After taking a short hiatus to work on some fellowship application, I’m back and with some thoughts on otaku culture in Tokyo and Osaka. Though the word otaku can refer to being an extreme fan of any hobby, common usage dictates that an otaku is someone who is particularly obsessed with anime and manga. In the way that it is used by non-otaku to describe others the word usually has a negative connotation. But recently through media like Densha Otoko (電車男), which follows one male otaku who helps a girl fend off a drunk guy on a train and then proceeds to develop a relationship with her, the image of otaku has softened a bit. At least to the point where people who are really into anime and manga aren’t assumed to be perverts (because let’s be honest, there’s a lot of pornographic anime/manga out there). Still, otaku culture has become a political issue in Japan, because some young people retreat from society and hole themselves up in their apartments only to venture out to the convenience store for sustenance and to buy the latest comic books. These are the so-called hikikomori (lit. ‘withdrawn’). Honestly, there is so much literature on this topic and how it supposedly exemplifies postmodernity in the first world that I’m not going to attempt a summary here.
The two meccas of otaku culture are Akihabara in Tokyo and Nipponbashi or “Den Den Town” (日本橋) in Osaka. I visited Akihabara with the other Fulbright Fellows back in September and Den-Den Town last week. One thing that struck me at both places was that there were a lot of young teenage girls purchasing anime-related goods and playing in the arcades. Usually otaku are only portrayed as guys. It’s definitely worth a trip to either of these places just to see what it’s all about. These places have become cultural landmarks in their own right – at least in the sense that they have English-language tourist guide centers. Here are some pictures so you can get a sense of how bombarded one’s senses are by the rampant commercialism and neon lights of animated characters.