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How to Be an Otaku: Your Guide to the Anime Fandom Subculture

Rachael has been interested in many aspects of Japanese culture for a long time and hopes other people can learn her sense of appreciation.

This picture is a group of cosplayers from ACEN 2012, and I think it exemplifies the spirit of individuality that goes with being an otaku.

This picture is a group of cosplayers from ACEN 2012, and I think it exemplifies the spirit of individuality that goes with being an otaku.

How to be an Otaku

I'm a nerd, so I watch Big Bang Theory. I wouldn't exactly say I'm a fan, I often cringe at all the inaccurate stereotypes. Anyway, one episode involved two characters pretending to be Goth and going out to a Goth club to try to pick up Goth women. Of course, it ends in a predictable sit-com disaster. During the episode, Howard mentions a "wikiHow article on being Goth". I searched for the article and found it (here: I thought when I read it that this is an intelligent article, very fascinating, and obviously written by someone who really knows the subculture he or she is writing about.

I thought then that I should attempt to do the same thing, but for being an Otaku/Anime fan. In some ways, being an Otaku or Anime Fan is a lot like being a Goth, in other ways, it almost seems like the opposite. So here is everything I know other people should know about being an Otaku.

  1. Watching the shows
  2. Cosplay and fashion
  3. Conventions
  4. Japanese music and video games
  5. Fan art, fan fiction, and gag videos
  6. Understanding Japanese culture

1. Watching the Shows

Obviously, the most important thing about being an Otaku is familiarizing yourself with anime. The most popular series can be found by reading anime magazines and blogs, like this one. I recommend Otaku USA, which can be found at most bookstores. Shounen Jump is a magazine comprised of Shounen (boy's/action) manga and often contains the most popular titles. If your tastes are girlier, try Shoujo Beat magazine, which is the same thing but with romantic, beautifully drawn Shoujo (girls') manga.

Once you pick your favorite titles from blogs or magazines, the next step is watching the anime. Some are available on Cartoon Network, but I recommend finding your favorite shows online on free streaming sites. This should not however be seen as me telling you not to buy the DVD, I just think a person should be able to watch something before deciding whether to part with precious money for it. But when you do decide to buy the anime, you can also do that using paid subscription sites such as Crunchyroll (I wrote an article on paid anime streaming sites).

Best Buy has some anime DVDs, and some bookstores also carry anime. Local video rental stores might have some Studio Ghibli or other anime films available. However, my favorite place to go to purchase anime is Amazon, because you can find titles that might be hard to find elsewhere. I also enjoy purchasing DVDs and Blu-Ray discs at conventions (which I'll discuss later). You can also find a lot of anime DVDs and Blu-Ray discs on Funimation's website. Sometimes, you can also find good deals on eBay.

Basically, the more anime you watch and the more you know about each series, the better.

Many people like to talk about the differences between the anime version of a show and the manga, so be sure to read the manga as well (I like Barnes and Noble for the manga, but also Amazon because sometimes it's hard to find the exact volume I want at a physical store). is a good website for reading manga online. (Again, I don't think it's stealing, I think it's sampling, like when you eat a snack sample in the grocery store or listen to a tune on headphones in a music store, as long as you pinkie promise to buy stuff on a regular basis as well!).

When you meet other anime fans, you will probably encounter the problem that either a) they like the stuff you've never heard of or b) you mention your favorite anime EVAR and are met with a quizzical stare. This is normal, there are simply so many shows and genres of anime and it's impossible to keep up with them all over time, so inevitably anime fans are going to not all watch or like the same shows all the time. However, this is a great opportunity for you to tell them about your favorite anime and vice versa.

Being an anime fan is about being open to new things. Many of us have a favorite genre but you will often be surprised if you try a show outside of your usual comfort zone, you might really end up liking it. For example, I've tried shows like Peach Girl that I thought were too girly and ended up enjoying them anyway. A lot of it can come from recommendations from friends or other otakus that I've met.

Another thing about watching the shows. Downloading/streaming can be fun, but the best thing to do is collect as many DVDs as possible. Box sets of your favorite shows not only look good on the shelf but many of the DVDs come with impressive bonus features such as commentary, credit-less opening or closing themes, or even bonus scenes or trailers. Having a large manga and anime collection will also impress people who come over! :)

My usual process for picking stuff to watch typically involves the following, not in any particular order.

