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Akihabara Stays Ahead of the Times

February 27, 2001
Akihabara remains a bustling center of electronics innovation. (Akihabara Electrical Town Organization)

The Tokyo district of Akihabara, well-known among locals and foreign tourists alike as an electronics mecca, is changing. Akihabara's history as a hub of the latest gadgets goes back to the 1880s, when the first stores selling electric parts appeared. With the emergence in the 1950s of large retail stores dealing in home electronics, Akihabara came to be equated with electric appliances. The focus of the town has been shifting in recent years, however, and it is seeing an increase of highly specialized stores, largely but not only in electronics. Underlying this change is the competition Akihabara faces from large suburban stores and discount shops found near major railroad stations.

From Robots to Security Goods
In Akihabara, sales of personal computers began approaching those of household appliances about a decade ago and overtook the latter in 1994; PCs have since led the town's retail business. Recently another new trend has been emerging, in which individual stores try to distinguish themselves from the pack. As top manufacturers' PCs have become increasingly available in neighborhood discount stores at competitive prices, shoppers in Akihabara have come to demand products that are hard to find elsewhere.

Many businesses are responding to such demands by setting up specialty shops for PC parts aimed at technophiles looking to assemble their own PCs. Some major stores have spun off their PC parts sections and established new shops. The side streets of Akihabara are being flooded with newly opened small and mid-sized shops. One of the largest such new stores, which opened in November 2000, devotes all six sales floors to PC parts.

Many other types of specialty stores have recently debuted in Akihabara as well. Areas of specialization range from mobile equipment and audiovisuals to dojinshi--"fanzines" published by special-interest groups like PC fanatics--and model figures. August 2000 saw the launch of Japan's first robot store, where customers can find everything from mechanical pets to parts for building competitive robots. "Akihabara is the only place where businesses like this can get off the ground successfully," asserts a store representative.

Developing in Sync with Industry
The phases in the town's development echo the history of Japan's electric and electronic industries, as well as of its economy. Akihabara's heritage as an electronics town dates back to the 1880s. The first domestic electricity company was established in Tokyo in 1883, making electricity available to factories and homes. Wholesalers of the materials needed for drawing electricity, such as wires, switches, and switchboards, then began setting up shop in Akihabara and other parts of Tokyo. The introduction of radio broadcasting in 1925 created a major opportunity for Akihabara's advancement, and radio parts thereafter grew into key commodities for the area's businesses.

By the end of World War II in August 1945, Akihabara was in ruins. It was not long, however, before the old shops were back in business. Soon new competitors were joining in, and dozens of street stalls selling vacuum tubes and other radio parts sprang up. As word spread of the electronics bargains to be had there, the town came to enjoy even greater prosperity than in prewar years. Its accessibility by train and trolley also helped.

For many years after that, Akihabara's success knew no bounds. Japan's high-growth era was marked by the start of commercial radio broadcasting in 1951 and of commercial television broadcasting in 1953, and the popularization in the 1960s of large household appliances--notably the TV, washing machine, and refrigerator. Then, in the 1970s, came color TVs and coolers (air conditioners), which, with the addition of cars, were idolized as the "three Cs." The electronics stores in Akihabara, especially those dealing in home electronics, grew bigger and taller. The town's fame eventually spread overseas, and its key products have continued to change with the times--VCRs, word processors, facsimiles, cordless telephones, wide-screen TVs, satellite TV equipment, mobile phones, and PCs.

From the mid-1980s on, large-scale suburban electronics stores and discount retailers strategically located near major train stations came to pose a considerable threat to businesses in Akihabara, where several pioneering stores were forced to close down. But now, having launched a new drive toward further specialization, Akihabara looks set to flourish once again, this time as a multimedia magnet.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.