The Japanese nation seems to be firmly in the grip of the otaku.

Every society seeks an overriding metaphor that is emblematic of a particular decade or era. Well, the metaphor of the moment in this country is the lifestyle and communication style (or, noncommunication style) of the otaku.

The otaku novel “Densha Otoko (Train Man)” grew out of an Internet bulletin board on Channel 2, and has sold more than 1 1/2 million copies and been made into a feature film since it was published last October by Shinchosha.

This feckless “classic of the chat room” depicts the life, if you can call it that, of a full-on otaku who has about as much chance of getting a girl as Woody Allen in a Ukrainian convent. But thanks to a display of artless altruism toward a stressed-out damsel on a train, charm oozes out of his googly-eyed, two-left-feet, klutzy presence.

Now, Japan is the fad society to end all fad societies, and when something takes off here it spreads like wildfire. A train pulls into the station and someone who is respected hollers, “Everybody off! We’ve gotta take another train!” — and sure enough, people file out of the carriage without complaint and march across the platform to the next departing train. It’s the new direction for everyone: They may not know where the train is going, but it’s a novel turn of events that everyone else is taking, too, and they all seem content. This is the metaphor of the train that represents Fad Japan, and in 2005 the Train Man is calling the stations.

What exactly is an otaku?

The word itself is an honorific, formal and now obsolescent form of “you.” The gawky nerdy goofballs who are more at home breathing on their computers and Game Boys than on members of the opposite sex were said to use this stiff term when trying to approach women. Their use of “otaku” for “you” in, say, the expression Otaku wa ikaga desu ka? (How about you?) is equivalent to a fellow trying to strike up a conversation in English with, “What may I do for you, Miss?” — likely adding for dorky good measure such seductive lines as, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” or “Do you come here often, Miss? I know I do.”

That such a nebbish would have anything but a long string of lonely nights before him is hardly surprising.

The otaku culture takes artistic expression in a number of ways: addiction to anime and manga, particularly the cuter end of the genres; being hooked on electronic goods; worshipping adorable idols. In this world, Hello Kitty is not just a Japanese Mickey Mouse substitute, she is the Guardian Angel of inner feelings: a lovable smooth-plastic cat that serves as the only constant sweetie-puss.

The otaku freaks out over those things in the subculture that society finds vaguely weird as obsessions.

A person who is crazy about stamps or steam trains may be a maniac, in the Japanese terminology; but they are never otaku. Stamps and trains are acceptable obsessions. The dyed-in-the-wool otaku is different. He spends his every available moment in Tokyo’s “Electric Town” of Akihabara surrounded by his beloved gadgets, his fantasy-stirring comics and his cutsey figurines — to whom he relates more readily than he does to fellow human beings.

As such, the otaku is essentially narcissistic. Theirs is a “virtual masturbation” culture focused on fantasy objects and images.

So how did this otaku type become the working metaphor of an entire culture?

Look at the metaphor of the previous generation of Japanese, the Battling Salaryman, called a modern samurai replacing sword with briefcase. The best-selling study “Tateshakai no ningen kankei (Human Relations in Japan),” published in 1967 by Tokyo University Prof. Chie Nakane, set the tone for this type. Japanese society was described as a vertical society in which people knew their station and responded to others on the basis of it.

The engine of Japanese power in the 1960s and ’70s was the salaryman who gave his all to the company (read country) at the expense of family. His loyalties were above him.

But the 1990s brought recession and the loss of social momentum. No longer was the intrepid salaryman the working metaphor of a nation. According to a recent government report, only 16 percent of young people think their parents’ lives are worth living for themselves. Behind this, there seems to be a loss of faith among the young in the hard-working company man — he who used to be called in the United States “the man in the gray flannel suit.”

Where can young people turn? During their time of disillusion with the postwar work ethic, American young people looked to the beatniks and the hippies for inspiration. The young generation of America in the tumultuous 1965-75 decade chose to follow the lead of long hair, passionate protest and opting out of what they saw as the stifling and drudging “system.”

With no war here to protest — as there was in Vietnam back then for American youth (and many of their contemporaries beyond those shores, as well) — and given the typical Japanese apathy that pervades all generations regarding social and political movements, where could the young Japanese of the 1990s turn? The answer is, they turned to fantasy; to escape. At least the otaku is harmless, they might say. A guy who is into gadgets, animated characters and dolls doesn’t have the power to hurt others.

I don’t think that this metaphor for Japanese society will last much longer. No one is going to entrust their future to the Train Man. He represents a culture that, if curiously attractive and creative, is heading nowhere fast.

The otaku culture certainly represents a dumbing down of Japan; and when the Japanese dumb down, they dumb down methodically and thoroughly. The culture of ideas and of intellectual polemics that once held sway here is right now exceedingly dormant; and the models of dynamic progress that are evident in other countries in Asia are in Japanese pieces.

What will the new metaphor of Japan be once the next train pulls into the station?

It is sad to say that all of the working metaphors for this country have been male dominated. However, the Foreign Ministry reported that as of Oct. 1, 2004, the number of Japanese people living and working overseas was 961,307 — 467,627 of them men, but with women in the majority, at 493,680. Wouldn’t it be nice if this outward-looking, international Japanese woman — in whatever form the culture chose to portray her — became the new symbol of Japan?

Once thing is for sure: no one would then be apt to say, “Nerds have all the luck.”

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.