  • Browse the manga section of the local bookstore and pick up anything new or interesting.
  • Check Netflix for any new or good-looking anime (they base recommendations on what you've been watching, so it's a good way to find new anime related to your existing favorites).
  • Buy the manga. I usually get one about once a month or so, depending on money.
  • Read reviews of the anime you're interested in, like mine.
  • Find it for free on Hulu, YouTube, or an anime streaming site, and watch.
  • Buy the DVD, support the makers! Like I said, I like Amazon for this. Best Buy is probably second, if you can push past all the salespeople who want to make sure you walk out of there with an expensive gizmo, and their selection is not that great, but they have pretty good deals on box sets at times. My town also has a DVD resale store (Mega Replay) and that can be a good place to find cheap used DVDs.
  • If your school has an anime club, join it, or talk to anime fans online (the forum of Gaia Online can be helpful) to get recommendations or hear discussions about anime.
This is an example of the "Fairy Kei", one of many fashion subcultures from Japan that is admired and copied around the world.

This is an example of the "Fairy Kei", one of many fashion subcultures from Japan that is admired and copied around the world.

2. Cosplay and Fashion

Cosplay is a portmanteau of "costume" and "play", so basically means playing dress-up. Cosplay is usually done at conventions. Costumes can be purchased online (I like Milanoo) or hand-made.

Tips for Successful Cosplay:

  • Choose a character that is a similar to you in height, weight, build, and personality.
  • Choosing a recognizable character is more fun than being an obscure character no one will get.
  • Wigs are probably a better option than hair-dye, but if you want to use hair-dye, I recommend the kind that washes out.
  • Don't do a costume that's too big or too hard to move in to a convention, which by nature involves a lot of walking and being in crowded areas. Keep that in mind.
  • Get as many good reference pictures as you can from Google Image searching so you know how to get the costume right.
  • Buy or start work on your costume as early as possible before the convention.

There is no distinct "anime/otaku fashion", but certain items/franchises are popular among otaku, such as:

  • Obviously, merchandise such as bags with their favorite shows/characters (these can be bought online, at Hot Topic, or at conventions).
  • Japanese and Korean fashions. (There are many varieties of these, but most anime magazines do a good job of showcasing these. Hardcore fans of Japanese subculture fashions, however, buy Japanese magazines and view Tokyo as the fashion capital of the world for self-expressive innovation and cuteness.)
  • Hello Kitty apparel is popular with female otaku.
  • Pokémon, Mario, Sonic, and TNMT, while not necessarily marks of otaku-ness, are often considered cool by otaku as well. Same with some western comic book or western animation franchises.
  • My Little Pony (Brony) fandom overlaps a good deal with anime fandom.
  • Disney characters and cartoon animals, as furries and fans of Disney are often also otaku as well and vice versa.
  • Anime fans also like to wear bright and colorful things, sometimes have piercings, and wearing dyed hair that's an unusual or really bright color is also popular. Anything that expresses your individuality is good. Some may like to wear colored contact lenses to make their eyes look a certain color.
  • Anime fans sometimes enjoy period costume, maid costumes,Gothic Lolita, steampunk, and many fashion subcultures cross over. A lot of this is because there are anime with those themes.
  • Some anime fans also like to dress as goths, emos, scene kids, or punks. Not all of them, but enough. Although anime fans tend to be cheerful and enthusiastic, and usually use a wider range of colors in fashion.
  • Some of them try to do crazy-involved eye make-up to look like they have anime eyes. I frankly find this weird and not worth the effort, but someone with skill might be able to pull it off.

Basically, anime fans enjoy typically wearing clothes that are brightly colored and involve personal self-expression. The style radiates joy, positivity, and the excitement that otaku feel about their favorite shows. They aren't afraid to like something publicly even if it might be considered childish or embarrassing to someone else. That's what makes us stand out.


3. Conventions

A group of cosplayers in a photo shoot at the Con-Nichiwa convention in Tucson, AZ, 2012.

A group of cosplayers in a photo shoot at the Con-Nichiwa convention in Tucson, AZ, 2012.

Most cities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe have anime conventions. For a fee that varies depending on the size of the venue (here in the Midwestern U.S., they range from about 30-75 dollars), attendees can see panels and shows put on by other fans, hear from industry insiders from companies like Funimation, Aniplex, and Crunchyroll, see concerts of anime-related musical groups, make friends with other anime fans in their area, show off their cosplays, and learn more about anime fandom and related fandoms in general.

Conventions are great places to find:

  • DVD's and merchandise that's hard to come by elsewhere.
  • One-of-a-kind, hand-made "fan art" items featuring popular anime characters.
  • Items to aid in cosplay, or fun items you can use to express your personality with, such as Gothic Lolita costume items, cat ears and bell collars, maid cosplay props, steampunk apparel, etc, who knows what apparel items you could find!
  • Panels discussing the latest anime, the best old-school anime you might have missed, and a lot of good information and smart discussions about anime.
  • Chance to see lots of cosplayers and meet lots of other anime fans.
  • Chance to perhaps see famous voice actors speak, or get their autograph.

Conventions are a great big ball of fun. Just remember, like any travel, you need to prepare in advance, take precautions, use the buddy system, don't drink and drive, etc. They also cost a lot of money, and you'll want to make sure you are going when you can bring extra cash for impulse buying. And you'll want to bring a camera because of all the great photos of people in interesting costumes you can find (ask first before taking someone's photo!).

