How Odaiba Got its “O”: A Brief Tokyo History

How Odaiba Got its “O”: A Brief Tokyo History

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Picture: t.sakai / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
The island of Odaiba is one of Tokyo's major landmarks. Not long ago, however, it didn't even exist. Discover Tokyo history rising from the depths.

It may not always seem like it, but Tokyo does happen to be a city by the sea. Its easternmost wards – Ota, Shinagawa, Minato, Chuo, Koto, and Edogawa – all have significant shorelines. They border the famous Tokyo Bay, a vast stretch of water sheltered by Chiba Prefecture’s Boso Peninsula and eastern Kanagawa. And yet, Tokyo is far from a beachgoer’s paradise. Mass reclamation for industry and residential space has left much of Tokyo’s shoreline out of sight, and even often out of mind.

One major exception remains, however: the island of Odaiba.

Tokyo bay and the Tokyo megalopolis seen from space.

Linked to the Tokyo mainland by the famous Rainbow Bridge, Odaiba (お台場) is these days by far the most well known of the myriad blocky man-made islands that hug Tokyo’s largely artificial shore. Since the 1990s, the island has become a popular tourist destination. It plays host to major malls, a life-size, moving Gundam Statue, movie theaters, museums, and more. Internationally renowned architect Tange Kenzo designed Fuji TV’s iconic headquarters on the island, complete with spherical core alongside rectangular wings. Perhaps most importantly for pleasure-seekers, Odaiba features one of the very few sandy beaches fit for recreation in all of Tokyo Bay. (Artificial though it, too, is.)

The current Odaiba Gundam. Photograph by Noah Oskow.

The view from that beach reveals something of the deeper history of this relatively new landmass. Two vaguely diamond-shaped masses protrude some feet off the water, one connected to the Odaiba beachfront, another emerging from waves on its lonesome. Brick retaining walls – not unlike those one might see at a samurai castle – surround these islets.

These are the two remaining daiba (台場) from which Odaiba takes its name: defensive fortifications built in the waning days of the samurai in order to fend off attacks by the encroaching Western powers.

These fortifications of a bygone era can tell us much of the story of Odaiba, and of the Tokyo seashore. Best of all, they can tell us just how it was Odaiba got its “O.”

Odaiba’s two daiba, near the Rainbow Bridge. The long strips of land are water breaks.

Black Ships on the Horizon

Roll the clock back a good 170 years, and watch as Tokyo’s shoreline recedes. Even in the 1850s, the shore near Edo castle was far from pristine, natural sediment. As early as the 1600s, the Tokugawa-led Shogunate government was already extending the shores of its massive capital city via landfill, creating new lands for agriculture, housing, and defense. And defense, of course, is exactly the topic at hand.

A map showing land reclamation in Tokyo Bay. Notice Edo Castle/the Imperial Palace, which long had a view of the sea. Odaiba is marked by a red star.

In July of 1853, four threatening warships of the American military sailed towards the port of Uraga at the entrance of Edo (now Tokyo) Bay. Commodore Matthew Perry led the squadron; his orders were to finally open Japan’s ports to US trade after centuries of self-imposed isolation.

Perry was far from the first to attempt this feat. Nearly 30 American vessels had aimed to accomplish the same since the end of the Revolutionary War some six decades earlier. The British and Russians made major attempts as well. Even the Dutch, the sole Western country granted a trade concession in Japan, took a whack at it.

Until now, Japan had firmly rejected any overtures, peaceful or bellicose, at establishing new relations from any Western country. In 1837, the US merchant ship Morrison had come under fire in the same Uraga straights while attempting to open trade with Japan under the guise of returning seven shipwrecked Japanese. From 1845, Shogunal law stated that Japan may give provisions to foreign ships in great distress, but it’d send away all others. And they’d use force whenever necessary.

But facing the fearsome modern armaments of Perry’s “black ships,” it was clear force would be of little use.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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