Dispatch, Japan: In Tokyo, embracing 'otaku'

Dispatch, Japan: In Tokyo, embracing 'otaku'
© TW photo by Eric Moya

After spending three days in Japan's Tohoku region, destinations editor Eric Moya visited Tokyo for a day. His second dispatch follows.

The Brits call them anoraks. In the States they're fanboys and geeks. In Japan they're otaku.

These terms all describe someone who has an obsessive interest, usually to the detriment of a social life. And while "otaku" has been used to describe enthusiasts across a variety of hobbies, it primarily applies to fans of anime (cartoons) and manga (comic books).

If there's a mecca for otaku, it's the Akihabara area of Tokyo's Chiyoda City. I made my way there on foot, about a 30-minute walk from my hotel near Tokyo's main rail station. When I spotted a young woman trying to drum up business for a maid cafe, I figured I was in the right place.

I walked into a building comprising six floors, each catering to a specific otaku interest: action figures on one, manga on another, anime DVDs on yet another.

© TW photo by Eric Moya

Then there were the cosplay levels, for those shopping for costumes or dress-up accessories. This is a pastime, coincidentally, that has gained tremendous traction in the U.S. over the past decade or so, as evidenced in the soaring popularity of comic cons.

To that point: In the States, once-geeky preoccupations such as superheroes now rule the pop culture landscape, as anyone who's been to a multiplex over the past decade can attest. It certainly wasn't the case when I was a kid, when "comic cons" were truly comic book conventions, the exclusive domain of American Legion halls or midprice-hotel ballrooms and certainly not somewhere you'd run into the likes of Scarlett Johansson or Chris Hemsworth. (Butch "Eddie Munster" Patrick and the Trans-Am from "Knight Rider," perhaps.)

But whereas traditionally nerdy pursuits have entered the U.S. mainstream, that's not my sense of what otaku culture is. Anime and manga have long been an integral part of Japanese pop culture, and in Akihabara, a community of folks found each other and cultivated a place where otaku could indulge their interests. And on the weekday afternoon I visited, there were also plenty of international visitors browsing manga shelves and action figure displays.

That seems like a pretty well-socialized group to me. No wonder that "otaku," despite originating as a pejorative, is increasingly taken as a term of endearment. Anoraks/fanboys/otaku of the world, unite.

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