Saturday, October 06, 2007

Akihabara - Part 1

The current "face" of Akihabara puts girls in maid uniforms front and center.

Those who have been away for awhile and return home often find that the towns and cities they left behind have transformed. My husband first experienced the shock of this about 10 years after he had lived in Japan and went home. His hometown had been noticeably transformed such that it didn’t feel like home to him. I haven’t been home for a very long time though the last time I went, my home had been plowed down and my family had moved.

If you stay in one place long enough, you find that it undergoes similar transformations but you don't tend to notice it happening if it is making that transition bit by bit. However, in Tokyo, you can still see some pretty stunning transformations because it is so vast that you may find that you don’t get back to an area for quite some time in some circumstances. Such has been the case with me and Akihabara.

Ads for various bits of electronic equipment paper the platform when they aren't edged out by ads for otaku-related interests.

When we first arrived, Akihabara was a bustling hub of businesses selling electronics at prices that were lower than the local shops. Most of the time there was little variation in pricing for most major items but, occasionally, you’d find something which was a cut below the others. My husband and I made frequent trips to Akihabara between 16 and 12 years ago when we were both working, bringing in plenty of cash, and in a frame of mind to build up our lifestyle. That period of time also was when the tech boom was going on and new computer equipment every few years to keep up with the leaps in speed and capability made a lot of sense.

Streets on the "old" side of the station lined with electronics shops.

Our earliest forays to Akihabara were spent prowling the major stores looking for the best prices on large appliances for our apartment. There was no shortage of rather old-fashioned buildings which had a plethora of options and we picked up a big refrigerator, washing machine (and a now long departed dryer), oven, stereo, and television. Most of the shops were fronted by middle-aged men shouting out and offering flyers about certain deals.

Macs and Apple products are a lot easier to buy in Japan now compared to a decade ago. Prices are also relatively similar to those in the U.S. though they do tend to be slightly higher in Japan.

The next several rounds of shopping there consisted of me prowling the side streets for stores that carried Macs. At that time, Macs were hard to locate even in Akihabara because they simply were not all that popular in Japan. They still aren’t all that commonly-used but the popularity of iPods has brought about an increase in shops that also carry other Apple products including Macs. We’d have to scour the shops petty hard and sometimes we’d run across one sad little Mac model in a sea of PCs. There’s be the odd glittering jewel of a shop which carried a variety of models like La-Ox Mac but they were the exception.

In my case, the shopping was all the harder because I’d be searching for an English language model. In the pre-OS X days, Macs did not come with system software with every language available. With OS 8 and 9, you got what came with the machine and that was usually Japanese. You could replace the OS with an English one but that required buying an English version which added to the cost overall. The last Mac model I made the trek to Akihabara for was a PowerPC G3/DT 266. After that, I gave up and started buying my Macs from the U.S. and having them sent over via my in-laws.

The inside of a typical small electronics shop. These places are a pain to navigate but can be good places to get the best prices, particularly on specialty items such as electronic dictionaries.

The internet started to change the way in which folks made pilgrimages to Akihabara. With the ability to comparison shop via web sites and make orders effortlessly, who would choose to slog around the grubby streets of “Tokyo’s electric town”? The truth is that, up until changes started to be made in Akihabara, it wasn’t that fun a place to visit. Back during one of our appliance-hunting sojourns, I recall we had trouble even finding a vending machine that carried a palatable beverage. They didn’t carry water or Diet Coke and there were very few of them. There were also almost no restaurants within reasonable walking distance of the station and shops. It simply was not profitable enough compared to the value of the land to build a McDonald’s or whatnot for people to eat at, particularly when the space could be used for a more lucrative electronics business.

Ishimaru was one of the few big shops that had a relatively old-fashioned picture in its window. Most of the other shops had huge female anime characters on them.

Rather than shrivel up and die, the services offered at Akihabara started to change. Since there were already a good number of geeks making pilgrimages there to shop for DIY (Do It Yourself) computer parts and software, businesses that catered to their lack of social skills and fantasy-based social needs started to crop up. In my opinion, the birth of the cosplaying maid-manned places can be directly linked to the need to offer something more than low-priced electronics because of internet shopping.

