Nihonbashi Uncovered: The Eyesore of 1964 to Disappear after 2020

Nihonbashi 1960
Nihonbashi in 1960
Nihonbashi recently
Nihonbashi in more recent years.

There were many who saw the spreading spiderweb of elevated expressways crisscrossing Tokyo in the 1960s as progress. There were many others who groaned at the growing eyesore of concrete ceilings blotting out the sky. The expressway section in particular that gets the elderly sighing in memory of yesteryear is the one totally covering Nihonbashi.

Built originally in 1603 out of wood, Nihonbashi, was the start and end point for travelers between Edo (as Tokyo used to be called) and Kyoto (the imperial capitol). In fact, Nihonbashi, which literally translates as Japan Bridge, used to be called Edobashi.

Nihonbashi circa 1922
Nihonbashi circa 1922

In 1911, the bridge was rebuilt with steel and stone, and stayed intact despite the firebombing of American planes during the end of the second world war. For centuries, Nihonbashi, when you crossed from east to west, provided an unimpeded view of Mount Fuji. But as Japan-hand and author, Robert Whiting wrote in The Japan Times, the expressway built over Nihonbashi just prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a travesty.

I remember taking a walk along the canal to see the famous bridge, shortly before the games began. I was dismayed to see its once-charming appearance completely ruined by the massive highway just a few feet overhead, like a giant concrete lid, obliterating the sky. The smell from the toxic water in the canal was so offensive I had to cover my nose. I imagined Mt. Fuji, looking on from afar, doing the same.

The reconstruction effort for the Olympics cost Tokyo much of its navigable waterways. By planting the supporting columns of the highways and other structures in the water below, many river docks were rendered useless, costing even more jobs. Water stagnated, fish died and biochemical sludge, known as hedoro in Japanese, formed.

According to Whiting, while government officials would have preferred to build the expressways underground, they could not raise enough funds to cover all of the infrastructure projects and the additional cost of buying up land in the middle of the city. Elevated highways made it less necessary to purchase land that would instantly increase in value. So up went the highways, over canals and roads, darkening shops and skimming buildings.

Metropolitan Expressway over Nihonbashi being built
The Metropolitan Expressway route being constructed over the historic Nihonbashi bridge in Chuo Ward in 1963 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Over half a century later, the Japanese government has finally resolved that it is time for Nihonbashi to see the light. Land and Transport Minister, Keiichi Ishii, announced on July 21, 2017 that Tokyo will initiate a project to remove the elevated roads above the bridge, and find another place for it underground. As he said in this Asia-Nikkei article, “Nihonbashi is the source of Japan’s roads. It will be reborn as a place where you can see the clear sky.”

The work won’t begin until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But the plan is there. And a wrong will finally be righted.