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Sunday, July 14, 2002

The name is Otaku, James Otaku

Special to The Japan Times

Don't go to Akihabara if you're looking to buy an Aston Martin with twin machine guns, or a pen that shoots poisoned darts. Aside from these, though, there's enough exotic spy goodies there to keep 007 -- or even the most discerning otaku -- supplied for years to come.

News photo
Kazuo Ozaki, manager of Y.K. Musen Co., shows off a minicamera with mike, one of the many security surveillance systems now doing a roaring trade at his and many other shops in Akihabara.

Available for around 60,000 yen is a kit that lets you track the movements of someone's car. Other devices, costing 7,000 yen to 17,000 yen, enable you to "plant" a similar bug on someone's person. Receivers allow you to monitor local police and fire communications. There are receivers to pick up foreign TV signals; cleverly concealed eavesdropping equipment resembling alarm clocks, calculators and electric plugs; gas masks and bullet-proof Kevlar vests; cell-phone signal jammers and infrared scopes so you can see in the dark. For 58,000 yen, you can get a microphone that penetrates concrete walls

To know what's hot and what's not, just turn to the "bible" of Japan's electronics hobbyists: Radio Life, a monthly magazine whose 200,000 readers, according to editor Takashi Kamiura, are mostly salarymen in their 20s and 30s.

"Most of our stories are researched and written by in-house staff, but we consult specialists when reporting on new technologies," says Kamiura, who adds that most of the gizmos filling his magazine's pages are aimed at general hobbyists and don't require any advanced knowledge of electronics.

Radio Life's latest issue is chock-full of articles on police surveillance equipment and spy cameras. While it provides details of how eavesdropping devices are set up and operated, the magazine is careful to add disclaimers cautioning readers against illegal use. According to Kamiura, the magazine has never been singled out for shido (administrative censure) by the police.

Currently holding the interest of electronics hobbyists (and therefore among the goods most prominently displayed in the warren of tiny shops adjacent to JR Akihabara Station) are ultra-compact CCD video cameras.

The CCD, or charge-coupled device, is an electronic "eye" on a chip that is the core technology for the new generation of camcorders and digital still cameras. The ongoing evolution of CCDs has enabled specialty cameras to be produced in sizes ranging from the diameter of a 500 yen coin to the pencil-thin elements used in medical fiberscopes. (The smallest can capture images through a hole as small as 1 mm.)

Such inconspicuous cameras are just the thing for home security or guarding against illegal activity at the workplace. Yet, it may be naive to imagine that all buyers of these cameras put them to such uses, as they are also clearly the answer to every peeping Tom's dream. Operating with very low power, some combine high resolution and an impressive depth of field even in low-light conditions. Wireless cameras can also transmit to a nearby receiver and have their output recorded on tape.

"It's come to the point where these cameras have almost limitless capabilities," says David Elberbaum, president of Elbex, Ltd., a manufacturer of professional surveillance and security equipment. "The technology just keeps on improving," he says, adding that intense competition between makers in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea has resulted in relatively sophisticated cameras becoming "a cheap commodity."

"They are not only small enough to install almost any place, but are virtually impossible to detect, unless you know exactly what you are looking for in advance," he says.

Geeky peeping is not a concern for companies like Elbex, which markets its products to security companies and governments. The devices sold to individuals in Akihabara, on the other hand, are constantly turning up in women's dressing rooms, public bathing areas and love hotels -- and in one notorious case two years ago, even in the hallowed realm of a women's lavatory at the University of Tokyo.

Such cameras, mounted behind two-way mirrors or embedded in innocent-looking picture frames, are designed to catch us doing what others were never meant to see. This electronic peeping, an activity known as tosatsu in Japanese, now goes on to a degree never envisaged by George Orwell. And in nightmare scenarios come true, such images sometimes wind up posted on the Internet, or openly marketed in stores.

"I get the feeling many of these videos are yarase [staged scenes] that are just made to appear they were shot on the sly," says a source in the adult-video industry. "But I suppose some are the real thing."

Speaking of adult entertainment, there's plenty of it on sale at Akihabara's software dealers. While authoritative figures on the number of titles or volume of sales are lacking, the industry is huge.

Adult videotapes and DVDs sold in Japan are legally proscribed from showing details of the genital area, which are masked by a blurring "mosaic." Videos for sale in stores generally employ a smaller mosaic than those on rental, which may be why many viewers prefer to purchase rather than rent.

"The domestic porno industry has two main types [of video]," the source explains. "There are the tantai, the major productions, where the actors go by their professional names, and what we call the kikaku, which make use of relative unknowns."

Tantai performers are paid considerably more. In contrast with the 200,000 yen to 350,000 yen earned by female kikaku models for a single filming session, tantai models get from 500,000 yen to 1.2 million yen per session.

Popular among the current crop of adult videos are "subjective" scenarios, where the camera is positioned at what would be the male actor's eye level, giving the viewer the impression he is performing in the video. In a similar vein, some interactive DVDs now let the viewer choose the next action sequence, with prompts such as: "What do you want to do next? Do it in the kitchen, or go to the bedroom?"

Remarkably realistic animated films featuring graphic scenes of sex (and violence) are also in abundance at local shops. On the other hand, mail-order or online sales of uncensored "bootleg" videos, mainly but not necessarily exclusively imports, are doing big business.

Online and mail-order sales may be challenging Akihabara's market on the sale of videos and DVDs. However, thanks to its mostly male appeal, the area is gaining a new lease on life with the arrival of sex businesses that, in keeping with the spirit of the times, combine corporeal delights with newfangled electronic gadgetry.

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