The 90-minute event on the eighth floor of an electronics shop in Tokyo’s Akihabara district one recent Sunday afternoon was unlike anything you’d expect to encounter in the bubble-gum world of Japanese teen fashion.
Sure, up-and-coming fashion models Miho Asada, Yurika Harada and Manami Ute were on stage touting the release of their new fashion DVDs, in which they strike poses to background music. Nothing unusual about that.
And, yes, the dozen or so junior-high-school girls in the audience did gaze doe-eyed at their three idols, waving as adoringly as you’d expect them to.
But what about the rest of the audience: those rows of somber grown men seated across the aisle, outnumbering the kids almost three-to-one?
Some of the men stared pensively at their feet — even when the wispy models cracked jokes on stage; one man mumbled to himself.
Who were these guys?
“We’re wota,” said one slender-framed chap during a moment of quiet.
What’s a wota? I wondered, having been invited last-minute and still being new to all of this. Ever helpful, my informant explained that wota — which is pronounced “oh-tah” — are an offshoot branch of Japan’s hobby-obsessed tribe of introverts known as otaku.
While regular otaku seek out anime figurines and high-tech gizmos, the infatuation of the nation’s estimated tens of thousands of wota is for girl idols — particularly the pop group Morning Musume.
The choice for this venue being Tokyo’s “Electric City” of Akihabara — a mecca for otaku — everything started to make sense. The day’s event had been planned not so much for kids, but for the wota, whose devotion and spending power endear them to promoters.
Soon, the MC announced the models’ photo-op, and the men woke from their reverie and suddenly whipped out a battery of camera gear so sophisticated it would put a paparazzo to shame.
“Miho, turn this way!” squealed one guy, who looked like your average civil servant on holiday, while aiming his zoom lens at the model. “Y-u-u-rika!!” wailed somebody else. Flashes blitzed as the kameko — wota jargon for “camera buffs” — jostled for angles. You could smell the sweat.
“Five, four, three, two, one . . . No more pictures!” cried the MC, and the men obediently filed back to their seats.
Next was a gift giveaway, and the models called the attendees up by number. Men chuckled to themselves as to some insider’s joke, applauding as each item was presented; one was so excited he looked like he’d fall off his seat.
Guest No. 24 who, with his fur-rimmed cowboy hat and torn jeans was the most stylish of the lot (actually, the only stylish one — after a fashion), beamed when the models awarded him a make-believe ray gun. “This is great!” he said, zapping some buddies.
A guy from the back row got a plastic doodad that seemed to be based on the movie “Toy Story”; someone else received a stationery set, colored pink.
Most everybody looked happy. But it was less clear how one man, lumbering expressionlessly as he returned to his seat, felt about the finicky little Mickey Mouse pouch that was his gift from the idols. The assembled were a moody bunch.
Finally came the climax, what many fans had traveled from as far as Osaka to experience: a chance to chat with the models one-to-one.
Adult males and teenybopper girls took turns pressing the flesh with smiling Asada, Harada and Ute while the MC repeated over and over again, “Thank you very much. May we request that you keep your comments brief when shaking hands.” After that, the proceedings drew to a close.
As the room started to clear, I pondered the idea of men with 5 o’clock shadows milling around a teen scene like this. Considering the frequent reports of men’s desires gone astray on crowded trains and the like, it, well, raised some issues.
Asked about this, however, an industry insider standing in the sidelines told me that wota rarely cause trouble, even when they finagle their way into youngsters-only events by posing as chaperones.
I asked the models what they thought of their middle-aged male fans, and found that they were equally resigned.
“It does feel a bit peculiar that these men are the same generation as my father,” said 16-year-old model Harada. “But I’m grateful that they come and see us even in the countryside or up in Hokkaido.”
Outside, I struck up a chat with the group of wota I’d met upstairs to learn more about how they fit into the greater scheme of Japanese society.
But the more I pressed for a concrete explanation, the more they wriggled away — apparently preferring to retain that air of mystique so cherished by the colorfully made up “costume players” of Tokyo’s Harajuku area or the dress-wearing Center Guys across town in Shibuya.
But some information was forthcoming, for example, the etymology of the word “wota.” To distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill otaku — computer geeks, anime freaks and the like — wota chopped off the “-ku” at the end of the word and, with a touch of playfulness, slapped on a “w” up front. (Typing “wo” on a Japanese computer keyboard renders a kana syllable pronounced “oh.”)
But what was it that fueled their passion? I wanted to know.
Asked to explain his enthusiasm for teen idols, the wota in a fur-rimmed cowboy hat, an unemployed 27-year-old who lives with his parents and goes by the nickname Hiroppon, finally answered after much thought, saying that he “strenuously” fantasizes about a model one day becoming his girlfriend.
For his soft-spoken friend “Morry,” also 27 years old and a graduate student of musical composition, getting up close to the girls on stage was more about diving into the ethos of kawaii (cuteness). “If I could be born again, I’d want to be a cute girl,” he explained, adding that he sometimes wears T-shirts made for a young-miss physique.
If you wanted to get esoteric about it, you could call all this a Jungian quest for the Inner Princess, a sort of worship at the psychological altar to feminine power.
Maybe. But as I watched these fellows discuss how to squeeze into girls’ clothing or reminisce about some long-gone promotional event, it seemed that more than anything, wota sought the comfort of each other’s presence — the knowledge that other men were also fleeing Japanese conformity.
Around the time everybody started to head toward Akihabara Station, two wota said something that appeared to confirm exactly that hunch.
“People think we’re strange,” said one.
“And so what?” his friend replied.