Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan and was the capital for more than a millennium after its inception in 794 A.D. It was only after the Meiji Restoration (明治維新), around 1868, that the Royal Family moved out of Kyoto into their new imperial home in Tokyo. As they moved to Edo (江戸; Tokyo), Kyoto remained for a while as a “Western capital” and was called “Saikyo” (西京). However, its prominence as an administrative center decreased and Tokyo remained as the ultimate seat of power. Let’s find out what the circumstances were that led to the capital change.
Japan itself is called by many names such as Nippon, Wa, Yamato, and so on. Even the cities of Japan have many names as they were called different things during previous eras. For example, you may know that Tokyo’s other name is Edo, named after the Edo Period or the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川将軍), which ruled Japan before the Meiji Restoration for nearly 250 years.
Similarly, Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, has many names which may surprise you, such as “Heian-kyo” (平安京), meaning seat or metropolis of peace in Japanese. Kyoto was founded by one of the earliest emperors of Japan, Kammu (桓武天皇), who brought the capital from Nagaoka-kyo (長岡京) to Heian-kyo, more commonly known today as Kyoto. The old Kyoto used to be just the area surrounding the Imperial Palace, however, the size of the city has grown considerably since then. It is believed that Kyoto was designed similarly to the Tang dynasty’s Xi’an city with rectangular enclosures and grid-like streets surrounded by mountains on all sides.
Edo, now known as Tokyo, was not only the capital city of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but also a primary center of trade with the west. The region between Nagoya (名古屋) and Tokyo used to flourish with trade and commerce. At one point, the economy of Edo exceeded that of Kyoto, the original capital. Also, the Heian Palace in Kyoto lost its control over some areas such as Tendai (天台宗) with the Buddhist rebels attacking the city constantly.
Kyoto’s isolationist policies led to less western influence compared to that of Edo during the early 19th century. Even today, you can see Kyoto as the cultural capital of Japan with many UNESCO heritage sites and rich traditions. Tokyo, on the other hand, is very modern with good connections with the western world.
If you read the history of Japan, it is mentioned that there is no official decree or announcement confirming the capital change from Kyoto to Tokyo, which means Kyoto can technically still be considered the capital. After the submission of the Tokugawa Shogunate around 1868, Emperor Meiji was very young – just 15 years old. Even though he was coronated as the emperor at that time, the original power was vested in the hands of the oligarchs who controlled everything.
The oligarchs wanted to move the capital to Edo so that they could have ultimate power over the trade and access to the west. They changed the name of Edo to Tokyo, which means “eastern capital”. So technically, both Kyoto and Tokyo are the capitals of Japan.
Did you know that the US government listed a few cities in Japan as places to drop the atomic bomb and Kyoto was top on that list? Some historians even say that the capital change was a strategy to decentralize the Imperial power and modernize Japan. Kyoto has actually suffered a lot due to the capital change as it led to a scarcity of resources and a population shift. It was only until the construction of the Biwa Canal (琵琶湖疏水) that Kyoto started to recover again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, the dominance of the western capital slowly decreased as the Imperial court and the Diet have been permanently established in Tokyo. The modernization and growing popularity of Tokyo made it the only capital of Japan eventually, unlike Kyoto which has remained as a symbol of old Japan. However, Kyoto still enjoys a lot of tourism and popularity. Which city is your favorite?