JEDDAH: Japanese comic books, known as manga, have captured the hearts of some Saudis so much that a 31-year-old citizen decided to give the genre’s fans a specialist Jeddah cafe so that they can pursue their passion as well as meet others who share it.
Akiba Cafe is the brainchild of Mohammed Saeed Baghlaf, an urban planning engineer who spent over a year living in Japan after graduating from college in the US and was working on a project for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics.
Manga cafes can be found in most cities across Japan. They are a place where people can spend hours reading manga, and they are also considered to be a cultural space where people can relax and have conversations about manga.
He was inspired by the concept of manga cafes while he was in Japan, and took notice of the growing love for manga in the Kingdom. As an urban planner, he was able to grasp the Japanese concept and implement it in Saudi Arabia with a few tweaks and changes to suit the local audience.
“Manga cafés are all over Japan, albeit executed differently,” Baghlaf told Arab News. “They’re a little like internet cafés where people can spend the night. Of course, recreating that here doesn’t go along with our culture and traditions, so we recreated the concept in a way that accommodates that.”
Akiba has only been open for a few months but, by the time Arab News visited the manga hotspot, people have already been flocking to the cafe to try out its signature drinks and read their favorite comics.
We have contracted a company in Tokyo to get the rights for a bunch of shows and, after many discussions, we get to air an episode an hour after it airs in Japan with Arabic subtitles for our customers.
Mohammed Saeed Baghlaf, Urban planning engineer
Friends and families can be seen relaxing together on the ground floor flicking through the pages of a comic book, or delving into a more accessible e-reading option as manga is still in short supply in Saudi Arabia.
Visitors to the cafe can order their drinks and browse Akiba’s collection for free at diner-style tables, or enjoy their experience solo as they catch up on their favorite manga tales.
Akiba also airs popular anime and animated films throughout the day, uploading their schedule on their Twitter and Instagram pages.
Baghlaf is an avid gamer, but watching anime and reading manga is definitely on his list of favorite things to do. Keeping up with popular stories also helps him to figure out what manga volumes to acquire and which anime films to screen.
The urban planning engineer noticed the Kingdom’s approach in linking many objectives in the Vision 2030 reform plan to entertainment and, as cafes continue to draw large crowds in Saudi Arabia, he felt encouraged about going for Akiba.
“Specialty cafes are very popular here nowadays, so how am I going to be special? I went for a manga or anime cafe,” he said.
The cafe’s target audience are those who are interested in specialty coffee, manga and anime. For people with a sweet tooth there are Japanese desserts on offer, including cheesecake.
Baghlaf has to make frequent trips to Japan to discuss screening rights with creators in Tokyo. “We’ve contracted a company in Tokyo to get the rights for a bunch of shows and, after many discussions, we get to air an episode an hour after it airs in Japan with Arabic subtitles for our customers.”
Due to the deals Baghlaf has made with distributors, he receives the episodes prior to their airing date to green-light them in terms of translation accuracy and censorship, in order not to air anything that goes against the Kingdom’s culture.
The same goes for manga. “I would bring in a story with 70-something volumes and, out of those, one book could end up with something inappropriate and I’d have to shelve the whole series.”
Baghlaf believes that the market for Japanese storytelling is massive in Saudi Arabia and continues to grow each day.
“It’s definitely popular and it’s why you see major events happening like Comic Con and Anime Expo, which I’ve been to myself with 200,000 others. It was so crowded,” he said.
The Saudis have grown up with Japanese stories for decades, as well as slapstick US cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and the Loony Tunes that lack storytelling or arcs, according to Baghlaf. The Japanese stories have taught generations of Saudis about friendship, brotherhood, integrity and how to deal with others.
“There’s also a huge likeness between Japanese and Arabic culture. Within families, respecting those older than you whether through language, which has levels of formality where elders deserve the most respectable form when talked to and they have a lot of respect for familial bonds as well.”
The cafe owner revealed that the name Akiba comes from Akihabara, a popular area in Tokyo that is a hub for anime, gaming and electronics retailers. It also has specialty cafes throughout its busy maze of streets.
Baghlaf wants to support local talent by initiating artist nights at Akiba so that people can come and get sketches and put local manga on display for readers to discover.