In 1868, with the Meiji restoration, Edo was made the new imperial capital and changed its name to Tōkyō (東京), menaning “Capital of the East”.

On July 17, Emperor Meiji  issued the Edict Renaming Edo to Tōkyō (江戸ヲ稱シテ東京ト爲スノ詔書 Edo o shōshite Tōkyō to nasu no shōsho).

In 1869, the Emperor himself moved to Tōkyō and made Edo Castle the new Imperial Palace.

On May 1, 1889, Tōkyō City (東京市 Tōkyō-shi) was constituted as a separate municipality, and lasted until  July 1, 1943, when it was merged with its prefecture of  Tōkyō-fu (東京府), becoming part of the newly formed Tōkyō Metropolis (東京都 Tōkyō-to).

Even though Tōkyō is known by the whole world as the capital of Japan, and it is surely its capital de facto, being the seat both of the Emperor and of the Governmen, its status as a capital de iure is still controversial.

Some state that Tōkyō became the capital when the Tōkyō prefecture was established in 1868, others that it occurred when Edo Castle was made an Imperial seat. On the other hand, while there was an imperial edict transferring the capital to Heian, there have been no document declaring the move from Kyōto to Tōkyō, therefore some people claim that Kyōto is still the capital of Japan, or that Tōkyō and Kyōto are both capitals simultaneously.

However, since after WWII the sovreignty was transferred to the Emperor to the people by the new Constitution, the general consensus agrees that the Tōkyō is the capital since it is the seat of the Diet.

While no laws have designated Tōkyō as the Japanese capital, many laws have defined a “capital area” (首都圏 shutoken) that incorporates Tōkyō .

Article 2 of the Capital Area Consolidation Law (首都圏整備法) of 1956 states that “In this Act, the term ‘capital area’ shall denote a broad region comprising both the territory of Tōkyō Metropolis as well as outlying regions designated by cabinet order.” This clearly implies that the government has designated Tōkyō  as the capital of Japan (although it is not explicitly stated, and the definition of the “capital area” is restricted to the terms of that specific law).

In 1941, the Ministry of Education published a book called “History of the Restoration”, that referred to Tōkyō as capital” (東京奠都 Tōkyō-tento) without talking about “moving the capital to Tōkyō” (東京遷都 Tōkyō-sento). A contemporary history textbook states that the Meiji government “moved the capital (shuto) from Kyōto to Tōkyō” without using the sento term.

In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, having seized the power, established his capital in Edo.

He had already occupied the castle city in 1590, during his war against the Hōjō, when, during the Siege of Odawara, Hideyoshi  offered Ieyasu the eight Kantō provinces which they were about to take from the Hōjō in return for the five provinces that Ieyasu currently controlled (including Ieyasu’s home province of Mikawa). Ieyasu accepted this proposal. He gave up control of his five provinces (Mikawa, Tōtōmi, Suruga, Shinano, and Kai) and moved to the Kantō region with all his troops and vassals. He himself occupied the castle town of Edo.

So after the battle of Sekigahara on October 21, 1600, and then when Ieyasu was officially appointed as a new shogun on March 24, 1603, Edo became the real centre of power, even though the official capital was still the seat of the emperor in Kyōto until the Meiji restoration.

The city was arranged arount the castle; the area immediately surrounding it was known as the “Yamanote” and consisted largely of daimyō mansions;  their families lived in Edo year-round. According to the sankin kōtai system (参勤交代 lit. “alternate attendance”), daimyō families had to stay in Edo as hostages, while the daimyō himself had to move periodically between Edo and his domains ( (藩 han), typically spending an alternate year in each place.

Hiroshige's famous ukiyo-e series. 'The Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido Highway', showing daimyo processions known as sankin kotai.

This is a way for the shogunate to control the vassals, similar to the way Louis XIV of France forced his aristocracy to move to Versailles; also the expenditures to move from one place to the other and to maintain two luxury residences places financial  strains on the daimyō, so that they were not able to afford wars.

