Tokyo: An Introduction

By Rig Freyr

When I think of Japan, I think of Tokyo. Tokyo is simultaneously the capital of Japan, the most populous city in Japan, and the biggest tourist destination in Japan; the city is rightfully considered the heart of the Japanese nation in many ways, and also serves as the country’s main gateway to the rest of the modern world. And like any great center of civilization, Tokyo has a story—a long, rich history of urban space that goes back hundreds of years. My objective in this project is to tell some of that story, to distill a few small parts of Tokyo’s urban essence and give some understanding of the historical significance they contain. To that effect, I have compiled brief reports on the three aspects of Tokyo’s urban history that I found the most intriguing in my research of the city: namely, Tokyo’s history with earthquakes; Tokyo’s history with food and resource distribution; and Tokyo’s history with citizenship data and minority demographics.

My first report, “Natural Disasters and Disease: Earthquakes of Edo,” explores a number of scholarly articles and other works describing the events and historical significance of the 1855 Great Ansei Earthquake, which devastated Tokyo (then called Edo) in the closing years of the Edo period. In addition to chronicling the immediate effects and scale of the disaster itself, the articles also detail how the population of Edo reacted to the destruction of their city through the various modes of visual media available to them at the time. The report concludes by contrasting these 1855 reactions to those of the survivors of another major quake: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Overall, the sources mark a subtle but major shift in the cultural perception of natural disasters as Tokyo underwent its transformation into its modern form.

My second report, “Provisioning the City: Tokyo and its Environs,” details how Edo kept itself supplied with food and other provisions under Tokugawa rule, based on a variety of academic sources. It covers the basic functions, strengths, and weakness of the system, especially with regard to how the city managed its relationship with the surrounding provinces and arranged for the importation of local goods.

My third and final report, “The City as Data: Japan and the koseki system,” focuses on how the people of Tokyo—in particular, ethnic and racial  minorities—are affected by the Japanese government’s use of the koseki national registry system. The essay also uses its sources to trace the origins and development of the koseki system from the 7th century up to the present.

Overall, my hope is that some part of the fascination I felt with Tokyo while researching these topics will be evident in these reports—but, more importantly, I hope that the observations that I have gathered in them will prove useful to other researchers on the city.

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