Akihabara (also known as Akiba) is known as Electronics town. The area became famous after World War II and was THE place in Tokyo to buy radio and electronic equipment on the black market. Nowadays, Akiba is synonymous with the Otaku subculture. Often misrepresented as ‘nerds’, the term Otaku encompasses anyone with a passion for something; usually comic or gaming related. Akiba is a hub for manga, anime and gaming; so when you throw modified cars into the mix, you get something very unique to Japan: Itasha.
The word Itasha means “Painful Car”, whether it be painfully embarrassing to be seen in or painful on the wallet due to the amount the owner spends on their vehicle. Itasha cars will always be decorated with the owners favourite manga (usually cute girls) and be adored with more visually extreme modifications including LED lights and crazy bodykits.
“The UK alternative would be a Vauxhall Astra with the Beano down the side; when you imagine that in your mind’s eye, it becomes distinctly less cool”
It’s a subculture of the car scene that is rarely seen outside of a few major cities in Japan. However, in recent years the Itasha style has begun to adopted by the mainstream (in Japan at least); with high profile domestic race cars combining wild designs and sponsorship tie-ins (see Goodsmile Racing’s SUPER GT entry).
With many manga and anime set in and around the Akihabara area of Taito, it’s only natural for the locals to get involved. The most popular theme at the moment is Love Live! School Idol Project. The story focuses around nine girls who attempt to save their school (located in the Kanda/Akihabara area) by forming an ‘Idol’ group, which were made famous by Akihabara’s own AKB48. With nine characters to choose from, the Otaku have quite a few options when it comes to decorating their cars with Love Live! decals. Ensuring you don’t choose the same character as your friend must be high on the list as you wouldn’t want to cruise around looking like you’re part of the Hanayo Koizumi gang, would you?
Well, it didn’t stop the Celica and S15 above (obviously Koizumi-chan fans), so I guess you just stick you your guns and be passionate for whomever you like, regardless of what others think – and that’s what makes Otaku, Otaku. It’s also the ethos behind all modified cars. Without sounding all Jerry Springer, whether you love or hate these cars, you have to respect them. I guess the UK alternative would be a Vauxhall Astra with the Beano down the side; when you imagine that in your mind’s eye, it becomes distinctly less cool – and you begin to understand why this style is quite niche.
“There was a time when the term ‘Otaku’ was a negative, condescending slur against this kind of behaviour; nowadays it’s almost a badge of pride”
What surprised me the most was that these aren’t just cheap cars with cheap aftermarket parts and stickers. Watching a Nissan Silvia S15 trying to parallel park with what sounded like the most aggressive of Limited-Slip Differentials; you realise that despite looking like they’ve let their 12-year old loose with the vinyl cutter, these cars could handle themselves in a kaido battle. Of course, they’re not all JDM automotive royalty and there are many wagons and kei class vehicles – but you have to start somewhere!
Motorcycles don’t escape the Itasha treatment either; scooters and bikes with LEDs and TV screens also line the street and grab attention from Otaku and tourists alike. There was a time when the term “Otaku” was a negative, condescending slur against this kind of behaviour; nowadays it’s almost a badge of pride for the scene they are involved in and the community they belong to – even outside of Japan, where the ‘Otaku’ title has been adopted by manga and anime fans to describe their passion for these Japanese subcultures.
Otaku are portrayed as a shy, lonely bunch; so by decorating your car in such a way that is only designed to attract attention – this is quite a breakaway culture. It is also a great way of meeting like-minded people without having to start a conversation. Whatever you think of the Itasha, you can’t help but admire their community. They are also really friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask them about their cars.
What do you think?