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What a picture from 1985 Akihabara says about 2023 Japan
I’m ostensibly on vacation this week, so I’ll keep this short, but I want to talk about this photo. It was taken by Neal Ulevich in 1985 for a book called A Day in the Life of Japan. The book was one of a popular series that sent armies of photographers to various countries, who would shoot over the course of a single day to capture the lives of people around the world.
This shot was taken in Tokyo’s Akihabara, the electronics district, and it perfectly captures a moment of transition for the storied neighborhood.
This gentleman was a vendor of portable audio gear. You can see racks of Walkmans and car stereos over his shoulder, but also note how a good half of the shop is dedicated to microphones. That’s because of the huge popularity of karaoke at this time. It was so ubiquitous, in fact, that it began driving all sorts of technological innovation. Boomboxes, optical storage media, video game consoles, and streaming music services all emerged, directly or indirectly, from the nation’s unflagging need to get drunk and sing together.
And then, of course, there’s the mask. The vendor obviously slipped it on as a joke. It’s a kid’s toy, merchandise for a live-action sci-fi show called Machine Man (a fitting sort of cosplay for this seller of machines!) But it also shows the early stirrings of a great shift that was already starting to play out in the late Eighties, in Akihabara and Japan as a whole: a transition from hardware to software, from gadgets to intellectual property.
You can still buy electronics in Akihabara, but they’re no longer the main draw. Once Japan was the factory to the world; now it is manufacturing the planet’s fantasies, in the form of anime, manga, games, and music. A lot can change in almost four decades!
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