Pervy toys for like-minded boys. Note all the submissive and inviting these women are female dogs presenting themselves for entry.

For those who don’t know, Akihabara is currently as well-known (or possibly better-known) for the way it caters to otaku (rabid aficionados of anime or other generally juvenile interests or collectors). It’s now quite common to see women walking around in maid costumes handing out flyers, traveling to and from the station and going to lunch. In fact, it seems that there are more women in costume sometimes than there are shopping, at least on the older side of the station.

Maids walking through the station. I get the feeling one shouldn't mess with the one who has a skull hanging off her skirt though it's possible she's involved in some sort of "highly specialized" service.

The point of these places seems mainly to allow men to be catered to and served by women who roleplay not only their anime-based fantasy characters but do so in a completely deferential and subservient fashion. The whole situation has relatively perverted overtones but it is mainly about psychological gratification rather than physical though women do give foot rubs and whatnot. The perception is that men go to these places because they are too shy or lacking in social skills to socialize with women in real life but I don’t know if it’s that or if it’s essentially paying women to cater to their non-sexual whims.

A french bakery in the station.

Beyond the somewhat kinky addition of the cosplay service business, Akihabara has experienced some other big changes. Remember when I mentioned that there were few places to eat or drink before? That has most certainly changed. The station has been re-built and there are a great many places that seem to be catering to women and families. I believe the growth of shops selling sweets and cakes is for female customers because Japanese men are not known for their consumption of sugary treats. For men, the main vice when it comes to eating and drinking is alcohol. For women, it is sweets.

An import food shop which carried the selection of Spam in a previous post.

I was shocked that so many European-style bakery options had opened up and that there was even an import shop in the station. I hadn’t seen Akihabara for quite some time though so these places may have opened up a long time ago. It could be that these areas are there to cater to the number for foreigners who flow in for a bit of shopping but I doubt that.

I wonder if the glass is bullet-proof.

If the number of foreigners walking around shopping isn’t a clue that it’s a major tourist destination, the presence of a currency exchange kiosk in the station (something which is relatively rare in most stations in Tokyo) would be a major tip-off. Akihabara has always been a popular tourist spot but I’m guessing it’s more so now that there’s the freak show nature of the maid cafes in addition to the overwhelming number of electronics shops.

The face of the older side of the station. Note how the facade is peeling and very worn.

Back when we were frequenting Akihabara, one side of the station was pretty dead and both sides were pretty dirty and rundown. One side still does look pretty worn and crummy as you can see in the picture above. There were few shops of value on one side and that side was not doing much business.

The monster Yodobashi-Akiba.

That all changed when a huge Yodobashi Akiba shop was opened. This is sort of a mega-store where you can find everything in one place if you’re not inclined to search up and down the many streets on the other side looking for the best possible deal.

Akiba is the sort of place that’s built for comfort rather than for price. The area in front is open, clean and clear. There are restaurants in the building so you can have a sit down, a drink, or a meal. The whole Akiba experience seems to me to draw in families. In fact, my conclusion about the changes in Akihabara is that some business savvy people have learned how to lure in every demographic with some savvy changes. The young males are drawn in by the maids and cosplaying businesses. Women and families are drawn to Akiba and the increased number of shops which carry food and non-electronic items and men seeking bargains can go to the older shops.


Emsk said...

Those maids are foul! As is the whole notion of scaredy-men who want to indulge a little fantasy and their even littler psychological head games.

A touchy subject for me at the moment!

On a more positive note, I'm trying to get some emergency teaching work right now in Tokyo, so this is a good insight.

Shari said...

I see this as yet another indication of just how weak some men are. It's always been my feeling that men who need weak and submissive women are very weak themselves and need these subservient stereotypes to make them feel more powerful. They can't deal with any challenge to their authority or ideas and prefer someone who invests all her energy in catering to his whims.

