The Birth of Edo, Politics of City Creation

This article is part of the Uni Series which consists of some essays that I have been writing for my bachelor degree in Japan in East Asia studies at the University of Tokyo. This one is about the politics at stake with the creation of Edo (Tokyo).

With its nearly 38 million people inhabiting its metropolitan area, Tokyo is nowadays the largest city in the world. Japan’s capital is the city of an organized yet chaotic beat: the steps of the people coming in and out its trains, commuting from home to work and work to home. It is the city without a center, with its hubs at each stop of the Yamanote and beyond in the west. It is the city of the permanent hustle, with dozens of events, parties and festivals happening every day of the week. The city of gastronomy with its 535 restaurants on the Michelin guide. Tokyo has many faces, depending on the time of the day, the neighborhood and the season. It is undoubtedly one of the most vibrant human core of the earth.

Yet, its history is not as long as many other Asian or European cities. Indeed, Tokyo, or Edo at the time, rose from nearly nothing under the push of one man at the end of the 16th century. This man, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa family, built his castle in what was just a small town in the middle of nowhere, and soon after drained political power from Kyoto, located in the established Kansai area, to Edo in the Kantô region. Although the city is comparatively recent, it is in fact difficult to find documentation on its earliest times, when Ieyasu was inhabiting its castle. This paper aims to draw together previous researches, primary sources and theories on space politics in order to reflect on the politics at stake in the construction of the city of Edo, from the ending years of the 16th century to the death of Ieyasu in 1616. After looking at the topography and political geography of the lands to understand the significance of Edo within Japan, the emphasis will be put on analyzing, to a possible extent, the military, social, political and economic strategies involved in the making of Edo.

Edo’s fate laid at first on the rivalry and cooperation of two men: Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1590, the former was the Imperial Regent who fought to unify Japan and was now in control of the country from Osaka, while the latter was a prominent daimyô (feudal lord) based in contemporary Aichi prefecture. Once both allies of Oda Nobunaga under whom they unified Japan, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu became rivals at his death in 1582. Two years later however they negotiated a truce, as Ieyasu understood that he had more to win by becoming an ally of Hideyoshi than his enemy, and from them he supported him (Goldfarb, 2004, 00:31:00). In 1590, Hideyoshi sieged Odawara in current Kanagawa prefecture in order to destroy the rival Hôjô clan, and then decided to give the lands of the clan to Ieyasu as a reward for his help. In exchange however, the latter would have to renounce his own, smaller, territories. This offer was not a gracious gift, as by offering those lands 300 miles in the east from Kyoto and Osaka, Hideyoshi intended to keep Ieyasu as far away from politics as possible (Edomatsu)(Goldfarb, 2004, 00:33:55). There were thus political motivations at stake with the offer: rewarding a good ally, but also keeping him away in order to prevent him from taking over. This choice illustrates the mitigated trust that Hideyoshi had in Ieyasu, and how he could use military (through besieging his enemy) and political (through pushing his ally to move away) power to maintain his position. This decision however would trigger events Hideyoshi could not have foreseen, as the lands he gave to Ieyasu would later become the location of Japan’s new capital.

There are probably three main reasons for why Ieyasu accepted the deal. First, the lands were much larger than the ones he had, thus empowering him economically and symbolically. Second, he had been to those territories before and knew that he could built his castle in a landscape suitable for military defense, as will be detailed in the next paragraph. Lastly, the offer came from the Imperial Regent and refusing it was a risk to get into war with him, which Ieyasu could not afford at the time. He thus decided to move to the north-east to settle next to a small fishing village called Edo (江戸, literally “the bay entrance”), later renamed Tokyo. The location of Tokyo thus originated from political reasons and compromises between Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. In retrospect, while the offer came from Hideyoshi, it is really Ieyasu that gained the most of it.

Ieyasu’s plans to establish his castle on the location of a former vassal of the crushed Hôjô clan was a successful choice thanks to his clever decisions and to the topography of the area. The site chosen by Ieyasu was the small fortress of Ota Dokan, a local ally of the Hôjô clan (Edomastu). As Henri Lefebvre wrote in The Production of Space (1981, 92, translation mine), “at the origin, there was a challenge (to the nature, to the enemy) and a goal (trade).” He wrote so about the creation of Venice, but it also seems accurate for Edo. Nature was both a challenge to master and a contributor. Indeed, “[t]he hill on which [the Edo castle] was built was surrounded on three sides by the marshes and swamps at the mouth of the Sumida river, and by Edo Bay” (Edomatsu). The swamp would thus slow down if not prevent invasion from the land, while the bay could be arranged to block boats from reaching Edo. Besides, there was a hill higher than the castle, the Kanda hill, which Ieyasu decided to remove and to use the dirt to enlarge the land size over the bay, covering notably the Hibiya creek. By achieving this gigantic task, Ieyasu symbolically claimed his power as his castle was now the higher landmark of the area, and strategically enclosed himself in lands which would protect him, while also making space for vassals to come settle around his castle. At once he thus mastered the nature, and prevented enemy offensives. As for the goal of trading, this would become more important as Edo grew in size. At this very begining in the 1590s, the making of Edo was much dependent on the clever military and political policies of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The focus will now be on the politics at stake with the construction of the city, starting with its castle. Under Ieyasu, there were two main phases for the construction of the castle. The first stage occurred in the 1590s and consisted in building walls and digging moats around the fortress (Edomatsu)(Tokyo Metropolitan Library, 00:01:00). This was undertaken by Ieyasu himself, his family and his vassals and gave the shapes still visible nowadays to the Edo castle domain.

