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