I wouldn’t be offended if someone called me an otaku,” says Koichi Nakayasu, “. . . because I am.”

“Otaku” and proud — and he’s not alone. The number of hardcore manga and anime fan otaku probably number in the hundreds of thousands.

If you include occasional consumers of otaku culture, maybe millions. Otaku culture has even spread abroad — becoming one of Japan’s most successful pop-culture exports.

The word otaku means more in Japanese than its English translation of “obsessive geek” or “anorak.” A loose meaning refers to enthusiastic hobbyists like jazz otaku or train otaku.

But the real otaku, at least according to the stereotype, are the socially dysfunctional virtual hermits who eat, sleep and breath nothing but otaku subculture.

And now, whether by weight of numbers, consumer power or just the fact that they are such an integral part of modern Japanese culture, Japan’s otaku have become impossible to ignore.

“The otaku generation is growing. It has more and more money to influence business,” says Nakayasu, with a hint of pride. “(And business is) making a lot of money out of otaku customers. There are more and more people who grew up watching (anime like) Gundam or Sailor Moon.”

Nakayasu works in Nakano’s Mandarake, one of 8 shops over Japan, selling comics, videos and character-goods for the nations dedicated and occasional otaku. Its total sales each year total around 400 million yen, including a substantial Internet and mail-order business to the U.S. and Europe.

Around 60 percent of the shop’s customers are 25- to 35-year-old men. Many are the kind of people, as Nakayasu puts it, who “try to cut out living, clothing and food costs (and) devote the maximum energy, time and money to their hobbies.”

“As a result, their life doesn’t look that rich, but actually they have a huge collection of stuff that normal people wouldn’t understand.”

Not that most otaku had any particular desire to be understood by society, believes Azuma Hiroyuki, a social critic and writer on otaku culture.

“Otaku is widely regarded as a kind of detachment from politics, from social activity. It’s very different from real Japanese politics and society.”

“This kind of detachment was more and more supported by youth from the 70s. I think it was because of their failure to engage in politics in the late 60s.”

In other parts of the world, post-1960s disillusionment turned young people toward politicized movements like punk. In Japan, many young people retreated far into a dream-world of sickly cute and violent sexually-explicit manga and anime.

Two major events in the 1980s and 1990s gave otaku a rude awakening. The first was the arrest of Tsutomu Miyazaki for the cannibalistic murders of four girls in the late 1980s.

Miyazaki was an avid collector of otaku goods — in particular of the most twisted pedophile comics and videos.

The media began to refer to “the otaku problem” and for the first time the word became well-known outside the subculture itself. (Otaku is a slightly distant and polite term for “you” — an ironic reference to the way the socially inept semi-recluses addressed each other.)

The Aum subway gas attacks delivered a second shock to the otaku community. The apocalyptic cult was another counterculture group that disastrously had come to believe in its own fantasies. Many otaku began to reconsider their decision to stay detached from society.

“The first generation of otaku are now about 40 to 45; that feeling they used to have that they could just play for ever has gone,” says Azuma.

In fact, play turned into work for many otaku. The computer and technology industries have provided a way back into the real world and new economic influence. Many otaku were involved with the Japanese Internet from its birth. Now its a vital tool for the exchange of information on otaku culture.

Many of the Japanese Internet’s key figures, and even more of its most active users are otaku.

But, despite the convenience of e-mail, and a huge network of manga/anime fan Web sites, the massive comic conventions attract more people than ever. Last December’s Comic Market convention at Tokyo Big Site attracted a staggering 420,000 people: per day, more visitors than the Tokyo Motor Show.

As counterculture gatherings, otaku conventions dwarf mere “political” events. The anti-Iraq war demonstrations in Tokyo, despite being the largest of their kind for decades, only had tens of thousands of participants, whereas large otaku gatherings regularly attract hundreds of thousands.

“The space otaku culture occupies in Japanese culture as a whole can only get larger,” says Azuma.

Otaku culture has already spawned such domestic and overseas success stories as Ghost in the Shell anime director Mamoru Oshii and self-confirmed otaku, artist Takashi Murakami.

“Otaku are highly critical and able to discover and judge cutting-edge pop culture,” says Ichiya Nakamura, executive director at Stanford Japan Center-Research and ex-government policy maker at the Ministry of Telecommunications.

“As amateur producers, they also play a role as a breeding ground for future professional creators. People have started to realize otaku’s positive worth as leaders of pop culture.”

Meanwhile, the line between otaku culture and mainstream culture is fading. There is little of Japanese pop culture that doesn’t have at least some otaku influence.

“When we reach the present situation — where there are so many otaku — calling them ‘sick’ loses all meaning,” says Hiroki Azuma. “There are just too many.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.