Less than a week after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki on Jan. 17, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia had not only recorded the ruling in its entry on Miyazaki, but had added an incisive note. When the Miyazaki case was dominating the headlines in 1989, he was referred to as the "Otaku Killer," but now, says Wikipedia, Japanese media tend to refer to him only as a "child murderer."

It's generally agreed that the word "otaku," which roughly describes Japanese men with undeveloped social skills and an obsession for pop culture, in particular anime and manga, did not enter the average person's vocabulary until the Miyazaki case. Police found around 6,000 videotapes in his room as well as countless comic books. Prior to the young printing assistant's arrest for the murder of four little girls in Saitama Prefecture, otaku was a subculture that was mostly invisible. The horrific nature of the killings demonized otaku as soon as they were defined, and until the late 1990s the label had negative connotations.

According to writer Kaoru Takamura in a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, otaku now come out to "gather in the light of day," most famously in Akihabara, which has become their Mecca. The otaku market, also referred to as moe, is estimated to be worth 88 billion yen a year. "Elementary school-age idols are no longer unusual," Takamura points out, referring to businesses that hire women to dress up like maids and cartoon characters and act like little girls while otaku take their pictures. The formerly taboo interests of these men "are now consumed openly." Takamura asks what it is we've learned from the Miyazaki case.