Devotees Are Mainly Young Men, Who Dress Like the Characters - in Miniskirts
WASHIMIYA, Japan - For many years, Washinomiya Shrine has been a quiet place of worship, attracting just a trickle of sightseers to this sleepy town outside Tokyo. Then last summer, priests started noticing a new kind of visitor.
Young men, some clad in miniskirts, stockings and pastel-colored wigs, were lining up for photos at the shrine's vermilion gate. Over the big New Year's holiday in January, nearly 300,000 such visitors -- almost 10 times the town's population -- showed up, scores of them clad in outfits resembling schoolgirl uniforms.
Discerning fans had figured out that Washinomiya Shrine is regularly featured in "Lucky Star," a wildly popular animated comic that aired as a television series last year. Like the fans of other popular comics, Lucky Star's most ardent followers -- often men in their 20s and 30s -- demonstrate their commitment to the show by engaging in "costume play," or "cosplay," the popular pastime of dressing up as various characters.
Lucky Star's main characters are all female. "For us, this is a holy site," declared a young man named Shigeki Ito, strolling through the shrine one recent weekend in a wig of blue tresses, a red-and-white schoolgirl uniform and dark knee socks. The 20-something Tokyo office worker said dressing up as Konata, Lucky Star's easygoing main character, is "part of the experience." Accompanying him as Miyuki was friend Takashi Tanno, his pink wig slightly askew.
The unlikely attention lavished on this small town shows Japan's sometimes over-the-top obsession with anime, a style of animation that often features big-eyed characters delving into grown-up themes. Anime is one of Japan's hottest industries, expanding into blockbuster films, videogames, plastic figurines and fan fiction.
Sales of comics, anime and related games reached 186.8 billion yen, or $1.74 billion, in 2007, according to the Media Create Co., a research company. Anime such as Pokemon and Dragon Ball have become some of Japan's most visible cultural exports. Publishing giant Kadokawa Group Holdings Inc.'s U.S. arm launched Lucky Star DVDs in the U.S. in May, and sequels are due later this year.
Originally a series in a men's comic magazine, "Lucky Star" follows four girls at a high school near Tokyo who chat about videogames, copy each other's homework and sleep through class. There's no well-defined plot, no violence and none of the steamy scenes sometimes associated with anime. But the girls' laid-back humor and their blasé attitudes toward life took Japan by storm.
Soon, hardcore fans -- called otaku, or geeks -- were racing to identify the unnamed real-life locations where the show takes place. They swiftly zeroed in on Washimiya, in a region where Lucky Star's author, Kagami Yoshimizu, has lived. Washinomiya Shrine was fingered as the place that employs the family of Tsukasa and Kagami Hiiragi, two doe-eyed sisters with purple hair.
"I find it fun to share the same space as the anime characters and connect to their world," says Keitaro Osakabe, a pharmacy student who recently compiled a 50-page illustrated guide that identifies key scenes, such as bus stops and obscure paths through rice fields. His guide, which is sold to other fans, is packed with advice on the best camera angles to replicate Lucky Star scenes.
Spooked by the Deluge
At first, residents of Washimiya -- spelled differently than the shrine -- were spooked by the deluge, fearing the skirt-clad men were part of a religious cult. "I didn't know what it was all about," says Akemi Kishi, 65, owner of a ramen-noodle shop near the shrine.
But it wasn't long before locals realized their unorthodox visitors could be a source of relief for a local economy still reeling from Japan's economic slump of the 1990s and early 2000s. Led by Atsushi Sakata, an enterprising official at the local chamber of commerce, a team of town employees studied the Lucky Star comics and brainstormed ways to court these new visitors.
"We realized this was a huge business opportunity for Washimiya," says Mr. Sakata, who says he knows the show's characters "like my own kids."
Lucky Star Bread Rolls
Now the town's small shops hawk Lucky Star chocolate bread rolls similar to the ones the characters like to eat. The town trotted out a Lucky Star-themed sake and, continuing its shrine theme, recruited a traditional carpenter to craft cellphone charms in the shape of tiny prayer tablets. Washimiya has sold some 20,000 charms so far, contributing to the 42 million yen, or about $390,000, in income it has garnered to date from Lucky Star food and goods.
In an effort to quell local misgivings, Mr. Sakata also organized several Lucky Star festivals at the shrine, complete with talk shows by Lucky Star voice actors and a Lucky Star trivia quiz to bring locals and fans together. One event in April drew some 1,500 people, which included scores of curious townsfolk.
Soon, some residents noticed that even the most outlandish fans were generally well-behaved, and drew a firm line between the real and fantasy worlds. Fans stand in orderly lines at the shrine's gate to pose for pictures. There's a code of conduct among Lucky Star fans: Mr. Osakabe, the author of the illustrated guide, warns readers not to sing and dance in public so as to not disturb local residents.
Many fans travel on the train dressed in more-pedestrian attire, and then change into their costumes -- which costume shops sell for about $150 -- in the bathroom by the train station. Some shop owners started offering fans a place to change.
"They're so very friendly and very polite. They take home all their trash," says Tamotsu Tsukada, a 75-year-old retiree who lives near the shrine. Mr. Tsukada greeted Messrs. Ito and Tanno (dressed as Konata and Miyuki), explaining that they've become friendly after bumping into each other several times.
Some controversy remains. Some locals thought the town went too far last April, when it issued honorary residency cards to Lucky Star's main characters and held a lavish ceremony. "We had people calling in to say we should have better things to do than dealing with citizenship for anime characters," says Nobuaki Furuya, an official at the Washimiya town hall. (Town officials say fans loved it.)
Still, Mr. Kishi, the ramen chef, has been won over. A new entry on his menu, called Tsukasa's Miso Ramen with Heaps of Corn, is named after the Lucky Star character whose fictional family works at the shrine. Priced at 700 yen, or about $6.50, it comes with an extra dollop of kernels that Mr. Kishi says younger diners like. A shelf in his shop displays a line of Lucky Star figurines.
"It's been a good change. It's good to talk to so many young people," he says.