On a rainy Saturday afternoon in the Akihabara section of Tokyo, a long line of college-age men snaked down the stairs of a dingy, seven-storey building. They were waiting - some of them for up to two hours - to enter a cafe where the young waitresses wear French-maid uniforms and address their customers as 'masters'. The men are otaku, a name given to men and women who are obsessed with manga and anime, Japanese comic books and videos. Many of them attend Tokyo-area universities, where clubs devoted to anime production or favourite comic-book characters abound. The fascination with the art form seems to pervade every aspect of college life in Japan, both on campus and off. Queues of otaku can be found at nearly a dozen similar 'maid cafes', as they are called, in an area of the city known as Otaku Town. There are also scores of Japanese comic and anime shops. At one of the cafes, Mari Noguchi, a student at a junior college - she won't say which one - plays the role of the maid, getting down on her knees to take orders from Hiroyuki Ito, a first year student at Yokohama City University and his friend, Michihito Kikuchi, in his second year at Saitama University. Although the scene makes the waitress appear subservient, she views her job as acting a role and sometimes even giggles while taking orders. Mr Ito sees the cafe, with its feminine decor and docile waitresses, as 'escapist fun'. He spends two or three hours a day reading manga or drawing fantasy stories featuring wizards, sorcerers and superheroes. Mr Kikuchi prefers samurai stories and watches anime for at least three hours every day. These students represent an enormous subculture in Japan, one that is spreading overseas. There are an estimated 2.8 million otaku in Japan, and hundreds of thousands in other countries, including the US. Although the word otaku originally held the negative connotation of 'geek' or 'nerd', internationalisation has softened the meaning and widened its appeal. 'The impression of otaku in other countries is more open and positive, more cheerful but here in Japan it is more closed and negative,' said Shota Ueno, a senior studying manga design at Kyoto Seika University. 'But it depends on the person. Some otaku are nerds, others are more decent.' Dressing up as Gundam, Goth Lolita, or other manga and anime characters, an activity called 'cosplay' (costume play) attracts its own following among Japanese college students. In the US, the first otaku, who appeared in the early 1990s, were mainly introverted Asian-Americans hooked on science fiction and computer games. 'Now otaku are more diverse,' said Susan Napier, who has taught courses on anime at the University of Texas at Austin and has written several books on the phenomenon. 'Afro-Americans, Hispanics, and even Muslim students are drawn to it. Otaku are also more gender-equal than in the past.' The otaku movement may be growing, but plenty of anime fans in Japan steer clear of the label. Meiko Hamaguchi, a senior studying manga design at Kyoto Seika University, said she was not an otaku: 'I enjoy drawing manga but my view is very different from that of the stereotypes in Akihabara. I think they are too extreme and I don't want to admit I am otaku.'