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Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Famed electronics hub still sparks the curious, bizarre
Tokyo's Akihabara district draws throngs not only with its hundreds of electronics shops but also because it is the mecca for "otaku" computer geeks, and fans of "manga" and "anime" pop culture.
Akihabara has a dark side, too. Last month, Tomohiro Kato, 25, allegedly drove a rented truck all the way from his Shizuoka home, plowed it into a Sunday crowd and then went on a stabbing rampage, killing seven people and wounding 10 others. During the leadup to the massacre, he reportedly posted warnings on the Internet of the impending mayhem at a district where he felt he needed to make a statement.
Some experts go as far as to blame Akihabara for attracting such a sinister event.
Following are questions and answers about Akihabara:
What was Akihabara like in the early days?
Akihabara did not start out as an electronics and pop culture center.
During the Edo Period (1603-1867), lower-class samurai resided in Akihabara and its environs, according to Akihabara Electrical Town Organization.
Back then, Tokyo, then known as Edo, suffered many fires. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the government designated Akihabara as a buffer zone.
The Akiba Daigongen avatar was enshrined in a local shrine as a protection against fires. After the shrine was renamed Akiba Jinja, the area came to be called "Akibahara," or "Akibappara." The town's present name derives from these pronunciations, according to the organization.
1890 saw the railroad arrive and the opening of Akihabara Station. That name stuck.
How did Akihabara become Japan's electronics mecca?
As electricity became more available to the public and radio was introduced around the Taisho Era (1912-1928), electrical parts wholesalers appeared on the scene.
Akihabara had been focused on other merchandise, mainly blacksmithing. Also prominent were antique and hemp cloth shops. Other areas of Tokyo, including Ueno, Ogawa-cho, Ryogoku and Arakawa, had shops with electrical goods. Akihabara had not yet evolved.
The war was a further setback for Akihabara's budding electronics businesses, as radio and other equipment became harder to find as Japan sank deeper into deprivation. The 1945 Tokyo Air Raid almost completely destroyed the capital, and Akihabara was reduced to ashes.
After the war, the electrical shops were reborn, and others flooded in.
Around this time, students from a nearby electronics college started selling handmade radios in the district, which proved to be a big hit and drew in a flood of street vendors hawking electrical parts.
An electronic parts wholesaler in the district had a nationwide sales network. Thus many retailers came to Akihabara to procure goods. The district subsequently earned a reputation as a place where parts could be had cheap.
The district's convenient location on the public transportation system also proved a boon to its growth, which in the early postwar period started to take off as the rest of the nation's economy prospered with the rise of urban consumerism.
Radios became coveted sources of entertainment and information, soon to be replaced by televisions.
Akihabara also offered other innovative electric appliances, including washing machines.
Today, about 600 electronics shops crowd the 2.4-sq.-km district, according to the organization.
How did Akihabara come to gain international fame?
Fame in part came with the popularity of Japanese home electric appliances, the organization said.
As manufacturers' technologies caught up with those of the United States and Europe in the late 1960s, Japanese appliances attracted popularity worldwide. "Made in Japan" became synonymous with quality and affordability.
During the 1960s, U.S. servicemen took advantage of the favorable exchange rate to snap up the latest trendy gadgets.
In the following decades, more foreign tourists and business travelers flocked to Akihabara to buy the whole gamut of electronics, from radios to stereos to portable audio players.
Akihabara opened more duty-free shops and ran advertisements targeting foreign customers. Some shops even claim they can converse in 20 languages, according to the Chiyoda Ward office.
Foreign shoppers in the area continue to increase. According to the ward, some 520,000 visited in 2005, up 170,000 from 2001.
Why do we recently see animation and other "otaku" geeks in the neighborhood?
In contrast with the upscale Ginza shopping district, increasingly becoming home to high-end brand boutiques, Akihabara has taken a different direction, according to Kaichiro Morikawa, author of a book on contemporary Akihabara and a Meiji University architectural theory associate professor.
Until around the end of the 1980s, Akihabara was solely an electrics hub, drawing family customers. Beginning in the 1990s, however, suburban electric appliance stores began to dominate the market, and Akihabara's shops shifted focus to personal computers.
Families who had come to buy home appliances were replaced by young male computer geeks, Morikawa said.
These people tend to like games, "manga" comics and "anime" animation figures, fostering an explosion of stores catering to their desires. Ads of anime videos and games began appearing everywhere.
Otaku trappings are seen all around Akihabara, as if the landscape is part of their own homes, Morikawa said.
Male otaku find Akihabara a comfortable haven. What could be considered normal young men and women, "armed" with fashionable clothing and friends, don't come to the area, Morikawa said.
The situation started changing around 2003, when the media scrutinized the district's idiosyncrasies. In 2005, an otaku youth's romance comedy featuring Akihabara was broadcast on television.
The media created the so-called Akiba boom, leading Akihabara to attract more and more young sightseers instead of shoppers. Now the area is flush with tourists and geeks.
Even a prominent politician climbed on the bandwagon in an apparent move to appeal to young voters. Taro Aso of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a longtime manga fan who is occasionally touted as a future prime minister, has come out to describe himself as an otaku as well.
Last year, he kicked off his LDP presidential race following Shinzo Abe's surprise resignation by making a public speech in Akihabara. He eventually lost to Yasuo Fukuda.
Why was Akihabara targeted in the murderous June rampage, and how will this shape the district's future?
Akihabara has been the fodder of sensational media reportage in recent years. Kato reportedly messaged on a Web site that his dream was to be spotlighted by TV shows. Such media reports might have led him to target the bustling district, Morikawa said.
After the rampage, shop owners worried that Akihabara's reputation would falter and their businesses would suffer.
Looking back in history, however, Akihabara has always coped with an ever-changing social environment.
Morikawa believes Akihabara will continue to evolve and draw in the crowds.