Otaku architecture

Clay model of boy

Clay model of boyOtaku is a Japanese word for a category of individual, typically a youth, who is obsessed with anime (Japanese animations), manga (comics), and other pop culture forms. He or she prefers to be alone, may be lonely, lacks social skills and stays at home. The otaku keeps unsociable hours: staying up for 40 hours then sleeping for 12. The category predates the widespread adoption of social networks, but it now extends to those who might restrict their socialising to Internet contacts.

The word otaku has two connections relevant to architecture. According to a classic paper from the 1990s by Volker Grassmuck, otaku is an everyday word meaning “your home,” which references the house-bound aspects of the otaku individual. But the word also connotes the polite form for “you.” Apparently Japanese individuals identify strongly with their places of residence. So “your home” reduces to “you.” The polite form implies distance. Otaku individuals keep their distance.

So otaku is meant sarcastically, as when (or if) teenagers might address each other as “sir.” If we lived in a different age then the association would reside with “Thou,” the polite [actually “informal” — corrected 18 Nov 2016] term in Old English for “you,” now reserved for addressing a throne or a deity in religious contexts. In sum, this complex word, otaku, is applied to individuals who say “otaku,” which here equates to “stay away from me.”

Much has been written about the social circumstances of otaku individuals, and their target as a consumer category. There are countless YouTube videos and websites poking fun at otaku characteristics, fantasies and subcultures (eg hikikomori). But there are spatial implications of otaku, or at least the otaku category says something about spatiality.

No doubt there is an otaku architecture: the exaggerated perspectives of simplified buildings in cartoons and comics. Perhaps something made from Lego’s themed Ninjago construction kit qualifies, or the architecture of love hotels, or the patterns of spatial segregation in the home that encourage isolation (Chaplin, 2007, p.97).

Lego constructor kit

Otaku architecture may be evident in the corner of an otaku‘s living quarters or den, populated by racks of DVDs, comics, old games consoles, plastic models of fantasy characters, and with the detritus of a lifestyle that pays little regard for personal grooming, health and sociability.

The sarcastically polite connotation of otaku as sir or Thou also has architectural connotations. Architecture is redolent with references that are the opposite to what they suggest. We think of gigantic staircases, over-scaled porticoes, and machine production masquerading as craft, as pretentious, if not ironic: an architecture of Thou, cathedralesque, sacrilegious, mockingly indifferent. This is the architecture of fantasy computer games, fakery and illusion. We can add to the vocabulary of architectural irony the category otaku.

But otakus are sometimes designated as “maniacs,” or high-tech, geeky obsessives — slaves to their own arbitrary routines. If otaku is about obsession then there is an otaku in each of us. People who dwell, who live in houses, are inhabitants, ie house-bound creatures, occupying habitats, that are places for the exercise of habits. Habits, such as arising from bed every morning, cleaning teeth, eating, watching television, updating FaceBook pages and living to schedules are prosaic and everyday obsessions, exercised in the home (see The Tuning of Place).

It is just that otaku practices operate on different cycles. Any home can promote the cycles of routine and repetitive patterns of excessive media consumption (see earlier post on media schedules). In this respect every home with a television or a computer is the place of otaku, or perhaps entry into civil society requires that we mask our otaku natures.


  • Chaplin, Sarah. 2007. Japanese Love Hotels: A Cultural History. London: Routledge.
  • Grassmuck, Volker. 1990. “I’m alone, but not lonely”: Japanese Otaku-Kids colonize the Realm of Information and Media, A Tale of Sex and Crime from a faraway Place. Link
  • Student animation project documentation: work in progress

With special thanks to Cheng Cheng.

Also see

Martin Parker’s sound and multimedia work Songs for an airless room which

evolved from reports of the Japanese Hikikomori, a form of loner or ’shut-in’. While particularities of the Hikikomori are unique to Japan’s youth, the theme of deliberate personal isolation is more universal, accelerated by the relentless presence of digital media and technology. The Internet is immersive, computer games addictive and behaviours tracked both on and offline, optimising the pull of the flickering screen.


  1. Cheng says:

    Fresh angle 大好き~~~///* . ^///~~

    I saw some analysis linked Otaku and space before, but almost all of them focus on their unique 2D living space (ACG Otaku people have been considered as living in a 2D world instead of in a real world(3D)).

