Ginza, Japan’s premier downtown hub, is a testament to the seamless fusion of tradition and modernity. Renowned internationally even prior to the war, it shares the limelight with iconic Japanese symbols like Mount Fuji. Boasting an array of flagship stores from prestigious foreign brands, exclusive clubs, upscale bars, and luxury watch boutiques, Ginza exudes an air of sophistication. Nestled in front of Higashi Ginza Station lies Kabuki-za, adding to the area’s allure.

The name “Ginza” has transcended its geographical boundaries, becoming synonymous with elegance and opulence. Its influence extends nationwide, with shopping districts across the country featuring locales bearing the -ginza moniker. While Ginza has a rich history steeped in high-end fashion and Western culture dissemination, recent years have witnessed a surge in popular stores such as Uniqlo and drugstores.

The heart of Ginza resides near the intersection of Chuo-dori and Harumi-dori at Ginza 4-chome. This bustling commercial area commands the highest land prices in Japan and is anchored by the iconic Ginza Wako clock tower, a cherished landmark. Bordering Yurakucho on the west, Ginza offers convenient access from Tokyo Station and Hibiya Station, inviting visitors to explore its dynamic streetscape and vibrant cultural tapestry.

This is the story of Ginza, where the past meets the present in a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation.

Map of Ginza, showing the Edo Period layout with canals. Credit: Chuo Ward

The Origins of Ginza

Established as the Ginza Yakusho, or government office, in 1603 by the Edo Shogunate, this bustling hub began as the site for minting silver coins, laying the foundation for its illustrious legacy.

Contrary to popular belief, Ginza wasn’t entirely submerged in the ocean before the Edo period. It was originally low marshes on the Edomaejima peninsula, strategically positioned along Tokyo Bay. As Edo city took shape, marshlands were reclaimed, marking the birth of Ginza and its transformation into a vibrant urban center.

The “Ginza” organization, responsible for casting silver coins for the Shogunate, wielded immense power and wealth. Despite relocating to Kakigara-cho in Nihonbashi in 1800 due to corruption scandals, the name “Ginza” endured, becoming synonymous with prosperity and prestige.

Home to artisans, kimono shops, and theaters, Ginza buzzed with activity. Its main street, part of the Tokaido highway, witnessed bustling trade, while the surrounding river teemed with boat commerce. Meanwhile, artisan villages flourished alongside residences bestowed upon Noh players and Kabuki actors, enriching the cultural tapestry of Ginza.

A horse-drawn public carriage crosses Kyōbashi bridge in central Tokyo, towards Ginza: a rickshaw moves in the opposite direction; mount Fuji is visible in the background. Colour woodcut by Hiroshige III, 1874. The western style brick building is just completed and the cherry and pine trees are recently planted; the gas lighting is also modern. Credit: Wellcome Collection 

Ginza’s Transformation: the Meiji and Taisho Eras

Once neglected, Ginza underwent a remarkable renaissance during the Meiji and Taisho eras, emerging as a beacon of Western influence and modernity in Tokyo. Following a devastating fire in 1872, the district was reborn as a Westernized Rengagai, or “Bricktown”, under the visionary guidance of British architect Thomas James Waters.

Central to the redevelopment project was the widening of streets and the construction of fireproof Western-style houses, primarily made of brick. The government spared no expense, allocating a staggering portion of its budget to the ambitious endeavor. Upon completion, Ginza’s main thoroughfare boasted a width of 27 meters, adorned with gas lamps and lined with cherry blossom, pine, and maple trees.

Georgian-style brick houses, characterized by overhanging balconies and circular columns, adorned the streets, symbolizing Ginza’s newfound modernity. However, despite their grandeur, many of these houses suffered from poor-quality brick, succumbing to humidity and falling into disrepair.

The year 1872 also marked the completion of Japan’s first railway, linking Yokohama and Shimbashi. Ginza flourished as a bustling shopping district, attracting enterprising merchants eager to showcase the latest imports and products. From western-style restaurants and bakeries to clock dealers and clothing shops, Ginza became synonymous with innovation and commerce.

Ginza’s streets transformed into a vibrant tapestry of modernity, where window displays enticed passersby with the allure of Western-style cityscapes and indulgent shopping experiences. Dubbed “Gin-bura”, the district epitomized the essence of urban leisure, inviting residents and visitors alike to stroll through its bustling streets and immerse themselves in the wonders of modernity.

