A Brief History of Edo/Tokyo


For many travelers, Tokyo has a reputation as a confusing maze of neon lights and rivers of people crowding the streets at all time of day and night. The reputation is well earned – Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, with close to nine million people calling the 23 Wards (or “Special Cities” as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government calls them) home. With no single city center, but rather several different “centers” – Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, Ueno, and Shibuya among them – Tokyo certainly can be confusing.

And unlike Kyoto, there is physically very little remaining of Tokyo’s past. The Imperial Palace qualifies in once sense, but it only dates from the 1880s and unlike the imposing castles of Europe, there isn’t much to see that will connect you with the city’s deep and vibrant past. Nor are there any soaring cathedrals pulling the traveler back in time. There are a lot of temples and shrines, some with buildings even dating back to the 1600s, but these are few and far between, and most lack the presence to bring the city’s past back to life.

Tokyo’s oldest nemesis, fire, also played its part in altering the city and hiding its glories from easy view. Three major events in particular were instrumental in the shaping of the city: the Great Meireki Fire of 1657, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the Allied fire bombings of Tokyo (February – May of 1945). In each of these fires (fire was the major cause of loss of life and damage in the 1923 earthquake), more than 100,000 people lost their lives and 45~60% of the city lost.

However, despite this, like a phoenix, Tokyo has risen from its own ashes and built itself anew, larger and grander than ever.


Until Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo the seat of power for his newly acquired fief in 1590, it was a small backwater fishing village on the edge of a shallow estuary surrounded by marshes. It is said that there were perhaps a hundred households in the village when Ieyasu entered the village with 8,000 troops of his own. However, during his visit in 1609, the Spanish Governor-General of the Phillipines, Rodrigo De Vivero estimated the population of Edo at 150,000 people .

Ieyasu wasted no time in setting plans in motion to bring clean water into the city and providing areas for his vassals and laborers to live. In order to bring in materials and supplies needed to build up the castle, he had the Dosanbori canal dug between 1590~1592. At the same time, he ordered construction begun on the first waterway, the Koishikawa Waterway, to provide good drinking water for Edo’s residents. In 1596, increasing the scope of the waterway system, the Kanda Waterway was started. This was eventually completed in 1629 and was 26km in length, bringing water in from natural springs in Inokashira Pond, Zenpuku-ji, and Myoushou-ji far to the west of Edo.

Also in 1596, Ieyasu ordered the leveling of nearby “Mt. Kanda”, 「神田山」just to the north of Edo Castle, to provide earth to fill in the estuary on the east side of the Castle and reclaim other parts of the marshy lowlands so that his vassals and the laborers would have places to live.

Edo then began to grow, its population swelling rapidly every year, and getting an extra boost once the alternate attendance system was made official policy in 1635. By 1644, Edo had grown to a size of 44 sq. km in area and had a population estimated at 400,000. Of this area, 34 sq. km (77%) was designated as bukechi (samurai districts), with the remaining areas almost evenly divided between chouninchi (townspeople/commoner districts; 4.3 sq. km / 10%) and jinjachi (temple districts; 4.5 sq. km / 10%). These figures would change over the years, but generally speaking the samurai districts would take up about 70% of Edo, the commoner districts 15%, and the temple districts 15%.

Fire had always been a problem that plagued Edo, and in 1657 one of the greatest fires in its history swept through the city. The Great Meireki Fire, also known as the Long-sleeves Fire, burnt down 60% of the city over a two day period and claimed more than 100,000 lives. As destructive as the fire was though, it allowed a bursting-at-the-seems Edo to rebuild itself, with new city planning and construction laws aimed at keeping fires at bay. Included in these were the building of numerous hiyokechi (fire breaks and fire lanes), widening of streets, limitations on flame and lamp usage, as well as construction regulations stipulating the width of eaves and restricting permitted roofing materials. Finally, an organized fire fighting system was established with set areas of responsibility and control.

The end result of this was a city that could more easily accommodate its continued growth and expansion. By 1721, the population had grown to more than 1,000,000 people – almost equally divided between samurai and commoner – making it the largest city in the world.

Over the next 150 years, Edo would continue to grow and would become the political, economic, and cultural center of Japan. In its early years, the daimyo and their vassals coming into Edo for their enforced one year stays brought the cultures and customs of their own provinces with them, but as the population of Edo grow more stable – daimyo were required to leave their wives and children in Edo year-round with retainers needed to support them and maintain their estates – the city began to develop its own style and culture. Edo culture (kabuki, ukiyo-e woodblock prints with scenes of the city and its beautiful women and famous actors, fashion) began to flow back to the provinces via the Great Highways that linked Japan together, providing the start of a more unified sense of identity and nation.

Crisis, Change, and the Meiji Restoration

However, starting in the 1830s, the rigid social stratification imposed by the Shogunate, tension between increasingly wealthy and influential merchants and socially elite but indebted samurai, famine, a series of destructive earthquakes and tsunami, and finally, the arrival of Perry’s fleet in 1853, meant the beginning of the end for the Tokugawas.

