With more than thirty million people living within a thirty-mile radius of its old geographical center Nihonbashi Bridge, Tokyo is often referred to as the world’s largest urban agglomeration. It is in fact an amalgamation of various administrative entities. The Tokyo prefecture constitutes the political unit under the purview of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and is home to about thirteen million people. It includes the twenty-three special wards—the contiguous urban core and historically continuous area of settlement from the premodern Edo era until today, which host nine million people. Tokyo’s neighboring prefectures, i.e., Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa (which includes Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city), are administratively separate but indivisible from the urban fabric of this megacity of superlatives. Tokyo’s efficient public transport system brings millions of workers to and from their workplace every day. TMG commands a portfolio and budget that would put it comfortably in the list of G-20 nations. As the undisputed center of Japan, its gravitas transcends the island nation to make it one of Asia’s and in fact the world’s economic and financial centers. Untypically, Tokyo has an urban pattern that has been relatively uniform low rise and high density. Despite its relevance for global urban and Japanese history, few traces of this history are imbued in the cityscape. Its neighborhoods might appear homogenous and to some observers even featureless, but the city’s urbanism is widely held to be successful at negotiating efficiency and livability, while being more equal than its Western peers. It is a city that deserves to be studied more from an urban development angle, too, as its history might hold lessons for other (aspiring) megacities in the developing world. As Japan’s primate city, Tokyo has fared significantly better than other Japanese urban centers during the more recent economic crises, which began with the bursting of the real estate bubble in 1991. In the long term, however, the city’s population will also begin to decline. Some changes to the historical “Tokyo model” are thus inevitable, as a city geared for growth for most of its existence enters the post-growth stage. Liberalization, growing income and thus spatial inequalities, and a more vertical real estate market are but some of the challenges the city is grappling with nowadays. This bibliography focuses on select English language works, including those that have been translated from Japanese. It is organized by topics, starting with some general historical overviews, and then moving on to specific themes, with some overlap and “cross-fertilization” unavoidable and intended.
General Historical Overviews for Edo/Tokyo
The overthrow of Japan’s feudal political system in 1867 ushered in an era of rapid change with major ramifications for Tokyo. The city was renamed from Edo (see 1603–1867: Edo Period) to Tōkyō to denote the “Eastern capital.” The first imperial reign, i.e., that of Emperor Meiji (1868–1912) witnessed the transformation of Tokyo into a modern metropolis eager to adopt Western ways of life. The relatively short Taisho period (1912–1926) saw major economic and political upheaval that altered Tokyo’s cityscape profoundly. Significant industrial growth occurred in the city’s south, along the Tokyo Bay and to the northeast of the center, expanding the city boundaries. The long Shōwa period (1926–1989) spanned prewar and wartime Tokyo (until 1945), the Allied Occupation (until 1952), the Japanese economic miracle (until 1973), and the bubble years leading up to the stock market crash. The Heisei (1989–2019) and Reiwa (2019–) periods provide the ark for Tokyo’s increasing internationalization as well as liberalization as the main guiding principle for urban policies. There are several good historical overviews of Edo/Tokyo. Seidensticker 2019 remains among the most popular, while others include Clements 2020 and Mansfield 2011, the latter of which focuses on the city’s cultural history. Although dated, two books from the 1980s remain valuable primers, not only because of a deep affection for the city emanating from within their pages but also because they capture—via anecdotes and arcana—Tokyo’s form and spirit: Waley 1984 represents the author’s explorations of various historical sites in Tokyo, while Popham 1985 introduces some of the built environment’s quintessential features. Cybriwsky 2011 is a historical dictionary which also includes a rich bibliography. Coaldrake 1986 argues that a deeper order lies beneath an apparent anarchy, which explains Tokyo’s character. Finally, and although somewhat dated, Siebert 2001 is a good GIS-based overview of Tokyo’s urban history.
Clements, Jonathan. A Short History of Tokyo. London: Haus, 2020.
This compact and accessible chronological history takes a long sweep, starting with an account of prehistoric settlements in the Kanto plain and, in this most recent edition, finishing up with a short COVID-19 update.
Coaldrake, William. “Order and Anarchy: Tokyo from 1868 to the Present.” In Tokyo: Form and Spirit. Edited by Mildred Friedman, 63–76. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1986.
One of the major themes with which to understand the history of the Japanese capital, according to the author, is that the city’s rapid population and economic growth tended to outpace any attempts to make it conform to a plan. The apparent anarchy, however, is structured by a self-perpetuating order beneath the surface.
Cybriwsky, Roman. Tokyo: Historical Dictionary. Langham, MD: Scarecrow, 2011.
From Adachi Ward to Zōjō-Ji Temple, the nearly 650 entries span the city’s leaders, geographical areas, as well as landmark events. Includes an extensive English-language bibliography.
Mansfield, Stephen. Tokyo: A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford: Signal Press, 2011.
Part of the Cities of the Imagination series, this hybrid history book and tourist guide retells Tokyo’s history by way of anecdotes from writers, artists, and dramatists. One of the key figures is early-20th-century author Kafū Nagai.
Popham, Peter. The City at the End of the World. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1985.
This long-term resident’s take on Tokyo’s built environment introduces several fixtures of the Japanese capital (love hotels, Mori office towers, red-light entertainment districts) and thereby offers a warm-hearted portrait of a city that has since the book’s publication moved much closer to being at the center of the world.
Seidensticker, Edward. A History of Tokyo 1867–1989: From Edo to Showa. The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Classics, 2019.
Originally published in the early 1990s, Seidensticker’s two major historical works on Tokyo, Low City, High City and Tokyo: Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake, are now available in one consolidated volume.
Siebert, Loren. “GIS-Based Visualisations of Tokyo’s Urban History.” Proceedings of the Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management Conference at the University of Hawaii Manoa, 2001.
A large variety of maps shows the urban transformation of Tokyo including water reclamation in Tokyo Bay, administrative and population changes, as well as Tokyo’s rail network.
Waley, Paul. Tokyo Now and Then. Boston: Weatherhill, 1984.
The author traces the city’s history with a mix of scholarly fieldwork and walking tour through a large number of Tokyo’s famous as well as lesser-known sites. His writings on Tokyo are manifold as this bibliography will move on to show. However, three of his early books on the city (including this one), written while he was working in Tokyo as a journalist, are his most personal.
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