    However, when Otaku’s home is pointed out separately, clearly some of development and new branches of Otaku (e.g.: Tech-Otaku, YinZhai) could earn a more logical and reasonable explanation. Follow this line, could we say the popular “Maid Cafe” also a kind of ‘Home’ for Otaku, or an extension of Otaku’s home? If it is valid, we could get a better understanding in their new trend of behavior. So maybe we could use ‘Otaku Architecture’ to rethink or re-estimate this culture phenomenon again, something like their business value ~(exciting,exciting,exciting @^@~~~ )

    Among of those exciting, one comment here maybe we could discuss with someone also interested in : when people named themselves ‘Otaku’, what kind of messages they truly want to send ~~considering……

    I may need time for my blushing….>.<~

    1. rcoyne99 says:

      According to the Wikipedia entry on “Maid Cafe”, “Maids greet customers with ‘Welcome home, Master (Mistress)’ (お帰りなさいませ、ご主人様! Okaerinasaimase, goshujinsama) and offer them wipe towels and menus.” This looks like a ritualised fantasy, again based on the home, and focussing on a repeated practice, ie returning home. Interesting.

      1. Cheng says:

        Yes, it is~~so it is a commercial ‘otaku-made’ home~~follow this line, otaku have not really ‘go out’, they just ‘go to’ another home~~

        Then, could we get this: by expanding its sepacial room, otaku home may be enormous. This offers material conditions for otaku culture invading and ACG market soaringing~

      2. Terry Peng (aka: Shih-Hung) says:

        Interestingly, I have actually been to one “Maid Cafe” before with some friends to see what it’s really like, though the one I went to wasn’t in Japan and I am sure it loses some of the authenticities, but things such as the greeting the customers as masters and welcome them “home” were there; however from this one time experience, I have notice not every customers felt comfortable in the environment, because I remembered how surprised I was seeing most of them just have their heads down reading mangas. I felt perhaps “familiarity” is also something to add to these ideas above, such as ritualised fantasy, focussing on a repeated practice?

        To add onto the note of “living in a 2D world” by Cheng, some maids in a Maid Cafe even have their own created personality, which adopted from manga, anime and video game’s characters in order to create the the sense of so-called “Moe”; perhaps this is the familiarity Otakus are looking for? (http://thedogbarks.blog124.fc2.com/blog-entry-104.html)

        Although it is not an academic reference, but Welcome to the N.H.K. which written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto is a novel with stories revolving around the lives of young adults who you consider as Hikikomori and Otaku, and the way it describe the fear of an Otaku leave its territory is some how terrifying but interesting.

        Perhaps Butler Cafe will be something to test out next? To see how different “Fujoshi’s” “familiar environments” are like? (Laugh)

        According to Wikipedia entry on “Fujoshi”: “Fujoshi (腐女子?, lit. “rotten girl”) is a self-mockingly pejorative Japanese term for female fans of manga and novels that feature romantic relationships between men. Fujoshi enjoy imagining what it would be like if male characters from manga and anime, and occasionally real-life male performers as well, loved each other”

        (Slightly different, but also shares the ritualised fantasy and repeated practice?)

    2. rcoyne99 says:

      I like the idea that otaku go to another (fantasy) home rather than go out. There’s a sense in which we all do that, ie take home with us. It’s again the story of ‘excursion and return,’ developed by theorists of hermeneutics, and also theorists of tourism. John Urry for example relates this phenomenon to the hermeneutical circle. Unlike the reflective tourist however, perhaps for the otaku there is no transformation. Then again we are all capable of carrying our prejudices with us, and sticking to them.

    3. Qiaoyi Tu says:

      I totally agree with you. What an Otaku really concerns is only his home, or in other words, somewhere keeps him isolated from the reality. If an Otaku suddenly becomes interest in somewhere like the ‘Maid Cafe’, this place must be the ‘ideal home’ in his fantasy. Why am I so sure? Because I am also an Otaku \(≧▽≦)/~~

      When I tell others that I’m an Otaku, generally I want them to know two things:
      1) I’m addicted to ACG stuff;
      2) I’m really not good at social intercourse.
      Actually, by telling people this, I also hope them could understand and forgive me if sometimes I appeared aloof and unfrendly… I don’t mean to (╯﹏╰), We Otaku are just too shy to express ourselves.

      btw: “In this respect every home with a television or a computer is the place of otaku” – perhaps now a computer is enough, 😛

  2. Lu Yu says:

    I often feel that I need to be “tuning” myself when I interact with people from different cultures, in terms of body language, tone of voice, choice of diction etc. I would try to follow different cultural conventions depending on who I’m interacting with, and end up becoming uncomfortable myself when I can’t really “tune” properly.

    What I like about the interaction with people online is that it seems to be easier in this respect. I just need to worry about what I’m typing.

    Relating the tuning concept to otaku, maybe this is why they prefer online interaction. It’s far less demanding on social skills that are not content/language related. They actually don’t need to tune their behaviours as much to fit into a social circle. The laptop / smartphones become a filter that allows them to deliver their social interactions more effectively.

