Archaeological evidence found in the area of present-day Tokyo revealed that the area was inhabited by tribes in the Stone Age. The present city was founded in the 12th century and was named Edo, which means estuary. In 1457, a castle was completed in Edo, which passed in 1590 to Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the Tokugawa shogun line. After Tokugawa assumed the title of shogun in 1603, Edo became the capital of the shogunate, although the imperial capital remained Kyoto. During this period, the life of the city was dominated by the shogun’s palace, the residences of the feudal barons (or daimyos), merchants and samurai. Japan was practically closed to any foreign influence for the next two hundred and fifty years.
Edo suffered many disasters, including hundreds of fires, one of the most notable being the Great Edo Fire (Edo Taika) of 1657, which killed about 100,000 people. The reason for these constant fires was that all the houses in Edo were machiyas or wooden townhouses. Other disasters suffered by Edo included the eruption of Mount Fuji in 1707, the great Edo earthquake in 1855, and other smaller earthquakes in 1703, 1782, and 1812.
Edo City prospered during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the power struggle between the shogun and the emperor eventually diminished the power of the shogunate and the city’s fortunes declined in turn. The shogun surrendered Edo Castle to the imperial forces in 1868 and the Meiji emperor made Edo his capital, giving it a new name, Tokyo, or Eastern Capital. The Meiji restoration marked the beginning of a period of great modernization and development in Tokyo. The feudal system was quickly abolished in favor of the prefectural system.
In 1853, American commander Matthew Perry landed in Tokyo Bay at the head of a fleet of four warships as an envoy of the U.S. government with the mission of establishing diplomatic and commercial relations between Japan and the United States. Perry returned to Tokyo the following year, 1854, with a larger fleet than before, and signed a diplomatic treaty between the heads of government of Japan. The following year, Japan signed diplomatic treaties with other European countries, marking the beginning of the influence of Western culture in the country.
Towards the end of 1868, with the affair of the shogunate throughout Japan and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, the emperor moved into Edo Castle, transforming it into the Imperial Palace of Japan and establishing the same change of name from Edo to Tokyo, “the capital of the east”. However, the emperor did not make it legally binding for Tokyo to be the new capital of Japan, so it is popular belief that Kyoto is the official capital or co-capital of the country. In 1871, the Han or fiefdoms were abolished, and prefectures were officially established, including Tokyo. The following year, the prefecture was expanded into the 23 special districts it is today.
In 1874, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department was established, and ten years later, the first steps in creating a railway system for the capital were completed. In 1923, a massive earthquake occurred and the ensuing fire destroyed nearly half the city and killed more than 150,000 people.
In 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, bringing World War II to Japan’s doorstep. Despite significant gains early in the war, Japan eventually suffered major losses and the bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed only 10, 80,000 to 100,000 people. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945, the population of Tokyo was reduced to half of what it had been in 1940, due to the number of casualties from the bombing or the flight of the capital’s population. From September 1945 to April 1952, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into effect, Japan was governed and occupied by the Allies, with the United States as the major player. Indeed, the U.S. presence in Tokyo provided an important command and logistics base during the Korean War. Under the postwar Japanese constitution, Japan was allowed to have only a small military force of its own, strictly for defense purposes.
After the war, the emperor was stripped of his political power and forced to admit publicly that he was not a living god, a belief held by followers of Shintoism, the national religion, until this time. The continued presence of the U.S. military in Japan – which includes Tokyo Yokota Air Base and a small number of smaller bases – remains important and a contentious issue for many Japanese, especially since U.S. military personnel enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution by Japanese authorities if they commit any crime while serving in Japan.
The first Shinkansen, or high-speed train, the fastest train in the world, was inaugurated in 1964, the same year that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games. Tokyo finally emerged from the trauma of World War II and the Olympics helped make Japan’s economic miracle the center of the world’s attention. The boom in the Japanese economy began in 1986 and land prices in Tokyo skyrocketed. In 1990, however, the bubble began to burst and many “Wage Men” (Japanese term), or primary breadwinners, suffered the painful humiliation of losing their jobs and not being able to support their families in the 1990s. The World City Expo was supposed to be held in Tokyo in 1996, but it was cancelled following the actions of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in March 1995. They released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve people and affecting thousands. In 1999, Shintaro Ishihara, a colorful, dynamic and controversial politician, was elected governor of Tokyo, a position he still holds.