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  • Other Names: 江府 (Koufu), 東都 (Touto)
  • Japanese: 江戸 Edo
"Edo Meisho Screen(part). The oldest extant image of Edo.

Edo was the political center of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate, and a major center of economic power and of developments in popular culture (e.g. publishing, kabuki, pleasure districts), along with Kyoto and Osaka. Edo rivaled Beijing for the honor of largest city in the world (by population) from the 18th into the 19th century; in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo as the imperial capital was moved there from Kyoto.

Due to the presence of the shogunate government, and the sankin kôtai system (and the many daimyo mansions in the city as a result), Edo was a very samurai-heavy city. Commoners accounted for roughly half of the city's population,[1] and were of enormous cultural and economic significance, but commoner spaces occupied a mere 20% of the urban area,[2], with daimyô mansions accounting for around 35%, and the rest of the samurai districts comprising another 35%, and containing as many as 20,000 homes.[3] The remaining 10% was occupied mostly by temples and shrines. As much as ten percent of the city's population were attendants or servants to samurai.[4]


A model of a commoner section of Edo, with the fire watchtower visible at right
Nakamise-dôri, leading up to the Hôzômon (Treasure Storehouse Gate) and main hall, with the pagoda off to the left

The city was organized around Edo castle, more formally known as Chiyoda castle, which had been the chief headquarters of Tokugawa Ieyasu since 1590. The city overall was organized roughly in a spiral, and in accordance with traditional geomancy. Thirty-six masugata (square enclosure) gates[5] controlled access to the city, and different segments of society were restricted, to some extent, to different parts of the city. Sections of the northeastern part of the city were inhabited by shogunal vassals, while many lower-ranking samurai lived in a different area. Parts of the southwestern section of the city were merchant and artisan districts, divided into hundreds of chô or machi within which townspeople (chônin) were organized, to a certain extent, according to their trades.[6] While the city was originally divided into some 300 chô, by the mid-18th century, it had grown to encompass over 1700 chô.[7] Many of these chô were ryô-gawa machi, or "both-sides towns," meaning that a single chô encompassed a certain number of structures on both sides of a main street. Individual properties generally ran about 40 meters back from the street, encompassing storefronts facing the streets, and behind them, homes, storehouses, communal spaces including wells, and garbage and toilet facilities. Each chô typically ran for one block, about 120 meters from one intersection to another, and included a gate and gatehouse (kidoban), a guard house (jishinban), and pipes from the central aqueduct for fresh water, along with a sewer system. Roughly one in ten chô had a watchtower, 10 ken (18.5m) tall, to help guard against fires; each guardhouse also had a lookout constructed on its roof.[8] Many other buildings, meanwhile, had large buckets on the roof which collected rainwater which could then be used to put out fires. The gates of each neighborhood were closed at night by a gatekeeper hired by the chô; the guardhouse, meanwhile, was manned by one local resident of the chô and by a professional guardman, who between the two of them oversaw local chô administration and security.[9] Some 900 additional guardhouses, known as tsuji banya, or "intersection guardhouses," were operated by the shogunate or various daimyô or hatamoto households.[10]

Many of the commoner homes were munewari nagaya (split-roofed longhouses), long houses which extended to both sides of the block, but which were divided in half, such that one family lived in the half facing one street, and another family in the half facing the next street over. Each family's portion of the home was quite small, frequently only three by four meters, including a small earthen-floored doma (kitchen), lavatory, and then a single 2x4 meter or so tatami room in which the family ate, slept, and did all other home activities. There were typically no closets of any kind, and so bedding was typically simply folded up and piled in a corner during the day, while clothes were kept in a pile as well, or in a wicker basket or the like. These homes were built so close to one another that they were sometimes also referred to as yakeya (burning houses), since fires spread from one house to the next quite quickly and easily.[11]

The Sumidagawa (Sumida River) ran along the eastern edge of the city, dividing Musashi province, in which the city sat, from Shimousa province. The Ryôgoku Bridge[12] took its name from its location spanning the river and connecting these two provinces. Sections of the river were lined with the official storehouses of the shogunate, storing especially goods (mainly rice) collected as taxes, and giving that neighborhood the name Kuramae ("before the storehouses"), a placename which remains in use today. A number of rice brokers' operations were based here; stipends for gokenin and hatamoto were paid out of these storehouses, as was much of the shogunate's direct operating expenses.[13]

The oldest Buddhist temple in the city, Sensô-ji, founded in 628, sat in the northeast corner of the city, a traditional location for powerful temples believed to defend a city from demonic or evil forces emerging from that direction. Beyond the temple district were eta districts, including pottery kilns where roof tiles were made; this was considered a "dirty" profession, and dangerous - due to the fires and temperatures involved, and the wood & paper nature of the city's architecture - and so this was kept outside of the city borders proper. Beyond those districts, in turn, lay the Yoshiwara[14] pleasure districts.

Nihonbashi, meanwhile, located between the castle to its west, and the river to its east, was the center of commercial activity in the city, and the official center of the entire country, from which all distances were (and still are) measured. The area was connected to the Sumidagawa, and by extension to the port and to access to incoming and outgoing trade, by a canal. Nihonbashi also marked the starting point of five major highways, known collectively as the Gokaidô, or "Five Highways," chief among them the Tôkaidô, linking Edo with Kyoto (and numerous locations in between), and beyond it with Osaka. The city's main fish market district was located just north of Nihonbashi, and stretched from Hon-Fune-chô and Hon-Odawara-chô. Merchants here included the official suppliers to the shogunate, as well as the chief suppliers to the rest of the city; fish and other seafood sold here came not only from the Sumidagawa and Edo Bay, but from the entire Kantô area.[13] The city's oldest horse-riding grounds were located nearby, in a neighborhood still known today as Bakurô-chô.[15]


The Musashino area was long considered a backwater, a long distance from the classical capitals and cultural centers of Nara and Kyoto. In Heian period poetry and classic narratives, it is associated strongly with wide open moors with tall grasses, and with bandits, though the Sumidagawa, and the view of Mt. Fuji also feature in literature of this time.

