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Tokyo as seen from the roof of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
  • Japanese: 東京 (toukyou)

Tokyo is the de facto Imperial and political capital of Japan, as well as being one of the chief commercial, financial, and arts centers in the world. As a metropolitan prefecture headed not by a mayor but by a governor, Tôkyô-to (東京都, Tokyo Metropolis) is not officially considered a "city," but the 23 special wards (tokubetsu ku) and 39 additional municipalities which comprise the metropolitan prefecture constitute one of the largest and most populous metropolitan areas in the world, and are home to a very significant portion of the Japanese national population. The Izu Islands which stretch south from Tokyo proper, along with the distant Ogasawara Islands, are also administered as part of Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture; both consist of small, sparsely populated islands, many of which are uninhabited nature preserves or are restricted to military use.

Formerly known as Edo, and the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 until 1868, the city was formally renamed Tokyo ("Eastern Capital") on 1868/7/17, and became the Imperial capital sometime after that, in the 1870s or 1880s.


Meiji Period

Moving the Imperial Capital

The relaxation of sankin kôtai obligations in 1862 meant that domains no longer needed to maintain mansions and extensive staffs or retainer bases in Edo. Combined with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the abolition of the han in 1871, and the attenuation of samurai stipends, many daimyô abandoned their mansions in the city in the 1860s-1870s, and returned to their home provinces along with their families and (former) retainers, with many other samurai leaving the city in other ways. Edo thus dropped from a population height of around 1.3 million in the early 19th century to just over 500,000 in 1869, returning to peak levels only around 1889.[1] The dramatic loss of so many consumers from the city over a relatively short period of time also had a significant depressive effect upon the city's commercial economy, from which it also took some time to recover.

Though Tokyo is generally said today to have become the Imperial capital of Japan in 1868, when Edo was officially renamed Tokyo, Edo castle was designated the Imperial Palace, and the Meiji Emperor took up residence there, in fact there was little agreement at the time that Tokyo was to become (or had become) the Imperial capital. According to various metrics or definitions, Tokyo was not in fact the Imperial capital until sometime in the 1870s or 1880s, with some of the most significant Meiji government officials describing it as an anzaisho, a temporary court, up until 1889. This argument is significantly aided by the fact that the palace was ravaged by fire in 1873, forcing the Imperial family to live in the former mansions of the Kishû Tokugawa clan (designated the Akasaka Temporary Palace for the duration) until the new Imperial Palace was completed in 1889. In the meantime, much of the former castle grounds became overgrown and infested with foxes and other wildlife.[2]

Figures such as Etô Shinpei and Ôki Takatô, the first governor of Tokyo, expressing fears that with the Boshin War not yet over, Japan might split into east and west, proposed establishing Edo as a second imperial capital, a capital of the East, such that the Emperor might travel between Kyoto and Tokyo, and in so doing watch over the entire country, and enforce unity. Kido Takayoshi similarly advocated having Edo as an Eastern Capital, Osaka as a Western Capital, and Kyoto as the Imperial Capital,[3] and Iwakura Tomomi, said to have had difficulty imagining Kyoto no longer being capital, presented a recommendation that Kyoto be renamed saikyô (Western Capital), to accompany Nara, Tokyo, and a site in Hokkaidô as the southern, eastern, and northern capitals respectively. He also suggested establishing imperial mausolea in both Tokyo and Kyoto, while the national legislature (the Kôgisho) similarly discussed in 1869 the possibility of establishing branch shrines of Ise Shrine in both cities, as centers for the national religion.[4] As a result of these concerns about establishing and enforcing national peace and unity, the Imperial Edict which officially declared Edo "Tokyo" on 1868/7/17 included that "the emperor looked upon ‘the realm as one house, the East and West equally.’"[3]

Even then, the Imperial House Laws drafted that year still mandated that sokui and daijôsai accession ceremonies were to take place in Kyoto. Tokyo was not officially named "Imperial capital" (teito, 帝都) until 1889,[5] and as Fukuoka Takachika, one of the drafters of the Charter Oath, insisted, the Imperial Palace, though renamed kôkyo ("imperial residence") in 1868, was not officially designated "Imperial Palace" (kyûjô, 宮城) until 1889 and therefore was only an anzaisho, base from which the emperor went out on Imperial progresses (tours).[6]

