NIPPONIA No.27 December 15, 2003

Akihabara Electric City
The World's Biggest Electronics Market
The Akihabara district of Tokyo sells the world's latest electric and electronic consumer goods, everything from home appliances to computers. Displayed near the store entrances, they attract plenty of window shoppers and customers. Consumer trends are shaking up the market these days, and the district keeps adapting to them. These pages take a look back at Electric City's early times, and show the Akihabara of today.
Written by Sanada Kuniko, Photos by Sugawara Chiyoshi

Chuo Avenue passes through the center of Akihabara's Electric City. Large stores along the avenue sell home appliances, computers and lots more. Night comes, but the district seems too electrified to sleep.

Not long after World War II, Akihabara developed into an important market selling electric goods, and its fame has since spread worldwide. Massive aerial bombings just before the end of the war turned much of Tokyo into a devastated wasteland, and after peace came, black markets sprang up in many places, especially beside often-used transportation routes. Akihabara is located where the Sobu and Yamanote railway lines intersect. (Both lines are now operated by JR East, but at the time they were part of the Japanese National Railways network.) Roadside stalls appeared near the intersection, selling radio components, materials for electrical construction, and other goods. In 1951, the government introduced new regulations to control roadside stalls, and this prompted the merchants to move into stores under the elevated JNR railway track at Akihabara. This was the beginning of the huge electronics market we see today.
Japan's standard of living improved in the late 1950s, as more and more people bought refrigerators, washing machines, and black-and-white TVs. Akihabara naturally grew, and kept growing as consumers turned to new products like color TVs, air conditioners and stereo systems. It was around this time that Akihabara became known worldwide as an emporium selling the latest home appliances and other electric products.
But the district fell on hard times around the end of the 1980s, when customers began shopping at the large, cheap stores being built in the suburbs around Tokyo. But then, Akihabara was saved by computers. In 1994, PCs and related products brought in more revenue than home appliances, and this changed Akihabara into a computer buyer's paradise. The customer profile changed too — before, consumers often came with their families, but the new shoppers tended to be electronics enthusiasts looking for some special item.
The four-story buildings next to JR's Akihabara Station, under the elevated track of the Sobu Line, helped lead the district into its post-war boom times. The buildings, called Radio Center and Radio Department Store, house small outlets that remind us of the old roadside stalls. They are lined up side by side with narrow passageways between them, and display items sought after by electronic fanatics — components, cables and lots more.
Yamamoto Soji works at one such outlet, Mimatsu Audio, which sells everything from connectors to security cameras. He says, "It's a good idea to get close to customers — which is easy to do here, with the small size of the shop and the tight display layout. We want people to ask if they don't understand something, to know exactly what they are getting, and then to buy it. We're not like a vending machine." In Akihabara, business means interacting with customers.
Near the station, stores typical of Electric City stand side by side. Large home appliance stores, outlets for major computer manufacturers, duty-free shops and other retailers line the streets, many of them on Chuo Avenue, jammed close to the station. Consumers and tourists are almost sure to find what they want here.
Stores located off the main streets are equally fascinating. In lanes to the west of Chuo Avenue, there are all kinds of retailers — smaller stores selling computers, second-hand stores, video-game software merchants, shops with CD players and DVDs and lots more for audio-visual entertainment... the list goes on. Shoppers gather around boxes at storefronts, looking for that special something going for a great price. On weekends, the lanes become a kind of bazaar, with tables laden with items.
Akihabara is known mainly for its electronic goods and computers, but it has evolved considerably over the last six or seven years. For example, one building called Radio Kaikan, in front of the station, used to be crammed with outlets selling home appliances, audio equipment and computers, but since 1998 other merchants have moved into some of the space, selling figurines, trading cards, comic books, animated movies, video game software, and more. Today, about half of the floor space is taken up by such goods.


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