The Junk Bins of Akihabara

Akihabara, Tokyo has transformed over the years. In its present form Akihabara emerged from the ruins of a devastated Tokyo after World War 2 when the entire district was burnt to the ground. The area was rebuilt in the shadow of the Akiba Jinja (dedicated to the god of fire prevention), and a new breed of street vendors began to appear. Huddling under the protection of railway bridges, and dealing mostly in Black market radio parts, these vendors set a new tone to what would become Japan’s “Electric Town”. And as Japanese manufacturing prowess grew so too did Akihabara.

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Maids touting for business

Now of course Akihabara is also home to Otaku culture, and is perhaps best known in this regard for its maid cafes. Streets are littered with maids touting their cafes, somewhat incongruously among computer outlets and precision tooling stores.

My interests however lie squarely in Akihabara’s glorious junk bins. Of all places I think I’m happiest  digging through this mass of discarded technology from Japan’s manufacturing past.

A tour through the junks bins is like an archaeological dig. And in this article I will present some recent finds, and ponder on their relevance to Japanese manufacturing.

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A 1960s era Japanese phone

The posterboy of early Japanese consumer electronics is the transistor radio. Unfortunately, these are increasingly hard to find in Akihabara and never in the junk bins. The oldest piece of consumer electronics I’ve discovered discarded, and largely unloved is this 1960s telephone.

The phone cost a rather extortionate 1980 Yen (16USD). There are some great sites by Japanese collectors documenting the various colors and configurations of these handsets.

By the 1960s Japanese economy had well and truly boomed, having grown to the second largest in the world. Japan was pumping out transistorized consumer electronics. Companies having acquired licenses from AT&T for their production.

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The phones internal layout

This telephone of course uses purely passive components, but still bears some of the marks of miniaturization that came with this era of electronic development. The image to the right shows the phone’s internal layout. Particularly in contrast with a British design of the same era. Amazingly, and a testament to international standardization, I was still able to make a call with this phone. 6000 miles away from its intended point of use, and 55 years later the pulse dialing system still works on British Telecom’s network.

SuperJunk

Our next item I found in the aptly named “SuperJunk“. One of my favorite junk shops. Superjunk carries an assortment of passive and active components including discarded SMD reels. Along with this, more traditional, surplus Superjunk also hosts a small pile of curios. And this is were I found the Vidicon camera shown below.

 

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A “National” (now Panasonic) Vidicon camera

With the widespread adoption of CCD and CMOS imaging ICs Vidicons have long been forgotten. But for many years Vidicon tubes were the only way of electrically acquire images. A vacuum tube has a flat photoconductive surface. And electron beam is scanned across this surface, much like a CRT TV in order to measure the conductivity across the surface and acquire an image.

This tube bares the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. brand. A company now better known as Panasonic.

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Boxes upon boxes of Laserdiscs

The Vidicon camera represents a relic from the full analogue world of 70s and early 80s electronics. Akihabara is littered too with abandoned digital cameras (like this Ixy 60). But they add little to our manufacturing story. More interesting perhaps are those items produced right at the cusp of the analogue to digital transition.

Forgotten Digital-ish Formats

Junk shops like Hardoff are full of discard Laserdiscs. While you might think of Laserdiscs as purely “big CDs” they are actually a very different technology. Like CDs, the information was encoded using pits read by a laser head. However, the video encoding mechanism used a form of pulse width modulation, encoding and reproducing a purely analogue signal.

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“The Repeater” a curious artifact of 90s technology

Hardoff was also home to our next item. Another hybrid analogue storage/digital playback device called “The Repeater“.

