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Heart of gold: The Ginza Line celebrates its 90th birthday

by Tim Hornyak

Contributing Writer

Born of disasters, war and massive infrastructure projects, 21st-century Tokyo has plenty of ghosts buried underground. If you ride the subway these days, you can catch a fleeting glimpse of two of them but, if you blink, you’ll miss them. The Ginza Line is marking 90 years since its opening with the illumination of two “ghost stations” abandoned long ago. Manseibashi and Jingumae stations have been brought back from the dead as part of a tribute to the Ginza Line, which was the first subway line built in Japan and East Asia.

Dec. 18 marks the last day of a special event in which the timeworn platforms of Manseibashi and Jingumae stations appeared in the darkness outside the windows of passing trains, like apparitions from another world. Passengers keeping a weather eye peeled may have spotted the tiles and station names as they pass by; some trains paid tribute to the stations by traveling slower than usual, giving riders a better chance at looking into the past.

A sign points the way to the Ginza Line
A sign points the way to the Ginza Line’s abandoned Manseibashi Station. | COURTESY OF TOKYO METRO

Located between Suehirocho and Kanda stations, Manseibashi was used until 1931 when Kanda Station opened. Its only connection with the above-ground world is an unremarkable grille on a sidewalk near Akihabara. Beneath it, a staircase leads down into the darkness to the platform. Jingumae Station, meanwhile, lies just west of the present Omotesando Station. It was abandoned in 1972 when the Chiyoda Line was built. The station was moved to the east to link with the Chiyoda Line and renamed.

Gridlock in the Imperial capital

These days Japan has some of the best railways in the world, but it was a latecomer to subways. Underground trains appeared in London in 1863, Paris in 1900 and other major cities in the decades around the turn of the century. While Japan’s first railway was inaugurated in 1872, joining Shiodome with Yokohama, the subway took another 55 years — and it might have been even longer if it weren’t for an ambitious businessman named Noritsugu Hayakawa.

A bust of Noritsugu Hayakawa.
A bust of Noritsugu Hayakawa. | TIM HORNYAK

Born into a family of politicians in Miyosaki, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 1881, Hayakawa later studied law at Waseda University and made the bold move of sending an article he wrote about national policy to the statesman Shinpei Goto, who had been serving as head of the South Manchuria Railway Co. Goto offered him a job as his secretary and Hayakawa’s career as a railway man was set. Hayakawa worked for the line before moving to Japan’s Railway Bureau, following in the steps of Goto, who proved to be not only a major influence but also a source of connections to powerful people in Imperial Japan. Hayakawa worked for several railroads in Japan before embarking on a tour of Europe and North America to study rail and port infrastructure, during which he was struck by London’s extensive subway. He became convinced that in order to grow into a world-class city, Tokyo needed its own underground. In Japan, the capital was already known for its jam-packed streetcars.

“At the time, traffic in Tokyo primarily consisted of trams, but this mode of transportation had reached its limit since trams were slowed by traffic jams,” says a spokesperson for the Tokyo Metro Museum, which is celebrating the Ginza Line’s 90th anniversary with special exhibits.

“The congestion of tramways can be neutralized only by the establishment of high-speed railways — namely, elevated railways or underground railways,” Hayakawa said in an interview in August 1927 with this newspaper, then named The Japan Times & Mail, which described him as “the man through whose initiative and ability the problem of traffic congestion in Tokyo will be solved.”

The interior of the Ginza Line
The interior of the Ginza Line’s original 1000 series, which was replicated by Tokyo Metro and put into service last year. | COURTESY OF TOKYO METRO

Hayakawa spent two years studying subways in Europe and the North America. At the museum, visitors can view his silk top hat alongside evidence of his journeys: On display are his traveling trunk, passport and letters to his wife that bear stamps and stickers from cities such as Paris, Zurich and Montreal.

After he returned to Japan, Hayakawa began drawing up plans for his subterranean dream. The challenges were myriad. Experts told him the ground in Tokyo, which fans out across several river deltas, was too soft and saturated with groundwater. Japanese engineers had no subway experience. And then there was the cost of ¥6.2 million, which is about ¥3.7 billion today, according to the Metro Cultural Foundation. Hayakawa and his supporters established the Tokyo Underground Railway Co. in 1920 and began lobbying the city government, business leaders, railway experts and foreign visitors for investment.

