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Sweetness counts for women in search of geeks

by Kaori Shoji

First of all, they’re not called otaku anymore but go by the much snazzier name of Akiba-kei. With this recasting, it looks like Japan’s muscle-less, girlfriend-less, PC/iPod obsessed class of bespectacled oddballs have moved en masse into the cultural mainstream.

No longer the shunned weirdos of yesteryear, Akiba-kei are now reputed to influence everything from stock points to semantics to sexual relationships. So while the New Yorkers looked to the television series “Sex and the City,” Tokyoites are looking to Akiba-kei for pointers on love.

After all, the season’s most popular TV drama, “Densha-Otoko (Train Man),” was about the relationship between a virgin Akiba-kei who had never dated and an intimidatingly beautiful, sophisticated career woman. To borrow a phrase from my niece Asami (15): “Ussssoooooo, arienaaaaaai! (You’re kidding! It can’t be happening!)”

Naturally, Akihabara has now been upgraded to Akiba. Though the majority that stomp its streets are still the classic geek types in sleep-flattened hair and bad jeans, there has been a noticeable surge in hip foreigners and sightings of young women, two segments of the populace who until recently, would not have been caught dead anywhere near the place. Supermodels like Naomi Campbell have reportedly been seen there, and actress Daryl Hannah was walking around in Akiba-kei jyaajii (sweats) in Omotesando with a “Toyoko Takkyubu (Toyo High School Ping Pong Club)” inscription. Akiba has actually become oshare (fashionable), a transformation I rate on par with Baghdad becoming a Club Med destination.

And who would have thought that the Akiba-kei could ever become an object of desire among young women looking for marriage? Says my friend Maiko (32): “Mou, moteotoko no jidai wa owatta. Akiba-kei no houga yasashikute, dasakute, kawaii (The age of the hunk is over. I prefer the kinder, nerdier, cuddlier Akiba-kei.)” Indeed, Maiko and her friends profess that the less dating experience a guy has, the more they are susceptible to — and appreciative of — feminine charms. So what if they’re a little overweight, a little sloppy and have never, ever shopped for Armani? They’re sweet, and in the end, sweetness is what counts.

At the same time, Maiko admits: “Akiba-kei otoshi wa muzukashii (It’s difficult to bag an Akiba-kei.)” She’s right: having played around with digitally animated cuties in cyberspace for most of their lives, Akiba-kei are notorious for their impossibly high standards. To catch their attention a woman must be “kawaii, atsukaiyasui, kyo-nyu, ashi-hoso, dekame de ecchi (cute, malleable, big-breasted, thin-legged, large-eyed and erotic),” as described by hard-core Akiba-kei Yuusuke (35), whose most recent dating experience goes back to his second year in college. “Nama no onna wa dejitaru no kawaiko-chan ni doushitemo makeru (a real woman will always lose out to a digital chick)” he claims and says it’s OK because he prefers the digital versions anyway. Asked if he doesn’t feel the usual, “I’ve-been-single-too-long symptoms of loneliness, alienation and self-doubt,” Yuusuke shook his head. “I’m not after sexual or conventional relationships. It was never about any of that.”

This is precisely what Maiko and other women are up against: the Akiba-kei is uninterested in intimacy; they are after sensations. The closest they get to falling in love is the state of moe (pronounced mo-ay) which means “blossoming.” They want to look at a woman (digital or otherwise) and feel an agrarian bloom somewhere in their jaded brains. After that, the Akiba-kei will tend to their blossoms like gardeners fussing over their favorite roses, and if the blossoms should die, well they’ll look around for something new.

Nowadays, that something can often be found in the Akiba-specialty: the Medo Cafe (Maid Cafe). In these establishments the waitresses are decked out in full Victorian maid regalia, complete with huge white aprons and little lace caps adorning shiny black braids that hang from each side of their pixie faces. And they will refrain politely from any personal interaction. The Maid Cafes are the Akiba-kei’s current No.1 moe hot spots; in the maids, they see a shyness, stoicism and demure charm long gone from ordinary Japanese women. Indeed, why go out with a namano onna when A-kiba beckons, twinkling in all its cyberspace, kosu-pure (costume-play) glory?