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Transformational Akihabara has its finger on the pulse of pop culture

by Yoshiaki Miura

Staff Photographer

Tokyo’s Akihabara district is always transforming itself.

Once promoted as the nation’s largest shopping area for home electronics and computers, where vendors thrived in line with Japan’s postwar surge in prosperity, Akihabara — or “Akiba” for short — is now the center of the nation’s pop culture as well, as typified by pop idol music groups such as AKB48.

The groups regularly perform shows at a special “live house” in an entertainment complex called Pasela Resorts Akiba, where an outlet of major electronics vendor Ishimaru Denki once stood.

In stark contrast with the chilling cold outside, there was a fiery scene inside earlier this month as young men waving penlights cheered on their favorite idols as they danced to blasting music on a smoky stage bathed in colorful lights.

Indeed, the areas around what is now Akihabara, home to lower-ranking samurai warriors in the Edo Period, were prone to fires back then. “Fires and fights are common scenes of Edo,” an old saying goes.

After a fire swept through in 1869, the Meiji government built a shrine, later known as Akiba Shrine, to a fire-fighting god. A train station built in 1890 was named Akihabara.

Akihabara’s rise to the center of pop culture today, however, has its downsides.

The main street was the scene of a tragic killing spree in June 2008, when a truck driven by Tomohiro Kato plowed into a crowded intersection on a busy Sunday.

Kato, then 25 years old, got out of the vehicle and began stabbing pedestrians, killing seven and injuring 10 others.

Kato, whose death sentence is still pending at the Supreme Court, is said to have nurtured a grudge against his company and society and targeted Akihabara because young people flock there to have fun.

After the incident, the vehicle-free “pedestrians’ paradise” on Sundays was suspended, and didn’t resume until 2011. But the closed-off streets where visitors are free to stroll are becoming popular again, according to local merchants.

With the help of the nationwide “Cool Japan” campaign to promote anime, “cosplay” (large-scale costume parties) and other things peculiar to Japanese pop culture, Akihabara is drawing the attention not only of young people in Japan, but also overseas.

Local residents hope that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will provide a platform to promote Akihabara to the world.

This section, appearing on the first Monday of each month, offers a snapshot view of areas that may interest tourists.