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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005

BY THE NUMBERS

PC, animation geeks a market 'maid' to order


Staff writer

Ever since the term "otaku" (geek) started gaining currency in Japan a few decades ago, it has always carried an unflattering image of bespectacled introverts combing the back streets of Akihabara for obscure PC parts or drooling over cartoon characters.

News photo
A waitress dressed in maid attire awaits "otaku" (geek) customers at Cure Maid Cafe in Tokyo's Akihabara district.

But the economic impact of otaku is so huge that they can no longer be ignored, by society or businesses, according to Ken Kitabayashi, a Nomura Research Institute consultant who studies otaku from a business perspective.

Kitabayashi estimates the total market size of the major otaku pursuits of comics, animation, games, TV/movie idols and PC components at 290 billion yen. Otaku consumers -- defined as those who spend so much time and money on their objects of interest that "it nearly begins to negatively affect their life" -- are estimated to number 2.85 million.

Their spending behavior is typically driven by the pursuit of the ideal. The 2.85 million figure includes overlaps, as people who get a kick out of breaking down and reassembling PCs to expand hard disk drives might also stockpile images of their favorite idols or animation characters.

The electronics district of Akihabara has morphed into a massive marketplace for such merchandise, and even local cafes now offer an otaku twist.

Waitresses at Cure Maid Cafe dress as maids -- a popular fixture in comics and games. Since its opening nearly four years ago, more than 10 other "maid cafes" have emerged in Akihabara alone.

"I've visited other maid cafes, too, and feel they all seem to feature (girls) who are composed and visually appealing," said Hiroyuki Takada, a not-so-geeky 27-year-old computer programmer with spiky brown hair lounging in the cafe. He said he frequents the area to shop for PC peripherals.

So how should businesses deal with these geeks? Kitabayashi said they should regard their manic passion as a source of innovation and allow them to tinker with products, whether it's VCRs or art featuring copyrighted comic characters.

"It's important for businesses to sit back and study their behavior," he said. "They are very creative. Businesses can develop a mass-market product by putting a little spin on geeks' creations."



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