Thursday, November 24, 2011

History of Akihabara: Part 1

Akihabara has grown into something larger than itself. Obscured in the modern myth of "Cool Japan," we've lost sight of its raw essence.

We can only see the city for its nerd culture and new technology. In truth, for the past hundred years the area has been driven by bold entrepreneurs sensitive to evolving market trends, with otaku goods being only the most recent in a long line of services. In this series I hope to provide a fresh perspective to bring the hype more in line with the actuality, and a renewed appreciation for Akihabara along with it.

Over the next 4 posts, we will delve into the history of Akihabara to discover the circumstances that enabled it to evolve from black market to electronic town, and from otaku Mecca to media cash cow and beyond. A majority of the information comes from Akiba Confidential and Learning from Akihabara: The Birth of a Personapolis, as well as personal research and observations made while living in central Tokyo.

In Part 1 we’ll look into the first developments of the area before it was even known as “Akihabara,” as well as set up the key pieces for the mid-90’s anime boom to later knock down in Part 2.

Humble Beginnings

The first important thing Akihabara did was burn down.

In 1869, a blaze tore through the land between Kanda and Ueno, reducing the settlements to a smoldering heap while creating a welcome windfall for the newly established Meiji government. Edo, rechristened as Tokyo the previous year, remained a densely populated tinderbox just waiting for stray sparks, arson, or hungry flames from neighboring districts to spread uncontrollably throughout the city. The bean counters decreed it more prudent to use the now barren area as a fire-proof doorstep than gamble with their resources in rebuilding a region that could literally backfire on them.

It wouldn’t stay a wasteland for long. The following year, the government erected a small Shinto shrine named Chinka-Sha, or “The Extinguisher Shine,” on the site of old Edo Castle as a ward against potential flames. Apparently this decree never made its way to the town folk, for citizens mistakenly assumed that the structure enshrined Akiba, a renowned fire-quelling deity. This misconception became fact as the land around the site picked up the nickname Akiba no Hara, or “The Land of Akiba.”

The modern history of Akihabara begins with it as Tokyo’s doormat, but fortunes would soon reverse. The area’s location on the Kanda River connected it to Tokyo Bay, making it a prime trading zone for international cargo. In 1890 the area was connected to Ueno via the Tohoku Main Line, which then further extended to Tokyo in 1925, opening the freight-exclusive station to public transport for the first time to drum up tourism as part of rebuilding projects following 1923's Great Kanto Earthqauke.

Akihabara Station in 1925. (Source)

Somewhere along the way, a careless typo changed the neighborhood’s name from Akibahara (あきばはら) to Akihabara (あきはば ら)—a totally reasonable misreading of the original misnomer considering that the readings of Kanji for proper nouns are as arbitrary as the local dialects that muddle them.

Wholesale market before the war. (Source)

Distributors, wholesalers, you name it—everyone canny enough to swindle extra scratch descended upon the area which, by 1935, was officially designated as a fruit and vegetable market. Meanwhile, lumber merchants and shippers began settling down in tenements along the river. The infrastructure brought in people and capital. The technology brought in the first otaku in the form of obsessive train enthusiasts.

Inside of freight shipping station circa 1945 (Source)

Electric railways were on the cutting edge, and with its myriad of major and minor stations, the Kanda ward served as the beating heart that all steel arteries ran from. Tetsudo Otoko, or Train Men as they would eventually come to be disregarded as, found solidarity when the Tokyo Transport Museum opened to great fanfare in 1936. With train mania at its zenith, none could have guessed that there were already proto-otaku among them, tilling the soil for the eventual seeds of moe as we’ll discuss in future installments.

In 1936, the Transportation Museum was relocated from around Tokyo Station to a building refurbished after the Great Kanto Earthquake inside the recently defunct Manseibashi Station along the Kanda River. The exhibitions were again moved in 2007 to Saitama as the Railway Museum.

