Nihonbashi has acted as an avatar of various epochs in Tokyo: the wooden Edo bridge (1603), the Euro-stone Meiji bridge (1911), the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway overpass of Olympic era Tokyo (1964), the re-created Edo era bridge in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (1993), and most recently in the recommendation to “re-heritage” the bridge by routing the current overpass underground (2005). Its name literally means “Japan-Bridge” (Nihon-Bashi), and will thus be referred to simply as Nihonbashi. It was the crossroads of the five national highways (today it is seven), and the beginning of the famed 303 mile Tokaido Road which connected Tokyo with Kyoto. All roads literally led to Nihonbashi. Since the maintenance of safety on roads was an important aspect of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s image, bridges, and in particular Nihonbashi, became a vital form of propaganda. They symbolized an unprecedented access and unity across the nation, which until the Edo era had been fractured and warring.
The most famous representation of this era of connectivity is Ando Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (1831), a pictorial guidebook to the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. Each Hiroshige woodblock print is a distilled vision of a moment along the road, an 18th century hyper-reality of the cultural uniqueness of each place. Nearly every station includes a prominent view of a bridge, often as the signal of threshold to a town. In fact, the stylized views of each bridge seem to indicate less specificity of place than universality of form and symbol; after viewing several dozen of these prints it becomes difficult to tell them apart, aside from natural features like Fuji. A trip that once might stop at each station is today completed in two and a half hours on the Shinkansen, the fastest train in the world.
What is apparent from the Nihonbashi views is the relative intensity of economic activity and liveliness of the place. It was the crossroads of the empire, and the merchant class grew the area into a vibrant trading zone. Many of the powerful zaibatsu (which became keiretsu) that were later to form so much of the urban shape of Tokyo originated here: Mitsui, Tokyu, Fuyo, et al. The area today is still home to great political intrigue between the few powerful players in the Japanese economy. This fierce competition was linked physically and mentally with the Nihonbashi.
Postcard commemorating Nihonbashi's central location
As a singular piece of architecture, however, it wasn’t particularly remarkable. There were many bridges that were longer, wider, and more picturesque. Its wood detailing was simply a refinement of bridges built everywhere by the Tokugawa Shogunate, albeit finely wrought. Durable katsura wood comprised the structure of repetitive cross-braced legs, gently arching to drain water from the cedar planks. Metal strapping reinforced wooden joints and provided waterproof caps at posts. As a whole, it was austere and sturdy for the times, a bushido evolution of earlier Sino-Japanese bridges. But as a symbol of the ascendancy of Edo, nothing could compare.
In the Meiji restoration, the preferred projection of Japan’s power shifted to a blend between imperial aspiration and Westernization; Japan fitfully adjusted to the forced exposure to progress by colonial powers. The old wooden bridge, constructed of what then appeared to be outdated materials and form was replaced with a fin-de-siecle style hybrid incorporating some martial Japanese ornamentation. In the West it is an immediately recognizable style of permanence and authority, but given a local make-over. The stone bridge remains there today, designated as a historical landmark after having survived the Kanto earthquake and Allied bombing. However, as economic activity was less reliant on the physical crossroads, merchant activity spread out, leaving the bridge to play a lessor role for the new Japan.
After the physical and psychological havoc of World War Two, Tokyo became a showcase of Allied influenced rebuilding. In response to the new internationally accepted Japan, Tokyo aspired to (and was granted) the 1964 Olympics. The rapid retrofitting of the city to accommodate the urban needs prescribed by the games necessitated a massive infrastructural overhaul. It is today one of the dominant images of the city. Automobile freeways were quickly erected along land that had the fewest stakeholders: parks, rivers and canals. It was an impressive undertaking in terms of scale and vision, but left much of the open space in Tokyo in the shade of the structures. The Shuto Expressway Loop Line was run along the Nihonbashi River, over Nihonbashi and numerous other low bridges. Today 100,000 vehicles pass overhead.
Several miles away, inside an arena-sized building in Ryogoku, Nihonbashi has been resurrected. The Edo-Tokyo museum was opened in 1993 and acts as the authorized version of the events that led to present day Tokyo. As Jordan Sand states, it is “the crowning achievement of the populist historiography of Edo-Tokyo.” The initial view upon entering is the most striking and memorable moment: you look down on the enormous hall from a life-sized Nihonbashi painstakingly re-created above the exhibits. The journey begins on the bridge, and below you cross under it to move from the Edo-era exhibits to the Tokyo-era exhibits. Thus it acts as the symbolic threshold between the historic traditions of Edo and rapid modernization of Tokyo. It is the most striking element of the museum, guiding traffic and acting as the primary orientation device for circulation. As the museum states in their literature:
“Nihonbashi Bridge was the doorway from Edo (current day Tokyo) to such places as Kyoto (to the west) and Nikko (to the north). The replica at the Edo-Tokyo Museum is of the same width as the original but of half the length. Upon crossing this bridge at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, one can often smell the wood of the bridge.”
It is perhaps no accident that the bridge takes on such an important role in the museum. Of course, the museum is located several miles away in Ryogoku, but within the hermetic environment of the museum, it catalyzes the transformation to historic-era Japan. And its re-creation has presaged a more ambitious project that had been building momentum for years at the original site.
In 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi instructed the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to find ways of re-routing a two kilometer portion of the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway that runs through Nihonbashi neighborhood. His proclamation was the culmination of years of lobbying by various local groups to beautify, preserve, and revitalize Nihonbashi. Many of these associations like the “Committee for the 100 Year Renaissance Plan of Nihonbashi and Environs” are comprised of the same powerful keiretsu that grew out of the Edo marketplace. Very few people have called for retaining the present overpass condition. Resulting competitions have engendered predictable, if commendable, solutions along the lines of the City-Beautiful and New-Urbanism models. It has been estimated to cost around $4.5 billion, though conventional wisdom puts the number at double that. The fact that the Prime Minister is personally addressing a project of such expense indicates the important role this little bridge occupies in the collective psyche.