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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Entrepreneur pioneers Akihabara tours

Singaporean Jane Fong left academe to set up a tourism company popularizing 'otaku' mecca


Staff writer

Jane Fong was one of the lucky few awarded a full Foreign Ministry scholarship to a master's program in international business at Sophia University in Tokyo — but she gave that up to become an entrepreneur in "Electric Town."

News photo
Business promotion: Tokyo Anime Center spokesman Koji Senda, above left, faces the reception desk at the center in Tokyo's Akihabara district on Tuesday, while Jane Fong, CEO of GI Jane Inc., poses next to one of the animation figures on display there. MINORU MATSUTANI PHOTOS
News photo

The 25-year-old Singaporean dropped the free ride within 10 months to start her own business in Akihabara, having fallen in love with animation during a 10-month stay in Japan as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo five years ago.

"Entrepreneurship is my destiny," Fong said.

She quit Sophia University in March last year, changed her student visa to a working visa and established GI Jane Inc., a comprehensive Akihabara information company, that July. She and seven others invested ¥7.7 million to open a small office in Japan's biggest "electric town."

The company creates Akihabara maps, posts news and shop reviews in English, Chinese and Japanese on its Web site, Akibanana, and organizes multilingual tours of the area. Revenue comes from ads on the maps and Web site and tour guide fees.

Fong's business is well-suited to Akihabara. The town, also known for its so-called maid cafes and other subcultural phenomena, has become one of the must-see sites for tourists in Tokyo. Words like "anime" (animation) and "otaku" (obsessive geeks) have become widely known, at least among otaku around the world eager to make a pilgrimage to the "holy land" of geekdom.

Fong's passion has proved infectious with the town's business community.

She persuaded the Tokyo Anime Center, an information center in the UDX building near JR Akihabara Station, to open the first tourist information office providing tours in English and Chinese from Monday to Aug. 20.

The center displays and sells various anime merchandise, provides event and shop information and other services.

The center, which has seen an exponential increase in the number of foreign visitors, will hand over to Fong's firm half its reception desk, currently staffed by monolingual Japanese.

"With summer vacation coming up, we have to deal with many family visitors, and then we also have to deal with ever-increasing foreign visitors. We expect an unbelievably busy time," Tokyo Anime Center spokesman Koji Senda said. "Jane's proposal was really timely."

The center will sublet the office space to Fong's company for free.

The center opened in March 2006 and had 52,441 visitors from July 21 to Aug. 20 last year, of which 5,240 were foreigners. From April to June this year, the number of foreign visitors almost tripled to 6,559 from a year ago.

The number of visitors fell after the random killing spree on June 8 by a 25-year-old man that claimed seven lives and left 10 people wounded on a bustling Akihabara street. But the numbers are rising again this month, Senda said, adding that the foreign visitors never stopped coming.

No statistics are available on how much foreigners contribute to Akihabara's economy, but they are "undoubtedly important customers," said Naoyuki Ishihara of the Akihabara Tourism Promotion Association, a co-organizer of Fong's tourist information office.

Fong hopes joining forces with the association will build credibility among Akihabara shop owners, who are her potential sponsors.

"Japanese businesses are conservative, but the association has a big influence on them," she said.

Fong and one of the tour guides, a Shanghai native who only gives her nickname, Cherry Drop, will man the multilingual tourist information office. The two will be in "cosplay" (costume play): clad in a maid uniform or dressed like an anime girl character, Fong said. Cherry Drop speaks Chinese and Japanese, and Fong speaks English, Chinese, Japanese and a bit of Thai.

By setting up the office at the Tokyo Animation Center, Fong hopes to find potential customers for her guide services and demonstrate her potential to lure customers to Akihabara shops, she said.

She added that she wants to make Akihabara shop managers aware of the importance of marketing to foreign customers, who often don't know where to go.

With her boundless ambition, Fong wants to "make Akihabara a theme park, like Japanese Disneyland," she said.

She requires her tour guides — Cherry Drop and several other multilingual youths, including a Japanese man and a Frenchwoman — to do the job in cosplay. She calls them "guidol," a word combining guide and idol, in the hope of making them appear as idols in the eyes of customers.

"I'm happy with what I'm doing. It's much better than studying international business at a graduate school," she said. "And I love Akihabara. It's like my home."



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