As Japan enters into a new era and welcomes a new emperor, the grounds around the Tokyo Imperial Palace will become much busier. That’s because for the foreseeable future Emperor Naruhito will be “commuting” to what should be his official residence as he and his father continue to swap residences, a process that’ll most likely take years. This will surely result in more traffic and an uptick in security around the center of Japan’s capital. But that’s hardly news. It’s actually how the area has been for the better part of its history.

Today the Tokyo Imperial Palace, known as Kokyo in Japanese, is a large estate in the Chiyoda ward where the Japanese Emperor lives, performs his duties, and welcomes foreign dignitaries. It contains official residences, museums, administrative offices, and spacious gardens—only a small part of which are opened to the public except on special occasions like the emperor’s birthday. Despite its importance and a connection to one of the oldest royal families on the planet, most of the Imperial Palace is brand-new, going back no further than half a century to when it was constructed on the remains of what was once Edo Castle.

Great feudal lords have been occupying the area of what is today central Tokyo since at least the 12th century when Edo Shigetsugu built his residence there. The Edo family was eventually wiped out, but their legacy lived on for centuries in the form of Edo Castle. Initially called Chiyoda Castle, the grand fortress was built on the site of Shigetsugu’s residence in 1457 by the engineering monk Ota Dokan. However, it wasn’t until Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the center of his administration to Edo during the early 17th century that the castle became a city within a city.

People gathered to accompany a daimyo’s (feudal lord’s) procession outside of the main gate of the former Edo Castle (The Sakashitamon Gate)

A total of 40,000 people worked on turning Edo Castle into the largest fortification of its time. By the time the construction was completed in 1636, Edo Castle had a perimeter of about 16 km, was surrounded by 12m-tall walls, had 20m-tall ramparts, and housed nearly 150,000 people, a number of palaces, shrines, and military installations. Most of the building materials and the workforce were supplied by feudal lords showing their support for the Tokugawa clan. The richest were expected to supply the castle with gigantic granite stones transported from far-away lands while everyone else provided the men for digging moats and reclaiming lands around the fortification, which slowly started to become an extension of the castle.

Daimyo's (feudal lord's) procession in front of the Kikyomon Gate

During the 19th century Meiji Restoration, Japan’s shogunate was abolished and the emperor was returned to power. To symbolize this, in 1868 the emperor left Kyoto’s Imperial Palace and moved to Edo Castle, which back then was also known as Tokei Castle and later the Imperial Castle. After a series of fires to the castle palaces in the late 1800s, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and WWII bombings, soon almost nothing remained of the original structure. So, in 1968 the Imperial Palace that we know today was constructed basically from nothing using modern technology.

Nijubashi Bridge connects the main gate of the Imperial Palace

As Edo Castle continued to change, so did the area around it. After the Meiji government acquired lands surrounding the old fortress, they sold it to the Mitsubishi Corporation which helped revive the area known as Marunouchi as the economic and cultural center of Japan. The name “Marunouchi” means “within the circle” and refers to how the area used to be located within Edo Castle’s outer moat. Back then, it was primarily where feudal residences were located, but after being purchased by Mitsubishi the area slowly became the financial heart of Japan—housing 4,000 corporations and nearly a quarter of a million office workers.

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is probably what helped kick the whole thing off. Completed in 1894, it was the first office building in Japan where the headquarters of many corporations and banks were found. The original was demolished in 1968 but has been faithfully rebuilt as the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum which is dedicated to 19th century Western art.

Veiw of the Nijubashi Bridge from the modernized street in Meiji period

From the residence of one noble family to the seat of Japan’s military, imperial, and economic might, Kokyo and Marunouchi may have gone through a lot of rebirths but they continue to be the beating hearts of the country’s culture, history, and possibly its future.

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