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Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005




Staff writer

"Lean forward a little!" Snap-snap-snap! "Give me a bit more cleavage -- and smile -- lovely!" Snap-snap-snap! It's my first ever piece of undercover reporting, and I am in a brightly lit studio photographing a 19-year-old girl in a skimpy bikini. It might feel erotic, if I wasn't surrounded by 14 camera nerds who, like me, have paid for the privilege of being here.

Before nerdy I.T. entrepreneurs were hailed as Japan's corporate heroes and Net-addicted geeks were heartthrobs on the silver screen, there were young men obsessed with cameras.

In fact, photographer geeks could stake a solid claim to being the original otaku -- before Akihabara sold iPods and microchips it was selling tripods and macro lenses. Companies like Nikon, Canon, Konica and Fujifilm became giants thanks to hordes of anorak-wearing men who would save up to buy the latest in camera technology and shoot dozens of reels of film every month.

The otaku's fascination with photography endures, but these days the equipment is digital, and instead of snapping trains and trees -- the ultimate shot being a locomotive steaming along under cherry blossom or those famous red autumn leaves -- the current generation of emboldened nerds have a far less innocuous subject in their viewfinders: pretty young girls, preferably with large breasts.

Besides traipsing around after race queens at car shows or attending press conference-style signings of soft porn DVDs in Akihabara, there is another established route for geeks to capture images of curvaceous chicks. Flick to the back of monthly magazine Kameraman, and you will find some 20 or so ads for satsueikai, or photo-shoot meets.

The ads feature mug shots of sweetly smiling models. They mostly come in twos, with one weekend day allocated for each pair. Shoots start at 10 or 11 a.m. and are divided into four or five sessions; usually two at an outside location and two in a studio. Each session costs around 8,000 yen to participate in, with an extra fee for those wishing to shoot video. Most shoots seem to involve swimwear at some point, some feature the standard costumes (nurse, schoolgirl, office lady), while another offers fully disrobed models.

Among the massed ranks of young women willing to show a little skin for the otaku snappers, many are given labels like "race queen" or "idol," while some run with the title of their latest DVD release. It reminds one of how the U.N. Development Program ranks Japan 38th in the world for "gender empowerment," by far the lowest score among the world's 20 most-developed nations.

Quickly placing my obligations as a reporter over indignation at the plight of these exploited females, I opt for a race queen shoot and book over the phone on the day of the shoot. "I'm a gaijin, are you ok with that?" I ask. "Errr -- Yeah, but first-timers have to bring I.D." says the gruff voice at the end of the phone.

After getting thoroughly lost on the way to the central Tokyo location, I arrive midway through the final session, just as girl No. 1 is striking her final pose. The organizer, who is in his late forties and sporting slicked-back rockabilly hair and a chunky silver chain, asks if I mind paying full price despite proceedings being half finished. "Sure, sure, no problem," I reply, not wishing to cause a fuss, especially as the assembled nerds are eyeing me suspiciously and I'm supposed to be undercover.

Girl No. 2 is out in front of the lights, sporting a teeny weeny blue bikini. She is more attractive than the photo in the ad had led me to believe, and the customers are less introverted than I had imagined. After some embarrassing fumbling with my borrowed Nikon F4, I start clicking, and my fellow snappers are most obliging in giving me a decent spot. The race queen, despite being visibly surprised to see a foreigner in the midst of her admirers, indulges me with a cutesy pout and snap-snap-snap! I feel a sense of power, but it's far too nerve-wracking to be at all erotic.

The imminent end of the session is announced by the organizer's shady-looking henchman and the assembled cameramen click away furiously. As time is called and our model takes her bow before heading off to the changing room, the henchman announces that the starlets will do a signing session. The other customers are well prepared, quickly forming a line clutching pieces of card and framed photographs for the girls to doodle on. One guy has a DVD with girl No. 1 on the jacket; I crane my neck to get a better look and see that she's dressed only in what looks like a roll of toilet paper.

The girls start writing a message to each guy in pink marker pen and answer their dumb questions.

"How tall are you?"

"155 cm desu!''

I consider joining the back of the line, but I don't have anything for the girls to sign and a couple of the nerdier nerds are eyeing me suspiciously again, so I sneak out into the night, happy that my first undercover reporting assignment has gone off without a hitch.

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