I’ve talked a lot about Japan in terms of Stereotypes and How They’re Wrong. Which is a bit unimaginative, perceptually loaded and (worst of all) boring. But one stereotype in particular is very big, very pervasive and very wide of the mark: that the whole country is a glittering hypercity, a futuristic techno-paradise where everything is cutting-edge, full of singing toilets and manga and robots and Engrish and general Really Weird Zany Stuff such as you’ve seen all over the internet.
And that simply ain’t so.
There are indeed cool futuristic toilets (with heated seats and something which “cleanses the posterior”) but there are also squat loos little more than holes in the ground; adverts for very fancy tech are commonplace, but everyone carries flip phones like it’s still 2006. Everything is fairly modern, but not always advanced (the nineties called, they honestly don’t want their fax machines back) and definitely not always efficient – how enlightened, sensible and user-friendly the Tokyo rail system just plain isn’t is another post all on its own. Nor is it a playground of Weird Stuff by any means – there are admittedly cutesy cartoon animals absolutely everywhere, Engrish is so common I barely noticed it after a couple of days, and advertising is quite a bit more over-the-top than at home – but it’s all much more staid and cheerfully materialistic than wacky. (You get some pretty kooky shit in arcades and hobby shops, but where is that not true?) In a lot of things – the prevalence of uniforms, the emphasis on Social Roles, how absolutely nobody seems to dress or act “casually”, the whole general sociopolitical zeitgeist of civilised properness – Japan more resembles Victorian stereotypes (if not Victorian truths, but I wasn’t around then to compare, were you?) than the permissive futuristic dreamland of cyborgs and short skirts dreamt of in weeaboo corners. Above all, it’s just a normal, functional place populated by normal people doing normal things. People are people everywhere.
But you can forgive some stereotypes of the bizarre cyberpunk otaku Mecca when you visit Akihabara (Akiba for short), because it’s pretty much exactly like that. Tech shops piled high with current and last-gen gear line the crowded streets, buildings rising above them rammed with utterly geeky specialist stores brimful of specialised equipment, collector merch, hobby stuff and weird sex toys. Mascots in go-go boots and teenage girls with frilly mid-thigh hemlines thrust flyers for electronics shops and maid cafes at you and the rest of the anorak crowd; walls and windows are plastered with posters and endless frowning/pouting/forlorn oversexualised anime girls with tiny mouths, prehensile breasts and giant limpid eyes. Great neon signs and plasma screens flash psychedelic advertisements down at you from the first storey to the thirtieth.
One electronics shop was a stratified computing history lesson; the top floor was current/last-gen kit, but going down took you through horrible blocky nineties laptops and CRTs, then eighties proto-laptops, pagers and kit so outdated I didn’t even recognise it, through giant racks of resistors and semiconductors all the way to a basement that was full of fist-sized transistors and honest-to-goodness valves. It was a museum, except everything still worked and everything was for sale (lord only knows who buys it.) Slightly more modern outlets elsewhere furnished Fran with a replacement camera battery for an appalling number of yen, me with a second-hand camera for only slightly more and a little MP3 player with accompanying 8gb microSD card for money equating to about a tenner.
Despite the male-gaze-centric advertising and the bounty of body pillows and lewd, expensive figurines, the place felt surprisingly wholesome; it’s somewhere real people go to buy things, rather than a porn ghetto for shutins, and has very little in the way of nerd stench and stereotypically-creepy unwashed types (maybe they were all in the maid cafes already, getting served tea by catgirls). There isn’t a whole lot of mystique or silliness to it, just an incredibly broad and esoteric set of wares. Akiba is the sort of place I enjoyed intensely even as an outsider who can’t read the signs; if I had been born Japanese, it would probably be paradise.