The Influence of International Conflict and Domestic Price Wars

The market shifted from vegetables to vacuum tubes the following year after the Sino-Japanese War broke out, diverting the country’s appetite from wholesale produce to wireless communication for military purposes. In the early 40s, bulk electronic parts became the product du jour and started to muscle the fruit stands out of business. Akihabara, a city-wide swap meet of raw electronic ingredients, kept the high-tech war machine fed. This taste for radios would last far after Japan’s defeat at the hands of Allied forces.

Following World War II, the country was decimated, ashamed, and impoverished. But life goes on, especially for those crafty enough to game the system. To a starving populace, rice was a precious commodity worth more than life itself. Even so, it was outclassed by the radio. Engineering students from the nearby Tokyo Denki Univeristy would saddle up their rucksacks and scour the markets for the best deals. If the going rate for a vacuum tube was 4 pounds (1 sho, or 1.8 liters), then a completed radio could go for as much as forty pounds! Not too shabby for a starving college student amongst an already starving population.

Luxury taxes in addition to a prohibitively expensive price point helped DIY radio culture flourish. (Source)

The black market gravy train wouldn’t go on for long. MacArthur and his boys at the GHQ brought down their boot heels on unregulated trade by outlawing open air vendors in 1949. Ostensibly, it was part of a larger infrastructure reform project to widen roads and regulate commerce. Pragmatically, it stripped the citizens of their right to assembly in a power play to stomp out any embers of Communism before they developed into an anti-American blaze.

Stall owners wouldn’t take this lying down. The Vendors Union lobbied the government, and the municipality of Tokyo and Japanese National Railways responded by providing merchants alternative land on Akihabara station grounds. Merchants skirted the ordinance by pooling their resources into building brick and mortar stores. Sato Musen, Ishimaru Denki and other major players started here, standing strong as huge conglomerates in comparison to the fly by night vendor stalls.

The seven story Radio Kaikan, or Radio Hall, would become the most successful and iconic of these. Completed in 1962, tracing trends through the stores it housed over the years reveals the history of the city like layers of sediment. For now, it dealt exclusively in electronics, though it would later serve as a barometer for the encroaching popularity of otaku goods.

Radio Kaikan as it opened for business in 1962. (Source)

These electronic retailers were now organized and ready to capitalize on the post-war economic miracle. Through the 60, radios, along with white goods such as washing machines and fridges, formed the holy trinity of home electronics. The public ironically referred to these products as Mikusa no Kamudakara, or the Three Sacred Treasures, a title normally reserved for the sword, pearl, and mirror from Shinto myth that serve as symbols for the emperor. These goods revolutionized people’s lives, only to further evolve in the next trifecta of color TVs, freezers, and stereos.

"Ishimaru Denki IS Akihabara"

The hope placed in electronics perfectly encapsulated people’s bright outlook for the future. This worship of electronics and technology empowered the current generation, only to gut the next. The dazzling future promised by the Space Age literally ran out of fuel throughout the duel oil shocks of the 70’s, allowing the vapid consumer reality of present environmental and social problems to overtake it.

Children who grew up with the lunar landing and Ultraman’s kaiju-busting Science Patrol were finding out the hard way that the final frontier was closer than they thought—Most likely behind a stifling office desk.

Their dreams dashed, youth were struck with a sense of loss and betrayal akin to the war-torn nation receiving the news that their Emperor was not, as they had been taught their entire lives, descended from the Gods. Post-war Japan was able to compensate for this loss by focusing on rebuilding the country and reaping the material spoils of industry. Children of the 70’s didn’t have this luxury—or rather, they had too much luxury.

Pampered and proud, father’s salary allowed them their own private bedrooms and the disposable income to fill this space with toys, games, and gadgets. True, the economic miracle had transformed Japan from purgatory to paradise in three short decades. But this financial freedom also allowed for extreme self-indulgence, and with it, the first generation of true otaku.

