The Accidental Gaijin #4: Eclectic Electric Town, Part 1
I love punk rock, particularly 1970’s, British punk rock. I love the music, the fashion and the attitude. Especially the attitude. So living in a country where “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (“出る釘は打たれる”), my anarchic leanings, not to mention my preferred volume when listening to my beloved punk may not sit well with my neighbours. But music must be played, always, which happily places me in the market for a record player. But where in all of Tokyo can I find one? That would be Akihabara!
Punk in Japan!
If Nakano is the past, then Akihabara is most definitely the future. Sitting prominently on the circular Yamanote Line, this bustling area of Tokyo got its name from a local shrine honoring a fire extinguisher – seriously, Edo had a lot fires back then! Post war, the area soon became THE place to pick up electrical goods, initially household time savers, and more recently, computers, video games and audio gear, earning itself the moniker “Electric Town” in the process.
The game is afoot! Flickr/Hikosaemon
Rising from the stygian depths of Akihabara station, my first taste of “Electric Town” is noise. Deafening, high-pitched wailing noise. I’m plunged into a state of confusion as advertisements, music, car horns and the chatter of a thousand tourists, office workers and denizens of Tokyo thoroughly assault my senses. Eager to seek shelter from this indescribable din, I run towards the nearest door and enter a world I had no idea existed. The AKB48 Theatre.
The Theatre of Pop dreams. Flickr/Dick Thomas Johnson
Formed in Akihabara (ahhh, so that’s what “AKB” means!) in 2005, AKB48 are the zenith of manufactured pop, a fact this group wears proudly in its sleeve. The brainchild of Yasushi Akimoto, AKB48 was founded with the maxim “idols you can meet”, and in a genre where “Idols”, or pop singers are viewed as untouchable and otherworldly, this vision is paradise on earth for many (See Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, an excellent study of fame driven obsession in the idol world).
Perusing the gift shop, I’m immediately struck by how big this group is, both in popularity and actual members! With over 130 idols, with an age range starting from early teens to early 20’s, AKB48 are huge! More than a pop group, they’re a business…and business is booming! Every piece of merchandise imaginable sit on racks before me, from keyrings and posters to CD’s and arcade games (my personal favourite being Sailor Zombie: AKB48 Arcade Edition, in which the player uses a light a gun to vaccinate zombified AKB members).
Making a circuit of the shop, I spot a tantalizing curtain, drawn back to reveal a modest stage and an ever growing audience. A member of staff sees my inquisitive face peering into the theatre, and quickly closes the curtain just as the music begins – no free ride for me!
I exit the AKB48 Theatre and, once again enter the maelstrom of neon and noise of Akihabara, while musing on the popularity of this enigmatic super group. Britain’s most famous punk band, The Sex Pistols share a lot of similarities with AKB48. Both were manufactured to sell an identity, with merchandise to match (the Pistol’s played a huge part in launching the career of Vivian Westwood, a designer much loved here in Japan). Punk was all about anti-establishment and giving a voice to the disenfranchised youth in the last vestiges of post-war Britain, whereas AKB embody the very essence of “kawaii” in a culture that covets youth and beauty. Though opposite sides of the spectrum, they both, in their own way represent a voice for a very dedicated demographic.
The neon future beckons.
Shaking myself out of my musings, I focus on the task in hand…my quest to find a record deck worthy enough to play my treasured collection of vinyl! Heading towards the main thoroughfare of Electric Town, I freeze as I’m presented with an impossible vision of the future. To quote Dave Bowman from Stanley Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece, 2001 Space Odyssey… “My God, it’s full of stars!”…
Tune in next Wednesday to read the next exciting installment of Eclectic Electric Town!!
Is there any other areas of Tokyo you’d like me to visit? Though me your suggestion, making sure to add #accidentgaijin!