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The Obsession of the Otaku : Japan's Techo Kids Have Fashioned a World Driven By Trivia--and Barren of Human Contact

September 12, 1993|Karl Taro Greenfeld | Karl Taro Greenfeld is Tokyo correspondent for The Nation. His last article for this magazine was on American bar hostesses in Japan

The march of progress, Tokyo-style: Vacuum cleaners alert you when it's time to clean. Grandmothers in kimonos bow in gratitude to their automated banking machines. Workers on a Toyota assembly line in Toyoda City vote robot co-workers into the auto workers' union. Elevators stop where you tell them to.

A woman calls the Matsushita Denko kitchen design showroom to complain because her kitchen doesn't look like the model she saw in a virtual reality walk-through demonstration. "I was expecting more vivid oranges and pinks," she says. "Something more cartoony."

This blurring of man and machine, of reality and what comes in over the video display terminal, is spawning a generation of Japanese kids who are opting out of the conformity of Japan Inc. in favor of logging onto computer networks. They have been dubbed the Otaku by the Japanese media, from the most formal way of saying you in Japanese, the implication being that there is always some kind of technological barrier between people.

The Otaku came of age way back in the '80s with "prehistoric" 186 computers and Neanderthalic Atari Pac-Men as playmates. They were brought up on junk food and educated to memorize reams of context-less information in preparation for multiple-choice high school and college entrance exams. They unwound with ultra-violent slasher comic books or equally violent computer games. And then they discovered that by interacting with computers instead of people, they could avoid Japanese society's dauntingly complex Confucian web of social obligations and loyalties. The result: a generation of Japanese youth too uptight to talk to a bank teller, but who can go hell-for-leather on the deck of a personal computer or workstation.

First identified by the Japanese lifestyle magazine SPA!, about 200,000 hard-core Otaku are Japan's newest Information Age product. "These are kids unlike any who preceded them in Japan," Lap Top magazine editor Abiko Seigo says of the subculture of 16- to 25-year-olds. "Where they are coming from is a world where all the usual perspectives--like whether something is good or bad, smart or stupid, etc.--are irrelevant, because all of those things are judgments based on social relations. If you don't socialize, you don't have much sense of morality. The only thing that matters to them is data. How much do you have, and how much can you memorize."

That's hardly surprising, given the Otaku's years in schools that emphasize rote memory over creativity and analysis. "Data is practically worshiped in the Japanese school system," University of Tokyo sociologist Volker Grassmuck explains. "The exams test and reward those who can process the most data."

Information is what drives the Otaku's beloved dissemination systems--computer bulletin boards, modems, faxes. There are Otaku cliques devoted to manga (comic books), weapons, monster videos, pornography and teen idols. Monster Otaku may collect the names of the various actors who were costumed to portray "Ultraman" or try to figure out Godzilla's exact parentage. Military Otaku may know the tread width of the German Pzk Mark IV tank and the velocity of the armor-piercing ammunition it fired. Everything--the blood type of comic book artist Osamu Tezuka, the number of casualties at the Battle of Midway, the age of pop star Miho Nakayama--is just more context-less information for the Otaku, to be memorized, processed and stored in the brain, or, more efficiently, in the hard drive.

Data, the newer the better, is status. Acquiring it may require akisu (hacking) into corporate databanks or tapping into a fax line. (Among Otaku, it is a matter of pride not to buy or sell information.) But in their single-minded quest to find and trade data, they resemble American trivia buffs or nostalgia collectors rather than computer hackers. This obsession with gathering may, at first glance, seem no different from the fanaticism of collectors of rare books or baseball cards. But it is as though instead of trading actual cards, card collectors were to trade only information about cards. ("Did you know that Hank Aaron had to pose seven times for the 1970 Topps baseball card No. 500 before they were happy with the shot, and that the bat he was holding actually belonged to Eddie Mathews?")

This subculture of kids trades information, trivia and corporate passwords in their bedrooms via modem while their parents downstairs think they are studying. But they have abandoned schoolwork, sometimes becoming so immersed in the world of computer networks, cracking corporate security codes and analyzing algorithms that they can never come back. And all this just so they can be the first to disclose an upcoming record-store appearance by a low-level pop singer. "We are the future--more comfortable with things than people," says Taku-Hachiro, the 30-year-old author of the book "Otaku Heaven" and a self-proclaimed Otaku. "That's definitely the direction we're heading as a society."

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