Monday, July 2, 2012

History of Akihabara Part 3.5: 2.5D

Somewhere along the way otaku culture has gotten mixed in with mainstream culture. This interlude in our History of Akihabara series steps out of Electric Town to explore otaku elements pervading Japanese youth culture as well as the lifestyle alternatives they provide.

From Nemu's personal homepage.

Meet Yumemi Nemu, star of Denpa Gumi, the alternative idol unit for those who think that Momoiro Clover Z has gotten too mainstream. A Renaissance woman of sorts, when not behind the mic she moonlights as a DJ at the anisong club Mogra and models for gravure. I should also add that she doesn’t have a steady income, likely isn’t planning for the long term and may or may not be defaulting on her pension payments. But this isn’t intended as an attack on her free-wheeling ways. If anything, Nemu represents the growing number of young people searching for new lifestyles and values amidst the scrap of a broken employment system.

She’s a member of the so-called “Lost Generation,” a clumsy branding for those raised during the post-housing bubble double decade of economic deflation. These are the convenience clerk NEETs, the hikikkomori shut-ins, the drop-outs that felt their channels to mainstream society strangled by unforgiving educational elitism. Rather than put themselves back on the accepted path to success worn bare by their parents footsteps, they have continued on their outside vector towards unexplored venues of self-fulfillment.

Mainstream media is only now starting to acknowledge what youth of Japan have always known, deep down—that the old paradigm doesn’t work, that company life means no life at all, and that net culture can produce objects of real value.

Raised on low-fi fare like the Famicom without being spoiled by the high-rolling decadence of the bubble era, this generation isn’t afraid to spend the rest of their days working part time jobs so long as it means scraping up enough cash to pursue their hobbies and social activities. Some describe this worldview as 2.5D, which is exactly what it sounds like—the halfway point between 2D and 3D. It marks the intersection of fantasy space (anime, video games, the net) with real world space (art, gatherings, events).

Pink Sugar Heart Attack

For a visual example, look no further than the Neo Cosplay Collection.
Held at La Foret, Harajuku’s flagship clothing mall, the collection featured brands such as GALAXXXY who flip anime heroines into Punkey Brewster-style street wear. (Source)

If the crux of cosplay is to faithfully recreate the clothing of a character, then neo cosplay is concerned with adding to that look to make it your own. Imagine if an Akihabara maid went through the looking glass and emerged out of the closet of a Harajuku Fruits fashionista: The resulting spectacle would be enough to get anyone's pulse pounding.

Consider it the next step for pastel fairy kei fashion, augmented with otaku elements from Studio Pierrot’s magical girl shows like Creamy Mami. A natural fit, considering that the “sensational lovely” style pioneered by 6% Doki Doki drinks from the same carton of strawberry milk that fuels loli idol culture.

Shamelessly ripped from their homepage.

To paraphrase their homepage, the appeal of 6% Doki Doki comes from being blindsided by a flash of the extraordinary through the fog of the dreadfully ordinary. Entering the store you are transported to another world where Care Bears never stopped caring and purple becomes the natural compliment for pink. The shop girls are dressed like princesses from a parallel dimension. Brand maestro Masada Sebastian handpicks the heirs to his kawaii kingdom from a pool of over 200 applicants to preen into fashion models and performers for his avant garde stage shows.

Providing a reprieve from the everyday, producing young girls to serve as the brand image—6% Doki Doki shares its core concepts with amateur idol factories, the most productive being Akihabara’s Dear Stage.

Free Agents in the Game of Happiness

The interior of Dear Stage is intentionally lo-fi to create a home-made, school festival vibe. (Source)

Dear Stage is the mothership for the Moe Japan label captained by Tokyo University of the Arts graduate Fukushima Maiko. Her business model is 100% self-sufficient. Girls perform as idols on the first floor stage, play maid on the second floor cafe and flirt like hostesses in the low-lit upstairs bar—every male fantasy under one roof. And when a girl’s popularity hits critical mass, Fukushima is ready to produce and release their CD through her own record company, Meme Tokyo, a sub-label of Toy’s Factory.

While Fukushima’s girls aren’t going to steal the spotlight from AKB48 anytime soon, there are a handful of success stories amongst the hopefuls. And how does one even measure success? Each performer has their own personal dream to fulfill. Some want to top the charts, while others simply want a top-rated Nico Nico Douga account. They seem happy enough with whatever fame comes their way, so long as they can set the terms of said happiness.

