Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s 23 special wards, the busiest train station in the world, and one of Japan’s most important commercial and administrative centers.
Eleven of Japan’s forty tallest buildings are located in Nishi (West) Shinjuku and are often used to symbolize the economic power of the city and the country as a whole.
In Japan, the Shinjuku skyscraper skyline is often compared to New York’s Manhattan and as such, the area is associated with everything that is urban, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan about the city.
When the 8.9 magnitude 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck, the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, most of which are at least 30 stories tall, swayed and bent like reeds but did not fall. Thus, Shinjuku’s skyscrapers have also come to symbolize the country’s resilience in the face of adversity and its leadership in seismic design and engineering.
The high rises of Nishi Shinjuku have such real and symbolic importance that it is hard to imagine that until the early 1970’s, the 170-hectare site of the skyscraper district had almost no buildings at all, but was home to the Yodobashi water filtration plant, Tokyo’s main water treatment facility.
Shinjuku’s origins: “New Inn”
The kanji for Shinjuku, 新宿, means “new inn” which points to its origins, in the early Edo period (1603-1868) as a temporary resting place for travelers.
In 1604, the year after the Shogunate was established in Edo (the old name for Tokyo), five major roads were established with Nihonbashi as the starting point, and inns were placed along each avenue to provide horse messenger services.
Travelers going from Nihonbashi to Kofu (the present day capital of Yamanashi prefecture) along the Koshu-Kaido road (which modern Route 20 closely follows), apparently had a difficult time making it to the first inn, Takaido. Nowadays, Takaido station, on the Keio Inokashira line, is about 8.7km from Shibuya.
To alleviate the difficult journey along the Koshu Kaido, a new inn was approved to be placed midway along the route, between Nihonbashi and Takaido.
Since the inn was placed on the property of Lord Naito, who reverted the land to the Shogunate, and since the inn was new, the area was called Naito-Shinjuku (Naito new inn). Naito Shinjuku was a major transportation hub in the Edo period and also grew into a pleasure district because of the many serving women working in the inns in the area.
Naito Shinjuku was located in the area currently occupied by Shinjuku 1-chome (which borders Shinjuku Gyoenmae National Park to the north) to Shinjuku 3-chome (the shopper’s paradise to the east side of JR Shinjuku station that is home to high-end departments stores such as Marui and Isetan, electronics giants like Yamada Denki and Yodobashi Camera, and the main branch of Kinokuniya bookstore).
Eventually “Naito” was dropped from the designation and the area came to be known simply as Shinjuku.
Lord Naito also owned a large estate nearby, which today is one of Tokyo’s most spacious and tastefully landscaped parks, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
From the early Meiji era (1868 to 1912) to 1965, as mentioned above, Nishi Shinjuku was the location of the Yodobashi water purification plant, which was built in 1898 to modernize the city’s water supply after the 1886 cholera pandemic struck.
As OldTokyo explains, the area west of Shinjuku station came to be known as Yodobashi. It is situated on an elevated plateau that sets apart the High City (Yamanote) from Tokyo’s lower-lying land, the Low City (Shitamachi). Nishi (West) Shinjuku was largely rural into the Taisho Era (1912-1926).
Shinjuku becomes a new city center
Shinjuku began to develop into its current form after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Nishi (West) Shinjuku was (and is) a seismically stable area and largely escaped devastation. Many businesses began to relocate there from Marunouchi, Nihonbashi and Ginza after the quake to be on safer ground and to be near expanding areas of the city.
Shinjuku station was built to accommodate the increased vehicular and passenger traffic on the western side of Tokyo, and by 1925, it had become Tokyo’s most-used terminal, a title which it still holds today.
By the early 1930’s, Shinjuku was a bustling area with department stores, movie theaters, and cafes, but the Second World War loomed on the horizon.
In the aftermath of WWII
Shinjuku did not escape the devastation that the Tokyo Fire Bombings brought to the city as a whole. As the Shinjuku Ward Office’s “History of Shinjuku” describes:
“The Tokyo Air Raid from May through August in 1945 transformed the city. The pre-war downtown areas of Shinjuku Station, Yotsuya, Kagurazaka and Takadanobaba became mere burnt fields, and most of the city was burnt to the ground. While there were 63,295 buildings in the former three wards before the war, 56,459 buildings were lost because of evacuation and damage during the war, leaving only 6,836 buildings. In addition, while the population was nearly 400,000 before the war, it was reduced to 78,000 at the end of the war.”
The razing of the city is even more glaring as seen in the following aerial photograph taken sometime between 1945 and 1950 by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.
Between 1955 and 1961, Japan experienced a period of rapid economic growth, and by the 1960’s, the country had entered another high-growth decade, the “Golden Sixties.” Acoording to Wikipedia, in 1965, Japan’s nominal GDP was estimated at just over $91 billion. By 1980, the nominal GDP had shot to a record $1.065 trillion.
In the sixties, the government also made a decision to decentralise Tokyo’s commercial hubs to take pressure off of the city’s traditional core, around Marunouch, Nihonbashi, and Ginza. Alternative commercial centers or new city centers (Fukutoshin, in Japanese) were planned at key transportation nodes surrounding the centre of the city.
Shinjuku grew to become the biggest of these new districts. City planners carefully laid out plans for straight, wide streets, office towers and international hotels, and pedestrian walkways.
1970’s: The Skyscraper Building Boom
Nishi Shinjuku came into its own starting in the 1970’s.
As Wikipedia explains, skyscrapers are a relatively recent phenomena in Japan. The Building Standard Law set an absolute height limit of 31 meters (about 101 feet) until 1963, when the limit was abolished in favor of a Floor Area Ratio, which regulates how much total space a building may have for a given parcel of land.
Following these building regulation changes, the Kasumigaseki Building was constructed and completed in 1968. It is regarded as Japan’s first modern high-rise building, at 36 stories and 156 meters in height.
This record was soon eclipsed by all seven of the skyscrapers which were built in Nishi Shinjuku between 1971 and 1979.
The Keio Plaza Hotel, Shinjuku’s first skyscraper and Japan’s first high-rise hotel was completed in June 1971. The North Tower has an architectural height of 178 meters (about 584 feet) and 47 floors above ground. The South Tower was built in 1980 and has a height of 140 meters.
Nishi Shinjuku Now
In the latest aerial photograph provided the Geospatial Authority of Japan photo, Nishi Shinjuku looks like this:
As we mentioned at the top of the article, eleven of Japan’s forty tallest buildings are currently located in Nishi Shinjuku, and now you know how they came to be located there.
In a follow up post, we will take a decade-by-decade look at the growth of Nishi Shinjuku!