  3. stelladdm says:

    For Japanese people the word “otaku” has an extremely negative meaning. In contrast, in the western culture the term has the meaning of a fanboy/girl . What is more, some people are actually proud of being called otaku.
    The German sociologist Volker Grassmuck indicates that “otaku phenomenon” does not refer to a specific object, but to the devotion one has to a subject. According to Grassmuck, otaku is someone who has an obsession with fresh data (for the specific subject of his interest).
    Seen in this light, the behavior of otaku is a result of the post modern way of living. Mass Media provide a huge amount of information and the hunger to know everything is becoming even bigger. Furthermore, the consuming-capitalist society continues to feed the whole new otaku generation and industry gets benefit from that. So, the question that arises is: “Are we living in an “otaku world”?

  4. ddmcandice says:

    With regard to “perhaps entry into civil society requires that we mask our otaku natures”,I think otaku must be one of the instinct just hidden in everyone staying in the current digitalizative environment.It’s a kind of inevitable and proper phenomenon with the development of media technology.Otaku seemed to be abnormal,on the contray I take it as a sort of positive sociability.Furthermore,I agree this method may be the multi-aspective and you can get fully information such as their inner thought and ability via the cyber world.In the meanwhile,everyone has opportunity to show the “otaku instinct”.Take myself as example,I always hang out with friends but in the same time I get indulge in the TV serial on-line.while I’m enjoying the TV serial,I hate my friends invite me to go outside.Is that proved me to be otaku? So I think otaku can’t be difined indepently and it’s another aspect of somebody.All of us can be an otaku anytime,right?

  5. Lida Huang says:

    ‘OTAKU’ I just take it as a unique culture for the moment. I like this kind of culture because it shows a more genuine personal, sometimes even signify a little more extreme and peculiar personality. Art pieces in that style or present that perspectives had emerged as a reaction to the loss of future, or ego, or any emotion, or the loss of faith, which can evokes people’s concerns and sympathetic response. Especially some characters are very appealing. Like myself I like and being attracted by the stable friendship and confidence among fellows as well as the tough character of the hero. The term represents something pertaining to the subculture that surrounds anime, idols and games in Japan, using cartoon image to express the concepts, places an emphasis on hot-blooded young’s stories and has its own system for judgment of the social relationship. Another popular criterion — how ideal the female protagonist of the show is — is often characterized by a level of stylized cuteness and child-like behavior. In addition, this culture places great emphasis on knowledge of individual key animators and directors and of minute details within works. Now the international youth is influenced by the Japanese one.

    By the way, can the cosplay seems as seeking for the “OTAKU”? -Seeking the feeling as roles in animations, pursuing the personalities in animations by pretending to be them.

    I know that in Japan this noun was connected with some negative criminal news and degrade its popularity and positive portrayal of the main character, but as time goes by it will increase the acceptability of otaku hobbies.

    1. It seems otaku has become mainstream. As soon as we know about a subculture it’s too late. By then the “missfits” are somewhere and someone else.

  6. Zhen Liu says:

    “Otaku” is a common and complicated social phenomenon, in my mind this matter may lead to young people’s psychological stress and austicism, because the otaku people are always immersing in a world of self-image, they will never contact with the society actively. In Japan there is more than 20 years of history since the otaku appeared, a large number of youth growth with this trend of culture, otaku has brought profound impact even on other east Asian countries and regions. In China, most of the otaku boys and girls are born after 1980s, and most of them are the only child in their families(after 80s the Chinese law regulates one couple could have only one child to control the huge population of the country). These Chinese otaku boys and girls grow up in loneliness and rely too much on their parents, they have weak ability to establish relationship with other people and lack of security when they go outside, when they enter the society, they are hostile to the outside world, and often uncomfortable and fear to new environment. Especially when facing the gap between reality and imagination, they tend to stay in their familiar home and virtual world.

  7. haiyanpan says:

    Otaku as a culture which is very popular in JAPAN. It is also popular in Asia.I always think about this social phenomenon. How to creat this culture which is popular in the wold? In my opinion, good design goal is that designer through the design to let things perfect, and designer always help people to understand how to create beautiful appearance.Design in dictionary is the explanation of “design, the sketch, design”, but I believe that design not only embodies in these definitions.What is a good design? I understand that the unnecessary elements will be surplued and eliminated. The good design most attract your eyesight. And you need to guess the effect of the design in the foresee 10 years or even the prospect of 20 years later.A scientific research find that people get the survival necessities of the water and food which make their brain to feel happy. In the contact of good design, designer create more high quality design which also can help people to get more happy. I am learning design and digital media now. As a designer ,I also want to design a good product which can be popular in the future.

