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Meet the ‘itasha’ enthusiasts flaunting their love for Japanese pop culture on their cars

By Malavika Pradeep

Mar 6, 2022

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“Typical otaku,” “weeb shiz” and “waifu hell” are some of the terms the internet uses to address people with varied interests in Japanese popular culture. Although herd mentality, these criticisms are enough to make fans think twice before donning a Tokyo Revengers’ jacket or streaming Otacore in public. But what happens when Japanese pop culture clashes with car culture to create an entire subculture of enthusiasts—dedicated to building safe spaces for expression and self-identity?

Welcome to the graphic world of itasha, a customised community where cars are your canvas and your interests define your palette.

What is itasha?

Originating in the 1980s, the term ‘itasha’ initially referred to imported Italian supercars with flamboyant designs. Over time, however, it has been perceived as the portmanteau of the Japanese expressions ‘itai’ or ‘itaitashii’ (meaning ‘ouch’ or ‘painful’) with ‘sha’ (meaning ‘vehicle’). Together, they literally translate to ‘painful car’—with other internet-birthed spin-offs including ‘painmobile’ and, of course, ‘weebmobile’.

What makes an itasha unique is its focus on styling with Japanese pop culture decals. From dedicated stickers to full-blown wraps and paint schemes, each design ultimately resonates with the owner’s interests across anime, manga, video games, music idols, television series, dramas and ‘doujinshi’ (fan-created or self-published works). When these tastes bleed onto motorcycles and bicycles, they’re known as ‘itansha’ and ‘itachari’ respectively. ‘Ita-taxis’ have also been a hot debate within the community for decades.

While the itasha style of decal is said to be inspired from other vehicle-decoration fads like ‘dekotora’ (decoration trucks) and ‘bosozoku’ (motorcycle clubs), its roots can be traced back to the 1980s—when people in Japan started decorating their cars with plushies and stickers. Then came the early 2000s, where the concept started gaining traction alongside the advent of colour printing technology and the establishment of online communities in general.

By 2007, the then-underground subculture hosted its first ever convention called ‘Auto Salon’ in Japan. The following year, more than 600 itashas from across the country attended the event. Ten years later, the community proceeded to organise ‘Itasha Tengoku’—the world’s largest itasha exhibition in Odaiba, Tokyo—with live music, talk shows, award ceremonies and wrapping booths. Not only did the convention witness international participation, but it also attracted attention in terms of both art and business.

Today, the cars in question—previously only seen in places like Akihabara (Tokyo), Nipponbashi (Osaka) and Ōsu (Nagoya)—have amassed a global audience who are dedicated to redefining itashas as more than just a “customising fad” while living their lives in the fast lane.

One such enthusiast is Janelle Fulgoni, for whom itasha combines her love for anime and cars in a single subculture. “My first itasha was a 2002 Suzuki Vitara,” she reminisced. “I bought it in June 2017 and immediately started placing anime stickers on the windows, then finally had the hood wrapped in April 2018.” Although intending to customise only the hood at first, the enthusiast ended up with a full-blown itasha masterpiece by March 2019. “I then bought my ’97 Mazda Miata in April 2020 and had it fully wrapped by May,” Fulgoni added.

Meet the ‘itasha’ enthusiasts flaunting their love for Japanese pop culture on their cars

In terms of the versatility of the subculture, Fulgoni believes that a car doesn’t have to be “sporty, cool or modified” for it to be considered an itasha. “There are some people who don’t care about modifying their own [vehicle] or have a non-Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) car but would love to show dedication to their favourite anime character or series,” she told SCREENSHOT. “It’s definitely self-expression, a way to show your interests and is always different from person to person.”

A love-hate relationship

Now, I know this won’t count as an investigation if I don’t address the aspect of itasha being subjected to cringe culture. Yes, I’m backtracking to the “painmobile” and “weebmobile” claims the internet has been firing towards the community. TV Tropes refers to this pain in question as “either the car being a self-acknowledged eyesore, or the painful embarrassment which the owner is expected to undergo when explaining to his (it’s almost always ‘his’) family and friends exactly what the hell he was thinking.” Say less.

“I’ve had a few comments on social media, mostly Reddit, from people who just absolutely hate anime and have a general misunderstanding of the people who are into the hobby,” Fulgoni admitted, when asked about the feedback she’s witnessed to her cars. “And I’m always assumed to be a guy,” she added.

At the same time, however, the enthusiast also acknowledged how the response has mostly been positive. “I love seeing people get excited when they see my car in the grocery store parking lot or when I catch them posing and taking photos,” Fulgoni continued. “I constantly get thumbs up or lights blinked at me while driving or hear people yelling from afar how much they love my car.”

That said, the ‘pain’ angle of itasha culture allegedly extends to its customisation process. Simply put, itashas are considered “painful for the wallet” due to the high costs involved. To confirm these claims, I turned to Fulgoni again. “It’s definitely not a cheap hobby and takes dedication,” she explained. Although the enthusiast considers herself lucky to know good artists in the industry with whom she’s struck good deals in the past, the budget required for the modifications was still considerably high.

