Otaku world

Japanese youth are famed for their love of technology and fantasy imagery, but with the rise of Otaku culture is this developing into an unhealthy obsession that could hamper Japan's high-tech economy? E&T investigates.

There comes a time in every consumer electronics journalist's career when he or she has to journey on a pilgrimage to the Mecca of all things gadgetry - Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo.

Nominally, I am here to attend a technology convention, but I could not overlook the opportunity to visit this lively district resplendent with multi-storey bazaars selling consumer electronic devices, manga comics and various anime objets d'art.

Imagine Tottenham Court Road spanning several streets and full of young shoppers with brightly coloured spiky hair, looking for the latest devices in unique colours and shapes.

These consumers are known as the Otaku - a peculiar type of ultra-geek unique to Japan. The term was first coined in the early 1980s and referred to typically young male enthusiasts of manga and anime comics. The Otaku also share an equally obsessive interest in computers, video games and the latest technology.

Inevitably, they were drawn to Electric Town, with its lure of exotic consumer electronic goods, in the early 1990s. Today, many stores now cater exclusively to their tastes. The shops that used to sell monochrome fridges and television sets have been usurped by towers of Sony PSPs and Nintendo DS Lites in tints unavailable outside of Japan.

Thus Electric Town is now a major tourist draw for gadget enthusiasts around the world who want to own a piece of technology which is unavailable on their own shores.

The Otaku have moved into the mainstream. The Miyazaki Economic Research Institute (MERI) of Tokyo estimates that these consumers now number over nine million and spent more than $25bn on consumer electronics, computer equipment and video games in 2007.

"These young people have had a huge impact on the business model of the large electronics companies who have refocused many of their product lines to win a larger slice of this lucrative market," says Naoki Atsumi, research fellow at MERI responsible for household consumption.

This is aptly demonstrated by the product lines at Sony who recently introduced the Rolly, a peculiar robotic MP3 player that spins, rotates and sways in time with the music it plays. Initially, it was launched in the company's home market where it became an instant hit. But after millions of viewings on YouTube, Sony has now launched a US version - with a European launch planned for November.

Social networking

How the Otaku communicate and disseminate information is by no means different to various tribes of young people in North America and Europe. The growth of popularity of social networking sites in Japan mirrors the phenomenon in the English-speaking world.

However, rather than use well known social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, they are more likely to use Japanese sites like Mixip. On the face of it, the latter do not seem dissimilar to what is offered in North America and Europe, but they distinctly cater to the whims of their Otaku audience.

Talking on a mobile phone while using public transport is frowned upon in Japan. Therefore, in 1999, when mobile phones began to take root, NTT DoCoMo developed a feature-rich mobile Web system called iMode. Each handset had not just a phone number, but a unique email address, too.

The service became an overnight success with Japanese consumers, while their Western counterparts had to put up with the relatively primitive wireless access protocol (WAP) service over a network designed for voice, or SMS with limited characters per message.

Today, it is estimated that over 100 million Japanese users (out of a population of 127 million) regularly access the Internet from their mobile. According to Google (who offer a search service through mobile operator, KDDI), 22.5 per cent, overwhelmingly under 30, only access the Internet through their mobile devices. Thus social networking sites are often designed with the mobile Web in mind.

Many mobile devices read information from special barcodes. Current technology is based on 'QR codes', which are a form of 2D barcode that is written out in a square shape, instead of a bar shape. The mobile scans the barcode using its camera and then decodes the information. The QR codes are used widely on advertising billboards and in magazines.

Sony and NTT DoCoMo have developed a mobile phone wallet technology, known as FeliCa. The mobile phone incorporates a wireless chip based on RFID (radio frequency identification). Many outlets, such as fast food restaurants and vending machines, are using it. Sony has licensed other manufacturers to incorporate the payment system in their handsets

The salary men

Yet there is a downside to the rise of Otaku culture. The number of young men who snub the workaholic corporate lifestyle is increasing and the number of salary men is in decline, which is threatening the foundation of Japan's economic post-war prosperity.

Younger workers are increasingly spurning the option of advancement opportunities. This type of worker has been dubbed Otaryman - a combination of Otaku and salary man. Typically, Otarymen spend far more energy on private endeavours and despise promotions that would increase their workload.

The Otaryman is best captured in the popular manga comic book I Am an Otaryman which chronicles the daily life of a systems engineer who also leads an Otaku-type existence. It has sold over 500,000 copies.

A typical Otaryman often drifts in and out of regular employment (these are known as freeters) and joins the estimated 620,000 NEETs - 'not in education, employment or training'. This army of disillusioned young men are posing a real threat to the future of the Japanese prosperity.

But to suggest that the origins of the Otaku are purely cultural is an oversimplification; Japan's recent economic history has played an important role too. In the aftermath of the collapse of the bubble economy, many companies held back on new recruits for several years.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the employment rate of new university graduates dropped below 60 per cent between 2000 and 2005. Since 2006, there has been a slight recovery, but nothing like the levels seen in the period up to 1990.

According to a survey by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of freeters peaked at 2.17 million, but this figure had dropped to 1.87 million by 2006.

Adding to this is Japan's ageing population. The country has one of the highest average life expectancies in the world, which is advancing rapidly.

The ratio of people aged 65 and over to the whole population has more than doubled - from 7.1 per cent in 1970 to over 21 per cent today. The amount of under-15s has dropped to a new post-war record low of 17.44 million - about 13.6 per cent of the population.

The demographic time-bomb feared by mature economies in Europe and North America is already occurring in Japan. The 6.8 million baby boomers born between 1947 and 1949 are currently retiring to reap the pension benefit of Japan's post-war economic success. This is having a big impact on Japan's economy.

With fewer young people moving into full-time employment, the Japanese government is concerned about the transfer of skills to the younger generation who appear less willing to carry the torch their forefathers did for the past 60 years.

All this could be a portent for other developed economies. A demographic time bomb is likely to explode in a few years. Will the new generation face a similar alienation and revert to an unhealthy obsession with technology?

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