Akihabara (“autumn leaf field,” but more at “field of Akiha”)
For a certain segment of the population, Akihabara is ground zero for the ultimate experience in Japan. This certain segment of the population is generally referred to by the term オタク otaku – geeks, nerds, in other words people with very specific interests. You won’t find many Japanese history nerds here, though.
In the case of Akihabara, one image is a manga and anime based wonderland inhabited by メイド meido maids, Tōkyō’s coolest gamers, and cutting edge IT specialists. The other image is an IT business district overrun by the biggest losers in Japan who can’t get girlfriends so they collect figures and become obsessed with 抱き枕 dakimakura cuddle pillows and フィギュア figures and are so socially retarded that they have to resort to going to メイド喫茶 meido kissa maid cafes where girls clean their earwax and trim their nails over a cup of tea at inflated prices. Oh, and single, middle aged salarymen who are obsessed with the idol group, AKB-48, who is based in the area.
The reality is somewhere-in-between and not-even-fucking-close.
Old School Akihabara
A Little Backstory
When I first visited Japan 12 or 13 years ago, Akihabara was a very different place. My friend, Kai, first brought me there. We walked from Uguisudani to Akihabara. He wanted to show me Electric Town, but most of all he wanted to show me a massive, multiple-story porn shop – easily the largest porn shop I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking a Tower Records of sex. Needless to say, it was fucking awesome.[i]
Anyhoo, my friend pointed out to me that the town wasn’t just famous for electronics and porn, but it had a gritty, Shōwa Era feeling but it was slowly being cleaned up and taken over by massive commercial interests. He was absolutely correct. 13 years later, Akihabara is a completely different town. There are massive electronics retailers (the tiny specialist shops are still there, though) and skyscrapers and cutting edge IT companies in the area. Some specialist electronics shops have given way to specialist shops centered on オタク文化 otaku bunka otaku/nerd culture. 13 years ago it was still very specialized (for example, the porn shop had a whole floor dedicated to any genre you can imagine), but today there is a more unified theme. Tech, gaming, anime, and computers reign supreme[ii].
Sometimes I think it’s a saccharine technophile dreamland, but today let’s look at what this neighborhood was before it became 電気街 Denki-gai Electric Town and before it became the otaku mecca it is today.
People lived here in the Edo Period and after. Before there were maids and before there was ever electricity, people lived here.
So let’s see Akihabara before its recent transformations.
Let’s Look at the Kanji
This place name is made up of three kanji. None of which are particularly helpful in deducing the origin of this place name.
Also, the location is difficult to nail down. In 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward there is an official postal address 秋葉原 Akihabara. But the area considered Akihabara by most people is the area immediately surrounding 秋葉原駅 Akihabara Eki Akihabara Station, whose official postal code is in 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward[iii]. The 電気街口 Denkigai-guchi Electric Town Exit of the station is located in Chiyoda Ward, but it spills over into Taitō Ward.
The reality of the situation is that the The place name dates from the Meiji Period. In short, in the Meiji Period, the blocks that make up the immediate Akihabara Station area burned to the ground. The government decided not to rebuild, as this area had long been prone to fires. A small Shintō shrine called a 鎮火社 chinka-sha fire prevention shrine was built on the vacant lot. The 神 kami spirit enshrined there – or believed to be enshrined there – was 秋葉大権現 Akiha Daigongen[iv]. The sprawling vacant lot was referred to as a 原 hara “field.” Thus this was Akihabara – “Akiha’s Field.”
But there is so much more to this story.
Let’s take a trip back to the Edo Period.
The Edo Period
In the beginning of the Edo Period, a few 大名 daimyō feudal lords built their 藩邸 hantei daimyō residences near the area in order maintain a good relationship with the new shōgun, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. The area had access to water[v] and quick access to 江戸城 Edo-jō. However, the area was apparently prone to fires and by the time the policy of alternate attendance – 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai – was implemented, most daimyō had moved elsewhere. There were still a few samurai residences in the area, and in nearby 御徒町 Okachimachi[vi] you could find residences and barracks for low ranking 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the 将軍家 shōgun-ke shōgun family and nearby there were still a few daimyō mansions.
By the late Edo Period, the area was a small collection commoner residences and merchants. The term 町 machi/chō town was used because under the Tokugawa regime similar businesses tended to be grouped together, residences of families with similar incomes also tended to be grouped together, but most modern people would just think of these as blocks. But each block had its own name. 神田佐久間町 Kanda Sakuma-chō, is an example of name of one block that persists to this day. But in short, in the Edo Period this area was considered part of Kanda.
An important road, the 下谷御成街道 Shitaya O-nari Kaidō ran through the area. As I mentioned in an earlier article, 御成 o-nari is a word that refers to the presence of the shōgun. An 御成御門 o-nari go-mon is the shōgun’s private gate. An 御成御街道 o-nari o-kaidō is the shōgun’s private road. The Shitaya O-nari Kaidō was the private road of the shōgun to travel back and forth from 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle to 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple. The stretch of present-day 中央道 Chūō Dōri “Main Street” from 上野一丁目 Ueno Icchōme and 上野二丁目 Ueno Nichōme to the Kanda River follows the path of the Shitaya O-nari Kaidō.
