The Decline of Akihabara

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A reporter for The Register visits Tokyo’s Akihabara district and finds it’s not quite the tech paradise that he was hoping for

Step out of the station’s “Electric Town” (denki machi) exit today and it’s difficult to see what all the fuss is about.

Along spotlessly clean pedestrian precincts you might spot the odd PC or computer parts store but for the most part it just looks like the rest of Tokyo – restaurants, cafes…, pubs and bars jostle with karaoke emporia, book shops and endless branches of the ubiquitous 7-11.

Cross the main thoroughfare – Chuo Street, which bisects the district – and the streets get narrower, the otaku (geeks) a little thicker on the ground and it’s all generally a bit more “Akiba”, as the locals call the area.

You’ll see the odd store here devoted to electronic parts, used PCs, smartphone accessories, gaming gear and even spy cameras, but still – where’s all the cutting edge tech? Where’s the unusual and bizarre gadgetery we’ve been led to believe only Japan can produce thanks to the curious Galapagosization of its technology industry?

The answer lies partly in an overzealous mayor who has for several years been driving out the old electronics shops to replace them with shiny glass and metal tower blocks like Akiba Ichi – filled restaurants and offices – or gigantic family-friendly mega-tech department stores like Yodobashi Camera.

This is pretty consistent with my own observations but I suspect the redevelopment is more a symptom than the cause.

Akihabara’s reputation as Gadget Central peaked in the late 1990s, in the early days of the Internet. Today someone who wants to buy high-tech gadgets can find a better selection and lower prices on the ‘net. This leaves little room for the specialized boutique electronics stores that the district used to be famous for. If you want an innovative gadget that no-one else has you would probably do better to look on Kickstarter.

Meanwhile the anime and manga stores and the maid cafes continue to flourish and expand. Their otaku fans aren’t just looking for something that they could buy on the Internet. They want a chance to get together with like-minded people. And for mainstream tourists there are the shiny new department stores selling upscale mass-market goods.