community have our own group of annoying fans: “weeaboos”, or “weeb” for short. If we go by Wiktionary, their definition of weeaboo is: “A non-Japanese person (especially one of Caucasian ancestry) who is obsessed with Japan and behaves in a stereotypically Japanese manner.” For some people it is considered a useful term, pointing out when certain fans are being infuriating or ignorant, and perhaps should educate themselves more on the subject of Japan and its history. People must be aware that no country is perfect, and must acknowledge what they have done wrong as well as what they have done right. However, for other people the term “weeaboo” is a xenophobic word. To quote one of AUKN’s editors when I was drafting the article: “it tends to be rolled out to trash any fan who doesn’t display a cool dismissal of anime’s Japanese roots in certain communities, discouraging people from learning Japanese or engaging with the wider fan community across the world.”

Recently, I feel that the term “weeaboo” is now being misused, and no longer being used to describe annoying fans like many people do currently. I have seen on social media people calling anime fans “weeaboos” because they happen to like a popular anime. Anime-loving extractor fans are now calling people weeaboos because they like the most popular series around such as One Piece, Naruto and Sword Art Online.

One example I’ve found is a Tumblr post where an anonymous person says: “How can I tell if I’m a weeb?” The person responding says: “Easy. What is the first thing you think when you see this?” Then they post this picture.



And then adds: “Thought so. Weeb.”

If this is a joke it is a rather pathetic one. What this person seems to be saying is that if you know that this hat is worn by Monkey D. Luffy, the main character in One Piece, that makes you a weeaboo and thus an annoying fan. That hat belongs to the lead character in the single most popular manga series ever made. Loads of people are going to recognise it because it is such a famous show. It is like accusing people of being annoying fans of all things American because they recognise a large stack of blue hair belongs to Marge Simpson, or you are annoying Anglophile because you know who says: “Don’t tell them Pike!” Knowing who wears that hat doesn’t make you a weeaboo – it means you have a basic working knowledge of anime and manga.

Mind you, it should be acknowledged that the snobbery can be reversed. If you are only into mainstream shows and think people who are into niche anime are being pretentious, then you are just as annoying the people who are only into the obscure stuff and shun the popular.

It saddens me to see such a term being misused, but at the same time I know that this sort of thing is inevitable. Language is constantly evolving. Words change and gain new meanings. Take the word “gay”. It used to mean “happy”, then it meant “homosexual”, and now some people use it to mean “rubbish” or “uncool”. Similarly the word “geek” had a very different meaning. A geek was originally a performer at a freak show – normally someone who bit the heads off live chickens.

The problem comes down to how you define something or someone as being geeky, something which again is dealt by Gorman. As he says, if you have seen Star Trek, that doesn’t make you a geek, because Star Trek is such an incredibly popular programme, but, “If you go to Star Trek conventions and speak Klingon”, that makes you a Star Trek geek.

Another term that has problems when defined is “otaku”. In the west, we use it to mean an anime fan, but in Japan the term is used to mean someone who is obsessive, and it doesn’t just refer to anime or manga. You can be an otaku about any subject. The term is also an insult, popularised by Akio Nakamori who is famous for his deeply-critical views on pop culture and people attending conventions. Later Tsutomu Miyazaki, dubbed the “Otaku Murderer” by the Japanese media, who would go on to make the term even more negative. Given this, “otaku” seems less of a synonym for “fan” or “geek”, and closer to our British term “anorak” in its negativity.

In terms of a solid definition, I would recommend this piece from Tofugu, dealing with the term’s origins, controversy and meaning. Here, they claim that otaku focus on the following:

  • Sharing information.
  • Possessing their passion – examining it in every detail.
  • Going further by creating their own works: costumes, fiction, art, etc.

The article also differentiates between an “otaku” and a “maniac”. The latter are “spectators in their obsession” and want to collect things, whereas the former, an otaku, combines both the physical and the intangible. They want the action-figure and to learn more about the series in question. They want the homemade, derivative products too. As a result, I would say a “maniac” is closer in definition to “anorak” than “otaku” is. After all, you don’t tend to hear about train-spotters making their own creative projects. The only example I can think of is the co-creator of the British adult comic book Viz Chris Donald who collects full-size train stations, one of which he turned into the world’s most geographically remote restaurant.

