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Tokyo Day: The Origins of ‘Edo’ and ‘Tokyo’

Today is Tokyo Day. Well, that’s what we are calling it here at Maction Planet. 3 September 1868 was the date that an Imperial proclamation changed the name of The World’s Greatest Metropolis from Edo to Tokyo. In honour of this, we look at the origins of the names Edo and Tokyo.

Edo is often described as having been a sleepy fishing village before 1603, when Ieyasu Tokugawa set up his government in Edo Castle, and Edo became the de facto capital of Japan. De facto because the Emperor’s residence remained in Kyoto and where the emperor resides is considered the true capital of Japan.

History is, of course, much more complicated than that. Edo cannot have been that sleepy. In fact, it was already much bigger than a village, being referred to as a sato or go (郷), which was larger than a mura (村). In 1457, Ota Dokan, the legendary warlord, attacked and took control of the fortress that became Edo Castle. He made great changes to the structure.  He began the process that made the area an appealing new home for Tokugawa when, after 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan’s unifiers, bought out Tokugawa’s then-current territory nearer Kyoto and awarded him 8 provinces in the Kanto region.    

On 21 October 1600, the Battle of Sekigahara was waged and Tokugawa triumphed, gaining control, of sorts, over all Japan. It took another three years for Tokugawa to consolidate his position, stamp out the last remaining resistance, and truly emerge as the undisputed ruler of the country, running things out of Edo.

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Edo grew to a population of around one million becoming one of the two largest cities in the world, vying for the number one spot with Beijing in the 1700s and 1800s.   

There are three prevalent theories as to where the name Edo originated. Some say it comes from the eto, the Ainu word for a cape or small peninsula. This makes some sense as this may have referred to the original shape of the area east of what is now the Imperial Palace. (Remember that a large part of the area east of the Imperial Palace has been reclaimed and would have been wetlands at the time.) Others say it comes from the word ido, which means ‘well’. At Maction Planet, we believe (most of the time) in Occam’s razor – Edo  (江戸) literally means ‘estuary’, the estuary of Tokyo Bay.  

So, to Tokyo. After the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor Meiji moved his seat from Kyoto to Edo, at the same time renaming it Tokyo. It was Okubo Toshimichi, one of the three key noblemen in the Meiji Restoration, who proposed renaming the city.

On 3 September 1868, the Imperial Decree Renaming Edo ‘Tokyo’ (江戸を称して東京と為すの詔書 –Edo wo shōshite Tōkyō to nasu no shōsho) was issued.

3 September is an easy date to remember, as it is also Doraemon’s birthday! (2112. A good one to know if you are in an extremely geeky Japanese-themed pub quiz.)

Tokyo (東京) is made up of two kanji:

  • 東 – とう – tō – “east”
  • 京 – きょう-  kyō – “capital”

The second character can be seen in Kyoto (京都, Capital), as well Beijing (北京, North Capital) and in Nanjing (南京, South Capital).

There is still some controversy over what is the true capital of Japan, as there has never been any law passed moving it officially from Kyoto to Tokyo. Even the choosing of the name “East Capital” may suggest to some that it was intended as a capital away from the true capital, or at least a secondary one in the same vein as Beijing and Nanjing.

After the city was renamed, there were multiple pronunciations of the kanji in use. The city was called both Tokyo and Tōkei. The emperor and aristocracy used “Tōkei”. Tōkei is the kan’on reading (pronunciation borrowed from the Tang dynasty), much more posh than the go’on reading associated with hoi polloi. Eventually, the more commonly used pronunciation triumphed.

If you see the city name transliterated as Tōkyō, this is to indicate the long ‘o’ which comes from the fact that in Japanese, the city’s name is とうきょう),i.e. “to – u – kyo – u.”  

One of the older transliterations into English, Tokio, is still used in several other languages, e.g. Italian. It is also retained by some as a brand. (Tokio Marine, the largest non-life insurance company in Japan, uses it.) The spelling is also used by Japanese rock(ish) band TOKIO, formed in 1994 and still going strong!

So, there you have it. We wish all our readers, guests, apparel customers, and citizens a happy Tokyo Day. Here’s to the future of The World’s Greatest Metropolis, and beyond!

Maction Planet is a Travel and Apparel business based in Tokyo. They run private, fully-customised tours and travel experiences in Tokyo, and beyond. Guests have described them as  “reinventing custom travel” in The World’s Greatest Metropolis. Since the launch of their website in February 2017, and growing their business away from solely ‘word-of-mouth’ recommendations, Maction Planet is now ranked in the Top 15% of all Tokyo Tours on TripAdvisor, with 100% 5-star reviews – ahead of many long-established Tokyo Tour companies. They were chosen as Official Hospitality Provider to “Brave and Bold”, Tokyo’s premier Artist Alley event. They have developed a loyal fanbase, with over 3500 Instagram followers. Alongside the travel arm, Maction Planet Apparel designs unique T-shirts inspired by the city they love. For more information email

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