The Revenge of the Otaku: Can a Nerd Get the Girl?

(this article first appeared in the february 28, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

Pity the poor otaku. Obsessive-compulsive recluses, they are the diehard fans of Japan's world-famous subculture hobbies -- anime (animated films), manga (cartoons) and videogames. More comfortable in a virtual world than the real one, they are notorious for their lack of social skills and even less fashion sense. The general rule is that otaku can't get dates.

So why, suddenly, are they hot? Chalk it up to the new "Densha Otoko" phenomenon. Last spring a (supposedly) real-life 22-year-old otaku?whose online pseudonym is Densha Otoko, or Train Man?began posting notes on Internet message boards. He'd met a woman waaay out of his league on the Tokyo train. Because he'd never had a date, he had no clue how to ask her out, where to take her or even how to talk to her. Fellow Netizens posted hundreds of makeover tips. Two months later Densha Otoko had acquired a new wardrobe, given up anime and his thrice-weekly visits to the otaku mecca of Tokyo's Akihabara district, and become a different man. He also got the girl.

A new book chronicling this Pygmalion-like transformation has sold 520,000 copies since October. A movie is slated for release in June. The hip lit magazine, Da Vinci, features a big article in its February issue entitled "Love of Otaku," with comments by former otaku and the women who date them. "Once the most unlikely love interest, otaku are now the center of attention," it declares. Even businessmen are bullish on otaku, it seems, according to a survey by Tokyo's Nomura Research Institute. Japan's 2.8 million otaku spend $2.7 billion a year on DVDs, comics and fantasy figures modeled after anime characters. Their Internet literacy and networking habits make them hugely influential, beyond mere purchasing power. "Their passion and creativity will be a driving force for industrial innovation," reports Nomura.

Loser nerds as lovers and business trendsetters, all in one myopic package? To determine whether this improbable combo could possibly be for real, I hit the streets of Akihabara to do some research. This turned out to be difficult. Otaku, it turns out, don't like eye contact, let alone verbal communication. The first five I approached jumped up and ran. The sixth was friendly but insisted he never has trouble getting a girl. The last was incensed. "Why ask me? You think I'm an otaku?"

Friends in the publishing biz offered different explanations for the phenom. "Densha Otoko" isn't any different from the most formulaic boy-meets-girl stories, said one. The otaku protagonist is just a twist on a regular love story. No, no, no, says Tatsuo Sekine, chairman of Tokyo marketing firm CM Research Center. "Otaku or not, all Japanese men relate to the guy. Constantly online, avoiding personal contact with others and making friends only on the Net?we are all becoming Densha Otoko."

Confused, I asked Hiro, a manga connoisseur and self-proclaimed otaku, what he thought. You've got it backward, he explained. "Densha Otoko" is not about an otaku in love. To the contrary, it's a story of a guy who ditches his otakuness for love. And that's why "Densha Otoko" is destined to remain a fad rather than become a trend. Because for hard-core otaku, the very idea is an impossibility. Despite all reports to the contrary, they are convinced that anonymous Densha Otoko is fictional.

The brutal truth is, otaku are nerds. They still can't get dates. But there is good news. They will continue to buy anime videos and figures. The Japanese economy is grateful.

(c) Newsweek

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