Why Japanese Youth Want to Be 'Otaku' and What It Means

Hint: You'll Need Your Phone

By Published on .

Dave McCaughan
Dave McCaughan
Walk through Harajuku, and you'll run into thousands of girls like Yukiko. Asked about her hobbies, she'll talk at length about her preferences between H&M and Uniqlo's UT range. But she also told us all about her Asus Eee netbook, how she compares her favorite soba restaurants and her interest in horse racing. Odd combination? No, just in tune with a neo-otaku lifestyle.

What's that? You may have heard of otaku. The old stereotype was an obsessive male manga fan who is a bit of a shut-in. For those under 30 it now means having real street credentials. A recent McCann Pulse survey found that more than two-thirds of young adults want to be seen as otaku.

That's because being otaku means being recognized within a social group as having a deep knowledge of a subject that gains respect. It may not be the thing that holds the group together. But it is something they are likely to find interesting. Young Japanese belong to many such groups, and within each they need a "passport" to acceptance and place. This is a concept referred to as "neo-otaku."

The game is how to keep up. Yukiko's keitei (mobile phone) is her No. 1 tool. Sure, she has probably owned a 3G phone most of her life, and she uses it as an e-money device to pay for everything from metro passes to purchases at 7-Eleven to taxi rides. It's her constant search tool for everything from maps to get to the next bar at night, redeeming McDonald's coupons, and buying directly from online malls like Rakutan while roaming unique boutique arcades like 109. And, like 60% of the women under 30 in our study, she also uses it to communicate with her different sets of friends using "decollation mail." That's the euphemistic name for new forms of alphabets using a mixture of text shorthand, graphic devices and characters instead of regular text that change with every social group she mingles with.

But her phone is the No.1 access tool to everything that matters in keeping up her neo-otaku status. Almost certainly she is accessing Cosme, the specialist cosmetic social-networking site with 1.5 million members and more than 200 million page views a month. More than half of these page views are on mobile-phone screens while Yukiko and her friends shop. Cosme has become the default setting for any decision on purchasing personal-care items. You can see hundreds of peer reviews for any product on sale in Japan (and many that are not yet available), compare prices among retailers both brick and virtual, share beauty secrets and order goods. She compares prices and places to buy 24h foundation, a skin-friendly makeup made with jojoba, aloe, coconut oil, castor seed oil, coral powder and mica. Or she explores one of the BB blemish balm products from Korean brands like Hanskin that are a huge hit in a country where cosmetic knowledge is truly otaku.

She also uses that keitei to constantly explore entertainment options so she can be "the expert" there, too. Maybe she is one of the million people who have registered in the last year to pay around $3 a month for BeeTV, a TV station which exclusively broadcasts on mobile phones. Or maybe she is playing love simulation games with titles like "Bengoshi Kikenna-koi" (Lawyers: Dangerous Love) or "Cute Boys Class Room." Introduced for PCs in the 1990s, they are like simple romance novels, except the player is the main character, trying to find romance in games that can have new chapters downloaded at any time.

Or, maybe she is reading one of the hot new mobile novels on a site like Maho i-land, where more than 6 million Japanese, mostly young women, are reading novels written on and distributed solely on their mobile phones. With over 3.5 billion pages of these novels viewed each month, this is the only real growth area in the publishing business. She probably recently read the No. 1 best-seller "Geki-KOI." But if not, she won't miss it because all the best-selling mobile novels have been turned into TV drama series that run on one of the networks at around midnight. And maybe she is watching from the comfort of a warm bath on a new Sony Bravia waterproof phone.

Because a neo-otaku girl is always studying, always on her phone and always knowledgeable.

Dave McCaughan is exec VP-regional director of strategic planning, McCann WorldGroup Asia Pacific, Tokyo.
Most Popular
In this article: