Are There More American Otaku Than Japanese Otaku?

by Justin Sevakis,

Randall asks:

Given the rising attendance figures at anime conventions here in the US, comparing to attendance figures from the (two?) comikets and assuming that such convention attendees would be considered otaku if living in Japan, is it possible that the US now has more otaku than Japan?

It's almost impossible to get any kind of accurate assessment as to how many otaku are out there, in either country. Nobody is ever asked to definitively state whether or not they are one, and there are varying degrees of being a fan of anime and manga.

Almost everyone in Japan would probably qualify as a "fringe fan", since there are always a smattering of shows that have entered the cultural zeitgeist; and of course, nearly everyone reads manga. What's far more rare is the hardcore otaku, the ones that buy a ton of expensive DVDs every month, draw doujinshi, and watch current late-night anime series. Estimates put these hardest-of-hardcore fans at around ten to twenty thousand. And after that, there are shades of gray. What do you call someone who doesn't pay attention to current shows, but will hear about good ones after the fact, rent them, and buy a few model kits every year? Or someone who only cares about Gundam?

American fans are even harder to count. Despite being late night, Toonami regularly counts more than a million viewers for some of its shows. Plenty more have streamed Attack on Titan or Naruto Shippuden, and even more have probably enjoyed a Miyazaki movie at one point or another. But we simply have no good way of counting the hardest of hardcore fans.

Attendance numbers from conventions are no help at all. While gigantic events like Comiket will bring in a half million people on paper, it's so different from an American anime convention that it's all but pointless to compare them. Comiket doesn't require any registration from attendees, and only takes a rough attendance count every day -- people who come multiple days are counted multiple times. The event itself is really a giant nerd bazaar, meant specifically for promotion and selling stuff (both fan-made and professional) and not much else. The two annual Comiket events and AnimeJapan are really the only two large-scale expositions for otaku culture, but there are plenty of small promotional events throughout the year, particularly in Akihabara. But none of those events is like an American convention, which is an all-encompassing weekend away, with lots to do and time spent with friends. Consequently, people attend for different reasons, in different ways. Plus, there are so many anime conventions in North America that it's hard to come up with a grand total.

One metric that does seem fair, though, is DVD sales. While there is no average, most anime will sell at least a couple thousand units in North America, and many go far beyond that -- a decent hit show with mainstream exposure could even break the 50,000 unit mark (although that's pretty rare). Only the most super, super mainstream stuff will crack 100,000 units sold. This is actually not far off from unit sales in Japan (although, of course, their prices are much higher).

I have a feeling - I stress that, a feeling, and all of this is only an educated guess - that Japan and North America have about the same number of hardcore otaku, but Japan has a much wider and more diverse crowd of fringe fans. But it's very, very hard to know for sure. Regardless, the American fans are diluted in a much larger population and a much more spacious country, so we are definitely not as noticeable of a group on this side of the Pacific.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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