For whatever reason, my friend wanted to meet up in Akihabara — not exactly the kind of place one goes for drinks and dinner. I’d have a hard time explaining her logic, other than convenience, as she lived in Ueno, just a couple stations away on the Yamanote Line. And so, at 9pm on a Wednesday night, we roamed the sparsely populated streets of Tokyo’s infamous Electric Town, looking not for video games and anime, but a place to get a couple beers — and coming up with few options. As shops began turning off their neon facades and storefront lights, we found ourselves wandering around a place that felt more generic Tokyo residential than a hotbed of hip, otaku culture. The maids who lined the streets to hand out fliers had left for home, and with them, so had the otaku, their ubiquitous, oversized backpacks stuffed with doujinshi and figurines. Fading remnants of Akihabara’s daytime activity and bustle still lingered, but they were being shuttered, closed or ignored. We were trapped in Disneyland after closing; the animatronic ghosts of otaku cool haunting the streets, lifeless and cold.
The myth of Akihabara permeates Western fandom as deeply as any other misconception revered by Western anime fandom, but rarely, if ever, is it questioned or explained. Akihabara is not the epicenter of Japan’s cool otaku subculture, nor does that subculture even exist. Akihabara is an over-merchandised shopping complex in the middle of Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward, populated by Japan’s manchildren, gawking tourists and the foreign residents who erroneously portray it as the hub of modern Japanese pop-culture.
When Danny Choo dances in the street wearing his Stormtrooper costume with Japanese girls, it is not representative of the Japanese mainstream accepting otaku culture. Regular people will see him as little more than a silly man in a funny costume from a movie they might have seen once, not an otaku-cool prophet bringing moé to the masses. Mention Akihabara to regular Japanese people and they’ll either grimace or grin; both for the same reason: the otaku. No matter the positive spin foreign fans may have forced upon the word after decades of trying, it still carries a negative connotation among most Japanese. Worse may be the perception of the otaku themselves, viewed as creepy loners with an awkward pity and disdain, a cross between Tsutomu Miyazaki and Star Trek fans from a Saturday Night Live skit.
That’s not to say non-otaku don’t venture into Akihabara, long held to be “the” place to go for electronics in Tokyo. But when Japan’s electronic store chains began building gigantic stores next to every major train station, the necessity of going to Akihabara’s Electric Town quickly diminished. In the void left by home electronics shoppers going elsewhere, Akihabara embraced personal computer enthusiasts in the early 1990s, a time when simply owning a computer was still a hobby itself. With the personal computer, came its two close siblings: video games and anime, and the ever present factor that tied all three together: pornography. Only recently has Akihabara strived to bring in more a non-otaku crowd, exemplified best by the monstrous Yodobashi Camera built across the street from Akihabara station last year. The caveat is that the huge green building is on the opposite side of the station from Electric Town, ensuring that the weekenders won’t have to deal with those pesky otaku if they don’t want to.
It’s the sex and pornography that keeps Akihabara going, and the otaku pay for it. The tourists will buy little, take photos and continue on to the next destination on their Travelwiki-planned itinerary. The weekenders will come around every few years when they need a new TV or microwave. But it’s the otaku who come back every week, ready to spend the excess cash their bachelor lives provide. Akihabara is little more than a red light district, albeit one with a unique deviancy and a curfew. Anywhere you look, you’re likely to spy the doe-eyed visage of a cartoon girl of indeterminate age, be it on a billboard, a book cover, a pillow or a mouse pad with sculpted breasts, but the sex comes in other forms as well.
While the elusive maid cafe that offered handjobs to patrons and was shut down by police might be spoken of in hushed tones, handjob-free maid cafes are easy to find. Physical contact may be non-existent and buried under that sheen of Japanese wacky and cute, but arguing against the implicit sexual undertones of the maid cafe phenomenon is simply naive. While it might not be hard to figure out why sad, lonely men would pay ridiculous prices for petite cakes and teas delivered by gracious young women dressed in ridiculous outfits, the better question might be why they do it in a country where actual sex for money is commonly offered in many forms.
Attracted to this otaku candy store came the Danny Choos and Patrick Galbraiths of the world, foreign anime fans who find companionship in the otaku crowds of Akihabara. They perpetrate the myths of the otaku subculture, transposing that most inherent quality of early Western fandom onto Japanese fandom. But while the West relied upon community and organizations to spread the underground word of Japanese acetate and share the joys of Kei and Yuri’s breasts, Japanese fandom needed no such camaraderie to sustain itself and so you have the loner otaku shuffling through the crowded aisles of Akihabara’s cramped stores, oblivious to what their bulbous backpacks and fannypacks might bump into. But while the notion of the otaku-cool subculture was invented by those seeking a profit, it’s an idea that the West has latched onto and refuses to give up. It’s the most satisfying myth of all: that somewhere, in that magical land of Japan there are people who like anime just like you, but they’re cool and they all hang out in the coolest part of the coolest city, Akihabara.
As it is now, Akihabara finds itself in a strange dichotomy. The otaku continue to come week after week, ready to spend serious money on their own sexual fulfillment, be it digital, tree pulp or maid. The tourists continue to flock in as well, buoyed by Akihabara’s increasing popularity as a tourist stop and the rising popularity of anime worldwide. But as the tourists may stop into a maid cafe for a bizarre Japanese experience they can blog about, it’s the otaku who come back week after week and have their own favorite maids. Even as the Japanese government pushes Japanese animation as a tourist incentive for the whole family, and with it the world’s largest anime shopping center otherwise known as Akihabara, Electric Town’s shops are lined with pornography.
In truth, Akihabara is nothing but an amusement park, the regular otaku visitors eschewing roller coasters for their own brand of 2D sexual fulfillment, and the tourists come for the novelty. In place of Mickey and Minnie, Akihabara has maids, in place of Space Mountain there’s a shop with over a hundred gatchapon machines, and your tour guide might be a white guy in a Dragonball Z costume. People claimed that the Akihabara stabbing incident of June 2008 marked the death of Akihabara, and perhaps of the popularity of otaku, but the fact is that there was nothing to kill in the first place.