Let Nihonbashi Bridge rise again

A new push by business executives is calling for the removal of the elevated expressway over Nihonbashi Bridge before the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. That’s a fitting proposal since the expressway was hastily thrown over the top of the bridge just before the 1964 Olympics.

Since then, the Metropolitan Expressway has kept the Nihonbashi Bridge in a permanent shadow, turning the bridge at the heart of Japan into an eyesore.

Changing the expressway would mark a shift from an overly practical, rush-to-build style of city construction toward a more refined and well-considered approach to urban planning.

When Tokyo was transforming itself during the 1960s — both before and after the 1964 Olympics — construction projects over vast areas of the city emphasized functionality over aesthetics. That may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but a half-century later it has left the city awash in ugly buildings, bland public areas and few cityscapes that any tourist, or resident, would care to look at.

The expressway over the Nihonbashi Bridge has already become one of those photos foreign visitors often take to exemplify the chaotic construction of Tokyo.

Beautifying the Nihonbashi Bridge would be a symbolic shift of great importance. Nihonbashi, after all, is the center of Japan.

The bridge traditionally has been the zero point from which all distances are measured throughout Japan. It served as the starting point of the Nakasendo and Tokaido roads that ran between Edo and Kyoto. Even now, the distance from Tokyo is actually the distance to the center of Nihonbashi bridge.

One of the reasons for putting the first wooden bridge at the site in 1603 was the view that the site afforded of Mount Fuji. Nowadays, it would be impossible to imagine anyone making an ukiyo-e woodblock print of the expressway looming over the current bridge, even though the 1911 bridge was designated a cultural property in 1999.

The plan proposed by business executives who mainly work in the Nihonbashi and surrounding business areas is to move 50 km of the 300-km Metropolitan Expressway underground.

Burying the elevated sections will not be cheap. The proposed renewal is estimated to cost ¥3.8 trillion. But getting rid of the expressway over the bridge would be a good start to reclaiming Japan’s historical and aesthetic heritage, and to beautifying an important area of the nation’s capital.

Tokyo in the future might need to depend on the tourist industry for significant income. Improving the settings surrounding the city’s historical sites would help draw more visitors to Japan’s capital.