Although this area wasn’t known as Akihabara until the late 1890’s, it has been an important crossroads since the Edo period – a coming together of commoners and military elite, tenements and samurai residences, temples and shops.
Heading one way on the main thoroughfare led travelers to the Tokaido, while going in the opposite direction took one through on of the 36 main gates of the city and out on the Nikko road – two of the five “Great Highways” of feudal Japan.
Naturally, because of its location astride these roads and close proximity to Nihonbashi and its stores, there were always a great number of people going to and from in Akihabara, including daimyo coming to the capital to stay in their estates (many of which were in the immediate area) as part of the alternate attendance system.
In 1869, there was a large fire in the area in Aioicho and in order to protect the inner city and castle from the spread of any future fires, a 30,000 square meter area of land was cleared to make a firebreak. The following year, a temple dedicated to Akiba – the deity for protection from fires – and called Chinka Jinja (Fire Extinguishing Temple), was erected where JR Akihabara station currently stands.
While Akihabara was most well known as an area known for its antique dealers, linen shops, and farriers in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the connection to electronics began not long after electricity came to Tokyo.
Despite the many electronic companies and factories nearby, Akihabara itself was not a center of for those same types of companies. However, due to its location between the busy shopping and business districts of Kanda, Ueno, and Asakusa, the area gradually began to grow as a commercial district.
Add to this the fact that the terminus station for the central line of the National Railway – Manseibashi station, the fourth busiest station in all of Tokyo at the time – was here also, making it a natural jumping off point for people coming into the city center. Many of these people came to in order to buy parts to build their radios, which had become hugely popular. NHK went on the air in 1926, and four short years later, 600,000 people had radio sets. Three years after that, in 1933, that number topped 1,600,000!
That changed with the coming of World War II and after the air raids of 1945, the area around Akihabara was completely leveled. In fact, it is said that everything had been so completely burned down that one could see all the way to Ueno from Akihabara. Still, people needed to eat and buy necessities for daily life, and the areas around the largest stations for the national railway – Shinbashi, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, and Akihabara became the location of thriving black markets.
Thanks to its excellent access and the nearby electrical manufacturers getting back into business, Akihabara began to get a reputation for being low-priced with wholesalers and retailers coming into the city to buy goods and parts they needed. Open air stalls also sprang up on the roads around Akihabara, selling just about anything – in a time of chronic shortages of all things necessary for daily life, if you had something to sell, there was someone willing to buy. Of the 120 open air vendors, approximately 50 specialized in electronic parts for radio sets.
While these stalls thrived, they posed a problem to the Occupation Forces of the United States. With the goal of re-building the infrastructure of the city, GHQ determined that all of the main roads and streets in Tokyo were to be of a uniform width and since the stalls interfered with that, a law was passed in 1949 ordering them to move.
As might be expected, the owners of these businesses were opposed to the plan, as moving would cause disruption to their businesses and they demanded that a place with roofs be provided for their relocated businesses. Fortunately, there were ideal locations available for this – the areas under the railroad tracks and with the cooperation of the national railway, the vendors started moving the stalls to locations under the Yamanote and Chuo lines in 1950. Thus began the start of modern Akihabara: electronics wonderland.
Even today, Akihabara’s recent history still remains under the railroad tracks and stands shoulder to shoulder with ancient temples attracting those hoping for success in business and marriage.