Tokyo History

Shinjuku Then and Now

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.

Skyscrapers

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.

Shinjuku Skyline Night

Shinjuku skyscrapers at night. To the left is the Shinjuku Park Tower building (with three triangular points), the second tallest building in Shinjuku. The 39th to 52nd floors are occupied by the luxury Park Hyatt Hotel, which was the setting for the movie “Lost in Translation” (2003). Photo credit: Takashi Hososhima on Flickr.

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.

The Yodobashi Water Filtration Plant occupied the approximately 170-hectare site that is now Shinjuku's skyscraper district. On the far right of the photo are gas tanks belonging to Tokyo Gas Co. Photo was taken circa 1962. Photo source: Japan Press Research Institute.

The Yodobashi Water Filtration Plant occupied the approximately 170-hectare site that is now Shinjuku’s skyscraper district. On the far right of the photo are gas tanks belonging to Tokyo Gas Co. Photo was taken circa 1962. Photo source: Japan Press Research Institute.

 

Modern Nishi Shinjuku. The Shinjuku Park Tower building

Modern Nishi Shinjuku. To the right are the three towers of the Shinjuku Park Tower building, which occupies the land previously occupied by Tokyo Gas Co’s gas tanks in the previous photo.

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.

Maps of the inns along the Koshu Kaido road, which stretched from Edo to modern-day Nagano. The first "post" was Nihonbasi, the second was "Naito Shinjuku." Image source: https://markystar.wordpress.com

Map of the inns along the Koshu Kaido road, which stretched from Edo to modern-day Nagano. From the right, the first “post” was Nihonbashi, the second was Naito Shinjuku and the third was Takaido. Image source: markystar.wordpress.com

 

People walking along the Koshu Kaido road circa 1910. Photo source: chofu-nazotoki.sakura.ne.jp

People walking along the Koshu Kaido road circa 1910. Photo source: chofu-nazotoki.sakura.ne.jp

 

A view of the Shinjuku Park Tower building, looking along National Route 20, which closely follows the Koshu Kaido route. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A view of the Shinjuku Park Tower building in Nishi Shinjuku, looking along National Route 20, which closely follows the Koshu Kaido route. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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 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. Source: Still image capture from www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwBD7m80LX8

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. Source: Still image capture from www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwBD7m80LX8

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).

 

Isetan department store in Shinjuku 3-chome. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Isetan department store in modern day Shinjuku 3-chome. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Shinjuku Gyoenmae National Garden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Shinjuku Gyoenmae National Garden occupies land that used to belong to Lord Naito. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Yodobashi

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).

The area west of Shinjuku station was known as Yodobashi and was largely rural until after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Photo source: Oldtokyo.com.

The area west of Shinjuku station was known as Yodobashi and was largely rural until after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Photo source: Oldtokyo.com. Visit for many interesting vintage postcards of Tokyo from 1910 to 1960.

The Nishi Shinjuku branch of Yodobashi Camera, an electronics chain. Photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr.

The Nishi (West) Shinjuku branch of Yodobashi Camera, an electronics chain. Photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr.

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.

Shinjuku Station East Entrance, circa 1925. Source: OldTokyo.com

Shinjuku Station East Entrance, circa 1925. Source: OldTokyo.com

Modern day Shinjuku Station East Exit.

Modern day Shinjuku Station East Exit.

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.

Shinjuku circa 1933. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Shinjuku circa 1933. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

"Devastation from the Fires of the Shinjuku Commercial District," 1945 photo by Kageyama Koyo of the aftermath of a March 9-10 fireboming of Toyko by the U.S. Air Force. Photo source: Mead Art Museum

“Devastation from the Fires of the Shinjuku Commercial District,” 1945 photo by Kageyama Koyo of the aftermath of a March 9-10 fireboming of Toyko by the U.S. Air Force. Photo source: Mead Art Museum

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.

This aerial photograph taken by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan shows the almost complete destruction of the area west of Shinjuku station. Image circa 1945 to 1950.

This aerial photograph taken by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan shows the almost complete destruction of the area west of Shinjuku station by the Tokyo Fire Bombings. Image circa 1945 to 1950.

Rapid Growth

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.

Isetan department store in Shinjuku, circa 1958. Photo source: bluebell group.tumblr.com

Isetan department store in Shinjuku, circa 1958, during the period of post-war high economic growth. Photo source: bluebell group.tumblr.com

 

Modern day view of the Isetan department store. Photo: Su Yin Khoo on Flickr.

Modern day view of the Isetan department store. Photo: Su Yin Khoo on Flickr.

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.

The Yodobashi Water Purification Plant was located on the site of modern Nishi Shinjuku. Building in the photo is the as-yet-uncompleted Keio Plaza Hotel. Photo taken on July 23, 1971. Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Government

The Yodobashi Water Purification Plant was located on the site of modern Nishi Shinjuku. Building in the photo is the Keio Plaza Hotel, Nishi Shinjuku’s first skyscraper and Japan’s first high-rise hotel. Photo taken on July 23, 1971. Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Government

Nishi Shinjuku Now

In the latest aerial photograph provided the Geospatial Authority of Japan photo, Nishi Shinjuku looks like this:

From an area formerly occupied by Tokyo's main water treatment plant, Nishi Shinjuku has grown to become Japan's skyscraper district. Photo: Geospatial Authority of Japan

From an area formerly occupied by Tokyo’s main water treatment plant, Nishi Shinjuku has grown to become Japan’s skyscraper district. Photo: Geospatial Authority of Japan

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!

  • nouveau_ukiyo

    Fantastic post, looking forward to more like this.

  • Vjeran Dasovic

    What a great read!!! Very interesting and looking forward to reading more.

  • Esv80

    Very informative and overall interesting topic!

  • Tuure Kinnunen

    “The Nishi (west) department of Yodobashi Camera, an electronics chain.” and yet the neon sign states “東館”.

    Apartment from that, what an interesting read!

    • Bugra Arslaner

      Apartment from that, you have a keen eye!

    • Gene Ricky Shaw

      They have more than one building, an East building and a West building. Apartment from that, good observation.

  • Samuel Cossais

    It’s Shinjuku Gyoen not Shinjuku Gyoenmae. “mae” means something in front of the park, but not the park itself. And Koshu Kaido is still the name of the road nowadays.

    Anyway that’s a really interesting article nonetheless 🙂

  • AH

    Really great read. Scrolling up and down like crazy between the pix.

  • Chelie Elomina Teofisto

    Very interesting history of Shinjuku.

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  • Hiroko Watanabe

    Not Shinjuku Gyoenmae National Garden → Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

    Mae in Japanese → in front of.

    Yes, there is a station ” Shinjuku Gyoenmae”
    Because the station is in front of Shinjuku Gyoen 🙂

  • Gene Ricky Shaw

    Great article! I work in Nishi-Shinjuku now at the Shinjuku Center Building, right next to the Keio Plaza Hotel. I never knew the history of the place. Thanks for the info!

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