Yesterday's TV news programs overflowed with breathless reports of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police swarming Tokyo's famed "Electric Town," Akihabara, to shut down otaku street performances. Although obviously staged as a publicity stunt -- suspiciously well-informed camera crews outnumbered the officers in many shots -- you can catch the broadcast highlights here and here. "An Army of Cosplayers has Taken Over City Streets!" warns one headline. "Cosplayers Versus the Authorities!" screams another.
For those not in the know, Akihabara's main drag is closed to traffic every Sunday, making it what the Japanese call a hokosha tengoku -- a "pedestrian heaven." And over the last five years or so, it has become a veritable heaven for otaku as well. The train station exits throng with vendors and performers; the visitors are an eclectic mix of families out for a walk, shoppers on the lookout for the latest electronic gear, die-hards dressed like their favorite anime characters, and starry-eyed tourists (many of whom appear to be budding otaku themselves). Spontaneous performances by amateur musicians, singers, and dancers decked out in the latest goth-loli fashions give everything a sort of geeky Mardi Gras atmosphere. (Well, minus the alcohol and sex, anyway.)
It is this last segment of Akiba's population that is incurring the wrath of the powers that be. For one thing, ad hoc street performances are officially against the law. And for another, there is no question that at least a few of Akiba's denizens are getting bolder with their shows, resulting in a spate of complaints from residents and businesses. Sunday's crackdown comes on the heels of a highly publicized incident last month in which a fading pinup girl was arrested for deliberately exposing herself to throngs of otaku camereamen eager to document the mysteries beneath the miniskirt. (The TV reports helpfully identify these obsessive gents as "Low-Anglers.") Televised footage of yesterday's crackdown included plainclothes officers threatening maids with jail time while groups of green-jacketed citizen patrollers marched the streets with "no performance" signs.
Amusing incidents abounded. "This is supposed to be a pedestrian heaven! But you're making it a pedestrian HELL!" shouted one young man at a policeman in a scene that might have felt tense had the lad not been dressed in a schoolgirl uniform. Is this the new face of protest movements in Tokyo? Can we expect legions of bandanna-wearing cosplayers facing off against a "flying wedge" of Pepo-Kuns anytime soon?
Before you get your own schoolgirl outfit in a righteous twist over freedom of expression on the streets of Electric Town, it's important to bear in mind that the police acted professionally at all times, and no actual arrests appear to have been made. For better or worse, there was absolutely no sign of the Super Kawaii Tactical Assault Vehicle. And perhaps more to the point, the the exact same thing happened two years ago and otaku culture lived to tell the tale.
Still, in the short term at least, you can expect Akiba to have a little less pizzazz than usual. By the time I arrived on the scene at 4 o'clock, a light rain was falling and the streets appeared utterly devoid of otaku. Only a few of the hardier maids were still handing out tissues and ads for their shops, and the only "performance" in the normally energetic square in front of Akiba UDX was by a "sound truck" full of right-wingers blaring nationalistic propaganda against holding the Olympics in China. Which begs a question. If one were truly interested in making the streets more comfortable for businesses and visitors of all nationalities, why exempt these political bullies from the public nuisance regulations that are used to target otaku performers?