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Tokyo With A Twist

Retro electronics. French maid outfits (with spectacles). Bars devoted to Humphrey Bogart and pro wrestling. In this city, obsession is an art form.

June 01, 2008|Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace is The Times' Tokyo bureau chief. Contact him at

The Japanese have perfected the art of obsession. Japan, after all, is the place that gave us otaku, that wonderfully elastic word that refers to people obsessed to distraction with the details of a single thing. The first otaku were Japanese boys obsessed with manga or anime; back in the 1980s and '90s, the term implied a sort of dark geekiness--loners, antisocial kids who retreated to their rooms with their manga and anime, much of it erotic in content.

Otaku are mainstream now. These days there are millions of them, the term applied loosely as a suffix to anyone with a personal obsession. (You can be a Brad Pitt otaku, for example.)

But their spiritual home remains Akihabara, Tokyo's high-wattage neighborhood catering to video games, anime DVDs and other fetishes. It began as a shopping area for teenage boys, and though it is now popular with tourists and women, it is still a magnet for the socially inept male. You don't go to Akihabara to drink, unless it's for a cup of coffee at one of the cafes where you pay for the privilege of having your sugar spooned into your cup by a young Japanese woman dressed as a French maid. This is a place that has much to teach about obsessive behavior--and it's a perfect way to enter Tokyo's otaku currents.

To get a close-up look, I go exploring with Leo Lewis, a journalist for the Times of London whose fascination with Japanese video games, anime and manga began when he was a teenager growing up in Oxford, England, and eventually enticed him to Japan to live. "Akihabara," he says, "is essentially set up to cater to every obsession." Lewis was a contributing writer for Roland Kelts' "Japanamerica," a book describing how Japan's postmodern pop culture has infiltrated the U.S. imagination, but that credential is almost beside the point. A walk through Akihabara with Lewis reveals his sheer joy that such a mecca of obsession even exists.

Akihabara's main street is a canyon of tall buildings where you'll find one of the world's densest concentrations of electronic goods. But Lewis whisks me away from the cacophony of amplified sales pitches and into the back alleys, ushering me past open-front shops devoted to retro Japanese pop culture items, such as miniature collectible characters from long-extinct anime and manga series.

"Now, this is particularly delicious," he says as he takes me into one of the many shops that sell original versions of old video games. True otaku are devoted to old games, and many remember Sega's Dreamcast--now relegated to the also-rans in the competition for global console supremacy--as the epitome of gaming. Manufacturers such as Nintendo and Sega have discontinued the original consoles on which the games were played, and enterprising companies have manufactured new ones that will bring the old games to life. But Lewis loves the ancient consoles.

He leads me up stairwells into shops that buy and sell clunky monitors and joysticks that look as if they were designed to fly a light plane. "It's the physicality that I love," he says. "Just imagine what it would have been like growing up in this old British house surrounded by heavy, traditional furniture. To see something like this," he says, fingering an old Nintendo joystick displayed on one of the shelves that slice the store into narrow aisles, "was to be aware that there was an entire other world out there."

He made his first visit to Akihabara as a tourist when he was 18.

"I thought I was never going to get here," he says.

The retro fascination is just part of otaku culture, but it shows the degree to which purists take personal obsession to the deepest levels: ever more specialization, never reaching fulfillment, never collecting that last collectible. "Completing the quest would be problematic for an otaku," Lewis says. "That would suggest that it was time to do something more serious with your life."

So the niches are always getting narrower. Maid cafes have been the rage for about four years now, and a true otaku would never be satisfied to go to any old one. There must be a fetish about the experience. Perhaps you'd like to put your head on the maid's lap and let her groom your ears. "Let me show you an extra-special level of nuttiness," Lewis says. He leads me to a shop called Candy Fruit, where a maid cafe once stood. It's now a shop selling glasses to two specific breeds of client: women who want glasses to wear with their maid uniforms. And men who want to buy their glasses from a woman in a maid's costume wearing glasses.

"The maids never used to wear glasses," Lewis says with an admiring shake of his head. "It's another new twist."


Old is the new new

Japanese pop culture is full of new twists, and to Americans--whose late-in-the-day embrace of manga and anime makes them nouveau otaku, if you will--it can seem cool because it ignores history. It's disposable culture, perfect for a digital world.

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