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Itasha (痛車, literally “painmobile”) is a Japanese slang term for the otaku fad of decorating cars with anime decal. These decorations tend to be extremely elaborate and involve everything from paint schemes to stickers. Similarly, there are anime-decorated motorcycles and bicycles which are called itansha (痛単車) and itachari (痛チャリ), respectively. These cars can typically be seen around or near famous anime districts in Japan on Sundays, such as Akihibara (Tokyo), Nipponbashi (Osaka), or Ōsu (Nagoya).
The term “Itasah” originated from Japan in the 1980s. Originally, it referred to imported high-end Italian cars, but circa 1990s, the meaning shifted from a slang form of “Italian car” (イタリア車, Itaria-sha) to “itai” (痛い, painful), which describes painfully embarrassing or painfully expensive nature of this hobby.
During this time, the usage of the term was limited to the inner circles of anime and bishojo manga fans who decorated their car interiors with stickers of anime character. The Itasha style of decoration was likely inspired by other vehicle-decorating fads like Dekotora (decoration trucks) and Bosozoku (motorcycle clubs). In the context of fandom, a similar decorative trend has been previously reported with exterior decal stickers and paint jobs depicting pop singers and idols.
The concept of decorating one’s car with anime-themed decals was introduced to the Japanese public in the early 2000s with the advents of color printing technology and establishment of otaku communities on the web. By 2005, it was reported that nearly half of media content featured in the adult dating sim / driving navigation game Downhill Night 2 were related to Itasha culture.
The Itasha culture was mentioned at Comikets (Comic Markets) as early as 2005. The first Itasha convention known as Auto Salon (あうとさろーね Autosarōne) took place in 2007, which was largely arranged through Moe-related online communities. By 2008, nearly 600 Itashas from all across Japan attended the event and it received major international attention in November 2008, when a Ferrari F430 Spider decorated in such style was showcased at an event held in Odaiba district.
Japanese culture blogger Danny Choo also covered the event in 2008. The phenomenon was also reported by blogs like Kotaku and Jalopnik in 2009. In August 2011, YouTube channel KawaiiiOfficial interviewed the Itasha club of Hatsune Miku / Vocaloid fans.
In 2008, a Hatsune Miku Itasha competed in the 2008 Super GT season. The Itasha-style of incorporating anime characters has been since applied on exterior decals for aircraft, in-vehicle navigation systems and even motor oil. Sightings of Itasha gatherings have been reported outside of Japan as well, in places such as the United States, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
The growing popularity of Itasha may have also led to the phenomena of car companies having anime characters endorse their vehicles throughout 2011. The most prominent examples of this are Hatsune Miku endorsing the Toyota Corolla and Mazda using the character Kirino from the anime series Ore no Imouto to endorse their cars.