The simple act of being active in a community you can call your own has become more important than the results of these actions. In her book, The Youth of Japan Are Not Unhappy (日本人の若者は不幸じゃない), Fukushima explains this phenomenon through the concept of “clusters.” Groups no longer need a centralized structure with designated leaders; rather, they can exist independently through a loose network of like-minded persons so long as there is a shared meeting place. These commons can be as expansive as Twitter or as pinpoint a venue as Dear Stage.

Clusters form around a concept or hobby. Take Hatsune Miku for example. Though technically owned by the developer, Crypton Future Media, all of the actual content, from artwork to music to choreography, is user generated. There’s no keystone holding the Miku architecture together. Famous artists may arise from the ranks, but they’re more of trend setters than visionary leaders.

Concentrated on the world wide web and spread across the globe, her legions of fans are simply waiting for their Field of Dreams moment: If you build it (or setup a concert), they will come. In droves, apparently. All 10,000 tickets to this year’s Miku Appreciation Festival sold out in a matter of hours. Most musicians would kill to have that devoted of a crowd, sans glowsticks.

The largest cluster of DIY youth culture is the self-published manga convention Comic Market, colloquially known as Comiket. Held bi-annually during the national summer and winter vacations, each incarnation draws over 500,000 visitors and 35,000 artist circles.

The convention hall has consistently been at full capacity for the past few years. (Source)

Comiket has a planning committee that screens applicants and ensures that everything runs smoothly, giving it the illusion of centralized management. In practice, their duties are more akin to crowd control than actual event planning. No, the true producers are the artists themselves. Their personal taste dictates what gets brought to the trade floor, each individual booth another link in the network. No single group can wholly represent Comiket, for this diversity is its defining characteristic.

Application fees are nominal and the event is free to the public. Ideally a circle would break even on the booth fee and printing costs. To some, a financial loss isn’t even an issue—having your work on display for others to see is worth the price of admission. Still others plan on turning a profit, with more popular artists able to pull in a living wage. The line between pro and amateur blurs. It’s hard to say which is more impressive: That mainstream manga artists supplement their income here, or that unsigned independents could possibly outsell them.

Like Dear Stage, Comiket provides alternatives—alternatives to white-collar work or blue-collar labor, and alternatives for socializing and personal expression. Sure, not every indie creator is going to make it big, but the
possibility is there. This possibility is just the release needed by youth who have fallen off the fast track or feel suffocated by society. Perhaps the Lost Generation isn’t drifting as aimlessly as everyone thinks. Perhaps they’ve been heading towards their appropriate clusters this whole time.

Once enough of these clusters amass, they form autonomous bodies with clear goals. In 2008, high school student Fujishiro Uso gathered disparate art communities from cyberspace and transported them into physical gallery space. Creators from Pixiv, Nico Nico Douga, 2channel and beyond leveraged social networks like Mixi and Twitter to magnify the manifesto of a new creative movement christened Chaos Lounge. Otaku culture was fed up with being marginalized by the mainstream, and the time hds come to hijack the architecture of the Internet to spread the message.

Art by Chaos Lounge's Umezawa Kazuki. (Source)

Their canvas would be the very room housing their installation pieces. Their palette was not limited to colors, but absorbed existing art and found objects in creating barely coherent pastiches, collages of characters familiar enough to be from any given anime, while generic enough to elude recognition. Much like the moe-ification of Akihabara, this terraforming process gave the nomadic Chaos Lounge tribe temporary bases—a place to belong.

Looking back, what changes did their post-modernist cultural revolution spark, if any? They transformed a hotel room into a free-form art commune, participated in an art battle royale, and created clothing for an Ura-Harajuku select shop, not to mention hosted nearly a dozen of gallery events. But aside from the praise provided by fellow otaku artist Murakami Takashi, Chaos Lounge has faced sharp disapproval, and from their supposed in-group at that.

Otaku, acting as the self-appointed governing body of the Internet, are hyper-judgmental of everything, especially their fellow brothers-in-arms. Vocal critics trash Chaos Lounge for being derivative, while fundamentalists expound that the institutions of art and otakuism should be kept separate. Murakami was flamed by his peers for these same reasons. Despite the glut of incriminating Dinner with Waifu photo dumps on 2channel and
yatte mita “Check me out” videos on Nico Nico Douga, otaku expect each other to follow the same code of ethics as the rest of the country. Namely, you’re free to be a huge weirdo if you want. Just do it at home.

