By Haruna Mashiko / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer The Ameyoko shopping street in Tokyo’s Ueno district is home to many busy shops in an area between Ueno Station and Okachimachi Station. It is one of the capital’s iconic commercial streets, and well known nationwide — but where did its name come from?
Starting from Okachimachi Station, I walked through Ameyoko’s approximately 600-meter-long stretch between the two train stations.
The first thing I came across was a signboard displaying the letters spelling out “Ameyoko” in a unique font style evoking the street’s past.
Numerous shops are clustered together beyond the sign. They offered a variety of goods, but no clue as to the origin of the street’s name jumped out.
Moving along, I found another signboard bearing the name “Ameyoko” written in the same style as the first one I saw. And walking a little further, I came across a third similar sign.
But when I reached a point close to Ueno Station, a signboard reading “Ameyayokocho” caught my attention.
Thinking it might be the street’s official name, I visited the office of Ameyoko Shotengai Rengokai, a local shop owners’ federation.
“There are two prevailing stories about the origin of the name of Ameyoko,” said Tadao Futatsugi, 65, the federation’s honorary president.
Futatsugi and his father both served as president of the federation, so he is knowledgeable about the history of Ueno and nearby areas.
According to one of the stories, Ameyoko is a shortened form of “Ameya Yokocho,” meaning alley of Japanese candy shops. Just after the end of World War II, during which distribution and sales of goods had been strictly regulated, a black market sprung up in Ueno.
Vendors who traveled from the Tohoku and Hokuriku regions to sell rice and vegetables in Tokyo reached Ueno Station as their northern gateway to the capital.
After selling their goods on the black market, they would buy huge quantities of candies made from synthetic sweeteners before going back to their hometowns.
“Ame” candies in those days were prized as an alternative to hard-to-get sugar, and the vendors could sell them at several times the price in rural areas.
For that reason, an increasing number of shops were selling the in-demand candies on the streets near the station.
The other story goes that Ameyoko is a shortened form of “America Yokocho.” Goods for Allied forces soldiers stationed in Japan were transferred from shops in the Ginza area to the area around Okachimachi Station.
In the Okachimachi area during those years, U.S. items such as Zippo lighters, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Hershey’s chocolates were popular, and so the area came to be called “America Yokocho.”
Sign of the times
Due to the historic turn of events, there were many candy stores near Ueno Station and many shops selling U.S. goods near Okachimachi Station.
“So the signboard near Ueno Station bears the name Ameyayokocho,” said Futatsugi. The sign was set up in the 1950s, when there still were many candy stores, he added.
The sign has remained unchanged ever since, and today it serves as the street’s only visual reminder of the origin of the Ameyoko name, according to Futatsugi.
Black market vendors in the Ueno area introduced a discount sales system earlier than their counterparts elsewhere. Under the system, shopkeepers bought stocks of goods directly from makers or suppliers and sold them at lower prices.
In addition, the vendors started using a method called “tataki-uri” (slashed-price sales), in which vendors discounted goods for customers who bought large quantities, and gave free gifts to those who bought particular products.
Due to such business practices, Ameyoko became nationally known, and later the signboards bearing its name were erected.
So what became of the shops selling candies and U.S. goods that are said to be the origin of the street?
One of the former candy stores eventually became Long’s, a shop selling walking shoes. Kiyoshi Nagai, 70, the shop’s second-generation owner, said that his father turned the business into a coarse cereal shop, and then a vegetable store, after candy sales fell.
Soon after Nagai took over the business, he changed it into its current form.
During the four-day New Year period, when Ameyoko becomes jammed with customers stocking up for the holidays, Nagai removes the shoes from the shop’s front shelves and replaces them with seasonal foods such as kamaboko fish cakes and datemaki rolled fish omelets.
“Vendors who once ran ameya candy shops have survived by changing their businesses,” said Nagai. “Shops that started in the black market years are all the same in that respect. Ameyoko’s chaotic but attractive atmosphere was formed that way.”
On the other hand, Nakata Shoten, a military goods shop that opened in 1956, has continually sold U.S. products since its establishment. The wares include military uniforms, leather jackets and sunglasses.