Charles Platt on Akihabara, the Week Before the Massacre

My friend Charles Platt is one of the smartest people I know. Besides being a novelist, editor, and author of many non-fiction books, he's also a fine photographer, designer, and an astonishingly versatile maker of all manner of things. When he offered to write a monthly column for Boing Boing, I was overjoyed. His first piece is about a recent trip he took to Tokyo's Akihabara district.

Lost in Trancelation

Akihabara, the Week Before the Massacre

by Charles Platt

On a sunny Sunday, Tokyo's Akihabara district hosts an unrehearsed, ad-hoc street festival for fashion rebels and role-playing fantasists. Conventionally dressed shoppers outnumber the costumed exhibitionists by a significant factor, but the misfits make up for their minority status with their flamboyance. If you ever harbored a secret yearning to be a Victorian schoolgirl, a male transvestite, a French maid, or maybe a Japanese Elvis impersonator . . . or if you simply like the idea of looking strange among a subculture which will not only tolerate it, but celebrate it . . . here is a nurturing sanctuary. It's like a sunnier version of the Halloween festival in New York City, or a richer variant of London's Portobello Road. On the main drag of Chuo-doori, anyone with a secret self-identity can unwrap it for public display.

I'm here with two women: Erico, my Japanese-born significant other, and her female friend who is our guide for the afternoon and prefers to be referred to as "Kay" in this account. Intensely intellectual yet slyly playful, Kay is a sociologist who specializes in popular culture. She seems to relish the opportunity to show us how naughty the Japanese can allow themselves to be. "Which would you like to see first?" she asks with a bright smile. "Consumer electronics or porno stores?"

Servicing the needs of erotic costume play, this store also sells rice cookers.

Porno, of course–although Kay confuses us by leading us into a place that looks more like a U. S. drug store. We walk past utilitarian items such as band-aids and electric shavers before we come to a big section entirely devoted to clothing for cosplay, meaning costume play. As if by accident, almost all the costumes seem to have sex-fetish connotations, and I'm not just talking about trashy bedroom lingerie of the type that you can buy from Frederick's of Hollywood. It's a one-stop source for every clicheed female role in a sex video, from schoolgirls to nurses to maids. In fact, I find more maid costumes than all other categories put together. The cheaper ones are boxed, while hand-made items are on hangers.

Cheap frills: Packaged costumes for less than $(removed) apiece. Since the contents are not pornographic per-se, there seems to be no lower age limit for the model on the box.

Kay holds up a traditional black-and-white number, while Erico finds a pink-and-white frilly thing with a heart-shaped front panel, embroidered with a cartoon cat and captioned "Charmmy Kitty" (a Hello Kitty knockoff). It retails for 17,990 yen, which converts to about $(removed) Photography is prohibited in the store, but I manage to grab a couple of covert pictures.

My significant other and her sociologist friend (who prefers to remain anonymized) sample some maidware in one of the aisles of fetish garb.

The next aisle offers equal time for men, including clothes for stereotypical porno personae such as doctors and school teachers. I imagine Japanese couples at home getting into some sexy improv as they unroll their futons and don their teacher-student or doctor-nurse outfits.

From a western perspective there's a frisson of political incorrectness about dressing your female partner as a maid or (worse) a schoolgirl, but the Japanese, always so practical and unencumbered by a Judeo-Christian heritage, seem happy to celebrate the special niche that barely postpubescent girls occupy in the human species. This is, after all, the nation where Saaya Irie, an 11-year-old with unusually well-developed breasts, became a national celebrity as a bikini model. She was also the lead singer in a three-girl band with a name that translates as "Sweet Kiss."

The store also sells sex aids such as lubricants and vibrators–and confusingly, since it has no actual pornography, it welcomes teenagers as customers. Therefore, while offering clothes to make adults look like kids, it also sells products for young people, meaning, regular toys as well as sex toys. There's a big stock of (nonsexual) video games, and a whole aisle of coin-operated machines of the type where you try to control an articulated grabbing claw that reaches down to pluck stuffed toys from a display bin. Here's your chance to win a giant teddy bear with polyester fur, or a cuddly blue alien with a beak. Maybe it'll excite your girlfriend even more than her maid's outfit.

