Two cops emerged from the car. Slowly they walked through the crowd, eyeing people up. Beside me, a young man with yellow teeth, Hiroyuki Nakajima, whispered in my ear: “The cops hate otaku. Only the Yakuza appreciate us – they support us. The cops just want to crack down on us. They hate Japan.”
“What are the police looking for?” I asked. “Unauthorised performance,” Nakajima said.
The backlash against the otaku began in 2008. The area was thriving. Fans flocked to see up-and-coming “idoru” like Misa, one of the many popstar-models who swarm across Japanese media. Every Sunday, Misa performed her particular brand of sparkling-toothed J-pop next to dozens of other amateur singers, all of them standing on the sizzling concrete in the Tokyo sun, emoting profusely, fists clenched to the sky, hoping for their big break.
But as spring unfolded, the district, already simmering with notoriety, began to boil. In April, one desperate young aspirant to idol-hood shimmied up a lamppost. Fifteen feet off the ground, she hitched her dress above her waist and flashed her underwear at her fans. She then descended and led them around the district like a kind of Pied Piperette. The police soon had her in handcuffs. Two months later, a man named Kato Tomohiro drove a rented van straight into a crowd of people, jumped out and began stabbing with a hunting knife. Seven died.
An association of older Akiba residents decided they’d had enough with what they perceived to be the weirdos turning their neighbourhood into a den of iniquity. Wearing janitorial jumpsuits and holding placards reading: “Street performances are illegal,” they marched down Pedestrian Paradise – Akiba’s main boulevard, which was closed to traffic every weekend for 35 years and had become a magnet for idol performances like Misa’s. Police followed behind with truncheons. Shouting, they dispersed fan gatherings and knocked people off their bicycles.
A week after Tomohiro’s killing spree, the Pedestrian Paradise was officially closed. Police began patrolling Akiba in packs. They stopped and searched anyone who looked too nerdy; they broke up idol singer shows and photo shoots, “otagei” performance circles and cross-playing otaku dance routines. And they arrested singers such the Pied Piperette.
Patrick Galbraith knows her. “Yeah, they got Asuka for disturbing the peace and indecent exposure.” He shakes his spiky yellow wig. Galbraith is a PhD candidate in information studies at the University of Tokyo, specializing in otaku studies. He’s also an otaku cosplayer himself.