While Kyōto was dominated by the court aristocracy, that character of Edo was made by the noble warrior class.

Other areas further from the center were the domains chōnin (町人, literally “townsfolk” ).

1844-1848 – Perry-Castañeda Map Collection – UT Library Online”]Edo [Tokyo] 1844-1848 - Perry-Castañeda Map Collection - UT Library Online lib.utexas.eduThe area known as Shitamachi, to the northeast of the castle, was a key centerof urban culture, with the ancient Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji, that still stands in Asakusa, marking the center of the “downtown” (literal translation of  “Shitamachi”). Some of the shops in the streets before the temple have been carried on continuously in the same location since the Edo period.

The northeastern corner of the city, regarded as a dangerous direction in traditional onmyōdō (cosmology/geomancy), was guarded from evil spirits by a series of temples, including Sensō-ji and Kan’ei-ji.

Just beyond these laid the districts of the eta or outcastes, who engaged in activities that were considered impure, and were thus separated from the main sections of commoner residences.

The  the Great River (大川), now called Sumida-Gawa, ran along the eastern edge of the city.

The Edo Bridge (江戸橋, Edo-bashi), also known as Nihonbashi, marked the center of the city’s commercial center, an area also known as Kuramae (蔵前, “in front of the storehouses”). Its development is largely credited to the Mitsui family, one of the most powerful families of merchants and industrialists in Japan, still active nowadays.

The Nihonbashi was the eastern terminus of the  Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, roads that ran between Edo and Kyōto.

Near the Nihobashi, there were also the famous Yoshiwara district, Edo’s red-light district – but we might call it “red line”, since this is the translation of the  “Akasen” (赤線), the Japanse term to indicate it. It was created in 1617, after Tokugawa Hidetada ordered to restrict prostitution, that was widespread in the main cities od Japan, to designated city districts.

In 1656, due to the need for space as the city grew, the government decided to relocate Yoshiwara, and plans were made to move the district to its present location north of Asakusa. After it burned down in the Meireki fire of 1657, it was rebuilt in the new location. The new district was called Shin-Yoshiwara (“new Yoshiwara”), while the old one was known as Moto-Yoshiwara (“previous/original Yoshiwara”).


Kyōto (or Heian-kyō – as we has seen, both the names are fine) was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, with an interruption in 1180, when it was temporarily moved to Fukuhara-kyō, for roughly six months during the Genpei war.

Tōkyō, unlike the other cities we have seen, wasn’t built on purpose to serve as a capital, but had its own history and had been the seat of power much before the formal move.

The ancient name of Tōkyō was Edo (江戸), which means “bay entrance” or “estuary”; in ancient times it was simply a small fishing village on the bay; in the XII century Edo Shigenaga, a member of the Edo clan, a minor offshot of the Taira clan, first had fortifications built. The clan had moved there from Chichibu in present-day Saitama Prefecture led by their patriarch, Edo Shigetsugu, Shigenaga’s father.

Edo-clan tombstones at Keigen-ji

In 1180, Shigenaga was asked by Minamoto Yoritomo to cooperate in his uprising against the Taira; hesitant at first, he eventually accepted and, as a reward, he was granted seven new estates in Musashi Province, including Kitami in what is now Tokyo’s western Setagaya Ward.

In 1457, Edo Shigeyasu surrendered his main base at Edo to Ōta Dōkan, a vassal of Uesugi Sadamasa, Governor of the Kanto Plain, and moved to Kitami.

Ōta Dōkan, who is considered Tōkyō’s founder, constructed fortifications overlooking the entrance of the Kantō plain and diverted the Hira river east at Kandabashi to form the Nihonbashi river, so to improve navigation.

Edo Castle with surrounding residential palaces and moats, from a 17th century screen painting.

On the ancient seat of Edo Shigetsugu’s residence, he built Edo Castle – also known as Chiyoda Castle (千代田城 Chiyoda-jō) –  in 1457.

