Episode 2: The Geography of Tokyo – The日本語 Project Podcast [Transcript]



What is a city?

The word “city” seems to be well understood by any person you ask, although what is really the definition of a “city”? Interestingly enough, there is not actually a single, internationally agreed upon definition of what constitutes a city. 

Even international organizations such as the United Nations cite that there is no singular definition of a city. Despite this, there are however some common types of definitions for a city. 

Conveniently, the UN uses the City of Toronto as an example here. Generally speaking, the administrative boundary is the legal definition of the “city”. This is “on the books” so to speak of how large the city is (by land size), where the city ends, what other municipalities it borders and so forth. However, this definition is also problematic as sometimes multiple cities can form regions, sharing resources. Furthermore, there are also population requirements for a city to be considered a city, which can vary based on the provinces in Canada. For instance, in Ontario this can be a population of 10 000, in Manitoba it’s considered to be 7 500. 

The other definitions looked at from the UN are more arbitrary. The “urban agglomeration” counts the continuous urbanized area to be part of the “city” (of course other cities are captured within this region) as well as the metropolitan area definition. The metropolitan area being defined as how interconnected the suburban cities outside of the administrative boundaries are to the city within the administrative boundary. 

The Japanese Definition

Japan, just like any other country, has its own definition of what constitutes a city. Under the Local Autonomy Law, there following conditions must be met for this status. 

  1. Contains a population of 50 000 or more
  2. 60% or more of the total houses are located in the urban area
  3. 60% or more of the total population is employed within some urban occupation (commerce/industry)
  4. All other conditions under the prefectural bylaws must also be met

History of Tokyo 

What we refer to as Tokyo today was known as Edo. This region was previously a small fishing village, inhabited by members of the Edo clan. In 1603, the Tokugawa Shogunate was established in Edo. While Edo was considered the de facto capital of Japan, Kyoto remained the official capital. 

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration period ended feudalism in Japan. The Meiji government was established, and Edo was renamed to Tokyo (East Capital) which became a prefecture. 

Not surprisingly, the Pacific War had a major impact on Tokyo. The prefecture Tokyo-fu and the city itself, Tokyo-shi, were abolished for efficiency reasons and they were merged, forming the Metropolis of Tokyo in 1943. 

In 1947, the new constitution took effect in Japan as well as the local autonomy law. Tokyo saw the election of the first governor, and this marked the beginning of the 23 special ward system that still exists today. 

So, what are these special wards? In essence they are a special type of municipality under the Local Autonomy Law. The special wards remain automatous from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. However, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government does work alongside these wards to deliver services such as firefighting and water services. Essentially these wards could all be seen as independent cities, but they were not considered as such until the year 2000. In addition to the 23 special wards, there are also 26 cities, 5 towns and 8 villages which comprise the Tokyo Metropolis. 


Where does that leave us today? Tokyo as a city no longer exists. Although if you ask the average person living outside of Japan, and maybe even within Japan, you would probably get the answer that yes Tokyo is very much a city. While legally Tokyo city ceased to exist in 1943, the 23 wards in particular are integrated in such a way that they almost disappear. The keyword being almost. 

When you think about Japan, it’s easy to describe a trip to Tokyo. But these conversations will almost inevitably bring into the discussion the special wards as well. Your friend John or Sally might say that they had a great time at Ueno park, went shopping in Shibuya and then had a quiet stroll down through the market in Asakusa. Perhaps the best way to think about all of this is to consider Tokyo as one big city, and these areas as regions, or neighbourhoods. The mental picture of Tokyo probably doesn’t bring the map of the special wards, cities, towns and villages which from the metropolis, but rather a more or less, continuous and large metropolitan area. The special wards do get some recognition, but really it only occurs in passing, and often tourists may not even notice! 

One thing is for certain though, a trip to Tokyo makes for a great vacation. I’ll catch you all in the next episode.  


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