The story of the Akihabara shopping district in Tokyo is essentially the story of every high school nerd in the 1980s. Shops here were the first to sell and celebrate home computers at a time when they were only used by specialists and hobbyists, and naturally, their indoorsy consumers were also big fans of anime, manga and video games. As the market pivoted to serve these desires as well, Akihabara soon became inextricably linked with the otaku scene (people with obsessive interests, commonly towards anime and manga).
Nearly 40 years later, being smart is cool and technology is nearly ubiquitous. Much like the expanding popularity of nerd media elsewhere (see: the rampant success of the Marvel movies), Akihabara has grown from being a hub for niche communities to being the epicenter of Japanese pop culture.
Dr. Tai Wei Lim, co-author of Globalization, Consumption and Popular Culture in East Asia and a StraitsJourneys expert, describes Akihabara as “simultaneously a creative industry production and retail center, a social networking/tourism platform and a symbol of fan-driven consumption.”
Or as I like to put it: Akihabara is one of those places where real life and the internet seem to have merged.
Video games take to the streets in live Mario Kart races, complete with costumes. The massively popular J-Pop girl group AKB48 have their own theater. Mandarake, one of the largest anime and manga stores in the world, is busy at all hours. There are cafés devoted entirely to video games like Final Fantasy XIV and anime tropes like the giant battle mechs known as Gundams. Anything requiring batteries or a plug can be purchased in the narrow alleys of specialty stalls or in the mammoth 9-storied department store Yodobashi.
Akihabara earned the nickname Electric Town not long after the end of World War II and is still worthy of the title today. At night, the streets are flooded with light and noise from the arcades and game centers. Even the thousand year old Kanda Shrine has become something of a mecca for techies thanks to talismans you can buy to shield your digital devices from harm. A number of ceremonies to bless new IT ventures have also been conducted here.
Moral of the story: be careful who you make fun of in high school. They might just become a dominating cultural influence.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.