Tuesday, December 6, 2011

History of Akihabara: Part 2

The opening to our four part series on Akihabara revealed the city as a vibrant market driven by individual interests. Pre-war vendors tossed their fruit for vacuum tubes when radios hit, and the resulting home electronic market paved the way for consumer electronics. After the economy hiccuped, these in turn faltered to be supplemented by DIY computers and all its geeky friends. Part 2 seeks to answer the question: How did we go from microchips to moe?

Morikawa Kaichiro is a researcher and lecturer at Japan’s top universities in the fields of design and architecture. He has published numerous works on otaku culture reflected through the lens of post modernism. Amongst these, his comprehensive look at the historic interplay between culture and personal space, Akihabara: The Birth of a Personapolis, was the inspiration for this series. 

We'll start off with Morikawa’s theories on the defining characteristics of otaku to help us better understand the connection between consumers of electronics and anime before exploring how the media falsified a negative image of the subculture and the resulting impact this had on society and Akihabara.

What Makes Otaku Tick

Typical trappings for a 1980's otaku. (Source)

Morikawa explains the otaku mentality in terms of space. More specifically, the manner in which they attempt to control the space around them. As mentioned in Part 1, the first generation of true otaku were cultivated in their bedrooms. They filled their shelves with figures and manga, lined their walls with posters and gravure idols. The point wasn’t to merely fill space, but to populate it with carefully selected symbols that represent their personal taste.

Collecting was augmented with internalization—memorizing dialogue, raising pet theories, creating dojinshi fan-zines, and other activities that exerted influence over the shows they loved. Because the otaku self-image is defined by personal taste, restructuring elements of a show to match one’s preferences entails control over the very building blocks of one’s existence. In a sense, they were mining the moe database long before Azuma Hiroki made it a buzzword.

Simply put, preference defines the self. To master the object of your preferences is to master the self.

This innate desire to dominate and control the object of their desires is the missing link between anime and PC otaku. In the same way that dojinshi allow the artist authority over a character by dominating them with codified moe elements customized to their individual taste, a PC user (emphasis on personal) has complete control over the space within a machine, so long as they master the code.

Programming code itself is English-based, the language of “superior,” invasive Western culture. Rather than shut themselves off from or rebel against this outside force, otaku in the 80's instead embraced it by reappropriating items that fit their needs while jettisoning the rest, effectively neutralizing the attackers while turning their own weapons against them. Just as Japan has maintained indigenous Shinto beliefs while integrating modified versions of Buddhism and Christianity, otaku accepted foreign computer culture, subjugating the code to spit out images of anime girls.

The mysterious heroine of Zarth is on the run and only YOU can protect her. (Source)

The otaku’s terrifying ability to alter their environment and bend culture to their will was at first limited to their personal living space—their bedrooms. However, computer and dojinshi stores soon diffused throughout Akihabara like spores from a fungal bloom, thriving in poorly lit buildings and creeping into abandoned spaces where the warmth of home electronics still lingered. Over time this growth would spread to cover the entire city, a relentless invasive species that choked out the original inhabitants.

The city itself has become an extension of the otaku bedroom, Morikawa argues. Think back for a moment and imagine what it feels like to be in Akihabara:

With the walls and skyline filled, bishojo adverts spill over onto the floor to envelop visitors on all sides. (Source)

From the moment you step off the train, its obvious that something is off-kilter. Adverts featuring anime girls decorate the station like wall scrolls. Heroines from the latest light novel series smile up at you coqquetishly from ground murals. And no sooner do you exit through the Electric Town gate that you are accosted by off-key J-Pop from Sakura Gumi or some other third-string idol group. You look around in an attempt to orientate yourself, only to be assaulted by a dizzying panorama of rainbow-haired debutantes with interchangeable features, their over-sized eyes following your every movement like titan sentries.

This disorienting experience is not unlike stumbling into the lair of a hardcore otaku, shelves lined with moe figures and walls plastered with their favorite 2D pin-up girls or 3D idols attempting to be 2D.

Wicked City Dojinshi

Take note that the shift from electronics to moe occurred organically. Everything resulted from fans who were in turn consumers of their own product. But don’t mistake this as a grass roots movement—it wasn’t a movement at all, merely persons acting independently towards the same unspoken goal like a spontaneous public-space project, a fan-made city.

There was no Akihabara Instrumentality Project, no corporate backers looking to capitalize on moe economics. No, that would come later, from opportunistic mass media vultures and the scheming Tokyo governor Ishihara.

Passionate as fans may be, exerting influence over real world space requires real world resources. Otaku goods were slowly gaining ground over home electronics out of economic necessity, but anime and computers had a built-in market cap. Things would eventually hit a wall unless they could find a way to reach out to a wider audience.

Otaku were a truly underground subculture throughout the 80’s, largely unknown by the public and ignored when noticed. This ambivalence was shattered by a sensational string of murder-kidnappings in 1989, where Saitama resident Miyazaki Tsutomu was given the death penalty for murdering and molesting the corpses of four young girls aged between four and seven.

Tsutomu's living space. (Source)

The resulting media circus exposed Miyazaki as a tape collecting maniac, beaming into homes across the country images of piles of unwatched VHS cassettes stacked precariously to the ceiling of his dingy apartment. Miyazaki became the public’s first face-to-face encounter with what the news branded “otaku,” and the grim details of his crime and private life were damning.

His obsession with young girls, his catalogue of anime and violent films, his shut-in personality—all these elements came together in a perfect storm of negative publicity to cement the de facto image of otaku as pedophile bottom feeders who never ventured into the light of day, with anime guilty by association.