Other officials, including Ôkubo Toshimichi and Ôkuma Shigenobu seem to have been less concerned, immediately, with what Tokyo should be or become, but rather with getting the Emperor out of Kyoto, and having him tour the provinces, to be seen by the people, and to be seen surveying the land and the people, in order to reinforce the nationalistic connection between the people and the Emperor (and the nation); these tours were also aimed at turning the earlier conception of the emperor as lofty and aloof from politics into a conception of the Emperor as existing at the center of, or even embodying or being equivalent to, government.[3]

For these reasons, little effort was made in the first decades of the Meiji period to develop Tokyo into a modern Imperial national capital. National monuments, broad boulevards suitable for national parades and large public gatherings only began to be built, for the most part, in the 1880s, and for at least a few years after the Restoration, many former daimyô mansions, as well as much of the Imperial Palace (Edo castle) itself, were simply left to fall into disrepair. In the end, however, this proved a boon to the city's modernization and urban planning in certain respects, as it opened up significant areas within the center of the city which could be turned into public parks or the sites for new government buildings, universities, and museums. Today, the University of Tokyo (est. 1877) stands on the former grounds of the Edo mansions of Kaga han, the main offices of the Ministry of Justice stand on the former site of the Yonezawa han mansion, and the gardens of the lords of Mito han, the Koishikawa Kôrakuen, continue to be maintained and are open to the public.[7]

Further, while there were initially concerns over what would happen to Kyoto were Tokyo to be made the chief, or sole, Imperial capital, in the end the architects of Meiji era discourses of nation and nationalism managed to make both cities serve important purposes in contributing to conceptions of the Imperial institution, and of the nation. While Tokyo represents the modern, politically engaged, and relatively human & accessible Emperor, Kyoto represents the ancient tradition and lofty spiritual power of the Emperor and of his lineage, stretching back unbroken to mythological times.[8]

Building a Modern National Capital

Construction of Tokyo as a modern national capital, including elements which drew upon Western modes of expressing, celebrating, and instilling nationalism through monuments, began in earnest at the very end of the 1880s, and into the 1890s. A bronze statue of Ômura Masujirô, erected at Yasukuni Shrine in 1893, is oft-cited as the first such Western-style bronze statue of a national hero to be erected in Japan;[9] many more followed soon after.

The first train line in Japan opened in 1872, connecting Yokohama with Shinagawa Station in Tokyo; the line was extended before the end of that year to Tokyo's Shinbashi Station.[10] By 1889, the first incarnation of the Tôkaidô Main Line was complete, connecting Tokyo by rail as far as Kobe. The Yoshiwara, and the brothels, teahouses, and prostitutes of a number of other areas were brought under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in 1875, and rapidly declined in size and stature. By the early decades of the 20th century, the Yoshiwara was only a mere shadow of its former self, but it did continue to exist and operate until it was formally closed in 1958.

Fukuzawa Yukichi was among the most prominent of a series of officials who called in 1883 for a coordinated plan for the city as a whole, and for a focus on the palace, criticizing the efforts of former Tokyo governor Matsuda Michiyuki (gov. 1879-1882) and others to simply build up Tokyo piecemeal, one project at a time. Construction of Western-style buildings had begun as early as the Bakumatsu period, and the Ginza, flanked by Shinbashi Station and by the Foreign Concessions, was built up into a rather modern commercial area filled with gaslamps, shopping arcades of two-story Georgian-style brick buildings, and the first sidewalks in Japan, as early as 1872-1877;[11] however, many of the most significant municipal, national, and Imperial structures were only first completed in the 1880s. These include the Tokyo National Museum, designed in its first red-brick incarnation by Josiah Conder and completed in 1881, the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff Office, completed that same year by Giovanni Vincenzo Cappelletti, and the Rokumeikan, also designed by Conder, and completed in 1883 on the former grounds of a secondary residence of the Shimazu clan of Satsuma han.[12] The Rokumeikan, among other sites, quickly reached their heights as centers of Western-style elite gatherings (e.g. dinner parties, luncheons, ballroom dancing) during that decade.[13]

