Make a date with Japan's fanatical 'history girls'

Make a date with Japan's fanatical 'history girls'

The classroom is no longer the only place to discuss ancient Japanese history, as Watanabe-shoten in Ochanomizu opens its doors once a week to local 'reki-jo' history buffs
rekijo bar
Event organizer Chisa Hayakawa lets her love of history shine every Wednesday night in Ochanomizu.

It's 7pm on Wednesday night at the bar Watanabe-shoten in Ochanomizu, and people have already started spilling onto the street and into the bars. As customers file in to Watanabe-shoten, bartender Chisa Hayakawa greets each guest by her first name. Like Hayakawa, some of the patrons are fully decked out in kimono, and one or two have meter-long replica swords slung over their shoulders, samurai-style. The lively discussion bouncing around the bar focuses on ancient warriors, heroic battles and family trees. Watanabe-shoten's weekly Rekishi-zuru history gathering, an event catering to Tokyo's growing number of fanatical history buffs, has become one of the bar's most popular events.

"There aren't so many people tonight," says Hayakawa, despite the crowd of people gathered around the counter. "We usually get 40 to 50 people, and 60 came to our biggest event."

From bookstores to the bar

Hayakawa started the event two years ago, just as the history boom was getting underway. A self-proclaimed reki-jo history girl, Hayakawa came up with the idea to organize her own gathering after meeting other 'reki-jo' (history girls) at history bookstores in nearby Jimbocho. She approached bar owner Ryo Watanabe, who agreed to let her hold the event at Watanabe-shoten once a week.

Like a lot of reki-jo, Hayakawa grew up feeling isolated from her peers.

"Other girls' hobbies were usually music or movies, so I always felt like I had to hide my passion for history," she says.

These days, young women like Hayakawa no longer have to conceal their love for historical heartthrobs like Sakamoto Ryoma. The recent wave of video games, television dramas and sociological commentary dedicated to the trend has officially established reki-jo as its own subcultre -- a pop-cultural phenomenon with the power to impact the economy. It has become a fad worth US$725 million a year, according to the Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute. 

Family history

But the crowd at Watanabe-sho isn't concerned with the financial aspect of the history trend. They're more interested in the war tactics of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The group is a mix of men and women in their 20s and 30s. As they kick back bottles of Oiran Beer -- a local brew that features a geisha on its label -- and pass around plates of oden, a convivial, kindred-spirit vibe pervades the atmosphere. It feels like one big, happy family.

"Everyone came here alone for the first time," Hayakawa says. "But we've all become really close."

Rekishi-zuru at Watanabe-shoten: Kanda Saguradai 3-3 1F, Chiyoda-ku, tel. 03 3293 0733, Wednesday nights only.

Hi, I'm Melinda Joe. Originally from Louisiana, I'd only planned to stay in Japan for a year when I fell in love with Japanese food and sake. The rest, as they say, is history.
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