A peek into an otaku's bedroom or living space can be a bit of a surprise for the average person.
But it's not unusual for fans of anime and manga in Japan to decorate their small rooms even more elaborately. Otaku rooms can be covered in posters and pillows or shelves with hundreds of collectible figurines, all emblazoned with favorite anime or manga characters. Some fans make a point of collecting as much merchandise associated with the object of their affection as they can, and making sure it's all on display. It's a form of decorative expression that many otaku in the rest of the world have also adopted.
You might have seen it in the Japanese drama "Train Man," the main character's bedroom is crammed floor to ceiling with shelves of statues and figures from popular anime series like "Mobile Suit Gundam" and stacks of manga.
Let's be clear: This is not "normal behavior" in Japan. While the otaku population is strong there, Japanese who get involved in any fandom to this degree earn a certain amount of disapproval from others. Some are reserved about letting people see their personal space because of it.
In his new book, "Otaku Spaces," author Patrick W. Galbraith digs even deeper into the way otaku choose to decorate their surroundings, and the reasons why they choose to do so in the way that they do. Just like American collectors, comfort plays a key role in why they choose to collect.
"Whether we look at bedrooms, stores or even neighborhoods where otaku hang out, it seems almost as if there is a colonization of space by interests," Galbraith said. "Whatever it was that interested them, they could encounter it anywhere and anytime in daily life, increasing feelings of intimacy. The more they consumed, the closer they felt to favorite series, characters or moments."
There's nothing weird about collecting things - in fact, most people do it. Whether it's DVDs, video games, stamps, vintage lunchboxes or even rare Star Wars figures, there's something attractive about the lore of the hunt, finding that oh-so-rare item.
In addition to that undeniable draw, there's also the space those coveted objects ultimately occupy - how you choose to display those things that you collect. As that space is filled, it brings a collection to life. Each object has a story attached to it - how you acquired it, where you were when you found it. Each piece of the collection acts like a thumbtack on the cork board of your life, pinning an object to a moment and creating a vivid, pointed memory.
If you've ever felt that way, you understand something about the heart of an otaku and how they live.
Otaku collecting is not limited to just anime-related merchandise. There are many different types of otaku, such as "Pasocon-ota" (computer geeks) and "Gunji-ota" (fans of military themed items).
Otaku even compete to have the most impressive rooms. Japanese culture guru Danny Choo challenged the readers of his website to take photos of their rooms and submit them online, which were eventually compiled into a series of best-selling books called "Otacool." These books give the reader the ability to peek through the keyhole into a world that is equal parts foreign, unusual and absolutely fascinating.
"Otaku rooms are some of the most interesting rooms I get to see – filled to the brim with anime and game merchandise," Choo says. "Just like how mum likes to display and enjoy looking at crockery around the house, otaku love to be close to and admire physical representations of their favorite characters."
This method of collecting is merely a highly stylized version of any other collector's methods, but it holds a key in that it communicates a tremendous amount of information from one otaku to another, sketching a vast illustration of their specific interests and drilling down to subgenres of subgenres. In this form of collecting, a deeply personal form of expression is born.
The intimacy that this kind of collecting creates threads of connection between people with similar interests. At a glance, one can't help but wonder if there is some level of competition involved, as one of the things about the otaku bedroom that really jumps out at people is the sheer quantity of collectibles present. The word otaku, as well as their activities and ways of life, generates both positive and negative connotations. Some view the collecting as obsessive and the interest in anime characters as perverse.
What about the negative stipulations associated with this type of collecting, such as the viewpoint that their hobbies are too extreme?
Galbraith says that just because otaku are more specific in what they consume, and tend to know more about and get more involved with it, doesn’t mean that they are losers.
"Though it is true that some people might have hobbies that keep them at home, I don’t think interest in media or commodities means that you aren’t interested in people. People who consider otaku losers without ever meeting or talking to those who identify or are identified that way are probably just reacting to negative stereotypes. Or they are discriminating against hobbies that they do not share or understand."
Certainly there is something intimidating about a level of collecting that seems obsessive - especially if it's paired with isolation. However, one of the most remarkable things about otaku collecting is that is does allow bonding between fans on levels of interest so niche that it would be difficult to have the same connections with strangers.
By bonding over favorite shows, manga, fan art and more, otaku actually move further away from isolation. What once may have made them feel separated now gives them the chance to feel less separated then ever.
Galbraith says that in his observation, the otaku's collecting habits are less about social status and more about a way of life. In the otaku mindset, objects didn't matter as much as the process by which they were acquired.
"What I learned while talking to people about their spaces was that those who were truly collectors didn’t talk so much about social status. It was more about fulfilling a need. A personal need to see or have something, and, in his case, to share it. It leads us to think about the socioeconomic conditions that allow for the development of otaku spaces in Japan and beyond."