Akihabara; one destination many ‘hikikomori’ make an exception for. It’s the middle ground between madness and sanity, between fictional realities and very real poverty. It’s situated in north east Tokyo, and lies somewhere between the pit of Japan’s sex industry and the summit of its creativity. It’s as wondrous as it is creepy, and as diverse as it is shocking. It’s a damn weird place, and that means everyone should see it at least once. (hikikomori, by the way, is a Japanese term for people who are anti-social to the point of never leaving their room, and spend their entirety of their lives on video games, anime and other pursuits considered ‘nerdy’. Japan is home to many such individuals living at home, surviving off their parents’ kindness or their inability to motivate them).
Having studied it at university, and having a fair few interests in the sub-stream (it’s far cooler than the main-stream. More room for my canoe), I took frequent trips to Akihabara at weekends to get to know it better. On my first visit I lost myself in its backstreets, and studied the sheer range of stores that made the area famous; second hand electronic goods and animation/manga memorabilia (the third thing that makes the area famous, I did not see on my first visit because it’s a little better hidden. I had that surprise in store for me at a later date). I stood outside one store, staring in through the window full of posters of characters that I’d never heard of before, but all sharing a genetic trait for spiky blue hair. A man approached me as he exited the shop, edging nervously toward me as if afraid to disturb me.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where I could buy some cosplay outfits?” he asked, in a very broad American accent (I have no idea which one, I’m sorry).
“Ah sorry, I’m afraid I can’t. This is my first time here” I explained, bowing my head apologetically. He wandered off shortly after giving me in avid detail how he was going to make himself look like a character I’d never heard of.
The longer I stayed, the more aware of the maid cafes I became. They were seemingly everywhere, and the callers stood in every alley and on every corner. All of them were in varying degrees of outfit, from simple ‘teddy bear’ cute to suspiciously ‘where’s the rest of your Barbie doll’s clothes’ sexy. They all claim that these businesses are not apart of the sex industry, but that’s hard to swallow when you’re trying to avert your eyes from bare legs or cleavage every time you want to make a turn at an alley corner. They all, on top of this, had in common a specific kind of way of speaking. Alvin and the chipmunks squeakiness. The love-child of a mouse and a helium balloon. One of them isn’t noticeable but when they’re on every corner, you can’t escape those squeaky voices, shrilly calling out. After showing disinterest for months, I finally decided to ask about it. Why do you speak in such a squeaky voice, I asked. What squeaky voice, she replied in confusion. I later met a young Japanese woman at capoeira who revealed to me that she worked as a maid part time in Akihabara, and shockingly enough, no squeaky voice. As she explained, the clothes, voices and general scary happiness is all in the pursuit of being cute (rather than creepy apparently, which they had already nailed). And why be so artificially cute? For other women who like cute things, or little children? No, she said, men like it. Definitely not creepy then.
The next time I was in Akihabara I did my best to avoid these cafes and soon discovered that was near impossible with them hovering above you at all angles. I looked up at the larger buildings and all the floors rented out to a range of businesses and wondered how they could all keep up with the competition. While standing there, a group of three called out to me.
“Excuse me” one of them said, “we’re looking to buy some cosplay gear. Do you know which of these stores sells it?” he asked, gesturing at the building. I said I didn’t know.
In Yokohama, I discovered that Xunlyn was a fan of Akihabara herself and declared that she never left without a trip to ‘Mandarake’, a second hand store of nerdy materials, or without something to take home. It had everything she claimed, from toys, to comics, to fancy dress. I expressed how difficult it might be to find, considering all the alleys and similar shops, so she offered to take me there. Except when we arrived, my confidence in her sense of direction somewhat dwindled. Just due to some little things. Such as the way she walked out of the station and turned right. And then left. And then right again. Looking back at left hesitantly, and then nervously carrying on right. Or the way she repeated over and over ‘and it’ll be on this corner….ah no next one actually’. I’ve always wanted a guide who has no idea where she’s going. But some time later, she triumphantly cheered that she’d found it (after previously trying to convince me that the store had either vanished or moved premises).
The store was several storeys tall, with each floor dedicated to a single kind of product. Xunlyn said she wanted to look at some comics on one of the higher floors, so I accompanied her up the stairs. The floor we entered sold comics, it was true, but they were a little singular in taste. Yaoi is the Japanese term, but for those of you unfamiliar, they were shelves upon shelves of male homosexual pornography. I’m being unjust though; there is a story and romance within the plots. There just also happens to be, an awful lot of aroused penises too. Xunlyn was an avid fan of the genre, for reasons I will not delve into (not ever), and happily flitted between the shelves comparing comics (or at least, that’s what I hope she was comparing). Sensing my surprise at seeing this genre for the first time, she spoke to me.