In 2005 it was revealed that many of the pornographic and lolita materials “discovered” in Miyazaki’s home were actually planted there by television crews to stir up ratings. Some theorize that it was all a setup by the media to attack the VHS market that was eating into their profits. More dubbed tapes and OVAs means that much lower ratings for the boob tube.

Regardless of the political motives for his branding, the results were the same. Sex, violence, and the resulting corruption of Japan’s youth became flashpoint issues.

Experience the thrill of 177 firsthand on Niko Niko Douga.

Pornographic computer games, or ero-ge, were already a public secret at the time. Pixalated underage rape/marriage simulator 177 stood before the House of Representatives for indecency back in 1996, and while legislation did ban certain titles that caught the public’s ire, DIY PCs were too far under the radar to wave the gavel at. This all changed in 1991 when a Kyoto middle school student was caught red-handed in his attempt to shoplift the ero-ge Saori: House of Beautiful Girls.

Box art for Saori. (Source)

The boy should have gotten off with a slap on the wrist and a father chaperoned trip to a soap land to set him straight. Instead, the incident made headlines for the game’s salacious content—not the uncensored naughty bits, for those were somewhat standard (and illegal, though ignored) at the time—but for the extreme scenario where a young girl is kidnapped and held against her will in a mansion where she experiences titillating visions of incest and scandalous teacher-student relations.

Parents screamed for blood, driving a squad of pitchfork and torch-wielding police to search the home of the president of Fairy Tale, the game’s publisher, where he was arrested under charges for the distribution of indecent materials. The Ethics Organization of Computer Software, or EOCS, a sort of ESRB for PC games, was established the following year to ensure that the monster stayed dead.

With the first shot fired, politicians wasted no time in declaring open season on ero-ge. The Prefectural Ordinance of Juvenile Protection was revised to include computer games under the umbrella of “Harmful Books” (有害図書), the same classification that attempted to blackball Nagai Go and Tezuka back in the 70’s for their “shocking” sexual imagery. This was another in a long line of scandals that funneled power of expression from creators to bureaucrats and PTAs. In this sense it could be argued that the Miyazaki incident helped set the stage for the recently passed Tokyo Manga Ban—where would Ishihara’s soapbox have been if the public hadn’t been preened to loathe otaku?

On the Coattails of the Apocalypse

With the world turned against them, their only hope for salvation was from the community itself. One of the kings of otaku, director Anno Hideaki, was about to provide us with a martyr to die for the sins of anime, changing the way the world consumed and viewed nerd culture in the process.

Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion first aired from October 1995 to March 1996. It was one of the last adult-oriented anime broadcast in a prime time slot, though following the precedent set by classic titles such as Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam, Eva wouldn’t hit its stride until midnight rebroadcasts. In fact, its abnormally high ratings were so impressive as to help create the current (and much maligned) model of late night anime.

Riding a wave of miasma released from the popped economic bubble and competing for ratings with ongoing coverage of the Aum Shinrikyo cult who perpetrated the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway earlier that year, Eva synchronized with the nihilistic zeitgeist and wormed it’s way into the hearts of a generation who, for the first time since the war, were uncertain about the future of their country.

A lack of communication in the so-called communication age, the coming Apocalypse made real, a potent cocktail of underage sex and wanton violence, totally sweet giant robots thrashing to classical music—whatever message was to be found in Eva, it resonated with the populace, and converted true believers into otaku neophytes.

The rebroadcast of Eva caused a literal Second Impact for otaku culture. Suddenly, media that had no business discussing anime was dedicating serious coverage to Evangelion. Gelget Shocking Center became the first of many radio programs to invite voice actors and producers into the studio to banter about the show.

Should the video go down, try searching for "ゲルゲットショッキングセンター" on Youtube.

Shinji became the cover boy for Studio Voice, a pop culture mag dedicated to the cutting edge of cool. Even the high class cinema journal Kinema Junpo wasn’t above providing critical discourse on the End of Evangelion films.

When a dark horse property pulls in big bucks, people sit up and notice. Eva netted an estimated 30 billion yen, making it more than just a successful show. It was a cultural phenomenon whose resulting economic and cultural capital legitimized anime as a business and art form. For the time being, otaku had turned the tables, like the bullied kid in school who goes on to lord over his former tormentors as a successful CEO.

Despite its explosive success, Eva turned out to be a false prophet. While it made gobs of money and helped improve the public image of the otaku hobby, it wasn’t indicative of anime as a whole. Just because someone thought Rei was “totally hot for a cartoon chick” didn’t mean they were ready to leap head first into the moe quagmire that covered the medium.

And so the Eva bubble soon burst, taking the wind out of the anime industry’s sails along with any lingering hope of prime time broadcasts for original properties. This didn’t deter Akihabara. Its coffers were filled from the burgeoning character goods market, giving them a monopoly over the storefronts. The modern image of the city as an otaku holy land was taking form. “Moe” was gaining ground as a buzz word. All it needed now was a mascot, who we will introduce in the next installment.


  1. Hi!

    My name is Roberto and i'm a long date fan of this blog.

    I live in Brazil and got contact with would be the equivalent of the otaku culture fans and appreciators in my country, and i know of people that will really appreciate the oportunity to read and share the informations contained here

    Som i have to ask, would you give me the permission to translate this series of posts and publish they in my blog? You can contact me at my blog or directly via Twitter (@synthzoid)

    Looking foward to see rest of this wonderful series of posts, keep the good workd!

  2. It's weird to see the huge difference between American Otaku and Japanese Otaku. Some people would debate that there is no differences at all.
    All places evolve into different places all the time.