History of Tokyo: From Edo Castle to the Imperial Palace

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Having led countless tours in Tokyo, history buff and InsideJapan tour leader Marky Hobold sets the record straight about Tokyo’s ‘Imperial Palace’.

Tokyo history

Imperial Palace or Edo Castle, Tokyo

I’ve got a bone to pick with guide books, TripAdvisor, and maybe even the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. My opinion on this matter has earned me loads of friends who understand where I’m coming from, but it’s also gotten me into trouble with ultranationalist right wingers who have no sense of humour.

In a nutshell, people keep talking about ‘the Imperial Palace in Tokyo’, and this is something I don’t think exists. It’s a misnomer that betrays the growth of the capital from a tiny fishing village to an expansive feudal city to the most successful, sprawling metropolis the world has ever seen.

You see, the city of Tokyo has only gone by this name since 1868. Before that – since time immemorial – the area near the castle was known as Edo.

Castle town

Wait what?

“Castle?” you say. “In Tokyo?”

Edo Castle

Imperial Palace layout, Tokyo, Japan
Imperial Palace from above

Yes. Edo, the largest city in the world in its heyday, was also home to the world’s largest castle. The shogun’s capital was a never-ending maze of tiny neighbourhoods and lordly palaces that spiralled out from the inner and outer moats of Edo Castle.

This complex system of dead-end streets, endless alleys, and moated off neighbourhoods was confusing by design. The concept was born out of 100 years of domestic warfare known as the Warring States Period. The intention was to eliminate any direct route to the shogun’s castle and his government.

Maps and art of the day were censored to ensure attacking the city and its castle were impossible. Prior to the establishment of this feudal government and complex urban planning, the area was just a collection of farming and fishing villages.

By the height of the Edo Period, the castle was a self-functioning city within the city. It was a military installation, but comprised of palaces, shrines, bureaucratic offices, and the finest gardens in the country. The city of Edo itself was the receptacle of art and culture from the outer domains, but also the center from which all these consolidated philosophies and ideas emanated out to the farthest reaches of the shogun’s vast realm.

Fast forward to the Meiji restoration

Emperor Meiji, Japan history
Emperor Meiji

In the early 1850s, Western foreign powers, most notably the Americans, forced Japan to open up its borders to trade, and come to terms with international maritime law, i.e. don’t kill sailors who get stranded on your shores, and let non-Japanese vessels replenish their foodstuffs and whatnot before heading on to the next port of call.

The last shogun handed power to the Emperor Meiji in 1868. It’s at this time that the emperor and his court moved from Kyoto in the west to Edo in the east. They assumed control of Edo Castle and changed the name of the city from Edo to Tokyo (literally, the ‘Eastern Capital’). One could say, the imperial family are squatters living in a castle they didn’t build, at the heart of a metropolis they didn’t cultivate. But that was 150 years ago and a lot has changed since then.

Kanto earthquake, Japan
Kanto earthquake

Since then, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire. We’ve also seen the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, wherein most of the castle and the city it used to protect were lost to fire. Finally, the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 burned down the few palatial structures that still remained.

Destroyed palace room in Edo Castle
This palace room was destroyed during WWII

In the build-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, many of the outer moats were filled in or covered up and the former Edo Castle – later Tokyo Castle, later Imperial Castle, and finally renamed the Imperial Residence (usually rendered in English as ‘Imperial Palace’) – found itself in its current condition. For the average visitor, it’s just a series of moats, but it still boasts the largest moats and most impressive stone walls of any Japanese castle and is dotted with sporadic medieval gates, turrets and bridges.

Edo Castle Today

Imperial Palace, Tokyo, panorama
Imperial Palace / Wikimedia Commons

The area of Tokyo called the ‘Imperial Palace’ today is still massive – the pathway that follows the inner moat is one of the most popular jogging paths in the city. It’s scenic, though not shaded, but the same route has a few famous cherry blossom viewing areas that blend nature, castle architecture, and the modern city in truly unique ways. However, don’t expect to get a glimpse of the imperial family. They’re sequestered off in a grouping of luxury apartments in the most wooded and secluded sections of the property.

In recent years, there’s been an active movement to rebuild the tower of Edo Castle. The problem is, giving tourists a bird’s eye view of the imperial family is offensive to many people. Furthermore, for most of Edo Castle’s history, there was no castle tower due to it never have being rebuilt after fires in the 1600s.

Why Edo Castle and not the Imperial Palace?

Why indeed.

Most of this goes back to the name of the city. This part of the country has been called Edo for hundreds of years, longer than it’s ever been called Tokyo. The first elite residence was built here by the Taira clan in the 12th century, but real fortification began in the mid-1400s. The first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, began building the classic incarnation in the late 1580s.

The largest expansion project, that made this castle the history-changing and city-changing behemoth that it became, was ordered by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, and took place between 1593 and 1636. This made Edo Castle the largest castle in the world and the socio-political centre of the largest city in the world.

For most of its history, it’s been Edo Castle, even though it’s marketed to foreigners as the Imperial Palace. That said, most Tokyoites will quickly acknowledge the ‘Edo Castle’ attribution with affection and nostalgia. And while it’s most definitely the Imperial Palace today, to hardcore history nerds such as myself, the castle and city will forever be Edo – the city that unified Japan culturally and set the stage for Asia’s first global superpower.

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