Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Japanese `geeks' finding their own place in the sun

THE GUARDIAN , TOKYO

Akihabara is an unlikely backdrop to a counterculture that is sweeping Japan.

The restaurants in Tokyo's consumer electronics district are of the fast-food variety. There is not a plush boutique or trendy bar to be seen, and the architecture is down-at-heel. It is one of very few neighbourhoods where the air is thick with the stench of rotting bin bags.

Yet hordes of young men cannot stay away. They are the otaku -- geeks in their 20s and 30s who come here to satisfy their appetite for manga comics, television games, animation, whiling away the hours in "cosplay" (costume play) cafes where they are served by young women dressed as anything from French maids to cartoon characters.

It isn't surprising that otaku -- which means "your house"and is used as an ultra-polite word for "you" -- have long been derided as weirdos.

With poor dress sense, lack of social skills, and obsessive pursuit of their hobbies, they were once pilloried as everything that was wrong with the modern Japanese male. But they are gaining respectability, as the society that once dismissed now attempts to understand them.

A good place to start is the At Home Cafe, one of about a dozen establishments in Akihabara that caters for otaku. Customers are greeted by women dressed as French maids. For an extra ?1,000, they will change into a schoolgirl's uniform before serving coffee, lovingly stirring in every teaspoonful of sugar.

Hiroshi Kato is every inch the otaku, from his bottle glasses, untucked checked shirt, jeans and trainers, down to the paunch. He even describes himself as an otaku, although he admits to a regular TV game habit and to spending a fair amount of time and money in Akihabara's myriad computer and gadget shops. He doubts, though, that the otaku boom will turn out to be anything more than a momentary fascination.

"I think it's great that more people are taking an interest in the otaku phenomenon, but the only ones who really understand it are all here in Akihabara. It won't be long before the outside world are dismissing the otaku as strange again," he said.

According to Nomura Research Institute, the otaku market is worth US$2.6 billion. Some regard the otaku as a new driving force behind industrial innovation based on satisfying consumers' aesthetic and emotional needs rather than their desire for status. Some even see them as Japan's best weapon in the Asian fight-back against US domination of popular culture.

For now, though, the successes of otaku-influenced media have been confined to the domestic scene. They include Densha Otoko (Train Man), a book based on a real-life geek's online chat room postings seeking advice on how to approach a woman he met on a train. The book endeared the otaku to the Japanese, selling 1.5 million copies since it was published last autumn. The film version swept to the top of the box-office charts last month.

The search is on for Japan's top 100 geeks. Thousands of men are expected to sit the exam, organized by the Tokyo-based publisher Biblos, in which they will be tested on their knowledge of the fundamentals of the nerd lifestyle -- comic books, video games, cartoons, female pop idols and computers.

Momo, a French-maid waitress, says she is happy in the company of men who otherwise have trouble interacting with women.

"I like talking to the customers here, even those who seem shy or might be here because they have some sort of Lolita complex,'' she said.

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