Mannequins in period attire sit on display in the original car.
Mannequins in period attire sit on display in the original car. | TIM HORNYAK

Meanwhile, Hayakawa set about determining the course of the future subway by surveying the burgeoning metropolis at the ground level. For six months, in rain and shine, he walked the streets of Asakusa, Ginza and Shinbashi and took note of the passing pedestrians, rickshaws, trams, cars and trucks. To determine the most crowded intersections, he had his wife prepare a supply of white and black beans. When he saw a pedestrian go by, he put a white bean in his left pocket. When an automobile drove by, he put a black bean in his right pocket. The left pocket soon bulged, and through this one-man survey Hayakawa was able to get a rough idea of where people were congregating in the metropolis. The most congested — and, therefore, potentially profitable — parts of Tokyo would serve as the subway’s route. An initial plan to build from Ueno to Shinbashi, already a rail hub, was scrapped in favor of a line from Ueno to Asakusa, the bustling entertainment district surrounding Sensoji Temple. On Sept. 30, however, disaster struck in the form of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which left more than 105,000 dead and devastated the city. The company’s investors balked, its stock slumped and it was forced to suspend business.

Birth of the Asian metro

On Sept. 27, 1925, construction finally began on a 2.2-km tunnel running between Ueno and Asakusa, which was referred to by the name Kaminarimon, the iconic gate of Sensoji Temple. Okura Doboku, the forerunner of today’s Taisei Corp., was tasked with the job. Its elderly founder Kihachiro Okura insisted that it be built by Japanese workers, but at least one German engineer was recruited and Berlin’s U-Bahn, which opened in 1902, served as a model along with the London Underground and the New York subway. Construction cost ¥4 million per mile, which would be roughly ¥2.4 billion today.

The Ginza Line opened in Tokyo on Dec. 30, 1927.
The Ginza Line opened in Tokyo on Dec. 30, 1927. | KYODO

Two years and three months later, on Dec. 30, 1927, after several delays, the initial section of the present-day Ginza Line opened as the first subway in East Asia.

A photo shows Hayakawa and his associates, wearing three-piece suits and the “can-can” boater hats of the day, proudly sitting for a group shot. To promote the line, Mitsukoshi Department Store head designer Hisui Sugiura was commissioned to create modernist posters depicting fashionably attired passengers lining up on the platforms and all the way up the entrance stairway.

It was a case of art imitating life: The four-station line carried as many as 53,000 people per day. In fact, it was so congested that passengers queued all the way from Ueno Station’s ticket gates up to the street, past Ueno Park to Ueno-Hirokoji down the road. Even though trains departed every three minutes, there were waits of up to two hours. To board, passengers had to plunk a 10-sen nickel coin, which was one-tenth of ¥1, into a box attached to an automatic wooden turnstile at the platform gates. Then they could finally squeeze into a carriage for the five-minute trip.

The first carriage of the Ginza Line
The first carriage of the Ginza Line’s 1000 series sits in Tokyo Metro Museum. | TIM HORNYAK

Built by Nippon Sharyo, the 1000-series subway cars were lemon yellow and emblazoned with the Tokyo Underground Railway Co.’s stylized T and C logo. Powered by American-made motors that could produce speeds of 74 kilometers per hour, the carriages were made of steel to prevent fires and were powered by the third-rail power collection system. To prevent collisions, the rail beds were equipped with the “trip cock” Automatic Train Stop System, an electro-pneumatic device that halted a train if it tried to run a red signal; these were considered so indispensable that they were used on the Ginza Line as recently as 1993 and on the Marunouchi Line until 1998.

Later growth

Hayakawa’s line proved a success, and despite the Great Depression weighing on the economy, the company opened another line between Ginza and Shinbashi in 1934. The same year saw the establishment of a subway firm, backed by the Tokyo municipal government, in the form of the Tokyo Rapid Railway Co. It set about digging its own tunnel from Shinbashi, but going in a westward direction to Shibuya. Meanwhile, Hayakawa’s company tunneled from Ginza to Ueno. In 1939, through service began on the two subways, allowing passengers to go from Asakusa all the way to Shibuya, the limits of the Ginza Line to this day.

Commuters wait for a train on a platform on the Ginza Line in 1945.
Commuters wait for a train on a platform on the Ginza Line in 1945. | TIM HORNYAK

In the postwar years, hubs such as Shibuya and Ginza became so crowded with returnees that congestion was a major problem. Shibuya’s stationmaster dispatched staff equipped with bullhorns and placards to marshal passengers and bring order to the chaos. This is believed to be the origin of today’s orderly subway queues in Tokyo, just one of the many legacies of the line.

“The Ginza Line is significant not only in being the first subway in East Asia, but as the beginning of urban railroads in Japan,” says Shigeru Morichi, a transportation policy researcher at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “It connected the downtown areas of Asakusa, Nihonbashi, Ginza and Shinbashi, which is unique given the fact that the national railways of the time were for intercity rail and the private railways mainly served the suburbs.”

It wasn’t until 1954 that the Ginza Line got its name. The opening of the Marunouchi Line between Ikebukuro and Ochanomizu necessitated a new identity. It’s unclear why “Ginza” was chosen, but the neighborhood, devastated in the war, had a legacy of being the most trendy, modern district of Tokyo. As it links Ginza, Omotesando and Shibuya, the line has held a long association with fashion and tastemakers.

