Keeping Pace With the Changing Face of Akihabara
Mention the word 'Akihabara' or 'Akiba' to anyone and they'll begin to wax lyrical about the area's reputation as Tokyo's electronics district with a mind-boggling variety of tech-related department stores, and its love for anime, informal moniker as the Mangatown for Otaku Culture and perhaps more ironically, just how much the place has changed over the years.
Japan's Akihabara 'Electric Town' first gained its reputation as an electronics district and market for the Greater Tokyo area during the post-war recovery period. And as Japan embarked on its strategy of manufacturing cheap electronics, the area eventually became a centrepiece with shops selling all kinds of parts for radios, television sets, or basically anything that needed a source of power.
The district always features in tacky tourists brochures and travel blog posts - but few go deeper than the district’s current obsession with anime and longtime love for tech. Ask frequent visitors or locals and you'll soon begin to understand just how commercialised the area has become as its dual 'otaku culture' hobbies; electronics and anime have moved into the global mainstream. Similarly, Akihabara's reputation as Japan's 'anime city' and 'gamer district' is unchallenged.
It is then perhaps more accurate to describe Akiba as a haven for hobbyists. As recent as 7 years ago, Akihabara was not filled with towering stores with the likes of Yodabashi or Bic Camera. Instead, the main street was made up ground-level stores selling electronics parts - not the latest headphones from Sony, but the 3.5mm headphone jack (remember those?) that came with it.
These days, the land that these shops used to sit on have been combined to form the imposing departmental facades we see today. The result? Chains like the Yodobashi store and BIC have all but pushed these smaller ‘competitors’ to the peripheries of the district due to their global reputation as being Japan's best electronic stores. By selling everything from massage chairs to rice cookers and tripods for cameras, these chains have fully catered to the needs of a new generation of customers that have veered away from tinkering with their own electronics. Oh, and you could probably get three different kinds of chargers or batteries for your camera or TV remote.
But what kickstarted this sudden volte-face?
In this day and age of instant gratification, there is a lesser appreciation for being patient with our electronics. These days, as consumers have fallen in love with convenience, resulting in the spare parts industry being pushed out to the very peripheries of Akiba. Apart from the big consumer electronics retailers (read: tourist trap), discounters like Don Quijote have also moved in to take advantage of the high foot traffic of the district - which has become a must-see for tourists visiting the city.
As technology progresses with chip miniaturisation and more space-efficient parts, a love (and will) for customisability has fallen out of vogue, and for the stores that have catered to these hobbies - the writing has long been on the wall. Add to this the fact that most visitors to Akiba (even to the big chains) end up trying the products and then sourcing out the cheapest price online, it’s no wonder why rising rents and falling revenues have shuttered many family-owned establishments. Though Japan still retains a very significant share of the global supply chain in electronics parts, these have moved far upstream to involve high end manufacturing processes, far too advanced for the everyday hobbyist.
And then we have maid cafes, which are perhaps a perverse version of Hooters except with French maid costumes and kitschy interior decor. I’d call them discount Geishas but that’s probably a bit too harsh.
Yet, Akiba has still maintained its distinct flavour as the world’s one-stop destination for otaku culture - all things manga and cosplay. Back in the day when Harajuku competed with Akiba for the love of elaborately dressed MMORPG and Anime characters, the recent 'rebranding' of Harajuku as a centre for streetwear devotees and sneakerheads has made regular cosplayers move to Akihabara Anime Town instead. Whereas in the past, the space outside JR Harajuku Station and Meiji-Jingu had to be shared between tourists and cosplayers, nowadays, the former dominates.
The same thing, however, has begun to happen to Akihabara anime cosplayers. A further commercialisation of the district is pushing out ardent cosplay fans into greener pastures - Nakano Broadway, an up and coming district on the other side of town. To this end, many of Akihabara's anime stores are disappearing as huge stores like Mandarake sink roots in Nakano.
Though some may reminisce the past 'glory' of Akihabara's heritage, others warn against dooming the district to a rhetorical 'sellout and hypercommercial' future. Instead of an obsession with physical parts, perhaps a revolution in online and virtual spaces is on the cards for Akiba. What’s new for the district lies with the sprouting up of VR centres and cafes - a further virtualisation of life that Japan knows all too well as the world’s leader in catering to the need for ‘virtual company’ in a hyper-competitive society. To this end, the modern Akiba 'hobbyist' is now into Virtual Reality and not physical cosplaying or anime.
But yet, the tussle between the big consumer electronics chains and the otakus that they share Akiba with is real, however, ‘underground’ it might seem to be. The main exit from Akihabara Station was just a humble (small) gateway to Tokyo’s extensive metro system, nothing of the sort we see today. Between the cries of gentrification in places like Daikanyama, Akihabara sits at a crossroads in its developmental story. Already firmly established as one of the city’s most central districts, it remains to be seen whether the further commercialisation of the area will level out the district’s distinct character. Indeed, we have already seen some moves towards that direction - JR East has already capitalised on the district’s popularity to refurbish and repurpose an old train station on the edges of Akihabara into a refreshing retail concept called Maach Ecute. Take a look at Maach Ecute if you're in Akihabara, its a nice collection of Japanese retail stores and has some of Akihabara's best cafes.
Watch this space
Documenting and discussing the evolution of public spaces will always be a touchy subject, but trust the Japanese to make continual improvements to an area of its capital so deeply ingrained in popular culture.
Between the new maid cafes and towering karaoke joints, Akihabara seems to be confident in keeping up with the times as it continues its ardent march into the future, no matter what that might hold for it. Or perhaps, if the Electric City of Tokyo were to shed its tech, anime or cosplay roots; we hope that its underlying desire to embrace self-expression will remain.
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