"Folding Screen Depicting Scenes of the Attendance of Daimyo at Edo Castle".

How Tokyo Became the Capital City of Japan

For almost half a millennium ago, Tokyo was known as Edo. It started out as a small fishing village, then to a castle town and finally growing to become Japan’s cultural, business, shopping, and political epicenter. In the early 1600s, it was the seat of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate. During the Meiji restoration in 1808, Japan’s capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, and in 1868, the emperor made Edo his permanent residence. It was renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital.”  How did this come to be?

"View of Edo" (Edo zu) pair of six-panel folding screens (17th century). Upper right corner Edo Castle.

 “View of Edo” (Edo zu) pair of six-panel folding screens (17th century). Upper right corner Edo Castle.

Edo becoming a castle town

Sometime during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), “Edo”, named after Edo Shigenaga, the then governor of the Kanto region, was initially founded as a village. The governor decided to make the village his headquarters primarily for its convenient access to land, river and ocean travel routes. But it was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s influence by establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo in 1603 that made the bustling village what it is today.

 Engraving of Utagawa Hiroshige , belonging to the Ukiyo-e series of The Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō , where Nihonbashi is represented in the Edo Period .

 Engraving of Utagawa Hiroshige , belonging to the Ukiyo-e series of The Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō , where Nihonbashi is represented in the Edo Period.

The village was a good prospect to be the new political power. Shigenaga had already built a formidable castle right at the center of the town which Tokugawa could easily expand on. Years earlier, feudal lords of Japan were divided into two warring factions: the Western Army and the Eastern Army (supported by Tokugawa). The Eastern Army was composed of many lords from eastern Honshu where modern-day Tokyo is situated. The Battle of Sekigahara was the final battle that proved victorious for Tokugawa. The Emperor named him shogun and subsequently set up his headquarters in Edo.

"Folding Screen Depicting Scenes of the Attendance of Daimyo at Edo Castle".

“Folding Screen Depicting Scenes of the Attendance of Daimyo at Edo Castle”.

Becoming the capital

With Edo being the center of politics and commerce in Japan by 1721, it had become the most populated city not just in the country, but the world. The shogun’s power had grown to surpass even that of the Emperor. Edo was important both politically and economically, yet Kyoto still remained the capital city of Japan.

During the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor’s supporters fought to restore the power of the sovereign and topple the feudal system. Tokugawa Yoshinubu, the last shogun of Japan, gave up his position and power to the Emperor in 1867 after the Imperial Army defeated Tokugawa forces.

Edo, a Tokugawa territory was relinquished to the Emperor and rather than move all of Edo’s influence and power back to Kyoto, Edo Castle became the new home of the Emperor and is now known as the Imperial Palace and thus becoming Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital” of Japan.