Akihabara – the technology capital of Tokyo. This place has been revered, feared, worshipped, and avoided by countless dozens of people worldwide who’ve visited Japan. That being said, Akihabara isn’t… REALLY a place. When someone talks bout it, they mostly refer to a north-south street that lies just west of Akihabara station, plus a few parallel streets. Along these streets you can find all sorts of games, anime, food, comic, model, and computer shops, along with various arcades and even several “duty-free” places dealing in some of the more mundane things – backpacks, watches, jewelry, shoes, etc…
It is also hailed as the center of what is called “otaku” culture. Otaku is an interesting word, indeed, generally referring (especially outside of Japan) to people who are hardcore anime (Japanese cartoons, or “animation”) fans who will sometimes even go so far as to dress up and play the role of their favorite characters both at conventions and even sometimes on the streets or when shopping at the mall. In Japan, the definition is a little more general, and a little different. The Japanese term, “otaku,” refers to a subculture of people whose interests revolve so heavily around a certain area (games, anime, movies, trains, models, history, etc…) that they have left behind developing other parts of their lives, generally things like learning how to socialize with people on the street (who aren’t ALSO otaku) and learning how to interact with the opposite sex.
There’s even an otaku “look” which involves wearing relatively nice pants (since they never really go outside except to further their hobby), a button-up shirt (since they usually come from work), glasses worn awkwardly, an extra-large backpack worn on both shoulders, a plain, old-fashioned Beatles-style haircut, and usually a lot of sweat.
I think that if most Americans knew what it took in Japan to call someone “otaku,” that they would probably stop trying to use the term in reference to themselves. ^_^
Anyway, since this “Akihabara” place (remember? That’s the focus of this blog post!) is so famous, the program I’m with to study over here offers a tour of the place once a semester, so that students can see the place, and learn a bit about its history and cultural significance, and also learn something about what otaku life/culture is, and to see kind of into their world, in case the student was interested. Since I happen to like video games an anime myself, and I’ve been to a few arcades in Akihabara already, I figured it could at least be interesting to go on the tour and see what was up.
The tour started off at the train station meeting this guy. I don’t know what his real name is, since he called himself “Goku,” which is the name of the character he is cosplaying in the photo.* At first I thought that it was really weird, and actually kind of dumb that our tour guide was in costume, but later on I realized that it’s in fact a brilliant idea! His hair sticks up really high, and what with the bright colors and everyone always looking at him, it’s REALLY easy to spot him from quite a distance, and that’s just about perfect for a tour guide through a densely crowded city. Needless to say, nobody really got lost. ^_^ He is also a graduate student from the university where I’m studying, focusing his research (or whatever) on Akihabara itself, so he knew quite a lot about the city, its history, and even many current events and changes going on in it.
*Cosplay refers to someone who puts on a COStume and PLAYs the role of the character represented by said costume. It originally was called a “Costume Play,” but that was too long.
Essentially, Akihabara (as it’s known now) was a simple area west of Tokyo-proper and east of the Imperial Palace, that was set up as a fire-wall during the fire bombing in World War II. As such, they created a shrine there to a fire spirit, called “Akiba Shrine” in the hopes that it would protect the area from fire. It must have worked, because the shrine still stands, and a lot of original buildings also still remain (and the ones that don’t were torn down intentionally to build new ones). After the war, the area around Akiba Shrine was used largely for black-market electronics selling – radio parts, circuit boards, transistors, other technical-sounding things – and much of the structure of the stalls and the building used for this are still around and in what looks to be rather heavy use even today.
When the train systems were built, and the train lines built up over the top of Akiba Shrine, they called it Akihabara. (Akiba – 秋葉 – being the original name which means something like “autumn leaf,” and Akihabara – 秋葉原 – meaning something like “field of autumn leaves,” but in this case we were told it was used to mean something more like, “home of the Akiba Shrine,” which also works with the above kanji, it’s just a more… creative usage of the kanji than literal. Things like that were rampant back in the day, it seems!) Thus the area known as Akihabara isn’t really so much a city as an area.
There are many famous areas, for instance a place called the “rocket tower,” which was originally home to stores selling home-rocket parts for hobbyists and enthusiasts. Now they sell duty-free goods, I think, but they keep the building name, as it’s rather famous.
However, up until about the early 90s, the place was relatively unknown around the world, and certainly not the center of otaku-culture that it is today. It was just a place to find parts to build radios and maybe models and such. In the early 90s there was a string of murders by one man. Apparently this was pretty famous, even internationally, and the media kept referring to this man not as a “serial murderer, “ or a “psychopathic killer,” (either of which would have been fairly correct) they referred to him as “otaku,” intending the reference to a social deviant, or one who is societally inept. This put the fear of death-by-otaku into the minds of all Japanese people, and there was a huge public outcry to keep otaku (who were really just nerds with serious hobbies) away from them so they could walk the streets without being afraid of being murdered every time they passed a guy with weird posture, a backpack, and glasses. Thus all of the otaku were chased out of the major parts of the city, Shibuya, Shinjuku, etc… and they started convening instead in Akihabara, where a bunch of them went frequently anyway. They started meeting up with friends there, gathering to look at newly-released merchandise, and as companies will generally place stores more where there are people likely to purchase from them, more and more otaku-specific store sprang up, until eventually you have what is now, today, to geek capital of the world.