Having examined all these terms, I think it is possible to try to define and rank fandom terms more accurately. Thus I present…

The Wolf Scale of Fandom



On this scale – which let’s be honest I have named after myself mainly as a way of inflating my own ego – the higher your rank, the more obsessed you are with your subject and normally the more weird you appear to be to those outside the fandom. As this is brand new, it won’t be perfect, so I would encourage debate to improve the scale in any way possible.

I would also argue that the following scale can by used on any form of fandom. This is not just applied to subjects normally considered geeky like comic books or anime, but anything. A sports fan who has an obsessive knowledge of their favourite team is just as passionate as someone who is into sci-fi. You can be an otaku about western comics as much as an otaku on manga.

-1 or 0 Hater or Disinterested

People in this rank either dislike or have no interest in the subject in question. Thus, there is little to say about this rank.

1 – Fan

The entry level. This, going back to Gorman, includes people who have watched a particular show and like it, but don’t feel the need to go beyond any level of deeper devotion. For example, the Star Trek fan Gorman refers to in his programme. No-one generally thinks of fans as being weird.

2 – Geek

This is where things start to get interesting. How do we define a geek? There are many ways, but having started this feature by talking about one comedy show, I would like to reference another one. My preferred definition of geek is taken from this sketch from BBC Radio 4’s John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.


Thus the central elements of being a geek should be:

  1. You should, “know loads and loads and loads about it”.
  2. You should be, “a bit weird about it.”
  3. You can’t like it all.

Going by this definition, a “geek” is mostly concerned with knowledge. A geek should we willing to put the hours into their subject, to the point those outside the fandom think that you becoming a bit too obsessed. However, this is not proper obsession yet. You also need to have your own opinions. If you just like everything in your fandom then you have not been looking hard enough. I know there are certain anime and manga that I don’t like. To give one example, Cardfight!! Vanguard, which in my view is way too commercial in comparison to Yu-Gi-Oh!, which at least began as a manga before the trading card game version took off.

However, it is easy in your hatred to stray into extractor fan/weeaboo territory. You need to have a valid reason for hating something, and if you become involved in an argument with some you should not resort to any form of snobbery. We need civilised debate. People are not going to get anywhere if people suddenly accuse you of being a weeaboo because you happen to favour dubs over subs. In fact, I suspect that if you call someone else a weeaboo, then it is you yourself that are the weeaboo.

3 – Nerd

Here we start to see more practical applications being used. If the “geek” ranking is mainly concerned with knowledge, it is the “nerd” that starts putting that knowledge to some kind of use.

Think of the classic computer nerd. Here they have taken their knowledge of computers and use it to improve the design and functionality of the next generation of computers, gadgets and so on. To use an analogy, the nerds are like the people who work backstage on a film, TV show or play. They are the people who make the stars look good, getting the action caught on camera, perfecting the lighting and sound and so on.

The end result is a product that people want. At the same time, they tend to shun the limelight. They are too busy working on the next big thing to concern themselves with other projects. This therefore makes them weirder than geeks in my opinion, because a nerd will probably be too busy working to go out and have a normal social life. They would either be too busy making something or learning something new.

This is also what separates the nerds from otaku. Otaku spend their time sharing information. The nerd is alone, busy working on their projects. They are misers of knowledge, reluctant to share what they know if others unless it is worth their while. Think a nerd will share what they know if you for free? Bah humbug! Give them an incentive like a job in which they might earn money from their nerdiness and then they may progress.

4 – Anorak

If the thing that moves you up to “nerd” is the practicality, then the thing that moves you up to “anorak” is the weirdness.

For those living outside the UK, an “anorak” is normally defined as someone who obsessed with their hobbies and often being boring to those not part of their fandom. The term is most associated with train-spotters, wearing unfashionable waterproof anoraks while indulging their passion.

The key thing that moves you from “nerd” to “anorak” is you yourself moving. If the nerdy Scrooge is trapped inside with all of his knowledge, then the anorak is the newly reformed Scrooge who is willing to be friendlier after his spiritual visitation. The anorak moves away from their work and takes it elsewhere, making it public, often to the derision of passers-by. If the train-spotter is proud to wear their anorak and be humiliated, then the cosplayer should be proud of their outfit as they walk down the street, as well as the sports fan who’s painted their body in their team’s colours when going to an away-game.