Today, the 総武線 Sōbu-sen Sōbu Line passes through the area on elevated tracks. There is a non-descript bridge that spans Chūō Dōri. And even though the word o-nari became irrelevant after the collapse of the shōgunate, this bridge preserves the name of the O-nari Kaidō. To this day it is called the 御成街道架道橋 O-nari Kaidō Kadōkyō the O-nari Kaidō Overpass Bridge[vii], even though this particular O-nari Kaidō doesn’t exist anymore.
In the Meiji Period
The real history of Akihabara begins in the Meiji Period.
In 1869 (Meiji 2), there was a major fire in this part of Tōkyō[viii]. The area we’ve been discussing, which was roughly 17 blocks of Edo Period real estate was completely burnt to the ground. I can’t find numbers on the casualties, but 17 blocks of cramped residential apartments, each unit housing at least 2, possibly 3 generations of a family is an absolutely horrible tragedy. As mentioned earlier, the new Meiji Government decided not to rebuild and designated the area as a 火除地 hiyokechi firebreak. The idea is that if other areas burned, the fire would stop spreading once it hit the 野原 nohara field.
On the field (or near the field, I’m not clear which), a small type of shrine called a 鎮火社 chinka-sha was established to protect the area from further conflagrations. The name of this type of shrine literally translates as “extinguished fire shrine[ix].”
Details are fuzzy, but it seems that the local people incorrectly assumed that the main 神 kami deity of fire protection of the Edo Period had been enshrined here. But it seems like the chinka-sha was nothing more than an empty shack until 1870, when a kami was enshrined here – and it was kami the people assumed had been installed.
So who is the kami in question?
His name is 秋葉大権現 Akiha Daigongen, a beaked and winged Shintō-Buddhist syncretic deity who is crowned with an aura of fire. The kami was affectionately called 秋葉様 Akiha-sama or 秋葉さん Akiha-san Mr. Akiha[x] and this name could also be applied to a temple or shrine where he was enshrined.
Initially, I thought some Meiji hijinks were going down, possibly connected to the 1868 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei Order Separating Kami and Buddhas. Part of the government’s efforts to separate Japan’s two fused religions was a specific order banning applying the Buddhist title 権現 Gongen or 大権現 Daigongen to Shintō kami. That would put Akiha Daigongen – as syncretic as they get – in direct violation of the law. But as I thought about it a little more; there were big changes going on in Tōkyō and across the country and realistically, only a year passed before Akiha Daigongen was enshrined into the chinka-sha and the name changed to 秋葉社 Akiha-sha Akiha Shrine. I think people were busy and it just to a long time to transport the priests and necessary implements from the main Akiha Shrine in Shizuoka to Tōkyō[xi].
So, What’s the Etymology?
The burned out area left as a fire break was officially called a 火除地 hiyokechi, literally “fire prevention land” but to the commoners of Edo – erm, I mean Tōkyō – it was just a 野原 nohara field. When you have roughly 17 blocks of burnt out land in the middle of an urban center, it’s a landmark – especially in a city like Edo-Tōkyō. Streets don’t have names, so giving directions is primarily down by landmarks.
As far as landmark names go, “that burned out field over there” leaves much to be desired. So the people latched on the Akiha Shrine, which is a much more pleasant name given the deadly reality of fires in Japanese cities at the time. Several names were in use before standardization.
|秋葉原||Formal writing; pronunciation is ambiguous.But this is the spelling used to day.|
What’s Up With the AKIHA and AKIBA Thing?
The readings for 秋葉 are /akiha/ and /akiba/. Both are used throughout the country. The main Akiha Shrine in Shizuoka uses the /ha/ sound, but there are shrines that use /ba/. It seems that both /akibahaɽa/ and /akihabaɽa/ were used as readings of 秋葉原 and this is most like the source of the affectionate nickname ｱｷﾊﾞ Akiba used by otaku. And here I thought it was a diminutive slang term. Go history!
I want to visit Akiha Shrine
OK, good for you. You can.
You just can’t do it in Akihabara.
The chinka-sha was built in 1869. It was renamed the Akiha-sha in 1870 (Meiji 3), and in 1888 (Meiji 21) was moved to present day 台東区松ヶ谷 Taitō-ku Matsu-ga-ya Matsugaya, Taitō-ku and became 秋葉神社 Akiha Jinja Akiha Shrine.
You might be thinking, why the hell would you move a shrine to another place? Well, this happened all the time – Kichijō-ji and Yanaka, I’m looking at you! – but in this case, it happened because of the area’s next big step: a freight train station was to be built here. Due to its proximity to the Kanda River, the area was a major lumber town. Lumber distribution had traditionally made use of Edo’s vast river network prior to trains. Once the train network was in place, merchants could increase their reach.
In 1890 (Meiji 23) the train station was opened under the hiragana name あきはのはらえき Akiha no Hara Eki Akiha no Hara Station. Since 1870, various informal names had appeared on maps, but this was the first time the area had an official sign. The hiragana is a testament to the confusion caused by the kanji and the casualness of the name – it was just a burned out field by the river after all.
