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Walking through Akihabara and Otaku Culture

akihabara district and anime shops in tokyo

Japan has a fetish subculture. But you wouldn’t know unless you know what to look for.

Whether you know a lot or too little about a culture, you’ll always feel you’re missing out on comprehending them to their full range. Books don’t show you what’s inside peoples’ heads or hearts.

Take Japan’s otaku culture in Akihabara …

What is Akihabara Otaku culture?

Otaku (おたく/オタク) is a subculture or alternately a “geek” culture that is obsessive in their hobbies. The most common ones here are manga, video gaming and anime.

Otakus are generally, anti-social and come from a marginal reclusive subculture that’s divorced from reality and choose to live, wrapped up in the fantasy of this alternate life.

Akihabara is a district in Tokyo that is like the mothership for otaku culture.

Formerly, the electronics district, these days, it’s turned it’s attention towards drawing the otaku culture, due to the fact it’s a $2 billion industry . While electronic stores still exist, it’s grown a wealth of shops dedicated to anime, manga, pachinko parlors and video games. The area is also synonymous with maid cafes, where girls dress like maids, solicit male customers in back alleys and then usher them to a bar where they serve them.

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maid cafes in tokyo

Fetishism or Perversion?

Manga stores seem to be the biggest draw. The variety of magazines range in subject matter and content from action, adventure, heterosexual love to homosexual love (aka “forbidden love” or when two men kiss and have love triangles; ironically this latter is very big with female fans, such that you’ll occasionally, find some male J-pop or K-pop idols do a “kissing act” on stage to drive their fans wild). It often can also lend itself a lot to comic book pornography.

In Akihabara, the manga stores feel like giant comic book libraries with several floors and where customers keep to themselves, without looking you in the eye. It’s not like idol stores where customers are chatting or looking through merchandise with enthusiasm. It’s like entering a subculture environment, where people are free to indulge in their alternate passions in protective secrecy. But also like X-rated shop ,where men (and the occasional woman) can peruse their fetish interests, without dispelling the world of forbidden or alternative fantasy.

manga shops akihabara

The vibe here is different from other districts in  Tokyo– part geeky, strange, forbidden and furtive, it also carries an undercurrent vibe similar to New Jersey’s Atlantic City casinos.  Maybe it’s due to the draw of a largely antisocial nerd crowd, where males make up 80-90%  (ages 20-50) of the population and are obsessed with the world of video game and anime fantasies vs. reality.

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AKB48 studio performances
The popular all-girl group, AKB48, has a cafe shop in Akihabara, where you can order drinks or tickets to their performances.
Known as being accessible “idols” (aka celebrities), fans like that they girls seem down-to-earth… they even sell their own tickets.

At first, it was the draw of electronics and maid bars, which fed my curiosity for Akihabara.  My curiosity quickly dissipated, when I began to realize it felt more like a red light district, which holds entertainment only for private customers.

I wandered around feeling a little lost for a while, not knowing how to decode or comprehend what I was seeing in a subculture atmosphere, why these hobbies had drawn together to form one booming otaku market.

So what is my point? Maybe I don’t have one and this was one of those random wanderings, which I took as a traveler, where I thought I was going to see something fun, crazy, racy or unique. Maybe I thought I’d step into an alternative scene and it would get my adrenaline running, and I’d break down a new wall and learn something insightful about a culture. Instead, it only left me with a strange after-effect feeling of Okay, was this it? Comic book stores, electronics, panchinko and maids, feeling their work seedy enough to avoid my camera?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the maid cafes just to even go near them to peek in. Apparently, they were all around me, but I didn’t have the right key to open the door.

As a woman and a foreigner, I was an outsider looking in, feeling a shift of discomfort. I felt a bit like  Alice, walking through a weird world, based outside of reality.

 

 

13 Comments

  1. erica says:

    To be fair, extreme otakus often talk to each other and are sociable in their own way. I also think that it’s good to keep in mind that Japan is a country where even huge banks and corporations have their own anime characters so anime does not automatically equal otaku.

    I also just had to say that there are a lot of maid cafes that are out in the open and completely not sketchy. As a female foreigner, I went into one (after doing my research) and the gals working there could not have been sweeter, asking me as many questions as I asked them. The reason that the maid shy away from the camera are that 1) their employers discourage it as they usually charge for photos 2) they don’t want to end up on the internet & affect any future job prospects.

    I don’t mean for this to sound defensive at all, I really enjoyed reading your point of view. I just wanted to add a couple tid bits as a Japanese-American who lived in Tokyo for 3 years 🙂

    • @Erica: Where were you when I was sightseeing Akihabara? Thanks for sharking your insight; I don’t feel it’s defensive at all. My post is basically saying~ it would’ve helped to have more insight into the culture so I could either, understand what I saw or look for what I didn’t. As a travel blogger, I like to give places a fair shot, but it’s hard if you don’t have the information to truly know how to appreciate it. Even having researched otakus and the limited articles I could dig up on them… they intrigue me, but the Akihabara vibe was just a little off for me. A dead calm. Lack of information is what most travelers sightsee with. Even when you read up on a culture, there’s always going to be a wall you’ll hit unless you experience it first hand.

      The manga/anime thing still confuses me… I hate to admit, I don’t know the difference.