“My Suzuki cost me a total of $2,480 (£1,854) and my Miata was $3,045 (£2,276). And that’s not even including any of the extras like decals, customised wheels, floor mats, seat covers, licence plate frames, interior and other exterior modifications,” she continued. Ouch! I’d still itasha the heck out of my car even if it meant going broke though. I mean, look at it this way: humanity has been modifying automobiles for decades now. Cars have essentially been perceived as an extension of the driver—ultimately modified to reflect their personality and interests. So when will the internet stop transferring the hate Japanese popular culture is already getting (which I am yet to understand exactly why) onto everything else in relation to it?

Given how that question is bound to ensue even more hate, this is exactly where itasha conventions and meetups come in. Similar to AnimeCon, they create a welcoming platform for people to huddle around shared interests in itasha culture. And one of the most prominent hosts at the forefront of such events is Senpai Squad. Initially formed as a group of Audi enthusiasts based in Houston, Senpai Squad has evolved into a brand which currently represents the automotive, anime and gaming community as a whole.

“Senpai Squad is all about ‘expression, passion and style’, so we use itasha as a way of expressing our love for anime through art and car culture,” Kim Nguyen, the founder and owner of Senpai Squad and The Weeb Stop, told SCREENSHOT. “We believe that being able to express ourselves through the things we love is important, and we fully support the freedom to show our love for anime in any way possible. Itasha is a way to do that on a bigger scale.”

Although the brand doesn’t necessarily design, print and install itashas, it fulfils its mission by facilitating the culture with curated events for both owners and attendees to enjoy. “We do provide our customers with a wide variety of stickers they can choose from if they want to start small though. They come in many shapes, sizes and styles, so if there’s an anime you love, we’re sure we’ll have something to offer,” Nguyen mentioned. Look at these cuties, I’m sold:

A quick scroll through Senpai Squad’s Instagram feed will plop you among frequent announcements of events that you can attend. Hosting everything from cosplay raves to pop-ups and itasha showcases, the brand collaborates with other major figures in the industry to bring enthusiasts dedicated platforms bustling with energy and goosebumps. “Our audience loves going to our shows because of how welcoming they are,” Nguyen said when asked about the general response to previous raves organised by the brand. “Anime fans are the most fun people out there and the atmosphere in those events is always great.”

The founder believes that cosplays and other visual manifestations of one’s interest in Japanese pop culture at such shows automatically result in attendees vibing with each other—without having met before. “Which is always a lot of fun and a perfect way to make new friends,” Nguyen continued.

“Our main goal is to have a safe and comfortable space for our fans and supporters, where they can enjoy music and party with their peers. And since we pride ourselves in the culture, you can pretty much go to any of our shows, feel safe and even make friends with the people around you without the fear of being judged.”

“We’re all about love here!”

In order to get an insider perspective of the community, I asked Fulgoni—who has attended meetups and displayed her cars in large anime conventions—about her experience with the same. “Let me tell you, the itasha community is amazing! Everyone I’ve met and talked to are just awesome, friendly people and I’m much older and a woman than the average itasha owner,” the enthusiast admitted. “Both my husband and I have only had positive experiences and it’s a great way to meet new people.”

Cringe culture is dead

If you’re still reading this article, chances are that you’re already an itasha fan, are curious about the community, or absolutely despise the subculture. Believe me, there’s no in-between. Regardless of your purpose, however, know that cringe culture has expired its shelf life in 2021 alongside cancel culture. Today, itasha is an integral part of car culture where confidence is key and you let your hobbies and interests define your visual personality—be it via sun reflective prints or dakimakuras as seats. Itasha is also not just “putting waifus on cars,” nor is it necessary for an owner to cosplay at such events.

“Don’t worry about what others think,” Fulgoni advised. “Not everyone shares the same hobbies or interests and don’t let negativity ever turn you away from what you’re passionate about. For every negative comment you may get, you’ll receive 10 times more positive [ones].” The itasha owner also recommends to avoid fussing over your car being a non-JDM. “Just express yourself!” she added.

As for Nguyen, the founder’s advice is to do you for you and no one else. Given how everyone is bound to have their own opinions in life, it’s imperative to focus on what brings you joy. “This is exactly the reason why we created Senpai Squad to begin with because we all know what it’s like to love something fiercely and have other people laugh at us because of it,” he explained. “In our events, this is the kind of behaviour we stay away from and the very reason why we create a safe space. We’re all about acceptance, love and our shared passion for anime!”

Five years down the line, Nguyen believes Senpai Squad will stay true to its core vision, but on a larger and more global scale: “We’re always coming up with new ideas for products and events, so be sure that we’re not stopping here. We’ll keep growing and we’ll keep creating a safe environment for anime fans.” So the next time someone clicks their tongue when you mention itasha in a conversation, look up, whisper “tatakae,” offer to take them to the next event in town and watch them fall gracefully into one of the most wholesome communities to ever spur into existence.