Among the core Japanese popular culture fandom, Akihabara (秋葉原) captures the imagination as the epicenter of all things anime, manga, gaming and idols, and all of their associated paraphernalia. That being the case, no shortage of photography and discussion about its significance exists, and volumes are easily pulled up with a few search engine queries. But the emergence of these clusters is a relatively recent phenomenon occurring over the last 15 to 20 years. Aided by the internet, the current emphasis on pop culture overshadows a deep and very interesting history that lives on in the cramped spaces and back alleys between edifices plastered with the 2D stardom we’ve come to know and love.
While there is a formal Akihabara municipality in Taitō Ward, what people are usually referring to is the retail district in the vicinity of Akihabara Station, which encompasses most of Soto-Kanda (外神田) in Chiyoda Ward. The name Akihabara, or Akiba (アキバ) for short, stems from a case of mistaken identity dating back to the very beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Trees in this area had been cleared away to prevent fires from reaching the inner core of Tokyo and a shrine—Chinka-sha (鎮火社), the extinguisher—was built. Locals made the assumption that it housed the Shinto god of fire control, Akiha or Akiba (秋葉). References to the area as Akiba hara, Akiba ga hara, Akiba no hara—all meaning “the field of Akiba”—became Akihabara.
These days, modern glass and steel towers obviate most risk of conflagration and host multiple venues serving the pop culture market. This is the Akihbara Dai Building, below the UDX building. Both are part of the Akihabara Crossfield complex.
The Akiba branch of Yodobashi Camera sells not just photography gear but all manner of consumer electronics, and is a step closer to the previous incarnation of Akihabara.
On the wayfinding aids in the train station as well as in much of the literature, the area is called by the extended name Akihabara Electric Town (秋葉原電気街). Shortly after the conclusion of World War II this area, close to Japan’s first school of electrical manufacturing, emerged as a black market for electronic components. The tinkerer’s paradise still resides here in the shadow of five story high billboards featuring fantasy heroes and moe schoolgirls. About 80 of the electronics shops from Akihabara Radio Center, Akihabara Denpa Kaikan (both of which we’ll visit in a moment) and Akihabara Radio Department Store form the Akihabara Shopping District Promotion Cooperative, which works to generate value through coordinating action and maintaining visibility for vendors.
Much of the space around the station has been pedestrianized.
Just in case you had any doubts as to whether you had gotten off at the correct station, billboards for the current season’s anime line the elevated platforms.
“Which way should we go first?”
The entire ground level entryway to Akihabara Station had been undergoing renovation and was blocked off with scaffolding the last time I was in Tokyo.
The old Radio Kaikan building is now truly gone, having been dismantled due to years of cumulative damage from earthquakes. A new building in its place is expected to be complete in 2014.
I’ve done my fair share of geeking out over anime goods here over the years, but this time I wanted to make sure Electric Town got my undivided attention. This is Akihabara Radio Center (秋葉原ラジオセンター), wedged directly under the elevated tracks of the JR Chūō-Sōbu Line.
Though some manufacturing has moved overseas, Japan still holds its own as a center for high quality specialty components and devices. If you can’t find it in Akihabara, either you don’t need it or it doesn’t exist.
There isn’t much headroom, which I think adds to its charm. It’s one of the few chances I get to not feel so short.
These folks are all crossing with the light. If I were to have stayed a little longer in Akihabara I would have seen the road closed off to traffic for the (Sunday) afternoon hokōsha tengoku (歩行者天国)—pedestrian paradise—on Chūō-dōri.
Akihabara Denpa Kaikan (秋葉原電波会館) is to the side of the tracks, and has similar fare. Akihabara Radio Department Store and smaller vendors of various components and testing equipment are clustered together on the the other side of Chūō-dōri. I would have wandered over there, as well, if it hadn’t been for the rain. Over time, the electronics markets gave way for the growth of the PC market (complete systems as well as components and kits), and ultimately the anime Mecca of today.
Gashapon (small toys in plastic capsules)
These go by many names. Around here they’re called UFO catchers.
The Chūō-Sōbu Line coming into the station always makes a neat picture. For some promotions, inflatable anime characters are suspended over the bridge, creating a tunnel through which the trains travel.
Comic Toranoana (コミックとらのあな), ground zero for dōjin, amateur self-published manga
No flat surface is immune to advertisement in Akihabara, including the train station.
Possibly the most kawaii blood donation drive poster you’ll ever see
I hesitated on whether I would include Akihabara in this project. It’s been done so many times. It’s a hot spot on the tourist map. But now that I’ve finished I’m glad that it made it cut. The fact that the name is synonymous with a very specific set of offerings and street level character is an important lesson to absorb for those leading placemaking initiatives. It’s often not enough to to say you have a nice, walkable downtown or shopping district. It’s not enough to just talk about green space, benches and bike racks. What do you offer that’s unique? What makes you special? In Akihabara, no one has to ask these questions.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.