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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogIs Tokyo a City? Unlocking the Truth and Dispelling the Myths!

Is Tokyo a City? Unlocking the Truth and Dispelling the Myths!

James LauJames Lau
Published Time
Posted on 
August 17, 2023
A twilight view of the Sumida River, near the Asahi Fire building, answering the question, is Tokyo a city?

Tokyo, Japan’s vibrant and busy capital, is a metropolis that leaves visitors in awe of its exciting events and cultural heritage. But is Tokyo a city? The answer is more challenging than it might seem.

Let’s explore the fascinating history of Tokyo, its unique status as a metropolis, the importance of the 23 special wards, and the lesser-known Tama area! By the end, we hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of Tokyo’s status and why it is a fantastic place!

Tokyo’s History

Tokyo’s history is an exciting journey that goes over centuries, from its humble origins as a small fishing village to becoming the busy metropolis we know today. The roots of Tokyo can be traced back to the early 15th century when the area was known as Edo. Located at the eastern edge of Japan, Edo was an easily accessible location, making it an essential stop for travelers and traders.

An alley in Tokyo. It has many bars which ask the question: is Tokyo a city?
There are a lot of Tokyo neighborhoods with vintage architecture. Image via Shutterstock

After Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power in the 17th century, Edo became an important political and cultural center. Thanks to its rising importance, people felt safe in the peaceful city. Additionally, merchants and samurai gained influence and helped Edo become one of the largest cities in the world.

However, the Edo period ended in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, a significant event that marked Japan’s transition from feudalism to a modern nation-state. The emperor’s power was restored, and the imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital.”

The Meiji government recognized Tokyo’s ability to become a center of political, economic, and cultural activities. As a result, efforts were made to transform the city. Western-style infrastructure, such as railways and telegraph lines, was introduced, and the cityscape began to change with the construction of grand buildings and wider streets.

Tokyo Metropolis

The Tokyo Metropolis was created in 1943. At that time, the Japanese government merged Tokyo City and Tokyo Prefecture into a single administrative organization. This union aimed to focus on governing and open the door for better urban planning and development. As a result, Tokyo became both a city and a prefecture, forming a metropolis comprising a large urban area and its surrounding territories.

Tokyo City Hall in the 1930s in black and white.
Tokyo was once divided into both a city and a prefecture. Image via Wikicommons

One of the defining characteristics of the Tokyo Metropolis is its size. Unlike traditional cities confined to a small geographical area, the metropolis stretches over a significant portion of eastern Japan. The Tokyo Metropolis is divided into several administrative units, each with its small government and functions.

Although Tokyo Metropolis is enormous, the special ward system allows each area to work together. By collecting their resources as a metropolis, the government divides money and other asset appropriately between the wards.

Is Tokyo a city? Tokyo's skyline at night, featuring Tokyo Tower.
Tokyo is one of the largest metropolises in the world! Image via Shutterstock

Not to mention, this unique system’s purpose is to help each ward’s specific needs and to give a sense of unity among the residents of the metropolis. Therefore, the city continues to improve by working together, and urban and suburban areas establish a balance.

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Tokyo’s 23 Special Wards

To start, within the Tokyo Metropolis lies a large area known as the 23 special wards. These wards are distinct, but in English, the government calls them cities”. The history of Tokyo’s special wards dates to the Edo period. Over time, several of the current wards evolved from independent towns and villages, each with its character and identity.

Today, each of the 23 special wards is an independent city with its mayor and council. This system enables local decision-making and specific governing to address the specific needs of the residents in each ward. At the same time, it also enables cooperation and resource-sharing among them.

The opening gate of Kabukicho in Shinjuku.
Kabukicho is home to many bars and even a movie theater! Image via Shutterstock

The 23 special wards represent some of Tokyo’s most iconic neighborhoods, each with unique charm and offerings. Shibuya, known for its busy pedestrian scramble and lively shopping districts, represents trendiness and youthful energy. Shinjuku is famous for its skyscrapers, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and the Kabukicho entertainment district. 

In contrast, Asakusa in Taito has ancient traditions, with the Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, attracting visitors seeking a glimpse into Japan’s rich cultural heritage. Bunkyo is home to the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning.

The Tama Area

Beyond Tokyo’s busy 23 special wards lies the lesser-known Tama area in the western part of the Tokyo Metropolis. The Tama region provides a quiet environment with a more suburban and rural setting, contrasting the fast-paced city life.

This area also has some of the most beautiful parks and gardens! The Tama Hills Nature Park is a prefectural natural park from where you can see Mt. Takao! There is also a zoo inside! You can also visit the Tonogayato Garden, a villa once owned by Mitsubishi’s founder and now an official Place of Scenic Beauty! There are also some great amusement parks here as well. Sanrio Puroland in Tama City, operated by the creators of Hello Kitty, offers an excellent experience for fans of kawaii culture!

Lake Tama in the Tama area of Tokyo.
Lake Tama is calm and enchanting. Image via Shutterstock

In addition to its natural charm, the Tama area proudly preserves its traditional heritage. It allows visitors to explore ancient temples, shrines, and historical sites that offer insights into Japan’s rich cultural past. The peaceful surroundings of these historical landmarks create an atmosphere of calm and reflection.

The Tama suburbs might seem far away from the wards. However, people can still go to central Tokyo by train and modes of public transportation. As a result,  people living in the Tama area enjoy the best of both worlds – the city’s liveliness and the suburbs’ peacefulness.

One of the most famous suburbs in the Tama area is Kichijoji! It’s often ranked as one of Tokyo’s best places to live! With its variety of shops, the famous Inokashira Park, and the Ghibli Museum nearby, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in Kichijoji!

What’s the verdict?

So, is Tokyo a city? Yes, it is, but it is also so much more. Tokyo is a dynamic and ever-evolving metropolis, a cultural hub, an economic powerhouse, and an innovation center. It is a place where tradition and modernity live in harmony, offering a unique and unforgettable experience to all who visit. 

Rainbow Bridge at night in Tokyo Bay. Answering the question--is Tokyo a city?
Rainbow Bridge is a significant landmark in Tokyo Bay! Image via Shutterstock

Tokyo’s diverse and complex administrative structure, its 23 special wards, and the charm of the Tama area paint an exciting city portrait. It defies expectations and continues to fascinate and inspire the world. Have you ever been to the Tama Area? Did you learn anything interesting about Tokyo from this article? Let us know in the comments below!

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