How a Fishing Village Became a Metropolis


ON A beautiful summer day in August 1590, Ieyasu Tokugawa (right), who later became the first Tokugawa shogun, * set foot in the fishing village of Edo in eastern Japan. At that time “Edo had only a few hundred wretched houses, consisting of peasant and fishermen’s cottages,” notes the book The Shogun’s City​—A History of Tokyo. In the vicinity stood a neglected fortress built more than a century earlier.

This village, which was buried in obscurity for centuries, would not only become Tokyo, the capital of Japan, but also grow into a bustling megalopolis​—over 12 million people live in the Tokyo metropolitan prefecture. Tokyo would go on to become a global force in technology, communications, transportation, and commerce, as well as the home of leading financial institutions. How did such an amazing transformation take place?

From Fishing Village to Shogun’s City

For a century after 1467, warring feudal lords divided Japan into a number of fiefdoms. Finally, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a feudal lord of humble origin, partially reunited the nation, becoming imperial regent in 1585. Initially, Ieyasu fought against the powerful Hideyoshi, but he later joined forces with him. Together, they laid siege to and captured the castle at Odawara, the stronghold of the powerful Hōjō clan, and thus conquered the Kanto region in eastern Japan.

Hideyoshi granted Ieyasu the vast territory of eight provinces of Kanto, mostly former Hōjō domain, moving Ieyasu eastward from his original dominion. This was apparently a calculated move to keep Ieyasu far from Kyoto, where the emperor​—the figurehead of Japan—​lived. In spite of that, Ieyasu agreed, and he arrived in Edo as described at the outset. He set out to transform this humble fishing village into the center of his domain.

After the death of Hideyoshi, Ieyasu led a coalition of forces, mostly from eastern Japan, against forces from the west, and in 1600, within a day, he claimed victory. In 1603, Ieyasu was appointed shogun, becoming the de facto ruler of the nation. Edo now became the new administrative center of Japan.

 Ieyasu ordered feudal lords to supply men and materials to complete a mammoth castle. At one time some 3,000 vessels were employed to carry the huge pieces of granite that had been quarried from the cliffs of the Izu Peninsula, about 60 miles [100 km] to the south. When the granite was unloaded at the port, a team of a hundred men or more hauled the pieces to the construction site.

The castle, by far the largest in Japan, was completed 50 years later, during the reign of the third shogun, and it was an impressive symbol of the overpowering Tokugawa rule. Samurai, or warriors, who served the shogun settled around the castle. The shogun required that the feudal lords maintain mansions in Edo in addition to castles in their own domain.

To fill the needs of the core population of samurai, burgeoning groups of merchants and artisans gathered from around the country. By 1695​—about a century after Ieyasu entered the area—​Edo’s population had grown to one million! It became the world’s largest city of the time.

From the Sword to the Abacus

So effective was the shogunate government in keeping peace that the warrior class had less to do. Of course, the samurai still boasted of their profession, but the power of the sword slowly gave way to that of the abacus, the manual calculator popular in the Orient. For more than 250 years, a period of peace continued. Civilians in general, especially the merchants, prospered materially and enjoyed greater independence. A unique culture developed.

The population indulged in the famous Kabuki plays (historical dramas), Bunraku (puppet theater), and rakugo (comical storytelling). During the hot summer evenings, people gathered on the banks of the cool Sumida River, on which Edo was situated. They also viewed fireworks, a popular tradition that continues to this very day.

Edo, however, remained unknown to the rest of the world. For over 200 years, the nation was banned from having contact with foreigners with the exception of​—on a very limited basis—​the Dutch, the Chinese, and the Koreans. Then, one day,  an unexpected event changed the nature of the city and the nation.

From Edo to Tokyo

Off the coast of Edo, strange-looking vessels billowing black smoke suddenly appeared. Stunned fishermen thought that they were floating volcanoes! Wild rumors spread in Edo, resulting in a mass exodus.

