On streets once packed with housewives or couples shopping for refrigerators and microwave ovens, hundreds of thousands of nerds — mostly men between about 18 and 45 — now wander through the area’s multi-story comic warehouses and elaborate game arcades. Eyeglass adjustment kiosks compete for space with shops selling nondescript dress shirts and thick leather shoes.
There are bigger-ticket items, as well. With some analysts estimating the Japanese geek market to be worth as much as $19 billion a year, companies are jostling to cash in. One Akihabara antique electronics boutique displays an intact 1985 NEC computer, gingerly housed behind glass, with a $2,500 price tag.
“We have been discriminated against for being different, but now we have come together and turned this neighborhood into a place of our own,” said Yamagata, nursing his tea as he sat with a portly computer technician friend at Akihabara’s Cos-Cha, one of a dozen “maid cafes” in the neighborhood. Here, the waitresses’ uniforms are inspired by the French maid-meets-Pokemon outfits of adult manga. At other cafes, waitresses greet patrons at the door with a curtsy and the words “Welcome home, master.”
Sociologists and urban planners compare the phenomenon to ethnic and social enclaves such as New York’s Chinatown or San Francisco’s gay Castro district, born of a blend of discrimination and shared cultural cues. Japanese geeks are outcasts in a society known for its rigid social norms. But their culture has gone mainstream.