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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #38 (September 29, 2009), page 16.

A western fanboy explains the ins and outs of otaku culture

The Otaku Encyclopedia

By Patrick W. Galbraith

Kodansha International, 2009

Paperback, 250 pages, $19.95

By Allison Voigts

Otaku: Nerd, geek, or fanboy. A hardcore or cult fan.

It’s easy to understand the meaning of otaku when Patrick Galbraith, author of the recently released Otaku Encyclopedia, walks into Powell’s Bookstore. He is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, with tufts of orange-blond hair shooting out of his head like flames. (He admits later that it’s a wig he had specially made in Hong Kong.) For those of us who don’t read manga, watch anime, or encounter Japanese pop culture in our lives, Galbraith explains he is dressed as "Goku," a character from the popular manga and television series "Dragon Ball Z."

While Japan’s otaku culture, revolving obsessively around technology and media, was once regarded as antisocial and even creepy, it has caught on so quickly in North America and Europe that even the Japanese government now promotes it as one of the country’s top exports.

Galbraith caught his first whiff of the otaku craze as a teenager in Alaska during the ’90s, when manga and anime had not yet achieved an acceptable status in Japan but were already catching on abroad. The author describes how he steeped himself in a culture that had nothing to do with his reality, even eating Japanese candy, like Pocky, whenever he could find it.

"No one could communicate with me anymore," he says, explaining how he tattooed himself with his favorite anime characters and worked for months at a mill in Montana to save up for a signed Sailor Moon figurine.

When Galbraith made his first journey to Japan in 2004, he expected to find "a holy land for otaku. But instead I found they had no place there either."

New friends turned away and shushed him when he mentioned the word (which originates from a polite second-person pronoun meaning "your home" in Japanese, allowing the speaker to refer to the listener indirectly). His host mother evicted him for claiming to be otaku. His girlfriend broke up with him when he began talking about anime to her friends. Japanese media banned the word after a serial killer with a stash of manga and anime was branded the "otaku murderer."

Confused and disappointed, Galbraith found refuge in one corner of Tokyo called Akihabara, or Akiba. A sort of technology ghetto, Akiba drew otaku from the rest of the city with its online gaming cafés, comic and video shops, and impromptu street performances by otaku dressed as their favorite characters — a hobby called cosplay, or costume play.

Galbraith left Japan after a year, convinced that mainstream Japanese society had rejected the otaku culture. So he was shocked when, in 2006, he returned to Tokyo and found a total reversal in the status of otaku. Suddenly otaku culture had been deemed a viable export known as "Cool Japan." Media and tourist groups flooded Akiba, and politicians and celebrities, including Minister for Foreign Affairs (and future Prime Minister) Taro Aso, claimed to be otaku.

Donning a costume for cosplay had propelled some otaku into professional careers as actors and singers known inside Akiba and throughout Japan. In perhaps the strangest vein of otaku culture, small cafés known as "maid cafés" cropped up, offering a sort of two-dimensional, modern geisha experience. Young women dressed in pinafores made snacks, played games, and talked with customers about manga and anime (but never touched them), sometimes at a cost of more than a dollar per minute.

Galbraith, who is now researching otaku culture for his Ph.D. at the University of Tokyo, said the encyclopedia stems from nearly 500 pages of notes he has collected over five years living, working, and playing around Akiba with animators, maids, and other culture junkies. He hopes the book will promote further understanding and acceptance of otaku and its impact on world culture.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books