There are a lot of interesting current events and cultural shifts going on in Akiba as well. (Lots of people just call it “Akiba,” because that’s shorter.) For instance, there are major pushed within the government to set up more big-building business, and have larger department stores instead of smaller, privately-owned shops around. As such, land prices are being driven higher in the area as bigger companies are purchasing property for their high-rise stores, and that’s making it increasingly harder and harder for the smaller guys to make a profit and stay in business. Even I can see myself falling victim to this, as I much prefer the larger stores, with their air conditioning and wider aisles, to the smaller ones with run-down looking floors and narrow racks stacked high with bad photocopies of the games they have behind the counter, etc… So it’s a big problem. (Admittedly, it’s not like I DON’T shop at the smaller stores. One of my favorite used game stores looks like a smaller-name private shop, though it is multi-story. =/ )
Also, now that it’s been over a decade since the whole serial-killer thing went down, there’s been an increasing allowance of otaku in the world. That is, a growing opinion that it’s okay to be otaku. Especially with last autumn’s Prime Minister elections, one of the candidates gave a now rather famous speech, “I’m an Otaku” wherein he was standing on a major bridge just outside of Akihabara station and declared such to the media and those shopping the streets that day, setting a precedent that these are, in fact, people you have to deal with, and appeal to, and that they are major players in Japanese society anymore.
There’s even a large building (attached to this bridge) which is home to several restaurants and an Anime Museum, where all the restaurants have Akiba/otaku themed dishes. This building also serves to infuse more of a night-life into Akihabara, as previously the whole area was basically shut down by 8, and the restaurants in that building intentionally stayed open until 10 or later, and now more shops are starting to stay open longer, and the whole of business is lasting later into the evening.
On the converse side, a lot of people who live in or near the Akiba area have been increasingly complaining about otaku behavior and presence to the police. There are complaints of indecency, of otaku wandering around eating food outdoors (making the air smell bad), crowding on the streets and sidewalks, making it hard to get anywhere, etc. Unfortunately, in Japan, the police aren’t able to (as the are frequently in the US) say, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do about it.” So they have recently begun to patrol the main street of Akihabara, watching for people dancing, singing, getting their pictures taken in costume, drawing a crowd, or just standing around (sitting and leaning are okay, I guess), and telling them to stop, or to keep moving, or to leave, etc…
There’s an event which happens every Sunday from morning until mid-late afternoon where they close off a section of the main street and allow people to wander freely around it. This used to be used for an Imperial march… festival… thing, as the main street was used when the Emperor would travel between places, but has more recently just been a day when all the otaku get out their costumes and go out on the street and have a good time. The new enforcement of rules has really rather gotten people worked up, and these otaku are starting to become afraid.
One cosplayer, rather famous I guess, was actually arrested on television for doing something where she would shove her butt out while wearing a terribly short skirt, thus revealing her underwear to passersby and fanboys. Apparently this sort of thing is illegal, and everyone saw it on the news. This sent a pretty strong message (only a few weeks ago, actually!) that otaku aren’t welcome in Akiba anymore, which I think is stupid, and the tour guide agreed with me. Akihabara is the center of otaku culture, and it’s where they convened and have made it their own since they were kicked out of the rest of the city. Now people who chose to live there are complaining about the otaku being there? What did they expect? Anyway, it’s not THAT bad, since the police are only enforcing this to keep images up, and as such they are only enforcing these rules on the main street. Go back a street or two behind the main parts, and you can still find many of the cosplayers and otaku doing their thing, unmolested by the fuzz. And that’s what the police in Japan do. They track down criminals, and they help people who are offended by something feel like something is being done about it, even if it’s really not so much. I still like it better than American police who don’t exist to serve the people at ALL, so much as to make money for the government and fill speeding ticket quotas.
The true irony in this new situation, however, is that in the same week as this cosplayer was arrested on television, sending out the message, “otaku are not wanted,” just a few blocks away there was a major “Otaku Convention” going on in the building with the anime museum. This sounds to me a bit like a case of one hand slapping while the other hand scratches their back. I told you it was irony. “No otaku anymore! By the way, if you are otaku, there’s a convention around the corner that you might be interested in.” >.<
All-in-all, it was a fun, informative tour, and I’m glad I went. Note, I didn’t even mention the maid cafe we went to! Yes, we went, but it’s one I’d been to before, and it wasn’t all that interesting.
Peace. v(‘_’ )