National

Roppongi: from ashes to 'High Touch Town'

by Atarashi Koike

The Roppongi district of Tokyo has been through a turbulent time in the 60 years since it was destroyed by firebombing during World War II.

“Kanreki,” the observance of a 60th birthday, is an important event in Japan, being the completion of the Chinese calendar’s six decade cycle. And Roppongi has had a harder cycle than most.

Japanese novelist Kafu Nagai (1879-1959) described the firebombing of Roppongi, where he lived, by American B-29 bombers in the early hours of March 10, 1945.

A strong wind caused sparks to dance in the air and fall as though confused, in his garden, Nagai wrote in his diary.

The bombers returned to Tokyo on May 25, dropping firebombs on Bunkyo and Shinjuku wards.

“Sounding like rain, the firebombs fell along the street,” recalled Shokichi Shiitsu, 77, a high school student in the district at the time. “Together with my father, we desperately tried to put the blaze out with buckets of water.”

The air raids turned Roppongi into charred rubble.

“Only Azabu Police Station and other concrete buildings remained,” Shiitsu said.

Many Roppongi dwellers had to rebuild their lives in shantytowns after the war.

Shuichiro Mizuno, 79, who headed the Roppongi town block association, said that before it was destroyed, Roppongi had its own special charm, “mixing a refined calm with the exoticism of Yokohama.”

No one is sure how Roppongi, which means “six trees,” got its name. Some say it may have been named for six pine trees that stood in the community, others think it’s because there were six homes owned by feudal lords in the area.

Roppongi began to grow as a settlement in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Buddhist monks built four temples in area. It was a quiet temple town that was occupied by the military before the war.

Feudal lords had residences there during the Edo Period, and the aristocracy continued to live in Roppongi after the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867. Foreign embassies and Japanese military regiments were also based there.

Genyu Goto, 83, head monk at Kogenji temple, can remember seeing Imperial Japanese Army elements after the Feb. 26th Incident of 1936, a failed military coup in which the center of the capital was temporarily seized and several political leaders were assassinated.

He said he watched soldiers with pale faces and white sashes return to their quarters after quelling the uprising.

Mizuno said Roppongi used to be a quiet place, where a few small shops sold such things as cigarettes and foreign hats. Cars were a rarity.

Ichiro Goto, 70, of Goto Flower Store Co., remembered playing baseball in geta at Roppongi crossing.

The longtime residents interviewed said they could not have imagined the huge changes that Roppongi would undergo after the war.

Famously signposted as “High Touch Town” above Roppongi crossing, the area is best known today as a raucous entertainment strip frequented by foreigners.

Prices of land soared to 100 million yen per tsubo (about 3.3 sq. meters) during the bubble economy in the 1980s.

Some residents sold their stores and houses to make a hefty profit, while others moved out because the noise and pollution made it impossible to stay.

In 2003, the upscale Roppongi Hills development opened, bringing hopes that Roppongi would lose its sleazy image.

Looking back, Mizuno said he finds it hard to believe what has happened to Roppongi.