1. and 2. Maps of the area around Edo in 1594 and 1602 (Endô, 1968, 116&118)

As one can see on the two maps above, in the span of six years two circles of moats were taking shape. Those moats are still here nowadays (the map 5 in the annex which is inclined like map 3 can be used as a reference). But the most striking change is the disappearance of the water in the south-east of the maps. Drastic topographic changes were made by Ieyasu to make space and defend his city.

The second stage of the castle’s construction occurred after Ieyasu obtained the title of Shogun in 1603, and kept ongoing until 1638, long after his death in 1616 and up to the reign of his grandson Iemitsu (Edomatsu). This phase consisted in building stronger, higher and more imposing castle and walls with rocks which were brought by ship from the Izu peninsula and of adding more circles of moats around the castle to increase its protection. (Ibid). Thanks to the power he acquired becoming the shogun, Ieyasu this time called on the daimyô all over the country to help with the construction in order to show their loyalty. The construction itself of the castle itself thus became a political matter, as a daimyô who would refuse to assist the new leader of Japan risked severe punishment. Building the castle was thus a mean to acquire free labour and check on the loyalty of the daimyô around Japan. It was also a very strong economic move as it attracted a lot of people to Edo, from merchants to artisans working on the construction to warriors coming with their lord.

Very few maps remain of the early Edo period. Until recently, scholastic research were based on the Keicho Edo Map preserved in the Tokyo Metropolitan archives (Year Unknown). In February of this year however, another Edo Hajimezu (江戸始図, “Map of early Edo”) with more information was discovered in Matsue, in Shimane prefecture. Both maps are bird views of Edo realized around 1607–1609, thus a few years after the start of the second phase of construction. In the newly discovered map, the stone walls directly around the castle are more detailed, revealing that the defense infrastructures were more important than previously thought, with walls connecting the gates and towers (The Mainichi, 2017). Yoshihiro Senda, professor of castle archaeology at Nara University, analyzed that “[t]he details of the construction show that the Tokugawa family were taking all possible measures to ensure their preparation for another battle against the Toyotomi clan” (Okudaira, 2017). This new discovery thus highlights that military defense was part of the politics of the city making.

3. Map of the center of Edo in 1607–1609 (Unknown)

While the walls are the new discovery, much more can be induced of the politics of city creation from this map. Lefèbvre (1981, 91, translation mine) wrote that “the apparent borders (…) give birth to the appearance of a separation between spaces at the same time in ambiguity and continuity. (…) Separated from the social space by barriers and walls (…) it is nonetheless a social space.” While security was an important role of the walls and moat, this physical separation first between the castle and the city and then between the city and its surroundings also hold symbolical importance. Indeed, they dissociate the Shogun and his family first, and the daimyô living around the castle second, from the rest of the people. The Tokugawa Shogunate worked on establishing a very strict class system, with the Shogun and the Emperor at the top, then the warriors, and then in order the peasants, the artisans, the merchants and finally the eta, the outcasts of Japanese society. The map illustrate the hierarchical seclusion. As a matter of fact, a large and highly protected space was reserved for the Tokugawa family at the center. Then, another protected circle was drawn around for the daimyô and their warriors, but with less space per family. It is also known that the favorite vassals of the Tokugawa would lodge close to the castle, while the least appreciated would live further, such as in the island on the map which is now Yurakucho and Hibiya districts. The townsmen, while for sure populating Edo by 1607, are not even represented on the map, as if their existence was not significant enough to be recorded. They were living around the outer circle, which is left blank on the map. The map thus demonstrates the social hierarchical structures at stake with the making of Edo. The city itself was planned by Ieyasu to segregate people based on their social class.

That being said, there is however one odd feature on the map. Indeed, on the west bank of the island which is now Marunouchi and Yurakucho districts as well as on the south bank of the island that is now Otemachi and Tokyo areas, there are stretched, narrow buildings depicted and simply marked as “chô” (町 “town”). This character must stand for “町人” or townspeople, which were how were grouped the artisans and merchants living in Japanese cities. Interestingly, those buildings do not appear on later maps of Edo (Manabu, 2013 for example). This suggests that at first, some townsmen were living among the daimyô and warriors but were later either relocated or (although it is unlikely) upgraded to a higher social class.

