At his favorite neighborhood cafe, Shunsuke Yamagata, a college student who proudly calls himself a nerd, smiled shyly behind his horn-rimmed glasses at waitresses hurrying about in black Minnie Mouse shoes and lacy, racy mini-dresses inspired by Japanese comics.
The place is a dream come true for Yamagata, whose passion is collecting comics and cartoons. He giggled with glee when his servers addressed him in the squeaky little character voices they use to delight their fantasy-loving clientele.
For Yamagata, 20, it was just another night out with the pocket-protector crowd in Tokyo's neon-splashed Akihabara district, where "costume cafes" are the latest of hundreds of new businesses catering to Japan's otaku, or nerds. A subculture of social misfits obsessed with electronic role-playing games, manga comics and Japanese animation, they began gathering in Akihabara in the late 1990s, lured by the district's proliferation of electronics retailers and stores selling everything you would need to build your own computer.
Maligned and shunned by mainstream society, here they stayed, their tastes and habits transforming the area also known as Electric Town into what sociologists are calling an urban first -- a ghetto of geeks.
On streets once packed with housewives or couples shopping for refrigerators and microwave ovens, hundreds of thousands of nerds -- mostly men between about 18 and 45 -- now wander through the area's multi-story comic warehouses and elaborate game arcades. Eyeglass adjustment kiosks compete for space with shops selling nondescript dress shirts and thick leather shoes.
There are bigger-ticket items, as well. With some analysts estimating the Japanese geek market to be worth as much as $19 billion a year, companies are jostling to cash in. One Akihabara antique electronics boutique displays an intact 1985 NEC computer, gingerly housed behind glass, with a $2,500 price tag.
"We have been discriminated against for being different, but now we have come together and turned this neighborhood into a place of our own," said Yamagata, nursing his tea as he sat with a portly computer technician friend at Akihabara's Cos-Cha, one of a dozen "maid cafes" in the neighborhood. Here, the waitresses' uniforms are inspired by the French maid-meets-Pokemon outfits of adult manga. At other cafes, waitresses greet patrons at the door with a curtsy and the words "Welcome home, master."
"In Akihabara, we don't need to be ashamed of who we are and what we like," he said. "We can feel comfortable because here, we outnumber everyone else."
Sociologists and urban planners compare the phenomenon to ethnic and social enclaves such as New York's Chinatown or San Francisco's gay Castro district, born of a blend of discrimination and shared cultural cues. Japanese geeks are outcasts in a society known for its rigid social norms. But their culture has gone mainstream.
Tokyo's subways and trains are filled with teenagers and grandfathers unabashedly reading thick, often adult-themed manga. Japan's biannual Comic Market lured more visitors this year than the annual Tokyo Motor Show. T-shirts proclaiming their wearers to be akiba-kei -- or Akihabara types -- can be seen even in Tokyo's mega-fashionable neighborhoods of Shibuya and Harajuku.
Takashi Murakami, a contemporary artist, was in New York recently to present indoor and outdoor exhibitions filled with some of the darker symbols of Japan's nerd subculture, which include a jarring mix of doe-eyed anime characters, fetish sexuality and fantasy games. A noted designer, Kaichiro Morikawa, generated a buzz at the 2004 Venice Biennale by recreating parts of Akihabara's landmark Radio Hall, a building where Japanese nerds rent transparent, locker-size cubicles in part to sell, but mostly to show off, collections reflecting their distinctive tastes. Prized items range from air guns and model battleships to anime characters in sexual poses and miniature Godzillas.
"I think we have a long way to go before the otaku themselves are considered cool," Morikawa said. "But the motifs of otaku culture have permeated Japanese society and beyond. Just look around you. They are everywhere."
Nerd subgroups include not only people obsessed with cartoons and computer games, but also pop idols such as Morning Daughter, a music group marketed to kids that has become so popular among otaku that men sometimes attend its concerts wearing kimonos covered in glossy pictures of young band members.
That, along with the child pornography aspect of some adult manga, has led to allegations that some nerds are pedophiles.
Tetsu Ishihara, 34, a computer programmer whose three-room apartment in west Tokyo is filled from floor to ceiling with comic books, does not want to be associated with such charges. Ishihara maintains a growing collection of 130 life-size pillows of female anime characters -- both purchased and self-designed. His favorite is Mio-chan, a female character from a love-simulation computer game in which a high school boy builds up the courage to ask a girl for a first date.
"There are some people who do lose their grip on reality, but that is not me -- or most of us," said Ishihara, a chubby man with glasses who this year started dating a woman steadily for the first time She's an anime artist. "For me, the pillows have been my source of unconditional love, a reminder of when I used to be hugged by my parents. There is nothing strange about it."
Yet some sociologists critical of the nerd culture here have linked it to the high incidence of severe behavioral problems among men under 40. Immersed in role-playing games and comic fantasy worlds, many have found real-life personal conflict difficult to cope with -- one cause, some say, for a massive increase in the social problem of hikikomori, or shut-ins. Now numbering as many as 1 million nationwide, the shut-ins -- mostly men in their twenties or thirties -- typically live in their parents' homes, rarely leaving their rooms.
Otaku behavior is also being blamed, along with social disillusionment following Japan's protracted recession, for the increasing numbers of Japanese youth who have no apparent career ambitions. Instead, many are choosing to work part time -- or not at all -- so they can spend most of their time pursuing their hobbies.
"The Japanese have never been good at verbal communication, but the problem with otaku is that they are so engrossed in their own favorite world and don't have the ability, interest or confidence to interact with other human beings," said Hiroko Mizushima, a legislator in Japan's lower house and a psychiatrist who has studied the subject. "The impact on society is enormous. They just don't want to have close relationships with others."
Nowhere is that more obvious than in Akihabara, where the nerds use their own slang and share a general aversion to even being seen -- one reason, experts say, that many of the new buildings in the district are largely windowless.
The geeks' arrival in Electric Town during the 1990s transformed the area, now lined with images of cartoon characters and shops catering to otaku tastes. Particularly popular are stores specializing in the tiny figures churned out by supermarket bubblegum machines. Men pay $30 or more for the rarest characters.
"Most people think we're weird," said Yamagata, the college student. "That's why we come here."