Japanese Nerds Getting Co-Opted Just Like American Nerds

In America, nerdiness went mainstream a few years ago, with everyone reading Harry Potter and playing video games and using social networks and wearing polyester shirts until "nerd," formerly a stigmatized subculture, was just another dimension of normal personality. (This has already been covered to death in a million magazine pieces, right? 'Cause if not I need to e-mail the New Yorker.) Anyway the same thing happened in Japan, says writer John Lichman in his obituary for "otaku". The term "was the equivalent of saying 'nerd,'" he says, "but with even darker intent." Otaku were outcasts. But in Japan too, their obsessions (anime, video games, quietly nursed unrequited crushes) became mainstream. And it's partly our fault!

The word is diluted in Japan now that millions of Japanese are "10-or-20-proof otaku." But in America, the term never even kept its Japanese meaning, since the phrase was adopted by the very people popularizing peculiar Japanese tastes among a Western audience.

Of course, there's a lot of room left for normalization, and most Americans seem to still view Japanese culture as a freak show. But eventually we'll realize that most of Japan's modern freakiness — humiliating game shows, gimmicky porn — are less Japanese than we think. (If you dubbed gibberish over some American TV and porn, added subtitles, and clipped the wildest scenes out context I doubt it would look that different from the Japanese culture we see on YouTube.) Japanese culture will become normal for all nerds as nerdiness becomes normal for all people. By the end of the synthesis, otaku will just be another part of the nerd in all of us.