It was first put on the map by the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Ieyasu when he decided that the country he managed to unite after his victory in the civil wars that lasted more than a century needed a single currency. And its shiny name –“Ginza”/(銀座)- i.e. “the place where silver is made” (this was Japan’s first mint) was the first indication that a place that used to be a swamp would become the model for how Japan imagined its Western self, it would identify itself with everything modern in Eastern Asia and, finally, it would develop into one of the most expensive areas in the world with one of the biggest concentrations of super-luxurious stores of all kinds. All this –and this is something that never ceased to amaze visitors to Tokyo- literally a few steps from the world’s biggest fish market, Tsukiji (築地), an area which both functionally and visually couldn’t be more different.
Ginza didn’t become what it was in the first half of the 20th century and what it continues being today organically; it became this was by design, when in the same year, 1872, first a great fire literally flattened it destroying three thousand buildings and second Japan’s first railroad which connected the port of Yokohama to the city of Tokyo reached its neighboring Shinbashi (新橋). Ginza was chosen to be the store front of the new capital and in the next years it would see a rapid development with Georgian architecture buildings made of red bricks, big streets and sidewalks for streetcars and promenade, stores selling Western clothing, cafés, restaurants, dance halls and even its own style of youth, the “mobo” (“modern boys”) and “moga” (modern girls) who, dressed in the Western style, brought as best as they could the inter-war Parisian way of life to the edge of Asia.
Like all Tokyo, Ginza reinvented itself after the Big Kanto Earthquake of 1923 but the war brought it to its knees: its buildings managed to endure the bombings (its symbol, the department store Wako/和光 with Seiko’s clock tower was the US Army’s PX during the occupation) but the air of cosmopolitanism and luxury was lost in the hardships of Japan’s reconstruction. Apparently, though, the glow of silver never faded from its heart and the second phase of the “Japanese miracle” brought it back, stronger than ever. And although some casual visitors will think of it as little more than a paradise for luxurious shopping in the flag stores of the world’s biggest brands, believing that Tokyo’s night life has moved irreversibly to the west, the narrow streets behind the big crossing of Wako, Nissan, Ricoh and the department store Mitsukoshi in the 4th block with their French-named small bars and cafés, tell a very different story.
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.