While the labels geek, nerd or anorak are pejoratives to be avoided in most societies, Japan’s otaku are proud – in a bashful way, naturally – of who they are.
Otaku is loosely translated as geek in English and often refers to someone fixated on anime (animation) and manga (comics).
And a social movement that can trace its roots back to 1983, when the term was first coined in a magazine article to describe the people attending a comic book convention in Tokyo, is finally becoming mainstream.
Japan is home to an estimated three million otaku, with a recent report by Nomura Research Institute putting their annual spending power at more than Y400 billion ($5 billion).
With pockets that deep, geeks are an economic force to be reckoned with.
“I’m personally not into collecting model figures from animated movies or computer games, but some of my friends are,” says Takano, a 19-year-old student of human sciences at Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University.
Akihabara’s narrow streets hold
“I’m more interested in buying parts and building my own computers or audio devices, and I’m always the first on the scene when new gadgets go on sale.”
Takano adds: “I also like playing computer games and I spend a lot of time in online chat groups, making new friends and exchanging information,” he adds, avoiding the eye of the waitress as she brings another drink.
The Tiara Cafe is a typical establishment in Akihabara, the home of myriad electronics shops that has become a magnet for hard-core otaku.
In keeping with the fantasy animation theme of the shop on the ground floor of the building, Tiara is what is known as a Maid Cafe – where all the staff are female and wear French maid outfits as they serve drinks.
“The maid costumes are very cute and places like this are popular because the girls who work here look very young,” says Takano. “But I don’t think I could ever ask one of them for anything more than a drink.”
Special cafes employ all-female
He carries a manga comic book with him everywhere he goes, and has a vast collection of animated DVDs at home. Ask him who provided the voice for an obscure character in Evangelion – the defining movie for otaku, who refer to it more colloquially as Eba – and he replies without having to think.
It is this skill that earned Takano a remarkable 84% in the first Otaku Certificate examination. Organised recently by Biblos, which publishes dozens of manga every month, the test was initially seen as little more than a light-hearted quiz.
“We had no idea that it would be so popular,” said Ryota Ishizuka, the Biblos editor who devised the exam. “We had expected that maybe 1000 people might take part but our computer broke down due to the number of people trying to access the website that we set up.”
Nearly 500,000 people attempted to access the site in the space of two weeks, said Ishizuka, with questions on the examination ranging from the outlandish to the utterly obscure.
How many more people, for example, attended the Tokyo Comiket Manga convention in 2002 than in the previous year? What “cosplay” (costume play) outfits are not permitted at fans’ gatherings? And true or false: A timed incendiary device was planted at a Comic Market event between 1996 and 2002?
Toshiyuki Takano outside a shop
“It was pretty tough in places,” admits Takano. “But I have been living this life for the past five years now and I just seem to know stuff. I guess that makes me a natural-born otaku.”
Takenori Emoto nods in appreciation of his fellow geek’s achievement.
“This is more than a hobby for me; it’s more like a lifestyle choice,” says the 22-year-old who is a student of programming and holography at Tokyo’s Nihon University.
Holography is the science of producing holograms, or three-dimensional images.
“The Dragonball animated TV series and games started me off about 11 years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since,” he says.
Emoto is expected to graduate in March and pursue a career as a designer of electronic pinball games.
The highlights of Emoto’s year are the biannual Comiket Manga exhibitions, which attract about 600,000 devotees over their two-day runs. He is already looking forward to December’s event – and drawing up a wish-list of things to buy.
“For me, there’s nothing better than wandering around comic markets on a weekend, and there’s always one somewhere in Tokyo every weekend,” he said.
Shops sell peripherals, computer
“I also love animated films; Eba is the classic, of course, and my mother likes it so much that she has got lots of models of characters from the movie.
“She’s a real otaku mum and she thinks it’s just a good hobby to have,” he adds.
The typical otaku home could itself be something of a fantasy.
Every spare centimetre of space in the average otaku’s home is festooned with figurines, and wall space is devoted to large pictures of Gundam or Studio Ghibli’s animated cult classics.
But it is their very obsessions that have turned nerds into a new type of fashion icon. In addition to the maid cafes, a hotel employing similarly dressed women opened outside Tokyo earlier this year.
Staple of novels
The otaku culture has also become a staple of novels and TV dramas.
Densha Otoko (Train Man) evolved from an internet bulletin board into a book and a feature film, and tells the tale of a hopeless computer nerd who comes to the rescue of a beautiful woman on a train, thereby winning her heart.
Takenori Emoto spends his
Not surprisingly, Takano and Emoto dream of something similar happening to them.
“I don’t have a girlfriend and I don’t go out so much,” says Takano.
“Some of my friends from university go out drinking, but I don’t go with them. I don’t have the time because I’m usually either studying or making another computer.”
Emoto agrees that he just does not have time to fit a girlfriend into his busy schedule. “If I have free time, I like watching baseball on TV,” he adds.
The Nomura report, by Ken Kitabayashi, a consultant on the information and communication industry at the Nomura Research Institute in Japan, emphasises that the otaku group “is no longer a niche market” and companies that are able to tap into their interests are likely to be able to expand their markets.
Nomura identified 12 subdivisions within the otaku society, but their ranks are constantly evolving, with model train fans and mobile phone otaku now emerging.
The biggest financial benefactor of the boom has been the Akihabara district, which used to be a rather run-down section of Tokyo but has recently been given a new lease of life.
Otaku try out a new computer
A huge industrial complex is being constructed, including the first university designed to make the most of young otaku talent.
Digital Hollywood University will offer degrees in technology, animation and design.
And while their reticence and general inability to interact well with other people may rule this segment of the Japanese population out of careers such as captains of industry, politics or icons of music or film, their combined wealth may enable the geeks to inherit the Earth.
Or at least a good part of Japan.