The monstrous metropolis that is Tokyo, population 12 million, has come a long way from its origins as a collection of shallows and tidal pools at the mouth of the Sumida-gawa (Sumida River). Fertility was the focus of its first permanent inhabitants and this fecund swampland edging the Kantō plain was perfect for incubating new life. They were a pottery-producing culture who settled here during the late Neolithic Jōmon period (Jōmon means ‘rope marks’ for the design on pottery fragments discovered from this time) around 10, 000 BC. These early Tokyoites lived as fishers, hunters and food-gatherers, and likely benefited from the fauna-rich marshland that was left behind after what is now Tokyo Bay rose to cover most of the valley where Tokyo now sits.
Some 4000 years later, during the Yayoi period (400 BC–AD 250), wet-rice farming techniques were introduced from Korea. Shintō – Japan’s native religion – also began to develop during this time. Shintō, similar to animism, involves the worship of gods who inhabit animals and objects in nature. By AD 300 Japan was already, more or less, a unified nation, with its cultural base in the Kansai area (around the present-day cities of Nara, Kyoto and Osaka), while the Kantō region remained a distant backwater. While the Roman Empire rose and declined, Edo (the old name for Tokyo) continued as a sleepy fishing village for another thousand years.
Meanwhile, the proto-Japanese nation came under the control of the Yamato clan (forerunners of the current imperial family), who claimed a handy direct descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu and introduced the title of tennō (emperor) around the 5th century. This was called the Kofun period, named for the earthen mounds in which the nobility were interred.
But the most important event in Japan’s early history was the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century, from India via China and Korea. Buddhism introduced a highly evolved system of metaphysics, codes of law and the Chinese writing system, a conduit for the principles of Confucian statecraft.
Few would have guessed it, but Edo was to play a central role in Japan’s life as a warrior state. The rise of the samurai was linked to how strong a hold the imperial court had over the nation. From the earliest days of the Yamato dynasty, it was the custom to relocate the capital following the death of an emperor (presumably to free the capital from the taint of death). However, this custom was altered in 710 with the establishment of Japan’s first permanent capital at Nara.
By the end of the 8th century, the Buddhist clerical bureaucracy had become vast, threatening the authority of the imperial administration. The emperor responded by relocating the capital once again and establishing a new seat of imperial power at Heian-kyō (modern-day Kyoto). From that point on, Kyoto generally served as the capital until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when Tokyo became the new chief city.
From Kyoto’s early days, a samurai class in the employ of the daimyō (feudal lords) emerged. The relationship was one of absolute service; samurai were sworn to do anything for the sake of their clan and lord, and were always prepared to die. Much of Japan’s subsequent history revolved around bloody struggles for power among the daimyō while the emperor mostly watched impotently from the sidelines in Kyoto.
The one interruption came when the warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo defeated the ruling Taira clan and established the first shōgunate in Kamakura (southwest of Tokyo) in 1185. Although the emperor remained the nominal ruler in Kyoto, the Minamoto clan ran a bakufu (military government) from Kamakura until 1333, when it was toppled by a rebellion and official power reverted to Kyoto.
Near the mid-15th century, a waka (31-syllable poem) poet named Ōta Dōkan constructed the first castle at Edo on the site of an old fortress above Hibiya Cove. By 1467, when the disastrous Ōnin civil war was devastating the capital in Kyoto, many aristocrats and monks had fled the capital to become supplicants in Dōkan’s secure eastern hold. This was a foretaste of Edo’s explosive growth, but despite Dōkan’s contribution to establishing the city, his overlord ordered his assassination.
By the time Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived in 1543, feudal lords had carved Japan into a patchwork of fiefdoms. One of the most powerful daimyō, Oda Nobunaga of the Chūbu region, near present-day Nagoya, was quick to see how the Portuguese could support his ambitious plans. He viewed their Christianity as a potential weapon against the power of the Buddhist clergy and made ample use of the firearms they introduced. By the time he was assassinated in 1581, Oda had united much of central Japan. Toyotomi Hideyoshi took over the job of consolidating power, but looked less favourably on the growing Christian movement, subjecting it to systematic persecution.
