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Japan's 'nerd culture' almost mainstream

A Japanese subculture that focuses on comics and life-size dolls has grown so enormous it has taken over an entire neighborhood in Tokyo and is making inroads into the mainstream.
A man who identified himself only as Masa holds "Konoha," his anime-faced doll, at his apartment near Tokyo in December.Shuji Kajiyama / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Masa puts his arm affectionately around Konoha’s sloping shoulders on the couch in his apartment and gently brushes her hair from her bright blue eyes. Iris stands behind them, decked out in a frilly dress.

Masa speaks warmly to Konoha and Iris, greeting them brightly each morning and when he returns home from work, but they never answer. His companions are life-sized dolls.

“She doesn’t have to talk, because I enjoy her as a doll, not as a substitute for a person,” Masa, a 32-year-old computer engineer who asked to be identified only by a shortening of his first name, said of Konoha, his favorite.

A grown man living with two nearly 5-foot-tall dolls in his apartment — and dozens of smaller figurines — would seem bizarre anywhere. And indeed, Masa keeps his full identity hidden and his curtains drawn to avoid ridicule by outsiders.

But he also is on the cutting edge of a billion-dollar “Nerd Culture” that has grown so enormous it has taken over an entire neighborhood in Tokyo and is making inroads into the mainstream.

The culture is firmly rooted in Japan’s enduring fascination with “manga” comic books and animation that have won fans and critical acclaim worldwide.

Waitresses dressed as comic book maids
But Masa and others like him — known as “otaku” — have taken that trend to another level by collecting dolls like Konoha or flocking to cafes staffed by waitresses dressed as comic book maids. They stock Web pages with photos of their dolls “posing” along country roads or taking a dip in hotspring baths.

A 32-year-old computer system engineer who agreed to be identified only as Masa, part of his first name, speaks to The Associated Press before a collection of anime-faced dolls at his apartment near Tokyo Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005. Konoha silently sits in a chair. Masa says his ideal anime girl is somewhat \"between younger sister and a girlfriend.\" Masa is one of \"Akiba boys,\" geeks who comes to Akihabara, an electronic town, for \"manga\" comics, \"anime\" films and computer games, or figurines of cartoon girls in sexy poses. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)Shuji Kajiyama / AP

The growing popularity of “otaku culture” has transformed the Akihabara neighborhood in downtown Tokyo from the city’s main electronics district into a magnet for 20- to 40-year-old men looking for comics, video games and anime DVDs. Figurines of all sizes of sexy doe-eyed girls in mini-skirts are big sellers. Maid cafes are on every block.

While part of the appeal of manga and anime figures is pornographic, an Internet survey of Japan’s doll collectors indicated most buy the figures only to dress or photograph them or simply to show them off.

The otaku — overwhelmingly male — have long been considered social misfits who soothe their loneliness with fantasy, but the runaway success of a movie this year about a nerd who falls in love, “Train Man,” has helped make otaku tastes and aesthetics more widely embraced in Japan.

“Otaku used to be locked inside their rooms, but I think there is more social acceptance of them now,” Kosuke Tanaka, a 21-year-old college junior, said while examining a doll in a navy-blue school bathing suit.

A codeword for the culture
The subculture even has its own codeword: “moe,” an eros-laced affection for female comics and anime characters. Once known only among the nerd cognoscenti, the phrase has entered the mainstream and was the cultural buzzword of the year.

Such hobbies might still seem marginal — until you consider the money involved.

The Hamagin Research Institute in Yokohama estimated 2003 sales of comics, games and anime films in the “moe” genre totaled $767 million.

The otaku economy includes Internet auctions of dolls, comics, films, trading cards, outfits. Osaka-based Kaiyodo Co., Japan’s leading anime-doll maker, projects sales of $25.6 million this year, up 10 percent from the previous year.

Economist Takuro Morinaga at UFJ Institute puts the overall otaku market at $26 billion to $34 billion.

The “moe” phenomenon is also drawing spectators.

“Akihabara is an emerging tourist destination. ... It’s like a theme park,” said Shinichiro Nagashima at Japan’s largest travel agent, JTB Corp.’s publishing arm, which issued a “Tokyo city guide for new type.”

While Masa and his fellows might seem strange, their hobbies are not entirely beyond the scope of Japanese culture.

The nation has long nurtured a fascination with artifice — think bonsai, rock gardens or even gadgets like talking vending machines. Otaku have married that with the deep affection for innocence, which sometimes leads to young girls being viewed as sex symbols.

Cause for concern?
The phenomenon is seen by many as a troubling deviation, reflecting a loss of confidence among youth and a Japanese aversion to personal conflict — typified by the estimated 1 million social recluses known as “hikikomori.” Some critics link the fascination with female characters to crimes targeting young girls.

“Because of fear of being rejected or disliked, people turn to anime characters or idols that pose no personal conflict,” said psychologist Rika Kayama. “But there is a danger. ... Otaku who live in the fantasy world of anime often give little thought to how they may look to others.”

Masa, however, is concerned about the way he is seen by others, and he resents any suggestion that otaku are deviant. But he doesn’t let those concerns get in the way of his expensive hobbies.

In addition to Konoha and Iris, which together cost $6,030, his tiny living room is stocked with dozens of smaller dolls, robots and comics.

Masa’s dolls are well-cared for. Their clothes take up more room in his closet than his do: a Chinese-style dress with deep side-slits, blouses with bows, outfits of all kinds. He has also bought lace-up boots, sneakers and other footwear for the dolls when he goes driving with them in his van, mainly to take pictures.

He carefully combs Konoha’s brown hair with a wooden comb to cut down on static. Concerned that her mini-skirt is a tad too immodest, he folds her pale hand demurely over her lap.

He has no intention of ever getting married or finding a girlfriend.

“Konoha looks straight out, as if she is talking to you,” Masa said as he adjusted the angle of her head. “She has a face that makes her my dream girl.”