History of Tokyo

Mother Earth Travel > Japan > Tokyo > History

Though archeological studies have established that the islands of Japan were already inhabited several millennia before Christ, the history of Tokyo is relatively recent. It does not start until 1603 AD, when Tokugawa Ieyasu proclaimed himself shogun and moved the seat of government from Kyoto, home of the imperial court for nearly 1,000 years. Edo (the name of old Tokyo) began as nothing much more than a scattering of villages around Ieyasu's castle, site of the present Imperial Palace. It was only in the latter half of the 19th century that it took on the name Tokyo, meaning Eastern Capital to distinguish it from Kyoto in the west.

Under Ieyasu's rule, Japan was for the first time unified, putting an end to bloody wars between rival factions. In 1615, Ieyasu's armies annihilated the Toyotomi clan, squashing the last opposition to his absolute power. Ieyasu's successors kept a tight grip on the government, enacting the closed-door policy in 1639 which imposed a total ban on contact with the outside world. From then on, until the advent of Commodore Perry in 1853, Japan remained isolated, save for closely monitored transactions with Chinese and Dutch traders.

Ironically, the Tokugawas' one-party rule led to political stability. Following its turbulent past, the country settled down to a welcome period of peace and prosperity. Edo grew and flourished in what is known as the Edo Period (1603-1867), and by the mid-18th century it was inhabited by over a million people, exceeding both London and Paris in population and land area. Though the imperial court continued to reside in Kyoto, Edo gradually evolved into a bustling center of commerce and industry.

Ieyasu introduced a four-tiered class system, topped by the samurai or warrior class, which greatly reduced the influence of the old nobility. Nurtured by the patronage of the rich merchant class, new popular art forms emerged, such as kabuki and ukiyo-e. Comparable to the rise of the bourgoisie in Europe, this shift from the court and aristocracy enabled the populace to express itself in art. It is said that popular Japanese culture has its roots in the Edo Period.

It is amazing that the Tokugawa shogunate retained the reins of government virtually unopposed over so long a period of time, but corruption and incompetence finally led to its decline and fall. Also, in the latter half of the 19th century, the Western powers were increasingly calling on Japan to open its doors to trade. By the time the black ships of Commodore Mathew Perry steamed into Uraga in 1853, the greatly weakened Tokugawa shogunate could muster very little resistance.

This marked a crucial turning point in Japanese history. Not only did it open Japan to external trade, but it ushered in the country's rapid Westernization. Following the resignation of the last Tokugawa shogun, the whole country, headed by Emperor Meiji, plunged into a frantic drive to catch up with the West. With full powers restored to the emperor, the court was moved to Tokyo from Kyoto, making Tokyo the official capital of the country.

Even today vestiges of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) can still be found in Tokyo. The present educational system is based on reforms introduced during the period, and today many school children still wear uniforms patterned after European models from the late 19th century. Both the Diet (Parliament) and Bank of Japan were established during the period, and today these two institutions continue to dictate the political and financial affairs of the country. Even baseball, the most popular sport in Japan today, was introduced during the period. In the Meiji Restoration, one can see the seeds of modern Japan.

Though greatly devastated by fires following the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and again during the Second World War (1939-1945), Tokyo was soon on its feet again, spearheading what has been called Japan's postwar economic miracle. Under the occupation forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, the city witnessed the writing of a new constitution that introduced the separation of religion and state, universal suffrage, human rights, and the renouncement of war. With this new political and social order, Tokyoites, and the Japanese as a whole, focused all their energies on economic recovery and development. The result is what the visitor sees in Tokyo today - a cosmopolitan city that is truly the country's political, economic and cultural center, and which plays a leading role in global affairs. No small feat for a place that was once just a scattering of small feudal villages!