In fact, not only should the reaction be one of weirdness, but possibly one of hostility. If you know that you are angering people then that probably means you are doing something right. The anorak should expect to be insulted. They should walk towards the gunfire, but they should also be ready to fight back. They know how to ignore the haters, or even better are able to come up with a way of fighting back.

5 – Otaku

As mentioned before when talking about Tofugu’s article, an “anorak” is close to a “maniac”. To reach “otaku” they not only must be collecting information, but also to be making their own stuff.

The otaku takes their passion, and with their expert knowledge change it into something they want, and then they share it with others. They share their ideas, art, stories and more. The otaku becomes a figurehead of the community, respected by others around. Not necessarily liked, as an otaku can be a divisive figure and it is only right that geeks may not like said otaku, but a figure that people know about and at least have an opinion on.

6 – Otaking



This last rank is purely hypothetical as there is currently no otaking.

This term comes from the anime Otaku no Video. For those who haven’t seen it, the central character, Kubo Takeshi, becomes an otaku and his obsessions take over his life. He eventually becomes annoyed by people’s prejudices towards otaku and thus decides to overturn them by becoming the greatest otaku of all, the “otaking”, which he does by setting up a garage kit business which slowly becomes a multi-million yen company. His ultimate plan is to set up an otaku-themed amusement park where otaku all around the world can indulge in their passions without fear, and thus slowly make everyone in the whole world otaku.

While this anime may be a flattering portrayal of otaku, it is mixed with a live-action mock documentary called Portrait of an Otaku which shows otaku in a negative light, and thus production company Gainax got criticism from the otaku community when it was released in the early 1990s.

The “otaking” (if you prefer “otaqueen” or some other gender neutral term, I’m not fussy) is thus a lone position. There can only be one. The otaking must be able to turn the public to their side and join them. In effect, the otaking is a world dictator, with the masses all joining in with that otaking’s passion, whether it be manga, sci-fi, sport or whatever.

Thus, the person who is closest to the rank of otaking is the one with the largest following of any sort. Therefore, in terms of who is the closest to becoming the otaking at the moment, to once again reference Dave Gorman from an earlier episode of Modern Life is Goodish: “I’m gonna go… with the Pope.” The Catholic Church currently has 1.27 billion members, so currently Pope Francis probably has the largest loyal following. You could also argue that the president of China, currently Xi Jinping is even closer as the country has a population of 1.33 billion, but membership of the Communist Party of China is just shy of 89 million, so it is probably safe to assume his following is less committed. You might even consider the General-Secretary of the United Nations for the role as so many countries are members of the UN, but again there is the question of actual support for the person in the role, which at the time of writing is currently in transition.

This then raises the question of where I would consider myself in the ranking. Obviously I’m being subjective, but I personally think than when it comes to anime and manga I’m somewhere between “anorak” and “otaku”. There are certain bits of knowledge I am still lacking in, such as not speaking Japanese. I’ve never even visited Japan at the time of writing. However, I believe my writing does help count towards the area of making my own works. I certainly suspect I will become more humiliated and hated when this article goes out.

To conclude, I would like to thank all the writers who I have used as sources and in particular Dave Gorman, who just for clarification is not a geek – well, he admits he could be a geek geek, but hopefully you know what I mean.

Dave Gorman: Modern Life is Goodish is on the TV channel Dave, and airs at 22.00 on Tuesday nights. The previous three series can be watched in the UK on UKTV Play.

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme is available to download or by on CD. The first five series are available now, with a sixth series to begin on 27th December. Episodes are often repeated on BBC Radio 4 and 4 Extra.

Otaku no Video is available on a region free DVD and Blu-Ray from US distributor AnimEigo.

Continue reading...
 

serpantino

Thousand Master
Interesting read but I'd argue there's a step between disinterested and fan where an individual enjoys a program (for example) but doesn't feel the need to buy into it on any level. The kind of person who just watches it when available or has a more general passing interest on a subject.
 

Smeelia

Thousand Master
One of the problems with trying to label/group people is that different words have their own connotations and some may be seen as more or less desirable. Just having a ranking implies a certain hierarchy, where the "top" fans are the ones who can achieve Otaku status.