Edo Castle became the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

 Edo itself became the seat of the actual power under the Shogunate, even though formally the capital was still in Heian – but this will be the topic of another post.

The name “Heian-kyou” (平安京,  meaning “tranquility and peace capital”) was supposedly of popular origin, having the Emperor changed just the selected kanji; nevertheless most Japanese people in the following centuries didn’t  use that name and rather called it simly “Miyako” (京 or 都), which means “capital”, or “Kyou”, which is another reading of 京.  京 or 都, or sometimes 京師 were used in hstorical documents. “Kyoto” (京都) was eventually a combination of the two characters for “capital”, thereof the modern name.

There were several other Chinese-derived names used of the city. Among the most common were “Rakuyou”, abbreviated as “Raku”, a reading of the characters for Loyang, the name of the Eastern Capital of theT’ang dynasty as paired with the Western Capital at Ch’ang-an. Since the model for Heian was neither Loyang nor Ch’ang-an (as it has been erroneously argued), but
on the earlier Japanese capital at Fujiwara (which was inspired to Chien-k’ang), the use of the name might be surprising. But Japan had also known a period of dual capitals – this happened when in 809 Emperor Heizei after abdicating moved to Nara (aka Heizei-kyou) and started being known as “the Emperor of Nara”; although that period was over with the establishment of the capital at Nagaoka, the tradition was revived in terminology under the reign of Emperor Saga, when the literati started referring to the western half of the city (Ukyo) as Chdan (i.e., Ch’ang-an) and the eastern half as Rakuyo (Lo-yang). As the western half withered and failed and the eastern half became the heart of the capital, Rakuyo began to function as a name for the whole.

In the spring of 793, Emperor Kanmu was convinced by Wake no Kyomaro to abandon the delay-plagued construction of a capital at Nagaoka and asked Fujiwara no Oguromaro and Ki no Kosami to determine the auspices of a site for a new capital. The site was at Uta, the mausolea area for Kanmu’s imperial lineage in the upper end of what is now called the Kyoto basin.

At that time, most prominent inhabitants of the area were the Hata (members of a rich and powerful clan that claimed Chinese descent but seems to have come most immediately from Korea) and, in the souther part, the Haji. The presence of those clans may have been one of its chief attractions for Kammu and his advisers: Kammu himself was the maternal grandson of a Haji woman and Fujiwara no Tanetsugu and Oguromaro were intimately related with the Hata.

Following the advice of Wake no Kiyomaro, Kanmu himself had twice used the pretext of a hunting expedition to visit and inspect the Uta area and confirm his decision.

Oguromaro was appointed to supervise the construction of the new imperial palace and had to deal with several complex tasks, such as controlling the numerous streams that flowed though the area (a project in which he might have been helped by his Hata in-laws, with their wealth, experience, and engineering skills).

A 1696 Japanese woodblock map of Kyoto.

Although his palace was still in the early stages of construction, Kanmu moved to the new imperial seat in the late autumn of 794. Few weeks later, he issued an edict conferring on the capital city its official name and renaming (or, rather, selecting different Chinese characters for the name of) the province in which the site was located:

Enclosed collar-and-sash by mountains and streams, the province here makes a natural citadel. Because of that configuration, we devise a new designation for it: let this Postmontane [Yamashiro] Province be renamed the Province of the Mountain Citadel [Yamashiro]. Moreover, the joyfully
flocking people and the singers of praise raise their different voices in identical words, naming this the Capital of Peace and Tranquillity [Heian-kyou, 平安京].

The city covered an area measuring 4.5 km from East to West and 5.2 km from North to South, organized in a grid pattern. The Imperial Palace (Dairai) was placed in the centre Northern city limits; the Suzaku-oji had a width of 83m. At the souther end of it, the monumental gate called Rashōmon (羅城門) was built. The name of the gate can be written also as 羅生門 and this choice was popularized by a noh play of the same title, written by Kanze Nobumitsu (1435-1516). This gate inspired other artists: “Rashomon” is the title of a short novel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa first published in 1915 and of the renowned film of 1950 by Kurosawa, based on the novel by Akutagawa.

