Japan cultivates a `mania’ gadget culture

AP , TOKYO

They obsessively collect comic books, dress up like their favorite cartoon characters and buy all the latest gadgets. Japan’s legions of hard-core hobbyists have also done something else: created a big-money market that analysts are calling the “mania” economy.

These ardent consumers of pop culture, known as “otaku” in Japanese, fork out ?258 billion (US$2.35 billion) a year on comics, animated films, computer games and goods featuring their favorite entertainers, according to a report released this week by Tokyo-based Nomura Research Institute. That spending outstrips what gadget-lovers in Japan — home to electronics giants Sony and Panasonic — shell out for either digital cameras or DVD players.

“Given their influence and purchasing power, `mania consumers’ can no longer be referred to as a `niche market,'” the report said. That’s a major step up for Japan’s legions of otaku, long stereotyped as nerdy recluses who assuage their alienation from society through a fantasy world of comics and cartoons.

The phenomenon — which first gained widespread media attention in the 1990s — is defined by a near-obsessive fascination with animation and high-technology, and a willingness to spend whatever it takes to build a collection. The economic importance of so-called “mania” spending has grown with the number of otaku, and their culture has expanded to accommodate avid fans of just about anything — jazz, jeans or cars.

The Nomura report estimated that about 2.8 million Japanese fit the definition of otaku consumers in their traditional hobby areas. They account for 11 percent of spending in the ?2.3 trillion (US$21 billion; euro 17.4 billion) market for comics, animation, computer games, as well as products associated with pop stars. Otaku are even more valuable to businesses because of their ability to set trends by creating a buzz about specific products.

“These `mania’ consumers wield a strong societal impact,” the report said, citing their use of the Internet in starting trends and spreading information. They’ve even been hailed as a vanguard of modern Japanese culture for the outside world.

While current Japanese literature and movies tend to have limited international markets, “manga” comics and their animated-film counterparts, “anime” features, have devoted followings in the US and Europe. Nomura, which conducted the study through questionnaires of industry groups and interviews with retailers, predicts the mania economy will grow, and says it plans to do a similar study of the otaku impact on the travel and audio electronics industries.

Interest and spending on otaku hobbies hardly appears to be waning. Daisuke Suzuki, a 28-year-old engineer, says spending ?50,000 (US$455) a month on video-game software is as essential as paying the rent or buying food. “I’d really be at a loss if I didn’t get them,” he said on Wednesday, while watching demonstrations of new video games in Tokyo’s mammoth electronics district. “They’ve become a necessary part of my life.”