Before the 21st century, first impressions of Japanese culture or identity were more likely to be ethnic stereotypes. Most Japanese were either honor-obsessed, anachronistic samurai-archetypes or extremely shrewd businessmen. The extent of the country’s influence was thought of as purely economic. To most Westerners, the Land of the Rising Sun was where sushi (read: California Rolls) and the latest gadgets were born. Japan’s only real marks on the face of the Western World were Sony Corp. and that messy business back in the 1940s. Needless to say, quite a few things have changed about the Western perception of the Japanese in the 21st century. The most remarkable of these changes is the rise of Otaku culture in the International media and its propagation to other First World countries. Literally, otaku means “neighbor” or “another’s household.” In its current usage, the word is used to refer to anyone with an obsessive interest in something, anything that can be idolized. Otaku types range from the Military Nut to the Goth-loli fashionista (a style that focuses on Victoria-style clothing and elegant mannerisms) to the most ubiquitous type: the anime/manga/video-game otaku and its many subtypes.
Historically speaking, the otaku culture represents several turning points for Japan. First, the country has its latest cultural movement attracting the attention of media and industries alike. Second, the development of the otaku culture has led its further diversification into sub- or countercultures. Finally, the otaku culture and its derivatives have proven marketable (to an extent) in international markets, especially the immensely popular anime/manga/video-game following.
The growth of Japan’s latest cultural phenomenon is not to be underestimated, nor should its impact on the entertainment industry. As early as 1995, series such as Neon Genesis Evangelion went beyond what their predecessors had accomplished in terms of generating a fan community. Whereas earlier programs such as Uchusenkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) generated a cult following amongst existing anime fans, Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion was nothing short of a national craze. It created new fans of what was once “cult” anime and manga, spawned a sea of merchandise, two movies, spin-off videogames, and a fresh wave of doujinshi or “fan-works.” To this day, the character archetypes in EVA continue to be copied relentlessly, some as a nod to the original work and others as a way to make a quick 100 yen. None of this was new or unique to the industry, but EVA’s multi-genre appeal made it one of the first series to make an actual impact (excuse the pun) on Japanese pop culture as a whole, not just as another footnote in the annals of Yamato fans. It is ironic, perhaps, that one of the most marketable series in Japan today features the psychological breakdowns of ¾ of the main cast and a version of the Apocalypse.
The reason for its marketability, however, is clear: Amidst all of EVA’s talk of Freud and free will are very attractive, very troubled, and very pitiable characters whose traumatic, even horrifying roles in the story never detract from the merchandise in their (impressive) likenesses. The amount of merchandise of the character Ayanami Rei alone is enough to dwarf that of whole series.
This leads me to my next point. Once created, multi-genre series like EVA and (more recently) Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion tend to spawn their own subcultures after they have made their mark on the face of pop culture. These derivatives can center on the specific merchandise or spinoffs or cosplay (masquerading as a favorite character), but more likely than not, center around the doujinshi published by the most avid fans. While the works are not actually part of the series themselves, they are typically produced with the blessing of the company (usually freely given in exchange for a small royalty fee). The appeal of the doujinshi stems from the amount of freedom the author has. Many of the works are pornographic in nature, but what separates doujinshi from mere fan-fiction is how they can actually be self-published for a regular audience willing to buy the volumes in print. The nature of a doujinshi lets the fan be an author as well. The subculture has grown so huge, that the largest anime and manga convention in the world is also the world’s largest doujinshi market, called Comiket. Even the industry pokes fun at this with series like Genshiken, which contains a self-portrait for just about every brand of anime otaku imaginable. Lucky Star’s Izumi Konata even plays the role of a female anime otaku, much to the delight of her mostly male audience. This is serious business in Japan, and the works often have a kind of universal appeal to a wide audience.
It was inevitable, then, that the hottest properties in Japan draw a crowd on this side of the world, right? After all, didn’t that Miyakazi guy win an Oscar or something? Despite how the Media play it up, anime and manga hold only a niche market in the States. The following (although very small when compared to Hollywood numbers) is vocal enough to ensure that for every cash-cow franchise like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Naruto that arrives, there follows a Welcome to the NHK or Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Although not as lucrative as it was in Japan, a major series brought here will still garner plenty of cash.
Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, the anime and manga otaku culture has spread quickly. Now, even those with even a passing knowledge of Japan may automatically associate the country with big-eyed school girls as often as they would samurai, sushi, and really useful hybrid cars. For better or worse, otaku are now a new face of Japan. Time will tell how the country’s new visage fares on the world stage.