The area of the city was divided into 40 Jo (about 120m) square “Cho” (町) by major (oji) and minor streets (koji). There were two large markets, West Market (西市) and East Market (東市), facing the seventh street, Shichijō-ōji (七条大路). Tō-ji (東寺, “East Temple”) and Sai-ji (西寺, “West Temple”) were Buddhist temples built on the southern edge of the capital. An imperial garden called Shinsenen (ja:神泉苑) was adjacent to the Daidairi.

The capital outside the Greater Imperial Palace was divided into western and eastern halves, the line of demarcation being Suzaku Avenue. The western part of the city was swampy and dangerous, since it  overlapped the wetlands formed by the Katsura River, and even by the 9th century little progress had been made in developing the area. By the 10th century,he district had become so dilapidated that it began to be used as farmland, something which had previously been forbidden within the city limits.

With the exception of an area in the north of the Right Capital near to the palace, the residential areas which housed the aristocracy were all situated in the Left Capital, with the highest aristocracy such as the Fujiwara clan gathering in the northernmost part of the district.

Heian may rightly be called the first successful city in Japan, not only because it survived and prospered, unlike previous capitals, but also because it is there that we can see for the first time in Japanese history the distinctive characteristics of what urban life and civilization. It appears in several ways, but the most fundamental were the diversity of the population and the population’s removal from primary modes of production, with a variety of occupations and social differences that clearly distinguished the urban society from that of the countryside, where agriculture tended to monopolize the economy, and specialization of labor and social differentiation were limited.

Heian-kyou was the capital of Japan for over one thousand years, from 794 to 1868, with an interruption in 1180, when it was temporarily moved to Fukuhara-kyou (福原京).

A movement in favour of returning the capital to Heijou-kyou arose in 810 A.D. during a standoff over the emperor’s succession. However, Emperor Saga thought that keeping the capital in Heian would be best for the stability of the country and resisted this movement, naming Heian-kyou “Yorozuyo no Miya” (the eternal city.)

With the advent of the Kamakura and Edo Shogunate, Heian lost its importanceas a seat of power; however it kept its formal role as a capital until the Meiji restoration.

Back to my project on Japanese capitals! The next big topic is going to be Heian-kyou, of course, but there is another city to mention before.

In late VIII Century, Buddhism was not just safely extablished, but had even gained a strong political influence, so much to be perceived as a threat for the imperial power. The scandal of the priest Doukyou, who managed to had Empress Shoutoku under his influence, threatened even the Imperial succession.

The danger of Buddhist interference in government was a factor in Emperor Kanmu’s decision to move the capital away from Heijou-kyou (Nara), even though the formal reason was that the new location had better water transportation routes. Actually, the fact he prevented Nara sects from establishing their temples in the new capitals suggests that the wish to escape the power of Buddhist clergy was a crucial reason.

So in the summer of 784, Kanmu directed that a site for a new capital be surveyed at Nagaoka (長岡), an area near the Katsura River about twenty miles northwest of Nara. At the end of the same year, he moved into his
new palace there.

The area where Nagaoka was built was also associated with Kanmu’s family line, being the home of his matriline (for those of my readers who are interested in the Korean heritage of the Imperial family: Kanmu mother was a Yamato, and her mother was a Korean-descended Haji, or Hanishi).

Emperor Kanmu

But the founding of the new city was accompained by a variety of misfortunes, both natural and political, that were interpreted as bad omens.

First of all, while the new seat was conveniently located for land and water communication, it was also flood-prone and located near a large marsh.

Moreover, political scandals were entagled with the founding of the city itself. The leading advocate for the transfer of the capital was Fujiwara no Tanetsugu, Kanmu’s chief adviser, whose maternal family, the Hata, was, like Kanmu’s, also of Korean lineage and also based in the Nagaoka area. On a night in the autumn of 785, while Emperor Kammu was temporarily absent from the city, Tanetsugu was killed at Nagaoka.