The recently completed brick buildings of Ginza street, Tokyo. Colour woodcut by Chikanobu. Credit: Wellcome Collection

“Gin-bura”: A Cultural Evolution in Ginza’s Legacy

As the Meiji era progressed, Ginza witnessed the emergence of bustling bazaars, reminiscent of modern-day department stores. These lively marketplaces, nestled along narrow aisles, offered an array of goods ranging from toys to writing materials. Spiraling upwards through the multi-story buildings, visitors embarked on a journey of discovery, descending gently as they explored each floor’s offerings.

Yet, Ginza’s allure extended beyond mere shopping; it became a hub of social activity, where people gathered to see and be seen. Strolling through Ginza became a fashionable pastime, signaling one’s connection to the pulse of the era. The term “Gin-bura”, meaning to wander aimlessly through Ginza, emerged in 1915-16, encapsulating the essence of leisurely exploration.

The origin of “Gin-bura” is steeped in conjecture, with various theories attempting to unravel its enigmatic roots. Some suggest its evolution from “Gin-no-bura”, a term denoting hoodlums in Ginza, while others propose its derivation from Keio University students’ fondness for Brazilian coffee, colloquially referred to as “Ginza de Brazil coffee”.

Regardless of its precise origin, “Gin-bura” became ingrained in the lexicon of everyday speech, finding its place even in the esteemed Kojien Japanese Dictionary. Today, the term remains integral to capturing the enchanting allure of Ginza, symbolizing a timeless tradition of leisurely exploration in Tokyo’s vibrant heart.

A Beacon of Information and Innovation

In addition to its vibrant commercial scene, Ginza emerged as a nucleus for information dissemination, drawing journalists keen on capturing the pulse of contemporary trends. Situated amidst the district’s Western-influenced milieu, these journalists flocked to Ginza, attuned to the latest developments shaping society.

Shimbashi station, serving as a vital artery for goods distribution to rural regions, further enhanced Ginza’s status as an information hub. At one point, newspaper publishers dotted every Owari-cho intersection (Ginza 4-Chome intersections), establishing a prominent presence in the bustling district.

The influx of newspaper publishers catalyzed the expansion of Ginza’s media landscape, attracting magazine publishers, printing houses, advertising firms, and more. This convergence of diverse entities transformed Ginza into a veritable powerhouse of information dissemination, fostering innovation and connectivity at the heart of Tokyo’s cultural tapestry.

Ginza after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923.

Revival and Resilience: Ginza’s Reconstruction Journey

In the aftermath of the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1, 1923, Ginza’s iconic Bricktown, a symbol of Meiji-era modernization, lay in ruins. Reduced to rubble and engulfed by fires, the district faced an arduous path to recovery. However, amidst the wreckage, a spirit of solidarity emerged as Ginza’s shops united in a determined effort to rebuild. Takitaro Minakami vividly captured this collective resolve in his novel, “Ginza Fukko” (“The Reconstruction of Ginza”).

With unwavering determination, businesses along Ginza-dori embarked on a monumental reconstruction endeavor. Erecting a makeshift barrack, they rallied to reopen their shops en masse by November 10. Collaborating with avant-garde artists, they adorned the barrack’s facade with modernist designs, creating a striking visual tableau that captivated the public imagination.

Simultaneously, the City of Tokyo initiated ambitious reconstruction plans, marking a significant transformation for Ginza. Notably, Harumi-dori was widened, and Showa-dori was newly constructed, altering the district’s urban landscape. Observant eyes may discern the smaller footprint of the 4-Chome block, a testament to the widening of Harumi-dori and the evolving contours of Ginza’s post-earthquake revival.

View of the Ginza street in Tokyo with houses, horse trams, rickshaws and telegraph poles. 1870-1900

The Dawn of Retail Giants: Ginza’s Department Store Revolution

In the wake of Ginza’s post-earthquake reconstruction, a new era of retail dawned with the advent of department stores. The inaugural entry came in 1924 with the unveiling of Matsuzakaya, signaling a departure from traditional shopping norms. Embracing innovation, Matsuzakaya discarded the custom of shoe removal, allowing patrons to traverse its premises in street shoes—a revolutionary concept at the time.

Setting new benchmarks in customer service, Matsuzakaya pioneered innovative initiatives such as complimentary shuttle buses from Yurakucho and Shimbashi stations and even installed a rooftop zoo, featuring exotic animals like leopards and lions—a spectacle that captivated visitors.

