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Cool Japan - Akiba Captivates the World! What makes it so Attractive?

posted 08/06/06

Including manga and anime, Japanese pop culture is cool. Well, at least that's how it is recognized overseas. Even the government of Japan is now showing strong support, stating that the industry associated with "contents" such as anime, manga, movies, and games certainly is a new industry that is sure to lead this country from now. When thinking of the center where all of these can be found, Akihabara is after all the one that immediately comes to mind. Indeed, "Akihabara" is turning into a world-captivating city. But the question is, why Akihabara? And how is it going to transform itself from now? Hideya Yanagihara, the editor in chief of Akiba Keizai Shinbum, interviewed Tomoyuki Sugiyama, the author of "cool Japan - The World Wants Japan!" and the president of Digital Hollywood University.

■ Akihabara, the Paradise for any Diehard-Fan !

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Yanagihara: "Nowadays, the Japanese culture is beginning to attract worldwide attention and, as its heartland, Akihabara is turning into an important city. But why Akihabara?

Sugiyama: We can say that the Japanese culture - the cool culture that is attracting worldwide attention - is actually the kind of culture backed up by the diehard fans. By digging deep into something that only a handful of people love, you can begin shaping a culture that's cool. So, the reason why is because the city called Akihabara caters to the interest of such fans.

Normally, when a consumer product, whatever it may be, becomes commonly used, the person creating it begins to compromise at one point or another. So, only the strong sellers are mainly sold and stores discontinue carrying such products as electronic parts or software that only attract the attention of diehard fans. However, Akihabara is a city that responds to the needs of such fans without fail. Not only are ready-made consumer electronics sold but the world's best electronic parts can be found here and stores are even willing to sell you just one piece. That's the kind of place Akihabara has been all along.

We experienced something called an audio boom some time ago. Back then, even extremely high-quality electronic parts mostly used by professionals were actually sold all over the country. However, when that boom began slowing down after a while, all the stores stopped selling such parts for professional or for diehard fan use - all except Akihabara. When the boom was over, many of the stores inevitably began to disappear but the well-established ones for the diehard fans remained and still are responding to the needs of the handful of ardent devotees. That's why people flock to Akihabara. With open arms, Akihabara is always there for them.

After the audio boom came the microcomputer and PC booms. Of course you can can still get those in Akihabara. Some of the stores still carry products that are a hit mainly among the diehard fans like engineering majors and college professors although the microcomputer boom is now completely passé. As a result, such fans come to and support Akihabara. You can still find stores that sell stuff such as old-fashioned vacuum tubes, you know. So, I think what lies at the base of what turned into a city introducing a cool culture is the fact that Akihabara continues to be supported by its diehard fans.

■ Akihabara also nurtured the "cool otaku culture"

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Yanagihara: I see. So, this city called Akihabara never betrayed the diehard fans and this fact served as the base of turning it into a place where such culture is rooted. Also, that kind of support was related to other booms that came later on such as those of game software and anime, right?

Sugiyama: That's right. After the PC boom was over, the age of the game software boom began. Even then, Akihabara, as expected, did not betray its diehard fans. At the end of 1994, after the family computer boom, PlayStation and Sega Saturn were introduced and some of their software included those that proved to be a big hit only among the diehard fans. Of course, such software weren't easily found at many of the retail stores nationwide. However, it was different in Akihabara because you could find them here. Some of such software contained the so-called "Moe" element and that served as the first encounter between the Moe culture and Akihabara. And, this encounter was what created and fused festival-like Comiket (comic markets) and the so-called Cosplay (costume play) type culture. So, I believe that Akihabara also incorporated such fields as manga, game, and anime and they helped form this culture, in fact "the otaku culture" in this city.

Yanagihara: So, this "diehard fan orientation" deeply rooted in the city of Akihabara is connecting everything together?

