Want friendly Akiba service? Look for the 'omotenashi' mark
BY TAKEFUMI ISHIHARA STAFF WRITER
Two Japanese high school girls and six students from abroad promote the charms of Akihabara. (Images provided by Akihabara Tourism Promotion Association)The "omotenashi" mark indicates the business is friendly to non-Japanese. (ATPA)
Akitsu Mitsuba, a 17-year-old who attends Akihabara International School in Tokyo, will never sass back to her parents.
Her friends are similar in nature, including Rohan, a 16-year-old Indian student whose favorite sweet is "imo-yokan" (sweet potato paste jelly), and Lyusya, a 16-year-old cosplay fan from Russia.
But before parents try to enroll their troubled teens in the school, one thing should be mentioned: Akitsu, her friends and their school are not real.
The students are anime characters created in March to bring back foreign tourists to Akihabara, the center of Japan's subculture and "Electric Town" that is still trying to shake off the negative effects of a crime that shocked the nation.
Created by nonprofit organization Akihabara Tourism Promotion Association (ATPA), the characters are featured under the "Akihabara Omotenashi Project" to help improve the image of Akihabara. They appear in a promotional video shown at various events in Japan and abroad.
All of the "students" are required to complete the "omotenashi" (spirit of hospitality) course at the school in the Soto-Kanda area of Chiyoda Ward.
The characters represent France, South Korea, India, the United States, Russia and China, nationalities determined by the number of tourists in Akihabara from those countries.
The characters so far have received praise from tourists who describe them as cute. And the anime students were helping people to move on from the rampage in the area in 2008, when a man drove a truck into a crowd on a pedestrian-only street and stabbed passers-by, killing seven and injuring 10.
However, foreign tourist numbers again plummeted after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear crisis that followed.
"They are important for the local economy because they make bulk purchases," Tomio Izumi, 56, secretary-general of the ATPA, lamented.
The association will make greater efforts using its omotenashi mark during the summer holidays.
The mark will be placed at cash registers or other areas in business establishments that participate in the project and meet certain requirements, such as employing English-speaking staff and offering menus or instructions in foreign languages.
The mark will tell non-Japanese-speaking tourists that workers, even if they are not fluent, will at least attempt to help the customers and provide friendly service, not simply cross their forearms and shake their heads in silence.
The design of the mark was inspired by the start button on an electric appliance to symbolize Electric Town. The association also wanted the display of the mark to show that the project is in full swing.
"First-time visitors to Akihabara from overseas countries lack information, and some of them mistakenly see maid cafes as sex parlors," Izumi said. "The same thing can be said about Japanese tourists who are unsure of the nature of local shops when they visit other countries."
"I'd like tourists to look for where the mark is located, like playing a treasure-hunting game."
Izumi said although sightseeing in Akiba, the shortened name for Akihabara, has been hit by the rampage and now the nuclear crisis, "we'd like to show how visitors are enjoying Akiba so that we can bring back the energy into the town."
To expand in the Japanese market, the ATPA in May started streaming a "cellphone novel" titled "Akiba Scramble," featuring Akitsu and other characters and emphasizing dialogue.
Set in Akihabara, the school drama is written by college students studying in the area.
The story is also available for reading at the project's official website at (http://akiba-brand.com/novel/).