When I first bought The Repeater I had no idea what it was. A curious slot appeared to accept a magswipe card, but I had nothing much else to go on. After some headscratching I deduced that the device plays back analogue audio encoded on a magswipe card. It appears that special flashcards were sold as a learning aid. Swipe a card on which a question is printed and the device will playback an audio recording of the answer. The Repeater is interesting to me because the audio is stored as an analogue recording, which is immediately digitally sampled by the device for playback (so that it can be repeated if required). This is really the only point in time when this approach would have been taken. Digital systems not quite cheap enough for storage, but able to effectively manipulate and playback datasets with ease. In the video below, you can observe this technological curio in action:

The Repeater is also notable as the last piece of consumer electronics on our junk bin trawl manufactured in Japan. These days the vast majority of consumer electronics for sale in Akihabara are manufactured (and often designed) in China. And while the transistor radio was emblematic of the rise of Japanese consumer electronic manufacturing, I found it impossible to find a single new consumer radio in Akihabara manufactured in Japan.

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The Anritsu comms analyzer acquired for a few hundred dollars

Test Equipment

Outside of consumer electronics Akihabara is home to test equipment store Keisokuki Land. Here you can find both domestic and foreign surplus test equipment often at very low prices. To date I’ve picked up and repaired 3 500MHz +5GS/s oscilloscopes for on average 200USD. All faulty in some way, but easy repairs.

Sometimes more curious pieces of domestic equipment pop up too. Like the Anritsu communications analyzer shown to the right. It’s a bad sign for Japanese manufacturing perhaps, that these high performance items seem to get sold off very cheaply, with little local demand.

Akihabara has shifted focus over the years, and Japanese manufacturing is no doubt currently in decline. But Akihabara still feels strong and vibrant. There’s a love of technology, for technologies sake here that I’ve seen nowhere else. While the markets of Shenzhen now dwarf Akihabara a thousand fold, Shenzhen is all business. Akihabara is filled with Otaku driven by the desire to hack. One can only wonder what the future will bring.

41 thoughts on “The Junk Bins of Akihabara

    1. Our swedish ham radio club sk7hw.org has an annual auction around april-may with loads of cool stuff almost embarassingly cheap. Last year I picked up a few sennheiser wireless mics with receiver for only 10 euros each, that cost a few hundred in stores.

  1. i went to akihabara almost every weekend when i was stationed in tokyo area a few years ago, and loved walking through all the vendors and checking the junk bins. Still have a $4000 toughbook that i bought for about $180. Would love to go back.

  2. After my first pilgrimage to Akihabara 25 years ago, I thought I would never see anything comparable anywhere again.

    But, I have to say that Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen is even better. It will be interesting to see how it evolves over the next decade and whether it will become a surplus market instead of the factory outlet shop it is now.

    Talk about a kid in a candy shop in both places!

    1. I’m trying to remember what a Laser Disk is. I do remember that some arcade machines used some form of Laser Disc long before we had Audio CD’s or CD ROMs in computers but I don’t think I ever saw one.

      1. It’s a 12″ optical disk that was used as a way to store movies (and probably other video as well). I remember watching The Right Stuff on laserdisk when I was attending summer camp in the late 80s.
        As it says in the article, they looked like giant CDs.

          1. There were actually a BUNCH of arcade machines that used laserdiscs, it’s just that Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace are the main ones that people remember. There were also on-rails shooting games like Mad Dog Mcree and MACH 3, and then there were games that combined both traditional arcade graphics with background video streamed off the laserdisc, like Cube Quest and Star Rider.

      2. Something you might find interesting, based on your comments on the article last week about video transport: Laserdiscs actually stored their video in what amounted to an analog format. While the discs had pits and lands like a normal audio or data CD, rather than having a clearly-defined width for a single bit, the encoded data is actually based on the *length* of the pit or land.

        1. I had a laser disc player for years but got very little use from it. Cold unheated Japanese houses would make the parts contract to the point where the discs would no longer read. If I left a disc in the machine for a few hours I could sometimes get it to play but eventually they would delaminate in the constantly changing temperatures and that would make them utterly unreadable. Laser discs were also very popular as early Karaoke machines. We used to have very good friends who had a refrigerator sized laser juke-box in their living room. The thing must have had 300 or more 12-in video-discs stored in it, including a collection of sex songs that displayed on their TV monitor “tasteful” images of couples making love to the strains of Japanese Enka songs while you provided the singing voice. A little odd in what was otherwise an ordinary Japanese living room but after a few drinks nobody noticed it. The thing has since been replaced with a more modern device making me wonder if the old one is now playing songs in some bar having been picked up by a collector at Akihabara.

