Memoirs of Japan's otaku
Connected to the world with sophisticated devices, these geeks lead an isolated life
Any country that dispenses girls' used panties from vending machines needs its collective mind examined. No wonder Japan has some of the world's most dysfunctional geeks. Just look at the case of Tsutomu Miyazaki. Between 1988 and 1989, Miyazaki mutilated and killed four girls, aged four to seven, then raped their corpses. He even ate portions of his third and fourth victims.
The authorities eventually arrested Miyazaki for an unrelated sexual assault involving a zoom lens. In his flat they found a stash of pornographic and slasher videotapes along with videos and pictures of his victims, earning the deformed printing assistant the nickname, the Otaku Murderer.
Miyazaki, also known as Dracula, has given otaku a bad name, but an otaku is not necessarily a psychopath, just a little crazy, according to sci-fi seer William Gibson, who inserted the term into his 1996 novel Idoru. The meaning supplied by a Japanese translation computer used by a character in the book was 'pathological techno-fetishist with social deficit'.
That should be right. On one hand, the otaku worships technical sophistication, tapping into the national appetite for artifice embodied by bonsai, rock gardens, robots and devices such as smart vacuum cleaners.
On the other hand, the otaku is a recluse with a hankering for innocence and a fondness for indulging in fantasy to alleviate loneliness. Confounding the Asian herd mentality stereotype, he or she lives at home, is rather short on work experience, or indeed experience of any kind, and unable to handle the cut, thrust and tedium of office life.
Although Japan's estimated 3million otaku do communicate electronically, they have very little physical contact with other human beings. Apart from occasional visits from mummy, who pushes meals through the door, the otaku is intensely isolated.
In his extensive free time, he quietly immerses himself in
e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging, obsessed by the violent and often erotic comic books known as manga. He also seeks solace in the quasi-human presence of life-sized dolls that may so beguile him that he displays webpages adorned with images of his loved ones posing along rural roads like characters from the Wizard of Oz, or bathing their plastic bodies in hot springs.
If that sounds kinky, it is. The typical otaku treats his mannequin like a goddess and has no plans to get a girlfriend, let alone a wife - which would be too messy. Also, there is the risk of rejection - always a likelihood given the otaku's notorious indifference to his appearance.
Mothers refuse to sponsor the girlfriend substitution antics of their introverted offspring at their peril. Witness the recent case of a 27-year-old jobless man from Fukaya, northwest of Tokyo. Hiroyuki Ichikawa was arrested for setting fire to a futon in his home after getting angry with his mother for refusing to buy him dolls.
Normally, otaku are peace-loving and, in many cases, proud of their geekiness. As proof of their devotion to their calling, some go so far as to take an otaku exam organised by manga publisher Biblos, which tests their knowledge of cartoons, comic books, video games, female pop idols and computers. Sample question: 'True or false: a timed incendiary device was planted at a Comic Market event between 1996 and 2002?'
Despite their creepy existence, otaku are starting to lose their leper status and becoming an accepted part of mainstream Japanese society, if that is not a contradiction in terms. 'Nerd culture', or moe sangyo, has expanded so aggressively that the Akihabara district has become a geek ghetto.
If only half the otaku fell in love, an economic argument goes, the financial implications would be momentous, with dating alone likely to add about 330 billion yen (US$2.8 billion) to Japan's gross domestic product. That said, you wonder exactly what kind of she-geek is likely to fall under the spell of someone whose sexual experience is limited to trysts with replicants.
Although the otaku may own the most sophisticated electronic communications devices, he is deeply disconnected. In this so-called participation age, the otaku appears the picture of loneliness.