Nestled in the heart of Tokyo, Ginza stands as a vibrant downtown area that embodies the essence of Japan’s premier urban landscape. Revered internationally, its allure draws visitors from far and wide to experience its cosmopolitan charm. Boasting a tapestry of flagship stores, exclusive clubs, and upscale boutiques, Ginza exudes an air of sophistication and elegance. This is the story of Ginza, a district whose name has become synonymous with luxury and opulence, transcending geographical boundaries to become a cultural icon.

This article follows from Part 1 available at this link.

From Streetcars to Subways

Exploring the vibrant streets of Ginza offers a journey through time, from the bustling era of streetcars to the seamless efficiency of modern subway lines. As construction projects transformed the district’s infrastructure, Ginza evolved into a bustling hub of transportation and commerce.

In 1957, the Eidan Subway Marunouchi Line Nishi-Ginza station, now known as Ginza station, emerged as a pivotal landmark, heralding the dawn of a new era in Ginza’s transportation network. The subsequent openings of the Metropolitan Subway Asakusa Line Higashi-Ginza station in 1963 and the Hibiya Line Ginza station in 1964 further solidified Ginza’s connectivity to the city.

However, the transition wasn’t without nostalgia. In 1967, the Toden streetcar Ginza line bid its final farewell, marking the end of an era. Once a beloved mode of transportation, the streetcars had woven through the fabric of Tokyo’s streets until the mid-1950s. Yet, as motor traffic surged and automobiles dominated the roads, the trams became synonymous with congestion, prompting their eventual retirement. The closure of the Toden streetcar line drew crowds to Ginza-dori on December 9, 1967, as residents and visitors alike reluctantly bid farewell to an iconic symbol of the district’s past. However, the evolution continued, with the opening of the Yurakucho Line Ginza 1-Chome station in 1974, cementing Ginza’s status as a nexus of subway connectivity.

Today, Ginza thrives as a subway district, with five subway lines intersecting its vibrant streets. Welcoming over 155 million passengers each year, Ginza embodies the seamless integration of tradition and modernity, offering travelers a glimpse into Tokyo’s ever-evolving landscape.

View of the Ginza street in Tokyo with houses, horse trams, rickshaws and telegraph poles. Date: c 1870 – c 1900.

From Kobiki-cho to Ginza-higashi

Originally known as Kobiki-cho, the area between the wide moat and the Tsukiji river was home to the Kobiki shokunin, or “sawyers”, during the reconstruction of Edo castle under Tokugawa Ieyasu. This legacy earned the district its name, signifying its historical ties to craftsmanship and industry. However, in 1951, Kobiki-cho underwent a transformation, adopting the name Ginza-higashi to align with the burgeoning identity of Ginza.

The post-war era witnessed the emergence of Ginza-nishi and Ginza-higashi as distinct neighborhoods, each contributing to the vibrant tapestry of the district. In 1968, Ginza-nishi merged into the larger Ginza district, followed by Ginza-higashi the following year. This union marked the beginning of a new chapter for Ginza, laying the groundwork for organizations like the Zen-Ginza-kai, which sought to unify the community under a shared vision of progress and prosperity.

Despite the consolidation, echoes of the past linger in the form of neighborhood associations and shrine affiliations. Residents of Ginza-nishi and Ginza continue to pay homage to Hie Shrine, while those from Kobiki-cho honor their heritage at Teppo-zu Inari Shrine. These traditions serve as a reminder of Ginza’s multifaceted identity, where history and modernity intertwine to create a unique cultural mosaic.

View of Ginza Street in Tokyo with horse tram and shops. Date: c 1870 – c 1900.

Evolution and Challenges

In the tumultuous 1960s, as student movements swept across Japan, Ginza found itself at the center of social unrest. On November 13, 1969, clashes between students and riot police erupted at the Ginza 4-chome intersection, casting a shadow over the district’s bustling streets. Stones and petrol bombs flew, igniting chaos and injuring bystanders in the ensuing melee.

