It’s appropriate that the Tokyo International Anime Festival 2011, held in October by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and The Association of Japanese Animations to promote the country’s influential anime business, will take place in Akihabara, the otaku heart of Japan.
Otaku, the geeks, hobbyists and hard-core fanboys – and to a lesser extent girls – of pop cultural phenomena, particularly manga, anime and virtual games, were first labeled as such in the early 1980s, most famously by Akio Nakamori in 1983 in his ‘ An Investigation of “Otaku” ‘ essays. The culture has come a long way, from being derided by mainstream Japanese to becoming one of the nation’s most influential cultural products and the basis of some of its biggest industries and spawning otaku-friendly commercial and social outlets.
A couple of stops north of Tokyo Station on the central Yamanote line is Akihabara, 秋葉, or Akiba as it’s otherwise known. It became a hub for electrical supply stores in the 1930s and has maintained its reputation as a center for electronics, hosting various electronic department stores and smaller retailers selling new and used computers, electronic gadgets, peripherals and DIY parts in its Electric Town district.
Computer culture in Japan as elsewhere was characterised in its early days as a geeky pursuit and the Akihabara area was a magnet for gadget-loving men of all ages. As computers evolved through the 80s and 90s, the related field of computer games gained traction and Akiba’s electronics stores were joined, first by digital game sellers and eventually by the young otaku customers whose passions were digital gaming, anime, manga and pop idols (real and synthetic). Today, Akiba is not only one of the city’s centers for electronics, it’s the epicenter of Tokyo’s otaku culture, and houses not only gaming retailers, but toy model shops, idol paraphernalia outlets, cosplay retailers and the quirky cos-play maid cafes that are popular with otaku, who are typically greeted on entry with “Welcome home, master”! Even popular concept idol group AKB48 – who have a big otaku following – have a base in Akihabara, where they regularly perform at their theater in the Don Quijote building.
An otaku ‘taster’ can be had by visiting Laox, one of Akihabara’s biggest electronic retailers, which has dedicated one of its towers to otaku pursuits. AsoBit City, just off Chuo dori, is a great introduction to all things otaku, selling manga and anime, plastic models, character goods, cosplay outfits and paraphernalia and some quite serious dolls. For a purer cosplay experience, visit Jupiter, hidden on the sixth floor of a small building north-west of the station on Chuo dori or Cosmate, tucked away in a nearby backstreet. Club Sega, a hyper arcade also on Chuo dori, is a wonderland for gamers – all five levels of it. To get a taste of the maid experience, the laid-back Cafe La Vie en Rose on the third floor of a building west of the station provides musical performances and photo opportunities, while Akiba Guild is a maid ‘casino’ on Chuo dori where you can enjoy poker, roulette and so on with the maid staff.
Online outlets for otaku are many and varied, the most popular being 2channel, a hugely popular anonymous Internet forum that was launched by a Japanese college student in 1999, and niconicodouga, a video sharing YouTube style website that launched in 2006.
The hugely succesful and influential 2channel, 2ちゃんねる, allows users to anonymously post and share information. The BBS has hundreds of active boards and threads on a diverse range of topics and posts rise and fall depending on popularity. The anonymous and democratic approach taken by the site has made it a favorite hangout for many and it has a somewhat anarchic, warts and all character, with gossip, derogatory and defamatory posts and sexually oriented content all making their way into threads. The site’s popularity is such that it’s followed by Government agencies and monitored by the Dentsu advertising corporation. 2channel regulary made headlines; it’s been implicated in vote rigging and stock market scandals, suicide and murder as well as charity and love, most famously where an otaku who came to rescue of a beautiful woman on a train ended up with the girl.
2channel has a sister BBS, Futaba channel, ふたば☆ちゃんねる, which was set up in 2001 in response to a threatened shutdown of 2channel. In contrast to 2channel, Futaba has image boards as well as text message boards.
NicoNicoDouga, ニコニコ動画, began as a mash-up of 2channel and YouTube and has grown to become a hugely popular site in Japan frequented by millions of users. The video sharing site features videos made by users and allows registered viewers to overlay short, synchronised comments on the videos, which other viewers can see scroll past as they watch. The other interesting aspect of the site is that videos are often reworked by users, resulting in collaborative mash-up works. Like 2channel, much of the content revolves around otaku and pop culture interests, and there are plenty of videos touching on anime, idols and music.
A mobile platform has been developed to service local cell phones and an english language website, niconico, was launched in 2011, sharing videos from YouTube, NicoNico & Dailymotion and also feauring live streaming NHK World TV.