In Tokyo, a Ghetto of Geeks
Tuesday, June 7, 2005
TOKYO At his favorite neighborhood cafe, Shunsuke Yamagata, a college student who proudly calls himself a nerd, smiled shyly behind his horn-rimmed glasses at waitresses hurrying about in black Minnie Mouse shoes and lacy, racy mini-dresses inspired by Japanese comics.
The place is a dream come true for Yamagata, whose passion is collecting comics and cartoons. He giggled with glee when his servers addressed him in the squeaky little character voices they use to delight their fantasy-loving clientele.
For Yamagata, 20, it was just another night out with the pocket-protector crowd in Tokyo's neon-splashed Akihabara district, where "costume cafes" are the latest of hundreds of new businesses catering to Japan's otaku , or nerds. A subculture of social misfits obsessed with electronic role-playing games, manga comics and Japanese animation, they began gathering in Akihabara in the late 1990s, lured by the district's proliferation of electronics retailers and stores selling everything you would need to build your own computer.
Maligned and shunned by mainstream society, here they stayed, their tastes and habits transforming the area also known as Electric Town into what sociologists are calling an urban first -- a ghetto of geeks.
On streets once packed with housewives or couples shopping for refrigerators and microwave ovens, hundreds of thousands of nerds -- mostly men between about 18 and 45 -- now wander through the area's multi-story comic warehouses and elaborate game arcades. Eyeglass adjustment kiosks compete for space with shops selling nondescript dress shirts and thick leather shoes.
There are bigger-ticket items, as well. With some analysts estimating the Japanese geek market to be worth as much as $19 billion a year, companies are jostling to cash in. One Akihabara antique electronics boutique displays an intact 1985 NEC computer, gingerly housed behind glass, with a $2,500 price tag.
"We have been discriminated against for being different, but now we have come together and turned this neighborhood into a place of our own," said Yamagata, nursing his tea as he sat with a portly computer technician friend at Akihabara's Cos-Cha, one of a dozen "maid cafes" in the neighborhood. Here, the waitresses' uniforms are inspired by the French maid-meets-Pokemon outfits of adult manga. At other cafes, waitresses greet patrons at the door with a curtsy and the words "Welcome home, master."
"In Akihabara, we don't need to be ashamed of who we are and what we like," he said. "We can feel comfortable because here, we outnumber everyone else."
Sociologists and urban planners compare the phenomenon to ethnic and social enclaves such as New York's Chinatown or San Francisco's gay Castro district, born of a blend of discrimination and shared cultural cues. Japanese geeks are outcasts in a society known for its rigid social norms. But their culture has gone mainstream.
Tokyo's subways and trains are filled with teenagers and grandfathers unabashedly reading thick, often adult-themed manga. Japan's biannual Comic Market lured more visitors this year than the annual Tokyo Motor Show. T-shirts proclaiming their wearers to be akiba-kei -- or Akihabara types -- can be seen even in Tokyo's mega-fashionable neighborhoods of Shibuya and Harajuku.
Takashi Murakami, a contemporary artist, was in New York recently to present indoor and outdoor exhibitions filled with some of the darker symbols of Japan's nerd subculture, which include a jarring mix of doe-eyed anime characters, fetish sexuality and fantasy games. A noted designer, Kaichiro Morikawa, generated a buzz at the 2004 Venice Biennale by recreating parts of Akihabara's landmark Radio Hall, a building where Japanese nerds rent transparent, locker-size cubicles in part to sell, but mostly to show off, collections reflecting their distinctive tastes. Prized items range from air guns and model battleships to anime characters in sexual poses and miniature Godzillas.
"I think we have a long way to go before the otaku themselves are considered cool," Morikawa said. "But the motifs of otaku culture have permeated Japanese society and beyond. Just look around you. They are everywhere."