It's not every day that an interview subject for the FinanceAsia Japan Supplement turns up wearing a cute blue and white maid's outfit. The hemline is easily high enough to reveal a pair of long, stocking-clad legs. As I greet Jane Fong, CEO and founder of GIJane, in the UDX Building of the Akihabara district, I notice that there are plenty of other maids about. And if Fong has her way, maids could be displaying their charms in cities from Taipei to San Francisco, as well as in their Tokyo heartland. However, Fong explains that what she represents is not just about maids -- it's about the whole gamut of the extraordinarily intense Japanese escapist pop culture, comprising manga (magazines), animated films (anime), figurines, games, models, outfits, dolls and so on.
Fong is an articulate, friendly and confident exponent of this culture, making it all the more surprising that she's just 25-years-old and Singaporean. Such a combination means she speaks fluent Mandarin and English as well as Japanese, and can thus position herself as an ambassador of this 'otaku' culture to the international market.
It probably helps being so young to get your head around what Fong is tapping into. 'Otaku' is shorthand to describe the phenomenon, but does not explain much on its own. The term means 'hard core fan', but while you can be a train otaku or a football otaku, the concept of otaku culture really refers to someone hooked not just on a specific lifestyle, but on 'digital' content as well. It's the latter preserve that Fong focuses on. Digital is an important and recent part of the definition. It refers partly to the fact that much content has migrated from the physical form (of comics and films) into online games, movies and anything using the Internet as a channel -- a channel which enables both the consumption of content, and the sharing of it. That's an important innovation given that in the past, otaku felt alienated by their passions.
"The arrival of the Apple I-phone was really significant for my business, because it suddenly meant that the rest of the world had caught up with Japanese mobile phone technology. Japanese otaku culture is now available for the rest of the world to download," says Fong.
The Internet is providing Fong with a crucial way of circumventing the business establishment. Manga comprises one-third of the publication output of Japanese publishing houses, for example. But the publishing houses own the rights to the physical products only -- so if Fong can get the artist to agree, she can distribute the content digitally, and bypass the middleman.
For a non-Japanese, it's frankly difficult to understand the content of this otaku culture. The manga consist of huge pictures filled with doe-eyed maidens and tall, dark heroes. But there are countless sub-cultures. For example, one genre popular among women, is the 'boy love' manga focusing on what goes on in an English-style boarding school. Others revolve around science-fiction and Tolkien-inspired fantasy. There's even a manga about pot noodles, believe it or not.
From a commercial point of view, the obsessiveness of the fans is attractive. As Fong guides a group of foreign otaku fans through the labyrinth of Akihabara, the global capital of the genre, we see everything from beautiful figurines to fake guns to costumes and dolls. All these (apart from the guns and a train shop) have a pure, other-worldly quality about them. The clothes and settings are striking combinations of bizarre fashion, over-developed bodies, deadly weapons and vivid poses.
The point of the doll, for example, is that you can customise every aspect of your doll. You can buy everything separately, including eye-balls, hair, hands, feet and of course a dazzling array of outfits. A pair of miniature shoes can cost $50 dollars. Outfits can cost double that. Furniture, mainly large English-style armchairs and sofas, can double the cost again.
"Forget the usual business jargon about the four Ps (positioning, price, etc). Here it's about the three Cs, namely community, collection and creativity. Despite all the economic bad news, shops are still opening in Akihabara and people are still spending, even if they are not very well off," says Fong.
Yet, given that Otaku is so all-encompassing (train spotting and science fiction is a hobby in many European countries as well), what exactly is Jane exporting? Well, it seems to be a style which some foreigners appreciate in Japan, and like to imitate or adopt. One young Frenchman (France is one of the biggest fans of otaku culture) says that as an artistically-inclined web designer himself, he finds that there is a special appeal about the shapes and forms which the Japanese give their products, just as Apple holds a special appeal on account of the slick elegance of its products.
Within in Japan, otaku culture combines the Internet, a sense of separateness, escapism and community. It also comprises a fringe of lurid sex and violence, but one should emphasise that that is only one end of the spectrum. Plenty of the content is neither. But interestingly, the international version may focus on its more superficial, stylish aspects.
In some ways, the phenomenon is rather like pop music, and may eventually evolve like it. Fong explains that there is a sense of rebellion about being an otaku, but like in all rebellions, there is a desire to find people you can bond with. If otaku culture becomes too commercialised, there will be resentment among the fans, who will abandon what is currently popular, and delve into something more unique. This is brilliant from the business point of view, because it means the genre is always re-inventing itself, and the business establishment can follow, making all the profits. In a similar fashion, jazz and blues were adopted by white Americans, and eventually changed into Rock n' Roll. When that became too main-stream, teenagers switched from the Rolling Stones to punk, and so on and so forth.
Fong set up her company in 2007 and has already collected seven angel investors. Luckily, most of them are content to give her a free hand, as she experiments with marketing to consumers and wholesalers. She is active travelling outside Japan to spread the otaku gospel word, and is confident she has a product with global appeal.
The problems are actually more prevalent in Japan. "Doing business in Japan is not easy, because the establishment is so powerful and so conservative. If I want to bypass the wholesaler and buy directly from the factory, the factory itself will politely tell me that they don't want to compromise their relationship to their customers by selling to me. The fact that I might be willing to pay more makes absolutely no difference. It's a question of loyalty."
Fong knows that she in it for the long haul. "You can't buy your way into this. You have to become accepted by the business community. As you gain one person's trust, they will pass you along the chain to their friends and acquaintances. My angel investors are very important to me for that reason," she says.
So how widespread is otaku culture becoming? Well, it's been gaining ground in recent years. Taro Aso, Japan's current prime minister, claims to be a manga otaku. Several Japanese celebrities have 'come out' about their obsession with a certain product (fans differentiate each other very strictly in terms of whether they are film (anime), game, or idol otaku. It's also been making big money in artistic circles. Several people on the tour work for a Japanese artist, Murakami Takashi, who has established himself as a powerful artistic figure in US and Russia with his Otaku-inspired creations.
We round off the tour in a small café. The waitresses are pretty, young girls. Like Fong, they are dressed as maids. The patrons are much older, not very prosperous-looking men. We all sit down and order drinks, and after a few minutes one of the girls hops onto the small stage and belts out a pop song, combining it with some enthusiastic wiggling. The patrons get into the swing of things and clap along. One middle-aged woman leans towards me and whispers in English: "What a bunch of losers. They should go out and get real girlfriends instead of paying in order to feel important."
It's not a very charitable thing to say, but unfortunately, otaku culture does carry some baggage. At least two male serial killers have set otaku culture back by it being revealed that they were heavily into various forms of otaku culture. In that sense, it's a pure reflection of the Internet, which combines the wonderful with the very terrible. Exploiting this somewhat ambiguous genre will not be easy for Fong, and she will surely need every ounce of her considerable skills to succeed.
This story first appeared in FinanceAsia's April Japan Supplement.