In English, an '''otaku''' (plural usually ''otaku'', though ''otakus'' is not unknown) is a variety of geek (or an overly obsessed fanboy / fangirl) specializing in anime and manga.
The word is a loanword from the Japanese language, in which it is derived from an honorific term for another's house or family (お宅, ''otaku'') that is also used as an honorific second-person pronoun. The modern slang form, which is distinguished from the older usage by being written only in hiragana (おたく) or katakana (オタク), appeared in the 1980s; it appears to have been coined by the humorist and essayist Akio Nakamori (中森明夫, Nakamori Akio) in the 1983 series "An Investigation of Otaku" (おたくの研究, ''otaku no kenkyū''), who observed that this form of address was unusually common among geeks and nerds.
-from the Wikipedia entry for Otaku
Today was the closing day for a museum exhibition called "OTAKU: persona=space=city", at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Despite the venue, it wasn't a photography show, more of a slightly arty introduction to the phenomenon of the otaku, a scaled-down version of an exhibit at the 9th International Architectural Exhibition Biennale of Venice.
I'm not particularly qualified to report on this exhibition: perhaps I have certain otaku tendencies, but to me it's still an alien subculture, both here in Japan and in the United States. The exhibition, certainly, tries to make it out as a valid subculture all its own, and tries to take a look at some of its outward features.
The entrance to the exhibition began with photographs of Expo '70 in Osaka, part of their attempt to trace the beginning of the otaku culture, along with a progression of small toys evolving from the simple to the futuristic. And other part of the exhibition was an installation, a mockup of a typical Japanese apartment made entirely of styrofoam package inserts. Clearly, the attempt was to recreate an old-fashioned, cramped Tokyo apartment, complete with the hanging florescent ceiling light typically found in old apartments. Inside were mounted photographs of similar rooms occupied by otaku, cramped apartments typically stacked floor to ceiling with the objects of the otaku's desire: the spacecraft and robot models, the superhero or manga action figures, or -- in the case of one room, a life-size mannequin of a school girl in school uniform, along with a rack full of girls dresses, presumably to go on the mannequin. This room was identified as belonging to a man in his '30's or 20's, as I recall. Weird.
In any case, directly across the very cramped room from the photographs were very tiny mockups, models, of the rooms depicted in the photographs. What this represents, I don't know, but I suspect I'm not the target market for this art. The largest part of the exhibition was several rows of clear acrylic display cases, stacked like transparent milkcrates, each case containing objects of the otaku's obsession. Action figures, comic books, models, the whole 9 yards. Lord, I didn't realize how many different toys a person could collect. Another part of the exhibition featured a tabletop model of the Akihabara district, which is basically Otaku Central here in Tokyo, several blocks of big-box electronics stores, gadgets shops, holes in the wall selling all manner of electronic goods gadgets and toys -- I even once stumbled over two shops that sold nothing but old radio tubes, if you can believe that.
Themost fascinating part, though, was the exhibition of and published comic books. The most fascinating part, though, was the exhibition of the fan-published manga comic books, as well as small signs explaining common otaku words (uch as "doujinshi", the Japanese term for these books). It turns out, there's an enormous fan base for fan-published manga, essentially parodies and pastiches of existing manga characters. There's even an annual comic market for this stuff, where all these little fan publishers and readers gather to swap, sell, and trade their various comics: it started off in 1975 with a 32 circles and 700 attendees, but as of last year they had to rent the Tokyo Big Site Convention Center to hold 35,000 circles and 500,000 attendees: all this basically to trade home-brewed comic books.
It turns out (who knew?) that there is a Japanese word for "slash" -- "Yaoi", an acronym made up of three words, yamanishi, ochinashi, and iminashi; meaning, respectively, no climax, no punchline, no meaning. And if you don't know what slash means, I am not going to tell you.