AKIHABARA - from this foreigner’s perspective
Elizabeth Heilman Brooke
I live on the Sobu Line and have always considered Akihabara an amazing place. It was the electronics mecca I headed to years ago to purchase our first DVD player. It was the preferred shopping destination for the latest and least expensive computer speakers, for computer games for my teenage boys, for researching video cameras. I knew Akihabara was Tokyo's electronics district,"Electric Town," as the JR exit comfortingly informs in English. Considering that Japan is known throughout the world for its technological expertise, I assumed that I was most fortunate to be just a few train stops away from
what might very well be the biggest selection of high-tech wizardry anywhere on the planet.
But, I recently learned that Akihabara is much, much more than radios,electric wires, plugs, televisions, dishwashers, calculators, PCs, antennas, electric-current gadgets and gizmos. So much has been happening and changing in Akihabara since 1976, when Japan's first PC was born. Did you know that just across from the train station, on the seventh floor of Radio Kaikan there is a plaque commemorating the birth of Japan's first NEC PC?
Akihabara has long been a thrilling marketplace for goods that are on the
forefront of scientific discovery, more recently, goods that whimsically set imaginations soaring. In the 1950s boxes-with-voices, radios, were sold in small musen, electronics shops, lined up to the south of Kanda Myojin. Those tiny family-owned businesses are still there, but towers of competitors with floor upon floor of innovations have entered the wired excitement. In the 1960s home appliances joined the radios and vacuum tubes. In the 1970s boxes for bringing home most mellifluous or crash-bang, hard-rock sounds, speaker sound systems,entered the scene. In the 1980s video technology was Akihabara's newest attraction. In the 1990s the IT things were PCs: on desks, in laps, shrinking in size,exploding in capabilities for communication.
With the turn of the century Akihabara has continued to showcase electronics of historic as well as high tech appeal, but Akihabara's latest "PC" is "personal" with a pop. As Japanese comic books, animated films and animated characters have drawn the attention of a new worldwide audience, Japan's pop culture is the latest Akihabara attraction. I was mesmerized to see that Akihabara is now Electric Town morphed into Japanese Cool Central. There are new comics, used comics, Gun dam trading cards, Gun dam figures, Hello Kitty miniatures, Hello Kitty robots.
Otaku collectors come from all over Japan to buy and to sell. There are Plexiglas aquarium-sized cases filled with guppy-size plastic figures, some from movies, some from manga, some sexy, some scary, some just plain "hendes." At a store called Treasure Market Place sellers can rent a waterless aquarium to sell a mouse-size Mickey Mouse, a teeny Elvis, miniature metal cars.
In the past five years, over ten new buildings have gone up in Akihabara. This March the new DAI building opened. And this September the new Yodobashi Camera, claiming to be the grandest in all of Japan, also opened. Akihabara Station has been renovated with new bakeries, restaurants and coffee shops. A new subway line, the Tsukuba Express, now originates at Akihabara.
Akihabara continues to surprise, continues to fascinate as an ever-fresh bazaar of electric, animated intrigues and amusements.
~ Elizabeth Heilman Brooke is an American writer and editor, based in Tokyo for the past four years.