From my latest column in today's Daily Yomiuri:
SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / On the front lines of Japanese pop culture
Near the end of last month, I took two groups of graduate students to Akihabara, the eastern Tokyo neighborhood that remains the mecca of Japanese pop cultural artifacts and trends, and ground zero for the domestic marketing machine. I was skeptical at first. While not all of the students are Japanese, they all live in and around Tokyo, so a short train ride to Akihabara wouldn't really qualify as an exotic excursion, let alone academic "fieldwork."
But both trips turned out to be revelatory, largely owing to the characters who hosted them.
The first visit involved an exhaustive, three-hour tour of the neighborhood's honeycomb of nooks and crannies, its iconic otaku landmarks and legendary vending machines. It was hosted by Patrick Galbraith, an Alaskan transplant currently researching the impact of information technologies on otaku culture at Tokyo University. On weekends, Galbraith dons a bright orange costume and a spiky wig--becoming a dead ringer for Goku, a character from the international anime hit, Dragon Ball--and leads groups of wide-eyed foreigners on tours of Akihabara.
For the students, Galbraith was exceptionally generous. His knowledge of Akihabara's history and current manifestations is impeccable. Even amid venues I'd visited several times before, he managed to make the neighborhood's alleys of obsession and warrens of obscurity feel vivid and layered, like a promising archeological dig.
The second sojourn was hosted by the manager of a maid cafe, one of those themed sitting rooms in which young and middle-aged men are served by young women in French maid costumes who flatter their customers. The manager happened to be articulate and frank: an entrepreneur in a frilly smock. She advised the students to pay attention to her business methodology. "There are over 80 maid cafes in just a few blocks," she announced, spreading her arms toward the windows. "You have to be special to survive ..."
[read more here]