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Young girls in elaborate goth, maid and schoolgirl costumes advertising cafes, throngs of teenage boys and not a few old men engrossed in the latest video game or comic, blazing cartoon advertising along the skyscrapers and a constant electronic buzz in your ears – this place exists and it’s called Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronic, anime, manga and all-things-nerd emporium and sensory overload combined. But that doesn’t really begin to explain the place.

Akihabara has a little bit of everything that makes Tokyo a place unlike any other. This is the place you go to buy electronics of all sorts, where you can go to a cafe and hire a cat for an hour and play with it while you drink your coffee. This is the place where high school nerds will queue for hours alongside 40 year-old husbands to buy special release trading cards or photos of some new girl group. This is the place where pachinko parlours and game arcades molest your senses with lights, smoke and a wall of electronic noise. This is the place where technology and obsession meet geek culture and fall desperately, briefly in love, and then go home alone to their tiny grey apartments. Of all the bizarre excesses of Akihabara’s strange subculture, I was heading for one of the strangest – a maid cafe.

Here’s the business model: open a cafe on the 7th floor of a commercial tower in Akihabara; staff it with outgoing 19 to 20 year old Japanese girls dressed in impossibly cute pink maid outfits; keep a few of the prettiest girls out on the street with placards to draw in the geeky male customers wishing to indulge in weird yet innocent fantasy.

Let me preface this by saying I would never go here without a female Japanese friend accompanying me, which made me feel more like a detached observer than a part of the scene. As soon as the crappy steel elevator opens you enter a world of bright pink, the waitress maids welcoming you in sing-song Japanese. You sit down and a maid serves you a menu, addressing you by name and ‘master’ as you fill out an order form. The choices are expensive set menus including drinks, dessert, food, and your choice of either playing a board game with a maid for small prizes, or a photo of you with a maid of your choice.

Maids advertising their cafes

The customers were more fascinating than the maids. Aside from a few tourists and curious types, most of the patrons were lone Japanese guys, sitting quietly and scarcely interacting with the maids, reading a book or playing a videogame quietly. These unique specimens are otaku – members of a peculiar subset of Japanese nerd subculture, they are mostly young men with a passion for manga, anime and videogames, but socially they are something like exiles or recluses, and many of them spend most of their time at home avoiding the world. In fact, the word otaku actually derives from a word meaning ‘your house’ and although I only just made the connection when writing this, the maid cafe I went to was called @home cafe. Actually, otaku really just means anyone with a strong passion for something, and is rather harmless. The guys in the maid cafe fit the classic Akihabara otaku stereotype, but there are many others. Hell, I could be considered a Korea otaku!

The guys in the cafe looked a lonely bunch, and they seemed to find some degree of community from hanging out, either in groups or alone, at a place like this. I wonder how much of this Akihabara maid cafe stuff is just posing and nonsense, and how much of it is a genuine community.

It was all fascinating and fairly innocent fun, but the whole thing raised a lot of darker questions. What kind of person would actually come here regularly? And clearly many of the customers were regulars. What bizarre fantasy-need do these maids fulfill? Cute is the name of the game, but underneath the absurd costumes these girls are totally normal Japanese girls, mostly university students working part-time. But behind the playful innocence of the whole thing there is an obvious unspoken darkness. There is a pseudo-sexual element to the cafe experience – in the mind of the customer rather than the maid, who just does this for a job, gets changed and catches the subway home. But do the customers always know how the lines of fantasy are drawn? The house rules of the cafe best sum up these unspoken issues:

  • Don’t ask the maids personal questions.

  • Don’t touch the maids physically.

  • No maid is allowed to leave the cafe with a customer.

Like they say, it’s all fun and games, until someone gets hurt. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating, only in Japan experience. On the way home I noticed a maid leaving another cafe and heading home, looking very exhausted in her pink costume. Passing another maid in a black and white school-girl outfit, they nodded tiredly at each other, alternate fantasy universe workers changing shifts. It felt like catching a fleeting glimpse of modern day geisha. And that feeling too, was pure fantasy.