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Akihabara: Conditioning a Public "Otaku" Image

From: Mechademia
Volume 5, 2010
pp. 210-230

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Akihabara:
Conditioning a Public "Otaku" Image

Otaku In Akihabara

This article will present an ethnographic snapshot of changes in Akihabara, Tokyo's "Electric Town" shopping district, to problematize the economic, social, and political conditioning of the otaku image. Otaku, often defined as devoted fans of anime, manga, videogames, and technology, are widely reported to gather in Akihabara. At the same time, a national survey conducted in 2007 placed Akihabara as the tenth most popular destination in Japan for foreign visitors, more desirable than Tokyo Disneyland.1 At once geek and global, Akihabara makes explicit certain tensions in the otaku image. In the 1980s, otaku were described as social rejects, those who failed to conform, communicate with others, and connect consumption and play to productive roles at home, school, and work.2 Sharon Kinsella points out that in the 1990s otaku came to symbolize for media commentators the downfall of Japanese society itself.3 However, I argue that this negative discourse changed in the 2000s, and this can be observed in Akihabara. This more positive media paradigm is captured in such expressions as "otaku boom" (otaku būmu) and "Akihabara boom" (Akiba būmu). I am not saying that there has [End Page 210] been a fundamental transformation of "otaku," which would presume the existence of a unified otaku subject, group, or culture. I follow Kam Thiam Huat in asserting that otaku is a label, which fluctuates along with social conditions and "common sense."4 My objective is to trace changes in the otaku image through changes in a place associated with them, Akihabara, and suggest why this has occurred. This is not a history of otaku but a history of perceptions of otaku and presentations of them, primarily in the mass media. Whether true or not, images of otaku in the mass media certainly influence popular understandings; they set the parameters for discussion. In the 2000s, otaku were recognized as ultraconsumers and a creative force in the "contents industry," and were incorporated into the "cool Japan" brand.5 This awkward transition was recorded by the ubiquitous cameras of otaku, journalists, and tourists converging on Akihabara. As Thomas LaMarre has argued, controlling otaku movement is no easy task,6 and the solution as I have seen it in Akihabara has been to simultaneously naturalize their image and marginalize their physical presence.7 The otaku image operates in increasingly contradictory ways. Variety shows featuring "otaku idols" (otadoru)8 appear next to reports of crimes perpetrated by otaku. The bipolar otaku image is reflected in the bifurcated urban landscape of Akihabara (Figure 1), divided into glassy showcase buildings and hidden otaku warrens.

I will use the bounded space of Akihabara as a physical signifier to trace the evolution of the otaku image in the popular, public, and political imagination. My argument is inspired by Morikawa Kaichirō's approach to Akihabara, namely that a high density of otaku personalities and a lack of socializing forces allowed private desires to manifest in public space.9 In essence, Akihabara is an otaku's room blown up to city scale, sexy anime-girl posters and all. Morikawa characterizes Akihabara as different from shopping destinations such as Shinjuku, planned by bureaucrats in the 1960s and developed by large corporations in the 1970s, and Shibuya, developed by railway companies and department stores in the 1970s. In contrast, fragmentary land ownership in Akihabara resisted tract development and led to an "absence of such power."10 Morikawa makes a compelling argument for the rise of otaku subculture in Akihabara in the recessionary 1990s (discussed below). However, the presence of power, symbolized by large-scale development, has become an unavoidable reality since his publication in 2003. Morikawa is himself [End Page 211] aware of this and addresses it in a December 2008 updated paperback edition of his work.11 He details the impact of political planning and media exposés opening the otaku room, and how the refuge of otaku became a "dangerous place" that repelled them.12 That is, Akihabara became a place to be seen, and so the real otaku left and were replaced by youth performing "otaku-ness" for the cameras. However, I would suggest...