Escapist Or Social? Inside Oshi-Katsu, Japan’s Obsessive Fan Activity

Known for its media and entertainment, Japan is seeing a rising wave of fandom consumerism.

Japanese Oshi-katsu at Concert
Japanese Oshi-katsu at Concert. Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Before, I worked and lived at a hostel for a few months. It was the kind of hostel that teemed with frazzled, unshaven international youth, their backpacks the size of slightly smaller humans, the kind of hostel that always looks just this side of dingy despite the staff’s (including my) best efforts. The door exhaled a puff of dust as it opened, nearing midnight—a woman came in. She would have been quite an unremarkable, middle-aged Japanese woman, except for the fact that she was in this hostel. She struggled to control her small suitcase, which she’d lugged up the creaky flight of stairs. As I helped her with it, she looked apologetically at me. “The things I do,” she said, “for my Oshi.”

It suddenly made sense why she was here. Oshi was a word that I was hearing more and more often in Japan. Oshi meant your “favorite” person, often a celebrity or performer, whom you were a fan of. Millions partook in Oshi-katsu (activity supporting your favorite person), which could be understood as a form of “fangirling,” but could apply to all ages and genders. It also has a big consumeristic undertone that mere “fangirling” lacks. Indeed, Oshi-katsu has by now made up a whole industry in Japan, with almost 60% of the population in ages 15 to 49 saying they have an Oshi. People can express their Oshi in many ways—from attending high-priced concerts, purchasing merchandise, to even taking a tour of the locations that their Oshi has spent time in (an activity called seichi-meguri, which roughly translates to “pilgrimmage”). Some are even renting larger spaces and additional rooms to display the goods collected from their Oshi-katsu.

Otaku culture
Image by jcarloshep0 from Pixabay

Taken together, it seems Oshi-katsu has become the newest booming trend in Japan—but it’s not without its predecessors. A similar culture with a long history is perhaps the Otaku, which is a word usually limited to older, unmarried men, and carries a derogatory tone. Many non-Japanese folks may be familiar with the more morbid sensations such as the man who fell in love with a literal cockroach or with a singing feminine bot. Of course, most of Otaku culture is not so extreme, and can consist of anything from collecting figurines of your favorite anime characters, Pokemon, cars, or (insert some hobby), to attending conventions and meeting up with fellow fans.

Compared to the Otaku, the Oshi-katsu is more modern and open-minded, says Maiko Kodaka (2023.) While the Otaku was largely confined to the solitary, lonely man, Oshi-katsu was the alternative for individuals who didn’t quite fit that stereotype. Anyone could have an Oshi, and the object could be anything—celebrities for sure, but animals and food could also be an Oshi. (My best friend the other day described a young man at her office as her Oshi; someone she was very fond of but wasn’t romantically interested in.)

Oshi-Katsu harajuku
Photo by Quốc Bảo on Pexels

Oshi-katsu largely spawned out of the COVID-19 pandemic, when everybody found themselves alone with their devices and without face-to-face interaction. Many delved deep into escapism and passive consumption of technology, but not without positive outcomes: connecting with other individuals sharing the same interests was also easy. While Otaku was a mostly solitary activity, often hidden due to any potential embarrassment, Oshi-katsu was proudly social, a large part of it trying to find similar individuals, or even advertising their love to others who were outside of their fan community.

Now, this is not to say that any degree of obsession is great for mental health. Both Otaku and Oshi-katsu have been blamed for their escapist nature, with many Japanese choosing to live in a fantasy with their favorite celebrities than in the harsh real world. Perhaps more subtly, it can challenge one’s sense of connection. Kodaka critiques Oshi-katsu culture as a poor substitute for a mutual human relationship, in which a relationship is earned instead of bought. For example, as a fan, you are buying your relationship with your Oshi, such as by going to concerts, attending hand-shaking events (akushu-kai), or subscribing to fan clubs. But relationships in real life don’t work like that. You can’t buy friends; you must approach the other with integrity, exposing every bit of who you are and carrying the risk of rejection.

Kodaka goes even further to say that Oshi-katsu appeals to the female ideal, which is to be “desired passionately.” According to her, Oshi-katsu acts as a substitute for a woman’s sexual insecurity, helping her feel “woman enough” when the real-life dating world makes her feel otherwise. Perhaps this says less about people succumbing to escapism as it does about harsh realities of dating. Beyond just a feminist issue, both genders in Japan are increasingly apathetic towards love, with “49 percent of unmarried women and 61 of unmarried men, ages 18 to 34” are single. Kodaka observes a woman in her interview, whose Oshi is a male porn star: She is not attempting to win the love of her favorite man, as that would be ‘love with complication galore’; rather her aim is to confirm her sense of femininity through highly heteronormative interactions in a confined realm.”

Oshi-Katsu manga shop
Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

But some perspectives challenge the assumption that any kind of fan activity harms the individual. As Oshi-katsu was a reaction to the prejudices experienced by Otaku, it intentionally takes an anti-discriminatory stance. Oshi-katsu doesn’t have to be some addiction, where one loses their sense of self in favor of a fantasy. Rather than taking away from reality, it can add to it; bringing community at a time of isolation, and bringing courage to unforgiving everyday life. “My faves looking at me give a boost to my life and feelings,” a 27-year-old woman says, talking about the merchandise adorning her room. You can no longer distinguish who here is doing the fangirling—the fan supports their favorites, but in their mind, is also supported by them. It’s curious that an entire phenomenon in Japanese culture is only ever a feat of imagination.

The woman I met at the hostel was hardly a lonely, dispirited individual. She explained how she was used to traveling across the country to catch concerts, almost matching the pace of her Oshi’s tours. She was retired now, and spoke of her family fondly: “They’re saying I should stop soon, and I agree. Look at me! I can hardly climb a set of stairs. I’m not at that age anymore that’s appropriate for Oshi-katsu.” Only after our conversation did I realize that she never mentioned just who she was chasing around. The relationship was hers, and hers only.

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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