  3. Old communications analyzers and testers are relatively common surplus items in radio amateurs shack. As cellular technology marches on the old units become useless. Thus old sets only doing GSM, GPRS, EDGE and so on become available on the surplus market, if they are not scrapped.

    I personaly have a R&S CMU200 as spectrum analyzer and signal generator, it also does GSM/GPRS/EDGE but those are useless for an amateur and it cannot be upgraded to even do any 3G standards.
    My friends have a mix of R&S, HP/Agilent and Anritsu testsets for smilar use.

    As for equivalent european places. I have been told that there are a few awesome ductch and german surplus testgear vendors. The most prominent domestic one here is ETP (http://www.eastrp.fi/) the guy has tons of testgear for sale and visiting is person usually ends up with you leaving with something.

    1. Yep, I have a couple of the R&S CTRUs which are quite similar. Handy bits of kit, interesting how dedicated spectrum analyzers tend to keep their value but these don’t. Great for hobbyists and hackers in any case!

  4. Many moons ago (about 20 years ago) I used to go to the Seoul Electronics Shopping Mall when stationed at Camp Red Cloud. I bought components for four computers for the price of one. Good old days!

  5. Hey! I remember The Repeater from when I visited that Hard-Off back in August. It was tempting to buy but I already bought a junky X68000 in a shop a block over and couldn’t figure out a way to encode cards for it at the time. It’s nice to see it found a home. Did they still have that Beverly Hills Cop laserdisc set in the bins?

    1. haha, it yea it’s probably the one for August. That kind of stuff hangs around for ages. I /think/ I remember seeing the beverly hills cop laserdisc, 80s movies abound in anycase. One of these days I’ll probably grab a laserdisc player there and try it out.

  6. What Japanese people say about Akihabara: There is basically nothing except junk left.. if you want weird stuff get it off of yahoo auctions.
    What foreigners that desperately need to write an article say about Akihabara: OMG IT’S SO KEWL DOODS.

    1. We find it amazing, because western culture is horribly wasteful, and because shops like this rarely have a “home” in North America.
      It is more likely that bins of random electronics will be sent to the landfill because people are even too lazy to attempt recycling.

      1. >We find it amazing, because western culture is horribly wasteful,

        If you ever experience “Japanese daily life” you’ll notice that it’s actually very wasteful here.
        There is a tradition when you move into a new area or apartment block that you give your neighbors washing machine powder or cleaning products.. sounds fair enough right. Well you can’t just hand over the washing powder in the box. No no no, it has to be wrapped in tons and tons of paper, then a fancy plastic bag and then a ribbon or something. Any gift you give or receive will be like that. Insanely wasteful.
        Go to a big name super market here like Max Value or Seiyu. Go to the fruit and veg section. Everything looks like the ideal model of that fruit or vegetable. Why? they throw away all of the slightly weird looking stuff because Japanese people are super picky on minor crap like that. Again, insanely wasteful.
        Look around any big apartment block, train station, school or university outside of Tokyo etc. There will be sometimes hundreds of bikes rusting away until they are too far gone to use anymore and the local authority collects them for scrap. Again, insanely wasteful.
        And if you live here long enough you’ll realise why there are shops full of second hand electronics junk: It’s almost impossible to throw some stuff away here because there are lots of rules and almost no flexibility. Say it’s plastics day and you mess up and put some paper in with the plastic. That bag of rubbish will go away in the rubbish truck and if they spot that it’s not 100% plastic it might be waiting for you with a pissy note attached at the rubbish dropoff point when you go to throw out your paper and “raw” rubbish a few days later.
        Say you have some kitchenware that’s broken.. you stuck it in a bag and put it with the rest of the random crap like broken heaters and stuff that people put out on “once month misc crap day”. Unless it exactly fits the rules of “misc crap” (which a frying pan with a broken handle didn’t) it’ll stay there until it rusts, you sneak around in the middle of the night and dump it off in somewhere else’s rubbish, or someone gets pissed off of seeing it so picks it up and chucks it into the local stream.

