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It's Not So Fun to be an American Otaku in Japan? - - OTAKU COMING HOME

Nick’s back, having visited every nerdy video game, book and toy store in Japan (some of them twice). So, why isn’t he more excited?

Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...

Before I left for Japan, I made a list of topics I planned to write about when I came back. Some of them felt like fluff at the time, but I figured I’d find the material to support them while I was away.

I thought about leading my post-Japan articles with a travelogue, or some discussion of all the cool specialty stores and my nerdy observations throughout the trip. I wanted to return with glad tidings from the motherland, pictures to excite, and the promise of a better nerdy world. We’ll chat about that stuff next week for sure, but I think this takes precedence.

Electric town, all lit up. It's sort of like being in Times Square, but... nerdier.
Electric town, all lit up. It's sort of like being in Times Square, but... nerdier.

One of those fluff pieces was going to be about the excitement in Akihabara’s “Electric Town” - - an otaku haven littered with towering shops full of anime, manga, video games, soundtracks and toys. And I mean literally towering. A lot of them were between six and eight floors tall, each stop dedicated to one type of merch or another.

Sound like your idea of heaven? Not so much, I’m afraid.

Unless your heaven includes tons of maid cafes, like Maidreamin (hidden off to the left here). Then you'd be all set.
Unless your heaven includes tons of maid cafes, like Maidreamin (hidden off to the left here). Then you'd be all set.

Last time I was in Japan, I only got to make one, horribly jet-lagged stop in Akihabara and I didn’t come away with much of anything. I blamed it on being exhausted at the time and, this trip, made a concerted effort to get back there more than once after acclimating to the time difference. We had two weeks in Tokyo and were just a few subway stops away - - getting back two or three times wasn’t out of the question, especially when we had a slow night planned.

So it was there that I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the globalization of otaku culture has stripped down the joy of being a nerd in Japan.

WHY ARE YOUR COLORS SO LOUD?!
WHY ARE YOUR COLORS SO LOUD?!

Let me backtrack and explain a bit...

As I mentioned in my first OTAKU COMING HOME article, I’m a bit long-in-the-tooth as far as my otaku nerd cred is concerned. I spent my more formative years buying fansubbed VHS tapes, scouring the greater Southern New York area for import games, books, toys, models, statues, soundtracks, and yes, the aforementioned bootlegs. There was a thrill in that hunt, an excitement in discovering something new that you didn’t know existed. An element of camaraderie between fans in our niche world.

That part of me is what I channeled when I hit the insane streets of Akihabara, walking up Chuo-Dori, the main drag lined with flashing signs, video game ads, costume shops and all those towers of geek heaven waiting to be conquered. And so my wife, my friends and I charged inside each of them, armed with disposable cash in hand and extra suitcases in our rooms.

My mission was clear: buy all the things.

Including this mech from ZONE OF THE ENDERS. For some reason, the airline wouldn't let me check it as luggage, though.
Including this mech from ZONE OF THE ENDERS. For some reason, the airline wouldn't let me check it as luggage, though.

The thing is, as we enthusiastically climbed all those stairs (and there were a lot of stairs) we saw the same things over and again. Not the same products (though there was some of that), but something much more disappointing.

All this stuff was readily available online. The toys, the vintage video games - - everything!

And a lot of it for the same price, if not cheaper (even if you did factor in exchange rates and shipping). I know because I checked when we got back to our hotel room and I was empty handed. Most every “new and exciting” anime or manga I found was immediately followed by the realization I’d already heard of it. FUNimation was streaming it already or Viz was translating it.

There was little to discover for our once-cozy niche of geekdom. It may have originated in Japan but it’s since exploded all over the world, leaving little thrill in the hunt.

Shockingly, this manga hasn't been picked up for domestic release yet. It's OK, though. Give it a week and you'll see a press release about it.
Shockingly, this manga hasn't been picked up for domestic release yet. It's OK, though. Give it a week and you'll see a press release about it.

By our last visit to Akihabara, we weren’t climbing all those stairs to expend our electric energy anymore. Instead we were casually, almost dismissively, taking the elevator. There was a certain novelty to seeing displays overwhelmed with merch, but even that began to fade almost as quickly as it appeared. Fourteen-year-old Nick, who’d been bursting with the prospect of being unchained in the motherland, wept, withered and nearly died while I was away.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t buy anything in Akihabara. By the second and third trip my wife and I had managed to pick up a few art books, but most of our haul came from bookstores and CD shops that weren’t in Akihabara. Chains like Book-Off and Tsutaya yielded better finds by far than most anything lining Chuo-Dori.

Funny enough - - a bunch of the art books we picked up have already been, or are slated to be, localized in the states.
Funny enough - - a bunch of the art books we picked up have already been, or are slated to be, localized in the states.

Luckily, being otaku was not our only reason for going to Japan.

All four of us grew up with a socially crippling obsession with anime, manga and video games, but it also instilled a love in us for Japan’s rich history and culture. While our afternoon trips to Akihabara might have been disappointing, we more than made up for it with visits to Nikko, Mt. Fuji and Hie-Jinja. We ate sushi in Tsukiji caught that morning, Kobe beef in Akasaka, and cheese ramen in Ebisu. We met penpals for the first time and made new friends.

So maybe the fourteen year-old Nick was unhappy. He didn’t get to blow his bankroll the way he’d hoped, after all. Instead, grown-up Nick was almost overwhelmed with excitement by everything else he found in Japan - - including some other geeky hangouts, actually. Come back next week and one of those Nicks will tell you about that wonderful stuff.

Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.

sickVisionz moderator on Nov. 15, 2012 at 2:40 p.m.

Sorry that it sucked for you. What exactly were you looking to find? Most series, especially modern ones, do make their way over to the US but nearly all of the merchandise associated with them stays in Japan and a little bit of it shows up at anime conventions.

VinceAon Nov. 15, 2012 at 2:55 p.m.

Cat Shit One did get released here in the US (as Apocalypse Meow) from ADV Manga:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalypse_Meow

NickTapalansky staff on Nov. 15, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.

@sickVisionz:

Oh man, sucked is the last word that comes to mind when I think of anything about this trip. It really was a hell of an experience, and even this, which was a bit disappointing from a nerdy perspective, still had its perks.

As far as what I was looking for, I think it was the hope that I'd see things that were new to me. I miss the adventure of discovering something exciting, be it a new series or some new, exclusive merch. Thing was, even the merch, which, like you said, typically doesn't get localized, was familiar thanks to the internet. And like I said in the article, most of it was priced pretty similarly when you factor in shipping and exchange rate.

I guess, in truth, I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I was looking to rekindle a set of feelings and experiences that I'd always associated with the thrill of anime shopping. That ship has sailed in the modern age though, and the adventures of discovery are now largely undertaken on a screen rather than going from back alley shop to back alley shop. It's just the march of progress, and it's not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes digital progress inadvertently tramples over fond, analog memories.

@VinceA:

Haha! Wow. I should have Googled that first, huh? But thank you for making my point - I just stumbled on this while we were over there and had a chuckle, figuring SURELY this hasn't been localized yet. The fact that it has just goes to show that you really can find most anything domestically these days, even CAT SHIT ONE.

Petiewon Nov. 15, 2012 at 5:04 p.m.
Whenever I go shopping for games or manga or whatever I instinctively look for names, designs or character art that I recognise. It's rare that I leave with something I've never heard of before or went in intending to buy. 
You might have passed up the on the 1/1 scale Moe Moe Z-Cune from Akibaranger or some rare Sora no Woto figure since you weren't specifically looking for them. (Subsitute for other series if you're familiar with these)
Do you think that might have contributed to it feeling like there was nothing new or exciting to find? 

Series like FMA and Persona are really popular over here too, the merchandise is somewhat limited and makes its way out of Japan fairly quickly. I can see why it would be dissapointing to see that stuff everywhere.  
Glad the rest of the trip was enjoyable though! Looking forward to the other articles.
Kino88on Nov. 15, 2012 at 6:46 p.m.

LONG LIVE THE PALACE OF POP!, THE KINGDOM OF COOL!! LAND OF THE RISING FUN!!!

Eyzon Nov. 16, 2012 at 12:48 a.m.

Awwww :(

Still, what a tale and it certainly was a much more fun experience than my boring week :/

NickTapalansky staff on Nov. 16, 2012 at 4:26 a.m.

@Petiew:

That's almost definitely part of it! I'm no all-seeing, all-knowing Oz, so I'm totally sure there were things I may have glossed over. Inside those shops it's pretty easy to get overwhelmed by everything that's falling off the shelves, screaming "BUY ME NICK-SAMA!"

I have to say though, that I recognized WAY more than I would've thought, even from stuff I don't personally have experience with, and that's what was surprising to me - so much of it was familiar! I'm sure, by the end of our second visit to Akihabara, I just sort of checked out and may have missed some of the less prominent stuff, but I find it hard to believe that I wouldn't be able to find it online if I knew the name of the show/book/character.

That's sort of what I'm lamenting - the ease of the hunt these days. Digging through stores in Akihabara would have been an irreplaceable experience to me fifteen years ago. Now it's something I can do in another tab while I write this reply.

@Kino88:

Cheers!

@Eyz:

Hahaha! Yeah man, like I said earlier, even something disappointing was still over 9,000 times better just by virtue of being in Japan. It's a beautiful country full with tons of experiences outside of the otaku culture. And even the novelty of the otaku bits was enjoyable, once I separated it from the hopes/expectations I went in with.

Still two more articles to come on my trip though, so don't worry - you can live vicariously through my tons of pictures! We actually came back with just over 4,000 but don't worry - I've limited you guys to about 1% of those to keep you from going nuts. If people actually WANT to see more, I can see about getting another travelogue together for the site with all the touristy things we did - the shrines, Mr. Fuji, etc.

EamonBDocon Nov. 16, 2012 at 6:03 a.m.

Rats, someone else knew Cat Shit One was Apocalypse Meow! I wanted to burst your bubble! ;)

AlexEL staff on Nov. 16, 2012 at 11:08 a.m.

@NickTapalansky: maybe it's like shopping at borders. you can find the big stuff but you gotta dig deeper into the neighborhood stores to find the real secret shit.

NickTapalansky staff on Nov. 16, 2012 at 11:18 a.m.

@AlexEL:

That was the weird thing - outside of Akihabara there really weren't any non-chain stores to be found. At least, not that we saw... I'm sure they're out there, though. Lot's of Tsutayas and Book-Offs, but only one notable hole-in-the-wall shop otherwise (which didn't have any great secrets hidden in its wares but DID have better prices on used video games).

Credit where it's due though, those chain stores outside of Akihabara were where I did most of my spending. I think it was a matter of them being less obscenely crowded (with merch AND people) that gave me a chance to browse without insane amounts of sensory overload.

@EamonBDoc:

GUUUUUUUUH!

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