Maid Cafes – vs. sex appeal and Freeters…

[Benjamin Secher wrote this article for the Daily Telegraph…the rise of the otaku is here…forget withdrawal think ‘maids’…and hell if i went it would be about sexiness and novelty value. These girls are just cute idols? Cute=sexy…]

The busy café, above a computer shop in central Tokyo, is called Diana du Cupid; the girl who opens the door is dressed as a Victorian maid. In her frilly lace hat and immaculate white apron, she’s pretty convincing, although the thigh-high skirt and black leather boots are a little incongruous.

“Welcome home, sir!” she says, with a smile – even though I’ve never been here before – then ushers me into a room filled with more maids, serving tea and chat to a mainly male, adult clientele. It looks like a scene from a cartoon come to life and, in a way, that’s exactly what it is.

Maid cafés, which are springing up across Japan, are just one sign of the latest cultural boom to grip the nation: the rise of the otaku. A largely invisible subsection of Japanese society, otaku are the legions of agoraphobic technophiles who, from the obscurity of their bedrooms, fuel the country’s multi-million-pound markets for video games, anime (animated cartoons) and manga (comic books). They have long been demonised by the media, their self-centred, anti-social approach to life blamed for everything from the declining economy to the disintegration of the family unit. But, two years ago, along came a book that changed everything.

First published in 2004, Densha Otoko (“Train Man”) is the “real love story” of a painfully shy computer programmer and a sophisticated woman whom he meets on a train. A peculiarly Japanese twist on the beauty and the beast myth, it was written in the style of an internet chatroom exchange – the postings of a hapless nerd negotiating his first romance, running alongside the encouraging responses of an anonymous community of online “friends”.

Although it feels a little like Bridget Jones’s Diary as written by a jargon-obsessed IT student, it became one of the year’s best-sellers, shifting 1.5 million copies in nine months. A smash-hit film adaptation and prime-time TV series followed. In each reincarnation, the spluttering otaku hero was treated not with the disdain that has been traditionally heaped on his sort, but with affection.

The phenomenal success of the book and its spin-offs rocketed otaku culture into the mainstream, making it acceptable, even desirable, to be openly nerdish. Discerning Tokyo youths have started swapping their designer shades for bottle-bottom spectacles, taking their girls for dates in Akihabara, a neighbourhood lined with electronic emporia.

Businesses rooted in the otaku aesthetic are duly claiming their place on the high street: none with more fanfare than the maid café. The concept is a simple, if strange, one. Customers go to these cafés to be mollycoddled, to drink tea and play children’s games with one of the maids. It’s not about sex, but about escapism: the maid outfits are inspired by a standard cutesy cartoon character; the customer gets to play the fictional hero.

It would be tempting to dismiss the otaku boom as just another of those oddities that come and go in modern Japan, but the enduring popularity of Densha Otoko suggests that it runs deeper. Shy, sensitive, unfeasibly knowledgeable about microchips, the otaku male may yet become as potent and curious an icon of noughties Japan as the overworked salaryman was in the 1980s.

Really interesting opinion from the animenewsnetwork discussion:

This article and others like it seem to give too much credit to the maid cafe phenomenon as something that impacts on daily life here. Articles on maid cafes may serve as human interest stories but I’m going to disagree with the writer’s conclusion that the otaku is going to become an icon for the 00s in the same way that the tired salary man was for the 80s.

I believe that when people look back upon the current decade, it’s not going to be characterized by the otaku boom (which will probably be a footnote), but by more serious changes to the economic and social pillars of urban society. Just to name a few: the rapid growth of the Freeter, the spread of the 99 yen grocery store, and the development of major complexes such as Akiba’s Yodobashi Camera.

Freeter generally refers to people who do part time work available at the thousands of convenience stores (and other positions) around the country, which don’t require the employee to place a strong commitment to their work as would other jobs. Employees of Family Mart don’t have to work long hours or go drinking with their work buddies each night. Many people of all age groups, but particularly high school graduates, find the freedom of the Freeter lifestyle appealing and join their ranks (with encouragement from Freeter magazines and other such publications that help people to find Freeter jobs and live the Freeter lifestyle); the problem is that while working as a Freeter offers leeway, it doesn’t allow for future savings, and many of these people may find it difficult to support families in the future. I’ve seen far more television news programs on Freeter here than I have on Maid Cafes.

Then there are 99 yen stores that sell more than just the flimsy goods you would expect. Stores such as Q are major on the urban scene here. I have two within a five minute walking radius of my apartment, one of which is two floors, and more are being built every day. They sell everything from fresh chicken breast to grapefruits imported from Jaffa (Israel), and offer many of the same products available at other stores for a third of the price. The lines at these stores are often considerable but the choices are vast and the prices unheard of. This is a complete revolution not only in the cost of basic foods, but in the elimination of the traditional middle men which cause food prices here to jack up (as otherwise 99 yen for chicken breast just couldn’t be done), as well as the fact that the possibility of such cheap living helps to bolster the Freeter system (some of whom in turn work for Q).

And then there’s the building of major complexes such as Akiba’s Yodobashi Camera, whose gracious point card system and low prices compared to other shops mean this store- which has a spacious, western-style design that is unlike that of many other cramped Japanese electronic marts- is always full. The mega complex has spread from Akiba to Osaka, indeed the mega Yodobashi Camera I saw there is built next to Osaka station. The popularity of Akiba’s Yodobashi camera, which opened only a few years back, means its highly likely other companies will give the megamart a go.

This is just a sample of all the major changes that have happened in this country. The otaku boom and made cafes are interesting, but I’m suggesting that they are ultimately less important than made out to be.

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