        1. “Go to a big name super market here like Max Value or Seiyu. Go to the fruit and veg section. Everything looks like the ideal model of that fruit or vegetable. Why? they throw away all of the slightly weird looking stuff because Japanese people are super picky on minor crap like that. Again, insanely wasteful.”

          You say that as though that’s unique to Japan. Not even the recently introduced “imperfect” fruit bags they have at my supermarket don’t seem that imperfect.

          1. In some cases Japan takes it to an extreme (boxes of a few perfect fruit selling for 50USD for use as gifts). Outside of that I’d say that the “unblemished” requirement is probably a little higher in Japan, but it’s a matter of degrees.

    2. Having purchased extensively in Akihabara and from yafuoku they have their respective benefits. I’ve never seen something like a TDS5052/54 or TDS7000 even faulty go for less than 1000USD on yafuoku. But they do appear in Akihabara for a few hundred USD on occasion, you have to look pretty regularly. Faulty audio equipment is a similar story. Yafuoku has a wider reach though, but in general I’ve found it more expensive than the junk you find in Akihabara.

      1. Not sure why you used USD so people could understand the sort of prices you’re talking about and but wrote yafuoku..

        Most of the recycling/junk shops list all of their crap on Yahoo Auctions too. If something is expensive wait for it to end and get relisted automatically a few times and the starting price/buy it now price will eventually come down. (source my other half had a sweet job where she sat around all day listing stuff from a recycling shop on Yahoo Auctions with silly starting bids and repricing stuff they couldn’t shift)
        One thing you’ll never see in Akihabara is trays/tubes of hundreds of components like flash and microcontrollers go for about 100 ~ 1000 yen but they come up on Yahoo Auctions fairly often if you know where to look.

        Anyhow if all Akihabara has to offer now is maid cafes and pile’o’crap shops however you dress it up it’s still very meh and I’m not sure why articles about the place have to pop up on sites like this every 6 months or so.

        1. hmmm. no they don’t all list on yafuoku. Keisokuki land doesn’t even list their faulty equipment on their own website. Many other Japanese surplus vendors (like takeoff) also don’t list all their items on yafuoku.

          1. The non-test equipment stuff you have in the article is the sort of stuff that appears at local recycling shops all the time and those places list that crap on ヤフオク.

      2. Yep. Yahoo auctions Japan is pretty much the exact opposite of EBay. The prices are artificially high for a number of reasons. Particularly the fee and accounts system is so wonky.
        It’s not seen as a way to “get rid of my junk that I don’t want but someone else would”. Financial transactions are a pain here and preparing shipping is troublesome.
        So, nearly all the sellers are people working it like a business. Not casual sellers.

        1. Maybe you have issues with not having a strong enough grasp of the native tongue. ;) (I remember you tried that BS on someone else on another one of this akihabara OMG!?! ponies articles..)

          >It’s not seen as a way to “get rid of my junk that I don’t want but someone else would”.

          My extended family stick crap on Yahoo Auctions all the time. They certainly think it’s a way of getting rid of crap.

          >Financial transactions are a pain here and preparing shipping is troublesome.

          Furikomi isn’t that much of a problem.. The main problem is that banks close and don’t have ATM access in the evening.. buuut Yahoo Auctions has the “simple pay” thing just for this little problem! Who would have thunk it.
          My bank is hip enough that I can do money transfers online!

          >So, nearly all the sellers are people working it like a business. Not casual sellers.

          That isn’t the case for Ebay?

  7. We used to use a box very similar to the repeater back when I was at primary school, it’s one of my few early memories there. As I remember it there was a counterpart machine which could record to the cards too that the teacher used to encode them. The cards were about 15cm long with the mag stripe being about as wide as one you’d find on a typical bank card. We’re talking mid ’80’s but then again knowing our primary school this could have been countless years old by that point.

    1. I’m surprised he didn’t try a normal card with a stripe in it, like some public transport thing or a creditcard or bankcard or some such.
      Or at least use an actual hard piece of plastic to stick the tape on.

      I guess we all have our ways eh.

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