The word otaku is a formal term meaning “you” or “your family” which acquired its alternate meaning of “obsessed fanboy” after a magazine article critical of the rising underground culture of anime and doujinshi (fan-created comics) first used the term in 1983. While the most common forms of otaku are fans who are devoted to anime and manga, there’s no limit to the varieties of popular culture that can be encompassed with this word, and I’ve known karaoke otaku who sing for hours on end, a perfume otaku with more than 100 bottles in her collection, and an R/C otaku in our neighborhood who’s been flying his airplanes in a nearby field every Sunday for a decade now. Still, although we otaku have a lot of fun with our anime figures and our life-sized anime hug pillows, the true progenitors of fanatical hobby culture would have to be the railroad fans, generally called densha mania in Japanese, a term for anyone with a deep interest in railroad culture and who enjoy taking pictures of or riding on different trains. Japan’s history with railfans is long, with the first magazines for the genre appearing in the 1920s, although the hobby really took off in the 1960s and 70s as people acquired more time for leisure. One of the most famous rail aficionados is children’s author Kenji Miyazawa, who brought his imagination and love of trains together in his famous story Night of Galactic Railroad, a tale about a train that flies through space.
The last word on otaku, the awesome anime Genshiken, about a college anime and visual culture club. I cannot recommend it enough.