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Who? Me? Otaku?

The weird and wonderful world of manga crosses more realms than most might have imagined

by Tony Mcnicol

“Otaku” culture is spreading over the globe. Perhaps we are all otaku now? My wife tells me I’m an otaku — should I be worried? If you haven’t encountered the word, here is Wikipedia’s definition: “a derisive Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interests, particularly ‘anime’ and ‘manga’ (comics).”

That seems accurate enough, other than the “derisive” bit. There’s not much shame in being an otaku these days. Once, the name was a term of abuse directed at the geekiest kind of obsessive. In Japan now, it is a catch-all for any kind of keen hobbyist: not just manga and anime otaku, but jazz otaku, knitting otaku and more.

Japanese otaku are said to number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. The otaku economy of comics, DVDs, figure, games, etc. is said to be valued in the trillions of yen. Abroad, the word has come to mean any fan of Japan’s numerous pop culture exports.

Suddenly, being an otaku is cool. Otaku culture has even taken root in Nagatacho. In 2005 Otak Elite magazine put DPJ bigwig Yukio Hatoyama on their cover. Manga fan and former Foreign Minister Taro Aso has equally solid otaku credentials. Reportedly he’s an avid reader of Shonen Jump.

Before I started writing about otaku, I had an image of the stereotypical geek barricaded into his (his, not her) bedroom, maybe playing on a games console, probably surrounded by shelves of manga, definitely logged onto some 2 Channel discussion board. But it wasn’t long before I realized how far that is from the truth.

I wrote an article about an otaku test designed to select 100 elite otaku from all across Japan. When I interviewed one of the top scorers over a beer, I was bemused to find him an impeccably presented young salaryman from a respectable Japanese corporation. The only hints of an otaku alter-ego were a side-parting, and the, erm . . . photo of his computer he brought to the interview.

In fact, one of the weirdest otaku-type hobbies I’ve ever covered involved not 20-something men but middle-aged women. I met them when I wrote a story on a kind of cuddly interactive doll originally marketed to lonesome office ladies. To the maker’s surprise the toy became a hit with middle-aged and older women — evidently they make fine grandchildren substitutes in low-birthrate Japan.

I went to several packed events for “parents” at the manufacturers’ headquarters: birthday parties, excursions, even a kindergarten entrance day. One lady I exchanged cards with (her doll’s card, not her own) later posted me an album with pictures of her doll in Hollywood, Manhattan, Hawaii, Saipan and sitting under the leaning tower of Pisa.

Another brush with otaku culture was again a kind of doll; this time slender 30-cm-high jointed figures made by a Kyoto toy manufacturer. I first came across the dolls in a pokey shop in one of Akihabara’s geekiest corners. So when I attended an owners’ convention at Tokyo Big Site, I was expecting a cliquey gathering of checked-shirted men with dolls poking out of their rucksacks.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were hundreds of doll owners and stalls. Many attendees were fashionably dressed young women, with even more beautifully dressed dolls. Some carried their dolls to the venue in velvet-lined violin cases.

But here’s the rub: Does this obsession with obsessive hobbyists make me an otaku too? Perhaps it does. My wife points to my collection of old cameras (“for work,” I say) and my extensive collection of manga (“for Japanese study,” of course — if you conveniently ignore the otakulike singularity of purpose needed to learn kanji).

Perhaps it’s my job? You can find a bit of the otaku in most journalists. After all, reporters need it to get excited about chasing after all those fiddly facts and figures and immersing themselves in research. Never mind copy editors with their preternatural knowledge of dangling participles, split infinitives and the Chicago Manual of Style.

In any case, maybe it’s natural that a little of the otaku mentality rubs off on long-term Japan residents like me?

I’ve often wondered if the roots of otaku culture might run deeper than we realize. There is a word in Japanese, “kodawari,” that might be relevant here, as it refers to a painstaking (some might say obsessive) attention to detail.

Take an article I just wrote on sushi. I learned that trainee sushi chefs spend the first few years of their 10-year apprenticeship just cooking rice. That way they can get a feel for how different kinds of water affect the rice, and how the rice grains vary depending on the season. Now, if that’s not otaku-esque obsession to detail worthy of the most fanatical Gundam fan, I don’t know what is.

This article was first published in the Sept/Oct edition of Economy, Culture & History, Japan SPOTLIGHT