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Otaku: Japan's gadget geeks dictate tech future

By CNN's Kristie Lu Stout

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- If Japan is the world's epicenter of innovation, its mascot would have to be the otaku, a subculture of gadget geeks.

They're plugged in, wired up and totally into tech. They're also the connoisseurs of video games, animation and consumer electronics.

And if they see something they like, they don't just buy it. They hoard it.

'Passionate obsessives'

"I don't need to collect, but I ended up having lots of hardware and software and PCs," says Hiroaku Hayashi, a video jockey otaku.

Hayashi owns seven computers in his Tokyo apartment, just what he needs to fuel his passion for PCs and pop music.

"I like movies and music. And technology makes me able to make both just by myself."

"Films used to need at least 20 people to make anything. But with a PC, one person can make any movie that a person wants to. So that's my passion -- to make movies and music come together."

Masujiro Maeda, on the other hand, is into the Net. If a gadget has an IP address or a phone jack, you name it -- he's got it.

"I'm interested in anything related to networking and I'm pretty much interested in any new products that appear, like this keyboard," says Maeda.

The name otaku in Japanese connotes "male nerd." Science fiction writer William Gibson calls them "passionate obsessives." But as any otaku would tell you, he's no social reject.

"There's a lot of people that have the same interest as I do. We exchange a lot of information," says Maeda.

"I also teach at a school once a week and it's for video-making on PCs," Hayashi adds.

"Technology was not possible five years ago on what I do now. Since there's lots of students coming every year, I assume there's more people becoming like that."

Consumer force

The otaku say they're not possessed by technology. They just have an innate drive to constantly modify and accessorize their own personal technology worlds.

And as a result, an entire sub-industry has emerged to cater to their needs.

Now there are hundreds of otaku Web sites and magazines -- even shopping zones. The Tokyo district of Akihabara is now nicknamed "Otaku Town."

But what's most astounding perhaps is that they have forced major tech companies to deliver to their passions.

"The otaku are constantly seeking new functionality, new ways of using devices," says Tim Clark, a Tokyo-based analyst at Ion Global.

"They are the ones that are the bell weather for each sector. They are the first buyers, the leading edge, the driving force behind the product development."

The otaku live and breathe technology. They also dictate its future -- living proof that even the biggest geek can be a consumer force to be reckoned with.

• Otaku Anime and Manga Magazine
• Otaku E-Zine

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