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Akihabara’s awful truths

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While the Establishment packages Electric Town as a mecca for manga and anime obsessives, and a magnet for cameratoting tourists, the reality differs: ‘Akiba’ is alienating the geeks who once made it great

It’s a humid and gray day in Akihabara around high noon. The late summer is inviting lethargy and the Tokyo district’s neon colors will also be muted until nightfall.

The increasingly famous girls have yet to arrive on “Maid Row” to hand out fliers for their maid cafes, and when they do, they’ll be standing in front of the now-closed Akihabara Department Store, a former haven of cheap eats, which will soon (like much of the area) turn into a yet another construction site.

Despite the best efforts of the government-affiliated Yokoso! Japan tourist campaign, among others, seeking to promote an image of a vibrant and crackling Akihabara — which Liberal Democratic Party member Taro Aso, in his recent failed bid to become Japan’s next prime minister, tried to tap into by holding a rally in “Electric Town” — there’s not a lot of excitement going on today.

Then Patrick W. Galbraith arrives at the station. He’s dressed in a cosplay outfit — Goku from the anime/manga classic Dragon Ball Z. Clad in an orange jumpsuit and a totally ridiculous spiky- topped blond wig, the 24-year-old Alaskan proves an irresistible sight to Japanese people just off the train. He’s mobbed for pictures, posing with groups of girls, small children, and even tough-looking teenagers who engage in mock anime-style battles with him.

Galbraith, a student at Sophia University and an unashamed otaku (obsessive fan), works part-time for a multipurpose company called Akibanana that caters for the needs of every geek. Today, he’ll be a tour guide for a group of stylish employees from Paris Miki, makers of contact lenses and eyewear. The day before, the group studied traditional Japanese culture via temple visits and tea ceremonies. But now, this bemused assortment of Germans and French nationals will enter a maze of anime, manga, video games and gadgets for the very first time led by an American dressed like a 2-D superhero come to life.

“I feel in a way that I’m doing people a favor,” he says of his choice of tour-guide uniform. “They come out the station and think, ‘wow, this is a weird place,’ and then they are really in the mood to enjoy Akihabara.”

Akihabara has its roots as a black market locale for electronics in the postwar era. In the years of economic miracle-building that followed, it became a haven for consumer electronics and home appliances. The area was transformed by the PC boom of the 1990s when otaku took the area over and built a striking, virtual living room-writ-large for themselves in the process, filling it up with their hobbies and objects of desire.

Throughout it all, Japanese mainstream society wrote off otaku as socially maladjusted misfits, and deemed their hobbies an escape from reality. But interest in anime and manga only continued to grow abroad. Now, it seems, by accident or design, all sorts are in the mood to enjoy Akihabara, to see otaku in their native environment, and to sip “Akiba (as Akihabara is known) Cola” in a maid cafe.

While the buzz about Akihabara has been growing steadily over the last few years, the turning point was 2005, when “Densha Otoko (Train Man)” — an unlikely tale about a love affair between a stereotypical otaku and a “normal” woman, sold as a true story — became a phenomenon thanks to a best-selling book and subsequent film and TV adaptations.

Then there was the Tsukuba Express train line, which opened in 2005 and now whips commuters, non-otaku and curious folk to Akihabara from the northeastern suburbs of greater Tokyo faster than a fireball from Dragon Ball Z.

The big guys have been closing in ever since. The Yodobashi chain opened a massive Yodobashi Akiba superstore offering electronics and otaku goods such as model kits, airsoft guns and collectible toys at cutthroat prices that the smaller stores on the street couldn’t hope to compete with.

Communications giant NTT monopolized the area north of Akihabara Station with their Akihabara Cross Fields complex, which according to their corporate spin is a “global center for the IT Industry, providing office and conference space, convention halls and showrooms.” A 2006 headline in the Nikkei Weekly newspaper mapped out the future: “Otaku ceding domination of famous Electric Town as development lures IT firms.” While the paper was excited about the area’s transformation into a massive “business center,” Akihabara would soon be taking steps toward resembling any colorless metropolitan area (some recent store openings include a new Royal Host family restaurant, a Tully’s Coffee, a McDonald’s and a Starbucks). Now, the corporate-backed Akiba is becoming downright hostile to the otaku who once called it home.

Patrick Galbraith, our otaku tour guide, leads his group to the Tokyo Anime Center, located inside the Akihabara Cross Fields center.

Aside from a collection of vintage animation cells and statues of iconic characters like Astro Boy, there isn’t much to see. Which is just as well, because the staff has told Galbraith that he’s not allowed past the door.

“Apparently, being dressed like an anime character inside creates some kind of copyright problem,” he explains.

Galbraith takes it all in stride, but I can’t believe what I’m hearing. It’s as if someone has twisted that old line from “Dr. Strangelove” into, “Gentlemen, you can’t cosplay in here! This is the Anime Center!”

There is little relief on the streets outside. Akihabara in 2007 has been rife with tales of the police bothering otaku for gathering in packs, for forming impromptu singing-and-dancing mobs around the many amateur idols who fill up the main streets on the weekend or simply for cosplaying in public. In short, The Man doesn’t want otaku in Akihabara anymore, which seems a bit strange since a featured article on the Japan National Tourist Organization calls the area an “Otaku Mecca.”

