I was writing copy for a client’s website a while ago, intended for overseas readers, in which I described the company office location as “downtown Tokyo”. Now Tokyo is more like a donut ring of a dozen or so city centers, many of which would count as a downtown by itself in any other metro area, but like most people I throw the word around as a vague term for anything resembling a central business area or activity district. So I was kind of surprised when the manager grimaced and told  me “Please don’t say downtown, we are located in Marunouchi.”

Now a Marunouchi address is ritzy in Tokyo, but it means squat to people in other countries. I wanted customers to know they actually had a central (and probably expensive) location, and not a thrown together bunker in some satellite suburb. I wondered what the problem with ‘downtown’ was. Then it dawned on me: historically, old Edo and Tokyo had areas, roughly along the banks of the Sumida River on the eastern side of the city. These areas were known as ‘Shitamachi’ or literally, ‘down town’ and, despite being the city’s central area of commerce and entertainment, were considered proletarian, bohemian and even somewhat sleazy. The cultured and richer folk lived in ‘Yamanote’, or the higher altitudes. But then Shitamachi was badly hit by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Americans acknowledged its commercial significance in World War II by reducing it to rubble once more. Shitamachi is more of a backwater these days, but it still retains much of the old character and still does a lot of trade. Tourists head straight to Asakusa for the old-town feel and food, creaking amusement park and Senso-ji temple, and all the locals know nearby Okachimachi is the best place to get cheap clothes and food. Ueno has a nice park but the neighborhood itself is pretty low-rent. All the cheapest hotels are in Shitamachi. As for the Sumida River itself, you don’t know it’s there until you cross it, despite it being a good 30 meters wide. Fans of urban grunge will tell you it has charm and character, and for me personally it’s a great strolling spot, but most of my Japanese friends don’t go there unless they have to.

So I guess that’s why you don’t want to be known internationally as ‘downtown Tokyo’, at least not by the locals. I wonder what the folks of Wall Street would say, especially since ‘Midtown’ got borrowed for a classy urban redevelopment in Roppongi. ‘Downtown’ to me sounds like action, neon, where it all happens. In the end I compromised with ‘central Tokyo’ for the website, even though taking the geography literally would place the office somewhere in the Imperial Palace or its moat. Americans have a knack for choosing the most evocative (and foreboding) place names. In Australia and Singapore they say ‘CBD‘, or central business district, for their city centers, but frankly that doesn’t pack the same rhyming oomph as ‘downtown’. And it would sound crap in a song.

So, moral of the story: when in Rome, go along with misinterpretations of your own language as the Romans do.