Fantasy in Their Hearts

“Reclusive, quirky, and even dangerous,” Misako, a pretty, young Japanese businesswoman remarked when asked about the otaku. “I wouldn’t talk to one if I were you. Imagine this: a middle-aged man with long black hair, carrying a bagful of anime comics, and wearing an automaton’s stare on his face.” The otaku, as Misako explained, are passionate anime fans, per- ceived by many Japanese as antisocial and even threatening. This reputation was born out of a horrifying crime in 1989 when a man named Tsutomo Miyazaki murdered four girls. During the subse- quent investigations, detectives found an extensive collection of an- ime in Miyazaki’s home, earning him the nickname “The Otaku Murderer” and fueling mass panic toward the comic-loving subculture.


The public backlash, however, could not curb the explosive growth of amateur anime in the 1990s. The advent of cheap comic-printing technologies created a mass market for the cartoons. Wildly popular annual Comic Market conventions began to draw thousands of fans to the hobby, many of them Japanese youth. Though this Golden Age of anime has since ended, the otaku still flock to their signature spot, Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood, famous for “maid cafés” where at- tractive waitresses dress up in maids’ outfits and treat their custom- ers as masters. One such waitress, Muffin, went to work sporting a frilly maid’s dress, a Hello Kitty patent leather purse, and plastic gem jewelry. She greeted her customers with a disarmingly childish smile: “Konnichiwa. I come from Pokémon world and traveled by light to be- come the happiest 17-year-old maid forever!”

While the waitresses’ behavior is itself eccentric, it often pales in comparison to that of the single, thirty-year-old male otaku who fre- quent these cafés to play rock-paper-scissors and sing puerile songs with the young girls. Masa Ueta, a finance executive in Tokyo, told the Globalist: “These men are fanatics with fetishes. Their unique interests can alienate them from the real world, so they instead find refuge in this imaginary one.” He warned of the consequences of this approach: “After pretending for so long, they can easily begin to be- lieve that these imaginary worlds are real.” During the otaku heyday, some sociologists worried that these fantasies posed serious prob- lems for Japanese society. Sharon Kinsella, a sociologist specializing in the otaku subculture, expressed these concerns in the Journal of Japanese Studies in 1998: “What will become of Japan if society con- tinues to fragment into these self-satisfied, complacent micro-mass- es? They live in tiny cabins on a huge ship. They do not care if the sea is rough or calm, nor do they care what direction the ship is taking.”

This perception, however, is changing. The 2005 film Train Man helped jumpstart a shift in attitude toward the otaku. The movie fol- lowed the true story of an otaku man who saved a beautiful, young girl from sexual harassment and—to the delight of audiences—eventually won her heart. Increasingly, more Japanese are realizing that many otaku do in fact lead normal lives. Take Keichii, a young man who was walking around Akihabara one night, dressed in a black shirt and tight black jeans and hoisting a bag brimming with anime books. “Anime fans have a hobby, and they become experts at what they do,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you have a passion for it. They all have jobs and an income to support their hobby.”

Keichii further explained that the original anime-obsessed gen- eration of the 1990s has literally grown up. No longer afforded the economic freedom of adolescence, they cannot devote their full at- tentions to their hobby. They now have families and full-time jobs to worry about, and Keichii claimed most have learned to strike a bal- ance. One of his otaku friends, Keichii explained, runs his own genetics research lab—yet he still frequently travels to Akihabara to keep up with the latest anime trends.

With the end of the otaku Golden Age has come the end of a sub- culture so disengaged from the real world that the rest of society had grown to fear it. Today, the otaku are returning to reality, hanging on to their favorite pastime but understanding that they must focus on other aspects of their lives. In the end, contrary to popular belief, otaku are just normal people who remain devoted to a quirky hobby. As Keiichi put it, “Otaku have fantasy in their hearts, but they can deal with reality as well.”



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