Ja­pan’s of­ten ma­ligned geek cul­ture has gone main­stream and has an un­likely cham­pion in prime min­is­te­rial con­tender Taro Aso. Peter Al­ford re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Fea­ture -

YOU see them some­times in nice Tokyo cake shops, be­hav­ing oddly. Three or four girls clus­tered around a ta­ble bear­ing some glis­ten­ing con­fec­tion, at which they’re point­ing mo­bile phones or dig­i­tal cam­eras. They send the im­ages to friends’ phones or post them later on web­sites. They are keki otaku , cake geeks.

There are otaku bands. They as­sem­ble and per­form — unan­nounced and quickly, so they have a head start on an­noyed po­lice­men — on pave­ments around Ak­i­habara and near Hara­juku sta­tion in the Ja­panese cap­i­tal. My favourite is a name­less three- piece that plays at fizzing pace the open­ing and clos­ing bars of rock sta­ples, pre­sum­ably on the prin­ci­ple that the rest is filler.

Twenty- five years af­ter the idea of otaku be­gan pok­ing through like a sly worm from the ap­ple of Ja­panese ma­te­ri­al­ism, there are geek- cul­ture worm­holes ev­ery­where.

The orig­i­nal per­cep­tion of alien­ated young manga and anime ob­ses­sives foamed into a pre­dictable moral panic in 1989 around Tsu­tomu Miyazaki, the so- called Otaku Killer or ‘‘ can­ni­bal nerd’’. Miyazaki col­lected porno­graphic anime and was ex­e­cuted in June for the hor­rific mur­ders of four lit­tle girls.

But these days the mass cul­ture otaku archetype is Den­sha Otoko ( Train Man). Be­gin­ning as anony­mous post­ings in 2004 on 2chan­nel, the big­gest on­line fo­rum any­where, this is the story of a lonely geek who, com­pletely out of char­ac­ter, stood up to a drunk ha­rass­ing a young beauty on a train. Equally un­likely, she fell for him. Since 2005 there have been a hit tele­vi­sion se­ries and film and four manga adap­ta­tions.

The con­cept of otaku bil­lows to cover con­sole and on­line gamers, home PC builders, fans of teenage pop stars and TV per­son­al­i­ties, trainspot­ters, keitai otaku ( their fas­ci­na­tion is the mo­bile phone it­self), doll cos­tume mak­ers and travel col­lec­tors ( such as the man who has vis­ited more than 500 hot- spring spas on a mis­sion to at­tend ev­ery on­sen in Ja­pan).

Otaku is not what they do, it’s the way they do it; an at­ti­tude and style as­so­ci­ated with com­pul­sive ac­qui­si­tion of pop­u­lar cul­ture ob­jects and ex­pe­ri­ences and sat­u­rated in IT, es­pe­cially in­ter­ac­tive tech­nol­ogy, a field in which otaku are in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial.

For ex­am­ple, Nikoniko doga ( smi­ley videos) is a two- year- old video- share web­site that lets view­ers su­per­im­pose their com­ments and ideas di­rectly on to a clip as it runs. Swiftly taken up by geeks, it is one of Ja­pan’s top 10 web­sites.

Still, some pop­u­lar jour­nal­ism in Ja­pan per­sists in cast­ing otaku as a slur on so­ci­ety. Some so­ci­ol­o­gists still warn they are a haz­ard to them­selves. Some for­eign com­men­ta­tors keep us­ing them to wit­ter on about ex­is­ten­tial iso­la­tion in con­tem­po­rary Ja­pan.

But otaku have such friends as Taro Aso, fron­trun­ner to win Mon­day’s prime min­is­te­rial con­test. A se­nior con­ser­va­tive politi­cian and sec­re­tary- gen­eral of the rul­ing Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party, 67- year- old Aso has been a chronic reader and hoarder of manga comic books since child­hood. As for­eign min­is­ter, he ad­vo­cated of­fi­cial sup­port for anime and manga as cul­tural ex­ports and as an im­por­tant facet of Ja­panese soft diplo­macy. ( Per­haps not, though, one of Aso’s favourite se­ries, Gol­gol 13 , which fea­tures a dark and dirty in­ter­na­tional as­sas­sin who of­ten goes af­ter for­eign VIPs.)

Otaku don’t have to be ob­ses­sively soli­tary. They’re not, by def­i­ni­tion, hikiko­mori ( acutely with­drawn youth), a pop- so­ci­o­log­i­cal con­struct that de­serves more crit­i­cal scru­tiny than it gets.

Otaku are of­ten gre­gar­i­ous among their peers, whom some pun­dits feel im­pelled for ef­fect to call zoku ( tribes), but they do want to stand apart from the rest of the Ja­panese. They shun phys­i­cal and emo­tional en­gage­ment even among them­selves. That’s the pose, any­way. The fel­lows are sup­posed to be sex­u­ally awk­ward, in­com­pe­tent or odd. Most are un­de­ni­ably scruffy.

But most geeks don’t like out­siders ap­ply­ing the la­bel be­cause, even in these en­light­ened days, it usu­ally car­ries a faint sneer. How­ever, Amer­i­can otaku fan­dom, run­ning hot for the past few years, has cre­ated pos­i­tive feed­back.

Keizo Ino­mata, a Univer­sity of Elec­troCom­mu­ni­ca­tions grad­u­ate stu­dent and Gun­dam model ro­bots col­lec­tor, es­ti­mates 40 per cent of his high school class­mates had some otaku pre­oc­cu­pa­tion but re­fused to be so de­scribed. ‘‘ But now for­eign­ers give a pos­i­tive mean­ing to otaku and that’s been ex­ported back here, so it’s more com­pli­cated now and some Ja­panese use the term pos­i­tively.’’

Hiroki Ito plays with these con­tra­dic­tions and, in do­ing so, earns him­self a liv­ing and a de­gree of celebrity. He ap­pears on na­tional va­ri­ety TV shows ex­plain­ing — well, de­scrib­ing — the new­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of otaku weird­ness for the amuse­ment of housewives and salary­men. He re­cently started a com­pany that stages, for fees, otaku - themed events in and around ‘‘ Ak­iba’’, as Ak­i­habara is known to habitues.

‘‘ Anime is my world,’’ says Ito, who at 23 projects a lit­tle- boy­ish blend of dif­fi­dence and in­ten­sity, pierced by glints of cal­cu­la­tion. ‘‘ If I can make enough money to live in this world all the time, that’s enough for me. I’m happy.’’

Ito’s spe­cial tal­ent is anime per­for­mance: nom­i­nate any scene from the first 67 episodes of Dragon Ball Z and Ito can re­cite it with ap­pro­pri­ate voices and ac­tions. His other in­ter­ests in­clude col­lect­ing Gun­dam and mon­ster mod­els, tokusatsu ( can­did pho­tog­ra­phy), model trains and the Yomiuri Giants base­ball club.

I re­cently spent an af­ter­noon in Ak­iba with him. We be­gan at his favourite maid cafe, @ home. On the ‘‘ Ja­panese’’ level, the girls wear mini- ki­monos in­stead of the com­mon French maid out­fits. Pa­trons sit around a rec­tan­gu­lar bar with an in­side floor raised about 100cm, re­quir­ing maids to kneel or bend over to serve.

They led us in games of jan- ken ( rock- scis­sorspa­per) and, when they brought us noo­dles, we chanted ‘‘ moe, moe, moe’’. ( Please, don’t ask.) Ito was happy; I cringed, es­pe­cially when I ac­ci­den­tally won the first round of jan- ken .

We then wan­dered through var­i­ous off- street ar­cades, hid­den grot­tos of anime and manga mer­chan­dise, and fin­ished at a dim, squashy lit­tle place called Pasela, a sort of anime karaoke bar, its walls lined with framed au­to­graphs of Ito’s idols, the pro­fes­sion­als who do the voices at anime stu­dios.

Mid­dle- aged pro­fes­sors now call them­selves otaku and rapidly grow­ing num­bers of young women are in­volv­ing them­selves. Whereas the few orig­i­nal geek girls were mostly tomboy video gamers and the like, peo­ple such as Eriko Ishikawa have taken otaku into dif­fer­ent spa­ces. Like most Ja­panese pre- teens, she was first cap­tured by TV su­per- hero anime; at about 16 she be­came en­tranced by cos­play , dress­ing and per­form­ing as anime char­ac­ters. ‘‘ Cos­play is an ex­pres­sion of my de­vo­tion to the anime char­ac­ters . . . kawaii ( cute) girls are the ones I love to play the most,’’ she says

Small and fer­vent, with a star­tling or­ange­blonde hairdo, Ishikawa is dressed as a kawaii char­ac­ter so re­cently de­vel­oped even she can’t im­me­di­ately re­call the name.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing cos­play ’ s dis­tinctly adult con­no­ta­tions, 26- year- old Ishikawa in­sists that isn’t her style. ‘‘ Real otaku peo­ple know the dif­fer­ence be­tween sexy cos­play and anime char­ac­ter cos­play ,’’ she says earnestly. ‘‘ Un­for­tu­nately, maybe or­di­nary peo­ple don’t.’’

Or­di­nary peo­ple could be for­given their con­fu­sion. Otaku girls play­ing with gen­der and sex­u­al­ity are do­ing some out- there stuff. Fu­joshi devo­tees of shonen- ai ( boys’ love) de­vote all their free time and money to fan­tasies about male ho­mo­erotic ro­mance. They even have their own but­ler cafes staffed by pretty chaps.

Cafes of­fer­ing more tac­tile maid ex­pe­ri­ences to con­ven­tional pervs are also spring­ing up, again demon­strat­ing the seep­age of otaku - ism into main­stream ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ence and com­merce.

Con­tent providers and busi­ness an­a­lysts study otaku con­sump­tion pat­terns and their off- beat uses of pop­u­lar tech­nolo­gies for clues as to what may be­come mass- mar­ket ap­pli­ca­tions.

Based on a 2005 study, No­mura Re­search In­sti­tute cal­cu­lates the broad otaku mar­ket cov­ers 1.73 mil­lion peo­ple who spend Y429 bil­lion ( about $ 4.9 bil­lion) an­nu­ally. These fig­ures seem im­prob­a­bly pre­cise but No­mura’s Kenichi Kitabayashi says his group iden­ti­fied otaku con­sump­tion be­hav­iour by its very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics from the rest of the pop­u­la­tion.

Shinichiro Ishikawa thinks about one mil­lion Ja­panese, out of a pop­u­la­tion of 126 mil­lion, are hard- core enough to out­lay 10 per cent to 20 per cent of their in­come on otaku pur­suits and mer­chan­dis­ing. But Ishikawa’s cre­ative ex­em­plars are in fact Amer­i­can: Mar­vel Comics, with its sta­ble of comic su­per­heroes and vast gold­mine of back- cat­a­logue, and Star Wars di­rec­tor­pro­ducer Ge­orge Lu­cas. (‘‘ He’s one of the geeki­est guys in the world, ever.’’)

These peo­ple, he ex­plains, made con­tent with ‘‘ otaku spirit’’; they didn’t go look­ing for ‘‘ mas­s­ap­peal­ing’’ for­mu­las and, as a con­se­quence, made the sort of break­through hits that aren’t pos­si­ble from main­stream pro­duc­tion.

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