Fold up this notion and stick it in your pocket for later. As far as every one’s concerned at the moment, electronics could do no wrong.

Akihabara’s electronic market had accumulated enough momentum that even the dual oil shocks were mere bumps along the road toward total dominance. The true threat would come from domestic, not international factors. Businesses had forgotten a key component in their strategy to monopolize the home and consumer markets: Parking lots.

Yamada Denki, Sakuraya, Bic Camera, and other chain stores began cropping up in the suburbs, offering lower prices and a more family-friendly shopping experience. Papa would be allowed to drive his shiny new car and play head of the household for a day. Bargain-hunting Mama was always happy to pinch pennies even as salaries soared. As these sensible purchasing patterns diverted sales from the city to the suburbs, it created a consumer vacuum in Akihabara waiting to be filled.

From Family-Friendly to Otaku Paradise

My-Com map published by Sharp in October 1982 as part of their advertising campaign for the MZ-2000 (Source)

DIY computers, or My-Com, used this moment of weakness to get their foot in the door. In 1976, one year before Apple launched, NEC Bit Inn opened on the 7th floor of the Radio Kaikan where it served as the front-runner for the coming PC revolution. Major players like Sato Musen began carrying computer parts in 1982, and the subsequent emergence of games featuring lo-fi anime art drew a new breed of nerd into the fold.

The demographic was steadily shifting from families with children to young males toting backpacks, not unlike the previous generation of radio scavengers. Slowly but surely PC stores trickled down from the top floor of the Radio Hall, pushing electronic shops out the door. LaOX the Computer Kan launched in 1990 as a seven-story behemoth housing computers, consumer electronics, and cell phones.

Plaque that was once displayed at the historic site of NEC Bit-INN (Source)
By 1994, PC sales overtook home electronics, and the hotly anticipated midnight launch of Windows 95—a cultural event as much as a consumer one—hammered the final nail in the coffin of old Akiba.

Stage 1 of Akihabara’s transformation into the otaku holy land was complete. Granted, while hardcore PC users had strong otaku tendencies, not all otaku were into PCs. If the city was to increase its nerd population, it would have to lower its barriers of entry through goods with a high market penetration that also maintained enough fringe elements to nurture a robust subculture.

As it turns out, this was the one natural resource that Japan was wealthy in. Video games and manga provided the perfect building blocks to bridge the gap between micro processors and moe.

In 1994, an employee of the computer mega store Sofmap opened Tora no Ana, a used dojinshi shop out of a shoebox apartment, unaware that he was setting up a chain of events that would permanently warp the cityscape.

Japan experienced an anime revival of sorts between 1995 and 1997 with hits such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Sakura Taisen, and Sailor Moon, creating demand for ancillary products that pushed this tiny shop to branch out into character goods, thus solidifying otaku paraphernalia as a viable market. Seemingly overnight, Tora no Ana went from a hole in the wall dojinshi bodega to a nationwide chain that currently commands twin seven floor flagship stores in the heart of Akihabara.

A certain otaku magnetism was drawing nerd culture to the city. Dojinshi compatriot K-Books expanded from their niche in Ikebukuro to help fill a growing demand. Osaka-based figure maker Kaiyodo had branched out to Shibuya and Kichijoji with varying levels of success, but also found themselves pulled to the neon capital in the east. Both would go on to setup shop in the Radio Hall during the late 90’s, pushing the last vestiges of electronic shops out the door.

The rout of home electronics was a long time coming and surprised no-one, but it begged the question: Why otaku? To understand how Akihabara went from being merely socially awkward to flying totally off the social radar, we need to explore the controlling nature of otaku, as well as the profound effect Evangelion had on the population.


  1. When are people gonna stop fucking around and give these juggernauts of scum a book deal?

  2. This is why I laugh when you guys are like "We never update..."

    Just this update had to take at least a month of solid work to put together! Awesome!!!