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161215-0035 - Tokyo Ginza 4-chome, 1870s

Tokyo 1870s
The Birth of Ginza

Artist Shuzaburo Usui
Publisher Shuzaburo Usui
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Tokyo
Image No. 161215-0035
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Rickshaws on Tokyo’s Ginza avenue in the late 1870s. This intersection, now the location of the luxurious Wako store, was the information center of the Japanese empire.

Have a careful look at this photo. The corner building on the left houses the offices of daily newspaper Choya Shimbun (朝野新聞). The pro-democratic anti-government newspaper was founded in 1874 (Meiji 7) and discontinued in 1893 (Meiji 26).

Across the street (on the right of this photo) are the offices of another daily, the Tokyo Akebono Shimbun (東京曙新聞). It was located here from December 1876 (Meiji 9) through March 1882 (Meiji 15).

During the Meiji Period, this intersection was actually crowded with newspaper and magazine publishers, printing houses and advertising firms. Around 1890 (Meiji 23), Ginza counted over a hundred newspaper offices.1 It was the information center of the Japanese empire.

As these newspapers slowly became more independent, they inspired the People’s Rights Movement (自由民権運動, Jiyū Minken Undō), and the formation of a modern civil society. It could be said that Japan’s modernization first started taking form from this spot at Ginza at the time that this photo was taken.

130601-0019 - Ginza Newspaper Office, 1904
A small crowd discusses the latest news about the Russo-Japanese War in front of the Ginza office of the Chuo Shimbun (中央新聞) sometime in 1904 (Meiji 37). Nobukuni Enami, stereoview.

Ginza got its name after one of the Shogunate’s mints was moved here from Shizuoka in 1612. The mint was moved to Nihonbashi in 1800, but the name stuck.

The area was famous for its many artisans, but this changed after a devastating fire in 1872 (Meiji 5). To prevent a recurrence, the Japanese government decided to rebuild the area with fire-resistant Western style brick buildings and hired British architect Thomas James Waters to create a Brick Town.

Simultaneously, the street was widened to 27 meters, more than twice as wide as it used to be. It featured Japan’s very first sidewalks. The ambitious multi-year plan took until 1877 (Meiji 10) to fully complete.

The Georgian style brick houses with overhanging balconies look romantic on old photographs. But they were extremely unpopular. A report from 1872 stated that of the 324 planned buildings, future tenants had been secured for only 84.2

They were also badly built and totally unsuited to the humid Japanese climate. Damp and dark, quite a few remained vacant for a long time. Eventually, many buildings were rebuilt in more of a Japanese style. Buildings in the backstreets were completely Japanese or of a mixed style.

120820-0022 - Ginza and Shinbashi Station, 1900s
View on Shimbashi Station (far right) in Tokyo from Ginza, ca. 1900s. The canal is the Sanjukkenhorikawa (三十間堀川). In 1953 (Showa 27), it was filled in. Unattributed, collotype print on postcard stock.

The buildings might have been unattractive, the area was not. In the same year that the fire destroyed Ginza, Shimbashi Station was built at its south-western end. It was the terminal station of Japan’s first Railway, connecting the international port of Yokohama with the capital. This effectively turned Ginza into Tokyo’s entry portal for all new things from abroad.

In addition to newspaper offices, it attracted countless entrepreneurs riding the wave of the national policy of Bunmei Kaika (文明開化, Civilization and Enlightenment), the effort to quickly modernize the country so it could compete with the West.

Over the next few decades, shops selling imports and new products opened up one after the other. There were western-style restaurants and bakeries, western-style furniture, bag and clothing shops, clock dealers, and so on. All these shops featured modern window displays and could be entered freely without customers needing to take off their shoes.

One of the first entrepreneurial enterprises to move here, already shortly after the fire, was Shiseido. It set up shop in Ginza as a Western style pharmacy that would turn into today’s multinational cosmetic company.

The new Ginza really came to life from the 1880s. In 1882, a horse-drawn streetcar service lead through Ginza to Nihonbashi. It was later extended to Asakusa. The same year electric street lights were installed.

World famous watchmaker Seiko, founded by Kintarō Hattori (服部金太郎, 1860–1934), was born at Ginza. In 1885 (Meiji 18), Hattori bought the offices of the above-mentioned Choya Shimbun and build a shop with an iconic clock tower. It became the symbol of Ginza. The famous Wako Building now stands at this location.

70124-0017 - Ginza, Tokyo, 1910s
Two streetcars pass by the Hattori Building at what is now the intersection at Ginza 4-chome in Tokyo, sometime between 1911 and 1913. Unattributed, collotype print on postcard stock.
211210-0015 - Wako Building at Tokyo's Ginza, 1930s
View on the Wako Building at Tokyo's Ginza 4-chome intersection in the 1930s. Unattributed, published by Shoseido, collotype print on postcard stock.
80318-6712 - Wako Building at Ginza, Tokyo, 2008
The Wako Building at Tokyo's Ginza in 2008 (Heisei 20). It is hard to imagine that this is the same location as the top image.
71005-0004 - Shinbashi Bridge and Ginza, Tokyo, ca. 1885
A view on the Shinbashi bridge and horse-drawn streetcars at Ginza avenue in Tokyo sometime between 1889 (Meiji 22) and 1899 (Meiji 32). The building on the right is Ebisu Beer Hall. Kozaburo Tamamura, hand colored albumen print.

