Otaku, cosplay is no longer just for losers

Last week half a million people arrived in Makuhari, in the Province of Chiba for a very particular global event. The coastal city just a few kilometres from Tokyo was hosting, what the event's organizers billed as, the world's first ever otaku summit.

Photo credits http://www.thedailystar.net

Otaku in Japanese refers to those with obsessive interests, "fanatics", "geeks" or even " losers". The word has even entered the vocabularies of other languages. In Italy, for example, the online Italian Trecanni dictionary defines Otaku as,

"Young enthusiasts of Japanese animes and manga that spend most of their time at home obsessively collecting things, playing computer games and sometimes conducting relationships over the internet with sexual undertones related to the Otaku subculture."

The definition is followed by quotes from the main Italian dailies about how Otaku is becoming less of a niche interest and more of an international phenomenon.  There are two main reasons for this.

First of all, from a geopolitical point of view, the spread of Japanese pop culture and subcultures all over the world seems to be the fruit of a clear strategy of "localization" promoted by large Japanese companies and the media sector and is often supported by the state. The book Recentering Globalization (2002) by Koichi Iwabuchi, now a teacher of Media and Cultural Studies at Monash University in Melbourne but previously an employee of Nippon television, sheds some light on this dynamic in Asia.

"Japan has formidable reserves of soft power," wrote Douglas McGray at the time in Foreign Policy, " but few means to take advantage of it".

According to Patrick St. Michel writing in The Atlantic, in the last ten years Tokyo's attempts to promote local culture abroad have been outperformed by phenomena such as Korean Wave, while China's network of Confucius Institutes is another example of state-sponsored cultural promotion in the region.

In recent years, in spite of the existence of the government initiative "Cool Japan", many Japanese cultural products have gone viral without any need for state intervention. St. Michel notes the particular examples of Babymetal and Kyaryu Pamyu Pamyu.


Since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, however, the approach has been shifting towards a top-down operative plan. The extremely vague "Cool Japan " initiative has become a million dollar fund with public participation to support cultural promotion, from Manga to food, from fashion to crafts.

The second point concerns the evolution of our way of consuming "cultural products". The boom in cosplay, one of the pillars of contemporary otaku culture, is just one example. Cosplay, a portmanteau of the words costume and play, is when the fans of a TV series or American film, Manga or Japanese anime, dress up as their favourite characters. The cosplayers are not just passive consumers: preparation of their costumes involves research and their own handicraft production. This passion is no longer a niche activity; the Makuhari summit has shown that it is capable of attracting keen participants from the four corners of the globe. Maybe it's time to think again before referring to enthusiasts of the otaku subculture as "losers".



Translated by Nicholas Neiger