Since people don’t really use freight trains so much, over time the local people’s reference to the neighborhood was based on the formal kanji use, which was today’s 秋葉原. This kind of kanji is ambiguous as to pronunciation, but it seems fairly clear that the final 2 contenders were /akihabaɽa/ and /akibahaɽa/.
However, until re-administration of the Tōkyō in 1964 there had never been an official place name using the kanji 秋葉原. In that year, two traditionally shitamachi towns in Taitō Ward named 松永町 Matsunaga-chō and 練塀町 Neribei-chō officially became 秋葉原 Akihabara. The names of those towns date back to the Edo Period. Again, it’s interesting to point out that the official Akihabara is in Taitō Ward, while the station and much of the original burned out field where the name began are in Chiyoda Ward.
So that is the end of the story of Akihabara. The evolution of the name isn’t preserved step by step, but we’ve got signs, maps, and finally an official government endorsement of a place name. In Tōkyō, this is place name gold.
But I Want To Talk About The Main Shrine in Shizuoka…
Will you humor me for a few more paragraphs? I’m comparing an Edo Period map with a modern map and I want to go on, but I think it’s more interesting if we return to Akihabara’s namesake for a moment.
The main shrine that houses Akiha Daigongen is located in 静岡県浜松市 Shizuoka-ken Hamatsu-shi Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture and called is called 秋葉山本宮秋葉神社 Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja Akiha Mountain Main Shrine Akiha Shrine[xii]. The name Hamatsu should ring a bell as this is where Tokugawa Ieyasu ruled from 1570-1586[xiii]. As such the shrine was well patronized by the Tokugawa. In December they celebrate the 火祭り Hi Matsuri Fire Festival. The shrine boasts a collection of 浮世絵 ukiyo-e paintings and a collection of swords donated by such notable Sengoku warlords as 武田信玄 Takeda Shingen, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and 加藤清正 Katō Kiyomasa.
By the way, there are roughly 800 Akiha/Akiba Shrines scattered throughout Japan. There are more of these than there are Tōshō-gū.
What’s Left Today?
Finding bits of Edo in Tōkyō isn’t hard, but it takes a careful eye and you really have to know what you’re looking at and looking for. But given Akihabara’s reputation as the technology epicenter of Japan – possibly Asia – and that it was burnt to the ground in the early Meiji Period, you’d think there’d be little left of the Edo Period there. But you’d be wrong.
When they began construction on the 秋葉原UDXビル Akihabara UDX Building in 2006, the construction company discovered some suspicious stones. An archaeology team was called in who quickly realized this was an 石垣 ishigaki stone wall from the mid-Edo Period. Given the quality of the construction and location, they were able to determine this was the remains of a 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residence. The stone work was painstakingly excavated and re-assembled and the design team scrambled to incorporate the walls into the design of the building. Today, the average person probably wouldn’t recognize them, but the traditional stonework and random stones here and there on the street level of this ultramodern sky rise date from the Edo Period. There is a small sign describing the wall.
I Want to Finish By Revisiting a Photo
The panoramic photo was taken from the 東京復活大聖堂 Tōkyō Fukkatsu Taiseidō Holy Resurrection Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral built in the 1890’s[xiv]. I don’t know the details of this photo, but my guess it was taken shortly after construction was finished. So this is mostly likely the only photo of the area. It’s pretty amazing.
So, otaku people. Stuff that up your proverbial pipe and smoke it.
[i] Cuz we all love sex. Awwwww yeah!
[ii] This is seen by the old school otaku of 中野 Nakano as the ultimate sell out. They will proudly tell you that true spirit of otaku culture is alive and well in Nakano and that Akihabara is a fucking clown show.
[iii] I have an article about that, by the way.
[iv] This chinka-sha seems to have been built informally and later enshrined, but it’s not clear.
[v] The 神田川 Kanda-gawa Kanda River was nearby.
[vi] I have an article about Okachimachi here, bitches.
[vii] I could go a lot deeper into the history of the bridges, but that would take me back down the river rabbit hole. I could go on about the history of Chūō Dōri, but that would also take me back down the river rabbit hole. No thank you. Not going there now. No way. I have river rabbit hole trauma.
[viii] The name of the city was changed from Edo to Tōkyō the year before.
[ix] Though, interestingly, if you pop the word into Chinese Google Translate, it comes up as “town fire company.” Not sure if that’s accurate, cuz Google Translate is usually a trainwreck.
[x] Mr. Akiha doesn’t really convey the nuance of the Japanese, but I can’t think of a better translation.
[xi] You’re off the hook on this one, Meiji government. But I’m watching you.
[xii] Yes, I know the name is redundant, but don’t blame me. I didn’t name the place.
[xiii] He then relocated to 駿府城 Sunpu-jō Sunpu Castle.
[xiv] The cathedral is more commonly referred to by its nickname, ニコライ堂 Nikorai-dō Nikolai’s Church. The name is a tip of the hat to the church’s founder, St. Nikolai of Japan.