“Maybe this isn’t up your alley. Upstairs is hentai and heterosexual pornography. Maybe you’ll find something more to your tastes there!”. Maybe, or maybe I might just reconsider my definition of creepiness, as I always seem to do whenever I come to Akihabara. As an alternative, I decided to look somewhere else and bumped into another tourist on the stairs.
“Oh excuse me!” he said excitedly, “could you tell me where the cosplay is? The wigs. I’m looking for a specific wig”. I’m sorry, I don’t know, I said, and quickly rushed off before I heard whose hair he needed.
On the top few floors were the toys and I found some from my childhood, so like a child, I hopped around the shelves in a whirlwind of nostalgia. More than a few were very expensive and it was with some disbelief that I saw that there were no tags or electronic barriers on any of the doors. If you picked up one of the rarest, very highly valued on eBay items and simply walk out the front door with it without paying, there was little chance of being caught. No alarms, no cameras, even no staff one some floors. The stairs ran outside of the building, so even if you walked out the top floor, nobody would accuse you of theft if they saw you on the way down. So incredible was this lack of security that I couldn’t help but rant about it. Now I can admit when I make a mistake from time to time, and here was one of them. During these early months of living in Yokohama, my English had started to adopt Japanese words naturally. I stopped using the words convenience store, energetic and even close call in place of their Japanese equivalents, among others. So while I ranted in English I would occasionally throw in some Japanese words that were more relevant in context. Unfortunately though, I forgot that the people around me can understand those single Japanese words. So when I cried out 泥棒, the word for thief, in a shop with almost no security and maybe a reputation of being stolen from, all heads of both staff and customers spun round. Everyone suddenly on high alert for the thief they thought I’d accused. Suffice to say it’s as bad as shouting out fire in a library.
The final little discovery I made was the third element that makes Akihabara famous; it’s sex shops. Although perhaps not so much in the traditional sense. Not prostitution so much (although I wouldn’t doubt it if I was told it was there), but rather pornography and memorabilia. Entire floors of complexes dedicated to hand drawn violent sex, or sex toys, or that old traditional smut. Alongside two other guys, we found the local book-off and happily explored it for the first time, racing around from one discovery to the next. When we left, arms full of books, music (yes, music cds. Got to keep it alive), and DVDs, one of my friends gestured to the door just to the left of Book-Off.
“Oh there’s a bottom floor too” he cried, and raced off down the steps before we could warn him of the posters. The posters in question were so abundant they had managed to cover the entire stairwell like wallpaper, and every one had one topless woman or another. As soon as he reached the bottom and went inside, he turned tail and raced right back up red in the face. I don’t know what exactly he saw down there, but for the sake of my mental well-being, that’s probably for the best. More curious was the shop keeper who chased after him, making me wonder how much damage my friend could have done in those brief 2 seconds of entering the shop.
These such places are the secondary reason why ‘hikikomori’ like to leave their bedrooms once a year. They come in to resupply on games and comics, and to satisfy those pesky human needs like sexual desire, and Akihabara plays to that market of customers perfectly. From maid cafes and pornography, to even as far as dating video games (because flirting apparently is an exact science to which we can assign points) and toys of naked women. It’s pinnacle would probably be the places that sell ‘used panties’ (yes, it really is that disgusting. Go hug a teddy bear for a bit or go clean something, and read the rest of this in a little while, ok). As for ‘hikikomori’ and others that frequent these stores, the prospect of future generations is rather dismal. (Sure, sex is fun, but I am just far more interested in this pillow with an anime character printed on the front. That’s what I’m going to tell my grandparents when they ask me about having children).
On my last visit I picked up some ‘final fantasy’ books for my sister for Christmas, when a young couple came over to me, big smiles and excited eyes.
“Excuse me, you must know where we can buy some cosplay stuff here right?” they cried happily.
“No I’m sorry, I don’t. Why does everyone keep asking me that? I have no interest in cosplay”. My frustration barely penetrated their joyous bubble though, and they giggled on their way after I did my best to give them a rough idea of where to head. I stood there, wondering why everyone believed that I would know the answer to this question but could find no concrete reason Perhaps because I was a foreigner in Akihabara? I guess I’ll never know. And with that I spun on my heels and flourished my poncho high over one shoulder and let it blow in the wind from my back like a cape. I planted my umbrella like a cane to the ground with a clack as I stepped, tightened my fingerless gloves and adjusted my perfectly circular spectacles atop my face. As I left, I tried my best to accept that some questions in life will never truly be answered.