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Sunday, July 14, 2002

HOW IT WAS

Before the boomtown


Staff writer

Running a grimy motorcycle repair shop amid the high-tech neon frenzy of Akihabara may sound a little odd. But if you know a bit about the district's history, you will understand the pride -- and anxieties -- of the shop's 72-year-old owner, Mikio Kimura.

On a small lane just behind Chuo-dori, Akihabara's main drag, the timeworn signboard on Kimura's shop bears witness to the drastic changes the town has undergone. "My father was born here nearly 100 years ago, and he was in the business of repairing jinrikisha [rickshaws], then later, bicycles. I have been doing this job since I was 20 and my son now fixes cars," Kimura says.

"Before the war, Akihabara was a place of small shops and houses. And there used to be many wholesalers of bicycles here. Recent customers will find it hard to imagine though."

Now world-famous as Electric Town, before World War II Akihabara used to be best-known for its big produce market, its wholesalers as well as parts shops. The fruit and vegetable market in front of JR Akihabara Station had grown to be Tokyo's biggest market of that type, and remained a symbol of the area until it was relocated to Ota Ward about 10 years ago.

Long before, in the Edo Period (1603-1867), the area was mainly occupied by the houses of merchants, artisans and samurai. The produce market thus grew up to supply the daily needs of the growing number of Edo residents.

Back then, too, according to Tomomi Takagi of Yonbancho Historical Folk Museum in Chiyoda Ward, Chuo-dori was busy with people going to Kaneiji Temple in Ueno, which was established under the auspices of the ruling Tokugawa family. "It is likely that merchants opened their small shops along the street targeting the people coming and going," he says.

Though the character of the area gradually developed in that way, it didn't get its present name until early in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), with its origin relating to that all-too-common scourge -- fire. Since the early Edo Period, as the capital's population surged to more than 1 million, fires had been a frequent blight due to the number of wooden houses and the residents' chief fuel, which was firewood. Indeed, one fire, in 1869, burned down extensive areas of the Kanda district north of Ueno.

After that inferno, in 1870, city authorities built in the district a branch of a fire-prevention shrine on Mount Akiba in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. The new shrine was called Akiba Shrine, and before long people started to call the area "Akiba ga hara" -- meaning "the open field (hara) where Akiba Shrine was built." This later evolved into its current form, Akihabara.

Then in 1890, when Akihabara Station was opened on the Nihon Tetsudo Line, predecessor of the Japanese National Railways (current JR) freight line from Ueno Station, the area's role as a trading center was given a big boost as goods unloaded from ships in Tokyo and transported up the Kanda River were unloaded there, either to be sold or for onward delivery by rail.

Although Akihabara had electrical appliance shops among its many others before World War II, it wasn't until the postwar period, when a bustling black market for radio parts -- mostly "liberated" from Occupation stores -- thrived in the area, that today's Electric Town began to emerge. Since then, along with Japan's rapid economic growth, the area has become home to an ever-growing number of electrical appliance stores.

In the process, though, it has also become a disorganized mass of shops and residences shoehorned between the commercial areas of Asakusa, Ueno and Ginza. And according to Kimura, in the 10 years since the produce market was moved, the character of the area has changed drastically, making the life of longtime residents considerably less comfortable.

"It has become very noisy," he says, "and the type of customer has changed." Now, he says, most visitors are single-mindededly seeking out some electronic product or other without paying any attention to other shops or people passing by.

And Kimura's business is facing difficulties. When there was a wider range of retail shops, he says he had more customers because the workers there used bicycles, motorbikes or cars for their businesses. But most of those shops have now gone. In addition, small stores selling food and other daily necessities have almost all disappeared, and his wife has to trek every day to a department store 20 minutes away.

"It is very hard to survive here for someone like me," Kimura says, while fixing the brakes on a sushi-deliveryman's bike. "This is no longer a place to live -- just another area to do big business and make money."



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