Tokyo’s history doesn’t date back as far as Kyoto and Osaka‘s history does, but what became today’s largest metropole in the world started out as a small town in the 13th century, and became a still small castle town in the 15th century. The town received a great boost when in 1603 the Tokugawa shogunate decided that Edo would become their new capital city. The shoguns fortified the slightly rundown castle of Edo, and this is how the town formed itself around the castle. Many streets and canals were made in the way they were to serve the castle, they made the streets leading to the castle like a maze on purpose so that enemies couldn’t just ambush the inhabitants of Edo castle. Even places like the original fish market in Nihonbashi were made to be of use to the castle.
Edo became the center of culture and politics, as culture from all over Japan was brought to the castle, and also spread all over the country by the castle if they approved. It became an ever-larger city and was one of the largest cities in the world by the 17th century. The Emperor, however, still resided in Kyoto at that time and only moved to Edo then to be called Tokyo from 1868. This was the end of the Edo period, and large changes were about to take place. While Japan had been closed off to most foreign influence and modernization during the Edo period, the new Meiji period saw rapid modernization when the imperial rule was restored.
The Meiji period lasted from 1868 until 1912, and this was the time of quick assimilation to the West. Meiji architecture features western-style bricks and designs and many roads were paved with round stones. Telecommunication lines were established, and the first steam locomotive came into use. Both of these connected Tokyo with Yokohama, no surprise as Yokohama has one of the largest harbors in the world and this is where a lot of trade happened. Western-style fashion also became a la mode, and kimono which is quite stiff and not always comfortable to wear became a garment mainly used during official functions. The government cabinet system was also adopted from the West in 1995, and when the constitution came into effect in 1889 Japan joined the modern world of politics after centuries of samurai rule.
The Taisho era lasted only a short time, from 1912 until 1926, as Emperor Taisho died young. This was the time during which rapid urbanization happened and the modern consumption lifestyle became ubiquitous. Education improved for both genders, and performing arts bloomed. In 1923, Tokyo saw a huge disaster happen in the Great Kanto Earthquake. Because of unlucky timing, the quake happened right when many people were cooking lunch over open fires, which is why enormous firestorms happened and the death count was over 140.000 people. This was, according to many, the end of the city of Edo as it was known.
The new Showa period that lasted from 1926 until 1989 began at a low point because of what happened in 1923, but efforts were made to get ahead and the first metro lines were opened, the port of Tokyo was opened and Tokyo’s first airport was built in Haneda. The population also grew into 6 million strong, around the same number as New York and London at that time.
But then the war broke out in 1941, which impacted Tokyo greatly. In 1945, Tokyo has been firebombed by the Allied forces 102 times, decimating the city almost completely. When the war was done in September 1945, the population has halved compared to its level in 1940. This was also the time when Tokyo became a metropolitan area instead of a dual system of a prefecture and a city.
In 1947 Japan got its new constitution, and Tokyo got its first elected governor. This is also the time when Tokyo was divided up in the 23 wards that we still know today. The 50s were a time of hard work and recovery for Japan, they joined the UN and television became more available to the general population. This was when the Japanese Economic Miracle started happening, helped along by the Americans’ Marshall Plan as they would benefit from a strong Japan that doesn’t become communist and help Russia along. Other factors that helped spur the economy along were the Korean War, strong ties between companies, banks, and the government and a promise of lifetime employment to many workers. Technological innovations helped mass production and the daily life of citizens transformed greatly. Tokyo kept growing, the bullet train started operating and the highway network around the city was improved. In 1964, Japan showed the world how far they had come since the war during the Tokyo Olympics.
In the 70s the economic growth slowed down a bit due to the oil crisis, but Japan was still doing well compared to many other countries. In the 80s the economy picked up speed again and an economic bubble started to grow. Tokyo became the city famous for cutting edge technology, culture, and fashion and it was also known to be one of the safest cities in the world. In the late 80s land and stock prices exploded to unknown heights, something that couldn’t be kept up forever. In the early 90s, the bubble burst, and this was the beginning of a long-lasting economic crisis that was never overcome completely. Tokyo is, however, doing better than the rest of Japan and its population is still growing. At this moment, there are more than 13 million people living in Tokyo.
The Great East Japan Earthquake hit north-eastern Japan in 2011, and Tokyo was also severely affected. Lessons have been learned again, and Tokyo is still improving its crisis management system.
In 2013, Tokyo learned it has been selected to host the Olympics for the second time in 2020. The city has been working hard to get the city up-to-date with infrastructure, environmental measures, and culture promotion, and since the COVID-19 crisis unfolded they are working even harder to manage to make the Olympics happen in 2021 in a safe manner for athletes and spectators.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has currently set a goal to become the best city in the world with a great balance between economic wealth and high quality of life, a great metropolitan area where life runs smoothly and people will keep wanting to settle in the future.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour, including destinations like Tokyo. Experienced guides can help you make the most of your limited time in Tokyo and show you all the best this city has to offer, famous highlights as well as lesser-known, more local places. A guide can also make Tokyo’s history come to life with their deep knowledge of the city. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!