Otaku (おたく) is the Japanese term for a person obsessed with a certain subculture, hobby, or style. While it's often used to refer to young people who are into anime and manga, today, it is also applied more liberally to other areas. Historically meant as a derogative term (or at least one that carries a negative connotation), that is not how I use it in this post. Instead, I want to write about various types of niche interests in Japan.
Why is Otaku culture such a huge phenomenon in Japan? I don't have the perfect answer for that, but I assume some contributing factors include:
- Extreme urbanization: Hobbies are fun if you have people around you that share them. Naturally, in a multi-million metropolis such as Tokyo, it's going to be easier to find like-minded folks that are into the things that you like.
- Self-expression: You are who you hang out with. And while the job at the office may mandate a strict hierarchy, uniform, and manner, lots of folks choose to balance all that by expressing themselves primarily outside of work.
- Social pressure: Related to the previous point, but quite a bit darker. Let's not forget that there is a lot of social pressure in Japanese society, to the extent that some decide to completely detach and live in their own, separate reality.
With this disclaimer out of the way, let's look at some subcultures in Japan that I can actually speak about out of personal experience!
Japan is the land of stationary and I believe you would be hard-pressed to find another place on earth where so much emphasis is placed on paper, pens, inks, stickers, and stamps. I assume part of that has to do with the long history of handcrafts in Japan. To this day, many traditional materials are still widely used, such as washi paper or urushi lacquer.
For stationery fans, the area around Tokyo Station and Ginza is a must-visit: There is the Itoya flagship store for all things stationery. Not far from there you also find Maruzen which is worth a visit for its book selection alone, but also features lots of pen-related things on its top floor. And lastly, there is Haibara which has many unique papers and paper crafts.
As for myself, I like to write with fountain pens and the inspiration for this post actually came to me while attending the Tokyo International Pen Show this past weekend!
Not a Japan-only phenomenon, but it's certainly big here! Custom mechanical keyboards have exploded in popularity over the last couple of years and it's resulted in a plethora of different keyboard layouts, key switches, and key cap designs.
To me, the custom keyboard hobby is as much about the process of building them as it is about using them afterwards. The selection of parts, the soldering, the tuning for optimal performance – all that makes it the perfect thing to tinker with.
If you are into keyboards and visiting Tokyo, Yushakobo in Akihabara is the place to be. The shop has everything from pre-built models, individual parts, novelty key caps, and they even provide additional services, such as laser cutting, engraving, and UV printing! Aside from physical stores, Basekeys has some interesting items that are out of the ordinary (like the banana desk mat pictured below) and Booth features some individual creators selling their own self-designed parts.
This is an obvious one for me. Many of the photos featured in previous blog posts (and the title image for this one) have been taken on analog film and while I was into film photography before coming to Japan, the hobby definitely got supercharged here. And for good reason: There is a "film infrastructure" here in Tokyo that's better than in most other places, including camera stores and labs still developing film. Some that I frequent the most include:
- Ozawa Camera in Ebisu: Limited selection as far as parts are concerned, but they do quick color development!
- National Camera in Shibuya: Very particular about film development. If I have special processing requests or need a particular film stock, this is where I go.
- Sanpo Camera in Meguro: Good selection of well-maintained second-hand items.
- Used Camera BOX (pictured below) and the whole West Shinjuku area: Lots and lots and lots of cameras and lenses from all kinds of manufacturers. Bring some free time and enjoy the treasure hunt.
Of course, these are only a few of the camera stores in Tokyo. Also check out Japan Camera Hunter's shopping guide which has a fairly up-to-date map of shops across the city.
Of course, I'm not able to list all otaku subcultures here (much less get into all of them), but others which are also super popular include: Train spotting, video games, and car tuning. Which hobby do you consider yourself an "otaku" for?