‘Otaku’ try out matchmaking masks

by Harumi Ozawa

AFP-JIJI

Self-confessed geeks in Japan who might ordinarily be too shy to ask someone out on a date are trying a new kind of matchmaking: wearing cartoon character masks.

In Washinomiya, a small town in Saitama Prefecture, 15 men and an equal number of women donned plastic masks of Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and other famous fictional creations Friday to try to find a date.

“I feel this is an easier way to talk to people,” said a 27-year-old woman wearing a rabbit mask who introduced herself as Jet-Black Wings. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without this mask. I would feel too embarrassed.”

The party was organized for the benefit of “otaku” — those obsessed with high-tech products, manga and “anime” (cartoons) that spring from them. Otaku freely confess to being more at home with their two-dimensional heroes than communicating with the real world.

As well as boosting participants’ bravery, the masked meet also ensured that people with similar — albeit rather particular — interests were able to meet each other.

The event was organized by Washinomiya’s local chamber of commerce, which realized the value of otaku spending power when the otherwise unremarkable town in 2007 became a pilgrimage site for fans of the “Raki Suta” (“Lucky Star”) manga, all clamoring to visit the place where it was set. An anime adaptation of the series was broadcast on TV that year.

“The direct economic effect from ‘Raki Suta’ fans is estimated to be about ¥100 million over the past five years,” said Shinji Matsumoto, one of the event organizers. “We are really lucky that so many geeks visit our town. We want them to have a good time here.”

At Friday’s event, seven male-female couplings were formed. A 33-year-old man wearing the mask of a villain from a 1970s TV show hit it off with a 26-year-old woman donning a Mickey Mouse mask. Both managed to continue smiling when they revealed what lay beneath the disguise.

“My heart was beating as I was taking off the mask,” the woman said.

Asked if they planned to go on a real date, the man — who gave his name as Furuta Oribe, a 16th-century samurai and tea ceremony master — was a little unsure.

“I hope so, yes?” he asked, turning to his new friend. “I was really nervous. I still cannot believe this.”