By Michael Mygind
This past March, my wife and I were able to make a trip that I’ve wanted to make since I was little: Japan, the land of the rising sun, anime, manga and the video game developers that helped the industry recover from the crash in the early 80’s and make it what it is today.
While my previous post pertained to the trip and the sights, this post will focus on the climate of “Nerd culture” within Japan. While I’m not a fan of the term, it serves as an all-encompassing term for video gaming, anime, manga and toys.
Nerd Culture in Japan
In the US, you might have noticed the resurgence in recent years of references in our popular media to what I’ll grudgingly refer to as “Nerd culture”. In Japan, video games, anime and manga are embedded into their everyday lives on a mainstream level and have always been. This is best exemplified by the massive Gundam statue at the Diver City Mall in Tokyo. The attention to detail on its visible mechanisms was so meticulous that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it fly off.
Rows of Gachapon toy capsule machines are found frequently with toys based around popular anime series and video games including Megaman (AKA Rockman in Japan) and Sengoku Basara.
Buildings in the Akihabara district, AKA Electric Town, are covered in Sega logos and ads for anime shows. At a time when Sega has been reduced to the role of publisher and is having financial troubles, it was refreshing to see their logo everywhere. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the Nintendo headquarters (Only the outside. Tours arent allowed.) as I had hoped.
A life-size statue of Hatsune-Miku, a popular virtual pop-star of sorts who has been referenced in both anime and video games, stood near the entrance in the Trader electronics store in Akihabara. On walls in the subway stations, it’s not uncommon to see ads for Tokusatsu TV shows and movies.
On one night in our hotel, I even watched a game show based around Taiko Drum Master. While rhythm games like Guitar Hero have peaked in popularity in the states and have since been thrown to the wayside, Namco’s popular drumming game is still very accepted in Japan where it is worthy of a TV show featuring competitive play by professional gamers.
It’s commonplace to go into a gift shop and see souvenirs such as charms of Mount Fuji with anime characters sitting atop such as characters from Attack on Titan or a wall scroll featuring Darth Vader, a rickshaw, and a paper lantern. I even saw quite a lot of chewing gum featuring characters from Dragon Ball Z on the packaging.
Pachinko parlors can be found everywhere in Japan as the only legal way of gambling. Pachinko gets a pass since you are technically buying the pachinko balls that you play with and are then selling them back for a payout. While the one particular parlor that we really looked at seemed way too intense and full of cigarette smoke to go into, it featured dozens of games with licensing based on the Fist of the North Star and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series of anime, games and manga.
Unlike in the states, the arcade scene is very much alive and within reach. I noticed about five different arcades in Akihabara, four of which were run by SEGA, the fifth by Taito. We were only able to visit one, which was quite overwhelming. The first two floors of Club Sega were dedicated to claw machines full of large anime figurines. As we walked through the maze of redemption games to find the stairs, J-Pop blared. The third floor was dedicated to games that worked with collectible card games. Once again, I was out of my element. Gamers sat pulling cards out of giant binders to make their next move. When we finally reached the fourth floor, I was welcomed to a smoky room full of candy cabs featuring retro and fighting games that included just about every popular Capcom and SNK franchise from Street Fighter to Metal Slug. I put in 100 yen (Or 83 American cents) for two credits on Capcom vs SNK and was able to get to the final level with my Terry Bogard and Kim Kaphwan against Balrog and M. Bison (AKA M. Bison and Vega in Japan, respectively ). Though the match was close, I wasn’t able to pull off the win. As time was an issue, we had to move on. The fifth floor was full of driving games, light gun shooters and touch screen games.
In the states, comic books and graphic novels are primarily read by a younger audience, but in Japan, manga is widely accepted and read by just about everybody. While commuting in a packed subway car in Tokyo, you’ll notice passengers both young and old quietly reading manga of all genres as they travel to/from work or school. In the old-fashioned hotel that we stayed at in Fujikawaguchiko, a gigantic library of manga was available in the lobby for guests to read. This is the equivalent to a Holiday Inn in LA with bookshelves full of Marvel and DC paperbacks. You just don’t see this in the states. They also had an Ultraman story book that I had to skim through.
Collectible and vintage toys were also quite a common site in many of their shops. The thing with toys and retro video games, which I will be discussing in the final installment of this recap, is that they are all well within reach in areas such as Akihabara. I even found a toy shop nearby the Seno-Ji temple that had vintage toys from the 80’s including an awesome talking Robocop figure.
The overabundance and accessibility of anything pertaining to “Nerd culture” was mind blowing. Unlike in the US, you really don’t have to look for it. After all, this is where most of it originated and rose in popularity before reaching our shores. It was just another example of culture shock that became clear to me.
Part 3 – “A Suitcase Full of Games”: I go retro game hunting in the motherland of video games.
Part 1 – “Impressions of Japan”: A breakdown and random thoughts of our trip.