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Views Contemporary Culture Going Global
Exporting “Otaku”
Global Summer Events for Japan’s Pop Culture

Japan’s otaku culture centered on manga, anime, and video games is seeing a growing number of aficionados worldwide. We take a look at major otaku-themed events that take place each summer in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Paris and get a glimpse of the Japanese pop culture that is seeking an increasingly global audience.

It was in the early 1980s that the Japanese word otaku came to describe a tight-knit, marginal group of manga and anime fanatics. The term was originally an honorific second-person pronoun written with the kanji 宅 (taku), meaning “home” or “domicile.” It was often used by housewives to refer to the members of nearby households, and did not tend to be used by young people. But as fans of anime began using the word to refer to each other, it gradually became connected to the image of a person shut up at home, engrossed in some hobby. While today it is commonly used in a more positive way, three decades ago it was something of a pejorative term expressing the anxiety of socially ill-adjusted young people.

How things have changed. In recent years, this otaku culture has been called what will sustain the future of Japan’s content industry. In October 2008, Prime Minister Asō Tarō went so far as to deliver a speech praising the otaku of Japan at a festival held in Akihabara, the Tokyo district at the heart of their culture. The concept has been highlighted by government agencies as an aspect of soft power that could enhance the nation’s international standing and competitiveness.

Lively Otaku Festival in Paris

The Japan Expo site in Villepinte, Paris.

One of the best examples of the flourishing of otaku culture overseas is Japan Expo, the largest Japanese cultural event in Europe, held every summer in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte. The expo was launched in 1999 at the initiative of local otaku, with 3,200 visitors attending the inaugural event. Since then it has evolved into a major event: around 192,000 visitors attended the twelfth Japan Expo, held from June 30 to July 3, 2011.

Imports of Japanese anime into France and TV broadcasting of the shows there began in the 1980s. Much of the under-40 generation in France was thus raised on Japanese anime, leading naturally to interest among them in printed manga as well. At present, France ranks second only to Japan as a consumer of manga—and this Japanese word has become known to nearly every French person.

Japan Expo attracts young visitors from teenagers to people in their thirties from Paris and its environs, of course, but attendees also hail from more distant parts of France and other countries. The event offers people with an avid interest in Japanese pop culture a special place where they can find out the latest developments in manga and anime and load up on new items, while also meeting and interacting with other fans.

Asking some of the Expo visitors why they attended the event elicited responses like:

“It’s a place where I can get my hands on all the newest information.”

“I wanted to enjoy ‘cosplay.’”

“I just love the atmosphere of everyone enjoying what they love.”

“I came here because of how much I like the ideas and outlook of Japan.”

“What drew me is the shopping. In one day I spent all the money I saved all year!”

“The live J-pop performances gave me a real thrill.”

It was clear from their comments that Japan Expo is the Mecca for the otaku of France—an event that is eagerly awaited throughout the year.

  • [2011.10.03]
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