Following suit, Matsuya debuted in 1925, boasting a layout centered around an open area and housing an aquarium, while Mitsukoshi joined the fray in 1930. Despite initial concerns among local specialty shops, the rise of these department store titans paradoxically bolstered the competitive edge of Ginza’s retail landscape. This period marked the emergence of a harmonious coexistence between department stores and specialty shops—a hallmark of Ginza’s allure.

Fueling the momentum of reconstruction, department stores attracted a burgeoning influx of shoppers to Ginza, propelling real estate rents to unprecedented heights by 1929, surpassing even Nihonbashi. The Ginza phenomenon reverberated nationwide, spawning shopping streets bearing the prestigious -ginza moniker.

Simultaneously, the entertainment landscape flourished, with Hibiya emerging as a bustling motion picture and theater district, spearheaded by Ichizo Kobayashi of Hankyu Railway. The extension of the subway line from Asakusa to Ginza in 1934 further solidified its preeminence, drawing patrons from the erstwhile shopping hub of Asakusa.

Thus, Ginza ascended to its rightful place as the vanguard of Japan’s districts, a beacon of innovation and commerce that continues to shape the nation’s retail landscape to this day.

Woodprint of Ginza-dori, showing the brick buildings and railway carriage

Ginza in Wartime and Post-Occupation Reconstruction

Amidst the backdrop of wartime fervor, Ginza, once a symbol of opulence, found itself embroiled in the tumult of conflict. As Japan plunged into war, the streets that once bustled with extravagance became arenas for ideological battles. Women’s societies rallied against luxury, urging austerity as street lamps were dismantled for military use, and theaters shuttered their doors.

The ravages of war struck Ginza with unrelenting force. Air raids in 1945 reduced much of the district to ashes, leaving behind tales of resilience and sacrifice. Shopkeepers braved the onslaught to safeguard their livelihoods, while others sought refuge underground or fled to the countryside, grappling with displacement and uncertainty.

With the war’s end came the dawn of occupation. Allied forces rolled through Ginza’s streets, transforming its landscape with English signage and requisitioning surviving buildings for their use. Yet, amidst the chaos, Ginza’s resilient spirit endured. Merchants banded together, devising reconstruction plans and staging festivals to revive the district’s vibrancy. The post-war era witnessed a resurgence in Ginza’s fortunes. Despite the challenges of occupation, the district’s indomitable resilience shone through. Street stalls emerged as beacons of commerce, attracting crowds with their eclectic wares and vibrant energy. However, their eventual closure marked a turning point in Ginza’s recovery, paving the way for a new chapter of growth and prosperity.

As Japan regained sovereignty with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Ginza embarked on a journey of renewal. Properties returned to Japanese hands, heralding a new era of reconstruction and resurgence. The stage was set for Ginza to reclaim its status as a beacon of commerce and culture—a testament to the district’s enduring resilience in the face of adversity.

Transforming Landscape: From Moats to Expressways

In the aftermath of devastation, Ginza emerged from the ashes with a fervent determination to rebuild. Yet, amidst the resilience, remnants of destruction lingered, scattered amidst the streets and riverbanks. To clear the debris, an ambitious endeavor unfolded—the filling of the once-picturesque moats that encircled Ginza.

As Tokyo embraced rapid urbanization and vehicular transportation, the fate of Ginza’s waterways hung in the balance. Despite opposition, the decision to fill the moats marked a pivotal shift, transforming Ginza’s waterfront identity into a nexus of expressways. Rivers were supplanted by roads, with bridges bearing witness to this monumental transition.

The echoes of Hashizume Park, nestled at the foot of a bridge, offer a glimpse into Ginza’s green oasis amidst the concrete jungle. Yet, as the landscape evolved, so too did the cultural imagery associated with Ginza. Movies of the era often depicted romantic boat rides along its waterways, capturing the essence of a bygone era. Sukiyabashi Bridge, once a scenic crossing over the outer moat, became a focal point in radio dramas and popular culture, immortalizing Ginza’s watery past. Meanwhile, the area from Kyobashi River to the outer moat underwent a radical transformation, with highways weaving through shop buildings, epitomizing Japan’s modernization drive.

In this metamorphosis, Ginza’s identity evolved—from a riverside haven to a thoroughfare of progress, symbolizing the relentless march of time and the resilience of a district reborn.

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