Sunday, August 20, 2006

Otaku Japan

The "otaku" subculture of Japan - which is different from what an American anime fan would call "otaku" - sounds an awful lot like Asperger's Syndrome to me.

From Wired magazine

Dubbed the otaku-zoku, or otaku for short, these are Japan's socially inept but often brilliant technological shut-ins. Their name derives from the highly formal way of saying "you" in Japanese, much like calling a friend "Sir."

First identified by SPA! magazine in 1986, the otaku are Tokyo's newest information-age product. These were the kids "educated" to memorize reams of context-less information in preparation for filling in bubbles on multiple-choice entrance exams.

Now in their late teens and twenties, most are either cramming for college exams or stuck in cramming mode. They relax with sexy manga or violent computer games. They shun society's complex web of social obligations and loyalties. The result: a burgeoning young generation of at least 100,000 hard-core otaku (estimates of up to 1 million have been bandied about in the Tokyo press) who are too uptight to talk to a telephone operator, but who can kick ass on the keyboard of a PC.

Zero, 25, is a self-proclaimed otaku who flunked out of Keio University's math department because he didn't like being ordered around by teachers to whom he felt superior. "They couldn't deal with someone like me," he recalled. "Now I'm independent and I don't need to deal with anyone like them."

Zero's life now revolves around computer games. He only ventures out of his six-mat in Kawagoe to acquire new game-boards, the green, maze-like "minds" taken from commercial arcade games like Galaga or Space Invaders. At home, he plugs these circuit boards into a special adapter on his own console, analyzes and dissects them for bugs and flaws that allow one, for example, to glimpse a Space Invader's after-image as it scuttles across the screen or to change the color of a yellow Ms. Pac-Man to purple.

Zero often dresses in a plain white T-shirt and ill-fitting jeans rolled up about six inches. He doesn't look you in the eyes when he talks; he answers quietly with his face to the floor. His face possesses gentle features, but it is sickly pale.

He makes his living as a software trouble-shooter, looking for problems in new software before it hits the market, earning 350,000 yen (about $2,800) a month. He works in his murky home, where the windows are permanently covered with yellowing newspaper to block out the sunlight.

"I've always liked playing games. As a boy, I preferred video games to other kids," Zero offered. "So I understand technology. I'm more comfortable with computers than human beings.

"Finding the malfunction of a computer program or game is thrilling because I'm basically exposing the phony computer experts who invented the game in the first place," Zero says.

He threads his way over the tatami floor, which is a high-tech junkyard of old computer circuit-boards, obsolete monitors, archaic disc drives and a spluttering coffee-maker. He strips down to a white T-shirt and striped boxer shorts - dressed for company, though you wouldn't know it.

Zero sits on a swivel office chair and clicks on his Quadra 900 Macintosh PC with 240 megabytes of storage attached to a keyboard which Zero has remodeled to conform to his own idea of how a keyboard "should have been laid-out in the first place." As he waits for the computer to boot, he scans the rolls of newly arrived faxes.

The first is from his "buddy" Kojack. It's a chart of a mid-seventies Bay City Roller tour of Japan, including tour dates, attendance and play lists. Zero is impressed. Another, from Piman in Aomori, announces he is selling a rare 1978 edition of "Be Bop High School" for 50,000 yen ($400). Zero thinks it's overpriced.

Zero casts them aside to read one from Batman in Nagoya who claims that the Thunder Dragon and Metal Black video games employ the same game-matrix with different graphics and scoring systems. Seventeen pages of notes support this hypothesis. Zero is not impressed. He's known this since Metal Black hit the market way back last Tuesday.

Zero gets busy. He disseminates a warning through his computer modem that flashes on terminals from Hokkaido to Kyushu. He warns other otaku on the Eye Net computer network to be on the lookout for some poser named Batman pushing stale info. For those few moments - as Zero's invisible brethren attentively scan and store his transmitted data - he is no longer a wimp. He's a big gun, a macho man in the world of the otaku.

Information is the fuel that feeds the otaku's worshiped dissemination systems - computer bulletin-boards, modems, faxes. For otaku, the only thing that matters is the accuracy of the answer, not its relevance. No piece of information is too trivial for consideration: For instance, for a monster otaku - an otaku into TV and manga monsters - the names of the various actors who wore the rubber suits in an Ultraman episode where Ultraman is conspicuously shorter than in other shows is precious currency. For military otaku, it's the name of the manufacturer of 55mm armor-piercing ammunition for the PzkIII Tank. For idol otaku - fanatics who follow the endless parade of cute girl pop singers - it's the specific university the father of darling idol Hikaru Nishida attended. Anything qualifies, as long is it was not previously known.

Although Zero spends most of his waking hours exchanging information with fellow otaku-zoku, Zero only knows his tribe through the computer bulletin board. He has never met any of them. He doesn't even know their real names.


jlbussey said...

Does sound a little bit like Asperger's. But it also sounds like they are more the result of cultural/social pressures than what we call Autism Spectrum Disorders. Interesting.

Ben Wyman said...

So? What makes you think the rest of the world won't be following suit in 10 years?

Why stand back and marvel at these people? We're breeding the same, a generation that spends infinitely more time with their friends online than they do in real life. And when this group finally graduates and starts becoming self-supportive, online becomes the only place that they feel safe.

Our jobs have become the places we go in between time spent online.

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Anonymous said...

It's kind of OTAKU or something?
I don't know...