Edo castle was founded in 1457 by Ôta Dôkan, though the neighboring fishing villages and the like are not really considered to have become a city of any note until the late 16th century or so. Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo castle his chief headquarters in 1590, and established it as the center of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, at which time he had Nihonbashi constructed, and undertook numerous other infrastructure projects to better prepare the city to serve as shogunal capital. Still, it is of note that Tokugawa Ieyasu spent the vast majority of his time in 1600-1605 in Osaka and Kyoto, and after 1605 in Sunpu, making only brief trips to Edo. Once Ieyasu finished using the symbolic centrality of Osaka and Kyoto to support his claims to legitimacy, and to secure the establishment of his new Tokugawa order - including securing ties with the Imperial Court & courtier families, and overseeing numerous fief transfers - it was his son Tokugawa Hidetada who really was the first Tokugawa Shogun to rule in Edo.[16]

After Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu made sankin kôtai (alternate attendance) mandatory for all daimyô beginning in the 1630s, it became essential for each daimyô (or at least the vast majority) to maintain a mansion in Edo, and the samurai population of the city surged.

Beyond the mere construction of the daimyô mansions themselves, this spurred considerable land reclamation projects and the like, which reshaped the landscape and expanded the city dramatically and rapidly. Very soon, the samurai population of the city alone exceeded 100,000. By the mid-18th century, the total population of the city broke one million, roughly the size of London and Paris combined; only Beijing, which also boasted a population around one million, had anywhere near this number of people.

Much of the city was destroyed in the 1657 Meireki Fire, as it would be again and again by fires which swept quickly through the wood and paper landscape, ravaging it. But, reconstruction took place quickly and thoroughly, and after the Meireki Fire in particular, the city was dramatically reshaped in efforts to prevent fires from spreading as easily. Streets were widened, mud and plaster was applied to roofs, and firebreaks were created. Warrior residences, temples, and shrines previously located within the inner moats of Edo castle were moved outside of the innermost moats, and were replaced with a smaller number of less-densely-packed official residences. This reorganization played a major role in expanding and developing the city, leading previously peripheral areas such as Koishikawa, Asakusa, and Kobikichô to begin to develop into proper urban spaces, some centered on daimyô mansions, while others became thriving commoner areas. The Shin-Yoshiwara ("new Yoshiwara") pleasure district was moved to Asakusa from a location in Ningyôchô (near Nihonbashi), and the Ryôgoku Bridge was constructed over the Sumida River, leading for the development of thriving commoner districts in those areas.[17]

The first coastal defenses at the mouth of Edo Bay were constructed in 1810, on the heels of the 1808 Phaeton Incident in Nagasaki, and after coastal defense plans proposed by Matsudaira Sadanobu in the 1790s were scrapped in 1795. Beginning in 1810, Sadanobu, in his position as daimyô of Shirakawa han, was charged with overseeing the defense of the eastern approaches to the bay, while Matsudaira Katahiro, lord of Aizu han, guarded the west.[18]

In the early 19th century, the city began to see increased waves of newcomers from the provinces. This spurred the development, among those who had been there longer, of an Edokko, or "local/native Edoite," identity.[19]


  • Ching, Francis D.K. et al. A Global History of Architecture. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. p590.
  • Moriya, Katsuhisa. Ronald Toby (trans.) "Urban Networks and Information Networks." in Chie Nakane and Shinzaburô Ôishi (eds.) Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. University of Tokyo Press, 1990. pp97-123.
  1. Schirokauer, et al., A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 135.
  2. Conant, Ellen (ed.). Nihonga: Transcending the Past. The Saint Louis Art Museum, 1995. p16.
  3. Miyazaki Katsumi 宮崎勝美, Daimyô yashiki to Edo iseki 大名屋敷と江戸遺跡 (Tokyo: Yamakawa shuppansha, 2008), 2.
  4. Rebecca Corbett, Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan, University of Hawaii Press (2018), 120.
  5. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996), 132.
  6. Lu, David. Japan: A Documentary History. vol. 1. M.E. Sharpe, 2005. p215.
  7. Gallery labels, National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku).[1]
  8. Gallery labels, "Fire Tower," National Museum of Japanese History.[2]
  9. Gallery labels, Edo-Tokyo Museum.
  10. Katô Takashi, "Governing Edo," in James McClain (ed.), Edo & Paris, Cornell University Press (1994), 50-51.
  11. Gallery labels, Edo-Tokyo Museum.[3]
  12. Ryôgoku 両国 literally meaning "both provinces."
  13. 13.0 13.1 Gallery labels, Edo-Tokyo Museum.[4]
  14. Or, more correctly, the Shin-Yoshiwara, or New Yoshiwara, built there after the Old Yoshiwara, or Moto-Yoshiwara, burned down in the early 17th century.
  15. Gallery labels, National Museum of Japanese History.[5]
  16. Morgan Pitelka, Spectacular Accumulation, University of Hawaii Press (2016), 86.
  17. Gallery labels, "Expansion of Edo," Edo-Tokyo Museum.[6]
  18. Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 15.
  19. Tom Gaubatz, "A Barbershop on Every Corner: Urban Space and Identity Performance in the Fiction of Shikitei Sanba," guest lecture, UC Santa Barbara, 7 Jan 2016.


Edo-Tokyo Museum