I spent the past week chasing otaku in Tokyo. Otaku are geeky fans who love comics, videogames, and music - and in Tokyo there are so many otaku that they have created their own nightlife scene. Here's what it's like.
For geeks in the West, it's difficult to imagine what it would mean to have so many brethren that you could create your own urban neighborhood. Imagine something like a New York Jewish neighborhood, or San Francisco's queer neighborhood - except instead of hasidim and Castro Clones, the place is crawling with nerds.
Every otaku pleasure, from comics and videogames to electronics and cell phone jammers, can be found in Akihabara. Locals call the place Akiba.
In Akiba, surrounded by salarymen, students, and cosplaying hipsters, I discovered what happens when geeks roam free. They build massive, multi-story buildings devoted entirely to selling manga (comics) and action figures.
Imagine: Seven stories of comic books and toys, ranging from the commercial franchise tie-ins to humble self-published yaoi manga just for teenage girls. A retailer called Super Potato occupies three floors of a lowrise and sells nothing but vintage videogames and console systems.
Tiny stalls fill every available alley and cramped corridor, their proprietors hawking LEDs, batteries, vacuum tubes, obscure chipsets, audio jacks, breadboards, wires, plugs, and more.
There are a Gundam Cafe and a Linux Cafe. Truly, Akiba is nerd heaven.
At least, if you're a guy. Though there are more and more female otaku all the time, most of them tend to occupy a very narrow niche in Akiba. You can find them in the girls' section of the manga and toy stores, or you can worship them as idols.
Photo by Stephanie Yanez.
Literally. Akiba nightlife is built around fandom, so going out dancing means showing your devotion to idols who sing to you from small stages all around the neighborhood. You get together with your buddies at an idol club where young women aspiring to be pop stars whip the audience into frenzies of adoration. Otaku demonstrate the depth of their fandom by mixing a love of music and anime into the strange, silly, and wonderful form of dancing called otagei (sometimes transliterated as yotagei).
Led by our excellently geeky guide Fumi Yamazaki, a journalist and tech community organizer, my friends and I went to a famous idol cafe called Dear Stage to see (and hopefully learn) otagei. Otagei means "otaku tricks," and is a combination of ota from otaku and gei from geisha. Indeed, people who do otagei refer to themselves as otageisha. It's both a series of dance moves and an elaborate ritual to show your fandom for a particular idol. Outside Dear Stage, we saw posters for the idols who appear at the club.
The otagei phenomenon is so widely-known that a Japanese TV show aired this funny segment on how to learn otagei moves, all of which I saw at Dear Stage last Thursday night.
Dear Stage is three stories, with the first floor devoted to the idol performances and otagei we'd come to see. A tiny stage plastered with idol posters was raised above a dance floor no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment, and it felt packed with about 25 fans in the room.
Cover charge was a fairly cheap 500 yen, and for that price we also got a drink tickets. On the second floor you could get food, and on the third floor was a bar that piped the show from below onto several video screens. After their performances, the idols would always promise come up to the third floor and mingle with customers.
In fact, the idols' relationships with the otaku are part of what makes the performances at Dear Stage so incredible. Otaku come to Dear Stage to worship, and the women come to be worshiped. They banter with the audience, imitate otagei moves to get everybody going, and do everything they can to create the feeling they're the kinds of idols you can interact with. Maybe you're interacting with them for real, or maybe it's more like an interactive videogame. Either way, it was obvious that the most popular idols knew how to work the crowd.
Photo by Stephanie Yanez.
As the performances started, just a few people swayed to the music. An older man in a suit waved his arms excitedly back and forth. A skinny guy at the edge of the room bounced from foot to foot, wiggling his elbows. But then one of Dear Stage's most beloved idols took the stage, and the whole crowd immediately went crazy, pumping the air with fists and fingers, jumping up and down, spreading their arms wide as if to embrace the idol when she sang a slow section. And it was all done completely in sync. Yes, an entire room full of otaku moved as one. You can see a little bit of what I saw in this video that journalist and io9 pal Lisa Katayama took at Dear Stage last year:
One of the women working at the club told us that most of the performers hope to become idols, true pop stars. And their aspirations aren't outlandish: A couple of performers from Dear Stage have gone on to superstardom, and a couple of the women we saw perform had already been on TV as backup dancers.
About half a dozen idols took the stage one after the other, singing and dancing to their adoring fans. Some had CDs for sale, some had professional backup dancers, and some bashful beginners were clearly just trying to spark a little otagei from the crowd. Watching everybody dance in sync, as the girls on stage flounced, pouted, or rocked their hearts out, felt like the most awesome thing in the world to this geek. I found myself jumping up and down, flinging my hands into the air, trying to dance like a real otaku. Never once did I feel dorky because, dear reader, this was the dance of the dorks. It was a nightlife experience made just for people like me.
After the stage show was over, Fumi and I talked to three of the otageisha who had some of the best moves. They said that Dear Stage was the only place to find otagei during the week, and therefore it attracted only the best and most hardcore of fans. They explained that otagei is not about bringing glory to the dancers - in fact, most otageisha prefer to remain anonymous, and use pseudonyms to communicate online. It's all about loving the idols. One of the otageisha, still wearing his workaday business suit, told us that he used to think otageisha were completely weird, until he became a fan of one of the idols at Dear Stage and got hooked. He learned otagei just by imitating what other people did - "The whole point is enthusiasm," he added. His fellow otageisha nodded, laughing.
It grew late, and finally we tumbled out the door, having drunk scotch and coffee and our fill of fandom and its objects. Outside Akiba was still swirling with light, beckoning us into every form of idolatry and obsession. The music might be over at Dear Stage, but we could always feed our desire for music by buying J-Pop from a 7-story building that sold nothing but idol music and anime - or building our own stereo system. This is the way of the otaku.
Later this week, I'll bring you more reports of otaku life in Akiba, including my trip to a maid cafe called Pinky.
All photos by Annalee Newitz, except where indicated.