Akihabara has been known as Tokyo's famed electronic town for decades, offering discount electronics to fulfil the never-ending appetite of Japanese consumers. But a new trend, the bishojo (pretty girl) boom, is luring men from teenagers to those even in their 30s. On weekends, they are glued to the poster-covered shops selling video games, cartoon books and animation videos or DVDs, all in the bishojo category. They feature images of young teenage girls looking demure in high school uniforms, or in superhero outfits. Many of the games are 'love simulation role playing games' where players choose how the boy-meets-girl story develops. But some are no doubt pornographic, with many heroines in erotic poses. One man in his mid-20s takes a two-hour train ride into Akiba (as the young people call Akihabara) more than once a week from Tochigi prefecture where he lives with the family. 'I love these games because I can pretend that I have these girls of ideal shape and personality as my own girlfriend,' says the sales clerk. He sometimes also buys miniature dolls of his favourite heroines, priced about 4,000 yen ($300). He has more than 100 dolls in his collection, many from the famous Sailor Moon series. Dozens of shops specialise in the dolls. He and his peers also hang out at the 'maid cafes' sprouting in Akihabara and other towns across Japan. The coffee shops or small restaurants have young, pretty waitresses dressed in lacy or pinkish maid's uniforms serving clients and playing in-house games. At one place, if you finish a big 1,000-yen parfait in 15 minutes, you can have a picture taken with your favourite waitress. For 500 yen, you can play a party game with her for three minutes. At Jam Akihabara the girls are called fairies, at another place angels. Others have themes involving high school, sailor and nurse uniforms, or bloomers - schoolgirl sports shorts - which many Japanese men find erotic. After the cafes, some bishojo fans head to karaoke bars where they use a voice-changing device to sing in pretty girl voices. And, of course, the songs are from their favourite videos. Is this just another transient boom? Some people see something more significant. A group of gender study specialists from abroad will soon visit Akihabara to investigate the maid cafes and the bishojo boom. Is it a sign of an oppressed male ego as a result of feminism-empowered modern women? They suspect Japanese men, incapable of dealing with mature women, are pursuing illusionary, powerless sex objects as a substitute. Others tend to see its pornographic aspect, with suspicions of possible links to child pornography that Japan is often blamed for.