【Academic Essay】The Significance of OTAKU in Japanese Society

by Ai - Japan Licensed Guide
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Stanford Japan Center

Japanese Popular Culture

Professor William Bradley


The significance of Otaku in Japanese Society


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

  Kyoto University Graduate School of Management

 Ai A



As Patrick W. Galbraith, et al. describes Otaku and Japanese culture in the following quotes; Otaku is always subjected to analyze their mysterious and curious lifestyles:

“Otaku” is a Japanese word that has entered the English lexicon like sushi and geisha(Schodt, 2009, p.6). Most often associated with the wired fan cultures surrounding Japanese manga, anime, and games, “Otaku” have come to be a “taken-for-granted feature of the global cultural landscape” (Ito, 2012, p. xxvii).  Stated somewhat differently, writers interested in Japan, fan cultures, media, technology and cultural studies have taken up “otaku” as a granted object of analysis. 

Since I myself am a native Japanese Otaku, with more than twenty-three-year professional careers as a Jyani Ota and Ban Gya---sarcastic nicknames of fanatic female fans of Johnny’s idols and rock bands, and a former worker of an advertising agency; I can analyze what is happening in Otaku worlds, especially in music, media, and show biz industries, as an insider.   In this research paper, I would like to illustrate Otaku cultures and how they are related to a real Japanese society in three parts:

Ⅰ. Similarity and difference between Japanese male idols, Visual-Kei rock stars, and a cult

Ⅱ. Economic Impacts of their Otaku fans

Ⅲ. Changing Social Norms in Japan by Otaku Influences


. Comparison between Japanese Male Idols, Rock Stars, and Cult

First of all, I would like to introduce my favorite boyband, Kanjani Eight(hereafter KJ8), and rock legend, X JAPAN, to explain the similarity and difference between the typical Japanese idols and hardcore bands.


  • Characteristics of Idols


  1. KJ8 is a perfect example of describing a persona of Japanese idols. Kan-Jani literally means an abbreviation of "Kansai-originated Johnny's artists." "Johnny's & Associates"(hereafter Johnny’s) is the most prestigious all-male agent in a Japanese show biz world. Celebrities, such as popstars, rock stars, artists, actors---they are all regarded as charisma. What distinguish idols from other celebrities, however, is that female fans are seeing idols as an ideal boyfriend. Lucy Glasspool describes how idols should keep their public images in her publication, Gender Performance in Japanese Male Idol Media as follows:

In the idol world, strict unwritten rules state that heterosexuality must remain vague. Idols may discuss anonymous ex-girlfriends, or speculate on their ideal future partner, but should not be publicly seen to have one.  Even the rumor of a female lover can be fodder or scandal, where the “breach…of a law or a norm results in significant social disapproval or debate” (West 2006, 6).  These scandals involving sexuality are “not of legal rules, but of powerful social norms” (West 2006, 241).  In the idol world, these consist of the female audience’s expectation of an idol’s theoretical romantic availability, which allows for display or overt sexual behavior.  In Japan, as Mark D. West(2006, 198-208) argues, a breach is dealt with by temporary or permanent expulsion from the public sphere.


Another example that proves idols are regarded as fans’ lover is “parings.” In the chapter of Sexual ambivalence as a strategy of consumerism, Lucy Grasspool reiterates that fans and media love to feature their “Favorite Combi” among a group.  For instance, the most popular combination in Arashi, one of the most successful Johnny’s boybands in Japan, is Satoshi Ono and Kazunari NInomiya’s pair, “Omiya SK” (an amalgamation of their surnames).  “This term is now used both in mainstream media, when Ono and Ninomiya work together, and by fans who give their relationship a sexual interpretation and use it as a description of their romantic paring.” (Grasspool, p.121)

These kinds of interpretations can be seen in KJ8 as well. In their tour DVD spin-off movie, Ryo Nishikido and Ryuhei Maruyama conducted “Hohoemi Date”(a smile dating).  This was a documentary film of their “dating”---they wore the same T-shirts, went surfing, drove to a farm and played there, ate an ice cream together, and even made a dinner and an original song for each other.  In the end of the “dating,” both were deeply moved and even started crying because they found out that they loved each other very much.  This content was successful in two ways.  It not only allows them to strengthen their ties, but also let “eighters (fans of KJ8)” feel intimations by reflecting themselves in one of the members so that they could feel as if they were “dating” with their “Tanto(favorite or an artist whom in charge of)” member. 




