The Roots of Akiba-Kei
Moe businesses would soon evolve the sensitive cat ears and resilient maid uniform that allowed it to crawl out of the primordial soup and onto land. In 1998, the balmy atmosphere inside otaku megastore Gamers made it a hotbed of nerd activity which gave rise to Dejiko, a seemingly innocuous mascot that provided the DNA for ensuing moe blobs. Serving as a visual template, she made otaku values into a tangible medium that could directly penetrate the brain of the viewer. Dejiko gave moe a voice, albeit that of a mentally stunted 10 year old girl.
Dejiko in the flesh. (Source)
Maid uniforms, speech impediments, and ridiculous hair accessories become the grammar of Akihabara much in the same way that glam fashion, emaciated boys, and gravity defying hair served as the iconography for visual kei. If the average person didn’t understand the meaning of these fetishes, they could at least recognize that they represented a specific set of values or lifestyle. And even if you don’t agree with what a subculture stands for, with prolonged exposure it can get under your skin and cook you from the inside like a microwave.
The following year, Broccoli, Gamers’ parent company, went prime time at Tokyo Game Show with their Welcome to Pia Carrot maid cafe. Pia Carrot is a series of visual novels where you attempt to bed your coworkers at the eponymous cafe over summer break. Needless to say, the concept hit a sweet spot with fans, leading to Cafe do Cospa setting up shop in Akihabara soon after. More focused on cosplay than maids, it catered to an already established sect of otaku while failing to attract fresh acolytes, but did succeed in setting up the bedrock for the coming exodus.
Subsequent ventures innovated in transforming the venue from a simple cafe to an entertainment experience. Mary’s opened in 2002 and brought with it the now cliche greeting, irasshaimasse goshujin-sama
A key part of hustling is opportunism. Entire buildings were filled overnight with maid cafes catering to various sub-sects. Pash Cafe Nagomi for little sisters, Cos-Cha with its legendary riots on school bathing suit day, St. Grace Court for nuns. It wasn’t long before the cafe market became flooded, with the runoff spilling over into more mundane aspects of life. Moesham was there to cut your hair as an indulgent alternative to QB House. Maids became a self perpetuating myth, the rule as opposed to the exception.
The next innovation came in 2005 with Maifoot and maid reflexology. Their relaxation menu serves up a full course of aroma therapy, hand, foot, and eye massages, but clients don’t visit expecting results. The girls have no qualifications save for a willingness to dress up in costumes and rub stinky otaku feet. Their ineffectual finger-work is actually part of the appeal.
Like a junior idol whose moves and vocals lack professional polish, everything about the maid scene is driven by a wabi-sabi love of awkward amateurishness. If there is any efficiency to be found in the industry, it would be its ability to tirelessly manufacture an innocently careless charm, a ripening cherry waiting to be popped.
The burgeoning moe market was too big to have been supported from entirely within Akihabara alone. As mentioned previously, iconography such as Dejiko helped soften the brains of non-otaku, which were then reformed by Densha Otoko in 2005.This Trojan Horse snuck otaku culture into homes across the country under the guise of an underdog love story. Its positive portrayal of the lonely otaku painted over the bleak image left by the Miyazaki murders some fifteen years ago.
The show, which began as a book based on a dubious thread on 2-chan, was the tail end of a media mix hurricane that included a movie, a play, and several manga spin-offs. If Miyazaki demonized otaku, then Densha Otoko Hello Ktty-ized them. The otaku had become a mascot, and mascots exist to be exploited for big cash money.
Oiling the Hype Machine
Now that otaku were sterilized in the public eye, curious citizens felt safe enough to flock into Akihabara to see these strange flannel-clad, fanny-pack toting creatures in their natural habitat. Through a mixture of ironic curiosity and honest interest, outsiders found themselves frequenting the locales that until recently were banned as social taboos. And let’s be honest—who doesn’t like being waited on by young, cute girls? Otaku may not be a desirable social caste, but they have enough good ideas to warrant playing one for the weekend.
Ironically, this PR boost marked the beginning of the end for a “pure” Akihabara. The Japan National Tourism Organization has since prepackaged the city as a festival of cosplayers and street performers, punctuated by friendly maids and cheery storefronts—all elements that betray the introverted otaku personality and cramped back alley shops. This portrayal of modern day Akihabara is either a mirage, or an affront on your culture, depending on how much time you spend on 2-Chan.
The media’s interference with post-Eva Akihabara is not unlike Western explorers who brought culture to lost tribes—invasive, profit-motivated, and destructive to the indigenous culture. When camera crews first barged on the scene looking for a scoop in 2003, you could count the number of maid cafes on one hand. Regardless, the setup was a producer’s dream. Weird guys and the girls who (at least pretend to) love them! Grown men unashamed to waste away in a childish fantasy! The more off-kilter and exploitative, the better.
Maid cafes became regular features on weekday variety shows, attracting weekend gawkers as a result. New stores opened to meet demand. The cottage industry had become a tourist industry, with increasingly fringe themes designed to edge out the competition and, more importantly, attract camera crews. What began as a secret base to sort out your loot in private was turning into the posh place to go to be seen.
If you were looking for your 15 minutes of fame, Akihabara was the place. Aspiring TV talent jumped on the bandwagon with otaku-inspired bits where they would play a nerd for laffs.
Hozuna Yoshimi gained notoriety for staging demonstrations dressed as Gundam’s Char Aznable. TBS set up amateur comedian Ishihara Hiroyuki to give 2-Chan-esque responses to man on the street interviews. Likewise, the weekend pedestrian paradise began to attract attention hogs whose extreme performances turned Center Street into a no-man’s land.
The "real" Char Aznable has little love from fans of his namesake.
