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History of Tokyo

Neon streaks down every building striking you hard, in the face. A shrill cacophony of high-pitched sounds deafens you as you purposefully walk. Fluorescent-clad shop assistants with megaphones thrust the latest mobile phones into your hand. Push them away, you don’t need them. This is Tokyo of today – commercial, loud and brash; yet the people walk a predictable life, in ordered silence. A city for work, not leisure. Unique, deceptive, superficial and odd. Heaven or Hell? It’s hard to know.

Standing amidst it all, and it seems almost inconceivable that sixteenth century Tokyo was just a small fishing village named ” Edo”. Edo was not even the capital – that was Kyoto, a city further to the west. But Japan was a divided nation. Land was in the hands of various “daimyo” (feudal Lords) who constantly fought, determined to win control of the whole country.

In 1603, one such feudal lord – Tokugawa Ieyasu – managed to seize control of Edo. His mission was to make it the most powerful city in the country. And sure enough by the seventeenth century he had succeeded. In fact he had more than succeeded – not only had he created the largest city in Japan but also the largest in the world! But Ieyasu’s methods were imposing and strict. He constructed a hierarchical society, rigid in behaviour and insular. This resulted in the eventual closing off of Japan to the rest of the world – an isolation which lasted for more than two hundred and fifty years, and some say an isolation that Japan is still recovering from.

Edo, Tokyo History

In places twenty-first century Tokyo still remains true to the layout of Edo. Edo was a collection of “one trade” or “one company towns”. In Tokyo this can be seen today in areas such as Jimbocho (dominated by the book trade), Akihabara (electronics) and Ochanomizu (music and sports).

The JR Yamanote train line encircles what was once termed the “Yamanote Region” (the “high city”). Now home to big business and commerce, this area was once occupied by houses belonging to the very top end of Edo’s society. Normal Edo folk lived in the “low city” – the “Shitemachi District”. Conditions were cramped – one family; one room. Partitions and walls were frail; toilets and wells communal. Homes were aligned in a row, and being flimsy, wooden affairs, were often reduced to ashes. In 1657, one such fire – the “meireki” fire – proved to be catastrophic! Lessons were learnt hard and from thence on, disaster prevention became the key issue. A fire brigade, disaster relief shelters and firebreaks were established, and money and rice was put into a special disaster fund.

But despite efforts fire still raged. In some parts it raged and raged and raged. The “Yoshiwara” was the area most afflicted. The “Yoshiwara was the licensed pleasure quarter of the city. Conditions were terrible – fire was the working woman’s only revenge. (Ironically many works of art and kabuki plays were inspired by life in the Yoshiwara).

In 1853, the days of global isolation were nearly over. Sent by the US Navy, under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, a fleet of four US Navy ships dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay. Perry demanded that Japan should open its doors to foreign trade. Finally it was agreed, and US ships were permitted to use two Japanese ports. In 1867, the Edo Shogun (head of the government) resigned and power was handed to Emperor Meiji. One year later, Emperor Meiji transferred his residence from Kyoto to Edo and renamed the city Tokyo (“eastern capital”). (Emperor Meiji died in 1912, but throughout the city, there are many reminders – most notably the Meiji Jingu Shrine).

To realign Japan with the rest of the world, Emperor Meiji set to work with frenzied plans of rapid industrialization. Opportunities abound. New jobs attracted new people – population and excitement exploded with a bang! But then, disaster struck. Just fifty-five years into life as the capital, Tokyo was flattened. The “big one” struck at a minute to midday on September 1st 1923. The “low” city area was completely destroyed. In the aftermath fires raged for days. Fuelled by strong winds, the flames claimed more lives than the quake itself.

But amongst survivors, spirits ran high. Rebuilding quickly began. Due to the constant threat of fire, many small businesses kept large reserves of waterlogged timber. This was quickly retrieved and within only three days many were back trading again. But it wasn’t without fear. Superstition heavily prevailed and on the first anniversary of the disaster, many businesses remained completely shut.

As recovery continued, the city began to creep westwards. Not only was this a geographical creep, but a cultural one as well. Shopping habits changed – a notable change that seems to have had an influence over how Tokyo looks today.

Prior to the earthquake customers were obliged to remove their shoes before entering a shop. Once removed, they were then permitted to go inside, climb onto a straw mat, sit down and instruct the shop assistant to fetch and carry the desired goods. As this was a slow process, understandably customers preferred smaller shops where the shop assistants were less busy and could do the task faster. Larger shops suffered, but the custom being the custom, what could they do? The answer was simple -they rebuilt themselves as “western” style department stores in which customers were free to keep their shoes on and wander round by themselves.

The idea was a roaring success. And seeing the great potential, many private railway companies immediately jumped on the bandwagon, slamming up huge department stores next to their various stations. Districts like Shinjuku and Shibuya began to boom. Rival department stores put theatres, art galleries and even small fairgrounds inside their stores hoping to win customers. Restaurants were also put in. No longer were people obliged to remove hats, coats and shoes before eating, and no longer was it improper for women to be seen eating outside the home.

A successful western-style department store could reap in huge profits, so getting as many customers into the shop as possible became the name of the game. The department store owning railway companies began to build stations in an unimaginative a box-like form – these were simply the funnel. (Stations along Tokyo’s first subway line which runs between Ueno and Asakusa are more stylized and decorative. They were built in 1927, before the great department store boom). On street level competition became fierce; advertising became ferocious. The neon signs went up and the brash streets of today were born.

Rebuilding Tokyo – phase three – had to begin after the raids of World War II. Many historic buildings were severely damaged, if not completely destroyed. On March 10th 1945, the Asakusa area was wiped out. One month later, the raids between April 13th and 15th put out the Meiji Shrine. Zojoji Temple was destroyed in May, and on the twenty fifth of that same month, the Imperial Palace was severely damaged. But as in times before, Tokyo was quick to recover. The cinders of the destroyed city were once again dumped in the canals, and black markets sprang up all over the city. The American Occupation began in September 1945.

Construction carried on at a pace. In the 1950’s, profits from the Korean War provided much of the funding. In the 1960’s it was the prospect of the Olympics that inspired more – streets were widened, the subway expanded, a monorail was built out to Hanada (the old international airport) and the bullet train link to Osaka was established. There was also a frenzy of highway and freeway building, a frenzy, which even after the Olympics had finished, ceased to stop. It was aesthetically thoughtless in places and even plain ridiculous – whoever thought it a good idea to “top” the historic Nihombahsi Bridge with a highway? (Nihombashi Bridge is the point from which all distance is measured in Japan).

Tokyo of the new millennium is sometimes surprising. Visitors come expecting a city of the future and are often surprised to encounter aspects caught in the past. Indeed it’s true, everyday people swing gadgets and gimmicks from every available dangling point. But where are all the Internet cafes? Why can’t you use a credit card? Go into an office, the bank or the post office, it’s efficient, but the equipment tells a slow, old story.

Foreign visitors are still few and far between. You won’t see the world walk by in Tokyo. It’s the sister city of New York, but where’s the similarity? Perhaps it’s only the shopping centre named Times Square, or the building styled after the Empire State Building. There are signs, on every high street, written in English, but this is fashion English. Advertising billboards more often than not picture the blonde-haired blue-eyed westerner, and fashionable western shops are packed with fashionable western products.

Tokyo is unique and captivating. It’s predictable yet unpredictable; provocatively confusing and cunningly disguised -be prepared for an extreme reaction. Have a great time!