A Brief History of Tokyo

  • We all know Tokyo as the well of culture, entertainment, shopping and maybe a dash of craziness. While we gaze in amazement and enjoy the endless things we can do there to have fun, we also should dive into the fascinating past of one of the most famous cities in the world.


    Tokyo was originally a fishing village called Edo. It was first fortified by the Edo Clan in the 12th century and 200 years later the famous Edo Castle was built there. In 1509, the city became the center of government when Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun and made it his hometown. With his reign, he also started a long time of peace that lasted over 250 years. During this time, the city grew fast and counted one million inhabitants with the beginning of the 18th century.

    This peace ended when the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan, causing the harbors to open up for foreign goods. This measure forced prices to rise until inflation. The people reacted violently and supporters of Emperor Meiji used the situation to overthrow Yoshinobu, the last Tokugawa Shogun, in 1867.


    After the reign of the Shogun had ended, Emperor Meiji moved from Kyoto to Edo. The city was renamed to Tokyo which means “Eastern Capital” and it became the official capital of Japan. Before that it already was the center of politics and culture.

    After the earthquake in 1923

    A woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpō depicting a scene from the Great Kantō Earthquake

    Burned and destroyed buildings after attacks in World War II

    The building of a dense network of subway stations began. The city grew around it, focusing on the subway more than on cars and eventually making it a significant traffic system of Tokyo. Although the development of Tokyo went on, it was struck by the 1923 Kantō earthquake (around 140.000 casualties) and the air raids during World War II (around 210.000 casualties).


    A street in Tokyo around 1900

    After the city merged with the Prefecture of Tokyo into Tokyo Metropolis in 1943, it was successfully rebuilt and chosen to hold the Summer Olympics 1964. The 1970s brought a massive development and the population increased up to 11 million – after the war it counted only 2.8 million. But the following 1980s grew a real estate and debt bubble that burst in 1990 causing an enormous recession. That time is called “The Lost Decade” of Japan and the country recovered only slowly.

    The modern Tokyo

    In 2011, a major earthquake hit Japan but did only little damage to Tokyo itself while a tsunami destroyed a northern nuclear plant followed by a nuclear crisis.
    Today Tokyo is still growing from the inside and outside. It was named the third most liveable city in the world, it counts the most Michelin stars of all cities, it is the “best overall experience” for foreigners. The reasons to visit Tokyo are many and from a small fishing village it became one of the most famous and interesting cities in the world.

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