Tokyo is the capital of Japan, a title the city has held since 1868 after it was renamed from Edo. Historically, the city became the capital of the country after the then emperor established his seat of authority in the city. The first capital in the history of Japan was Kashiwabara, founded during the reign of the First Emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu. Throughout its long history, Japan has had numerous cities that served as its capital.
Nagaoka-Kyo was established as the capital of Japan in 784 after Emperor Kanmu transferred the seat of government from Heijo (present-day Nara). The reason behind the Emperor’s preference of Nagaoka-Kyo was due to the presence of rivers that would provide excellent water transportation. However, these rivers were the cause of the city’s demise, as they often flooded and spread water-borne diseases to residents. They eventually forced the emperor to move the capital to Heian-Kyo in 794.
Kyoto was originally known as Heian-Kyo and was the capital of Japan for over a millennium. Kyoto achieved its capital status in 794 after Emperor Kanmu moved the seat of government from Nagaoka-Kyo to the city. The emperor modeled Kyoto after the ancient Chinese city of Chang’an with the city being laid out quite with wide streets (which are 78 feet wide). Two artificial canals were dug that provided residents with a constant supply of water, and also guarded the city from flooding. Over the centuries, Heian-Kyo was ravaged by fires and was nearly burned to the ground during the 1467-1477 Onin War. The rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century eventually saw the seat of government transferred to Edo in 1608. However, Kyoto remained the formal capital until Edo was renamed Tokyo in 1868.
Edo was the seat of government during the feudal military rule of the Tokugawa clan and thus the Japanese de facto capital between 1608 and 1868. The Tokugawa had built Edo Castle in the town which was the official residence of the ‘Shogun’. Edo city was developed around the castle and quickly grew from a modest fishing village to become the largest urban center in the world in the 18th century.
The Tokugawa Shogunate was quite efficient in the administration and planning of the city, as it established administrators who acted as judges in criminal and civil disputes and also established a city fire department. The fire department was critical as Edo was plagued by numerous catastrophic fires, including the 1657 Great Fire of Meireki, which killed an estimated 100,000 people. While Edo was the center of political power and de facto capital, Kyoto was still recognized as the official capital of Japan. In 1868, Tokugawa shogunate rule ended and Edo was renamed Tokyo and retained its role as the country’s de facto capital.
After the deposition of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867, the country experienced major reforms under the 17-year-old Emperor Meiji, including the renaming of Edo to Tokyo in 1868, while Edo Castle was renamed the Imperial Palace. The city grew to become one of the most important cities in the world and a hub for many industries. The Tokyo metropolitan region is also the highest population in the world with about 40 million inhabitants.
While Tokyo is considered the capital of Japan, no law exists in the country that explicitly gives Tokyo that distinction. Therefore, Tokyo is considered the de facto capital and not the de jure capital of Japan.