These demotivational posters in the station send mixed messages posted when next to the "No groping" adverts.

The Generation Gap and the Culture Gap

How can Chaos Lounge be fighting for otaku art but be hated by otaku? Why is Hatsune Miku considered to be fringe music despite scoring Oricon rankings and corporate sponsorship? If pornographic dojinshi moves more units than certain weekly serials, what’s keeping it off the Cool Japan menu?

There is a glaring breakdown of communication between the youth, otaku, and government. 2.5D helps put this into perspective by redefining the rules of engagement. Essentially, all parties are concerned with anime, manga, and the resulting media mix. They’re just operating within different spheres of interest.

Video games, light novels, online culture. For the current crop of digital natives raised on their parent’s comic collections, there is much less social resistance to these things than in the past. What many consider otaku culture is actually youth culture—and youth culture is mainstream culture.

Which isn’t to say that otaku culture, however you chose to define it, is dead. It still lives on, though there is a widening generation gap that starts somewhere between the mid 80’s and early 90’s. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re standing on the old man side of this divide with personal biases that don’t necessarily apply to those across the growing schism.

Ironically, as the classic image of the moe otaku gets pushed further into the background, more and more people are beginning to identify themselves as having a bit of an otaku streak. This doesn’t mean that they’ve broken down and bought body pillows, however. Online shopping and the media mystique of Akihabara have lowered the barriers of entry to fandom, making it easier than ever for anyone to pick up a high-grade sculpt of their favorite One Piece character or visit maid cafes unironically. Attitudes towards the label “otaku” have changed dramatically following Densha Otoko, elevating the hanging albatross into a self-depreciating badge of pride with a glint of sub-culture hipness.

One time Olympic athlete Narita Domu is proudly married to his snowboard and enjoys a more robust sex life than his average countryman.

This new breed of “light otaku” has been warmly accepted by business analysts and the tourist industry. A shrinking population means shrinking markets, unless you can find a way to convert new consumers to your product. Anime and manga manages precisely this with its comprehensive marketing blitz. Media mix casts a wide net of ancillary products guaranteed to snag a few fresh faces from the pool. Once you let yourself go with the flow, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself purchasing some non-obtrusive character goods. After all, there’s not much difference between a moe blob and loosely-designed (though endearing) yuru-chara when they’re dangling from your cellphone.

With their mindless grins, local mascots make collecting useless baubles charming as opposed to a social faux pas. (Source)

Of course there’s more to being an otaku than mere consumerism. Following the success of Haruhi and Lucky Star, location hunting is back in a big way. Fans embark on seichi junrei, or pilgrimages to holy sites, to soak in the ambiance of the locales that inspired a title close to their heart. In the same way that Hatsune Miku concerts convert digital MP3s into a live listening experience, location hunting connects fictional settings with real world space. It’s the perfect motivator to get out from behind the computer screen and travel the country.

Between this, Tesujin-28 and marbled beef, Kobe has everything. (Source)

Accidentally showing up in an anime is the smartest PR move a city can make. Washinomiya shrine is the classic example—its visitors more than quadrupled after it appeared in the opening credits for Lucky Star. Capcom has organized a series of tie-ins featuring the locales and feudal battlegrounds from it's Basara series to make a pretty penny off reki-jyo, or female history buffs. The former Toyosato Elementary has since opened its doors (and vendor stalls) for K-On! groupies. Over the past few years Ueda City has organized summer festivals that coincide with the events of the Summer Wars movie. The otaku factor is free money for municipalities that are ready to capitalize on it.

The question, then, is what qualifies an otaku? The label means something different depending who you ask. The dictionary defines it as a person who is passionate and deeply knowledgeable in a specialized field. Culture critic Azuma Hiroki adds a post-modern twist by making them “database animals” in search of instant gratification. Gainax founder Okada Toshio holds them as a persecuted sub-sect who are the modern inheritors of Edo’s artisan culture. And psychologist Saito Tamaki deftly describes them as anyone able to get their jollies from nekkid cartoons.

On the one hand, this analysis comes off as an exercise in navel-gazing. And in a way it is, especially for those who consider being an otaku as part of their identity. But let’s not forget that anime and manga are serious business. A 2008 white paper produced by the focus group Media Create found that the combined sales of the otaku industry to be 186.8 billion yen (about 1.65 billion USD at the time), with nearly half of the sales from dojinshi.

