It was one of those times that the people who lived it try to forget; a time that even now, over half a century later, still echoes of sorrow and despair. Japan had lost the war with enormous losses, material and moral, had been hit twice by the most powerful weapon in the world, it was under occupation for the first time in its history and the survivors were lacking even the bare essentials. And as usually happens in these cases, before the document officially confirming the multiple defeat was even signed, around some of the major train stations, mostly of the Yamanote Line –Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, Shinbashi and Tokyo- started appearing made-up stalls where black marketers and ordinary citizens sold what the former had stolen and the latter had salvaged to become rich or survive, respectively.
This is how the Ameya Yokocho (アメヤ横丁) or simply “Ameyoko” (アメ横) was built (although in truth its growth was much more organic), under the elevated lines of JR in Ueno. Ameyoko is the only such bazaar that still exists and is in fact one of the most vivid parts of the historical neighborhood. Its name remains debatable: “yokocho” means “side streets” but “ame” could mean either “candy” or “Ame-rican” in reference either the candy sold –among other things- there or to the second line of black marketers, those belonging to the occupation forces and seized the opportunity to become rich by exchanging the goods they could find in abundance at their PX with all the yen the Japanese could get their hands on. What is not debatable though is that it remains one of Tokyo’s livelier markets.
Excluding the rather big street starting at the enormous triangular building of photographic chain Yodobashi Camera, a street filled with places you can buy all kinds of foodstuff and especially fruit and fish, the part of Ameyoko closer to the black market that begat it, lives in the meandering alleys under the elevated lines. There, in a space that would make anyone feel claustrophobic, hundreds of tiny stores selling clothes, accessories, cosmetics, watches, jewelry and practically everything else are literally stacked one upon the other. Walking in Ameyoko and getting in and out of the alleys and the big street, under a soundtrack made up of 50s Japanese rock ‘n roll, the cries of the peddlers and the roar from the thousands of tourists and locals –the crowding is comparable to that of the trains during rush hour- you realize that Japan’s much-discussed “westernization” has only marginally affected its Asian nature.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.