I can see some value in being able to differentiate between the ways that fans engage with their interests and each other, but I'm not sure it's practical to do so using groupings described with a single word. Basically, anyone from "fan" upwards is still a fan but each fan will have their own way of being a fan. I'm not sure that everyone would fall neatly into categories but you could probably build up a picture of where certain types of engagement and interaction cross over.

I'm not sure that "Haters" should be on the scale at all, they're probably just Antagonism Fans (with similar variety to any other kind of fans).

I thought the hat joke was kind of funny because it highlights how meaningless the term "Weeb" and similar terms can be, especially when people simply use them as an insult.
 

Lutga

Mad Scientist
One thing I've come to think more and more about fandom is that there's a clear divide between two very specific kinds of hardcore fandom.

On one hand you have what I suppose you'd call the 'collector' / 'academic' hardcore fan - the one that wants to acquire and consume as much of the medium as possible. They have vast amounts of knowledge of the medium and obsess over quality and detail and can write in great detail about the shows they love. These are the fans that usually go on to write for fansites / review sites etc.

On the other hand you have what I'd maybe call the 'passion' fan, 'engaged' fan or 'clique' - and by this I mean the kind of hardcore fan that is (usually) younger and builds their entire social sphere around fandom - usually online but rapidly branching out to physical meet-ups and sometimes even romantic relationships. This kind of fandom is more concerned about extreme passion - attending cons, meeting stars, getting autographs / photos etc. If you see the cliche Love Live fans on Twitter - this is exactly the kind of fan I mean.

Both equally hardcore in their own way - but vastly different.
 

Smeelia

Thousand Master
One thing I've come to think more and more about fandom is that there's a clear divide between two very specific kinds of hardcore fandom.
I'm not sure those two would be mutually exclusive, I could imagine there being a fair bit of crossover. Though, I suppose the distinguishing factor could be in their motivation.

A related point that could be interesting would be the extent to which fans actively try to build their social sphere around their interest and the extent to which they happen to passively fall into a social sphere as a side effect of their interest.
 

Lutga

Mad Scientist
Yeah, it's an interesting question, and I think it might be an age dependent thing too. For me, there weren't many people with 'geek' interests near me locally, and I only really got into online 'geek' fandom at a very late stage - whereas I feel like that 16-20 sweet spot is when the whole concept of 'online friends' really crystalizes. For me, that happened more with my music fandom - and I made quite a few real life fans there - though ironically I kind of moved on from that due to changing interests + a general toxic atmosphere - which I think can quite often be the problem with the concept of fandom friends.
 

Buzz201

Mad Scientist
For what it's worth, I am reasonably convinced that Tumblr post wasn't 100% serious.

I wonder if there's a disconnect between older and younger anime fans, as I'm not sure the people on Tumblr are using "weeb" offensively. There are people in my University's anime society that use "weeb" to refer to both themselves and others, but clearly don't intend it offensively, to them it's just a word for people who like anime more than casually. Maybe it started as a sort of post-ironic thing and it's now sort of muddled, but I'm not sure I would automatically leap to the conclusion that being called a "weeb" is an insult.

I also think you need to be careful around classifying fans, as that often leads to an "I'm better than you" mindset, even if it's not intentional. To be honest, I don't think it achieves much either, it just makes people feel bitter and/or inferior. Everybody is judging everyone else and how much of a fan they are anyway, why make it easier and give them an 'objective' scale to do it on?
 

IncendiaryLemon

Captain Karen
For what it's worth, I am reasonably convinced that Tumblr post wasn't 100% serious.

I wonder if there's a disconnect between older and younger anime fans, as I'm not sure the people on Tumblr are using "weeb" offensively. There are people in my University's anime society that use "weeb" to refer to both themselves and others, but clearly don't intend it offensively, to them it's just a word for people who like anime more than casually. Maybe it started as a sort of post-ironic thing and it's now sort of muddled, but I'm not sure I would automatically leap to the conclusion that being called a "weeb" is an insult.