The Economy Minister has his eyes set on Akihabara as a key to economic growth. Dentsu is primed to form an otaku think-tank to better market anime abroad. Cool Japan has evolved into Vibrant Japan, and if their sponsorship of AKB48 as the official face of the campaign is any indication, they’ve moved even further away from the pulse of what makes their country hip. They have otaku culture centered in their sights—except this makes them blind to youth culture, the lifeblood moving things forward.

If you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor to see Nemu-Chan and the other members of her unit in action, you don’t need to risk taking the plunge deep into Akihabara. Denpa Gumi is taking their act straight to Shibuya, the center of Japanese youth culture. And they’re not alone. Walpurgis Night, a Madoka Magica-themed DJ party, visited the city last June for an evening of anime song exuberance. Clusters like J-Geek are fighting to bring moe pop to the masses. To paraphrase an old otaku adage, "When there’s no room left in Akiba, the maids will walk Shibuya." With the appearance of the digital wonderland Maidreaming, it only seems like a matter of time before the prophecy is fulfilled.

Honestly, the whole scene, from denpa to dojinshi to experimental art, is not my thing. But without anything constructive to add to the ongoing movement, my opinion is practically irrelevant. Whatever these crazy kids are up to seems to be going well enough without curmudgeons like me mucking it up.

Given the alternatives
either staying holed up in your own personal bubble or doing the responsible thing by grinding your life away for just above minimum wagewhat they're doing is commendable, a faint beacon of hope for potential entrepreneurs that reaches beyond the otakusphere. The harsh realities facing Japan may not be so simple as to be flattened down to 2.5D, though this new perspective affords overlooked possibilities.

Notes and tidbits


The entire concept of 2.5D discussed here was kick-started by its namesake company. 2.5D is a “Social television network,” meaning they regularly broadcast content over Ustream, a live feed service. Programming includes talk shows covering art, fashion, and music, as well as DJ events with a bent towards young creators and otaku culture. Shows are free over the internet, and for a modest fee, viewers can sit in on the recording at their studio located west of Shibuya.

Denpa-kei music

Denpa” literally means electronic signal or radio waves, like the one from your TV set. While the genre’s heavy use of synth and voice modulation seems to make “Electronica” a fair translation, Denpa refers to a more sinister type of signal--the invasive kind that makes the receiver go insane.

In 1981, a truck driver hopped up on amphetamines went on a stabbing spree in Tokyo’s Koto ward, killing four (including two children) and wounding two others. He claimed that signals sent directly to his brain commanded him to perform the murders. Although his plea fell through and he received life in prison without parole, his claim, along with recent scientific discoveries suggesting that electro-magnetism could effect the human body, popularized such schizophrenic and delusional stories as denpa experiences.

Denpa conveniently replaced the taboo term “kichigai” for describing the mentally unstable and quickly became the lingua franca for the subculture scene. Rock group Kinniku Shojyotai released hits like Denpa BOOGIE and Mr. Delusion about people being manipulated by outside forces.

In terms of modern music, it refers to songs made purposefully unlistenable, off-kilter, or even just plain weird that draws in fans simply for the sheer out-there factor. Better put on your tin-foil hat before clicking on the links above.

 Legality of Comiket

Despite the record-breaking success of Comiket, it and other dojin events have been skating on thin ice since their conception. Creating derivative works without explicit permission from the rights holder is clearly illegal, and as the handful of cases made by the publishers has established, indefensible in court. Dojin is only able to exist out of the benevolence of the original creator. So far, most authors have turned a blind eye to the issue for various reasons, thus allowing circles to thrive. This house of cards could soon collapse, however, depending on the direction things take in the current push by publishers for neighboring rights.

In brief, neighboring rights would allow publishers (and any entity involved in shaping or promoting the work) to effectively bypass the original author when making decisions regarding how the work should be represented. This includes launching an e-book version and, yes, pursuing legal action after pirates, including dojin artists. This has authors like Akamatsu Ken up in arms about what could be the first step towards wholesale seizure of creator’s rights by the publishers. More details here. And this is in addition to the looming specter of the TPP.

Lost Generation and The Zero Generation

As mentioned earlier, the Lost Generation are described as the youth left in the economic lull caused by the housing market collapse in the early 90’s. They’ve since adopted the mysterious moniker, Zero Generation (ゼロ年代). Led by cultural critics such as Hayamizu Kenro and Hiroki Azuma (see Genron), they are attempting to make sense of country affluent enough to be comfortable, yet with an income gap wide enough to cause disparity. How much is soul-searching worth in a wealth-driven consumer paradise? The Zero generation are aware that their gilded cage is beginning to peel and they are busy looking for a way out.

