Tokyo History


Although Tokyo was inhabited as far back as 30,000 BC, present day Tokyo was established in the 12 th century AD. It was founded as the village of Edo by a local warlord named Minamoto Yoritomo after winning a civil war with the imperial family. He wanted to establish his capital away from the imperial family who were based in Kyoto and so chose the present location. This initial period of Edo is known as the Kamakura Period and lasted from 1192 to 1333.


The Kamakura Period saw the rise of military rule, or shogunate , and the warrior caste called the samurai . The samurai were ruled by a rigid code of honor and were bound to their lords in loyalty and would defend them till death. If for some reason they were unable to defend their lords, they would redeem it by committing suicide. To rebuff the lavish and luxurious lifestyle of the court in Kyoto, the samurai adopted a simple life and took on the beliefs of Zen Buddhism.


The times that followed the Kamakura Period saw bloody civil wars between the feudal lords, or the daimyo , as they had become powerful and fought to gain supremacy over lands. It wasn't until the second half of the 16 th century that Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shrewd daimyo , was able to eliminate most of his rivals and seize control of Edo.


When Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of Edo, it was only a small town. In 1590, he acquired the provinces surrounding Edo, which were then nothing but marshlands. He corrected them by reclaiming the land and set out to make Edo a great city. In 1600, Ieyasu won the last battle, the Battle of Sekigahara. This made him the most powerful man in the country and gave virtual control over the whole of Japan. He established his rule, and with him started the Tokugawa line of shoguns that continued to rule the region for 250 years. These 250 years are what is known as the Edo Period.


During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Edo bloomed into a prosperous city. It grew both economically and culturally as more m erchants and craftsmen from all over Japan came and settled in Edo. Cultural arts like Kabuki and Ukiyo-e bloomed and became very popular. By the 18 th century, Edo had a population of over a million, where besides the nobles and the daimyo , people were divided into four distinct classes - samurai , farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Edo had now become one of the largest cities in the world.

Along with the prosperity, Edo experienced setbacks as well. During this Period, there were 100 major fires, with the most tragic being the Great Fire of 1657. This fire, buffeted by strong winds, spread through the city and raged for 3 days. The huge flames reduced three fourths of the city to ruins, and more than 100,000 people lost their lives. Still, Edo continued to rise from ruins and prosper.

During this whole period, Edo was closed to the outside world. Fearing western influence and the spread of Christianity, the shogunate had forbidden foreigners to enter Japan. Neither could the Japanese leave the country. For more than 200 years Japan lived in isolation. But this isolation did not hinder progress, and trade and agriculture continued to improve. The Edo Period was in fact the most stable period in the history of Japan, mainly due the philosophy adopted by the shogunate . The Tokugawa shogunate had adopted the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism, which stressed the importance of morals and education. Thus education also grew rapidly among the population, especially the samurai as with no more lands to conquer they started concentrating on educating themselves. New schools opened that combined Shinto and Confucian elements with the Western teachings. New laws and governing rules were developed and a new vision of society emerged.

Progress always has its negative points as well. Besides the regular natural disasters that caused financial problems for the government, the social hierarchy also began collapsing. The merchant class (the lowest class) became extremely powerful and rich while the samurai (the highest and most respected class) became dependent on them. Due to political limitations, there was displeasure among the masses. Foreign intrusions further precipitated the situation. United States, which was expanding its own presence in the region, began pressurizing Japan to open up and establish diplomatic relations with it. Japan resisted, but in 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy succeeded in forcing the shogun to sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity, and opening two ports to American ships, thus ending two centuries of isolation. The following years saw further treaties with the U.S., and finally in 1868, the shogunate came to an end and power was handed over to the Imperial Family, who all this time was residing in Kyoto. Emperor Meiji, the emperor at that time, moved his residence to Edo and renamed the city “Tokyo”.

The ensuing years (1868-1912) are known as the Meiji Period , denoting the reign of Emperor Meiji. The Meiji Period saw rapid progress as the country was transformed from a feudal society of samurai and peasants to an industrialized nation. The samurai were stripped of their power, the daimyo had to surrender their lands, a constitution was drafted and a new political setup of an elected government was established. Foreign experts were hired to help in the transformation and western technology was borrowed to start industries. As Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism had become deep rooted during the Edo Period, efforts were made to re-establish the original Shinto-based state. At the same time Christianity was also legalized.

Tokyo, being the capital, saw the greatest progress with the roads being paved, western style brick and stone homes replacing the traditional wooden ones, western fashions and food habits taking over most things Japanese. In 1871, Tokyo Prefecture was established; a Tokyo police department was set up in 1874; and Ueno Zoo was opened in 1882.