Yet, amidst the upheaval, a quieter transformation was underway—one that would redefine Ginza’s identity for generations to come. Since the Meiji Restoration, Ginza had thrived as a cultural hub, drawing white-collar workers from the countryside who sought the district’s cosmopolitan allure. However, the landscape was shifting. Rapid urbanization and the expansion of residential areas westward across the Musashino Plateau signaled a shift in demographics. The rise of railway terminal downtown areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku posed new challenges, drawing residents away from Ginza’s once-exclusive domain.

The presence of the Miyukizoku and the opening of the first McDonald’s in 1971 ushered in a new era for Ginza—a cultural renaissance that attracted youth culture from Yamate and beyond. Shibuya and Harajuku relinquished their status as top downtown destinations, ceding ground to Ginza’s burgeoning scene. By the late 1980s, Ginza’s soaring land prices symbolized the economic boom of the bubble era, cementing its status as a nightlife hotspot.

However, beneath the glitz and glamour, Ginza grappled with its evolving identity. While it remained a beacon of luxury and sophistication, it struggled to retain its status as a comprehensive downtown area. As the cultural landscape shifted along the railway lines of the Tokyo metropolitan area, Ginza settled into its role as an eastern Tokyo downtown district, adapting to the changing times while preserving its timeless allure.

View of Ginza in the 1930s.

Revitalizing Ginza: Urban Renovation and Pedestrian Paradise

In a bid to embrace the dawn of a car-oriented society, Ginza underwent a transformative renovation of its iconic Ginza-dori. Spearheaded by the Construction Ministry, the ambitious project aimed to modernize the thoroughfare while preserving its timeless charm. Key initiatives included the removal of utility poles and power lines, paving the street with granite reclaimed from streetcar rails, and redesigning street lamps into elegant gaslamp-style fixtures. Willow trees gave way to Indian Hawthorn shrubs, casting a new silhouette against the bustling streetscape.

The culmination of this endeavor coincided with a momentous milestone: the 100th anniversary of the Meiji era in 1968. To commemorate Ginza’s pivotal role in Japan’s modernization, the district hosted the Meiji 100 Year Anniversary Grand Ginza Festival in October of that year. A spectacle of color and light, the festival captivated audiences with its vibrant decorations and dazzling parade down Ginza-dori, marking the beginning of a cherished annual tradition that endured until 1999.

Ginza’s evolution continued with the introduction of a groundbreaking concept: the pedestrian paradise. On August 2, 1970, Ginza-dori transformed into a bustling promenade, closed to vehicular traffic for the first time in history. Dubbed the “Holiday Promenade”, this car-free oasis became synonymous with leisurely strolls and vibrant festivities, marking the first Sunday in August as a cherished day of celebration.

Over the years, the pedestrian paradise became a beloved tradition, ingrained in the fabric of Ginza’s cultural landscape. While similar initiatives sprouted in Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Asakusa, Ginza remained steadfast in its commitment to pedestrian-friendly streets, standing as a beacon of urban innovation and community engagement. Even today Ginza-dori remains closed from car traffic from midday until evening on weekends and holidays.

Postcard picture of Kabuki-za in the 1900s. Credit: born1945 via flickr

Ginza’s Evolution Amidst Economic Booms and Crises

In the wake of Japan’s postwar resurgence, marked by unprecedented economic growth, Ginza emerged as a symbol of the nation’s prosperity and progress. As Japan’s trajectory surged upward, epitomized by the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and its ascent to the world’s second-largest GNP by 1969, Ginza experienced a profound metamorphosis.

Wooden edifices, relics of a bygone era, yielded to towering stone and concrete structures, heralding a new chapter in Ginza’s architectural narrative. The unveiling of landmark buildings like the Sony Building at Sukiyabashi intersection in 1966 marked the district’s ascent to architectural prominence. From the Sannai Building to the towering Toshiba Building, Ginza’s skyline transformed, reflecting its newfound status as a beacon of urban modernity.

However, the euphoria of prosperity came to an abrupt halt in 1973 with the onset of the Oil Crisis. Triggered by the Fourth Middle Eastern War, the crisis sent shockwaves through Japan’s economy, resulting in skyrocketing oil prices, production cuts, and supply disruptions. In response, the Japanese government implemented austerity measures, including energy and oil rationing, prompting a rush of panic buying and stockpiling among consumers.

