Between mangas and sex-shops in Akihabara

Akihabara probably sums up what people imagine when they talk about modern and crazy Japanese pop culture. If I think back I remember dolls, toys, cosplay, lots of vending machines, sex-shops, video games, maid cafés, electronic goods, anime and of course mangas. This time I will bring you with me and show you this very unique neighbourhood in Tokyo.

Information about Akihabara
Akihabara (秋葉原) is a famous area around the same-named station of Japan’s capital Tokyo. It is known for its major shopping centres full of electronic goods but also video games, mangas, and animes. Therefore, it is the perfect place for Otaku – which is Japanese and describes people who love consuming anime and mangas. After World War II Akihabara gained the nickname Electric Town.

When I first arrived in Akihabara I was both totally overwhelmed and fascinated. This colourful, glowing, crazy, and flashing district in the middle of Tokyo with skyscrapers wrapped in advertisements. Akihabara (and Shibuya with the stuffed streets – but this is another topic) describes exactly how I expected modern Japan to be.

Vending machines full of food, figures, and toys

In Akihabara, shops exist only filled with different types of vending machines. There are rows over rows with machines. Some are for food, and drinks – basically everything you can imagine. From soft drinks over juice boxes, and canned coffee to cake in boxes, sweets, canned food (apparently even hot soup) and Japanese snacks (we even found some insects for grazing right away). Vending machines without food usually include all kind of (soft) toys, key chains, sweets, stickers and figures to collect. They also have these typical claw cranes where you have to grab a (soft) toy with a gripper. Another type of automats is Gashapon (ガシャポン), themed vending machines filled with capsules that have surprise toys inside. These actually remind me of my childhood memories and gumball machines.

Over 18 only

Some shops just had display cases filled with all kind of figures and dolls you can buy. Clearly, not all of the figures were made to play with (depending on the people inside the store I would say even less – some are just for collecting and surprisingly expensive). In the corners in the back of the stores were sections for “over 18 only” hidden in curtains. These areas are guarded to make sure that minors do not enter them. There were lightly dressed or naked female figures in sexual poses with partial utopic body parts. The shop keepers were smart and covered the genital area with the price labels. But I am seriously asking myself what kind of image these sexist figures mirror and how it affects the society.

Akihabara at night
Pachinko – the amusement halls of Japan

There were also amusement halls called Pachinko (パチンコ) filled with gaming consoles most of them anime-themed, arcade games (these games were especially popular in the USA in the 1970/80ties, it is a gaming machine with a joystick and two to three buttons) and gambling devices. The rooms are filled with flashing screens that are ligned up in a row. It was so loud because of the sounds, and music from the games that we had to scream at each other. I really can not imagine staying in these kinds of amusements halls for a few hours. Since gambling for cash is illegal in Japan the gamers actually play to win non-cash prizes.

Manga stores and the 18+ section with Ecchi and Hentai

We also went to some of the shopping centres which were filled with a lot of different themed stores. Again plenty of vending machines, but also a lot of shops for all kinds of technical and electrical devices, animes, Cosplay articles – and of course mangas.

We visited two huge floors just filled with thousands of mangas. We browsed through the shelves – and even I recognised some mangas from animes which also aired in Germany. Similar to the shops with display cases they also had an adult 18+ section. My friend and I wanted to take a look inside. We were the only women in the section – no wonder, the magazines were clearly made for men. These kinds of mangas are called Ecchi or Hentai – Ecchi is the softer version that plays with sexual innuendos but has actually backstories and characters. While Hentai is basically porn as a comic version. Some of the magazines allowed a sneak peek inside. I was surprised that some of the mangas actually hid the genital parts with the help of bars – basically censored porn. Most magazines were welded in plastic but I guess the covers already revealed enough about the inside.

Create your own doll

Another two floors were filled with dolls of all sizes, made of different materials as plastic or with porcelain-faces, Barbie-like, in Manga-style, or just plain dolls you could basically build by yourself. – As far as I could see, all of them were female. Mostly with typical doll eyes, long hair, in short skirts – innocent and cute looking. I am not sure who is actually the main customer target here similar to the figures I guess most of them were not made for children to play with. And of course, every doll also had tons of accessories, clothes, hair colours, furniture, and other equipment. There were also doll sets where you could pick all kind of body parts from the eye colour and hair until the size of the breast. At least this time there was also a male version.

Sex-stores and forbidden floors

With a visit to an “adult amusement park”, we ended up in a sex shop – or more accurate a sex department store. These stores were huge – the one we were in had five floors, two for women, three for men. Hence the variety is big. But I would say mostly similar to the sex-shops I know from Germany. Though there were actually three floors which were for men only – and two of them were not allowed for women to enter. They even guarded the elevator to prohibit women from sneaking in. Since we were only a group of women in Tokyo we never figured out what they sold in these storeys. Of course, we started guessing a lot because all of us thought it is super weird that we were actually not allowed to enter that particular part of the store.

Maid Cafés
A flyer from my travel journal

Maid Cafés are a big deal in Japan – and as I heard were invented in Akihabara. The staff in the themed cafés wears Cosplay costumes and serve cute or special looking food – for example, shaped like animals. The most common ones are the maid cafés where the waitresses dressed as elegant French maids. The male equivalent is butler cafés but I think they are less frequent.

I saw a lot of girls dressed up like maids on the streets of Akihabara who tried to attract the people around with flyers and their costumes to visit the cafés. The competition is high and most of the entrances hidden on one of the higher floors of the many skyscrapers.

How to reach Akihabara
If you want to visit the area of Akihabara you can take the metro to stop H16 of the Hibiya Line. Another opportunity is the JR-Line. You can choose between the Yamanote-Line, Keihin-Tohoku-Line or Sobu-Line. The station is called Akihabara. When you reach the station follow the exit signs in the direction “Electric Town Gate”.
In the end, I would like to leave this comment with you
I wrote this blog post mainly because I got to know Akihabara as a very lively, exciting and for me also unusual district of the metropolis of Tokyo. Originally, I did not want to include the sexual representation of women – primarily because I only “know” roughly about the role of sexuality and the image of women in Japan, secondly because I was only a few days in Tokyo. But to ignore the whole topic was also difficult because it is very present in Akihabara. I can only speak for myself when I say that I did not feel personally attacked by the figures, dolls, and mangas – even if they are certainly controversial – because at this point I could completely distance myself from the way they were portrayed. Since I am Western European and do not want to judge Japan or its people, and culture – especially since I am simply not qualified for this and also watching two documentaries and reading three professional articles won’t change much – I decided not to go any deeper into the representation of women (especially with a sexual context). The blog post is completely subjective and reflects my own feelings at the moment of my visit.
However, if you are Japanese or feel approached in any other way please use the commentary section to leave a message or write to me privately.

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