Toyotomi’s power was briefly contested by Tokugawa Ieyasu, son of a minor lord allied to Oda. After a brief struggle for power, Tokugawa agreed to a truce with Toyotomi; in return, Toyotomi granted him eight provinces in eastern Japan, including all of the Kantō region and Edo. While Toyotomi intended this to weaken Tokugawa by separating him from his ancestral homeland Chūbu, the upstart looked upon the gift as an opportunity to strengthen his power. He set about turning Edo into a real city.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598, power passed to his son, Toyotomi Hideyori. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu had been busily scheming to secure the shōgunate for himself and soon went to war against those loyal to Hideyori. Tokugawa’s forces finally defeated Hideyori and his supporters at the legendary Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, moving him into a position of supreme power. He chose Edo as his permanent base and began two-and-a-half centuries of Tokugawa rule.
In securing a lasting peace nationwide and ruling from Edo, Tokugawa Ieyasu laid the foundation for Tokyo’s ascendancy as one of the world’s great cities. In 1603, the emperor appointed him shōgun (military administrator), and the Tokugawa family ruled from Edo Castle (Edo-jō), on the grounds of the current Imperial Palace. It built up into the largest fortress the world had ever seen, with elaborate rituals shaping the lives of its many courtiers, courtesans, samurai and attendants. Edo would also grow to become the world’s largest city, topping one million in the early 1700s and dwarfing much older London and Paris, as people from all over Japan flocked here to serve the growing military class.
This was the result of a canny move by the Tokugawa that ensured their hegemony. They implemented the sankin kōtai system of alternate residence. This demanded that all daimyō in Japan spend at least one year out of two in Edo. Their wives and children remained in Edo while the daimyō returned to their home provinces. This dislocating ransom policy made it difficult for ambitious daimyō to usurp the Tokugawas. The high costs of travelling back and forth with a large retinue eroded their financial power as well.
Society was made rigidly hierarchical, comprising (in descending order of importance) the nobility, who had nominal power; the daimyō and their samurai; the farmers; and finally the artisans and merchants. Class dress, living quarters and even manner of speech were all strictly codified, and interclass movement was prohibited.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616, his ashes were briefly laid to rest in Chūbu before being moved to Nikkō. Generations of Tokugawas made improvements to the vast Tōshō-gu Shrine dedicated to his memory there, transforming it into one of the grandest in all Japan. A smaller version stands in the large park Ueno-kōen in Tokyo.
The castelike society imposed by Tokugawa rule divided Edo into a high city (Yamanote) and a low city (Shitamachi). The higher Yamanote (literally ‘hand of the mountains’) was home to the daimyō and their samurai, while the merchants, craftsmen and lower orders of Edo society were forced into the low-lying Shitamachi (literally ‘downtown’).
One distinguishing feature of those days was the pleasure quarters, where samurai would come to indulge in activities forbidden in the Yamanote: wine, women and song and not necessarily in that order. The most legendary of these districts was the Yoshiwara, to the northeast of present-day Asakusa.
Otherwise the typical residential neighbourhood of the Shitamachi featured squalid conditions, usually comprising flimsy wooden structures with earthen floors. These shantytowns were often swept by great conflagrations, which locals referred to as Edo-no-hana, or flowers of Edo; the expression’s bravura sums up the spirit of Shitamachi. Under great privation, Shitamachi subsequently produced a flourishing culture that thumbed its nose at social hardships and the strictures of the shōgunate, patronising both the kabuki theatre and sumō wrestling, and generally enjoying a joie de vivre that the dour lords of Edo castle frowned upon. Today, the best glimpses we have into that time come from ukiyo-e (wood-block prints).
Another feature of Edo that has left its mark on today’s Tokyo was the division of the city into machi (towns) according to profession. Even today it is possible to stumble across small enclaves that specialise in particular wares. Most famous are Jimbōchō, the bookshop area; Kappabashi, with its plastic food and kitchen supplies; and Akihabara, which now specialises in electronics and manga (comic books), but in the past has been a bicycle retailing area, an area specialising in domestic household goods and a freight yard.
Edo’s transformation from a grand medieval city into a world-class capital required an outside nudge, or gaiatsu (external pressure). This came in the form of a fleet of black ships, under the command of US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, that sailed into Edo-wan (now known as Tokyo Bay) in 1853. Perry’s expedition demanded, in the name of US President Millard Fillmore, that Japan open itself to foreign trade after centuries of isolation. Other Western powers were quick to follow in demanding the Japanese open treaty ports. The coming of Westerners heralded a far-reaching social revolution against which the antiquated Tokugawa regime was powerless. In 1867–68, faced with widespread antigovernment feeling and accusations that the regime had failed to prepare Japan for the threat of the West, the last Tokugawa shōgun resigned and power reverted to Emperor Meiji. In 1868 Meiji moved the seat of imperial power from Kyoto to Edo Castle, renaming the city Tokyo (Eastern Capital). This was known as the Meiji Restoration, and signified that power was restored to the emperor, and the imperial and political capitals were once again unified.