In 1884, Tokyo governor Yoshikawa Akimasa submitted a proposal which was perhaps the first to highlight the accessibility - by road, rail, canals, and bridges - of the city, and the first to make particular considerations regarding the place of the Imperial Palace within the city. Yoshikawa advocated a series of four grand boulevards radiating outwards from the palace, which would provide thoroughfares for Imperial progresses, and for the comings and goings of foreign dignitaries. That same year, Yamazaki Naotane proposed clustering the chief government buildings near the palace, rather than having them scattered across the city. In accordance with the suggestions of Yamazaki and others at that time, Tokyo's government buildings remain today clustered in the Kasumigaseki area, while the Marunouchi area was given over to commercial development.[14]

The shift in attitude begun around 1883 towards desiring a modern national capital developed according to a coordinated plan, and with an impressive Imperial Palace at its center, reached a certain culmination in 1889. In that year, the Imperial family took up residence in the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which was completed the previous year after fires destroyed the previous palace (Edo castle) in 1873. The Palace was officially designated an "Imperial Palace" (kyûjô), and the city, described for many years by foreign observers and Japanese alike as possessing an empty center, once more had a visible and monumental symbol of political power at its center. Parades and other events surrounding the celebration of the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution later that year are sometimes cited as the first major modern national ceremonies to be held in the streets of Tokyo. Celebrations of the thirtieth anniversary of the relocation of the capital, held in 1898, were another particularly notable event in the evolution of Tokyo's modern & national(ist) festivals.

The various obstacles to accessibility intentionally put into place by the Tokugawa shogunate were gradually removed over the course of the Meiji period, beginning as early as the late 1860s. Gates were torn down, and sections of moat, canals, and artificial riverways redirected, bridged over, or filled in, so that the people of the city could more easily travel across it, and could more easily gather to witness grand national spectacles. Plans by Yoshikawa Akimasa in the 1880s, mentioned above, certainly contributed to the reshaping of the city in this respect. Historian Takashi Fujitani, however, writes that it was not until the Imperial Military Review of April 1906 that certain changes he identifies as of particular significance took place. In that year, the government knocked down the palace's Babasaki Gate, filled in some sections of the moat, and expanded the Palace Plaza facing Nijûbashi to make that plaza even more accessible than ever before, to encourage and allow for massive public gatherings to witness grand events such as the upcoming Imperial Military Review. This came after dangerous bottlenecking at the Babasakimon and Sakuradamon palace gates caused considerable difficulties, and even loss of life as people tried to get in and out of the Palace Plaza during celebrations surrounding the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889 and victory parades held in 1905, thus leading the government to seek to open up the space. Of course, official parades and processions themselves could also now more easily move about the plaza, and in and out of the palace compound.[15]

The Akasaka Detached Palace and the Hyôkeikan of the Tokyo National Museum, key examples of a later phase of Meiji period architecture, were completed in 1909.

The signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth on September 5, 1905, ending the Russo-Japanese War, brought perhaps the first major urban riots of the modern period. Protesting the terms of the treaty, citizens set fire to the prime minister's residence, electric streetcars, and police boxes, in what came to be known as the Hibiya Riots. The riots continued for the better part of three days before being dispersed on September 7.[16]

Taishô through World War II

Tokyo Station, designed by Tatsuno Kingo and completed in 1914, is one of several red-brick or stone buildings which defined the modern architectural core of Tokyo in the Taishô period.

By the 1920s, Tokyo was a wholly modern city, a major center of urban & popular cultural developments more or less cutting-edge with New York and other world cities. The city's streets were filled with movie theaters, jazz bars, cafés, and the like, fashion trends brought the "modern boy" and flapper-like "modern girl" (moga), and Art Deco and other artistic movements were active in Tokyo just as they were in New York and Paris. The city had already become integrated with many international networks already since decades earlier, with the first YMCA in Japan, for example, opening in Tokyo as early as 1880.

Much of the city was devastated, however, in the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake.

