On September 3, 1868, an imperial proclamation marked a significant chapter in the history of the world’s greatest metropolis, transforming its name from Edo to Tokyo, sparking a political debate that is still a hot topic today. To understand the origins of this issue, let’s delve into the multifaceted history of Edo, once described as a quiet fishing village until Tokugawa Ieyasu’s government set up in Edo Castle in 1603.

Evolving from Edo

Ota Sukenaga, also known by his Buddhist name as Ota Dokan, played a crucial role in the transformation of Edo into the bustling metropolis we now call Tokyo. In the year 1457, Ota seized control of a fortress, setting the stage for the redevelopment that would lead to the iconic Edo Castle. While he didn’t witness its completion, his foresight laid the foundation for Tokyo’s rise to prominence.

The tale of Tokyo’s metamorphosis begins when Tokugawa Ieyasu established rule, ushering Edo into prominence as the de facto capital of Japan. Despite its initial description as a quiet fishing village, Edo’s narrative is far more complex. The process initiated by Ota Dokan eventually led to Toyotomi Hideyoshi assigning eight provinces in Kanto to Tokugawa by the end of the 1500s.

The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 solidified Tokugawa’s control over Japan, and it took three years to establish Edo as the center of power. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Edo burgeoned into one of the world’s largest cities, rivaling Beijing and London in the 1700s and 1800s with a population of about one million.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Emperor Meiji relocated his seat from Kyoto to Edo, renaming it Tokyo. This proposal came from Okubo Toshimichi, a key nobleman in the Meiji Restoration. The Imperial Decree Renaming Edo ‘Tokyo’ was issued on September 3, 1868, solidifying this historic shift.

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A Glimpse into Emperor Meiji’s Tokyo Transition

In the transformative year of 1868, emperor Meiji abandoned Kyoto for Tokyo, marking the commencement of a seismic shift in power dynamics. The symbolic renaming of Edo to Tokyo marked a turning point, where the allure of Tokyo’s topography and prosperity swayed the emperor’s allegiance. Tokyo Bay, flanked by picturesque mountains, became a pivotal factor as it offered an abundance of fresh fish, a stark contrast to Kyoto’s logistical challenges in securing seafood during that era’s preservation conditions.

Beyond the culinary allure, Tokyo’s vitality and prosperity, with a population surpassing one million, set it apart from the more tranquil Kyoto. Emperor Meiji’s relocation marked a turning point, with the Tokugawa General Mansion transforming into an imperial residence, signifying Tokyo as the new imperial seat and Kyoto as a place of visitation.

The emperor’s move was initially perceived as a transient whim. However, this shift overnight stripped Kyoto of its capital status and altered the city’s identity, with the once proud “Imperial Roots” facing a new reality.

Even after more than 150 years, traces of resentment linger from Kyoto toward Tokyo. The historical animosity serves as a quiet undercurrent, a testament to a bygone era when Tokyo’s charm eclipsed Kyoto’s longstanding prominence.

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A Growing Melting Pot

Kyoto’s disdain takes a unique form, referring to Tokyo residents as “work worms” or “country people”. The authentic Tokyoites, colloquially known as “Edokko”, reside in specific districts like Koto, Chiyoda, and Chuo. This distinction emphasizes the historical boundaries, revealing the social intricacies that persist despite the passing of centuries.

The economic resurgence of post-war Tokyo beckoned migrants, primarily from Osaka and Northeast Japan, shaping the city’s modern landscape. Osaka’s affluent population contrasted with the predominantly impoverished migrants from the Northeast, creating a complex relationship that lingers to this day.

The narrative extends to the late 1950s, marked by the influx of young workers from the Northeast seeking employment in Tokyo. Ueno Station, entwined with nostalgia for many, became the arrival point for these hopeful job seekers.

As Tokyo burgeoned into the economic epicenter of Japan, the Northeastern migrants grappled with their identity in a city dominated by Osaka’s influence. The complications in their relationship reflect the complex dynamics between regions, intertwining pride and a lingering sense of subordination.

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Two Names, One City

There are three prevailing theories about the origin of the name Edo. Some say it derives from eto, the Ainu word for promontory or small peninsula, referring to the original shape of the area east of what is now the Imperial Palace. Others say it comes from the word ido, meaning “good”. Furthermore, Edo (江戸) literally means estuary, it is a reference to the location of the original settlement at the meeting of the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay.

Tokyo (東京) instead means capital of the east, in line with the Asian tradition of including the word capital (京) in the name of the capital. Examples are Kyoto (京都), Keijō (京城), Beijing (北京), Nanjing (南京), and Xijing (西京). After the name change, the city was called both Tokyo and Tokei. The emperor and the aristocracy used Tokei, a much more elegant pronunciation. In the end, however, the most commonly used pronunciation triumphed. One of the oldest transliterations in English, Tokio, is still used in several languages, including German and Italian. Don’t transliterate it like that though, otherwise we can’t be friends. Tokyo is Tokyo.

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The Controversy of the Capital

There is still some controversy over which is the true capital of Japan, as no law has ever been passed to officially move it from Kyoto to Tokyo. Even the choice of name might make some think that it was intended as a capital far from the real capital, or at least secondary, like Beijing and Nanjing.

Isomura (1990) writes that the group around Tokugawa convinced the emperor to visit Tokyo. The emperor returned to Kyoto, but went to Tokyo again to attend the name change ceremony from Edo to Tokyo, and decided to reside in Tokyo from then on. When returning to the capital topic, some insist that the emperor is in fact ‘still visiting’ Tokyo.

Isomura also recounts how the controversy was reignited after the destruction of Tokyo following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Imperial documents, however, established that Tokyo had no reason to lose its status as capital, especially in times of peace. About twenty years later, the bombings destroyed Tokyo and unleashed the theories again. This time it was the occupying forces who opposed the transfer of the capital from Tokyo to Kyoto. In fact, they soon noticed the people’s reverence for the emperor and feared that the transfer could prove to be a disadvantage for occupation policy.

In the 1950s, Japan introduced a legislative measure known as the “Capital Area Construction Law”, officially designating Tokyo as the capital for the first time. However, this move faced swift scrutiny from the residents of Kyoto, prompting subsequent discussions within the Congress about the concept of the capital. Despite these deliberations, the government has yet to provide a definitive and unequivocal statement on this matter. The ongoing debates underscore the complexities and historical tensions surrounding the symbolic designation of Japan’s capital.