A friend on Twitter mentioned the hold Tanabata seems to have on the western otaku. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was Tanabata in particular or if there was some relevance to Japanese festivals in general. Particularly in America, our landscape of cultural celebrations and holidays is negotiated in significantly different terms: of our cultural celebrations which permeate most of the culture, a large part are either pagan-via-Christianity feast days (Christmas, Easter) or primarily-capitalistic celebrations invented/popularized by corporations (Valentine’s day, Mother’s day). Few of the distinctly-American federal holidays (Veteran’s day, Memorial day) have any sort of consistently-implied means of recognition associated with them. As new a country as America is, and as much as its culture leverages the “melting pot” metaphor, there simply has not been time for anything as detailed or pervasive as Tanabata to have developed.
But this speaks to a larger trend in why anime might be the most appropriate medium to the sort of people who make up much of the modern otaku subculture. For clarity, I refer here mostly to the “deep” otaku subculture, such as those found in the aniblogsphere and who keep up with current news and broadcasts, and not as much to those whose fandom is mostly mediated through licensed DVDs. This clarification is important because I want to look through the lens of how large a role the internet plays - that is, you can only have an otaku subculture like the sort developed in the aniblogsphere and on Twitter in areas with reasonable access to internet - by implication, either first-world or inordinately rich, which implies certain things about the culture’s advancement of infrastructure and the users’ technical literacy.
So you have a non-Japanese otaku subculture made up of people who are tech-savvy, live primarily in developed or developing countries, and, most likely, spend a lot of time in front of computer screens. The appeal of the culture depicted in anime becomes clearer here - not just festivals like Tanabata or natsumatsuris, but even the cultural depiction of technology becomes relevant. Computers are enough of a rarity in anime that anime like Hidamari Sketch can center gags around it, and Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu can make a plot point out of attempting to find a computer in a publically-funded school. These shows’ settings are modern, and take place in extremely-developed cultures, but the presence of computers is far less ubiquitous than its viewers are likely accustomed to.
It plays, more subtly and perhaps unintentionally, to the same kind of ideas that Avatar exploited intentionally - the allure of digging deeper into your established technological infrastructure until you’re so deep in that you come out the other side - negotiating the desire for a simpler, perhaps more “right with nature” culture with the convenience of the technology-infused culture we take part in. Otaku are seeking emotional and cultural solace in bits of data fired into their brains from thousands of miles away.