Tokyo Prefecture (Tôkyô-fu), previously an urban prefecture, or fu, on par with the status Osaka prefecture (Ôsaka-fu) and Kyoto prefecture (Kyôto-fu) retain today, was reorganized into Tokyo City (Tôkyô-shi) in 1932, and for a time Tokyo was governed by a mayor.[17] It was reorganized again, however, in 1943 into Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture (Tôkyô-to), becoming the only Metropolitan Prefecture (-to) in the country, and retaining that status today.

The last year of the war saw Allied bombing raids destroy much of the city. Though efforts were made to not target the Imperial Palace, for fear that its destruction and/or the death of the Emperor would lead the Japanese people to greater nationalistic determination to go down fighting, much of the city was left completely in ruins. Winds spread the flames, as they had done in countless fires which ravaged Edo and other Japanese cities over the centuries, and the fires surged through neighborhood after neighborhood of mostly wood & paper homes. Some sixteen square miles of the city was turned to ash. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and by some estimates more than two million were left homeless.[18]

Postwar to Today

In 1964, Tokyo became the first Asian city to host the Olympic Games. The Summer Olympics are planned to take place in Tokyo again in 2020.

By the 1970s, fully one-quarter of Japan's population lived in or around Tokyo.[19] Today, that proportion is even higher.

Governors of Tokyo

Tokyo Prefecture

  1. Ôki Takatô
  2. Kusumoto Masataka
  3. Matsuda Michiyuki
  4. Yoshikawa Akimasa



Mayors of Tokyo City

Tokyo Metropolis


Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture extends across a significant portion of what was previously Musashi province, and across the Sumidagawa to the east, into what was traditionally Shimousa province. The core of the city is divided into 23 wards, while the remainder of the prefecture's area consists of municipalities to the west, and two small island groups off to the south. While Edo was crisscrossed with canals, the topography of the city itself has been dramatically changed, with many of the canals and rivers redirected, filled in, or built over; the city has also been expanded over the years with construction on landfill built out into Tokyo Bay.

The city was initially divided into fifteen wards (ku) in 1878. In 1932, the city was redivided into 35 wards, finally settling into the current designations of 23 wards in 1947.[20]


  • Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996).
  1. Fujitani, 39.
  2. Fujitani, 41.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Fujitani, 44-45.
  4. Fujitani, 56-57.
  5. Albert Craig (ed.), Japan: A Comparative View, Princeton University Press (2015), 70.
  6. Fujitani, 33.
  7. Plaques on-site at University of Tokyo, Ministry of Justice, and Koishikawa Kôrakuen.
  8. Fujitani, 28.
  9. Fujitani, 17.; Suzuki Eka, "Building Statues of Japanese Governors: Monumental Bronze Sculptures and Colonial Cooperation in Taiwan under Japanese Rule," presentation at 2013 UCSB International Conference on Taiwan Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara, 7 Dec 2013.; the statue of Ômura was in fact preceded by a large bronze statue of Yamato Takeru, erected in Kenrokuen in Kanazawa in 1880. However, the statue of Ômura was nevertheless the first bronze statue in Tokyo, and the first in the country to depict a more contemporary figure more directly associated with the modern state.
  10. Plaques on-site at Sakuragichô Station, Yokohama.
  11. Fujitani, 71.
  12. Ichioka Masakazu, Tokugawa seiseiroku, 1889, reprinted Tokyo: Heibonsha (1989), 29.; Dallas Finn, "Reassessing the Rokumeikan," in Ellen Conant (ed.), Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art, University of Hawaii Press (2006), 227-239.
  13. Finn, op. cit.
  14. Fujitani, 75-76.
  15. Fujitani, 132-133.
  16. Anne Walthall, "Nishimiya Hide: Turning Palace Arts into Marketable Skills," in Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan," Scholarly Resources, Inc. (2002), 59.
  17. "Shinagawa." Sekai daihyakka jiten 世界大百科事典. Hitachi Solutions, 2012.
  18. "Legacy of the Great Tokyo Air Raid," Japan Times, 15 March 2015.; Warren Kozak, "LeMay and the Tragedy of War," Wall Street Journal, 9 March 2015.
  19. Anne Walthall, Introduction, The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2002), xvii.
  20. "Some interesting tidbits about Tokyo's 23 wards," Japan Today, 12 Nov 2012.