The famed filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, once criticized modern Japan for its rampant consumerism. I originally thought this was ironic coming from the man whose company is helped significantly by Disney, the epitome of rampant marketing and consumerism (apologies to Disney lovers everywhere). However, I can see why his views have quite a bit of merit now that I’ve been in Tokyo for a week. A week of living in the country and I’ve seen ads about everything from maid cafes to natural gas. It’s impossible to take a step in Tokyo without being bombarded with advertising. I’m not saying that consumer culture is bad; what I’m saying is that Tokyo is a capitalist’s dream. Perhaps the answer to Japan’s economic woes lies in its “Cool Japan” culture.
This is especially true with Akihabara, the electronics and Otaku culture center of Tokyo. It is also the center of the “What the hell Japan” pictures you often see online. In case you aren’t familiar with Otaku culture, it’s not just loving Anime and Manga. Rather, it’s taking that interest to the point of obsession. “There are multiple versions of Otaku.” I was told by a fellow Japanese student, “If your whole life revolves around one interest to the point other people don’t understand it, that’s when you become an Otaku. There are Otaku for practically anything.” Many people in Japan or across the globe still don’t understand it. Otaku culture has slowly become integrated into Japanese culture and world culture as a whole to the point almost everyone reads manga on trains. Unfortunately, Otaku at first in Japan were not well received. The story of Otaku is actually quite tragic. Many were thought to be outlandish and were often the targets of bullies and harassment from classmates. The Japanese media helped little by fanning the flames. They told horror stories of what Otaku are and what they’ve supposedly done to other people.Teachers, parents, and especially bullies, ate it up and used it as and excuse to harass and bully these poor souls. This led to some Otaku becoming NEET’s (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and social hermits. It is understandable. The outside world rejected them, so they in turn reject the outside world. They desperately wanted human contact and therefore turned to other interests such as the digital world and the anime world. Soon these manga, anime and video game characters almost became surrogates for real human relationships because they felt as though they had no one else.
I enjoy the occasional Anime or Manga, but not very often. People still said I should go if I have even the slightest interest. I have a big interest in video games and I heard this is a fantastic place for fans of video games to come as well. Being a fan of the bizarre and video games, I decided to check Akihabara out. Needless to say, I was not prepared. There were girls in Cosplay costumes (Cosplay comes from word “Costume Play” and it is when a person dresses up as a character from a TV Show, Anime, Manga, or Video Game. Some of the more creative ones make up characters of their own. The amount of hard work, time, and money put into it can be amazing.) handing out fliers promoting maid cafes, people who looked like they knew the place like the back of their hand, and people like me–people who saw something that intrigued or excited them and wanted to experience it. Akihabara was huge. Most buildings had 10 floors with multiple shops in the buildings selling the same thing. I did not know where to go at first. Finally I gave up and chose a store at random and decided to go inside. I was blasted with everything from anime, cards, fashion, video games, and even famous American movie figurines. Not only that, there were models of warplanes, tanks, and aircraft carriers. I finally understood what my classmate meant when he said, “There are Otaku for practically anything.” If you have even the slightest interest in video games, anime, manga, models, fashion, or would just like to see Otaku Culture first hand, I highly recommend going. It was an amazing experience.
I left Akihabara in a daze. There were a lot of weird things in Akihabara. Most were too inappropriate to post here. But it also gave me time to reflect. What is weird anyway? A Japanese person coming to America might find some of our traditions or actions weird. Every country has something that appears odd to the outside world. The culture might understand it, but the rest of the world may not.
It is hard to deny the impact of Otaku culture worldwide both in the birth of “Cool Japan,” and in the global economy. Make no mistake Anime, Manga, and Video games are big business. So it attracts investors for these publishing and animation companies to the point that Hollywood has begun to turn its head. Some American directors have slowly begun adapting Anime into live action movies. Many kids in America and Europe who were born in the early to mid-1990’s grew up on watching Japanese Anime such as Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dragon Ball-Z, Yu-gi-oh, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, and Outlaw Star among many others. Their love (and mine) over the years has not died. There are even classes at some universities discussing the phenomenon. Some classes are teaching about one show, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and its views on religion, depression, and philosophy. The phenomenon is quite incredible when one looks at it closely. When American middle aged men and women (such as my mother and father) look back, they remember nostalgic TV shows or Cartoons such as The Flinstones, The Honeymooners, Scooby Doo, I Love Lucy etc. When 20-odd year old individuals look back (albeit prematurely) they remember Pokemon and the other anime mentioned above. In fact, Pokemon still to this day is loved by college students worldwide to the point they are still buying the games that are sold by the millions. Nostalgia factor in general means more sales and these prematurely nostalgic young adults help the companies’ sales immensely. Could this love of “Cool Japan” help bring Japan out of its economic slump by using this Otaku and worldwide Consumerism of Japanese Anime, Music, Video Games, and Manga? Never say never.
As I left Akihabara, I began to think back to history because I am a history major and love to connect things to the past. I hypothesized that “Weird Japan” is a product of the past. The West’s fascination with ” the Orient” or what is “bizarre” in their eyes has been around for hundreds of years. Ever since Japan was first visited by European explorers arrived in 1543, the West’s fascination with Japan has not ceased. Japan’s Otaku culture and Akihabara help keep not only the West’s, but the world’s fascination of “Exotic” Japan alive and well.