Go Figure - Discovering Japan's Anime Figure Bars

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While many people come to Japan due to their deep-seeded interest in Japanese culture, I arrived here possessing absolutely zero knowledge of what was going on around me, popular culture-wise. I couldn’t tell Pokémon from Doraemon, AKB from Arashi, or Pet Cafes from Maid Cafes.

I had such little understanding of otaku [pop-culture obsessive to a nerdy degree] culture that when a new friend told me that he was ranked number six in the UK at Yu-Gi-Oh!, my first question was, “what the hell is that?” before taking a wary step backwards, presuming it to be some kind of dangerous martial art. After he informed me that it was a card battling game (and after he had explained what a card battling game was) I re-tracked my step confidently, and followed up with two further questions: “But aren’t you twenty-five years old? And don’t you have a girlfriend?” To my mind this sounded like one of those childish pursuits that we put away when we become adults, like believing in Santa Claus and getting drunk in the park.

But that seems not to be the case in Japan. As well as enjoying a few Asahi beers in cherry blossom-lined parks in spring, grown adults seem to relish what I consider ‘kids stuff’. My friend Yoshi is a prime example.

Yoshi is in his early thirties, a salesman for an aeronautics company and engaged to be married; someone you would very much consider ‘an adult’. However, having been invited over for dinner, his fiancé gave me the guided tour of their home and we came to his ‘office’. But rather than the regular trappings of the businessman as I expected, this room was lined floor to ceiling with cases of anime and manga figures.

When I voiced my surprise, my friend’s fiancé just shrugged. “It’s normal, no?” No, I replied. It’s crazy. My friend smiled broadly. “You think that’s crazy? Let’s go for a drink at a little bar I know.”

Figuring it all out

Yoshi slid open the door and quickly made his way to a stool at the end of the bar which, I was to later discover, was his regular seat. I, however, had barely made it in past the entrance, mesmerised as I was by the insane number of figures that took up every square inch of surface.

Amusement Bar Water 7 is dedicated to the popular pirate anime One Piece and is one of the growing number of figure bars that are springing up around Japan.

“When I was younger, I used to hang out at Manga Cafes and game centres, but at uni I discovered the joys of drinking, and when I started work company I kind of slipped away from the otaku life,” Yoshi explained. “But about three years ago I noticed these places springing up around town, and I found that I could share the adult side of my life – drinking and partying – with my favourite figures.”

Yoshi wasn’t the only one, and while we ordered a pair of beers served in pirate tankards (naturally) Water 7 soon started filling up. As my only prior experience of otaku hang outs had been walking past maid cafés, where young girls in terrifyingly skimpy uniforms loiter outside touting for the business of a very specific clientele, I was surprised to find it was a varied crowd. In one corner a pair of women in their twenties sipped One Piece themed cocktails, in another a group of men and women of mixed ages seemed to be regulars, and along the bar from us a trio of German tourists took selfies.  

Otaku are regular people too, apparently

I was intrigued to find that, although they shared their table space with dozens of character figures, they weren’t all deeply ensconced in detailed, nerdy conversations of obscure episodes and fan fiction, but they were just chatting about regular, day to day stuff: work, family, boyfriend troubles.

“What did you expect?” Yoshi asked as we headed out into the street towards the next spot. “They’re otaku, but they’re just regular people, like me. Think of these places as sports bars, places where you get together with friends, chat and watch the occasional game. Our sport just happens to be anime figures.”

Sieg Zeon is a Gundam theme figure bar, and though there are fewer figures on the bar and counter than in Water 7, Yoshi pointed out to me, with a hushed reverence, boxes of the toy robots that have been signed by animators and voice actors. I was more interested in the bar’s landlord, a regular-looking middle-aged guy, who if you poured him into a polyester suit wouldn’t look out of place working in a low-level accountancy firm, but dotted around the bar I found a number of photographs of him in impressively-full cosplay. Appearances can be deceiving…

Everyone loves anime, right?

We left Sieg Zeon after just one drink (it was too quiet, and it doesn’t usually pick up in there until well after 1 am, according to Yoshi) before ending up in Toaru Anime Izakaya. This was a decidedly younger hang out, and the clientele were heartily engaged in the young folk pastimes of getting drunk and chatting up the opposite sex.

Flicking through the menu I became far too confused by the wide array of anime-styled cocktails and plumped for a beer. As I placed it amongst a few figures on the bar I chatted with the barman who informed me that the figure bar phenomenon has really started to explode over the last three years. I asked him why he thought they were so in vogue. 

“Everyone loves anime, don’t they?” he asked. Recalling Yoshi’s comment that these places were like sports bars, and also that saying in a couple of bars in which I have drunk in the past that you aren’t interested in sport is tantamount to saying that you enjoy drowning kittens, I replied with caution. “Well, personally I don’t know much about it.” “No? Do you know who this guy is?” the barman replied, picking up a figure from the bar. “Yeah,” I replied with confidence, “that’s Lupin.” The barman looked impressed, if not entirely sincere. “You know well. So, you’re from England, you like football, right…?”

As figure bars grow in popularity, it’s likely that I’ll be seeing many more of them springing up around town. Which gets me to thinking about back home in the UK. I wonder if there is a market for figure bars there? What do you reckon? Bar Thundercats, Ho! Could be a winner.

Originally published in NEO Magazine (UK Print)