Ginza, once ablaze with neon signs and bustling with activity, found itself grappling with dimmed lights and subdued streetscapes. Department stores curtailed their opening hours, and the vibrant energy that once defined the district waned in the face of uncertainty. Yet, amidst the gloom, voices of resilience emerged, with the Ginza Street Association advocating for the easing of restrictions on neon signs—a poignant symbol of the district’s determination to weather the storm.

ginza 2023

Modern day Ginza.

Navigating the Bubble Economy

In the wake of the Oil Crisis, Japan’s economy embarked on a trajectory of recovery, culminating in an unprecedented economic boom in the mid-1980s—an era now synonymous with the Bubble Economy. As Japan basked in newfound prosperity, Ginza emerged as a focal point of opulence and extravagance, attracting waves of affluent patrons and investors.

Amidst the glitz and glamour of the Bubble Economy, Ginza experienced a surge in conspicuous consumption, characterized by extravagant parties, bustling streets, and exorbitant real estate transactions. The district became a playground for the elite, with luxury boutiques, high-end restaurants, and exclusive clubs vying for attention amid the dazzling lights of Ginza-dori.

However, the true hallmark of Ginza’s transformation during this period lay in the influx of financial institutions. As banks, brokerage houses, and other financial entities set up branches along Ginza-dori, the district evolved into a hub of economic activity, mirroring Japan’s ascent as a global financial powerhouse.

Yet, beneath the veneer of prosperity lurked challenges that threatened Ginza’s vitality. Despite the influx of financial institutions, the district grappled with the paradox of its identity. While renowned for its upscale shopping and leisure offerings, Ginza struggled to maintain its vibrancy amidst the rigid operating hours of financial institutions. As shops closed their doors in the late afternoon, the district’s allure waned, hindering its potential to thrive as a bustling commercial center.

Moreover, the meteoric rise in land prices posed a double-edged sword for Ginza. While skyrocketing property values signaled the district’s desirability, they also deterred buying and selling activities, stifling growth and investment. Unlike other districts, which fell prey to speculative land deals orchestrated by opportunistic investors, Ginza remained relatively insulated from the clutches of land speculation, preserving its unique character and charm.

Comparison map of town names and areas before and after land readjustment in Kyobashi Ward, Tokyo during earthquake disaster reconstruction, 1930. Credit: Beagle

Comparison map of town names and areas before and after land readjustment in Kyobashi Ward, Tokyo during earthquake disaster reconstruction, 1930. Credit: Beagle

Navigating Economic Turmoil: Ginza’s Post-Bubble Evolution

In the aftermath of the economic bubble’s collapse, Ginza found itself grappling with the harsh realities of economic stagnation. As Japan’s economy languished in uncertainty, the once-thriving district faced mounting challenges, compounded by exorbitant land prices and stifling regulations. With the bubble’s burst, Ginza’s economic landscape underwent a dramatic transformation. Landowners struggled to contend with astronomical property taxes, burdened by the weight of high land prices that had once symbolized prosperity but now posed significant financial strain. For many, the dream of passing down ancestral lands gave way to the harsh reality of mounting tax liabilities, threatening the very fabric of familial legacies.

Compounding these challenges were stringent regulations governing urban development. Restrictions on building reconstruction, mandating smaller gross floor areas than initial construction, left many buildings in disrepair, unable to adapt to evolving needs and modern standards. The once-iconic structures, erected in the post-war era, stood as decaying relics, symbols of a bygone era overshadowed by economic uncertainty.

In response to mounting pressure from Ginza’s stakeholders, including members of the Ginza Street Association, calls for regulatory reform gained momentum. Advocates lobbied local and national authorities for policy changes aimed at revitalizing the district and fostering sustainable growth. Central to their efforts was a push to align Ginza’s floor area ratio with that of Marunouchi, a pivotal step towards unlocking the district’s full potential.

Drawing inspiration from innovative urban planning models, such as the Function Update Intensive Land Use Districts, proposed by the Construction Ministry, Ginza embarked on a journey of revitalization and renewal. Collaborative efforts between stakeholders and governmental bodies paved the way for district-wide planning initiatives, aimed at optimizing land use and fostering a vibrant urban ecosystem.

Part 3 will be available on Tuesday May 14.