The Meiji Restoration was not an entirely peaceful handover of power. In Edo, some 2000 Tokugawa loyalists put up a futile last-ditch resistance to the imperial forces in the brief Battle of Ueno. The struggle took place around the beautiful temple Kanei-ji, which, along with Zōjō-ji, was one of Edo’s two mortuary temples for the Tokugawa shōgunate.
The word Meiji means ‘enlightenment’ and Japan’s new rulers pushed the nation into a crash course in industrialisation and militarisation. In 1872 the first railroad opened, connecting Tokyo with the new port of Yokohama, south along Tokyo Bay, and by 1889 the country had a Western-style constitution.
In a remarkably short time, Japan achieved military victories over China (1894–95) and Russia (1904–05) and embarked on modern, Western-style empire-building, with the annexation of Taiwan (1895), then Korea (1910) and Micronesia (1914).
Nationalists were also busy transforming Shintō into a jingoistic state religion. Seen as a corrupting foreign influence, Buddhism suffered badly – many valuable artefacts and temples were destroyed, and the common people were urged to place their faith in the pure religion of State Shintō.
During the Meiji period, and the following Taishō period, changes that were taking place all over Japan could be seen most prominently in the country’s new capital city. Tokyo’s rapid industrialisation, uniting around the nascent zaibatsu (huge industrial and trading conglomerates), drew jobseekers from around Japan, causing the population to grow rapidly. In the 1880s electric lighting was introduced. Western-style brick buildings began to spring up in fashionable areas such as Ginza. In 1904 Mitsukoshi became Japan’s first Western-style department store, and its annexe in Nihombashi (1914) was called the grandest building east of the Suez Canal. However, if the Meiji Restoration sounded the death knell for old Edo, there were two more events to come that were to erase most traces of the old city.
Japanese have traditionally believed that a giant catfish living underground causes earthquakes when it stirs. At noon on 1 September 1923 the catfish really jumped – the Great Kantō Earthquake caused unimaginable devastation in Tokyo. More than the quake itself, it was the subsequent fires, lasting some 40 hours, that laid waste to the city, including some 300, 000 houses. A quarter of the quake’s 142, 000 fatalities occurred in one savage firestorm in a clothing depot. (There are some sombre reminders of the earthquake exhibited at the Kantō Earthquake Memorial Museum).
In true Edo style, reconstruction began almost immediately. The spirit of this rebuilding is perhaps best summed up by author Edward Seidensticker. Popular wisdom had it that any business which did not resume trading within three days of being burnt out did not have a future. Opportunities were lost in reconstructing the city – streets might have been widened and the capital transformed into something more of a showcase.
From the accession of Emperor Hirohito (Shōwa tennō to the Japanese) and the initiation of the Shōwa period in 1926, Japanese society was marked by a quickening tide of nationalist fervour. In 1931 the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and in 1937 embarked on full-scale hostilities with China. By 1940 a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy had been signed and a new order for all of Asia formulated: the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. On 7 December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the USA, Japan’s principal rival in the Asia–Pacific region, into the war.
Despite initial successes, the war was disastrous for Japan. On 18 April 1942 B-25 bombers carried out the first bombing and strafing raid on Tokyo, with 364 casualties. Much worse was to come. Incendiary bombing commenced in March 1944, notably on the nights of the 9th and 10th, when some two-fifths of the city, mainly in the Shitamachi area, went up in smoke and 70, 000 to 80, 000 lives were lost. The same raids destroyed Asakusa’s Sensō-ji, and later raids destroyed Meiji-jingū. By the time Emperor Hirohito made his famous capitulation address to the Japanese people on 15 August 1945, much of Tokyo had been decimated – sections of it were almost completely depopulated, like the charred remains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after they were devastated by atomic bombs. Food and daily necessities were scarce, the population was exhausted by the war effort and fears of marauding US military overlords were high.
Tokyo’s phoenixlike rise from the ashes of WWII and its emergence as a major global city is something of a miracle. Once again, Tokyoites did not take the devastation as an opportunity to redesign their city (as did Nagoya, for example), but rebuilt where the old had once stood.
