Why Is Tokyo the Capital of Japan?

(Last Updated On: September 4, 2019)
Why Is Tokyo the Capital of Japan?

Japan is one of the most well-known countries in Asia. Millions of people from all around the world visit each year to experience Japan’s unique food, culture, architecture, and beautiful scenery. Among the wide range of distinctive must-see cities in Japan is the capital, Tokyo.

Tokyo is officially known as Tokyo Metropolis, and it has served as the capital of Japan since 1869. While typically referred to as a “city”, Tokyo is officially known and governed as a “metropolitan prefecture” as it is considered one of the 47 prefectures of Japan. This combination of city and prefecture is a characteristic unique to Tokyo.

Today, the Greater Tokyo Area is commonly recognized as the most populous metropolitan area in the world. But if you think Tokyo was picked as the capital of Japan based solely on its size, you’d be wrong. In fact, for eleven centuries, the capital of Japan was Kyoto. So why the change? Why is Tokyo the capital of Japan today?

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The Capital of Japan

Japan has actually had many capital cities throughout its long history. Traditionally, the national capital has always been the home of the Emperor. And from 794 through 1868, the Emperor lived in modern-day Kyoto. The site of Kyoto had been selected by Emperor Kanmu in the 8th century, as it was located away from an increasingly powerful and influential Buddhist clergy. Although future military rulers would sometimes establish their governments in other cities, Kyoto remained the seat of the Imperial Court until the 19th century.

Tokyo, on the other hand, was originally just a small fishing village called Edo. It very well might have remained just that, but in 1590, the military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu was reassigned to the Kantō region, and he made Edo his military headquarters. Tokugawa Ieyasu would work to assemble warriors and skilled craftsmen. He further fortified the city and surrounded the Edo Castle with moats and bridges. Soon, the original settlement of a hundred or so cottages was becoming a thriving city. 

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was named shōgun, and he became the effective ruler of Japan. Edo continued to flourish, serving as de facto national capital for the Tokugawa shogunate. Still, Japan’s imperial seat and official capital remained in Kyoto, but the Emperor was more or less powerless.  

Why is Tokyo the Capital of Japan?

The Tokugawa shogunate would usher in the longest period of peace and stability in the history of Japan, lasting over 260 years. However, by the mid-19th century, many in Japan were growing weary of an increasing Western influence on the nation, particularly in relation to the economy. In 1868, amidst the Boshin War, the Emperor and many powerful feudal lords were successful in overthrowing the shogunate. 

The following year, 17-year-old Emperor Meiji moved to Edo, where the Tokugawa shogunate had previously ruled from. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Edo had gradually become the nation’s political and cultural center. The city became the new official national capital once the Emperor came to town. Edo Castle became the new Imperial Palace, and the city of Edo was renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital”.   

The city of Tokyo was officially established on May 1, 1889. In 1943, the city of Tokyo merged with the prefecture of Tokyo and the Tokyo Metropolis was formed. 

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.