The organized backlash came on June 30, when an “Akihabara Liberation” protest was held. More than 400 otaku turned out for the police-escorted march, many of them dressed as anime and manga characters, others sporting the look of the classic Japanese student protester from the ’60s: hard hat, gauze mask, sunglasses and white gloves — all of them voicing various complaints about the path Akihabara is taking.

In my dreams, a genuine counterculture movement would arise out of such sentiments, complete with radical manifestos, street fighting, and maids tossing Molotov cocktails.

But it isn’t likely to happen. A surprising number of otaku are starting to simply avoid Akihabara in lieu of other options. One of my friends, a manga artist named “Denki” Watanabe, says, “Akiba is a little too noisy for me recently (like Harajuku). So I now go to Nakano instead.” He’s referring to Nakano Broadway, an indoor shopping mall, with nary a non-otaku chain store, full of vintage toys and anime goods. The catch is, unless you are a fan of such things, or a rabid collector yourself, there really isn’t much to see and do. Still, Denki says, “It has a decadent charm which Akiba used to have.”

By that he means that in Nakano Broadway, the otaku spirit is once again allowed to pursue whatever weird, twisted, maladjusted path it wants to, safe from the prying eyes of the straight world. Which is just as well, since the true face of otaku culture is hardly ready for prime time.

Our Akihabara tour guide leads his foreign brigade to the mouth of an inferno: a back alley where the AUM cult used to have an office. He briefly mentions that “we won’t be going this way” before pointing out a row of vending machines selling canned oden (slowly simmered radish, hard-boiled eggs and other ingredients) instead.

There’s a good reason for this well-timed diversion. A few steps further down this alleyway, just across from the gleaming Cross Fields building, is the awful truth about Akihabara. It’s actually a hotbed of pornography (both animated and otherwise), adult toys, triple-X-rated manga, and photo books of under-aged girl idols that would burn a sane person’s eyeballs in their sockets.

How long can politicians, tourist organizations, and even the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (which is sponsoring the Akihabara Entamatsuri 2007 festival next month) afford to simply pretend it doesn’t exist? And what will happen when they start paying attention?

Even if Akihabara’s “dark end of the street” is razed to the ground, the lonely otaku in search of virtual company will still have plenty of other options. After all, you can find similar material around any transportation hub in Tokyo.

But what you can’t find is what it was that made Akihabara buzz in the first place. It wasn’t just anime, manga, and video games that built it, or continue to sustain it even today. Instead, Akihabara was the side effect of collective fantasy and private desire desperate to find expression through technology, through commerce, molded plastic, pixel, and drawing paper. Now, those dreams are threatened by a dull and dreary reality.

What would happen if Akihabara’s collective dreamers and schemers were to suddenly wake up?

Akihabara Entamatsuri 2007 takes place Oct. 20-28. For details, visit www.entama.com/

“Otakool” is a monthly exploration of the worlds of anime, manga and other Japanese obsessions. Patrick Macias is the author of “Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo-Tokyo,” one of the first English-language books to cover Akihabara. He can be found online at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com

Take the nerd challenge


The party isn’t completely over in Akihabara, with lots of fun stuff still to see and do there — provided you are nerdy enough to take the challenge.

hey (Hirose Entertainment Yard): This grimy video arcade on Akihabara’s main Chuo-dori strip is a second home to some of Tokyo’s most hardcore game players.

The house specialties are 2-D vertical shooters from the 1980s and ’90s, a genre considered laughably passe by folks raised on PlayStation and Xbox. But a rabid cult remains in Japan for these ridiculously hard-to-play games, which are like “Space Invaders” on steroids.

On the weekend, the masters take their seats and aim to take out each other’s high scores like heavyweight prizefighters. I took a female friend there, and she said, “This is boring, it’s just a bunch of guys playing video games.” But a real otaku would surely know the difference and dream of one day joining their ranks.

Hirose Honsha Building, 1-10-5 Soto-Kanda.

AKB48: Idols are as important a component of the otaku matrix as anime, manga, and video games. And idol groups don’t come any bigger (literally) than AKB48. A rotating cast of 48 perky girl idoru (idols) perform daily in a small auditorium on the 8th floor of the already insane Don Quixote discount store.

The producer’s idea was to create a space where top-quality performers could be accessible to anyone. But the idea backfired. The same rabid otaku, who sing and dance along to every number, snap up the tickets night after night and have all but monopolized the seats. Still, it’s fun just to go up to the 8th floor near show time and watch the mad hurly-burly as the curtain rises and falls.

Don Quixote Bldg. 8F, 4-3-3 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku

Seikai no Radio Kaikan: Usually simply called the “Raido Kaikan,” this otaku-only shopping center located just across from the station’s JR exit has managed to remain unscathed by the massive changes going on around it. It’s a minicity unto itself of candy toys, capsule toys, model kits, action figures, life-size pillows shaped like anime characters, and more.

Highlights include the creepy Volks superstore full of expensive and alarmingly lifelike dolls that customers receive in marriage-style ceremonies, and K-Books, which is home to some of the dirtiest porno comics — and customers — in the world. Like it or not, this is Akihabara as the natives dig it. And what did you expect, really?

1-15-16 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-Ku