NIPPONIA No. 46 September 15, 2008


Special Featuresp_star.gifExploring Akihabara, Japan’s Electronic Market

From Electric City to Global Techno Center

Akihabara—Always Energized for a New Tomorrow

The Akihabara district in central Tokyo is a dynamic place that is always changing. What persona will it take on next? To find out, Nipponia talked with Seno’o Ken-ichiro about Akihabara’s past and present, and about its future as Techno City. He is the director of the Industry-Academia Collaboration Initiative, a non-profit organization.

Written by Torikai Shin-ichi, with Seno’o Ken-ichiro
Photos by Kono Toshihiko; other photo credits: The Industry-Academia Collaboration Initiative (Nonprofit Organization)


“We are trying to make Akihabara even more visitor-friendly. Our ambition is to help Akihabara give people from overseas a better experience—like cheaper, more comfortable accommodations, and friendly information services,” says Seno’o Ken-ichiro of the Industry-Academia Collaboration Initiative.


Robots and Figurines

Akihabara is known globally as the world’s largest collection of stores selling electric and electronic goods, and regarded by the Japanese as a symbol of their scientific and technological potential. In Akihabara you can buy just about every possible electric and electronic component. There is no other place in the world like it.

Very soon after World War II ended in 1945, small open-air shops sprang up close to Tokyo’s Akihabara Station, selling parts for electric consumer goods and equipment. That was just the beginning. People with technical skills, returning from the battlefields, went there looking for parts to make radios. In those post-war chaotic days people wanted news of the world, so they set about making radios, which were scarce along with everything else.

Several years later, chaos settled into order and Akihabara’s open-air shops moved under the elevated railway tracks near the station. They began specializing in certain types of components, and laid the foundations for what rapidly became known as Radio Center. Soon the shops were branching out into specialty fields, like component parts for ham radios. Radio Center was Akihabara’s first persona.

Japan’s economy blossomed from the mid-1950s and into the 1960s, creating an opportunity for wholesale merchants to establish large home appliance stores in Akihabara and open their doors to regular consumers. The low prices and attractive goods gave Akihabara a new face as Electric City.

Beginning around the end of the 1970s, more and more stores began stocking components for computers, and during the 1980s Akihabara was reborn again, this time as Computer City.

Today, Akihabara is taking on its fourth persona, Robot and Figurine City. Robots represent perhaps the most exciting aspect of technology, while figurines are part of pop culture. Akihabara has lots of both, so with its latest rebirth it is becoming Techno/Pop City.


A District, Or One Big Department Store?

What is most fascinating about Akihabara’s continual saga of change is that some things never change.

One thing that remains the same is Akihabara’s refusal to abandon its roots. Akihabara started out with radios, and some stores specialize in radios to this day. In the old days you could buy vacuum tubes there for audio equipment, and you still can. During the days of Electric City, home appliances were king, and some stores still sell large quantities. Computer City still lives on in computer stores, which are too numerous to count.

Another thing that never changes: Akihabara is always a fusion of old and new. Stroll along the streets and alleyways and suddenly you find yourself next to a store that has been selling nori seaweed since the 1800s, or a specialty shop that supplies chopsticks to the Imperial Household. You might be swept up in the Kanda Myojin Festival, with its portable mikoshi shrines winding their way through part of the district. The festival honors the guardian god of Edo (today’s Tokyo).

The never-forgotten days of Old Edo blend with the exciting high-tech of today’s IT world. This is another fascinating side of Akihabara.

But what is most impressive is the vast collection of things for sale here, from almost every type of home appliance to tiny electronic components.

With all those things available, the whole area is like a vast department store. Electric goods, electronic parts, model railways, telescopes for the night sky, figurines, toy cars—the list goes on and on. Some stores sell large quantities, others specialize in unusual items for professionals, or second-hand goods, or just components. You will almost surely find whatever you want if you look hard enough.

If you can’t find it for sale in Akihabara, it probably doesn’t exist.