Amazing images of Tokyo before it was a city

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NYPL

Before Tokyo matured into the gleaming, dense city it is today, it was a small fishing village called Edo.

Now home to over 13 million people, the Japanese capital has changed dramatically since its beginnings in the 12th century.

These maps, woodcuts, and old-time photographs show the journey of Tokyo from small village to today.


Tokyo was originally known as Edo, which means “estuary.” In the late 12th century, Edo was fortified by the Edo clan, which built a castle and military capital (pictured below). Some of the estate’s moats and walls still survive to this day.

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Wikipedia Commons

Source: National Geographic and Open Buildings


By the 1630s, Edo had a population of 150,000.

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Wikipedia Commons

Source: Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology


And over the next century, the small fishing village grew into the largest metropolis in the world, with a million residents by 1721.

source
NYPL

Source: Urban Networks in Ch’ing China and Tokugawa Japan


In the 18th century, Edo became the capital of Japan. During this time, it enjoyed a long period of peace, called the Pax Tokugawa.

source
NYPL

Source: Edo, the City That Became Tokyo


But this ended when American Commodore Matthew C. Perry docked in Edo in 1853. Perry negotiated the opening of two main ports with the Japanese government, leading to severe inflation and subsequent protests from residents.

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Wikipedia Commons

Source: Columbia University


Japan’s last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, surrendered power to Emperor Meiji in 1868. The emperor traveled to Tokyo a year later, and established Edo Castle as the imperial palace.

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The moat at Edo Castle, circa 1870-1879.
source
Felice Beato/NYPL

Source: Columbia University and “Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and Society”


Wealthy residents lived in ornamental homes like this one in Shiba, a former subdivision of Tokyo.

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A home in Shiba, Tokyo, circa 1890 – 1909.
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NYPL

In January 1873, Japan’s Grand Council issued a notice for the establishment of public parks, noting that “in prefectures including Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, there are places of historic interest, scenic beauty, and recreation and relaxation where people can visit and enjoy themselves.”

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Uyeno Park in Tokyo, exact date unknown, circa 1924-1940.
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NYPL

The city opened its iconic Ueno Park, filled with cherry blossoms, in 1924.

Source: Japan’s Ministry of Land and World Heritage Encyclopedia


Here’s another park, called the Maple Garden, circa 1890.

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NYPL

To this day, water lilies still cover a substantial part of Shinobazu Pond, located near the city center. Here it is in a 1910 photo:

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Tokyo, circa 1910s.
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NYPL

Tokyo City, which was already Japan’s main cultural and commercial center, was officially established 1889.

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A street in Tokyo in 1905.
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Wikipedia Commons

It started industrializing.

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A street in Tokyo, circa 1910-1919.
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Japan. Tetsudōin/NYPL

In its masterplan, the city prioritized access to major railway stations rather than large highways. This encouraged density.

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Yurakucho Station opening, 1910.
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Old Tokyo

Source: Japan Railway and Transport Review


Tokyo also developed a network of canals in the early 20th century. Boats would distribute goods to the wharfs, warehouses, and factories on the canals’ edges.

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Tokyo, circa 1910s.
source
NYPL

Source: Go Tokyo


Tokyo’s first tram lines opened in 1903, and the city’s main train station — which serves high-speed rails today — was completed in 1914. The top photo shows the station under construction, while the bottom photo shows it soon after its opening.

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Tokyo Station, before and after construction.
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Japan Times/Tokyo Station Hotel

Source: “The Making of Urban Japan”


Tokyo’s population kept climbing. By 1920, it reached 3.7 million.

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A Tokyo street in 1922.
source
NYPL

Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Government


Two major catastrophes hit Tokyo in the early-to-mid 20th century: the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake and World War II.

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The Firebombing of Tokyo, 1945.
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Wikipedia Commons

Despite the extreme loss in life and infrastructure, the city slowly recovered over the next few decades. Here is a street in Tokyo’s theater district in 1930 …

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Getty Images

… and the Asakusa temple, also in 1930.

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NYPL

Today, Tokyo is still the world’s largest city, with a population of approximately 13.5 million.

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Moyan Brenn / Flickr

Source: Japan Times


Now a bustling metropolis with some of the world’s tallest towers, Tokyo has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a seaside village.

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Shutterstock