A whirlwind tour-bus jaunt around Tokyo might take a rider to the Ueno Zoo, the Yasukuni Shrine, the Imperial Palace, a Kabuki performance, or a matcha tea-tasting. Amid all the tradition of Japan, however, no visitor would be able to miss the powerful undercurrent of otaku culture.
The word “otaku” is, technically, a Japanese word that formally refers to someone else, functioning like “you” in English. Later, it took on a meaning similar to the word “dude,” which has a complex history and meaning, but is what many younger people, even females, in the U.S. call each other. A far cry from its original definition of a male who works on a farm, the so-called “dude culture” of informal friendships based on casual encounters might be something like a Western version of the otakus. But not quite.
Noise, light and mostly a lot of fun
Much ado is made in mainstream media outlets (the Japan-based ones anyway) about the “challenge” of the otakus, who tend to be youngish adults that dress or act in very non-Japanese ways. Similar behavior in San Francisco or London might not get much notice at all, but in traditional, buttoned-down Japan, orange hair and Disney headbands can be considered dangerous, at least by a conservative press.
Many social scientists have divided up the entire otaku “movement” into a series of sub-genres, each of which describes a particular avocation. Indeed, much of what of called “otaku” is merely a reference to hobbies that are carried to an extreme form in some cases. Since the 1980s, when otaku behavior and social groups began to show themselves in public, Japanese social scientists have been pouring cash into serious research about the phenomenon. In many ways, Japan’s varied otaku groups are like a watered-down version of 1960s hippies and anti-war activists, but with a lighter, non-threatening touch.
Who are they?
A five-minute Sunday walk through the Akihabara neighborhood, Tokyo’s otaku headquarters and the Venice beach of Japan, is all it takes to see the “movement” in full bloom: Pre-teen girls and boys dressed as manga and anime characters; high-school kids decked out in 1950s James Dean apparel and dancing to boom-box swing tunes; school girls dressed as “lolitas”; boys with shaved heads and fake tattoos; karate teams in full regalia; karaoke amateurs with their microphones, belting out English language pop standards. The palette changes from week to week, but the sum total of all the otaku hullaballoo adds up to kids and young adults having great fun. Granted, it is a uniquely Japanese form of expression, with 99 percent of it in groups and creating no significant trouble of any kind other than offending older, more traditional citizens.
Because social life in Japan is much more compartmentalized than in the West, a Japanese person’s lifestyle might seem odd to an average American or European. In fact, the entire otaku “sensation,” as some commentators call it, is not new at all. There have been opera and art aficionados for centuries, but no one ever referred to them as social outcasts.
Sadly, two recent cases of violent crime in Japan that involved perpetrators who were dubbed otaku by the media (a shameless practice to sell subscriptions in both cases) led to a widespread negative opinion of the entire social movement. Fortunately, that bad reputation has all but dissipated in the last couple of years as more Japanese realize that just about anyone with a hobby could be classified as an otaku, including opera buffs and classical music “freaks.”
What Westerners call the “gamer” or “gaming” sub-culture makes up a key segment of Japan’s otaku population, as do (using Western terminology) computer geeks, gear heads (automotive enthusiasts), cartoon buffs, IT nerds, model railroad hobbyists, fashionistas, foodies, gadget hounds, comic book nuts, celebrity worshipers, and audiophiles. Each of those categories is routinely called out in Japanese media as either a dangerous or mentally disturbed sub-group. Which begs the question: Is anyone not an otaku?
Everyone likes something, prefers one form of music or art over another, or dreams of having a few weeks free to pursue some special activity. All of which goes to show that the ballyhooing of the so-called “otaku culture” is little more than a tabloid invention complete with shock headlines and wild photos of “deranged” youth. Nothing could be further from the truth.
How to spot an otaku a mile away
Japanese otakus are easy to pick out of a crowd, except for the reclusive types who do their hobby gig behind closed doors. To view the otaku in their natural habitat, ask any Tokyo cabbie to take you to Akihabara. Get out and begin to wander aimlessly around the neighborhood. Here’s what to look for:
Otakus love bandanas and wear them 24/7 in some cases.
Plaid shirts paired with multi-pocketed pants
If one style defines the otaku, this is it. When not in some other uniform, as a runway model or lolita for example, many a self-respecting otaku dons parachute pants and brightly-colored plaid shirts.
Backpacks and paper shopping bags
No one knows why, but many a Sunday otaku seems unable to walk without one of both of these objects. The backpack often contains a more elaborate costume or outlandish uniform for later fun, while the paper shopping bag is a definitive statement against the nation’s plastic culture. At least that’s one theory. Government-sponsored research teams will no doubt continue to look into this subtle but important aspect of otaku behavior.
People dressed as a Hollywood or Disney icon
Especially Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mouse. James Dean is another character who has somehow become more famous in Japan than he ever was in his home country.
Anyone carrying a self-contained karaoke machine
And performing in a group by the side of the road. This is the very essence of otaku-ness, combining several molecules of the culture in a unique way. It has technology, music, broadcast equipment, public performance and usually some pretty wild costumes. If otakus were a species, this form would be the master DNA.
Few travelers to Japan expect to encounter so much otaku cultural influences, but the reality of life in Tokyo and elsewhere is that what was once a tiny sub-strata of society is now a large part of Japan’s social life. In some ways, those who clandestinely study ancient tea ceremony and the preparation of matcha tea could be considered “history otakus.”
In any case, the term is coming to mean something other than English equivalents like “nerd” and “freak.” Today’s otakus are more akin to what Western culture refers to as hobbyists, or specialized enthusiasts of any stripe. Japan never ceases to amaze even the jaded traveler.