      • erica says:

        haha weeeeell probably somewhere on the interwebs。If you ever find yourself confused in Akihabara (or any other part of Japan), shoot me an email- I’m more than happy to share what I know 🙂 Or if you’d like, I can take you to that maid cafe 😉

        manga = comic books or “graphic novels”
        anime = characters drawn in that particular way in motion. The word is also used to describe the genre in general, which I think is where it gets confusing.

        I also feel that most articles only highlight the interesting/unique/downright absurd bits about the culture. Likewise, a lot of the stores in Akihabara cater to those bits, especially now that the otaku scene in Akihabara is shifting toward catering to tourists while the hardcore otakus are heading toward Ikebukuro. There are many aspects to otaku-dom, especially in its extreme that confuse/bewilder/gross me out, but I’ve also come to learn that it’s no different than fandom in general. Just… it’s toward a drawing, not a person who can breathe.

        • @Erika: I’ll take you up on the maid cafe offer next time I’m in Tokyo! 🙂 Really would love to see an honest one vs. seedy, because those girls were seriously only approaching men. As for anime.. yup, you lost me after Anime. =/ ha ha..

          As for articles highlighting the extreme aspects of the culture. I feel conflicted about that. On one hand,the fact it’s sensational news leads to misinterpreting a whole based on an extreme few and yet, there’s a level of truth to it, both subtle and extreme. However, it could also be a similar predicament I’ve found in trying to interpret Korean culture. Not many local/culture things are written in English. Thus, English readers can only rely on a few flawed articles.

          Anyways, you also just reminded me of my first introduction/mishap to manga. I borrowed an animation from the public library in NYC, because an artist gf recommended I watch manga for inspiration. The animation I chose was a total shot-in-the-dark choice but the title seemed fun and i’ve seen pictures to know these animations can be cute– and BOY, it was the most violent and sexually-grotesque jolt to all of my senses. I seriously, didn’t know how anyone conceive such ideas much more than watch it. I’ve seen porn and can stomach violent horror flicks but I couldn’t last more than 5 minutes with that animation without feeling absolutely sick with the level of twistedness it was. That was my first and last experience with manga. I know there are different categories but that one made me want to regress to Sailor Moon animations. =(

          • erica says:

            I’m kind of planning a trip out to Japan next fall if you’re in the area 🙂 Well, men are the general demographic for maid cafes, but it’s also very common to see people out in the street calling you in- especially for izakayas/kareoke- so it’s not that weird that the girls are out there… except that they are dressed like a little girl. FYI they also have butler cafes that mostly cater to women, if you’d like to check that out instead. IN FACT, I’ve heard rumors that there’s one with purely western men.

            Oh, I’m not saying that none of that is true. I’ve seen super creepy things in both Akihabara and Ikebukuro, I just feel like so many articles focus on the extreme that everyone who reads manga/watches anime gets put into that stereotype.

            That sounds terrifying. The manga that I read is about a little boy who solves mysteries, nothing close to porn. The line between porn and anime/manga seems to have blurred recently, which is perhaps why I stick to the one I’ve been reading since I was in elementary school 😉

            • @Erica: Oops, sorry for the delay. Yeah, I’ll keep fall in mind! =-) Butler cafes?! Now that’s something I’d like to check out! The one with the western men has got to be interesting but I think I saw a news documentary on this somewhere. I just saw a doc on Japanese male host bars for women. The guys make loads of money– that’s a kind funky and seedy system too apparently. Butler cafes, I know are different and much more lighter and commercial than male host bars. Japan has such an interesting cabaret.

              As for stereotypes, it’s unfortunate that they exist period, but I think for every group, ethnicity, subculture, culture, … there’s going to be a good and bad stereotype and the color of it will depend on how much information an individual has to make an educated decision. I know not all fanatics of that culture are extreme (even though my first experience with it was twisted) and I could see a variety of folks from creepy, nerdy and normal but personally, the vibe of Akhibahara itself, …I wasn’t keen to. Not the same vibe as the manga cafes I’ve stayed at or Harajuku or anywhere else.

              Giant naked woman with a huge saw-toothed vagina which bit off heads of kids and adults. Scarred for life. =-|

  2. Indra says:

    It is truly an Alice in wonderland feeling. We visited a Maid Cafe and got drawn into a make believe world for a few hours.

  3. Jenna says:

    So interesting … ow I want to know more, too. It’s funny how something can seem mysterious as an outsider, but if you were part of that culture you might just think it was lame 🙂 This is another post where the first few paragraphs of your newsletter drew me in, even when I shouldn’t be surfing!

  4. An interesting take on Akihabara, and not what I was expecting to read! I thought you’d be gushing about the alternative society. In terms of being an outsider looking in, that’s how I very much felt when I was in Korea for my first year, and that’s slowly started to dissipate. When travelling though, I honestly don’t like to read up that much on a place’s culture (apart from stuff like manners, do’s and don’ts), because I like to be surprised by what I find.

    I’ll head to Japan next year, and to Akihabara for sure…wonder if I’ll have a similar experience to yours!

    • @Tom: I thought I’d be gushing too, but it all felt a little dry for me. Will be interested to see how you feel about it. ps. Feeling like an outsider in Korea? Yeah, I got that too. I think I’m better with that feeling on a long-term basis vs. a short term experience. With short experiences, I know I have much less time to figure things out. There have been a lot of times I wished I’d read up on it so I knew what I was seeing.

    • erica says:

      When are you going?? I’m hoping to be there fall/winter-ish 🙂

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