In summary, “paring” among the groups is an unique way of showing idol’s identity and it cannot be replaced by a female actor who plays a heroine in Johnny’s TV dramas and movies, nor "BL comics-an abbreviation of “Boys Love(homosexual couples)." Therefore, idols should be a single who do not have a girlfriend, but at the same time, they must be a person who could be seen as your boyfriend by showing how they are loveable, and affectionate people to be loved by everyone.


  • Charismatic Icon as a Visual-Kei Rock Star


Next, let me explain how Japanese Visual-Kei rock bands(the ones with flashy make-up, like a heavy metal band, KISS in the US), such as X JAPAN, LUNA SEA, GRAY, L’arc-en-Ciel, established their status as charismatic musicians in the late 1980s to 1990s when the Japanese music industry enjoyed its peak.  Among these bands, one of the most successful artists is YOSHIKI of X JAPAN.  He has lived in Los Angeles for more than a quarter of a century and composed a theme song for Golden Globe Awards as a first Japanese musician.  Throughout his music careers, he not only held a concert at Carnegie Hall as a pianist, but also rocked Madison Square Garden, Wembley Arena in London, and appeared Coachella as a headliner along with Beyoncé.  Although these successful paths made him a global icon, his cute nicknames are “Yocchan” or “Taisho(General in English).”   This means that he is not seen as a lover or boyfriend, unlike any other Johnny’s idols.  Moreover, fans call themselves "Unmei Kyodo Tai (community of shared destiny)," which implies that YOSHIKI is regarded as God, or even like a founder of a cult religion that you can devote your time and energy for the rest of your life.


I found a weird similarity between a rising new cult, Ho No Hana Sanpogyo(hereafter Ho No Hana), and an enthusiasm in all rock concerts. In the lecture of Ho No Hana, a founder, Hogen Fukunaga, shout out loudly, “Saiko Desu Ka? (Are you feeling damn good?),” then their believers would scream back, “Saiko Desu! (Yes, Master.  We feel superb!!!)”  Although I have never involved any cults in my life, I go to rock concerts hundreds times per year on average.  Therefore, I know exactly what is happening in Visual-Kei performances and make a comparison between the cults and rock concerts.  Take an example of X JAPAN World Tour held in 2015.  At the end of the all X JAPAN shows, there is a tradition of YOSHIKI screaming “We are-,” expecting his fans to resonate “X!” together.


Seen from fans’ enthusiasms toward YOSHIKI, especially by male followers, their passions are pure admirations or love towards the band or even music at large, not as affections towards a homosexual boyfriend nor a relationship involving sexual intimacy with the living legend.

I myself respect YOSHIKI as a performing musician of the piano and the drums, a composer, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. I was able to meet YOSHIKI in person at a studio in (place, date), and have had many chances to talk to him at his movie premiere, dinner shows, and on twitter.  (He follows me on twitter and has left “read receipt” on my birthday wishes that I sent him every year.)  As a one of the closest and luckiest fans, I have had opportunities to see him practicing very hard at his studio and every rehearsal of his show.  Therefore, observing his hidden efforts, I could say that he is a bona-fide superstar who carefully manages his public image as a rock legend, as well as a strict person who would never seem to get married to compromise his life to achieve his lifetime dream of becoming a household name in all over the world.


<Me, YOSHIKI, and Yuko Yamaguchi, Hello Kitty designer, at his dinner show in 2015>


Ⅱ.Economic impact of Otaku consumption

              After focusing on idols and rock stars, I would like to examine their economic impacts. Over the past century, Johnny’s has produced many top artists other than Arashi and KJ8. 

In Ju Otmazgin N’s article, Japan’s Popular Culture Powerhouse, idol Otaku populations are estimated 280,000 and 61 billion monetary value by a survey conducted by Nomura Sogo Research Institute in 2005.  I, however, would like to make a counterargument of the figure by demonstrating the market created just by “Jyani-Ota (enthusiastic Johnny’s fans).”  As for Arashi only, their fan club member is more than two million, and “since debuting in 1999, Arashi has become the most popular male idol group in Japan today, generating ¥14.4 billion($180 million) in CD and DVD sales in 2009.”(Nagaike, 2012)







Kanjani Eight



KinKi Kids



Hey! Say! Jump



Kis-My-Ft 2









Sexy Zone






Johnny’s WEST



Tackey & Tsubasa






Tomohisa Yamashita








 (c)twitter users and me


As of May, 2018, the total numbers of current all Johnny’s fan club members are assumed 5.55 million, considering from allotted ID numbers of new comers. Each fan club’s annual membership fee is 5,000 JPY, with an option of subscribing to all Johnny’s artists’ diary costs 300 JPY per month.  Therefore, if every fan enrolled in more than one of the fan clubs and subscribes their diary, Johnny’s would receive, at least, 8,600 JPY per fan, which means 47.3 billion JPY in total just for annual membership fees with almost no costs. 

