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.

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A fascinating look at Tokyo before it was a city
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A fascinating look at Tokyo before it was a city

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.

(Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Source: National Geographic and Open Buildings

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

(Photo via 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.

(Photo via NYPL)

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.

(Photo via NYPL)

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.

(Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Source: Columbia University

The city of Tokyo, which was already Japan's main cultural and commercial center, was established 1889. It started industrializing.

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

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.

Source: Go Tokyo

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.

Mountain Fuji towers over Tokyo in this image, circa 1910s.

(Photo via NYPL)

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

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.

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

(Photo via Getty Images)

... and the Asakusa temple, also in 1930.

(Photo via NYPL)

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

Source: Japan Times

(Photo via Getty Images)

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.

(Photo via Getty Images)

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