If you go to a convention far away, take the time if you can to also explore some of the sites in the city. For example, when I went to a gaming convention in Indianapolis, my boyfriend and I took a little extra time to visit a large monument and tourist attraction. It turned out to be super worth it to see the view from the top of it.

Another tip for conventions: don't overload your schedule. A lot of conventions have so many things to do that it might seem impossible to do it all. You should make sure you take plenty of time to relax, get snacks, and look at merchandise. It is a sort of vacation after all.

4. Japanese Music and Video Games

This is the band "Nightmare", which many people get into because they did the opening for the anime Death Note.

This is the band "Nightmare", which many people get into because they did the opening for the anime Death Note.

In addition to anime, Otaku tend to enjoy Japanese and Korean pop music and rock. Personally, I don't know as much about this topic as I probably should, but I do like to download my favorite anime theme songs. Some can even be found on itunes. A big thing for Otaku is also DDR songs and the game DDR. I've bought a few of these songs on itunes as well. I think part of the fun of playing DDR is in fact that you get to hear new J-pop (Japanese pop) tunes. Some of my favorites include Butterfly, I Do, I Do, I Do, and Love Shine.

Caramelldansen is a song synonymous with all the fan-made anime videos on Youtube. It's a meme associated with anime fandom as well as a pop song by the Swedish artists known as Caramell. I like the original video, which features cute schoolgirls dancing (video capsule below). This song is joyful and upbeat, thus capturing the essence of Otaku-ness in my book. Another meme is the "leek spin" meme, which I believe comes from a Russian song. Upbeat pop music, often from international artists, is often popular among anime fans.

In addition to Japanese music, Otaku often also like Japanese or anime-style video games. Popular titles include Kingdom Hearts, Street Fighter, Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Soul Caliber, almost every Nintendo franchise, and many more obscure titles. DDR and karaoke games are also popular among anime fans. I find that DDR is a good way to have some fun with other anime fans.

Caramelldansen- Original Version

5. Fan Art, Fan Fiction, and Gag Videos

Some of this is good and some of this is bad, but the thing is, nearly every anime fan participates in writing fan fiction, making fan art, and making AMV's, memes, abridged series, or other forms of art designed as entertainment for other anime fans. A lot can be said here about the creativity of the anime fan community. Some artists even make crafts or fan art to sell at conventions.

I personally like the abridged series parodies. I believe the earliest one was of Yu-Gi-Oh. I like that the worst/silliest animes can often have the best and funniest parodies. My boyfriend doesn't like anime particularly, but he found the Sailor Moon Abridged series hilarious. The trick is finding one that's well-written and updates on a regular basis.

So, whatever your other interests or hobbies are, they can become anime-related hobbies as well. A lot of fans put a lot of time and effort into these hobbies, which can become as much of an obsession as the anime itself.

Many otaku get interested in studying Japanese history and culture in an attempt to understand their favorite anime. (Pictured: Ninja Scroll)

Many otaku get interested in studying Japanese history and culture in an attempt to understand their favorite anime. (Pictured: Ninja Scroll)

6. Understanding Japanese Culture

Anime fans usually prefer anime in the original Japanese with subtitles, because the dubs in America at least tend to change the original dialog too much (especially in children's shows) with the supposed goal of changing the Japanese cultural in-jokes, foods, festivals, and such to American equivalents. However, this resulted in western Otaku crying "whitewashing", and the preference for the authentic Japanese experience of every show. It's as if the companies said "we'll make all this icky Japanese stuff go away so you kids only have to see American culture" and we said "screw that, learning about another language and culture is part of the fun!"

There are several Japanese things Otaku are interested in, including:

  • Kimonos, samurai weapons and armor, and other traditional/historical costume items.
  • Japanese festivals and religious observances.
  • Folklore and mythology, especially when it relates to popular anime.
  • The language, many fans enjoy the challenge of studying Japanese.
  • Japanese philosophy, such as Zen Buddhism, Wabi-Sabi, and Bushido are popular topics.
  • Origami! I can't get enough of the stuff personally. Japanese calligraphy is sometimes an interest for anime fans as well.
  • Sushi and other Japanese foods, including Ramune sodas, Japanese candy, and a favorite treat is Pocky, which is a kind of cookie-like stick dipped in flavored frosting. Many anime fans enjoy trying Japanese foods at Hibachi (Japanese grill) restaurants. These offer guests a show the chef puts on while cooking, often involving exciting bursts of flame, knife juggling, and throwing food into people's mouths.

A big part of the fun of being an Otaku is about learning about Japanese culture. Understanding it greatly enhances your anime-watching experience.