Outside the store I pause to watch other customers entering and leaving. A significant number are costumed, at least to some extent. I'm especially impressed by one who looks like a flirtatious younger version of Mary Poppins. Twirling her parasol, she moves with poise that can only have been perfected after long hours practicing in front of a mirror. But even the everyday shoppers are dressed to impress, with imaginative accessories and, of course, fashionably brown hair.

Two fairly typical Akihabarans pose obligingly in their shopping garb.

Akihabara also has its share of traditional-style porno stores. Kay guides us to one, and we walk upstairs past the usual racks of schoolgirl-humiliation comic books, alien-sex anime, and photographs of women with simulated semen all over their faces. Beyond this predictable material I notice a plastic machine inside a large display case. It looks like a pink, four-legged spider, designed to straddle the hips of a recumbent male. A powerful motor resides in its bulbous body, from which a humanoid arm extends, terminating in a cupped hand, about the right size to clutch an erect penis. I try to imagine lying underneath this thing while the mechanical hand applies rapid cyclical stimulation. The idea induces instant castration fear. Perhaps it would seem less threatening if the prosthetic arm was a tad less muscular, or clad in a sleeve from one of the frilly maid costumes.

Kay evaluates the masturbation machine with a professional air. "In all of my studies," she tells me, "I have not found a machine of this type in any other country. It is unique to Japan."

Also unique to Japan–at least, compared with the constitutionally-correct environment of the United States–is a sign that says, in Japanese, "No women allowed beyond this point." Since I don't want to leave my two companions stranded on the stairs, we abandon the porno store and follow Kay down a back street to another small four-story building, this one containing half-a-dozen cafes where the maid-costume motif has reached its apotheosis. These are the "maid cafes."

Blushing with embarrassment, this apologetic maid notifies potential customers that her cafe is closed today. Fortunately, many others remain open for business.

We climb bare concrete stairs and enter a small coffee house. The decor is drab and the place is utterly undistinguished except for its waitresses, who are petite teenage actresses dressed in maid outfits. We seat ourselves on cheap black vinyl chairs at a small rectangular table surfaced with wood-grain Formica. Our maid comes to serve us, with her head bowed submissively. Since our self-conscious smiles indicate that we may not be treating the situation with appropriate respect, she drops to her knees on the grimy vinyl-tiled floor. Having thus indicated her willingness to do almost anything to please, she asks in a barely audible voice if we are ready to order.

I notice that almost all the other customers are men. They avoid eye contact and are dowdily dressed–indeed, they look as dowdy as the cafe itself. Few people speak, no one smiles, and there is an air of suppressed sexual tension. A man sitting alone at a nearby table receives a portion of something that looks like waffles. The maid who served him picks up a squeeze-bottle and creates a gooey red heart of ketchup in one corner of the plate.

The customer stares at the heart. His eyes widen. He gropes for his cell phone, pulls it out, and tries to take a photograph. With a little spasm of submissive apologies and fluttering hand motions, the maid indicates that this is not allowed. She summons her supervisor, who brings a Polaroid camera. The only photographs permitted here are non-film and non-digital, and you have to pay about $(removed) to get your one-of-a-kind print.

Purely by coincidence, the woman dressed like Mary Poppins, whom I saw earlier, is eating here, perhaps because she feels that an upper-class Japanese-Edwardian such as herself should be served by maids. I ask Kay to ask her if she is willing to pose for a formal portrait in the street. Mary Poppins only has to think about it for a brief moment before she agrees.

Homage to Julie Andrews?

Such is the carnival atmosphere of Akihabara, I attract virtually no attention as I stand on the asphalt, fussing with my camera, trying to get an angle which allows enough light on the features of my subject, whose parasol tends to hide her girlish cheeks in shadow. She's very patient, and her smile never falters. I think she'd be happy to pose out here for a full hour, if necessary. After I take her picture, she writes her email address on a piece of paper (torn from a cute little note pad) so that I can send her a jpeg. Then she wanders off in the manner of an actress in a silent movie.

(Subsequently, after I email the photograph to her, she sends me an appreciative reply that reads like a haiku: "Giving is a light as for the photograph. It is taken more beautifully than the thing. Moreover, it comes to Japan." I'm impressed by these poetic metaphors until I copy them to Kay, who sends a dismissive response: "I guess she used automatic trancelation machine in internet." Yet Kay's text itself is a lingual feast, with its spontaneous portmanteau word, "trancelation." Since Akihabara induces a kind of trance–in me, anyway–what could be more appropriate? The propitious collisions between Japanese and English go far beyond anything James Joyce could have imagined.)

