Amazing images of Tokyo before it was a city


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.

Wikipedia Commons

Source: National Geographic and Open Buildings

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

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: 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: 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.

Wikipedia Commons

Source: Columbia University

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

Felice Beato/NYPLThe moat at Edo Castle, circa 1870-1879.

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.

NYPLA home in Shiba, Tokyo, circa 1890 – 1909.

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.”

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

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.


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:

NYPLTokyo, circa 1910s.

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

Wikipedia CommonsA street in Tokyo in 1905.

It started industrialising.

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

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

Old TokyoYurakucho Station opening, 1910.

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.

NYPLTokyo, circa 1910s.

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.

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

Source: “The Making of Urban Japan”

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

NYPLA Tokyo street in 1922.

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.

Wikipedia CommonsThe Firebombing of Tokyo, 1945.

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

Getty Images

… and the Asakusa temple, also in 1930.


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

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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