By the time Emperor Meiji died in the year 1912, Japan had transformed itself into Asia's first industrialized nation. After Emperor Meiji died, his son Yoshihito succeeded the throne. His period is known as the Taisho Period.

The Taisho Period (1912-1926) is mainly known for its “Taisho democracy” because as the new Emperor was in poor health, the power shifted from the emperor to the parliament. This shift didn't prove to be smooth and there was great political upheaval. The military grew strong and Japan started showing interests in China, Korea and Russia. World War I saw some interests being fulfilled as it fought with the Allies. In 1919, Japan went to Versailles for the peace conference which gave it recognition as one of the most powerful nations in the world. Later in 1920, it joined the League of Nations.

Culturally, too, Japan continued to progress. The influence of the western culture that had started during the Meiji Era continued. The population of Tokyo increased as more people came to work in the city. A greater number of people started leading consumer lifestyles. Educational standards improved and the performing arts thrived.

In 1923, modernization had a great setback – the Great Kanto Earthquake. The Great Earthquake devastated Tokyo. Fires caused by the Earthquake, which raged for days, burned down 440,000 houses and killed more than 140,000 people. The damage to the city

was said to be 1.4 times the national budget of that time. But spirits amongst survivors ran high and reconstruction of Tokyo quickly began. Soon thereafter, in 1926, Emperor Taisho died and Hirohito took over, and with him began the Showa Period.

The Showa Period (1926-1989) corresponds to the reign of Emperor Showa (Hirohito), the longest reign of all Japanese emperors. The beginning of this period saw the continuation of the reconstruction of Tokyo, along with some firsts – the first subway line between Asakusa and Ueno in 1927, the first general elections for the Diet in 1928, completion of Tokyo Airport at Haneda in 1931, and the opening of Tokyo Port in 1941. Along with the progress, the population of Tokyo was also increasing and by 1935, the number of people in Tokyo had reached 6.36 million.

However, progress wasn't all that Tokyo experienced during this time. There was political chaos as well. The rising threat of communism gave rise to ultra-nationalism and in 1937 Japan was plunged into war with China. Then in 1941, the Pacific War broke out and Japan entered World War II by attacking Pearl Harbor. These events had a great impact on Tokyo. In order to prosecute the war, the dual administrative system of Tokyo, in which Tokyo Prefecture and Tokyo City had separate administrations, was abolished. The two were merged into one and the Metropolis of Tokyo was formed in 1943.

World War II brought great destruction to Tokyo. In the final phase of the war, Tokyo was bombed 102 times, the heaviest air raid being on March 10, 1945. There was both material damage and loss of life in the raids. By the end of the war, the population of Tokyo had fallen to 3.49 million, almost half of what it was previously. The end of the war also saw a tragic new – for the first time in history, Japan was occupied by a foreign power, the U.S.

The American occupation, which lasted for seven years, brought about sweeping democratic reforms. In 1947, a new Constitution took effect and new laws were promulgated; and in 1949 the 23-ward system was formed in Tokyo. In 1952, Japan again became a sovereign state. It continued with the reforms and progress and as a result, the 1950s saw great recovery and growth. By the 1960s, Japan had entered a period of high-level economic growth, and as a result people's lives also underwent great transformations. In 1962, Tokyo's population had reached 10 million. In the 1970s and the 1980s, rapid economic growth continued and Japan became one of the largest economies in the world and Tokyo emerged as one of the world's major cities boasting advanced technology, information, culture and fashion. Rapid progress has its drawbacks, too, and Tokyo was overcome with such problems as pollution, traffic congestion, and high land and stock prices. By 1986, Japan entered into what is known as “bubble economy”. In 1989, Emperor Hirohito died and the Showa Period came to an end.

After Hirohito's death, his son Akihito succeeded the throne and with him began the Heisei Period (1989- ), the present era. The beginning of Heisei Period was in bad times and saw the culmination of the economic growth. The “bubble economy” burst. Banks went bankrupt and the economy stagnated. Political scandals brought about changes in the government. Despite the hard times, Japan tried to re-emerge as a military power by pledging billions of dollars to the Gulf War in 1991 and sending soldiers to Iraq as part of the Self-Defense Forces in 2004.

The economy of Japan started on the road to recovery in 2002 and continues to grow. Today, in the year 2007, Japan's economy is the second largest in the world, with Tokyo having the largest GDP in the world for a city.

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