Good luck on the teaching work! I'm guessing you're hunting down a new job because of your bad situation at your job (because they wouldn't offer you a part-time contract)? Gaijin.pot seems to be the place to look these days for employment if you haven't checked it out.

tornados28 said...

I would like to visit akhibara some day. It looks pretty interesting.

I would not go so far as to say that the maids are foul. That is pretty harsh. I suppose you are right that they exist for men's fantasy of a subservient women but I think they may be pretty harmless as well.

Shari said...

Akihabara is an interesting place and I always recommend visitors to the Tokyo area go there. I think that it and Ryogoku are must-sees, esp. if you're not into seeing loads of temples for the most part.

The problem with the maids is that they are a living manifestation of the way women are objectified here. The whole thing is carrying the situation a step further than it had previously been. The next step (which is not widespread but has already happened) is they put anime-masks over the women's faces so that they are even more objectified. They're stripping the humanity from them and just making them objects for lust and desire (real body, fake head).

I think that they are maids rather than some fantasy character which is not a servant is a part of what makes it seem a bit worse. They are already performing a service role but the maid costumes enhance the feel of subservience.

Mark said...

Thats really intresting in what you posted. there is alot to comment about. but the thing that strikes me the most is.... I moved to Orlando FL about 3 years ago from the suburbs of Pittsburgh. I recently "last month" went back only to find that almost everything was different. Where i would have my Heavy metal discs imported was a dog grooming place that still had the "Music Scene" sign on top of it. and right next to the new dog place was a Anime shop!!!! i could not believe it at all. so i went inside of it and there was a few mangas perhalps 20 or so. then there was the largest collection of anime porn i have ever seen. Americans are crazy for Japanese "stuff" but this takes it sooo far.

Justin said...

Thanks for the info and pics, nice post. I'm not sure I agree with you on the maids part, but I also admit I haven't been to that city or seen it first hand. What is your opinion of the women who take those jobs? While they possibly are being objectified, are the women who take those jobs not partly responsible as well? Of all matter of kinky, disgusting, weird stuff that people lust after, a Japanese woman in a maid outfit is pretty innocent on my list.

Shari said...

Mark: I find people who are fascinated with Japanese stuff just because it's Japanese rather annoying, particularly when they elevate Japanese culture above other cultures and extol it's "creativity" as if it were so incredibly unique. Certainly, there are unique aspects but most of what you see is a copy of a copy of a copy of what has been done for decades and it's all pretty repetitive.

Justin: The situation for women in Japan is a difficult one. While they have made some advances, their employment situation is still rather limited compared to men. My guess is the women who take these jobs do it because it pays well relative to similar unskilled labor jobs (like working in coffee shops or whatnot). Also, these women have grown up in a culture which has encouraged them to be passive and subservient to men by and large. Girls are still raised having to do housework and cook while their brothers aren't expected to do anything in many cases. Japanese culture also has a strong element of having "two faces" (tatamae and honne) such that people are expected to sublimate their true feelings in certain situations, much more so in business than anywhere else.

Given the situation for women, I find it hard to feel these women aren't doing what they can to make as much money as possible in a world where they are valued mainly for their bodies and willingness to cooperate with the wishes of their bosses. Women, often regardless of their positions, are still expected to serve tea, clean offices, and greet visitors in offices simply because men dominate the business world and are more comfortable being served by women than other men.

This isn't about how low the situation has to go but rather about a trend where more men are willing to pay for women to serve them. This is a "legit" service where women are expected to make men feel better about themselves by dressing up and acting stupid. It's an indication that men want women to act subservient to boost their esteem and a reflection of how Japaense society condones that attitude. Just because it's not more kinky, gross, or degrading, doesn't mean that it's ok. If it were any worse, it'd be quasi-hidden rather than so out in the open. You can bet it would be more disgusting if they felt they could get away with it and not have it lumped in with the plethora of sex services you can get in Tokyo from various "soaplands" or "health" places.

Many thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment!