Tokyo (東京 Tōkyō) is the capital of Japan since 1868, replacing Kyōto (“Capital City”) and means “Eastern Capital”. It was called Edo (江戸) before that and was the centre of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 to 1868. Tōkyō is located on the Kantō Plain (関東平野 Kantō heiya), at the mouth of several rivers (Edogawa 江戸川, Arakawa 荒川, and the Tamagawa 多摩川, among other smaller rivers), and spreads around Tokyo Bay (東京湾 Tōkyō-wan) on the Pacific Ocean. Due to land subsidence, some areas of the city are a few meters below sea level, while other districts are raised and on the landfill in the bay area.

The city is centred around the Imperial Palace and has sprawled into the circumjacent areas in recent centuries, absorbing many smaller towns and villages, which have become distinct urban districts (区 ku), retaining their character. Tōkyō consists of two major parts: one by the seaside with the port called the “lower city” (下町 shitamachi), the other one scaling the hills situated further inland (山の手 yamanote, “towards the mountains”), essentially containing business and residential areas.

Tōkyō’s 23 wards developed around the large railroad and subway stations, where commercial activities, hotels, restaurants, and other recreational centres are concentrated. The city is officially called “Tokyo Metropolis” (東京都 Tōkyō-to, “urban prefecture of Tokyo”), while “Tōkyō” itself is reserved for the centre (the inner 23 wards), where more than eight million people reside, as opposed to Tokyo Prefecture with over thirteen million inhabitants.


The city was founded in 1453 by Ōta Dōkan (太田道灌, 1432-1486, also known as Ōta Sukenaga 太田資長), a Japanese samurai warrior-poet, military tactician, Buddhist monk and vassal of the Uesugi clan, who built Edo Castle. The castle was expanded by the first Tokugawa shogun in the seventeenth century, and Edo, until then a small town of little importance, grew considerably as the vassals of the Tokugawa and their retinues were compelled to live there for at least one year out of two (参勤交代 sankin-kōtai, a daimyō‘s “alternate-year residence” in the capital. Due to this political situation, the population exploded, and trade and crafts developed rapidly. In 1868, when Emperor Meiji moved to Edo from Kyoto, he renamed the city Tōkyō (“Eastern Capital”, as opposed to Kyoto, “Capital City”).

Monuments and architecture

Tōkyō has few monuments or old buildings due to successive fires, earthquakes, and bombing raids during the Second World War. A wonderful patchwork of modern structures and traditional buildings, it is crisscrossed by fly-overs, underground expressways and the streets, most of them narrow and winding, are always jammed with dense traffic.

Among the most significant monuments in Tōkyō are the National Diet Building (国会議事堂 kokkai-gijidō), Tokyo Tower (東京タワー Tōkyō tawā), and of course Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリ), the tallest structure in Japan and the world’s tallest free-standing tower. Most of the capital was completely reconstructed after the Great Kantō earthquake (関東大震災 Kantō daishinsai) of 1923, which measured 8.2 on the Richter scale, destroying 570,000 homes and killing about 142,800 deaths, including fatalities from the ensuing fire, a typhoon and a tsunami). The bombing raids of the Second World War, in particular, the devastating attack on March 10, 1945, with incendiary bombs, killed some 100,000 people and destroyed about 25 per cent of the city. Nowadays, Tōkyō is a very modern city, with many old buildings often being demolished to make room for new ones. Entire quarters were reshaped and modernised, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku, where the gigantic Yoyogi National Gymnasium (国立代々木競技場 Kokuritsu Yoyogi Kyōgi-jō) was built to house swimming and diving events in the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Urban and commercial centre

Most of Japan’s large industrial and commercial enterprises maintain their headquarters in Tōkyō and their major industrial complexes on its periphery known as the Keihin Industrial District (京浜工業地帯 keihin kogo chitai). It is home to the University of Tokyo (東京大学 Tōkyō daigaku), as well as other major universities, such as Keiō, Waseda, Tōkai, and Sophia, and has many museums (National Museum, Nezu, Bridgestone Museum, Western Art, etc.). The historic centre of the city is near Nihonbashi (日本橋), an old bridge over a branch of the Sumida River, which has now been covered. All distances from Edo were measured from this “Kilometre Zero”. Tōkyō is still a major industrial and fishing port, and the large fish market of Tsukiji (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, 東京都中央卸売市場 Tōkyō-to Chūō Oroshiuri Shijō) is one of the busiest in the world (note: the fish market was moved to Toyosu in October 2018).

Tokyo streets and districts

One distinct aspect of Tōkyō is the absence of street names. The city wards (区 ku) are divided into districts (町 chō), which are in turn divided into “blocks” or “intersections” (丁目 chōme), and smaller clusters of houses (番地 banchi, “land number”), in which the houses are numbered chronologically according to when they were constructed (号 , “house number”). The easiest way to find a particular address is to ask at the next “police box” (交番 kōban), but even taxi drivers have difficulties navigating to some of the cryptic residential neighbourhoods.

At the beginning of their occupation of Japan, the US forces tried to assign letters and numbers to the main streets of Tōkyō, but these designations were not adopted by the Japanese, who preferred their traditional system, which relied on an intimate knowledge of the city. Some major avenues (道り dōri) do have names, such as Aoyama-dori (青山通り), Yasukuni-dori (靖国通り), Sotobori-dori (外堀通り), Uchibori-dori (内堀通り), Meiji-dori (明治道り) and the Ginza (銀座), providing some degree of orientation. Tōkyō’s districts have names, too. Some of the main areas are:

  • Akihabara(秋葉原, “Field of Autumn Leaves”): central district, known for its electrical and electronic stores, but recently also for its “maid coffees”.
  • Asakusa (浅草): northeastern district in Taitō (台東区 Taitō-ku), built around the principal temple of Asakusa Kannon (金龍山浅草寺 Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji).
  • Chūō-ku (中央区): the real heart of the city, grouping several neighbourhoods and many commercial areas.
  • Ginza (銀座): part of Chūō-ku, it is the posh high-street in the centre of Tōkyō and the location of the old Mint.
  • Harumi (晴海): southern part of the city, close to the industrial port of Shinagawa (品川) and the reclaimed island known as Odaiba (お台場).
  • Ikebukuro (池袋): in the northwest, a major commercial and railroad centre.
  • Kanda (神田): part of Chiyoda-ku (千代田区), encompassing about thirty neighbourhoods.
  • Marunouchi (丸の内): near Tokyo Station and the imperial palace, centre for business, banks and major hotels.
  • Minato-ku (港区): near the port, home to many embassies and posh quarters.
  • Shibuya (渋谷): central district, developed around a major railway terminal for southwestern Tokyo, now a major centre for commerce and entertainment.
  • Shimbashi (新橋): a major interchange station and fashionable shopping district with many restaurants.
  • Shinjuku (新宿): a large entertainment, business and shopping area established around the modern Shinjuku Station.
  • Tsukiji (築地): south-central, with its famous fish wholesale market and a major kabuki theatre; a European concession until 1896.
  • Ueno (上野): central-north, famous for Ueno Station and Ueno Park and its museums.


Tōkyō has two airports. The formerly national, now also international, airport in Haneda is located in the south of the city, directly at the Tokyo Bay. It is connected to the city by an elevated monorail. The Narita International Airport is about 60 kilometres to the east, close to the city of Narita in Chiba Prefecture.


Japan’s economic engine, Tōkyō has more than 800,000 businesses employing more than eight million workers and employees. Its area covers 2,145 square kilometres and has about nine million inhabitants. Tōkyō-to, including the 23 wards of Tōkyō, 26 towns (町 machi or shi), a district (郡 gun), four administrative units (支庁 shichō), and fifteen villages (町 chō or 村 son), has a population of over thirteen million. Its independent islands are Izu Ōshima (伊豆大島) and the archipelago of Ogasawara (小笠原諸島).

In the light of Tōkyō’s continuing urban and demographic growth, there has been a lot of discussion about an eventual relocation of the central and political administration to other areas of Japan. Areas suggested were Ise Bay, the Lake Hamana region, Shizuoka around Mount Fuji, the Nasu region, and the Abukama Hill region. Establishing a new capital has been estimated to take at least twenty years after an ideal location is selected and all construction work contracted. Due to the current economic situation of recession, no concrete plans have materialised so far.



Tokyo and its environs