Several powerful (and traditionally anti-Tokugawa) daimyo from the west pushed for the restoration of the Emperor to power, and after a series of battles – ranging from Kyoto to Kan’ei-ji in Edo – they succeeded in their goal. On January 3rd, 1868, the Meiji Emperor was restored to power, but there would continue to be battles against Tokugawa loyalists until 1869. While the Meiji Restoration was a remarkably bloodless and smooth transition of regimes, it represented a huge crisis for the newly christened Tokyo. Half of the city’s population had left to return to their home provinces, leaving the remaining half without a customer base and thus no means to support themselves – in May of 1868, the Meiji government even distributed rice to 430,000 residents of the city. However, as the new Meiji government was able to assert its control over the rest of the nation and its policies took hold, people began to flow back into Tokyo and in 1883, the population of the city once again topped one million.

Meiji Period (1868-1912) Tokyo saw rapid Westernization and the build-up of its infrastructure. Japan’s first railway station opened in Shinagawa in 1872. Then in 1877, it held an international Industrial Exposition in Ueno Park. Many of the first Western style buildings in Japan were built in Tokyo in the 1890s, including the Bank of Japan. There was also in influx of foreigners in Tokyo as well due to the establishment of legations, embassies, and the opening of a settlement exclusively for foreigners in Tsukiji. Tokyo, and Japan, rushed into the 20th century and started to make its presence felt on the international stage – decisively beating Russia in the Russo-Japan War of 1905 and then hosting the international Meiji Industrial Exposition of 1907.

Just before noon on September 1st, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck and the damage caused by the quake itself, and to a far greater degree, the fires it sparked, changed the face of Tokyo. Of the 15 wards that made up the city, only one was untouched by fire. Five wards on the east side of the city, that of commoner’s Low City, were the most heavily damaged, with damage to buildings at over 90%, and over 300,000 houses lost. Many of the older buildings that had remained from Edo, and were part of the city’s LowCity heritage, were lost forever.

However, as always, the city rose from the ashes. Rubble and debris from the fires were used to fill in the numerous canals and waterways in Ginza, and the plans made to rebuild itself in a grand scale. There would be parks, canals, and a new street plan with wide boulevards.

Political infighting meant that in the end, of the originally proposed city rebuilding plan – with a budget of 46 billion yen – Tokyo received less than 1/8 of that to rebuild. Focus was on widening streets and rebuilding housing; with the national government taking responsibility for the major thoroughfares and Tokyo’s government handling the smaller streets. The layout of the city was still similar to Edo and many of its streets were simply wider versions running in the same courses as they had during the Edo period.

Modern Tokyo

Although Tokyo had been subject to bombing raids prior to 1945, they had been mostly ineffective – the high altitude of the bombers caused the bombs to fall off course and miss their intended targets. However, beginning in February of 1945, the B-29s were ordered to bomb from lower altitudes using incendiary bombs, and in the most devastating raid (March 9-10th), more than 41 sq. km of Tokyo were burned to the ground. As in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the east side of the city suffered the greatest losses. It is estimated that in this one raid, more than 100,000 people died and a million made homeless; more than either the atomic bombings of Nagasaki or Hiroshima.

After the war ended, Tokyo began the monumental task of cleaning up and rebuilding itself. However, as with the rebuilding plans of 1923, Tokyo once again saw the money it was to receive slashed and city planning proposals altered to the point of ineffectiveness.

Primary among these was the reduction of projects that would have allowed modern roads and infrastructure to be built. The original 200km² set aside for this was reduced by 75% and plans for 10% of land to be devoted to green space and parks was reduced by 40%. Focus was once again shifted to widening streets and putting roofs over people’s heads. With so many people flooding back into the city, this housing had to be built on land originally slated for roads or open space.

For those living in the city, of immediate concern were the huge amounts of debris from the bombings. Much of it was piled into the streets, impeding traffic and creating eye sores. Repeating the 1923 earthquake yet again, most of this rubble was used to fill in the canals and other waterways of the city – this time the most noticeable being the complete filling in of the outer moat on the east side of the castle, just in front of Tokyo Station. As a result, the “Venice of the East” – Edo, with its 700 bridges and a vast system of waterways that moved goods and people through the city – finally disappeared from view.

Still, as it always does, Tokyo rebuilt and rebounded. The city center shifted though, moving from the old Low City of the east and to the open and rapidly developing west – Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya. These areas grew up around the train stations and department stores clustered outside them, drawing people to these new centers and shifting the social, cultural, and commercial heart of the city with them.

A City of Neighborhoods

Despite the haphazard development, or perhaps because of it, Tokyo is very much a city of neighborhoods. Life is centers on the local train station, and each neighborhood has its own mom-and-pop shops, the green grocer, the book store, ramen shops, and corner watering holes. Each neighborhood has its own flavor and very often a past that extends more than 150 years back to the Edo period. This is what makes Tokyo unique – the “808 machi (towns) of Edo” are still alive in the neighborhoods that make up the city and even though the city is one of the world’s largest, there is never a sense of being lost in a faceless metropolis. Every neighborhood is unique and has its own story, its tie to the city of the Shogun. Edo still lives side by side with modern Tokyo, and its history can been found on almost any street corner.