In which HD ponders the merits of meidoculture, delves a bit into Akiba history, and comes up gasping and sputtering for breath. Maids in Akihabara: can there be too much of a good thing?
After last week’s trek into Akiba I came to the realization that the maids have got to go.
It wasn’t a sudden revelation brought on by a particularly flagrant miscasting of the staff of Moe Burger. It wasn’t even the maid union’s infiltration by Communists. No, this was a Eureka moment brought on gradually by their insidious growth in the district, spreading like cold sores over the bloated carcass of the otaku body politic; a growth I have had the pleasure – mixed with increasing horror – of witnessing first hand.
My first visit to Akihabara was in the misty and far-off past of 2002. Upon exiting the train station I was greeted by a desperate gaggle of race-queen rejects trying to hand out some sort of advertisement or other; in Tokyo you learn quickly to avoid making eye contact with these people and move by as quickly as possible to keep from having unwanted junk shoved into your hands. It’s especially prevalent in Akiba as staff from the various electronics stores crowd the sidewalk at strategic points and press-gang you into listening to their promotion for Flets Broadband or a new type of security camera built conveniently into your shoe; find a Japanese person to put between yourself and the onslaught and you can usually get by unscathed.
Over time, however, the face of Akiba has changed. I can only speak to the change that has occurred in the time since I arrived (which of course post-dates far more significant changes to the district in the 80’s and 90’s), but to my eyes the past four years have seen a startling revolution.
It started with the opening of the slick new JR station to replace the old grungy one. Signs of masturbation in the bathroom stalls that used to fade into the woodwork now stood out against the gleaming tile; people who skipped the bathrooms (a wise choice) now felt like they were entering one of the more upscale Tokyo districts, a vibe reinforced should you exit on the non-Electric Town side of the station where huge high-rises were thrown up over the years, with chic restaurants and shiny electronics megamarts housed on their more accessible floors.
The old grungy carts trundled on Sundays in the district by old grungy men that sold the best obanyaki and okonomiyaki you’ve ever eaten disappeared after the fall of 2002, gone without a trace. In their place, gleaming crepe stands and signature coffee shops. Asobit City lost its huge Chuo-doori location to a pachinko parlor and was relegated to a pair of small thin high-rises up the street. Gamers lost its original location to a figure shop, a realdoll brothel came and went, K-books closed its doujinshi division and Toranoana slowly extended its evil empire.
Throughout all of this, the maid presence was slowly growing. In 2002 there were perhaps half a dozen maid or cosplay-based establishments in Akihabara and surrounding districts; seeing anyone in cosplay on the street was a rarity if it occurred at all. At some point, though, someone realized the incredible commercial potential in using icons of moe as sales vehicles. The rise of the overt maid presence in Akihabara corresponded with the rise of Akiba Blog and similar trendspotting websites that provided brutally effective viral marketing for the meme, along with its reinforcement in popular games, anime and manga dating back to the late 90’s that have only continued to grow in commercial appeal in the current decade.
Over the past few years the gang of incongruous race queens who used to dominate the Electric Town exit of the JR Akihabara station has increasingly seen its territory usurped by these black-and-white clad moe mascots, toting wicker baskets full of flyers, smiling prettily and letting their outfits do the work for them. I don’t feel too bad for the race queens; they’re about as out of place in Akiba as they would be trying to promote their wares at the gates to Mecca during Muslim pilgrimage season, after all.
For this reason, when they first appeared I didn’t mind the maids at all. I anticipated the grudge match sure to ensue between them and the race queens as they battled for supremacy in front of the JR ticket vending machines, a battle which sadly has yet to occur on my watch (hey, that’s a killer idea for a doujin. Memo memo).
Over time, however, the maid presence has grown. They’ve multiplied like rabbits in the fertile fields of a moe-crazed populace, fed by steaming heaps of dung in the form of the Densha Otoko phenomenon and the A-boy boom. It’s to the point these days where anywhere you stand in Akihabara a quick survey will reveal maids as thick as Starbucks in Shibuya or drunken American sailors in Roppongi or Kleenex in my waste paper basket.
Japan is, at its heart, a nation of cosplayers. From McDonald’s employees to teachers in training to gas station attendants, not to mention students, nurses, flight- and bus-attendants, elevator operators, and the thousands of Santas lining the streets in December, half of the Japanese population is in a fetishized uniform at any one time. But with this recent maid explosion, a line has been crossed.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of the outfit in general. But as a representation of the crass commercialization of moe and otakudom in general the maid-in-Akiba has no peer; she has gone from a rare creature worthy of respect for parading around in public in a bizarre fetish costume, undoubtedly just as steeped in the culture as you are, to just another uniform to be taken off at the end of the day before a hard night of clubbing or doing whatever it is they do to those poor baby seals.
I don’t want to go too far down the path of essentializing maid-dom as some pure and virtuous art that has been lost as it begins catering to a lower common denominator. Girls who dress up as maids have no doubt always had their own mysterious motives for doing so that are as diverse as our motives for blogging about them. Instead, I will stand and point at the gross oversaturation of the market and say that yes, there can be too much of a good thing. Scarcity driven by diversity is a virtue of itself and will ultimately be realized by a maturing market, but right now, there are TOO DAMN MANY MAIDS.
Like Kris Kringle’s crusade to rid the world of drunken Santas, Saint Patrick‘s crusade to rid Ireland from its snake problem, and Discipline: Record of a Crusade, the time has come to drive the menace of surplus maids out of Akihabara. They’re crimping the style of upstanding citizenry who are just trying to purchase electronics and suspicious manga in peace, they’re getting underfoot, frightening small children, and obstructing traffic with their photo-ops.
I’m not going to go as far today as to suggest a method to the madness that would be required to de-maid Akiba or rid its streets of the dark subversive forces of moe (though the wrath of the abovementioned race queens may play a part). I’m merely going on the record in opposition to its increased ubiquity and accompanying mediocrity. Keep maids maids, I say, and don’t let the proud black and white that is their hallmark slip into the ignominy of mere uniformdom.
As it is, Akihabara is in danger of being pigeonholed as a gaudy theme park for the A-boy set and those wanting a day trip to experience a fistful of cleanly packaged and commodified counterculture. The in-your-face maid presence is only the most visible symptom of Akiba becoming “slick”; if it is to be preserved as a sanctuary for otaku the world over more must be done to preserve the seedy grunge factor that allows its counterculture to flourish. If the buildings are clad in gleaming white tile, where do we blend in?
this post may or may not be appended with colorful, attractive images at a later date.