'Anime'-decorated cars latest 'otaku' fad

by Minoru Matsutani

They’re painful. So painful that pedestrians can’t help staring at them and real girls stay away from their owners.

The heavily decorated vehicles called “itasha” have been experiencing a nationwide resurgence lately, reflecting Japan’s “anime” craze. Combining the words “itai” (“painful”) and “sha” (vehicle), itasha are literally “painful cars” with exteriors pimped out in tacky illustrations or stickers of female animation characters.

The cars tend to grab attention, especially when five of them line up in Tokyo’s electronics mecca of Akihabara, the hub of “otaku” (geeks).

One recent night there in May, 15 men gathered around a group of showy itasha, reveling in the attention.

“We like anime characters and want to show off. It’s as simple as that,” said “Sabugoro,” a 28-year-old man from Kawasaki. His itasha, named Opanchu-Go, is plastered with stickers of idol Nanoha Takamachi from the animated TV series “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.”

The men said nobody sets up a meeting at “Akiba” on Friday evenings because there are always at least 10 itasha owners hanging out at the same spot on Kanda Myojin Street.

However, none of the 15 guys actually dressed up as a cute anime character. All are single, in their 20s and 30s, salaried employees and in possession of enough common sense to follow the traffic rules.

“We tell each other to stop the engines and follow the traffic rules,” Sabugoro said. “None of us parks illegally.”

Itasha are so popular that about 300 owners attended the Fuji Speedway Itasha Meeting on May 5, said the organizer, who goes by the handle “Magi.” He joined the 15 later Friday night after work.

The event at the famous Formula One venue was the second-largest itasha event after the Moesha Meeting in Gifu Prefecture last July that attracted 300 to 400 itasha, Magi and the other itasha owners said.

Moesha and itasha are the same thing.

While there are no statistics on the number of itasha, the gaudy cars hit the cultural scene in late 1990s, going though peaks and troughs just like any other fad. “We are having the latest peak now,” one driver said.

Explaining why the itasha craze has suddenly resurfaced, Sabugoro said the boom is partly due to the proliferation of color stickers, a cheaper decoration that began spreading about two years ago.

“Before then, if you wanted to decorate your cars in colors, you’d have to paint them using an air brush, which is expensive,” Sabugoro said. The increasing quality of home-use color printers, especially using ink with water-resistant qualities, may be a factor behind the resurgence of itasha, he said.

After making designs with color printers, Sabugoro asked a billboard company to complete the detail work for Opanchu-Go, forking out about ¥70,000.

In the Kanto region, Akihabara is the place to be for itasha owners. But Akihabara is not where the anime-laden cars were born.

“The itasha boom emerged sporadically nationwide and has only consolidated at Akihabara. It’s not that Akiba’s otaku culture contributes to the itasha craze,” one owner said.

Although itasha have nothing to do with the notorius “bosozoku” motorcycle gangs, itasha drivers seem to be developing their own cliques.

Later Friday night, after a few hours of nothing but chatting and boasting of their decorating plans, more vehicles arrived and another crowd of owners formed on the other side of the street.

“We don’t talk to them very much,” Sabugoro said. “The street seems to have two separate groups. Us and them.”

Friday gatherings in Akihabara normally end at around midnight or 1 a.m., he said.

This is an occasional series focusing on hot topics, people, events and trends in today’s Japan.