ELITE GEEKS ONLY

Interest now obsessive for first ‘otaku’ test

by Yoshino Matsui

Thousands of young Japanese men are expected to take a nationwide exam next month that would, if they pass, grant them recognition as experts in the field of “otaku,” or geeks.

Since word of the first-ever Otaku Certificate exam broke in late June, publisher Biblos has been flooded with inquiries, including one from the United States.

The Tokyo-based publisher has been busy making preparations to administer the exam, which is intended to give people who think they have extensive knowledge of comics, animated cartoons and video games “an opportunity to engage in a test of strength” with like-minded others. But the response has been overwhelming.

“We initially estimated that about 1,000 people would apply, but it seems the actual number will be much bigger,” said Ryota Ishizuka, the 26-year-old Biblos editor who came up with the otaku exam idea.

In fact, the company and its 70 employees expect the number of applicants to hit five digits.

A Web site (www.otaken.jp), set up by the company on June 27 to publicize the event has received an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 hits in just two weeks, briefly causing its counter to malfunction.

The computer-scored test, which will be in a multiple-choice format, will be conducted by mail so anyone can apply, even from overseas. But the applicants must be able to get the question and answer forms and comprehend the “postgraduate”-level questions, which will be written in Japanese.

Applicants can obtain the question and answer sheets for free by buying the next issue of elfics on Aug. 5. Elfics is a bimonthly publication that specializes in information about the “dojin” (amateur club) subculture, which includes self-published comic books by avid fans.

Biblos plans to award the otaku certificate to the top 100 scorers. This means ordinary “anime” (animation) and “manga” (comic) fans — a category that encompasses most Japanese born in the ’60s and later — don’t stand a chance.

One of the mock exams produced by the company basically looks like a compilation of brainteasers.

Here is a sample question:

Which two statements about the Comic Market confabs held between 1996 and 2002 are false? (Two points each)

1. All the events were held at Tokyo Big Sight.

2. There was an incident in which a timed incendiary device was planted at the venue.

3. Visitors to the event surpassed 200,000 for the first time during the period.

4. The event was held for three consecutive days for the first time during the period.

5. One event held during the period was on Christmas Eve.

Now you would likely be lost if you didn’t know what Comic Market was, but the event — popularly known as “Comiket” — has grown into the world’s largest comic convention, as any self-proclaimed otaku would know.

This year marks Comiket’s 30th anniversary in Tokyo, so the major otaku festivity can now be a two-generation event.

In fact, the image of the Tokyo Big Sight convention center near Odaiba — a peculiar structure resembling inverted pyramids — is so famous, even among dojin fans overseas, that they would never mistake it for anything else, according to people familiar with the otaku industry.

Biblos’ Ishizuka said he knows a lot about old Japanese comics. But he doesn’t think he would get any more than 10 out of the 100 questions right if he tried to take the exam, he added.

The trial test also features questions that cover the types of “cosplay” (costume play) usually allowed for Comiket participants, and the development history of the home-use game console. The real exam could be even more challenging.

While recognition for having an astonishingly deep knowledge of animation, comics and games would certainly be satisfying for geeks, the exam’s real-life goal is to boost their status, Ishizuka said.

“The word otaku has become so common — it’s even used in English — but little is known about what it really is,” said Ishizuka, who blames the misunderstanding on biased media coverage about the phenomenon and the people, a majority of whom are men in their early 20s.

The history of otaku is generally believed to date back to 1983, when columnist Akio Nakamori used the word to describe teenage boys who thronged to Comiket, noticing that many of them called each other otaku even though the word — an honorific way of saying “you” — is usually used by adults.

In the early days of otaku history, the word was used as a rough equivalent for “geeks” or “nerds,” people so obsessed with their two-dimensional worlds that they had zero interest in girls.

While such usage is still in place, however, the word seems to be losing its negative connotations. Some adults now humorously describe themselves as otaku in relation to a particular hobby or lifestyle.

“Anything can be the subject of otaku. Music, movies, mountain climbing, anything,” Ishizuka said.

But because the movement is so powerful, it is continuing to produce derivative terms — including “akiba-kei” and “moe” — which are just creating more confusion and misunderstanding, he said.

According to an industry source who declined to be named, akiba-kei refers to “people who have the need to go to Akihabara” to buy products there in enormous quantities and varieties, including comic books and DVD software featuring “cute girls.”

Moe, on the other hand, describes something that can make your heart “twinge” in a pleasant way. This could be something as simple as girls wearing glasses, and varies from person to person.

Moe distinguishes itself from sexual fetishism because it does not necessarily involve sexual desire, as some people simply enjoy having the feeling, “just as a working girl often decorates her office computer with tiny cartoon figures and feels happy,” the source said.

According to recent estimates by major Japanese think tanks, Japan’s otaku market is worth 290 billion, yen one-third of which stems from the moe market at 88.8 billion yen.

“Otaku are not just people who are passive and only watch videos and read comics, but they can be active, trying to thoroughly master something they like,” Ishizuka said.

“Even think tanks are saying otaku is no longer a niche market. It’s huge, and it makes money, and that’s why some travel agencies are selling tours to Comiket,” he said.

Cranking up the self-esteem of otaku, the upcoming exam is also being dubbed by organizers as the “gateway to becoming the otaku elite.” Ishizuka said if the exam takes root, it might be used by businesses to recruit people in the future.