Sugiyama: Yes, I think you can say that. And, you know, many people tell me that many of the cool, genuine otaku are, in fact, brilliant system engineers. Everything from the audio and PC booms to the current Moe culture is an achievement that was only possible through the constant communication opportunities Akihabara provided to the diehard fans, the otaku. Well, as for otaku, I think many of them are otaku of not one but various fields. And, I also think that many of them belong to different communities at the same time. For example, brilliant system engineers who I just mentioned could be anime otaku while sci-tech car designers could be Gundam otaku or figure otaku. These are things I hear very often. So, I believe that when maid cafés were first introduced in Akihabara, they initially became popular as a place where such people could relax and exchange information. Although the situation seems to be changing recently, I nevertheless hear that many of the maids themselves are anime lovers or Cosplayers. Such girls and customers can relax and have fun because they share common otaku understanding and rules. So, I think that the birth of this kind of culture is actually the essence of how the early maid cafés were established.

■ Times Have Changed; However, the Essence of "Akihabara" Remains the Same

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Yanagihara: These days, I hear that the city of Akihabara is changing. What do you think about that?

Sugiyama: Its appearance is, in fact, changing due to urban development and other factors. However, I believe that the essence of Akihabara hasn't changed at all. Because the city has continued to inherit the trend of the good old days, characteristics unique to Akihabara remain unchanged. It seems as if "Akihabara-ish" qualities still continue to be present.

Yanagihara: I see. You've mentioned this in your book, too, but Akihabara as a city always responding to terms such as "get hooked" and "diehard" hasn't changed. This means that, as a city of people's hobbies, Akihabara never lets users down.

Sugiyama: As for anything that becomes a fad, you find its stores popping up here and there nationwide. However, even after the boom is over, you can still find it in Akihabara. That is precisely why this city is loved by its fans. Also, if you say "hobbies," it sounds like something second-rate compared to genuine professionalism. Nevertheless, "hobbies" that are typical in Akihabara are in a world of their own that sometimes even surpasses the professional realm. Perhaps, they are like "hobbies based on the world's leading technology," don't you think? (laughs) This is something that happened long ago but the former Soviet Union came all the way to Akihabara to buy bearings found in toys because they were actually sold here. (laughs) Even today, you can't export home-use game

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consoles to certain countries. And, I hope you don't take this the wrong way but here in Akihabara, you can find so many wiretaps for professional use on sale. Those devices which are for the true professionals are sold at prices even kids can afford. I know this is a bit too much but, at the same time, I guess that it can also be seen as one of the aspects of the powerful Akihabara.

Yanagihara: Yes, that is a bit too much. (laughs) Still, that's what "doing things thoroughly" means, isn't it? (laughs) After all, Japanese people perhaps have this artisan spirit of doing things thoroughly. But now, you find more and more people who are like that in other countries, too. The number of people from abroad visiting Akihabara is increasing as well.

Sugiyama: Yes, that's right. But you know, Akihabara always had foreign visitors from long time ago because it's quite rare even on a worldwide level that a city can actually contain 2,000 electronics store. However, I think you're right that there are more foreign tourists now. Also, the Japanese spirit of "doing things thoroughly" spread throughout the world through Toyota's "Kaizen (improvement)" and also in the form otaku culture thanks to the anime culture. So, I think that there are now more and more visitors from abroad who come to Akihabara, the symbol of all those things. This is a place that is in the world's spotlight. So, even from that viewpoint, I feel really sad when people think that Akihabara is a city of otaku who are these creepy guys. I believe that if they actually visit Akihabara, most Japanese people will feel some kind of inspiration or another.

Yanagihara: That's true. Akihabara is like a theme park, isn't it?

Sugiyama: It is a theme park. The baby boomers are going to reach the age of retirement starting next year. What I recently began thinking is that I'd like to tell them, "Visit Akihabara again!" That is because they will for sure find something that they got hooked on in the days of their youth. They'll have so much fun. Absolutely.

Yanagihara: That's interesting.

Sugiyama: Isn't it? In the world of high-quality audio equipments, such trend is slowly starting and it seems that the boom is approaching again.

Yanagihara: In Akihabara, I guess.

Sugiyama: Yes. It can only be possible in Akihabara because products made by such manufacturers are only distributed here.

Yanagihara: How much do high-quality audio equipments cost?

Sugiyama: World-famous brands like JBL are actually backed up by the Japanese fans. For example, a set of speakers would cost 6 million yen. (laughs)

Yanagihara: The Japanese who really love audio equipments are amazing. (laughs)

■ The cool culture Continues Ceaselessly

 

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Yanagihara: These days, even our prime minister and foreign minister are saying that Akihabara is the place from where contents are introduced to the world. In terms of anime, I think there also are production centers located along the Chuo Line. Nevertheless, why is Akihabara considered as the symbol?