Japanese culture has a collective/altruistic mindset, in contrast with America's individualist mindset. It's also a more introvert-friendly society, in which people respect other people's private space, and quiet in public is valued. Although there are gangs called the yakuza, the crime rate is very low in Japan. People are reverent to both the law and to tradition, and a lot of respect is conferred upon the elderly and people in a company with the most seniority.

Compared to Aussies, Canadians, and Americans, they can seem stiff, formal, and rigid, but they really care about conducting themselves politely. For this reason, the original dialog of a lot of animes never or rarely use curse words; saying something an American would see as a slight insult is so bad that it's like dropping an f-bomb, or at least saying a mild cuss word like 'damn'. This is another reason anime fans avoid dubs, the English dubs tend to use a lot of exaggerated language, when Japanese is a language that states things rather simply a lot of the time.

Familiarity with the Japanese language can also let you know when a character has a name with a meaning in Japanese, that might be a clue to their personality.


Closing Thoughts

So now you've got a pretty good idea of what Anime Fans/Otaku like to do, and what makes us a unique subculture.

However, throughout this I've used some terms that perhaps a newbie might not be familiar with. So here's the anime fandom lingo:

  • Otaku: Anime fan, Japanese for nerd/loser. Western anime fans and some Japanese people self-identify as Otaku despite this negative connotation, or as an attempt to re-define it as something positive.
  • Anime: A Japanese cartoon. Comes from a shortened version of the Japanese pronunciation of "animation", which is the Japanese word for any animation or cartoons, but has become synonymous in other languages with particularly Japanese animation.
  • Manga: The comic book version of anime. Often popular anime started out as manga, just like many popular movies started out as books or comic books. "Manhwa" is the Korean version.
  • J-pop and J-rock: Japanese pop and rock music. Korean is K-pop/K-rock, obviously.
  • Pocky: A Japanese snack popular with Otaku.
  • Cosplay: Dressing up in a costume to resemble your favorite anime character, or one you think resembles yourself in some way.
  • Abridged Series: A parody episode of an anime, in which the original animation is used but new voices are added to make fun of the show.
  • AMV: A video wherein anime or cartoon animation is dubbed over with a song, sometimes humorous, and usually the animation is used to fit the lyrics of the song or to make it look like certain characters are singing it.
  • DDR: Dance Dance Revolution, a video game in which players dance to Japanese pop music on a mat with up, down, right, and left arrows the player steps on in a specific order to the beat of the music.
  • Conventions: large gatherings of anime fans, often involving panels (including trivia games, discussions, debates, and lecture-style ones), costume contests, handmade and mass-produced anime merchandise, manga libraries where you can sit in the room and read manga, and sometimes maid or cosplay cafes designed to mimic those found in Japan, dancing, and video games.
  • Maid cafe: A trend in Japan, a cafe or small restaurant where the waitresses dress up like sexy maids and address the customers as their master. With the rise of the popularity of the series Black Butler, the idea of "butler cafes" has also arisen in some areas.

Enjoy your life of anime fandom, desu desu!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Rachael Lefler


Maya on November 09, 2018:

I do believe anime/otaku subculture might become a distinct subculture.

MOMOKOKO on December 01, 2017:

I'm doing my dissertation on whether new media has increased and broadened the Anime subculture but I'm unsure whether Otaku's and Anime fans can be classified as a subculture or are they simply just a fandom.

Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on March 13, 2016:

hlwar - thanks for recommending RentAnime, I knew about My Anime List but not that one. :)

Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on March 13, 2016:

Yeah I learned more about the Goth thing from other sources and I should probably correct that sentence, thanks. As for your second point, I think it can be both. It could be cosplay to some and everyday or formal fashion for others. But it being "just cosplay" is not really to me denigrating it either, even if it were.

Michaela from USA on September 23, 2015:

1. Goth fashion is definitely not the most important thing about being Goth. The music is, hands down.

2. A kind-hearted warning: don't call Gothic Lolita or any genre of Lolita a "costume". You might end up getting some Lolitas very upset because the movement has been trying for so long to be recognized as a legit fashion and not as cosplay.

Max Wong from Singapore on November 11, 2014:

Well written! It's the most comprehensive "How-to-be-an-Otaku" article ever! Kudos for writing this article. :)

Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on June 26, 2013:

Thanks for the tip, I'll definitely check out those sites in the future.

hlwar on June 26, 2013:

Thoughtful and well-written! Although I personally do not identify myself as an "otaku" I definitely agree with much of what you said. But I think you missed mentioning one of the most beloved aspects of watching anime in the mother language: seiyuu! Japanese voice actors tend to be idolized (hence many releasing music albums and live actions) and have large followings, both in Japan and internationally. Huge Nozomu Sasaki fan (✌゚∀゚)☞ right here! XD

Another great resource for new fans is, and you can actually rent American licensed DVDs from