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Why is Tokyo So Big? | How Tokyo, Japan Became The World's Biggest City

Tokyo at sunset, tokyo tower as the sun goes down

In the 1500s, Tokyo was just a small, insignificant fishing village. Today in 2023, Tokyo, Japan, has a population of 37 million. So how did Tokyo get this big?


Story Chapters


The Origins of Tokyo

Early History (Before 1600s)

On the eastern side of Japan, a small village was founded on the sea sometime in the 1300s. Multiple villages had been founded in the area over thousands of years. This one, however, would become the predecessor of modern-day Tokyo.

The village was called Edo after the governor of the region at the time, Edo Shigenaga. The small fishing village quickly grew because of its river location and ocean access. Because of this, Edo Shigenaga established the village as his capital city and built a castle to protect it.

The New Capital (1600s-1800s)

old traditional japanese artwork portraying tokugawa ieyasu siting down

Eventually, the small town caught the attention of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Japan had been going through decades of civil war, and Tokugawa Ieyasu had unified Japan.

feudal map of japan during the sengoku jedai (map of japan 1564-1573)

For most of this period, Japan was divided up into many warring states or provinces, but in the final stages they had united, and Japan was now divided by its western and eastern provinces. Tokugawa Ieyasu led the eastern provinces against the west and finally unified all of Japan. He was declared shogun (military leader) of Japan by the emperor.

old traditional japanese artwork portraying kyoto japan in the medieval ages

The capital city at the time was Kyoto, which was located in the west of Japan, where the people who fought against Tokugawa Ieyasu were. So, he effectively moved the capital to Edo, closer to his allies in the east, in 1603. For the next 200 years, this period in Japanese history was known as the Tokugawa period of Japan but was also known as the Edo period.

During the Edo Period, illustrated storybooks called Kibyoshi, or "yellow covers" began to be produced. These Kibyoshi were the predecessor of modern manga and anime. Manga and anime would still have another 100 years to go before they would become what they are today…

When Tokugawa Ieyasu largely made Edo the new capital, it brought wealth to the city, and people wanted goods and services. This led to merchants and craftsmen doing well in the new capital. Ieyasu also absorbed some western ideas and was assisted by William Adams, the first and only foreign samurai.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s decision to largely move the capital lifted the small fishing town to prominence in a newly united Japan.

Japan Opens Up (1800s-1850s)

However, under the Tokugawa dynasty, Japan began to isolate itself from Europe. During this time, Europeans were exploring the world, trying to find a faster way to Asia so they could trade with them. That’s how America was discovered by Columbus.

But on the other side of the world, Japan was refusing to trade with Europeans, fearing that western culture and politics would interfere and ruin Japan.

painting of commodore matthew perry and his army arriving in japan

That all changed when American Commodore Perry opened up Japan by sailing into Edo Bay with an American fleet in 1853 and demanding trade. He returned the next year with a larger fleet and coerced the Japanese into signing the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japan up to trade with the United States and led to Japan becoming westernized.

Violence and Progress (1850s-1930s)

This period saw fast changes in Japan, but these changes also brought tension. Despite this, the first Japanese university was founded in 1858. However, Japan was still divided on whether it wanted to open up to the west and, for the most part, "do away with tradition." Those who believed in keeping foreigners out sided with the shogun, and those who wanted to westernize sided with the emperor.

photo of a group of japanese samurai in the 1800s

The assassination of a prominent statesman who believed in opening things up further polarized Japan. The last shogun of Japan resigned and turned power over to the emperor a year later, in 1867. However, the tensions boiled over into a war the following year, and eventually, the emperor came out on top and changed Japan and Edo forever.

The Meiji Restoration

painting of a young emperor meiji

For hundreds of years, the shogun (military leader) was considered the real leader of Japan instead of the emperor. That changed soon after Commodore Perry opened up Japan. With new weapons and military assistance from the west, the emperor (Emperor Meiji) was able to raise his own army and beat the outdated samurai army.

Emperor Meiji began to quickly modernize Japan. The thing is, the government and power of Japan were centered in Edo, not the emperor’s city of Kyoto. So, the emperor officially moved the capital and his family to Edo. The city of Edo was then given a new name, Tokyo, which means "the eastern capital."