Tokyo Tower, a long-standing landmark of the capital, celebrated its 50th birthday on Dec. 23. It still attracts about 3 million visitors a year and has provided the metropolis with good TV reception for decades.

The tower is often regarded as a symbol of Japan’s postwar economic growth and development, but now a taller tower is under construction in Sumida Ward.

What is the history of Tokyo Tower and what will happen to it after the new one is completed? Following are basic questions and answers about the landmark:

Why was Tokyo Tower built and when did it open?

Tokyo Tower’s original purpose when it opened Dec. 23, 1958, in the Hamamatsucho district of Minato Ward was to serve as a TV broadcasting antenna for the Kanto region.

Modeled after the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tokyo Tower is nearly 333 meters tall and painted orange and white in accordance with aviation safety rules.

Before the tower was built, homes had small rooftop antennas that were pointed at different television broadcasters.

But as more households acquired television sets, all of the broadcasts were sent from Tokyo Tower.

The tower handles analog and digital television broadcasts as well as radio wave and digital radio signals.

Which broadcasters use Tokyo Tower?

Nine TV companies and channels currently use Tokyo Tower to serve the Kanto region — NHK General and Educational TV, TV Asahi Corp., Fuji Television Network Inc., Tokyo Broadcasting System, Nippon Television Network Corp., TV Tokyo Corp., The Open University of Japan, and Tokyo Metropolitan Television Broadcasting (Tokyo MX).

According to Masahiro Kawada, the planning director of Nippon Television City Corp., which runs Tokyo Tower, the structure was originally intended for broadcasting TV. But because it could accommodate more signals, radio antennas were installed in 1961.

There are currently six radio channels — NHK-FM, Tokyo FM, J-Wave, The University of Air-FM, FM Interwave and Nikkei Radio Broadcasting Relay Antenna.

Why is the tower 333 meters tall?

According to the official Web site of Tokyo Tower, that was the height necessary for the TV companies’ signals to reach their service areas in the Kanto region.

However, Hisakichi Maeda, a businessman who chose the basic concept of the tower, has admitted he also wanted to make Tokyo Tower the tallest, exceeding the Eiffel Tower.

“It would be meaningless unless ours exceeds the 320-meter Eiffel Tower,” Maeda is quoted as saying on the tower’s Web site.

Was Tokyo Tower also originally meant for tourists?

Yes. Kawada says Tokyo Tower’s two main revenue sources are antenna leasing and tourism.

He says an estimated 3.2 million tourists visited the tower last year. In 2006, Tokyo Tower marked its 150 millionth visitor since its opening.

There is a main observatory at 150 meters up and a special observatory at 250 meters. At the base are various facilities, including restaurants, shops, an aquarium, a wax museum and a Guinness World Records museum, which introduces world records with “400 life-size figures, photo panels and memorabilia.”

Can Tokyo Tower’s color be changed?

Yes. There are 180 light bulbs illuminating the tower. From July through September, the tower boasts a silvery incandescent light to give off a cool image, and for the rest of the year warm orange lights.

There are also special lighting events as well. Every Oct. 1, the illuminations become pink, the color of a campaign to promote breast cancer awareness.

On Nov. 14, the tower becomes blue for a campaign to eradicate and increase awareness of diabetes. In May 2002, the tower was lit blue to commemorate the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Japan.

In May 2003, the structure was lit green to mark the premiere of the movie “Matrix Reloaded” when the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, was visiting Tokyo.

It has also been cast in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Strong searchlights at the foot of the tower provide the color options.

Are there similar broadcast towers in Japan?

Tokyo Tower’s Kawada says that at the moment there are only three, including Tokyo Tower, that both send out radio waves and serve as a tourism spot. One is in Fukuoka and the other in Nagoya.

There are many antenna-only towers, often in high places like mountaintops, to aid local-area TV reception, Kawada says.

Why is a new tower being built in Sumida Ward?

The higher tower is needed for transmitting digital terrestrial TV broadcasts and the “one-seg” (one segment) service for mobile phone TV coverage. Japan now has both analog and digital broadcasting, but by July 2011 all broadcasting will be digital.

Digital broadcasts require higher frequency waves that cannot reach areas surrounded by forests or high-rises, thus requiring a taller tower.

A higher tower will also enlarge the service coverage of one-seg broadcasts, which started in April 2006 for such devices as TV-equipped mobile phones, said Tobu Tower Skytree Co., which is building the Sumida Ward tower.

According to the company’s Web site, five commercial TV stations and NHK “took this as a turning point to advance preparations toward digital broadcasting from a TV tower with a height of around 600 meters, and decided on the Sumida/Taito area as the site for construction of the tower.”

What will the new tower be like?

At 610 meters, it will be one of the tallest towers in the world, with observation decks at the 350- and 450-meter levels.

The Sky Tree — originally referred to as the New Tokyo Tower — is scheduled to open in spring 2012.

What will happen to Tokyo Tower?

All of the TV channels will be integrated into the new tower, and thus Tokyo Tower is expected to stop transmitting digital TV radio waves.

It will still operate as an observation tower.

But Kawada of Nippon Television City said The Open University of Japan will continue to broadcast through the tower, as will the FM radio stations.

Kawada also pointed out the possibility of the tower becoming a backup for the new Tokyo Sky Tree, depending on what the TV broadcasters want or need.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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