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Transformation of Tokyo

From a Fishery Village to a Hyper Modern City

With its unique mix of contemporary and traditional elements as well as its many commercial and cultural offerings, Tokyo is absolutely one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It has a unique and dramatic history that has shaped the city of today. Here, we unfold Tokyo’s history and how it has grown (and continues to grow), which will help you understand and enjoy this remarkable city.


Establishment of “Edo” Culture

A milestone in Tokyo’s history took place when the warlord, Ieyasu Tokugawa, transformed it from a small fishing village into the seat of his shogunate in 1603. Tokugawa ended a long period of war that lasted more than a century and established the foundation of a peaceful system of government, naming the town Edo, literally meaning “door to the bay.” He built up land where the sea once was, and even today, a significant part of Tokyo’s waterfront is reclaimed land.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was run by the samurai class (bushi), but because Tokugawa created many jobs to build a strong city foundation, this naturally brought in more business people. Edo culture was therefore a mix of samurai and common people, which was quite a change from the elegant, noble culture in Kyo (the old name of Kyoto), the capital of Japan for centuries before. Today, Edo culture is thought of as aggressive, fast-paced, and sharp and is often described as iki (chic, cool, edgy), while Kyo culture is soft, fluid, and mild. This distinction was reflected in the fashions of the Edo era and can still be seen in the different kimono patterns of Tokyo and Kyoto styles today. Visitors to the two cities can sense the different moods just by being there.

Formerly Edo-jo (Edo Castle), the Kokyo (the current Emperor’s residence) is located in the center of downtown Tokyo.

Since Edo was commercially thriving, restaurants and other food vendors did very well. Soba noodles and sushi sold at yatai (food stalls) became especially popular in Edo because they fit perfectly with the fast-paced Edo personality. Also, with its seaside location, Edo had an abundance of fresh fish. With no refrigerators, however, sushi chefs needed to invent storing and serving methods to keep the fish as fresh and tasty as possible. This gave rise to the Edomae sushi style, which is now enjoyed worldwide.

In the early days of Edo, crime, famine, and epidemics were of constant concern, so the government and residents built many temples and shrines for emotional and religious help. Visitors to Tokyo may find old shrines and temples in the center of contemporary Tokyo––some of them were built in the Edo period, and others were rebuilt more recently.

Another important aspect of the Edo period is that it was a time of national isolation. The Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country to the outside world (with the exception of the port of Nagasaki, which was allowed to do business with China and the Netherlands), forcing Japan to strengthen its own culture. As the headquarters of the shogunate, Edo was perfectly situated to develop and maintain its unique regional culture.

The Meiji Jingu Shrine was founded in 1920 in commemoration of Emperor Meiji who demised in 1912 and his consort, Empress Shokan who passed away in 1914. 100,000 trees were brought from all over Japan and oversea, to create the forest.


Localizing International Cultures

National isolation was strictly observed from 1639 until 1854, when the shogunate declined. Once Japan was reopened to foreign countries, many new things and concepts––fashion, food, science, political systems, and much more––flooded the city of Edo. Twelve years later, the Tokugawa reign was over, and the social structure of Japan was redefined. This is when Edo became Tokyo.

Under the new governing system during the Meiji period, Japanese people were rapidly introduced to foreign cultures, beginning with the higher social classes and then gradually spreading to everyday people. This coincided with the world’s industrial revolution, so Japan was exposed to both new cultures and technology at the same time. Naturally, this changed society drastically, and Tokyo was greatly influenced by the influx of these elements.

Many Japanese foods enjoyed today were actually created during this period. Meat, especially beef, was very new in Japan, but it was quickly embraced and restaurants started serving gyu-nabe (thinly sliced beef simmered in an iron skillet with a soy sauce–based broth), now commonly called sukiyaki. Today there are still sukiyaki restaurants in Tokyo that were established back in the late nineteenth century. Other dishes, such as ebi furai (shrimp cutlets), omuraisu (omelets stuffed with seasoned rice), and hayashi raisu (thinly sliced beef/pork simmered in a demi-glace and served over rice), were invented by taking Western ingredients and cooking methods and adapting them for the Japanese palate. These dishes are now categorized as yoshoku, Western dishes with a Japanese twist. This period also gave rise to the Japanese version of Chinese noodles: ramen.

Rapid Modernization in Everyday Life

When Japan abandoned its national isolation, the country was far behind in the technology of heavy industry, but it quickly caught up with the world’s standard. Tokyo soon established a solid transportation system, which changed people’s lifestyles. Today, the nation’s well-maintained and punctual transit system is among the most advanced in the world.

There have been two major times of destruction in Tokyo: first, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed more than 70,000 residents, and then a series of air raids from 1944 to 1945 during World War II, the biggest of which killed more than 100,000 residents and burnt down a third of the cosmopolitan area. The city and nation were completely paralyzed after that, but that downtime also gave Japan motivation to rebuild and established the foundation for Japan’s period of rapid economic growth (1954–1973).

Japan’s recovery from the devastation was steadfast, and a symbolic event was hosting the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. To accommodate this international event, Tokyo developed its infrastructure, building new roads and expanding train stations and the airport. The first shinkansen (bullet train) was also created for the Olympics.

In the five decades since the Olympics, Japan has experienced economic ups and downs, but the city of Tokyo has not experienced major physical damage. The massive earthquake and tsunami in March 11, 2011, affected the city but not as much as other areas closer to the epicenter. Tokyo still stands strong and leads Japan’s economy. The city will be hosting the Summer Olympics again in 2020.

With its intersecting, elevated train lines, Akihabara offers a futuristic view. The electronics stores, which became concentrated in this area right after World War II, add even more of a sci-fi look at night. Akihabara is now the center of Japanese pop-culture with its manga, anime, and game stores.

Commonly called Tokyo Tower, the Nippon Denpa Tower was completed in 1958. It is a symbol of Japan’s rapid economic growth.

At 2,080 feet high, the Tokyo Skytree is one of the world’s tallest freestanding broadcasting towers. It opened to the public in 2012.

Developed during the Edo period, Edomae sushi is still enjoyed not only in Japan but also outside the country.