  8. JOO-KWAN SONG says:

    It is very interesting that ‘Otaku’ is similar to a sort of architecture. It may be because they are building their own individual home-bound category with their unique and specific tastes. So they might have to mask themselves to go out of their own boundary into a society.
    But while hanging around outside home, don’t we hang around the places we are familiar with and we wish to go to, or don’t we make new friends who have same tastes of our own? In Japan, at first, ‘Otaku’ began to be used when calling other member who is in a specific club meeting, a kind of society, as a polite form. Although this meaning has a little bit changed with negative connotation as years went by, I believe that all of us have another name which is not different from ‘Otaku’. Putting this differently, one who enjoys death-metal music is hard to enjoy swing-jazz tunes. So, someone who enjoys death-metal music may want to be called as a metal maniac, or something like that. That is not unlike a sort of identity of our own. We have different types of ‘Otaku’, and we have different types of meetings or club culture. This could be contributing to the diversity in this world.
    If someone is calling you ‘Otaku’, do you feel humiliated? This may be because you are forced to reveal your own secret world which could be immoral and against the rule of a specific boundary or society by being called as such. I am not sure whether people in western culture or in Japan are angry to this word ‘Otaku’ or not. In Korea, at least, people feel humiliated when they are called as ‘Otaku’, which, however, could be his or her real identity. If anyone from other culture background feels like that also, it can be said that we live in a tense against our established norms in a society. This invisible social norm may be another ‘Otaku’, for which another concept is needed to get in, because the norm has its own taste. That is another ‘Otaku-architecture’ which ‘Otaku-individuals’ have made and are making through ‘Otaku-human’ history.

    1. Thanks Song … perhaps in English there’s a spectrum of terms, progressing from the positive to the negative: enthusiast, follower, devotee, obsessive, maniac, freak (and terms less polite) …

  9. QingZhao says:

    “Otaku ”has become quite common in China. Some people dislike going outside. One network cable makes their perfect life. In recent years, with China’s steady economic growth, the youngsters have enjoyed material abundance, which, however, does not always mean spiritual satisfaction. In addition, society pressure is the main reason that people become Otaku. The era in which property prices rise as well as the unemployment rate causes Otaku fear exploring outside. The Otaku escape from the real world and indulge in the virtual world to release the psychological tense. With the unemployment rate rises, the “small” economic group, which is an unignorable customer group, rapidly becomes an important part of social and economic structure. Thus Otaku life also contributes to the Otaku economic. The biggest beneficiary is communication companies. The second one is online shopping which creates a whole new world for e-commerce . Of course, the express delivery is a bridge which connects the internet and Otaku. Working, studying, doing part-time job, conducting business at home, which are the direction of future.

  10. feverkidmiya says:

    Otaku is a word that I heard from the manga field. To me, from a narrow perspective, it represents this group of people, mostly teenagers, who are more into the two-dimensional world on papers rather than our vivid surrounding world. They choose to live in an imaginative world to escape from the unchangeable or perhaps unsuccessful reality.


    But in China, we expand the meaning into ‘preferring to be at home, rather than getting out’. This word somehow, becomes extremely popular especially among the youth. In China, this word “otaku” does not carry a passive meaning as “staying away from me”.
    This is where I didn’t agree with Zhen Liu.
    ‘These Chinese otaku boys and girls grow up in loneliness and rely too much on their parents, they have weak ability to establish relationship with other people and lack of security when they go outside, when they enter the society, they are hostile to the outside world, and often uncomfortable and fear to new environment. ‘
    On the contrary, we say ‘otaku’ a lot, and it has a general meaning of keeping away from the crowds and focusing stuffs on your own. Just like some of my friends, they are referring themselves as ‘otaku’, because they prefer to stay at home, surfing on the Internet, instead of going outside, cuz nowadays you basically can do everything with Internet.

    It is interesting to hear that ‘otaku’ can be related to architecture and spatiality, because the Chinese expression of this word does contain ‘宅’. ‘宅’ means staying at your place. It can be your home, or anywhere you feel you belong. This sense of belonging defines where our home is. That’s why I agree with Cheng’s comment that otaku home may be enormous. We can have different places as our shelter like a comic book store or a Maid Cafe. It can be anywhere.
    I believe there is always one side of us, living as ‘otaku’. This part of us is obsessed with one kind of hobby that we’d rather do it in our secret place. Due to emerging digital technologies, this situation is gonna be even more phenomenal, I guess so.
    Let’s come back to JOO-KWAN SONG’s question in the end:
    ‘If someone is calling you ‘Otaku’, do you feel humiliated?’
    I’ll slightly change Richard’s words: ‘Otaku’ provides a soft target for opinion and prejudice. /Users/Miya/Desktop/original_Yk46_58fd000002bc125d.jpg
    Last summer I went to this China joy, an otaku expo in Shanghai. If you ask anyone there about this word, it carries an admiring expression. However, if anyone who is outside that subculture addresses it, they may be referring to discriminations. It’s just the same as the word: geek.

  11. Hi there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you knew where
    I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having problems finding
    one? Thanks a lot!

    1. It comes with the wordpress.com setup. I didn’t have to do anything to activate it. Perhaps you have wordpress.org installed on a local server and for that you need a special plugin. In which case you would need to contact the administrator of that service …

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