Why Japan’s Capital Moved From Kyoto to Tokyo


Economic opportunities and political power shifts are what influenced the move of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. But, it’s important to note that there was never any official announcement or decree of this shift in location. Therefore, you can consider them both capitals of Japan in their own right and you wouldn’t be incorrect.

However, the capital of Japan has never been in any single place. Wherever the Emperor chooses to make his home, that is customarily the capital; no announcement or official degree was necessary.

While the most interesting part of the country’s history is between Kyoto and Tokyo, other places also have great significance.

Kyoto’s Skyline

Edo

Edo, which is now modern-day Tokyo, started as a village during the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333 AD) and took its name from the governor of the Kanto region at the time, Edo Shigenaga. Here, he built a castle in the center of this humble village.

Eventually, feudal lords dominated the political landscape across Japan, dividing into warring factions.

The Eastern Army comprised of lords from the area around modern-day Tokyo and the Western Army comprised those from around Kyoto.

Edo Era Japan In Miniature

The Tokugawa Shogunate, a powerful samurai clan, supported the Eastern Army.

It was the victory at the Battle of Sekigahara between these armies that earned Tokugawa the title of shogunate by the Emperor.

Shortly thereafter, Tokugawa moved operations to Edo in 1603 and it became a big hub for trade while also expanding on Shigenaga’s palace.

In the 1700s

By 1721, Edo was the most populous city in the world; being the center of politics and commerce in Japan. All of which the Tokugawa Shogunate facilitated through its power and influence.

The expanse between Tokyo and Nagoya flourished with commerce, industry, and trade. So much so, that the economy of Edo exceeded Kyoto immensely.  

Edo Japan In Miniature

Naturally, the Shogunate’s position and status coincided with this success and began to exceed that of the Emperor.

This sparked animosity between the Imperial seat and the Tokugawa Shogunate. But for 250 years, Tokugawa ruled until the start of the Meiji Restoration. 

From Edo to Tokyo

Eventually, Tokugawa relinquished power, lands, and assets to the Emperor. The Imperial family then took Edo Castle. A year later Edo’s name changed to Tokyo.

This act marked an inconspicuous time in Japan’s history. At the time, automobiles, manufacturing, and telecommunications were taking off worldwide.

Tokugawa’s Shrine

Trade with the west influenced architecture, politics, food, and fashion, which changed the cityscape drastically and ultimately the country.

For instance, in 1885, Ito Hirobumi became the first Prime Minister of Japan. Four years later, on May 1st, 1889, Tokyo officially became a city.

Kyoto

The city of Kyoto once called “the metropolis of peace,” or Heian-Kyo came to be in 794 AD and was Japan’s capital for more than a millennium.

Therefore, many roots and strongholds developed alongside a bustling and vibrant community.

But with the shogunate in Edo outdoing Kyoto financially and commercially, the Emperor’s house was losing power.

Gold Temple In Kyoto

What compounded the issue was how Kyoto held onto isolationist policies that led to less influence by the West compared to Edo.

It was during the reign of Emperor Meiji in 1868 that the Imperial family moved to Tokyo.

Kyoto to Edo

With both the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogunate in Tokyo, every aspect of political and military power went directly into Tokyo.

Not only did this move present a public show of effort to reclaim Imperial power, but it also worked to dismantle the feudal system and recoup its loss of control over areas with Buddhist rebels, like Tendai.  

Even though it stayed as something of a capital for quite some time, its administrative prominence declined. However, this tactical move would soon lead to disaster for those residing in the area and people suffered greatly. It led to food and resource scarcity along with a lowered population.   

Imperial Palace Tokyo

Kyoto Today

The area never quite recovered until the building of the Biwa Canal in the 19th and 20th centuries. After World War II, American interest in Geisha culture reinvigorated the city’s popularity, importance, and economic standing.

While growth has been somewhat slower compared to other areas of Japan, it’s a hot destination for tourists.

Modern Kyoto

It has become such a significant cultural treasure, that the central government moved its base of operations to the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2017.

Indeed, Kyoto is full of art, culture, music, literature, dancing, and other related pursuits.

1868 Was a Turning Point in Japanese History

The Meiji Restoration marked the submission of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the reclamation of power to Emperor Meiji, who was just 15 years old at the time. But, unfortunately, the power didn’t actually go to him, it was in the hands of the oligarchs who were integral to Tokugawa’s disintegration.

The move to Edo was at the behest of these bankers and financiers. It’s what allowed them ultimate control over politics, money, and commerce.

Some historians speculate that this move intended to remove Imperial power while simultaneously bringing Japan into the modern world.

Meiji Shrine Tokyo

A Modern Tale of Two Capitals

The shift from Kyoto to Tokyo during the Edo Period and Meiji Restoration is also a symbol of Japan’s tumultuous past.

For a few centuries, samurai warlords and the emperor exchanged battles of will resulting in long civil wars, power grabs, and abject destitution.

Samurai In Japan

Even though things were changing for both cities at the turn of the century, World War II put an end to this darkness and rivalry.

The Japanese have been a very united people ever since; valuing peace, diplomacy, and tact above all else.

Kyoto versus Tokyo Today

Today, Kyoto and Tokyo are both parts of the modern world and you can see the differences by the feel, life, and energy of each.

Kyoto has an old-world ambiance with many heritage sites and rich traditions. Tokyo is very state-of-the-art and intricately linked with the western world, offering much diversity.

Both Tokyo and Kyoto Are Capitals

Most people generally accept that Kyoto is no longer the capital and recognize Tokyo as the nation’s metropolitan seat. However, there is no official record of the announcement to confirm the assertion.

This is because it’s always been part of Imperial tradition to label the city where the Emperor lives as the capital of Japan.

Many native Japanese consider Kyoto still to be the capital of Japan alongside Tokyo. By this logic, however, anywhere in the country where Japan’s emperors have lived could be the capital.

This would include Osaka, Asuka, Kashihara, and Sakurai, amid a host of many more.

Current Government and Legal Designations

However, Japanese law designates Tokyo as a “capital area,” yet it isn’t an official delegation. Likewise, there is no legislation designating or referring to Kyoto as a “capital area.” But, with the recent move of cultural affairs, government properties in Kyoto do have that designation.

National Government Building Of Japan

Current government initiatives only galvanize the concept of many areas in Japan being the capital.

This is evident by moving offices to Kyoto along with other relocation efforts of government functions to various areas around the country. Tokyo will remain the de facto capital and the main center of politics.

A History Of Kytos Capital Relocation

MT Lee

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.

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