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Notes on the Geography of Japan: Tokyo: Edo

Although there was a fortress here in 1457, Tokyo became prominent only after 1603--a few decades before the founding of Boston and New York City.  Until then, the Kanto Plain, on which the city sits with its suburbs, was just about deserted.  The Plain was then known as the Musashi Plain, and of it a poet wrote: "The wide plain/ of Musashi/ Has no hills at all/ Where the moon sets/ Sweeping o'er a sea of grass." Another version of the poem runs this way: "The plain of Musashi: / No mountains/ For the moon to enter; It rises from the grasses/ Sinks back into the grass."  All in all, the site of the future metropolis was a lonely place east of the mountains separating it from the capital, then Kyoto.  Indeed, Kanto means "east of the barrier." 

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Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 1

In 1590, however, the Kanto Plain was assigned to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who arrived from Kyoto to take charge of his new domain.  A decade later, in 1603, he became shogun, or de facto ruler of Japan, and Tokyo--then called Edo--began growing around his Edo Castle.  A century later, in 1731, Edo had 560,000 people, and fifty-odd years later it had tripled to 1.5 million.  The symbolic center was the famous Nihombashi (literally, "Japan Bridge"), which was built in 1603 and, though not especially dramatic, became famous because Ieyasu chose it as the base point for measuring all road distances in Japan, including, for example, the Tokaido road to Kyoto.  Ieyasu's bridge no longer exists, but a replica--full scale but half-length--can be seen in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 2

So can a model of the district that once stretched away from the bridge.  The city was overwhelmingly built of wood, resistant to earthquakes but quick to burn.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 3

A fire in 1657 destroyed the extravagant home of the daimyo Masudaira Tadamasa, who had built it about 1640.  Fires were such a hazard that homes on such a scale were no longer built.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 4

Main streets were for the wealthy and for their businesses; the poor clustered in alleys.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 5

A proto-department store.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 6

The stores had no displays, just tables where clerks could spread things for inspection.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 7

The Nakamura-za  Kabuki Theater.  The government disapproved of kabuki, and in 1629 banned the use of female actors.  Two centuries later, in 1841, it forced the theaters to move to the city's red-light district, Asakusa.  Eventually, kabuki was at least partly sanitized and accepted.  Here, signboards identify the play and its actors, while a banner says that the government has given permission for the theater to operate.

Japan: Tokyo: Edo picture 8

For the common workman, working quarters and house consisted of two 9-by-12 rooms.  They were oriented so there was 9 feet of street frontage.  Living quarters were behind the work space.

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