Akhiabara, in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district, is where fantasy and reality collide. After World War II and into the 1990s, Akhiabara was known worldwide as electronics central. The gadgets and electronics of Akhiabara’s present were those of the world’s future – apart from, of course, those truly wonderful wacky things that would never exist anywhere other than Japan.
While there are no shortage of electronics shops in Akhiabara, electronics are no longer the main focus here. Since the 1990s the rest of the world has become arguably just as tech savvy as Japan and, with online shopping becoming mainstream, electronics aren’t in short supply no matter where you are in the world. Electronics no longer hold the mystique of being foreign and futuristic any more however that doesn’t mean that the area isn’t worth visiting for electronics. Case in point – I remembered that I needed a calculator for work so decided to pick one up at Yodobashi Akhiabara, a 9 storey haven of electronics and gadgets. There were literally over 100 different models to choose from and I spent far more time than I imagined possible choosing a calculator. I also picked up a spare battery for my camera and a portable battery pack for my phone.
While you can still find any gadget you want (or didn’t know you wanted until you saw it) in Akhiabara, these days the area is better known as the heartland of Otaku culture.
Otaku is the term used to describe people with obsessive interests and is similar to the term “geek”. It is commonly, although not exclusively, linked to an obsession with anime and manga. Akhiabara has many place that cater to Otaku, including anime and manga stores, stores that stock collectible figurines, video game arcades and cosplay cafes.
Akhiabara is a haven for gamers too. As well as all of the latest releases, a treasure trove of retro games and consoles can also be found. Super Famicom/Nintendo or Sega Master System anyone?
All over the streets of Akhiabara, there are girls dressed up as maids, pirates, soldiers, school girls and other anime costumes. They are handing out flyers advertising some of many cosplay cafes that exist in the area, and cater to specific niches.
The most common type of cosplay cafes are maid cafes, which are staffed by (for the most part) girls who are dressed in French maid costumes and act as servants to their customers, or “masters”. Everything from the service to the decor and the food is designed to turn fantasy into reality.
While those who work in maid cafes do so of their own volition and there are strict rules about what customers can and cannot do – e.g. they are not allowed to touch the girls, or ask them personal questions, there was something unsettling about seeing all of these girls around the streets of Akhiabara. They cater to males who fetishise young, innocent looking females.
Despite the fact that sex is not part of the equation I was unsure what to think about what I was seeing at times. For example on one street I saw a man who was, I’d say, in his 60s, seated next to a girl in a schoolgirl uniform who was drawing a comic for him. The interaction between the 2 of them was, for lack of a better word, creepy.
Trying to take photos of some of the girls on the streets of Akhiabara was difficult. There were 3 girls standing in the spot below however 2 of them left as soon as I got out my camera. I couldn’t help but feel unsettled whenever I got my camera out around the girls advertising maid cafes.
Accepting that maid cafes are an innocent representation of the fantasies of certain individuals, it was still hard to reconcile this with the pornography available in Akhiabara. My wife and I walked into 2 of them as we looking for “tentacle porn” manga to buy as a joke for a few of our friends back home. On the first floor, there’s nothing particularly seedy going on – mainstream anime like Dragon Ball Z and Gundam, video games, Japanese and American TV box sets and movies etc. Go up a floor, and there’s softcore porn that’s all pretty tame. Go higher up though, and things get freaky.
Hentai is the Japanese term for perverse and bizarre sexual desires and acts and the top floor was all about Hentai. There were testicles, amongst other things, doing all sorts of explicit things on the cover of various comics but what was truly disturbing was that some of this stuff clearly looked like it was child porn. Manga child porn, but child porn nonetheless. Needless to say we didn’t hang around for long and didn’t bother with the joke purchase. It’s hard to reconcile the “safe” fantasy of the maid cafes and the pornography that can be found in Akhiabara.
I knew that I wanted to visit Akhiabara before I went to Japan, however I wasn’t prepared for what being there would actually be like. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been to in the world. It’s a place where grown adults can indulge their fantasies, where the lines between reality and fantasy blur, where sexual fetishes and childhood memories merge into one. It’s a very confusing place and I couldn’t get my head completely around it all. It’s simultaneously awesome and disturbing. What’s certain is that if you walk around the streets and alleyways of Akhiabara, you’ll experience a place that could only ever exist in Japan.
If you’ve visited Akhiabara before or indeed if you are from Tokyo, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the area in the comments below.