You can spot them at Tokyo's sprawling electronics bazaar called Akihabara (Electric Town). They're the geeky types who actually get a kick out of building their own personal computers and hunt endlessly for central processing units, routers, high-performance motherboards, and Wi-Fi antennas.
Or you might find them at manga and classic toy dealers in central Tokyo where it's not uncommon to shell out $1,400 for an early-'70s version of Rika-Chan (Japan's Barbie) sporting a suntan. Have a spare $2,000? That's the going rate for the original two-volume edition of fabled anime legend Osamu Tezuka's The World of the Future comic book.
In Japan, this bizarre tribe of consumers is called otaku, which, loosely translated, means a geek or nerd—an anime freak or obsessive collector. They're somewhat fanatical about their preferences and represent a surprisingly powerful shopping subculture in Japan.
Yes, they're a bit on the weird side, but together they spend about $3.5 billion a year on anime DVDs, manga, robotic toys, IT gadgets, and other stuff, according to a recent study by Nomura Research Institute. "Their lifetime expenditure in specific fields is much higher than ordinary consumers," says Ken Kitabayashi, a Nomura Research consultant.
Some otaku may suffer from serious gadget lust and collection fixations, but they are trendsetters. Big game-console makers such as Sony and Nintendo, and Japanese game designers study the whims and buying habits of this group closely for signals of what's hot and what's not.
For instance, otaku types largely drove the cult-like following for an arcade game introduced by Namco Bandai late last year called idolm@ster. In this game, players create and manage ultra-cute pop stars. It took off like a rocket thanks to word of mouth in the otaku community, and is expected to be developed into an animated television series.
As a social phenomenon, too, the otaku wave has gained notoriety. A 2005 film entitled Densha-otoko, or the Train Man, about a geeky Japanese guy in his 20s who intervenes when a drunken passenger starts harassing a woman on a train, spawned several books and a television series.
In Tokyo and elsewhere, theme bars or Maid Cafes, in which waitresses dress up in Victorian maid costumes and imitate a patron's favorite anime character, are all the rage. Otaku mania has even captured attention abroad. English-language Web sites such as www.otakuworld.com and www.otakunews.com track the latest in anime and gadget news.
Despite the international attention, there are plenty of closet otaku inside Japan, especially women. Entrenched society there doesn't always have a great deal of tolerance for eccentrics. Seiichi Hirokawa, a self-admitted television/videogame nut, says "people still have biased views against us, and there are a lot of kakure-otaku (or hidden otaku) who can't talk publicly."
To help out female otaku looking for some geeky conversation, Hirokawa launched the Secret Otaku Support Commission. It will line up female companions for about $100 for a two-and-a-half hour visit and a night of platonic conversation about, say, the latest in custom-made, collector male dolls (now all the rage with young Japanese women).
Hirokawa's company also published a guidebook for women that points out otaku haunts and offers advice about how to indulge secret consumer passions without drawing a lot of attention. One tip from the book about a popular bookstore in central Tokyo reads: "In the most remote part of the manga corner in the basement, there is the BL (boys' love) novel corner. However, if you go there early evening, the floor is rather crowded with customers so you need extra caution."
What really attracts attention from Japanese businesses is the trendsetting and spending power of this group. Japanese anime production companies love them because they will pay top yen for the must-have stuff. For instance, the average unit price of foreign movies fell 17 percent to $20 from 2001 to 2004, according to Nomura Research. However, companies with the rights to classic television anime series and new releases can still get $37 to $42 a pop.
Smart businesses have studied the otaku closely and developed whole new product categories based on what they've learned. Take Tokyo-based Kondo Kagaku, which makes wireless remote-controlled devices for all manner of toys. A few years ago, the company started to notice that its line of servomotors was flying off the shelves. The gadget, which costs about $120, is typically used to control the wheels of radio-controlled cars.
The company figured out that otaku types were actually buying them to build their own robots. They dove into the hobby robotic kit market in 2004 with its first humanoid robot product called the KHR-1. It was a smash hit, and in June of this year the company released KHR-2HV, which costs about $775. The kit comes with 270 pieces—and takes about five hours to assemble with a screwdriver (we're talking otaku nirvana here).
"This is for adult fanatics," says company spokesman Toshiharu Hirai. When it comes to otaku, fanaticism is a way of life.