What's wrong with Tokyo


As early as the 18th century, more than a million inhabitants made Tokyo the largest city in the world; today, a quarter of the Japanese population lives in the greater area. Overcrowded subways, constant noise and flashing neon lights are part of everyday life here. The fear of the next major earthquake disaster is also omnipresent.

A little town called Edo

Neon signs flash, loud Japanese pop music oozes out of the gambling dens, the sky can hardly be made out between the skyscrapers - anyone standing in the middle of Tokyo today can hardly imagine that 550 years ago there was only a castle and a few houses.

Edo, as the city was then called, first appeared in the history books in the 12th century. At that time, a man is said to have built a fortified house near the mouths of the Hirakawa and Sumida rivers. He named the place and his family Edo ("estuary"). The actual founding year of today's metropolis, however, is 1457. In that year, Prince Ota Dôkan built a castle on the spot where the imperial palace stands today.

Almost 300 years later, the small town had become the largest city in the world: by the middle of the 18th century, Edo had more than a million inhabitants. The main reasons for the city's rapid growth lie in its geographical location: the Bay of Edo offered more protection than a port on the open sea. The place is also far from the Asian mainland and could not be reached as quickly by possible invaders like the Mongols.

In addition, the roads cut east, north and through the mountains of what is now the Tama region in Edo. The leader of the samurai, Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, recognized these advantages as early as the end of the 16th century and moved the seat of government from Kyoto to Edo. That was when the heyday of today's Tokyo began, although it has been repeatedly destroyed by conflagrations over the course of history.

Edo became Tokyo

In the 19th century, troops of the emperor and the shogun fought for supremacy in Japan. The shogun was the leader of the samurai warrior caste, which was officially subordinate to the emperor. In the course of time, however, he had gained more and more power and had become the actual head of the state.

When the emperor's troops won in 1868, the last shogun left Edo Castle and Emperor Meiji moved in. From now on, Edo was called Tokyo, which means "eastern capital" (Kyoto means "capital city") and officially replaced Kyoto as Japan's capital. However, Kyoto had already lost political power before and was only formally the capital.

In the Meiji era, Tokyo opened up to the achievements of the West: horse buses and later trams were used, stone houses were built and western fashion was considered chic.

Destruction by earthquake and war

But hard years lay ahead of Tokyo. On September 1, 1923, the great Kantô earthquake destroyed a large part of the city. Fires raged in Tokyo and the surrounding area for three days. 140,000 people died and 132,000 homes were destroyed.

The reconstruction took seven years and gave Tokyo a new face. Because the disaster was used to adapt the infrastructure of the city to the cars and trams. For example, the city council decided to build wider streets.

But the next catastrophe was not far. In 1945 American military planes bombed the capital of fascist Japan in over 100 air raids. The rapidly spreading fire destroyed the city again and claimed 145,000 victims.

However, many people had already gotten to safety beforehand and moved to the countryside to live with relatives. The reconstruction was astonishingly quick. Tokyo already had six million inhabitants in 1955, ten years later there were twice as many. And there were to be many more.

Mega city

In 2019, a good 38.5 million people crowded the Tokyo metropolitan area, around 9.6 million of them in the core area of ​​the city. This means that a quarter of the Japanese population lives on just under four percent of the country's area. This is particularly noticeable for those who ride the subway during rush hour. Because there are 800,000 companies in Tokyo, an incredible number of people have to go to work in the morning and back again in the evening.

Not all men have their hands under control in a crowd; women who were groped in the metro complain again and again. That is why the administration introduced special wagons, which are marked with pink flowers and which can only be used by women during full hours.

A life-threatening danger lurks underground: Since various tectonic plates meet under Japan, earthquakes repeatedly shake the region around Tokyo - although these are mostly smaller ones that do not cause major damage.

Since there has not been a major earthquake in Tokyo since the Kantô earthquake in 1923 and these normally occur every 60 years, many Tokyo residents expect another catastrophe in the near future. Advice on how to behave properly in the event of an earthquake is not missing in any apartment or travel guide to Japan.

Tokyo cliché in Shibuya

Tokyo consists of 23 capital districts. These are largely autonomous, have their own administration and even elect their own mayor. The districts, in turn, are usually divided into several districts. Ginza is considered the most elegant of them. On the huge shopping street you can almost only find expensive and especially western brand stores.

The Matsuzakaya department store was the first shop shoppers were allowed to enter without taking off their shoes. In the evening, Ginza turns into an entertainment district - but only for people with a corresponding income. Because in Ginza there are almost only expensive clubs and restaurants.

That's why young Japanese tend to meet in Shibuya in the evenings. This district corresponds perfectly to the Tokyo cliché: flashing neon signs, noisy arcades, karaoke bars, huge screens on the skyscrapers and the most frequented pedestrian crossing in the world.

Only one metro station away from Shibuya you can experience bizarre things in Harajuku: especially on Sundays, young people who have disguised themselves as manga characters or punk musicians show up here.

The Statue of Liberty in Tokyo

Tokyo's youngest district is the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay. Tokyo's government had begun artificially gaining land as early as the mid-19th century, but today's Odaiba was not completed until 1979 and became an entertainment and shopping district in the mid-1990s.

From the man-made beach you have a beautiful view of Tokyo, especially at night. A few meters further you suddenly think you are in the wrong city: The Statue of Liberty does not raise its torch as high as it does in the New York sky, but it remains impressive nonetheless.

But Tokyo has more to offer than trendy districts and western imitations. After a stroll through the quiet Yoyogi Park with its large trees, parts of which were laid out for the 1964 Olympic Games, you reach the Meiji Shrine. It was only built in 1912 after the death of Emperor Meiji and rebuilt in 1958 after being almost completely destroyed in World War II. So it lacks the flair of the old shrines and temples that can be found all over Japan, but also in Tokyo. But it is a place of calm that forms a welcome contrast to flashing neon lights and permanent acoustic sound.