Itai culture: A closer look at otaku vehicles

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Opinion makers are calling otaku cool, and these newly christened trendsetters are stepping into the spotlight, invading public space with personal effects decorated with anime and game characters. This is called itai, literally “painful” in Japanese, and true to form this new cultural outbreak is so cool it hurts.

The term “itai” was first adopted in the ’90s to describe intense, cultish otaku associated with infamous serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu. Self-evident examples of this trend became known as itai-kei, or itai style.

The first artifacts are still the most recognizable: the itasha, or itai cars. In the ’80s, when Japan was at the zenith of its economic might, Tokyo’s streets were a parade of luxury import cars. Among them, the “itasha” – originally Japanese slang meaning an imported Italian car – was the most desired. For otaku today, however, an itasha is a car decorated with anime designs or graphics. They often have matching interior decoration and are stuffed to the gills with figures, goods and accessories that go along with the overall theme. The vehicles are driven or parked in public spaces for photo sessions and attention, often of a negative sort.

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“Itasha is the desire to be seen and the joy of being embarrassed,” said internationally renowned pop artist Takashi Murakami. “It is like S/M play, with heavy emphasis on the ‘M’ component.”

Murakami showcased itasha as the next big thing at his “Geisai #11” art festival held at Tokyo Big Sight last month.

And itasha may indeed be the next big thing. Most weekends in Akihabara, after the stores close at 8pm and the parking areas clear, dozens of itasha rally up. “Magi,” the organizer of a Fuji Speedway Itasha Meeting in May, reports that more than 300 itasha registered for his event. The nationally syndicated
magazine ItaG is arranging another “festa” in front of Fuji TV in Odaiba on November 9, and the fashionable folk of Odaiba are sure to be shocked by hordes of itai otaku.

Most itasha aficionados are males between 20 and 50, and some become well known for their efforts. Nitaira Yasuhiko, a 39-year old electrician from Ibaraki Prefecture, loves the character Ayanami Rei from “Neon Genesis Evangelion” so much that he spent three months and ¥100,000 decorating a box van with her image and filling it to the brim with related merchandise.

“I saw these cars in Akihabara about a year ago and got hooked,” he said. “It’s fun to drive them because people praise you and you make friends easily.”

Nitaira said his cosplay-loving wife doesn’t mind literally taking a backseat to his life-sized Ayanami Rei doll.

While Nitaira’s case is extreme, and while some drivers say they draw and apply their own homemade decals, the cost of owning these rolling otaku rooms can be high. Besides the increasing costs of cars and gasoline, professional decals start at about ¥15,000 for a 50cm2 weather-resistant sheet, and the expense for a custom job can easily reach ¥70,000.
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For those who don’t make the itasha grade, the next best thing has been the emergence of a new kind of itai bike gang culture. Itai motorcycles known as itansha are equipped with TVs tuned to anime and sound systems that boom the show’s theme songs. Further down the food chain are itachari, or bicycles ridden by packs of young otaku and tricked out with anime images in the spokes of the wheels. No wheels at all? Fine, pick up a miniature itasha model kit or toy.

The latest development is itumblers, or Starbucks coffee mugs with printouts of anime babes inserted in the customizable image plates. As with itasha, the owners gather in the cafés, line up their cups in plain view, and take pictures. While none explicitly state they are invading the space, one can’t help but note the passive assertion of shared otaku aesthetics. One online coalition planted as many as 12 itumblers in one Osaka café to make the space “more like home.”