Saturday, August 06, 2005

Nation of nerds.

Is this the first step towards regaining world stature, or another in a series of futile throes?


August 06, 2005

Who is King of the Geeks?

From Leo Lewis in Tokyo

Thousands are taking part in a bizarre contest in the hope of being named Japan’s leading nerd

THIS morning more than half a million self-declared nerds across Japan will be locked in their rooms, frenziedly racking their brains over an examination posing 100 of the most obscure questions imaginable.

If they don’t know, for example, precisely how many more people attended the Tokyo Comiket Manga (comic strip) convention in 2002 than in 2001, they are unlikely to make it past the first section.

Each nerd will be completely alone in this mental endeavour. Internet chatrooms and cyber cafés will be empty. There will be no conferring and the winner will take the greatest pop-culture prize of all — being officially recognised as Japan’s biggest geek, or otaku.

The country’s first Biblos National Proficiency Test for Geeks demonstrates Japan’s otaku boom — a recent phenomenon that has demonstrated the cultural and economic power of young men and women whose obsessive interests and hobbies once pushed them to the margins of Japanese society.

One of the organisers of the examination said: “Our aim is to nurture an otaku elite to carry the otaku culture through the 21st century.”

But the nerds’ passions are their biggest appeal. Prime-time television dramas have been based on their lives, their blogs have become best-sellers and districts of major cities are being refurbished to cater to them.

Major investment houses have begun studying the world of the otaku. Etsuko Suwa, a self-confessed otaku, who has spent the past fortnight preparing for the examination, said: “There has been a lot of discussion in the chatrooms about the questions, but I think I am prepared.

“Just to get within the top 100 in the country will be fantastic, but my parents say I don’t really need an exam to prove I’m an otaku.”

More than a million comic-book obsessives in Japan spend the equivalent of £0.5 billion every year buying comics and travelling to conventions. An estimated 800,000 worship pop stars and fritter the equivalent of about £300 million on attending every event in which their idol is involved. According to a study by the Nomura Research Institute, otaku command a market worth about £1.6 billion a year, without including the Japanese video games market.

Ken Kitabayashi, who compiled the report, said: “We are already working on a revised estimate that includes many other areas of otaku interest we didn’t bring into the initial calculations. If you add in areas such as toy trains, real train-spotting and the new breed of mobile phone otaku, the figure will be vast.”

But the most striking change wrought by the otaku boom has been in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district. For decades the area existed only as a tourist attraction, and for electronics and video game obsessives. But during the past year it has evolved spectacularly. Colourful cafés have sprung up to meet the demand for geek meeting places, and a train line has been constructed to link Akihabara with Tsukuba, a city north of Tokyo where the country’s foremost scientific research takes place.

A massive industrial complex has also been constructed in Akihabara, containing the first university specifically aimed at harnessing the talents of young otaku.

The Digital Hollywood University, which is recognised by the Ministry of Education, offers postgraduate degrees in subjects relating to technology, design and animation.

Tomo Sugiyama, the university’s founder, said: “People describe these young, enthusiastic Japanese as otaku, but I see students who will put everything into turning their interests into a marketable skill.”


Japan’s three million otaku are generally men in their 20s, but the word covers all obsessives, from teenage girls who lose themselves in romantic manga, to trainspotters.

The biggest subset of otaku are manga-otaku — people who trade comics and copy out the images.

Although the word otaku is in everyday use, nobody knows its etymology. Some think it refers to a Japanese word for “house” — implying that they don’t get out much.

It is thought that the word first appeared in print when a columnist used it in a 1983 article about a Tokyo comic convention.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.


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