I also think you need to be careful around classifying fans, as that often leads to an "I'm better than you" mindset, even if it's not intentional. To be honest, I don't think it achieves much either, it just makes people feel bitter and/or inferior. Everybody is judging everyone else and how much of a fan they are anyway, why make it easier and give them an 'objective' scale to do it on?

Very much inclined to agree with Buzz on this one, on both accounts. I tend to use the word Weeb to describe myself, and it's how some of my friends would describe me, but I don't think it's ever done in a way that's insulting or with malice. Weeb is now just synonymous with liking anime or manga. I guess you could say it doesn't describe your casual "I like Attack on Titan, Naruto and Bleach" type of anime fan, but I think if you're into the hobby enough to, say, join an anime based web forum, I'd probably call you a weeb, but not as an insult.

I also don't think that separating fans into categories is ever a good idea. To echo Buzz, I think it would only incite arguments about how """""hardcore"""" of a fan you are, and would probably make people throw around phrases like "filthy casual" or "peasant" which is incredibly annoying. People are going to be into anime and manga to different levels, and it's going to differ from person to person, to the point where I think only having a handful of categories wouldn't cut it, and trying to jam everyone into a certain group just seems rather pointless.
 

msgeek

Magical Girl
Someone should message DG this article. As a geek geek (debate-ably) I'm sure he'd geek out over a geeks ranking system for geekdom. :)
 

Otaku-san

Chuunibyou
Someone should message DG this article. As a geek geek (debate-ably) I'm sure he'd geek out over a geeks ranking system for geekdom.

I'm geeking out at the geekabilities here

Though as with Buzz and Smeelia I consider that Tumblr post a joke of itself. In one way to generically shun on something so insignificant, and the other on the poster themselves. Imagine if you didn't get the reference. Now the only one that's so obvious to it is the poster that he's indirectly called himself a weeb.

There has always been to the best extent snobbery of some sorts, I'm not sure if you could consider this that say one of you have got a UE of a really loved show or game, and you might possibly think "I'm damn lucky I got a good deal, others are most likely are only going to get the SE, and here I have all these extra features that I might look at once or twice when I pull it out" I know I have occasional, yet I try not to rub others faces in it since I try to keep some humility.

nice ranking system, would use for a fan club
 

Jinjer

Completely Average High School Student
in my case, i mostly just borrow my friend's/cousin's anime videos over the weekend, then read a bit about it more on tvtropes to know more about obscure things i've missed (i miss a lot of it because, ugg... me dum-dum)

i don't ever collect merch, or any of that sort (not much space to dump all that crap in my flat), closest i've ever got is a growing playlist of songs that were referenced in jojo's bizarre adventure (most of them i got already from my dad's collection of old rock music cds)

i play videogames a lot, but i'm usually just after the story mode, multiplayer with said friends/cousins, or (in the case of civ games) quietly polishing my not-so-optimal strategies

so yeah, don't really know what i'd call myself, except maybe "someone who borrows other people's 'hobby' stuff and has fun with it a lot"
 

antonusklesk

Dandy Guy, in Space
What you describe pretty much sums up why I've never really mixed with people who share my interests to the same level of intensity as me. In my experience it's almost always been exhausting and generally not a nice experience, so I'm surrounded by friends and family who know my interests but don't really partake themselves, which is perfectly fine by me.
 

Lutga

Mad Scientist
Yup, in my experience, whenever I've been in a situation where I've met fans in real life - they've usually a) been much younger than me or b) been older or the same age - but with existing tight-knit friendship groups which makes it kind of hard to join in.
 

Zin5ki

Railgun
I may have used the 'W' word on several occasions during Hyper Japan, though I otherwise keep a low profile concerning exclamations of fandom.

The intern in our office is partial to my interests, as is our graphic designer. Being ever the tease though, I fully conceal my hobbies from one of these people, letting the ensuing rumours taunt them.

In any case, there is little point to being especially open on such matters. Dragonball,as it happens, is the only point of reference that is commonly raised in our workplace.
 

st_owly (witch)

Time-Traveller
To me there's a bit of a distinction between weeb and weeaboo. In my experience weeb tends to be used deprecatingly but non insultingly by people to refer to themselves and friends who are into anime/J-culture. My Jfashion friends and I call ourselves weebs all the time. Weeaboo to me is more insulting and would be used to describe someone as in the definition of the first post.
 
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