Kanmu’s younger brother, Prince Sawara, who appears to have clashed with Tanetsugu earlier, was soon implicated in the assassination, deposed, and condemned to exile to Awaji province – which he avoided, the chronicle alleges, by starving himself to death.

These tragic episodes were soon followed by famine, devastating floods, epidemic disease, and a series of deaths and illnesses in Kanmu’s family, which diviners had no difficulty in interpreting as the revenge of Sawara’s angry spirit. All those circumstances, together with a lively fear of what the prince’s spirit might do in the future, led Kanmu to decide in the early
spring of 793 to accept the advice of his confidant Wake no Kiyomaro, who had urged the emperor to seek a new location for the capital.


With the development of Imperial bureuacracy, that was an outcome of the Taika reforms, moving the court every time an Emperor dies was becoming too complicated and the need of a stable capital became evident. In Nagara Toyosaki, several buildings and offices were included within the walls of the palace. In Kiyomihara, residence of Emperor Tenmu, there was a hall made on purpose for Imperial audiences (大極殿, daigokuden) and several offices, so that Empress Jitou decided to stay in that palace, while waiting for a new city to be ready.

Empress Jitou ordered the construction of a new capital in Fujiwara  (藤原), a site that was located north of  Asuka no Kiyomihara. Fujiwara was to face south being surrounded by mountains on the other three sides – Kagu to the east, Miminashi to the north and Unebi to the west.

The capital was officially moved only in 694, even though recent ecavations have revealed constructions in the site as early as 682.

The plan of the new city was based on Chinese models. References to Chinese culture were the common use in Japan at that time: also in the imperial palace built at Naniwa the audience hall (daigokuden) was Chinese-style, and also buildings erected at Otsu and Asuka no Kiyomihara were Chinese in appearance.

The the city, organized in the Chinese-style grin pattern called joubousei l (条坊制) covered an area of roughly 5 km2, bounded on the east, west and north, respectively, by the Nakatsumichi, Shimotsumichi, and Yoko-oji, all three of which were important trunk roads of the time.

The custom of calling the eastern half of the capital the “left capital” (sakyou 左京) and the western half the “right capital” (ukyou 右京) was in Japan first practiced at Fujiwara-kyou. City blocks, delineated by streets, seem,in contrast to Nara-kyou and Heian-kyou, not to have been designated by numerical combinations of jou (north-south subdivisions) and bou (east-west subdivisions), but rather by proper names such as Ohari-machi or Hayashi-machi.

The palace occupied a plot measuring about 1 km2, and was surrounded by walls roughly 5m high. Each of the four walls had three gates. The main gate, Suzakumon (朱雀門) was in the middle of the southern wall. In the middle there were the Palace and a main street that was large 30m. The main buildings were all built in the Chinese style: the pillars of its principal buildings were placed on stone foundations in the Chinese manner; their roofs were covered with Chinese tiles; and the palace zone was a square located on the north side of the capital, as in China.

In the famous anthology called Hyakunin Isshu, we have this waka written by Empress Jitō, that describes the new city: 春すぎて夏来にけらし白妙の衣ほすてふ天の香具山 (haru sugite natsu ki ni kerashi shirotae no komoro hosu chō ama no kaguyama – Spring has passed, it seems, and now summer has arrived; For this, they say, is when robes of pure white are aired on heavenly Mount Kagu).

Capitals of Japan – 1

February 22, 2011

It’s 2:44 a.m. here and I am restlessly thinking to ancient Japanese capitals. I’ll take the chance to start this blog, since I have decided to try.

Some of you already know that the first stable capital of Japan was Fujiwara-kyou; but where were the Emperors ruling from before that?

We know that in the 4th century Emperor Nintoku was living in the Takatsu Palace in Naniwa-kyou, but that was far from being a capital as we mean the concept nowadays.

