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In Japan, nerds have become an economic force to be reckoned with. Obsessive fans of comic books, computer games, action figures and cartoons are contributing billions to the economy and growing more and more accepted by society. Women are getting involved, too.

But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, the wave of geek chic may have some big social implications for Japan.

LOUISA LIM: The crash and ping of computer combat echoes around a cabinet hall as the lucky few do battle. Hundreds more are lining up to be the first to try these newly released games. For the fans here at Tokyo Game Show, computer gaming is not so much a hobby as a way of life, a religion almost, offering a ready made community and in some cases a new identity.

KAI: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Twenty-four-year-old Kai reels off her affiliation. Sengoku Basara is her favorite computer game. An office worker by day, she spends her weekends dressed up as a 16th century samurai, Chosokabe Motochika. Her chest is bound flat. She wears a gray wig, armored cuffs, high black boots, a red satin jacket and a red eye patch over one eye. She's surrounded by other women, all dressed as computer game versions of samurai.

I didn't want to be a man, she assures me. I just like cosplay, short for costume play.

KAI: (Through Translator) Yes, I'm a nerd. It's Japan's new culture. To me it's just one of the ways of showing your creativity.

Ms. LIM: She's part of a new Japanese tribe - the otaku, or nerd. Once this was an insult but now Japan's nerds are out and proud. Almost 200,000 people have trekked out to a suburban convention center on their annual pilgrimage to the game show. Many are dressed in elaborate, hand sewn costumes. All devote time and money to their passion.

Ms. AI OHARA (Nomura Research Institute): We estimate the otaku is about $4 billion in 2004.

LIM: Ai Ohara from Nomura Research Institute, which has studied the otaku phenomenon. And the Tokyo district of Akihabara is proof of geek spending power. Here, theme songs from computer games waft out of shops piled high with technological equipment and gadgets in an exuberant celebration of geekdom. Indeed, Japan's nerds, with their exacting demands, are driving consumer trends.

Ms. OHARA: Enterprise is (unintelligible) - industries, like watching the Web chat by otakus in this stuff, and they're trying to create new products and listen to their demands and stuff.

(Soundbite of film, “Train Man”)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: This film, “Train Man,” made geekdom hot, even unleashing a craze for windbreakers and thick spectacles. The movie starts with a chance sighting on a train between a typical nerd and his dream woman.

(Soundbite of film, “Train Man”)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The encounter eventually spawns a first, tongue-tied phone conversation and a budding romance. Each step is avidly followed by friends online, and eventually the geek gets the girl.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: But celluloid fantasies aside, some extreme Japanese nerds are so lost within their own worlds, they simply can't communicate with the opposite sex. And so another innovation to serve the geeks was born, the maid cafe.

(Soundbite of crowd of people)

As the door to the Mailish Cafe swings open, women in French maids' costumes curtsy. They greet male customers hello, master. Here men live out their fantasies, being waited on hand and foot by maids whose costumes come straight out of erotic comic books. This fantasy world has been taken one step further, with cartoon pictures of each of the real life waitresses lining the walls. Real life Sayaka has a demure smile, a short black skirt and a subservient bow, while her cartoon version clutches a pink toy rabbit. She has worked here for more than three years. She, too, is a cosplayer, and that's why she enjoys this job.

SAYAKA: (Through translator) I would describe my hobbies as fantasy, as I want to be something which I'm not. As for this cafe, it's 70 percent reality and 30 percent fantasy.

LIM: She admits that her parents don't understand, and that they've given up on her. And her decision to devote herself to her fantasy world of cosplay and a kind of perpetual adolescence is a conscious rejection of her parents' lifestyle.

There's a dark subtext, too. The dysfunctional gender politics among Japan's nerds, and of a predilection for buying subservience at maid and butler cafes. Geeks may now be chic in this otaku nation, but their alienation from traditional norms speaks of social upheavals ahead.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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