Far from being an epicentre of cool, as many naive gaijin might believe, Akihabara is in fact the ‘otaku (nerd) district’ of Tokyo. And when the Japanese employ the term ‘nerd,’ oh boy, do they mean it.
Otaku: Perjorative or Precise?
‘Otaku’ is something of a controversial word. Misunderstood in the West to mean ‘a person with obsessive interests’ (although this is an aspect of it), in Japan the term is often considered extremely negative and used as a perjorative.
The reasons for this negativity are complex. First, in it’s most basic usage, Otaku generally refers to a person (and more specifically, a male) who is weak, unattractive, and a social failure – a nerd. But there’s more to it than that.
As I mentioned already, Otaku is often associated with obsessive interests and one of the obsessive interests that has become entangled in the word’s meaning is ‘Lolicon‘ – an extreme style of manga and anime that depicts extremely young and prepubescent girls as erotic and sexual.
I know, creepy right?
On top of this, in 1989 and then later in 2004, two murderers – Tsutomu Miyazaki and Kaoru Kobayashi – kidnapped, murdered and, disturbingly, sexually assaulted several young girls. Miyazaki was dubbed ‘The Otaku Murderer’ by the press and his crimes fuelled a moral panic against Otaku as anime and horror films were blamed for his actions. This brought extreme negativity to the term which was reinforced 15 years later by Kobayashi’s crimes.
Yet, on the other side of the coin, in early 2013 a Japanese study of 137,734 people found that 42.2% self-identify as a type of Otaku. Former Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, also self-identified as Otaku and used the subculture to promote Japan in Foreign Affairs. And, as mentioned already, in the West it’s used in a much more positive light.
This is why I think the term is so interesting – it’s obviously still in the process of social negotiation for meaning, particularly now that it stands on a global stage. But whatever your perception of the term, positive or negative, there’s no denying that it does encompass obsessive interest.
And in Akihabara the obsession is with electronics.
Akihabara – Otaku Heaven
I decided to venture into Akihabara alone after our day at the Ghibli Museum, as Monique was exhausted, but because of my previous day stuck inside, I wanted to get out and stretch my legs. And gratefully, my ankle was feeling a whole lot better. So I stuck my headphones in and took a brief trip down into Akihabara.
I went expecting the ‘nerdom’ that you might get in Australia and found something, not completely different, but much more intense. When people call it the ‘nerd-district,’ they really mean it.
Akihabara is dominated by shops selling video games and consoles. There are arcades where droves of young men spend enormous amounts of time and money playing old and new video games. Nestled away near the train station there’s a huge network of markets that sell electronic components – CB radio gear, old or repurposed computer parts, and metres and metres of electrical wire.
From this vantage, things didn’t seem too unusual – I love gaming as much as the next basement dweller and it was awesome to see whole high-rise buildings devoted to just one console and all of it’s games. My boyfriend is an electronics and CB radio nut, and when I walked out of the train station and saw the store above, I just knew some part of him would love it here.
There were plenty of interesting places to eat and many charismatic street vendors selling their wares. One such man charmed his way into my heart, convincing me to buy a Gundam amulet while we shared a piece of Ghana chocolate together.
But. There were signs of that other side to Akihabara everywhere you looked.
Maid cafes were tucked away in many buildings and on every street a swarm of unbearably kawaii girls, dressed as perfect lolita dolls, were out handing fliers to lonely looking men. Anime renditions of ‘naive-yet-erotic’ girls were plastered on walls and the general percentage of women to men dropped significantly, with the Maids making up a good portion of ladies present.
I even saw a poster van pass advertising the all-girl band AKB48, whose shamed member Minami Minegishi famously shaved her head on camera while crying and apologising for spending the night with a man. This is because the girls are ‘encouraged’ not to have any relationships to maintain an image of ‘innocence and purity’ for their fans.
Yep, pretty gross.
Then there’s this charming sign at the train station. I travelled up and down the escalator four times trying to get a decent shot of this (irony, much?):
Whatever your opinion of Otaku culture – anime, manga, obsessive collecting, and more – Akihabara is definitely one of those places you have to visit for yourself and decide.
Just don’t turn up spouting to all your Japanese friends that ‘Akihabara is so cool!‘ You’ll probably get a lot of weird looks.
Until next time,
Kally & Mon.
Visiting Akihabara is simple as there is a main station on the Yamanote line – Akihabara Station. You could also visit by travelling to Ochanomizu Station on the Tokyo Metro line also intersecting with the Marunouchi Line.
Have you visited Akihabara? What’s your impression?