On July 4, 1889 (Meiji 22), Japan’s first beer hall, Ebisu beer hall, was opened near Shinbashi Bridge. In 1911 (Meiji 44), Café Printemps was started, fairly close to Ebisu. Coffee and alcohol was served by young attractive women. It became a popular spot for famous authors like Kafu Nagai and Ogai Mori, as well as geisha from nearby Shimbashi.

Soon, other cafés followed. Café Paulista, Café Lion, Tiger, and so on. The cafés and atmosphere made it popular for young people to wander around Ginza, an activity that became known as Gin-bura, a blend of Ginza and bura bura (strolling).

160306-0027 - Great Kanto Earthquake, 1923
The burnt out skeleton of the Kunimitsu Life Insurance Co., Ltd. Building (國光生命保険相互会社ビル) on Ginza in Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake (Kanto Daishinsai) of September 1, 1923 (Taisho 12). Unattributed, gelatin silver print.

Ginza was once again devastated in 1923 (Taisho 12), when the Great Kanto Earthquake unleashed raging fires. But like the fire of 1872, this actually created new opportunities. Major department stores like Mitsukoshi, Matsuya and Matsuzakaya built gorgeous new branches, transforming the avenue into an elegant modern shopping street that could vie with counterparts in any Western capital.

Ginza now became the epicenter of modern life and represented Japan’s urban future. The very name symbolized a modern lifestyle. This was where the modern Japanese woman, known as moga (モガ, shortened from modern girl), went to be seen. They also found jobs here at its many cafés. Mobo (モボ, modern boys), dressed in the latest Western fashion, searched them out.

160305-0011 - Moga on Ginza, 1928
A modern Japanese woman in Western-style fashion strides confidently in front of the popular Café Tiger (カフェ・タイガー) at Ginza, Tokyo, ca. 1928. Unattributed, gelatin silver print.
80122-0011 - Stores and Traffic at Ginza, Tokyo, Japan (1930).
Cars pass by stores on Tokyo’s Ginza in 1930. The building on the left is Itoya stationery store. The Neo-Renaissance building was opened in 1930 (Showa 5). Next to it is Matsuya Department Store, opened in April 1925 (Taisho 14). After the end of WWII it was used as the Tokyo PX by the US Occupation Forces. Unattributed, glass slide.
80122-0009 - Ginza Matsuya Department Storea, Tokyo
Interior of Ginza Matsuya Department Store in Tokyo, opened in 1925 (Taisho 14). Unattributed, glass slide.

From the mid-1920s on, the name Ginza was increasingly used as the name of cafés, bars and other entertainment establishments all over Japan. Local entertainment districts in major towns were nicknamed Ginza. Like Niigata Ginza and Sapporo Ginza. Temporarily halted by the Asia–Pacific War, this trend was rekindled in the postwar years. By 1956, 487 shopping districts in Japan had added Ginza to their local name.3

These days, Tokyo doesn’t really have a single center anymore, and Ginza is no longer Tokyo’s main attraction. But if you would have asked a Japanese person during the first half of the 20th century where the center of Tokyo lay, they would have said it was the intersection at Ginza 4-chome.

It was born when the top photo was taken.

80115-0049 - 1879 Map of Tokyo Ginza
1879 (Meiji 12) Map of Tokyo: 1. Shinbashi bridge; 2. Shinbashi station; 3. Ginza 4-chome intersection; 4. Kyobashi bridge.

see current map

Japan Firsts at or near Ginza

1869 Joint Stock Company (Maruzen)
1870 Rickshaw. Invented by Yosuke Izumi (和泉要助, 1829–1900)
1872 Western Pharmacy (Shiseido)
1874 Sidewalk
1878 Public stock exchange
1882 Electric street lamp
1884 Fountain Pen (Maruzen)
1890 Fruit Parlor (Sembikiya)
1899 Beer hall (Ebisu Beer Hall)
Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet)
1900 Public phone booth
1901 Typewriter company (Kurosawa Shoten Typewriter Manufacturing Company)
1902 Soda Fountain (Shiseido Pharmacy)
1923 Fruit punch (Sembikiya)
1927 Subway Line (Ginza Line between Asakusa and Ueno)
1941 Gunkanmaki sushi (銀座久兵衛, Ginza Kyubey)
1946 Sony
1948 Katsukarē (fried pork cutlet with rice and curry sauce)


1 Tokyo Metropolitan Library. A Visit in the Great Edo. Emergence of western-looking streets. Retrieved on 2022/02/03. Seidensticker claims it was thirty: Seidensticker, Edward (1983). Low City, High City. Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 204.

2 Grunow , Tristan R. Meiji at 150 Visual Essays: Ginza Bricktown and the Myth of Meiji Modernization. Retrieved on 2022/02/03.

3 Young, Louise (2013). Beyond the Metropolis: Second Cities and Modern Life in Interwar Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 193.


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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Tokyo 1870s: The Birth of Ginza, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from

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