Back in 2008, before the stabbings, Akihabara was a carefree place. Otaku (“geeks”) roamed from shop to shop, maids passed out fliers and cosplayers posed up a storm. The Akihabara Massacre changed all that, but things are normalizing. Want proof? The area’s most famous flasher is ready to hit the streets of Akiba once again.
For the briefest of moments, Asuka Sawamoto was the most well-known idol in Japan. The 30-something singer drew huge crowds and even made the evening news. And she did all this by breaking the law and lifting her skirt.
“I was performing as a street musician to hand out fliers for my indie group CD,” Sawamoto tells Kotaku. Her group, “Monrrow Bitch”, was a hip-hop rock outfit that played small clubs and like so many acts was trying to make a name for itself. Sawamoto and her bandmate Houka dressed in leather and short skirts and did everything they could to shock and wow crowds. Naturally, when she showed up on a Sunday in Akihabara’s “Pedestrian Paradise” when the streets were closed to cars, she did the exact same thing.
The first couple of times, she blogged that she’d be performing. But Sawamoto started drawing larger crowds than she’d expected. Her performances turned into photography-free-for-alls with legions of male otaku pushing together close to snap photos up her skit. “Because I like having my picture taken, it was fun,” Sawamoto says, non-plussed. But the crowds became too much, and Sawamoto stopped blogging about when she’d be in Akihabara. She drew crowds anyway, as well as the national news media.
“But I want to let my fans snap photos. This is fan service.”
It’s still odd to think that Sawamoto made the evening news, and Japanese television networks sent out reporters to interview her as she hiked up her skirt and flashed her thong to her leering fans. Odder still that the police let it continue for as long as they did. The whole thing seemed other-worldly, unreal even. Yet, Sawamoto seemed to enjoy the attention.
“There are people that don’t like what I do,” she says. “But I want to let my fans snap photos. This is fan service.” Fan service appears in countless anime, manga and video games, typically putting characters in revealing outfits. But Sawamoto was fan service for year — and it was causing chaos.
There were concerns and complaints about safety — namely, that she was inciting a mob and causing a media circus. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police department had already been cracking down in Pedestrian Paradise in accordance with traffic laws. Sawamoto was thumbing her arse nose at all that! She was finally arrested arrested in late April of 2008 for causing a public nuisance. Likewise, her arrest made the evening news and revealed that Sawamoto, who had claimed to be in her 20s, was actually 30 years old. “The cops told me not to come anymore,” she tells Kotaku.
It was the climax of that spring, because everything else was down hill. Later that June, tragedy struck Tokyo’s geek centre Akihabara. A 25-year-old man named Tomohiro Kato drove a rented truck into a crowd of pedestrians. He then got out of the truck and began wildly stabbing bystanders, leaving innocent people dead and injured in his wake. Pedestrian Paradise, which began in 1973, was shutdown completely and Akihabara was in mourning.
Her arrest and the ensuing tragedy were watermarks in not only Akihabara’s history, but also, Japanese geek culture. A woman became famous for flashing crowds of men and was able to parlay that into national media exposure. But in the years that followed, Sawamoto seemed to drift about, getting arrest for shoplifting and moving from music to hardcore pornography, releasing her debut in 2010. “It’s related to being an entertainer and giving a performance,” she says. “I wanted to try out a new genre, a new market.”
On January 23 of this year, Akihabara re-opened its Pedestrian Paradise, closing the main drag to cars and allowing folks to walk the streets. The new Pedestrian Paradise isn’t the same as the old one — for example, “performances” are banned, which eliminates cosplay and street musicians. Sawamoto, however, is eager to make her return to the area that made her famous. She’s recently stated on her blog that she’ll be back. “Once it warms up, I’ll be heading to Akihabara in skimpy clothes,” she says. And no doubt, she’ll draw crowds.
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