So, I don’t believe it is possible to discuss otaku and Japan without mentioning Akihabara. As such, this feature will be on the history of the district.
Akihabara is named after a former, local shrine named Akiba (秋葉). The shrine in turn is named after the fire wielding god of the same name and was built in 1869 after a fire destroyed the area the district currently inhabits.
The name “Akihabara (秋葉原)” is the shortened version of “Akihagabara (秋葉が原),” which literally means “Autumn Leaf Field.”
During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), the district was a 30,000-square meter, flat land. Locals had intentionally cleared the area to prevent fires from reaching Edo Castle.
Next, the people built a shrine during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) known as “Chinka” at the location within the district of the deity Hibuse.
In 1925, Akihabara station began to accept passengers. It was used only for cargo transportation beforehand.
The surrounding area then became a fruits and vegetables market because of the provided transportation.
World War II arrived and passed. It was the mid-1940s. Japan’s radio technicians and electronic engineers returned home to few jobs awaiting them. When they did find work, they could only make objects such as electric rice cookers.
They desired to rebuild Japan economically, so they asked for all of the country’s engineers to gather at Akihabara. The engineers knew technology could make this happen for the nation. Their desire was to build more radios, the most advanced consumer electronic at the time, for the people.
Consumer electronics included televisions and refrigerators a few years later. From about 1960 to 1970, electronics stores which produced major, household appliances established stores in the district.
Danny Choo notes that DenDen Town in Osaka also underwent this type of growth. I definitely recommend checking out his article over on Culture Japan for some awesome photography of and his personal experiences in Akihabara.
The 1970s witnessed the rise of the personal computer, and subsequently, computer stores appeared in the area.
In the 1980s, video game stores started to propagate in the district. Presumably, major game companies such as Nintendo and Sega had arcades and possibly offices in Akihabara. Non-affiliated, small business arcades and retailers were there, also.
Akihabara was known almost exclusively as a consumer electronics district through the 1980s and half of the 1990s.
According to Choo, around 1995, Akihabara became a popular destination for anime, manga, visual novels, and so on, signaling its start as an anime and Japanese cultural otaku mecha.
In my previous article, I explained that the otaku movement started in the late 1970s to early 1980s. People went to conventions and called each other “o-taku,” a euphemism for “Hey, you,” at this time. It’s possible the conventions they attended in Akihabara, DenDen Town, etc. solely featured consumer electronics.
This is where the figurative definition from the Oxford Dictionary for otaku comes from. Let’s revisit that definition:
Notice that anime is not mentioned directly in the definition. It clearly falls under popular culture, and it possibly is the most well-known of Japan’s popular culture.
However, that was not always the case. Consumer electronics, including video games, defined an otaku beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, not anime, manga, visual novels, etc. We can assume then that otaku started calling each other this phrase at video games and consumer electronics conventions before any other.
This definition has evolved since then to include those media, of course, but computers and so on are still a major part of the definition.
If you think about it, this could mean a non-Japanese person who loves Japanese technology but not anime, etc. can still be considered a foreign otaku. I certainly do.
So, now, we have two perspectives so far in this series: the history of the otaku movement and the history of Akihabara, both to before the new millennium. There definitely is more history to cover, and that is coming soon. I pause here in this post and in “The Origins of Otaku” because I believe the otaku movement of this time has a unique perspective, a unique perspective which I would like to discuss in an upcoming feature.
Choo, Danny. “History of Akihabara.” Culture Japan. N.p., 12 Aug. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.
Cybriwsky, Roman. Historical dictionary of Tokyo. Scarecrow Press, 2011
“Tokyo Travel: Akihabara.” Japan-Guide.com. Japan-Guide.com, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.