Otaku weren’t going to sit on the sidelines and watch their city be usurped by popular culture. On June 30th, 2007, over 500 people rallied for the Free Akihabara demonstration where protesters marched to anime songs and branded hard-line slogans reminiscent of the student riots from the 70’s. Send Yodobashi back to Shinjuku! Otaku revolt! Spirit of moe!
The demonstration was doomed from the start. A spectacle by its very nature, it could only draw further media attention and exploitation—exactly the opposite of what otaku wanted. If Neros fiddled while Rome burned, then the demonstration provided Akihabara with a full string orchestra.
The following March 30th saw a group of cosplayers open fire with air soft guns in the middle of the Sunday crowds while police watched on uselessly. The pedestrian paradise came under greater scrutiny on April 20th when self-proclaimed 22-year old idol Sawamoto Asuka was arrested for public indecency, but not before forming a feeding frenzy of literal flash photography.
All these problems came to a head in the June 8th 2008 Akihabara massacre, where 25 year old temp worker Kato Tomohiro drove a rental truck into the crowd before assaulting on-lookers on foot with a dagger, killing seven and injuring ten persons total. The assailant wasn’t an otaku, but a former honors student ground into the dirt by the hyper-competitive education system. He wasn’t driven to kill by violent anime and video games, but because of the humiliation he suffered at the hands of his parents and peers at his unstable job.
The perpetrator had no links to the culture there, so why Akihabara? If his mission was to “kill anybody, it didn’t matter who” as he later testified, then why not a someplace more densely populated, like the Shibuya scramble?
Morikawa postulates that he was drawn to Akihabara the same way the media and performers were. The city represented something bigger than itself. If you wanted to go out with a bang, the pedestrian pavilion was a star studded stage. Forget going postal in Nagatocho or other areas housing the politicians responsible for the pressure cooker education system and revolving door temp worker laws that fueled his suicide attempt two years earlier. No, Kato wanted to defile the holy land of those who had trolled him on online forums, consequences be damned.
Kato got his wish, which was shared by some otaku as well. The pedestrian paradise was closed for safety reasons, and Akiba fever cooled off with it. Eventually things had calmed down enough to warrant its reopening on January 23rd, 2010, and while the crowds are still there, the vitality has yet to return. Police crackdowns on street performers are partially to blame, as is the general mood of nostalgic malaise that hangs over the area. While netizens may post wistfully about the good old days, there are groups who would have otaku eradicated as an inconvenience to their livelihood.
In 2001, the Tokyo government enacted the Urban Development Guidelines for the Akihabara Area. The ordinance aimed to rebrand the city as the IT capital of Japan with the academic firepower and business strageum to engage developing markets in China and Korea, with the Akihabara Crossfield construction project as its base of command, and the Tsukuba Express as the convoy to transport scientists from Tsukuba’s multitudes of research facilities. The proposal set the site at none other than the old farmer’s market.
Its trio of high-rise behemoths included the 40-story mansion style apartment complex Tokyo Times Tower (completed September 2004), as well as Akihabara UDX (completed January 2006) and the Akihabara Daibiru Building (completed in March 2007), structures that, according to the official home page, are “expected to be a new focal point for the Akihabara district, holding areas for Industry-Academia collaboration, information networking, and attractions for visitors.”
While this may make great PR, they left out one important bullet point. “By producing Akihabara as the IT capital of Japan, we hope to wash away its otaku image and raise property value.”
The three Crossfield buildings all have something in common. They began their lives as construction projects fed to the Kajima Corporation by Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, two entities bonded by a checkered past of political scandals and open collusion. These ties were strengthened by a common enemy, the fly in the ointment that was bottlenecking sales.
Despite its proximity to the station, reasonable rent, and ample railway access, Tokyo Times Tower flopped. Polls revealed that all the amenities weren’t worth having to deal with otaku neighbors. In true Bond villain fashion, Ishihara responded though initiatives that simultaneously support otaku while undermining them in his plot to minimize their presence to maximize profits.
The governor may be cantankerous, but he’s no fool. He understands the value of anime as a cultural export and balances his love/hate relationship for the subject matter with policies that are pro-international and anti-domestic. The same man who enacted the reviled Bill 156, or Tokyo Manga Ban, is also the chairman and sponsor of the Tokyo International Anime Fair. Recently, however, his back-stabbing seems to have come home to roost.
At the end of 2010, the Comic 10 Society of major manga publishers threatened to boycott the 2011 Tokyo Anime Fair due to Ishihara’s involvement with Bill 156, a move which would have stripped the event of all legitimacy. Just when it seemed like the industry had pinned the governor into a corner, the 3/11 earthquake struck weeks before the event, giving the organizers a timely excuse to abort while saving face.
Once the cesium settled, everyone had the same question on their lips: Would publishers still be up in arms when the 2012 event rolls around, or even be in a position to turn their backs on it after the economic damage they suffered during the quake?
No, and no. The Comic 10 Society recently announced without so much a shred of their prior indignation that they are on board for next year's TAF. What their compliance entails for freedom of expression in the medium is yet to be seen. The only one who seems to have a clear endgame is Ishihara, and things are proceeding exactly to plan.
As the definition of “otaku” is muddled by the casual consumers drawn to the city through the media and government’s efforts, the hardcore are forced further underground along the dame vector. Old symbols of the city, from the Radio Hall to LaOx the Computer Kan, have recently been renovated and stripped of their history. Perhaps Akihabara has outlived its usefulness as a spawning bed for nerd culture.
But all is not lost. Even as news crews destroyed an intangible part of the city in their invasion, they took back with them the seeds of otaku culture to spread on the winds of media mix. Stay tuned for the next and final installment where we will explore the ongoing exchange of values between Akihabara and mainstream Japan, as well as what this implies for the future of the city.