During the US occupation in the early postwar years, Tokyo was something of a honky-tonk town. Now-respectable areas such as Yūrakuchō were the haunt of the so-called pan-pan girls (prostitutes), and areas such as Ikebukuro and Ueno had thriving black-market zones. The remains of Ueno’s black market can be seen in Ameyoko Arcade, which is still a lively market.
In 1947 Japan adopted its postwar constitution, with the now-famous Article 9, which barred the use of military force in settling international disputes and maintaining a military for warfare (although the nation does maintain a self-defence force).
By 1951, with a boom in Japanese profits arising from the Korean War, Tokyo rebuilt rapidly, especially the central business district, and the subway began to take on its present form. The once-bombed-out city has never looked back from this miraculous economic growth.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Tokyo reemerged as one of the centres of growing Asian nationalism (the first phase was in the 1910s and ’20s). Increasing numbers of Asian students came to Tokyo, taking home with them new ideas about Asia’s role in the postwar world.
One of Tokyo’s proudest moments came when it hosted the 1964 summer Olympics. In preparation the city embarked on a frenzy of construction unequalled in its history. Many Japanese see this time as a turning point in the nation’s history, the moment when Japan finally recovered from the devastation of WWII to emerge as a fully fledged member of the modern world economy.
Construction and modernisation continued at a breakneck pace through the ’70s, with the interruption of two Middle East oil crises, to reach a peak in the late ’80s, when wildly inflated real-estate prices and stock speculation fuelled what is now known as the ‘bubble economy’. Based on the price paid for the most expensive real estate at the time, the land value of Tokyo exceeded that of the entire United States, and Japanese companies went on a purchasing spree of international icons including Pebble Beach Golf Course, the Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures movie studio. When the bubble began to burst in 1989 with the crash of the stock market, the economy went into a protracted slump that was to last more than 15 years.
There were other, more disturbing, troubles in Japanese society. In March 1995 members of the Aum Shinrikyō doomsday cult released sarin nerve gas on crowded Tokyo subways, killing 12 and injuring more than 5000. This, together with the Kōbe earthquake of the same year, signalled the end of Japan’s feeling of omnipotence, born of the unlimited successes of the ’80s.
Tokyo has weathered a long hangover since the heady days of the bubble economy. The doldrums have finally given way to lacklustre growth and unemployment that flirts with record 5% highs, but the government maintains the economy is still on a recovery path.
The declining birth rate and population pose major problems for Tokyo and Japan – the birth rate for the capital is below 1% (even lower than the national average of 1.24%), while Japan’s elderly continue to make up an ever-larger share of the population. No-one really knows how the system will manage to support the 30% of the population that is projected to be over the age of 65 in the next 25 years. The workforce is shrinking, but there are few signs that Japan is ready to embrace Western-style immigration, recently making all foreign visitors to the country subject to fingerprinting and facial photography upon entry as part of its security policy.
The government may fear deception and fraud, but domestic headlines are rife with corporate malfeasance scandals, from revelations that buildings in Tokyo have been constructed with forged quake-resistance data to news that Japanese paper companies have been passing off unused paper as recycled material.
Japan is also struggling with its international role, particularly the leeway allowed by its ‘Peace Constitution’; former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō’s decision to deploy Self-Defense Force (SDF) troops to aid allies in the war in Iraq was met with massive protests. The Defense Agency has been promoted to a fully fledged ministry and Japanese military cooperation with the US has escalated. One result was that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost control of the upper house of parliament in 2007, allowing opposition Democrats to cancel an SDF antiterrorism refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean for several months until its resumption in 2008.
Although Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda managed a rare summit meeting with Chinese leaders, Japan’s international image has continued to suffer due to its ‘scientific’ whale-hunting programme and a perceived lack of repentance over its wartime atrocities. The government has turned to Japanese pop culture products such as anime (animated film) and manga as a foreign policy tool in the hopes that popular cartoon heroes will be better than bureaucrats at convincing people to embrace ‘cool Japan’.
Little of this phases Tokyo, however. It has continued to build new subway lines and mega-complexes such as Tokyo Midtown, and has mounted a bid to host the Olympic Games in 2016. With that old Edo pluck, Tokyoites shrug off the looming demographic crisis and hope the Games can give their city a shot in the arm as it carves out a new role for itself as a centre of anime, manga, video games and other globally hot media.