Now we have some serious business to attend to. Kay wants to buy a waterproof DVD player that she can hang in her shower, so she leads us into one of the electronics stores. It's like a giant carnival midway, a bombardment of flashing lights, posters, banners, screens, loudspeakers, and hucksters with microphones, creating sensory overload that reminds me of the slots section of a Las Vegas casino. The store has an advantage, though, in that its Japanese-sized patrons are only half the size and weight of American consumers. Thus, the aisles can be minimized, allowing less room for people and more floor space for flashing, screaming, blinking, booming, chanting, blaring audio-visual and computer-driven devices.

When we escape back to the street, I feel myself decompressing. It's now mid-afternoon, and Akihabara is richly populated with eccentrics. The maid motif recurs as I see two young women in frilly brown outfits gathering litter and depositing it daintily in transparent plastic bags held by more-or-less normally dressed men. This seems to be an endearingly gentle political statement about environmentalism.

Likewise, a costumed male teenager wearing a white mask and home-made helmet holds his own garbage bag, coming off as a comic-book superhero whose mission is to fight trash.

Other outfits are harder to interpret, such as the pale-blue nun outfit of a transvestite whose miniskirt exposes muscular legs.

Even off-the-peg T-shirts worn by skinny females with the obligatory brown hair are printed with English phrases that I find impossible to decode. "Justify splendid change the mold push along ravishment," says the shirt on a girl in front of me–with a picture of skull and crossbones. Maybe this, too, was created by "trancelation" software. Maybe all you need to do, to write avant-garde poetry, is pump a few English words into Japanese and then suck them back out as English again. I'll give it a try right now, using Google's translation algorithm. Maybe I should load it with sixties argot, since the Japanese enjoy riffing on obsolete American culture. I type, "Cosmic consciousness kick out the jams." After disappearing into Japanese it re-emerges in English as "Space kick aware of the congestion." Yes, that's it, that's it!

The only grim-faced people in this festival of harmless self-indulgence are a few cops, looking red-faced and bad-tempered, perhaps because in this sweet-natured crowd they have no function, and are mostly ignored.

Akihabara is an anarchic system, self-generated by its participants. As Kevin Kelly demonstrated in his beautiful and important book, Out of Control, many anarchic systems organize themselves spontaneously without supervision or direction.

The problem is that while they may be benign to their participants, free gatherings of gentle people are especially vulnerable to malign outsiders.

On June 8th, 2008, just one week after my visit to Akihabara, the party was over–for a while, at least. Twenty-five-year-old Tomohiro Kato, believing (wrongly) that he had just been fired from his menial job in an auto parts factory, took advantage of Chuo-doori being closed to vehicles on Sundays. He drove a rented truck through some traffic cones into the pedestrian sanctuary and killed three people by running them over. Then he abandoned the vehicle and killed four more with a knife.

According to Japan Times, Kato preceded his rampage with posts to a web site asking rhetorical questions such as, "Should I run down people with a car because everybody makes a fool of me?" and, "Am I incapable of having friends?" He also referred to "eight years of life as a loser ever since I graduated from high school," while The Straits Times quoted him as texting from his cell phone, "I'll be ignored because I'm ugly." Japan Probe quoted a sibling as stating that Kato had an authoritarian mother who enforced brutal discipline at home.

This repressed and lonely man, haunted by feelings of inferiority, was a frequent visitor to Akihabara, perhaps because it seemed a comfortable environment for a misfit. Yet I imagine him as a voyeur rather than an exhibitionist, maybe even growing to hate the costumed role-players who lacked the inhibitions that he suffered himself.

His attack provoked predictable responses, from backlash against violent video games to demands for stricter laws controlling the possession of knives, and Akihabara promptly lost its favored status as a boulevard closed to traffic on Sundays. In the months since the attack, the neighborhood's fashion show has resumed, but you cannot wander freely along Chuo-doori anymore, just as you can't wander freely onto an airplane anymore, and for exactly the same reason. One isolated act of violence can always justify a loss of individual liberty.

The great idealist William Burroughs described a mythical city named Interzone, where, as he put it, "Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permitted." On a summer day in Akihabara I experienced a cultural singularity which almost made me feel I was in a place that allowed that kind of freedom. Alas, such a laissez-faire environment tends to be fragile at best.