Suppositions can be made as to why a few townsmen lived within the higher neighborhoods of Edo looking at the map 4 in the annex. This map represents the area around Edo before Ieyasu settled there. Some places actually remained to this day, like Asakusa temple, Hongo, Yushima, Komagome, Ichigaya, Yotsuya, Harajuku, Aoyama, Ueno, Kasumigaseki… But what is more interesting to observe is the main road going from the south to the east of the Edo castle, along the Hibiya creek. According to another source (Edomatsu): “the town of Edo, which was next to the castle, consisted of two tiny rows of houses on the shore of the bay.” It is thus very likely that these “two tiny rows of houses on the shore” were along the road represented on the map, facing the Hibiya creek. While the creek disappeared, covered by the dirt of Kanda hill, what happened to the houses of the people living in Edo village? We would like to suggest in this essay that they might have simply been incorporated within the city. Indeed, the townsmen houses of the map 3 are located precisely where Hibiya creek and the main road were before Edo city was built. This would explain thus explain why there are townsmen in the middle of Daimyo’s residential areas on map 3.

Lefebvre (1981, 89, translation mine) wrote “let us consider a city, a space constructed, shaped, occupied by social activities through historical times. Work or product? (…) Expressive and significative of what? Of who? We can say it or try to say it, indefinitely.” The philosopher approached the production of urban space through three concepts: the conceived, perceived and lived spaces. So far in this essay it seemed that Edo was mainly conceived, and under the authority of one man, Tokugawa Ieyasu. But this quotation and the presence of townsmen lodging on the map are reminders that cities are lived spaces. Ieyasu did not arrive in a desert space to build from scratch. There were villagers already, living here since possibly several generations, several centuries. Despite his authority, he had to incorporate not only the landscape, but also human factors into his plans. The villagers were thus possibly incorporated within Edo, or more accurately Ieyasu built Edo around the villagers and the castle. His work is also a product of the the socio-economic politics at stake before his arrival, before he was even born. This perspective suggests that the powers at stake in making Edo are way more diffused than one man.

In conclusion, there were complex politics at stake in the making of Edo. First, Edo’s fate depended on two personalities and their rivalry, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The latter settled to Edo through the concourse of political circumstances beyond his control, but also managed very cleverly to take the situation to his advantage militarily and economically. The building of the castle and its defense also served to confirm and strengthen the political power of Ieyasu, then shogun, among the daimyô all over Japan. Symbolically, the city was made to emphasize clearly his incontestable power as well as the social hierarchy that was to prevail throughout the reign of his family. This social hierarchy, marked by geographical segregation and discrepancy in access to defense and space is a strong feature of Edo. However, from the beginning there seems to have been exceptions to the social rules, as politics do not simply go from the top to the bottom. There are indeed two rows of townsmen lodgings within the daimyô and warrior’s areas, which are allegedly the oldest part of the town around which Edo was built. Culture and nature, which are forces beyond the scope of action of any leader were also at play in shaping Edo. Edo/Tokyo is a fascinating city to study for the human achievements that were made there. Hills were flattened, creeks were covered, the landscapes and society were tamed to fit the plans of the Tokugawa, yet at the same time Tokyo is and has also been this city of unpredictable development. All the catastrophes which happened there (fires, earthquakes, bombings) were mirrored with this human energy for construction, and the city indeed grew and keeps on growing in all directions. From Ieyasu’s time to this day, the city developed beyond politician’s control, at its own, organized and disorganized beat.


4. Map of Tokyo area before Ieyasu’s arrival, allegedly in the middle of the 16th century (Endô, 1968, 116).

5. A map of the Imperial palace and surrounding (Tokyo) nowadays (Google Maps, 2017).


Edomatsu. (Year Unknown). “Edo-jo, The grounds of Edo Castle” Available: Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Endô, M. 1968. 日本歴史シリーズ第11巻、江戸開府. Tokyo: Sekaibunkasha.

Goldfarb, L., DeSnoo, D.A. (2004). Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire. (Documentary). Available: Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Google Maps. (2017). A map of the Imperial palace and surrounding (Tokyo) nowadays. Copy from the website mine. Available:,139.7550406,4889m/data=!3m1!1e3. Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Lefebvre, H. (1981). La Production de l’espace. Paris: Éditions Anthropos. 2nd Edition.

Manabu, O. (2013). “丸の内・大手町 誕生秘話――地名で読む江戸の町.” Available: Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Okudaira, S. (2017). “400-year-old map shows Edo Castle’s purpose when built.” In: The Asahi Shimbun. Available: Last accessed: 14 July 2017.

The Mainichi. (2017). “Early pictorial map of Edo Castle unearthed in Matsue.” Available: Last accessed: 14 July 2017.

Tokyo Metropolitan Archives. (Year Unknown). “Keicho Edo Map.” Available: Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Tokyo Metropolitan Library. (2011). “江戸城に迫る.” (Video). Available: Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Unknown (1607–09?) “江戸始図.” Available: Last accessed: 17 July 2017.

Liberal Art Master student, I write my small answers to the big issues that obsess me in politics, development, literature, art, LGBTQ, …