Provisioning Tokyo

By Rig Freyr


How has food been provided to the residents of Edo-Tokyo and from where? Are there any distinctive features of Tokyo’s local economy and diet that have defined the city’s food provisioning system throughout history?


To match the present theme of provisioning, I have collected five academic sources that provide a variety of information on how the city of Tokyo came to be provisioned with food and other goods throughout its history, particularly during the Edo period. Most of the comprehensive sources I could find on the city’s provisioning systems dealt exclusively with the Edo era—perhaps this seeming dearth of information on modern Tokyo provisioning is caused by a lack of available translations from Japanese. In any case, although I believe my sources offer many insights on Japanese distribution systems and regionalism that hold true for Tokyo’s urban environment even today, my discussion will prioritize the economics of the Edo-period capital specifically.

Hayashi Reiko’s “Provisioning Edo in the Early Eighteenth Century: The Pricing Policies of the Shogunate and the Crisis of 1733,” is the only work discussed here that focuses almost exclusively on the question of how the Japanese accomplished the physical transportation of resources to Edo from the city’s hinterlands and beyond. Hayashi begins her analysis by defining two broad categories that the residents of Edo historically used to classify imported provisions: 1) jimawari, or staple goods taken directly from the city’s nearby hinterlands, and 2) kudari, or goods imported from more distant regions in the west of Japan, especially from Osaka and Kyoto (Hayashi 1994, 213). Both types of commerce remained vitally significant to Tokyo’s economic wellbeing throughout the Edo period, with kudari and jimawari regions providing the majority of the city’s primary and secondary goods, respectively. Although jimawari shipments tended to comprise a variety of products, with sake, soy sauce, and cotton goods being the most prominent categories, their kudari counterparts were overwhelmingly comprised of rice—this fact is only natural given rice’s double significance in Edo Japan as both a staple crop and a medium of exchange.

This overview of the basic structure and regional elements of Edo’s provisioning network dovetails nicely with Nishiyama Matsunosuke’s analysis in his book, Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868. However, in contrast to Hayashi, Nishiyama spends more time discussing the periodic failings of Edo’s provisioning system rather than the details of the system itself. To be more specific, Matsunosuke points out that, in spite of the developed nature of the capital’s local and regional resource channels, the city experienced more than thirty instances of severe famine over the course of the Edo period. These famines were exacerbated by the fact that the shogunate took exclusive control of the city’s grain and rice stockpiles whenever starvation became widespread, choking up the city’s ability to circulate resources internally in already difficult circumstances (Nishiyama 1997, 161-163). Furthermore, the fact that the shogunate did not take responsibility for coordinating relief policy with daimyo from other parts of the country, on top of their unwillingness to open their grain stores, made the societal effects of a famine especially difficult to combat. As a result of this lack of economic safeguards, many residents of Tokyo were forced to rely on a variety of substitute foods, ranging from rice bran and acorns to clay and strips of pine bark, in order to carry their households through the famines that the shogunatewas unable to help them through (Nishiyama 1997, 170). In fine, the seemingly well-organized provisioning network described by Hayashi was both regularly plagued by shogunate-induced inefficiencies and relatively unequipped to deal with unforeseen shortages.

Writing almost twenty years later, American researcher Stephen Mansfield supports Nishiyama’s findings with a more comprehensive description of the many social repercussions that tended to overtake Edo-Tokyo in the wake of these famines, the most frequent of which were rice riots. Mansfield provides a particularly intriguing paragraph’s worth of analysis in his book Tokyo: A Biography on the effects the 1780 rice shortage, which was caused by the sudden eruption of Mount Asama in Nagano prefecture. Because Nagano was a resource-rich region crítical to Edo’s economic stability, the city was subjected to an unusually long and severe rice shortage—an especially dire state of affairs for Edo commoners given that rice was also their medium of exchange. When the shogunate responded with their usual tightening of the city’s rice supplies, the populace responded with a series of riots, culminating in a mass attack on the Tokugawa rice granaries (Mansfield 2016, 59). The images Mansfield conjures of mobs attacking the shogunate’swarehouses to protect themselves from starvation again highlight the imperfect nature of Edo’s provisioning network, and suggest that the shogunate’s control over the population was not as strong as one might think.

In their joint work Edo, The City That Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History, researcher Akira Naito and illustrator Kazuo Hozumi fill in some significant details on the city’s provisioning routes that Hayashi and Nishiyama leave largely unexamined. Most importantly, they explicitly describe the official system of ri markers and roadside waystations (which functioned similarly to league markers and rest stops, respectively, in English-speaking countries) that the shogunate used to facilitate and monitor the transportation of goods between Edo and its surrounding provinces (Naito and Hozumi 2003, 68-69). They also provide a useful description of the five major trade roads established by the shogunate—the most famous of these was the Tokaido road, which directly connected Edo and Kyoto—as well as the three most economically important waystations within the city of Edo proper. According to the authors, although Japan did not possess very sophisticated transportation technology at the time, the efficiency of the shogunate’s system was such that most packages and messages could be taken from one end of the Tokaido to the other in three or four days (Naito and Hozumi 2003 68).

Finally, we come to Jordan Sand’s article, “How Tokyo Invented Sushi.” Unlike my other sources above, the piece focuses more on how the residents of Edo worked to pull in resources from their own Tokyo Bay as opposed to their resource channels in Osaka, Kyoto, and other parts of the country. Notably, the article documents the various innovative methods that Edoites developed for consuming and distributing fish goods—arguably Tokyo’s most important and abundant staple food after rice—an issue which the authors mentioned above do not address in any depth (Sand 2015 223-226). Overall, the article complements the other sources by highlighting the fact that, in addition to the provisioning systems it maintained with other regions, the city of Edo maintained a veritable microcosm of local economic distribution as well. More importantly, it shows how the overarching function of Edo-Tokyo’s provisioning networks (providing the residents of the city with reliable food) was brought to completion by the residents of the city itself; in a way, the people of Edo were themselves the most important part of the city’s organic, urban distribution system.


Hayashi, Reiko. “Provisioning Edo in the Early Eighteenth Century: The Pricing Policies of the Shogunate and the Crisis of 1733.” Edo & Paris: Urban Life & the State in the Early Modern Era, edited by James L. McClain et al., Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 211-233.

Nishiyama, Matsunosuke. Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868. Translated by Gerald Groemer, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

Naito, Akira, and Kazuo Hozumi. Edo, The City That Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History. Translated by H. Mack Horton, Kodansha International, 2003.

Mansfield, Stephen. Tokyo: A Biography. Tuttle Publishing, 2016.

Sand, Jordan. “How Tokyo Invented Sushi.” Food and the City. Edited by Dorotheé Imbert, Harvard University Press, 2015, pp. 223-248.

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