 

Sugiyama: As for anime, I guess they are made in Suginami and other areas but people in general can't see the actual places where they are produced at, can they? Ghibli has its own company building and even a museum but this isn't always the case for other small and medium-sized production companies. So, for them, I think Akihabara is important because it functions as a showcase where the contents can be seen and touched. In that sense, I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that Akihabara is a city that introduces the contents.

Yanagihara: Anime, maids, and so on. We have many trends popping up. What do you think the next one would be?

Sugiyama: I guess, robots. Many people, especially the country and research institutions, are saying that Akihabara should be the base for robots. I, too, think that this is a theme Japan should deal with. Also, anime and robots are pretty similar in a cultural sense. In Japan, Gundam is popular but the king of robots in the U.S. is Macross. Even in that sense, I think that Akihabara is the best place for robots. From pretty-girl manga to robots that actually move, Akihabara kind of links them all together. Kind of. (laughs) That's what I think is great about Akihabara.

Yanagihara: Yes, you're right. They all are kind of linked together. In other cities, you don't find this connection.

Sugiyama: The other day, a robot competition was held and one of the robots competing was operated by a girl. That girl was wearing a so-called Cosplay costume but she didn't look strange at all. She didn't look out of place and what she wore looked as if that was the "proper attire." That really was Akihabara-ish, you know. She was cool.

Yanagihara: The sense of being cool now is related to otaku because otaku became cool after this word was reintroduced in Japan from overseas. Recently, even famous designers are saying that they "want to conduct events in Akihabara." So, we now have this value of Akihabara being stylish and cool. Even in your book, it is mentioned that the sense of being cool as a nation is being actualized centered on Akihabara.

Sugiyama: Yes. There is this sense of "otaku is cool; cool is Akihabara." The world recognizes it. So, I'd like more and more people to consider Akihabara as cool in Japan.

■ The Future of Akihabara as a Symbol of "cool Japan"

Yanagihara: Let's move on to a different topic. Nowadays, the number of food establishments in Akihabara is increasing. The canned Oden is already popular but kebab stores are getting popular, too.

Sugiyama: That's because you can eat them right away. Plus, they're good. I think that fast food stores really fit in well with the city. They are convenient when you're going from one store to another for shopping or standing in line to participate in an event. From now as well, I think that we're going to see more of such stores also because the number of tourists visiting this city is increasing.

Yanagihara: Recently, music made in Akihabara is attracting attention. What do you think about that? We see many street musicians and street pop idols debuting.

Sugiyama: After all, music and pretty girls go often in company. So, Mr. Akimoto who put the group AKB48 together was really smart, I think. Street pop idols are interesting, too. Those who have otaku fans are especially good. They even have normal fans who see them as true pop idols. (laughs) The same trend of rooting for pop idols in the 80s is still kept alive. So, the kind of approach from the field of music is not anything new to Akihabara and I think that it will gain much attention from now. The next boom will come by inheriting the qualities of the audio, PC, anime, and Moe booms. So, I think that music is the correct path to take.

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Also, as long as there are many retailers and electronics stores, I think that the music of DVDs as software that come with the leading industries AV equipment or TVs as well as music of next-generation DVDs will certainly attract wide attention. In terms of software, I think that this field can be boosted even more if small movie theaters are made in Akihabara. On a base level the pop idols sing, otaku root for them and take their photos, the photos are turned into video clips and released on the internet... Like this, Akihabara is a city where synergy can really happen on a diehard fans' level. Therefore, Akihabara is always interesting no matter what the center of focus is at whatever point. I'm sure about this.

【Afterword】
Mr. Sugiyama who claims that Akihabara exists as a symbol of "otaku(-ism) is cool" continues to focus on this city which serves as a base that creates fans of the Japanese culture worldwide. We,as well will keep looking deep into this place that is "Akihabara" - the symbol of a new Japanese culture that continues to introduce various factors by remixing everything from history to religion, ethics, and ideology just in any way it wants to.

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