The 2008 White Paper on the Otaku Industry This report broke down the market into 5 categories: DVD/CD, published content, games (consumer products +PC), character goods, and dojinshi. I have been unable to find a similarly detailed document published any more recently, though Oricon rankings and others show that sales continue to grow, especially for light novels, mobile games, and dojinshi.

Denpa Otoko and the fall of Shibuya

In Denpa Otoko, a series of counterpoint essays, author Honda Toru trashes Densha Otoko for selling out and relinquishing his otaku habits for a set of Hermes tea cups and a warm bed. Honda refers to this exchange of physical goods for affection as “romance capitalism” and presents it as a conspiracy orchestrated by Dentsu and the mass media. The popular "pay to play" model is rotten to the core: Love for one’s 2-D waifu is the purest form of devotion, whether the sheeple realize it or not.

The cover is illustrated by Hanazawa Kengo of Boys on the Run and I am a Hero fame. All of his manga feature thirty-year underdogs, none so more prominently than his 2004 debut about unrequited virtual reality love, Ressentiment. In the not-too-distant-future, the young couples of Shibuya are replaced by otaku bachelors as Akihabara spreads its influence across the archipelago.

Shibuya's fate is then sealed with the 2008 visual novel CHAOS;HEAD. The clinically delusional cast flatten the city with a dementia-fueled earthquake brought about by the locales unique "gravitation error rate," which is pseudo-science for denpa.


  1. I really like your post. Living in Japan has advantage of seeing what things are really like. People like me living in the U.S., Otaku culture always seems exotic and mysterious.

    Being an old fan, I never understood how far Akihabara culture has reached the Japanese mainstream culture. I'm hardcore enough to know about the pilgrimage and those decorated Ita-sha fad, but Olympic athletes and modern art galleries openly embrace Otaku-centric sub culture?

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      It's defiantly more commonplace (in that it gets featured on variety shows), but is still played up for cheap laughs. When that dude showed up with his snowboard "wife," the studio froze over instantly.

      Still, all the coverage has made it so more people can stand up and openly admit without fear of (too much) reprisal that, "Hey, I'm no Densha Otoko, but I kind of dig this anime stuff."

      Akiba-centric stuff (moe) catches a lot of flack simply because it's highly visible: Easy to sensationalize, polarizing. Not actually as common as it seems, just hard to ignore when it's there.

      With that said, we're still far away from my ideal world where "ita-sha" means "Roadsters modded to be Redline vehicles."

  2. Yeah, Akiba stuffs are too flashy. I remember riding a bus back home, I saw this Asian college student (probably Taiwanese) carrying a messanger bag with large Moe girl picture printed on it. I don't know about other people in the bus, but I was thinking, "man, I don't want to get caught carrying that." Yep, I'm too old.

    Oh I forgot to mention one thing.

    When I read the last paragraph about potential entrepreneurs, I felt that not everything is lost. I remember reading a New York Times article which covered Japan's lack of entrepreneurs and well-educated young Japanese abandoning Japan's corporate system. Older generation doesn't seem to trust younger generation with their money to start a business based from innovation.

    It's strange for Otaku culture being a faint hope for young people to find alternative and to innovate on their own. Here in the West, Otaku culture is still viewed as non-productive hobby without clear future.

    If Comiket is one of the venues that motivate passive people to create and explore various narratives at low cost, then it's a good thing. It would be interesting if otaku culture inspire young engineers or scientists to innovate and to create start-ups, then there is a future. Are Japanese government and venture capitalists proactive on this matter?

  3. That sort of in-your-face apparel takes a high level of dedication to pull off. You have to be pretty deep in the lifestyle to convince yourself its worth it. I guess the same could be said of all extreme fashion.

    Government support for ventures seems to be steadily increasing. I think the real problem is the lack of a brain trust. There's no Silicon Valley-type environment for like minded people to gather and jive off each other. The possibility is there, but the infrastructure doesn't quite support it... yet.

    If only there was a Pixiv for scientists and engineers to make science sexy to young people. We're far beyond the days of Ultraman when every boy wanted to grow up to be a member of the Science Patrol.

    Assuming you are a creative young mind,