Area Focus: Roppongi


If Tokyo has a gaijin ghetto, that place is definitely Roppongi, the most cosmopolitan and international part of the city. Sandwiched between the three major landmarks of Tokyo Tower (333 m), Mori Tower (238 m), and the new Midtown Tower (248 m), scheduled to open next year, the area, which also includes parts of Azabu, Akasaka and Shiba-Koen – has some serious Feng Shui going on, ensuring that it will continue to be a key business, entertainment, and dining hub for the foreseeable future. It is also, of course, the area of Tokyo with the most embassies, which helps guarantee its unique international character – as well as the occasional heavy police presence when the rightwing sound wagons are rolling!

The name of the place literally means 'Six Trees,' but any sign of forestry is hard to come by, which isn't surprising, really, as Roppongi never was a forest. Instead it was originally part of the great swamp that surrounded and helped protect the feudal city of Edo. The 'six trees' name actually comes from the names of six daimyo (Japanese lords) who lived in the area in the early 17th century, each of whom had the kanji for tree in their name.

The distinctive character of the place started to develop in 1890 when the 3rd Imperial Guard division was moved to a base now north west of Roppongi Hills, near Aoyama Cemetery. Having a large number of soldiers in the area like this was sure to boost the nightlife somewhere. But, rather than spending their leave and money in nearby Aoyama, the cemetery with its unpleasant associations (especially at night) pushed the Imperial Guards in the opposite direction, towards Roppongi, and started to create the place we know today. After WWII, the Imperial Army was disbanded and its bases and bars were taken over by the US military, including the 31,670-square-meter site formerly occupied by the Imperial Guards, which became and remains Hardy Barracks and the Akasaka Press Center, home to the Pacific bureau of the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

The influx of US military personnel saw nightlife in the area take on an increasingly Western flavor, with Western-style bars and restaurants, and goodtime girls who were after dollars instead of yen. This also made it amenable to foreign embassies and company offices, many of which proceeded to locate here, including reputable banks like Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers.

The 1964 Olympics marked a watershed in Japan’s self image. No longer an inward-looking nation keen to borrow only Western technical know-how, the new Japan heralded by this international event now saw itself as a member of the international club of developed nations. Many Japanese came to Roppongi to learn how to fit into the culture of this largely Western club. With its American-style bars and discos, and international restaurants and clubs, Roppongi was the perfect place to get the patina of internationalism for those all-important business trips abroad.

Like many places in Tokyo, Roppongi was hit hard by Japan’s collapsing property bubble and the stagnant economy of the 1990s, but started to recover through major building projects that are pioneering a synergy between office space, residential space, shops and restaurants, and cultural and entertainment venues, and offering people an 'integrated vertical lifestyle.'

These projects, including the Izumi Garden Tower, which opened in 2002, Roppongi Hills, which opened a year later, and next year's Tokyo Midtown project, are facilitating a new kind of 'localization' or even an affluent form of 'ghettoization.' Those who can afford to live in the area will have everything they need all within elevator or walking distance, including major cultural venues like the Mori Museum of Art, which opened in 2003, and the soon-to-be-opened Suntory Museum of Art.

Ironically, the dynamism of constant development that has overtaken the area is now putting pressure on the very thing that gave Roppongi its original kick start as a trendy 'international' area – the US military. With military bases and facilities that now sit on acres of prime real estate, the Tokyo metropolitan government and the Minato Ward Office are strongly pressing for the return of all US military facilities in the area.

"If we returned the site, would you like to build another Roppongi Hills there?" Edward Roper, a 'host nation relations officer' for the US military asked one reporter. With the money to be made now in Roppongi development, the answer would undoubtedly be "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Tokyo Journal
December, 2006
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