Those vessels, a fleet of four ships led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy, cast anchor in Edo Bay on July 8, 1853 (left). Perry requested that the shogunate government open Japan for trade with his country. Through Perry’s visit, the Japanese came to see how far Japan had lagged behind the rest of the world in military and technological development.

This triggered a chain of events that led to the downfall of the Tokugawa regime and the restoration of imperial rule. In 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital,” denoting its location as seen from Kyoto. The emperor moved his residence from the palace in Kyoto to the Edo castle, which was later converted into the new Imperial Palace.

Under the influence of Western culture, the new government embarked on the project of modernizing Japan. There was much catching up to do. Some refer to this period as miraculous. In 1869 a telegraph service between Tokyo and Yokohama was inaugurated. Soon, this was followed by the laying of the first railway line linking the two cities. Brick buildings suddenly sprang up amid the wooden houses. Banks, hotels, department stores, and restaurants were built. The first universities were established. Paved streets replaced  dirt roads. Paddle steamers sailed up and down the Sumida River.

Even the people looked different. The majority wore traditional kimonos, but more and more Japanese tried Western clothing. Men with mustaches took to top hats and walking sticks, while some of the women, in elegant dresses, learned to dance the waltz.

Beer joined sake as a favorite drink, and baseball came to compete with sumo wrestling as the nation’s favorite sport. Tokyo, like a giant sponge, absorbed the cultural and political ideas of the day and made them its own. The city kept growing and growing​—until one day disaster struck.

Rising From the Ashes

On September 1, 1923, while many were preparing their lunch, a violent earthquake rocked the Kanto area, followed by hundreds of minor quakes, including a severe tremor 24 hours later. Although the damage from the earthquake itself was devastating, even more destructive were the resulting fires that burned much of Tokyo to the ground. In all, over 100,000 people died, 60,000 of them in Tokyo.

The people of Tokyo took up the enormous task of rebuilding their city. After recovering to a certain extent, the city suffered additional major blows​—air raids during World War II. Particularly devastating were the estimated 700,000 bombs that fell on the night of March 9/10, 1945, from midnight till about three in the morning. The buildings were mostly wooden, and the bombs​—napalm and new incendiary devices containing magnesium and jellied gasoline—​set fire to the overcrowded downtown area, killing more than 77,000 people. It was the single most destructive bombing mission involving nonnuclear weapons in history.

Despite the disaster postwar Tokyo, in an unprecedented way, rose from the ashes to become a city rebuilt. By 1964, less than 20 years later, the city had recovered to the point of hosting the Summer Olympic Games. The past four decades have been marked by perpetual construction as the concrete jungle extends its tentacles outward and upward.

The Tokyo Spirit to the Rescue

At 400 years of age, the city now known as Tokyo is by no means old when compared with other major cities of the world. Although there are some sections of the city that retain an air of bygone days, for the most part, very little remains of buildings and structures reflecting the past. A close look at the city, however, reveals a pattern that was conceived in the days of old Edo.

In the center of the metropolis is a huge plot of greenery. The Imperial Palace and its surrounding grounds now stand in the very same spot as the original Edo castle did. From here, radiating out like the strands of a spider’s web, are the main roads leading from the city, reflecting the basic pattern of Edo. Even the haphazard layout of the streets forming a labyrinth throughout the city evokes images of the old Edo. In fact, the majority of the streets are not even named! In place of the gridlike pattern of blocks found in other major cities of the world, Tokyo has numbered lots of different shapes and sizes.

But more than anything else that remains is the Tokyo spirit​—the ability to absorb what is new, especially foreign, and the resilience and determination to move forward in spite of earthquakes, a prolonged economic recession, and the challenges of overpopulation. Come and see for yourself the vibrant spirit of Tokyo​—the small fishing village that has risen from obscurity to international prominence.


^ par. 3 The shogun was the hereditary commander of the Japanese army and exercised absolute rule under the leadership of the emperor.

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Tokyo today

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Ken Usami/​photodisc/​age fotostock

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© The Bridgeman Art Library

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