Actually, at that time, various palaces were constructed for each monarch. The reason why there was no stable residence in linked to the Shinto concept of kegare (穢れ or 汚れ), which translates into English as “impurity”. Kegare is not a moral judgement, rather a spontaneous reaction of amoral natural forces, that cause misfortune as an outcome of such a pollution. It is caused by contact with things that are considered impure, such as blood, childbirth and, above everything, death.

Therefore, living in a place where the previous Emperor had died was not considered safe; sometimes, after severe bad luck, the court was moved even during the life of a single Emperor.

The period that goes from 538 to 710 is called Asuka period (飛鳥時代 Asuka jidai), because the court was usually located in the Asuka region, about 25 km south of the modern city of Nara.

Actually, the choice of 538 as a starting point of the Asuka period is mainly a conventional reference to the introduction of Buddhism as to the beginning of a new era. In a narrow sense, we should call “Asuka period” just the time span between 593, when the Imperial court was actually installed in Asuka, and 694, when Empress Jitou moved to Fujiwara-kyou.

Emperor Kinmei (who is the first monarch about whom we have somehow verifiable data) was in charge from 539 to 571 and his residence was not in Asuka, but Kanazashi Palace in Shikishima, in the Shiki district.

His successor, Emperor Bidatsu, reigned from 572 to 585; his first residence was Oi Palace in Kudara (Kawachi province), then in the 4th year of his reign he moved to the Yamato area, where had the Sakitama Palace built in Osata, because this land had been indicated as favourable by a geomancer.

Also Emperor Youmei, during his short reign (585-587), stayed in the Yamato region, more exactly in Palace of Ikenobe no Namitsuki in Iware.

The court was established in Yamato also under Emperor Sushun (587-592), whose residence was Kurahashi no Shibagaki Palace.

Then in 593 Empress Suiko came to the throne, with the crucial support of her uncle Soga no Umako, and had her residence in Toyura Palace, with a shift from the Yamato area to Asuka. Since after the death of Emperor Sushun there had been few time to build a new palace (Suiko’s ascent to the throne was just one month later) it is believed that the Toyura was actually a palace of the Soga family.

Toyura no Miya

In 603, after Suiko taking the vows and Toyura Palace being turned in a nunnery with the name of Toyura-dera, Oharida Palace became the new court.

Then from 630 to 636, Okamoto Palace was the residence of Emperor Jomei, but then, when it was destroyed by the fire in 636.6, the Emperor moved to Tanaka Palace; but this was just a temporary residence: in 639.12.14 he went to a palace at the hotspring of Iyo and then in 640 he moved again,  to Umayasaka Palace.

Eventualy he left Asuka for Kouryou (Nara) to the Kudara Great Palace, after his vowing to the Kudara Odera.

From 643 to 645, under the reign of Emprsee Kougyoku, the court was at Itabuki Palace, back in Asuka.

In 645, Emperor Koutoku planned to create a new capital in Naniwa (Osaka) where he had the Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki Palace built. But after his death in 654 and the re-ascent of Empress Saimei (previously Kougyoku), the Imperial court was moved back to Asuka, temporarily to Itabuki Palace, then in 655 to Kawara Palace, and eventually to Later Okamoto Palace (656-661).

During the reign of Emperor Tenji (661-672) we have further shifts: The court moved to the Tachibana no Hironiwa Palace (661–667) in Asakura, Fukukoa. Then it moved again to the Oomi Palace or Ootsu  Palace(667–672) in Oomi-kyou in Shiga. Then back in Asuka: Shima Palace and Okamoto Palace, both within 672.

From 672 to 686, Emperor Temmu reigned ruling from Kiyomihara Palace, that was also the residence of Empress Jitou when she succeeded.

But under her reign, with the increasing role of bureacracy after the reforms of Asuka period, the need of a new stable capital was stronger and stronger, so that the Empress took the resolution to build a new city in Fujiwara-kyou.

…But now it’s 5:42 am, that means time for me to go. I also think I’ve given enough information for today :).