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How today's Akihabara hatched

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

How today's Akihabara hatched

It's been 10 years since the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series was first shown on television in Japan, but the impact it had on Akihabara and its related culture still lives today. With the release of a wide range of products to celebrate the anniversary, it is seeing something of a revival.

For the Venice Biennale, Morikawa commissioned an installation of a typical Otaku bedroom and walls of typical rental showcases.

Another piece created for the 2004 Venice Biennale is called Shinyokohama Arina in Akihabara. The title of the entire exhibition, "Otaku; persona = space = city," reflects Morikawa's theory that Akihabara is a "personapolis."

text by Seiji Yamagiwa

There's no disputing that, even on a global scale, Akihabara qualifies as a strange place. It's the stuff of dreams-though if you were to dream up a vision as quirky as this, you would very likely wake up in a sweat. It's a giant 21st-century toy box turned upside down, with nonstop outpourings of anime, gadgets, and games all offering to fulfill every fantasy imaginable. It's an entire district seemingly dedicated to fueling our desires, forever coming up with new ones, always ready to suggest some yet-untried angle.

And this isn't just the dream of the otaku kids who famously fill the streets here, either. What does the wide-eyed visitor see but the gadgets, the anime, the geeks, the canned foods sold from vending machines, the costumed people dressed in outlandish reinterpretations of Western aesthetics? What more could a visitor possibly ask for? It's the caricature vision of modern Japan come true! In Akihabara we have the leftfield extreme of the country's cultural stereotype, the technological behemoth revealing its gigantic, electric eccentricity.

But, like any city, Akiba (its pet name) wasn't built in a day. Architectural theorist Kaichiro Morikawa, author of the 2003 book Learning from Akihabara: The Birth of a Personapolis, has a logical explanation for how it all happened.
"Although it's true that Akihabara always attracted people looking for specialized electric parts,"Morikawa says, "the principal customers were ordinary families. Once upon a time consumer electronic goods were bought on an outing involving the whole family-the equivalent today would perhaps be buying the new family car. Against the backdrop of high economic growth and technological advancement, electronic goods were seen as symbolic artefacts, each representing a life-stage progression."

During the 1970s something like 10 percent of all household appliances sold in Japan were bought in Akihabara. But as the era of exponential economic growth came to an end, and awareness of environmental issues rose, people's utter faith in technology was somewhat undermined, taking some of the allure out of consumer electronics. Consumers began more frequently choosing to shop at suburban superstores closer to home. According to Morikawa, it was this desertion by the ordinary folk that started Akihabara on its way to becoming what he identifies as a "personapolis"- a place frequented by people of a particular demographic and with particular tastes.

In the early '90s the gaping hole left by family shoppers was filled by those fueling the rising demand for personal computers. At the time PCs were mainly of interest to a select few, but in Akihabara that minority took center stage. "And significantly," Morikawa observes, "the sort of people who were drawn to PCs were also those most likely to have in their personality an appreciation for anime and games."

But despite the obviously fertile potential for retail anime and games sales, it took the enormous hype surrounding the iconic TV anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which aired in 1995, with a sequel released as a movie in 1997) to push things to another level. Morikawa points out, "The estimated 20 to 30 billion yen in revenue that Evangelion generated (in books, plastic models, and laserdiscs) had significant fallout. It wasn't uncommon at that time to find a 10-fold increase in the sales of anime and games-related products."

As he documents in his book, the district began to change visibly around 1997 with the influx of established hobby stores that had previously been scattered around Tokyo. And in the new millennium, Chuo-dori has become awash with towering department stores like AsoBit C and Comic Toranoana catering to the otaku.

Although the decline in consumer electronics sales provided the vital void to begin with, it is significant that the changes in the area result from the incoming otaku demographic and not vice versa-that is, it's a case of a particular characteristic of a district attracting a particular demographic. It is, in Morikawa's words, "as if the bedroom is extending into the cityscape."

The general public's continued fascination with Akihabara is closely related to its interest in the otaku subculture. Morikawa points out that although a colony has been established in this prominent part of Tokyo, and things like anime have become widely recognized as a viable form of entertainment for adults in recent years, people's low opinion of otaku has remained much the same.

"They elude the wave of trying to catch a trend. They hunt low and lower in pursuit of new contemptible things to purchase," Morikawa says. "It is almost as if they’re searching out commodities to purchase that will keep them unacceptable. It's a defense against society's expectations, a rejection of respectability."

So, is the otaku scene a good old-fashioned counterculture in the mold of mods and rockers, or even punk? "It’s not accurate to call it a counterculture," Morikawa says, "because it has no wish to subvert the status quo... I don't think it's escapism either, although that's how it might seem if you look at it from the outside. Otaku themselves aren't running from anything. They're mostly just indifferent. To them, the current social situation has all but lost its reality. As a subcultural minority, they just want an enclave of their own."

The media attention in recent years, along with the redevelopment around the station, has brought a new breed of people to Akihabara, much to the displeasure of the otaku, some suggest. But out on the streets, it is hard to read that from the faces going in and out of stores; they seem incurious but determined. Then again, perhaps the future always arrives amid the subtleties of daily incuriousness, while the present slides away forever out of our reach amid the distant sound of electric hubbub.

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