“Subway station names are normally related to neighborhoods but one distinguishing feature of the Ginza Line is that it has stations with names referring to the department stores of Mitsukoshi, Matsuya and Matsuzakaya,” notes Takahiro Yamaguchi, a spokesman for Tokyo Metro, referring to the retailers in station names such as Mitsukoshimae. “This is the result of tie-ups with these stores, which helped at a time when it was a challenge to finance construction.”

Riding the nostalgia wave

Aside from the exhibit at the Tokyo Metro Museum and the illumination of the “ghost stations,” the operator has found other ways to kindle nostalgia among riders. Starting in 2012, it introduced a revival of the original 1000-series trains. The award-winning design features lemon-yellow exteriors and 17-inch LCD information displays inside.

Tokyo Metro replicated the interior of the Ginza Line
Tokyo Metro replicated the interior of the Ginza Line’s original 1000 series and put it into service in 2016. | COURTESY OF TOKYO METRO

Last year, Tokyo Metro added something special: Two trains in the fleet of 40 have amber-toned interiors done up to evoke the Hayakawa era. They have brass-colored railings, wood grain-style finishes, and vintage light bulbs and manufacturer plaques, complete with old-school kanji that reads right to left, just like in 1927.

Meanwhile, it’s holding an event on Dec. 17 in which 90 passengers selected by lottery will be able to experience a sense of time travel by riding in these trains; staff will be decked out in period attire from the 1920s.

Meanwhile, the operator is working to revamp all 19 stations along the line. The platforms at Kanda Station, for instance, were refurbished in a grey-brown color scheme. The first phase of this project involves the stations from Asakusa to Kanda and is slated to wrap up in March, with the remainder in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“We hope the 90th anniversary of the Ginza Line provides passengers an opportunity to enjoy its history,” Yamaguchi says. “We’d like to continue developing the Ginza Line with an eye on tradition while deploying the latest technology for subway services.”

Hayakawa, whose bronze bust watches passengers from a promenade in Ginza Station, would surely be proud.

Good as gold: The Ginza Line is 14.3 kilometers long.
Good as gold: The Ginza Line is 14.3 kilometers long. | COURTESY OF TOKYO METRO

The Ginza Line celebrates its 90th birthday

• Aside from the extant Aoyama Itchome Station, the Ginza Line also had Aoyama Yon-chome and Aoyama Roku-chome stations. The former was renamed Gaienmae while the latter became Jingumae Station before it was abandoned in favor of the present-day Omotesando Station, one of the 19 stations on the line.

• The original plan for the Ginza Line had it going from Asakusa to Shinbashi and then along a route over 3 km south of its present course to Fudanotsuji, near today’s Tamachi Station, before reaching Shinagawa.

• Manseibashi has a twin “ghost station” on the other side of the Kanda River. Designed by Tokyo Station architect Kingo Tatsuno, Manseibashi Station was used from 1912 until 1943, when it was eclipsed by nearby hubs such as Akihabara. In 2013, JR East reopened part of it as Maach Ecute Kanda Manseibashi, a red-brick corridor of shops and restaurants under the Chuo Line.

• For many years, passengers on the Ginza Line would experience periods of darkness during their journey. This happened at spots where the car’s connection to the third rail was temporarily lost. The same phenomenon was observed on the Marunouchi Line.

• The Ginza Line is 14.3 km long, with the final 300 meters above ground at Shibuya. Its deepest point is at Akasaka-Mitsuke Station, where one of its platforms is 11.9 meters below ground. At Shibuya, however, the sinking topology has it briefly soaring over the street, and the platforms are 12.1 meters above ground. By April 2019, the station will shift 130 meters east from its current location above the JR lines, bringing it closer to the Shibuya Hikarie Building.

• The Ginza Line uses a relatively wide rail gauge for Japan at 1,435 mm. Also employed by the Marunouchi Line and Toei Oedo and Asakusa lines as well as the shinkansen, it’s standard in many other countries. However, most other subways in Tokyo, as well as JR and other Japanese railways, use 1,067 mm.

• The Ginza Line has a single level crossing. It’s part of a maintenance branch on a side street near Ueno Station.

• In the year to March 31, 2017, the Ginza Line carried about 404,785,000 passengers, or 1.1 million people per day, according to Tokyo Metro.

• Ridership between Akasaka Mitsuke and Tameike Sanno stations reaches 157 percent of capacity between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

• Nine stations on the line play melodies timed with train arrivals. The most symbolic is Ginza Station’s “Ginza Kankan Musume” from the 1949 Koji Shima film of the same name starring Hideko Takamine.

• Ginza, Shinbashi and other stations on the line feature in the 1994 Jiro Asada novel “Chikatetsu ni Notte,” in which the subway is a time machine. The book spawned a musical, TV drama and film versions.