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Nerd Nation Otaku and Youth Subcultures in Contemporary Japan

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By William M. Tsutsui

A wide variety of youth subcultures have appeared in Japan since World War II, many of them shocking polite sensibilities and subverting mainstream society with behaviors considered hedonistic, self-centered, and deviant. Among the subcultures that attract the most attention, both among the public and in academic circles, is the otaku, the notoriously obsessive fans of manga, anime, video games, and other forms of Japanese popular culture. Generally styled as “nerds” or “geeks,” otaku are pictured in Japan’s collective imagination as socially maladjusted young men, physically unattractive (usually gawky or overweight), dressed unstylishly (often sporting backpacks and anoraks), and unnaturally fixated on some narrow corner of mass culture. Otaku are, according to one commentator, “socially inept loners . . . fanatically knowledgeable in one abstruse field, be it Godzilla movies or the history of sumo wrestling”; they are “chronically shy,” “sickly pale,” and “socially inept, but often brilliant technological shut-ins.”1 An otaku, the journalist Tsuzuki Kyoichi concluded, is “someone who doesn’t look good, who has no girlfriend, who is collecting silly things, and . . . who is into something useless.”2 In the more evenhanded words of the Oxford English Dictionary, which added a definition of otaku in March 2008,

Originally in Japan: a person extremely knowledgeable about the minute details of a particular hobby (esp. a solitary or minority hobby); . . . one who is skilled in the use of computer technology and is considered by some to be poor at interacting with others.3