Adventures in Akihabara: Silicon Sasquatch Tackles Japan

In March, Silicon Sasquatch senior contributor Doug Bonham spent four weeks traveling through Asia. Here is a first-hand report after seeing Japanese gaming culture, specifically in Tokyo, up close and personal. All photos by Doug Bonham, 2010.

Japan has had an undeniable influence on the video game industry. One of the main reasons why I began studying the Japanese language, why I continued studying that through to an undergraduate major, and why I am now in a graduate program with a focus on east Asia is because of my love of video games, and this historic influence. I can’t deny my nerdy roots.  That curiosity has turned into a respect and academic desire to study other cultures, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say gaming sparked some of that. That is how I found myself spending a month in Asia in March, traveling through Japan, South Korea, and China, visiting factories and hearing business lectures.

From the early 1980s arcade era to now, Japanese hardware and software developers have been leaders and innovators in this medium. Whether it’s Nintendo, Sony, Sega, Square-Enix, Capcom, Konami, or any of the other developers down the line, these companies established a worldwide legacy. I’ve played games for my entire life, studied Japanese through high school and college, and sat through the grueling trans-Pacific flight — I could hardly wait to touch down in Tokyo and see Japan for myself.

On my first full day in Tokyo, I took an afternoon trip out to Akihabara — the heart of Tokyo’s nerd and otaku culture. Electronic shops large and small line “Den-Den Town,” the nickname for the area near Akihabara Station where the district focus is sharpest. Want to see advertisements for PC components from Asus and Intel up the side of a building? Or multiple large arcades right on the main boulevard? You’ve come to the right spot. You’re also in the right spot if you want to delve into the depths of Japanese – ahem – taste; right across the street from the Akihabara Station exit is a five-story sex toy and pornography store, where the floors go from tame to what-the-hell as you head up. Tiny Japanese girls dressed in costumes passing out flyers for maid cafes while standing on the street sidewalks.

Off the main streets are, just as in most every section of Tokyo, a series of narrow side-streets that offer up a menagerie of storefronts — maid cafes, anime and manga stores, pachinko parlors, small hole-in-the-wall stores, hobby shops, electronics stores of all varieties…everything you can imagine. I wandered down one such alley and ran smack into a hobby shop that specialized in die-cast model cars; next door, their sister store had tons of plastic Gundam models. That is Akihabara in a nutshell — a haven for nerds.

Every one of the major chain stores — whether a Yodobashi Camera, Bic Camera, or Sofmap — provides a vertical experience. Floor space is at a premium in Japan, so stores tend to be multi-floor affairs; point-and-shoot cameras here, SLRs on the next floor up, audio on the third floor, gaming on the fourth. In a way, it’s very similar to a Best Buy or Fry’s in the United States; I’d argue it’s better because, certainly for camera lenses and accessories, a Bic or Sofmap was much better stocked than any consumer electronics store I’ve been to here in the U.S. That said, the other thing I notice about the new game sections is how much shelf-space is dedicated to each different console; the Nintendo DS was far and away the leader, with the PS2 and PSP following, PS3 and Wii showing decently, and Xbox 360 there, but without a large presence. The Xbox 360 displays were often nice and similar to kiosks at stores in the U.S., but were probably there through contractual agreements as opposed to real demand. If there were any PC games in Japan at stores, I certainly didn’t see them at all.

Yes — handheld gaming appears to rule to roost in Japan right now. Riding the Yamanote Line around central Tokyo, I would often see people sat down with their noses buried in their cell phone, DS Lite, or PSP. And, judging from the shelf space each took up in stores, the handhelds have become most popular in terms of mindshare amongst gamers.

Whereas the only people you’d expect to pull out a DS on a train in the United States are grade-A dorks, it seemed like all walks of life had one in Japan; young women, young men, even businessmen had gaming consoles out and about. For all the worship of how common gaming is in Japan from obsessed otaku in the United States, it comes off as exactly that — common, ordinary.

Yes, there are Nintendo ads on the trains; it’s not an earth-shaking event, it’s just a part of everyday Japanese life. Nintendo is as common in Japan as Disney in the United States. Imagine how you’d act if Asians came to the United States and were stunned at how common Disney franchises were. Actually, it’s a decent comparison; while Disney characters and properties are viewed as being for children in the U.S., plenty of my friends from Asia (especially the girls) have Disney products, and they are in their 20s. It’s not too far a stretch to stereotypically view gamers in a similar light in the U.S. Gaming culture has dissipated into many more areas of Japanese life than American, but it’s not as deified as some American nerds would like to believe.

That said, if you are an American nerd with a love for Japanese games and gaming culture, then traveling around shopping districts in Tokyo is like going through a candy store. My experience at Book-Off, a chain of Japanese used book, CD and game stores, tells this story incredibly well.

Analogous to walking past a Barnes and Noble or Borders in an outdoor mall in the U.S., the Book-Off branch I went to in the district of Ikebukuro in Tokyo looked just like a book store. Little did I know what I would find inside: aisles of games, both new and used. It was only after walking halfway down an aisle and running into old Nintendo Famicom cartridges that noticed it was a wonderful treasure trove.

From Famicom to Dreamcast, a large section was dedicated to older used games…almost all of which were listed at only ¥500, or roughly $5. I would have bought a Japanese copy of Chrono Trigger had I known it would work on my SNES. The variety and quality of the games was stunning; few looked truly ragged, most of the newer titles were boxed with instructions, and the selection was wide-ranging. The PlayStation 2 section was half an aisle unto itself; I picked up a Japanese-market-only Winning Eleven title for ¥500, while import copies go for nearly $70 in the U.S. There was also a selection of systems and used accessories; the first-party Dreamcast arcade stick that goes for $60 or more in the U.S. was sitting in a bin for ¥200, right next to a $25 Super Famicom and a ¥100 used Saturn.

I looked around Akihabara for the famous used game store Super Potato, but despite wanting to see a legendary retail location, I found almost everything I would have wanted to buy and bring home at that Book-Off. It speaks to the ubiquity of gaming that so many generations of games — literally every generation of Nintendo software and hardware was represented, from Famicom up to Wii and DS XL — can still be found in Japan. I wanted to buy another suitcase only for Book-Off purchases, but discretion was a better plan. I will return, though.

While there may be some misnomers about the Japanese market, and there is worry that consoles are waning in Japan, there is little doubt that gaming is still important. What form it continues in may be up for debate, and the audience for gaming may shift as demographics skew older, but games have cemented a place in Japanese popular culture.