An Introduction to… Maniacs, Victims and Otaku (part 1)
In Japan as in other countries, people often spend a great deal of time and money on their hobby, be it an activity (a sport, playing a musical instrument, cosplay), a physical object (trains, anime, cats), a celebrity (music idols or TV/film talents), a character (Hello Kitty, Anpanman, Mameshiba), a brand (fashion label) and so on.
Such enthusiasms are positively encouraged in Japanese society.
Among the population though (and more frequently than in the west it seems) there are large numbers who take their enthusiasm to extremes, to the point of obsession or beyond, thus earning themselves the label of “otaku”. This is often translated into English as “geek” or “nerd”, but this really doesn’t express its extreme nature. Otaku is actually closer to “maniac”.
While many in the West might consider this strange or excessive, in Japan it isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact there’s a fine line between obsession and expertise and some otaku have actually become famous celebrities as a result.
Perhaps the most famous example is Sakana-kun(*), a somewhat hyperactive fish-otaku, who leapt from obscurity to fame a few years ago. His interest began as a child, when he developed an octopus fetish and this gradually developed into an incredible expertise in all manner of marine life. He was thrust into the public spotlight after winning a TV quiz, with a unique combination of incredible knowledge and a bizarre childlike otaku personality. Despite lacking a formal qualification in the subject he was appointed by Tokyo University (Japan’s most highly regarded public university) as a guest Assistant Professor in 2006 and frequently appears on TV and print media. In Japan he’s a legend.
(*) “sakana” is Japanese for “fish”.
Sakana-kun’s depth of knowledge and understanding of all things to do with fish is nothing short of astounding, and in addition he is quite a talented illustrator, now having authored numerous books on our scaly friends.
As further evidence of the esteem in which he is held, it was recently announced that Sakana-kun has been appointed Japan’s “fish ambassador”.
The internet is filled with articles on Sakana-kun – check some of the Google links.
and Sakana-kun’s homepage (click here) is filled with all manner of information and links.
A (slightly uncharacteristically) toned-down and subdued Sakana-kun can be seen in this English video:
As a second significant example of otaku popularity, one of the most popular Japanese films in recent years was Densha Otoko (“Train Man”), about the awkwardness felt by a computer otaku and his attempts to romance a woman he met on a train, which attracted massive audiences and spawned other otaku-character-centred interest.
Based on an alleged true incident originally posted on an internet chartroom, Densha Otoko was so popular it appeared as a book, a comic, a TV series, the abovementioned film and even a theatre production.
More on the history and phenomenon of Densha Otoko here.
Such examples demonstrate Japan’s contrast to many Western countries where society tends to disapprove of or shun the obsessive, thus leaving many feeling isolated or rejected.
While enthusiasts/obsessives in Japan may not be well-understood, they are nevertheless well-encouraged and are therefore far from lacking in esteem, often surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and forming happy niche communities within which they are able to socialise and indulge in their delights without limit.
Much has been written about them, and many otaku have become the focus for photographic books about their obsessive behaviour.
A typical example (by Kyoichi Tsuzuki , quite a well-known documentarian of interesting Japanese phenomena) is this one, the appropriately titled “Happy Victims”, which focusses on individuals who obsessively fill their entire world with specific fashion labels.
One quite regularly spots such fashion obsessives on Tokyo trains, and I managed a few quick snaps recently of two such enthusiasts, one a definite fan of Coach and another who clearly has an unusually high interest in A Nightmare Before Christmas.
(click the images to enlarge)
Read more on Otaku! Continue here to the next installment: