We know Tokyo as the capital city of Japan. The bright, neon-lit city is the first image that pops in our head at the mention of the country’s modern vibes. But at the mention of authentic Japan and Japanese culture, Kyoto is where we think of. These are the reputations of the two cities. But did you know, Tokyo wasn’t always the capital city? Back in the day, Kyoto was the one that held the title. So why was there a switch from Kyoto to Tokyo as the capital city of Japan? We have the answers you’re looking for.

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan

Kyoto wasn’t called Kyoto back in the day. Just like other Japanese cities, it had a few names. One of it was “Heian-kyo” (平安京). This translates to “metropolis of peace or seat” in Japanese. Another name for Kyoto was “Saikyo” (西京), which means Western capital.

Originally, Kyoto only consisted of the Imperial Palace and the areas surrounding it. But now, as we know it, it’s grown much bigger. Some believe that Kyoto’s architecture was designed to resemble Xi’an City during the Tang Dynasty. The grid-like streets and rectangular enclosures were hints of that.

Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for more than a millennium, after its inception in 794AD. It’s one of the oldest cities of Japan, after all, so it only made sense that leaders have settled down there and created history. In the 8th century, Emperor Kanmu was the one that decided Kyoto to be the capital. Rulers after him would have the city as the seat of the Imperial Court for centuries, until the 19th century. Kyoto was gradually losing its prominence as an administrate centre. A change was required.

How the oligarchy influenced the change

Now, we’re not going to delve deep into history. We’re going to just touch on it. The Tokugawa Shogunate, as we know, was the last feudal Japanese military government. They reigned from 1600 to 1969. In the early years, then-Edo now-Tokyo was the spot for their military government. The Tokugawa Shogunate became so powerful to the extent that the Emperor was below them.

The Meiji Restoration got back the Emperor’s position in politics and culture. In 1968, the Tokugawa Shogunate was no more. At the time, the ruling emperor was merely 15, so the power was given to the oligarchs. They decided to stay in Edo instead of going back to the then-capital city Kyoto because of its convenient location and easy access to the West for trade. Edo was given a new name: Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital”.

Edo, from village to castle town

Credit: Lilac and Honey on Flickr Creative Commons

The name “Edo” means “estuary”. It was originally a mere village during the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333). The village’s location was perfect for the establishment of headquarters. It had access to busy lands and sea routes. When the Tokugawa Shogunate established in Edo, it was the beginning of Edo’s rapid growth. Edo Castle became their base, with moats and bridges surrounding it. By 1720s, Edo’s population drastically boomed and had a major economic growth.

Today’s Tokyo

And we skip to today. The emperor wasn’t the one that decided the change of capital city to Tokyo, but this incident marks a crucial time in Japan’s history. It was inevitable that Tokyo became the main area for trade due to its accessibility. From there, technology, Western clothing and architecture began to influence the city. Just like how Kyoto grew in size, so did Tokyo to include its surrounding regions.

Capital city: Kyoto or Tokyo?

Now, Kyoto is still known as the “Western Capital” and Tokyo as the “Eastern Capital”. The move of capital city to Tokyo affected Kyoto deeply, but now the city’s thriving with its own unique personality that contrasts that of Tokyo. Kyoto will always be a symbol of old Japan, and Tokyo’s a symbol of the country’s evolution and development. Kyoto will always be thought of as the heart of Japan for it’s storied and important history.