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February 02, 2006

Japanese Go Crazy For "Nerd Culture"

There's a place for us:

Masa puts his arm affectionately around Konoha's sloping shoulders on the couch in his apartment and gently brushes her hair from her bright blue eyes. Iris stands behind them, decked out in a frilly dress.

Masa speaks warmly to Kohona and Iris, greeting them brightly each morning and when he returns home from work, but they never speak back. That's no surprise -- Masa's two companions are life-sized dolls.

"She doesn't have to talk, because I enjoy her as a doll, not as a substitute for a person," Masa, a 32-year-old computer engineer who asked to be identified only by a shortening of his first name, said of Konoha, his favorite.

A grown man living with two nearly 150-centimeter-tall dolls in his apartment -- and dozens of smaller figurines -- would seem bizarre anywhere. And indeed, Masa keeps his full identity hidden and his curtains drawn to avoid ridicule by outsiders.

But in Japan, he also represents the cutting edge of a billion-dollar "nerd culture" that has grown so enormous it has taken over an entire neighborhood in Tokyo, and is making inroads into the mainstream.

The culture is firmly rooted in Japan's enduring fascination with manga comic books and animation that have won fans and critical acclaim worldwide.

But Masa and others like him -- known as otaku -- have taken that trend to another level by collecting dolls like Konoha or flocking to cafes staffed by waitresses dressed as comic book maids. They stock web pages with photos of their dolls "posing" along country roads or taking a dip in hotspring baths.

The growing popularity of so-called "otaku culture" has transformed the Akihabara neighborhood in downtown Tokyo from the city's main electronics district into a magnet for 20- to 40-year-old men looking for comics, videogames and anime DVDs. Figurines of all sizes of sexy doe-eyed girls in mini-skirts are big sellers. Maid cafes are on every block.

While part of the appeal of manga and anime figures is pornographic, an Internet survey of Japan's doll collectors indicated most bought the figures only to dress or photograph them or simply to show them off.

The kicker:

Masa's dolls are well cared for. Their clothes take up more room in his closet than his do: a Chinese-style dress with deep side-slits, blouses with bows, outfits of all kinds. He has also bought lace-up boots, sneakers and other footwear for the dolls when he goes driving with them in his van, mainly to take pictures.

He carefully combs Konoha's brown hair with a wooden comb to cut down on static. Concerned that her mini-skirt is a tad too immodest, he folds her pale hand demurely over her lap.

He has no intention of ever getting married or finding a girlfriend.

And by "intention," he means "hope."

Thanks to Allah.

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posted by Ace at 12:37 PM

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