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‘Otaku’ turns passion for collecting into gold mine

by Natsuko Fukue

Danny Choo, a Tokyo-based computer programmer and entrepreneur, calls himself a full-time “otaku.”

Visitors to Choo’s office in central Tokyo are apt to be surprised by the curvy female “anime” (cartoon) figures that line his desk.

“The tall ones I got from the manufacturer cost from ¥60,000 to ¥140,000,” says Choo, 37, a collector who manages Web sites for fans using a platform he designed.

His blog, dannychoo.com, where he shares his thoughts on Japanese culture and lifestyles, as well as his love of figurines, anime and “cosplay” (dressing up as animated characters) attracts 2 million unique visitors and 20 million page views a month, he says.

Choo has turned his passion for Japanese subculture from a hobby into a business. He recently published “Otacool: Worldwide Otaku Rooms,” a book about otaku (geeks) and the rooms they have turned into shrines for the characters they love.

The book sold 20,000 copies for its first edition, and a second “Otacool” book focusing on cosplay is on the way.

Collaborating with a manufacturer of figurines, he organized the Tokyo Figure Show in August and another show in Singapore three months later.

Choo is also widely known as the “dancing storm trooper.” He wanders around Tokyo dressed as a soldier from George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga, in pursuit of his goal: “to recruit a new Imperial army,” taking pictures of himself on trains packed with salarymen or being served at maid-themed coffee shops. His dancing storm trooper has attracted thousands of viewers on YouTube.

Featured on CNN and the BBC, Choo has become a missionary of Japanese pop culture. “I have special name cards to distribute to people who speak to me on the street,” he says.

The stereotype of an otaku is someone shy, withdrawn and socially inept. But Choo says otaku are people “who are passionate about something and wish to share it with other people,” and this means there are many otaku who like socializing with others like himself.

It’s likely that Choo’s language skills — he is fluent in Japanese and English, and can speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean as well — are what have made him a global phenomenon. By writing a blog in English, he can reach international readers, he says.

The London-born Choo became interested in Japanese language and culture when he was in his late teens. “It was (Japanese) computer games that hooked me on Japanese culture. I used to go to the Japan Center in Piccadilly Circus to buy Japanese magazines, even though I couldn’t read them,” he says.

He also became a big fan of pop idol Hikaru Nishida, who appeared in a magazine he discovered at the Japan Center, which motivated him to study Japanese harder.

Choo pursued his study of Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, and learned the language not only at university but also through Japanese TV and magazines.

Throughout his college years, he worked part time at the Japanese-style grill Benihana, where he met his Chinese wife. He also worked at Japan Airlines to practice his Japanese.

“I wanted to use Japanese with other staff members and customers.” His free time was spent making annual visits to Japan.

After graduation, Choo, who by this time had fallen in love with Japanese pop culture, worked as a computer engineer at a JAL subsidiary in London.

Having language skills opens a door to culture and business opportunities in Japan, he says. “I encourage my (blog) readers and friends (in Japan) to learn Japanese.” For example, writing a blog in Japanese can help improve one’s abilities, he says.

“But you also have to be passionate about Japanese culture.”

While Choo has succeeded in making a business out of his otaku hobby, he is also CEO of the Web consulting firm Mirai Inc., which provides clients an online platform. He says he always wanted to start a business by the age of 35. “I actually started it a year earlier, though.”

He had worked for his father, Jimmy Choo, the world-renowned shoe designer, for a while, but “that was not what I wanted to do,” he says. “We may work together for a fashion blog in English” in the future, he adds.

Choo finally moved to Tokyo in 1999, where he worked as a marketing executive for the science journal Nature. He later moved to online retailer Amazon and then to Microsoft as product manager of consumer-generated media.

Choo’s business philosophy is to strike a good balance between work and private time. “In a day, you have eight hours of working, you sleep and eat. You also have to take a bath and go to the toilet. Only a few hours are left for private time.”

Therefore, he allows his coworkers to work at home so they can spend more time with their families. He also wants to be happy while at work, because “one-third of our life is spent working.”

“Life is short,” he says. “We could die any time.”

While he has enjoyed a stellar career, Choo recalls that his childhood was not an easy one. Having busy parents who moved to London from Malaysia, he often spent time at somebody else’s home.

School life was not fun either, he says, but after encountering Japanese culture he became positive about life.

“Japan gave meaning to my life. Before, I didn’t know what to do with (my) life.”

Choo, who is still in love with Japan, has no plans to go back to London.