In addition, most of the popular groups, such as V6, Kis-My-Ft 2, Hey! Say! Jump, and Sexy Zone, hold Dome or Arena tour once or even twice per year, expecting approximately 600,000 to 1,000,000 audiences respectively. A ticket costs around 9,000 JPY, therefore, every group produces 5.4 to 9 billion JPY profits per tour, plus complementary revenues from limited versions of CD, DVD, and tour goods sales, sold only at the concert venues. 

Some of the fanatic fans even change timetables of transportations and rates of hotel accommodations on their favorite group’s tour dates. Enthusiastic Otaku, like me, travel all across the nation to attend every single show of their favorite bands; which creates business opportunities for travel industries.  According to the CEO of APA Hotel, she checks all tour schedules of ARASHI and EXILE, another popular artist in Japan.  On the days of their shows, she raises room prices doubling or even tripling the original rates at the closest hotels of the concert venues.  JR run additional Shinkansen, Super Bullet Train, from Tokyo to Sendai just for ARASHI’s four-days concerts that took place at Miyagi Stadium in 2015. 

In this ways, eccentric fans contribute directly and indirectly to boost Japanese economy in related fields.


Ⅲ.Changing Social Norms in Japan by Otaku Influences

Finally, I would like to correlate Otaku culture with Japanese society and family system. 

While marriage and birth rates continue to decline; one in three couples end in divorce. According to the Japan Times Headlines, “one in four marriages in Japan involved divorced person in 2015 (January, 22 2017),” and “majority of single Japanese men in their 30s have never had relationship with marriage prospects (September, 4 2017).”  These figures indicate that couples and family in Japan has begun to diversify, and single people, like me, is no longer “loser dogs (women over 30 who are still single)” or “leftover Christmas Cakes (single women over 25).” In other words, being single have become one of the socially “accepted” lifestyles in our generations. 

Some of bachelors, including my professor at Kyoto University, Graduate School of Management, enjoy Otaku hobbies, such as going to “Akushu Kai of AKB 48(shaking hands opportunities with female idols),” by fully using their advantages of financial and psychological freedoms.  Other woman, who is my close fan friend, fell in love with one of the KJ8 members after she divorced with her former husband.  Both of them look very happy and satisfied with their lives.



Although there are some differences between idols and rock stars, both are admired as a charisma by their fans.  Since being somebody’s Otaku is seductive and addictive, you should engage in nuts community as a single, preferably NEET, so that you can attend every single live, fan meeting, and stage greeting, without worrying about skipping schools or works.  Therefore, ordinary, non-Otaku people, such as my coworkers and parents, openly show their disdain for my hobby---where I go on weekend and what I buy there.  In other words, Otaku used to, or should be single, NEET, and outsiders of the Japanese society.


As disposable income declines and family style diverge, however, single, full-time Otaku workers have economic powers and plenty of time to chase around their favorite artists, and are able to buy expensive front seats of every show.  These financial forces and enthusiasms of solo Otaku dominate the nation’s economy and cannot be ignored anymore.  They became not only mainstreams and influencers in popular cultures and consumptions in show business world, but also serve important roles that have huge impacts on all other Japanese industries at large.  

(2546 words)




Ito, M.(2012), “Introduction” in M. It. Okabe and I. Tsuji(eds), Fandom Unbound: otaku Culture in a Connected World, New Heaven: Yale University Press, p. xi-xxxi

Ju Otmazgin N(2014), Regionalizing Culture: The Polotocal Economy of Popular Culture in Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, p. 62.

Kazumi Nagaike(2012), Johnny’s Idols as Icons: Female Desires to Fantasize and Consume Male Idol Images, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, p.97-110.

Lucy Glasspool (2012), From Boys Next Door to Boy’s Love: Gender Performance in Japanese Male Idol Media, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, p.113-128.

Patrick W. Galbraith, Thiam Huat Kam and Bjorn-Ole Kamn(2015), Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, p.1.

Schodt, F. I(2009), “Poreword” in P.W. Galbraith, The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan, Tokyo: Kodansha, p.6-7.

West, Mark D (2006), Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle: The Rules in Scandals in Japan and the United States, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.6, 198-208, 241.

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