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Maid Cafés: The Affect of Fictional Characters in Akihabara, Japan

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Abstract

Maid cafés are establishments where waitresses wear costumes and talk to customers. Inspired by dating simulation games, maid cafés first appeared in the late 1990s in Akihabara, Japan, an area where dating simulation games were sold and players gathered. Maid cafés extended relations with fictional characters from media to physical reality, allowing players to interact with fictional characters in human form, while at the same time interacting with humans who perform characters. Having proliferated in the 2000s, maid cafés depend on dedicated customers, or “regulars.” Because physical and personal contact is strictly prohibited, maids only interact with customers “in character,” but regulars nevertheless form long-term, affectionate relationships with them. Maids are paid to perform affective labor in the café, and regulars pay to be there, but affective relations cannot be reduced to money relations. Based on five years of ethnographic fieldwork, this article shows how relationships are both enabled by the maid café and in excess of it. Interactions with the maid are not oriented toward the goal of “getting the girl,” and relations are not private or exclusive. Instead, the maid character – both fictional and real, always more than the individual – allows for affective relations that go beyond the common sense of human relations.

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