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Ocean Jigsaw Puzzle Piece Series - The Evolving of Edo-Tokyo from the 16th to 21st Century [2021年10月13日(Wed)]

This blog post was originally uploaded in Japanese to OPRI's blog on 24 September 2021.

“Japan as an ocean state” is a slogan not frequently used until recently. Nationwide construction projects, like the building of the pyramids in Egypt, were called “Tenka Bushin” and conducted all over Japan in the past, with systematic logistics for timber and rocks via rivers, canals, and the sea. The massive constructions contributed to prestigious large-scale castle towns such as Kumamoto, Okayama, Fukuyama, Nagoya, Odawara, etc. Edo, or Tokyo nowadays, has the largest castle area in Japan (Figure 1) and is a capital on the ocean, made possible by the sophisticated civil engineering of landfills and canal systems, where substantial trading, logistics, and other economic activities took place.

Figure 1 Edo Castle Tower of Kanei (1638-57) during the Edo Period (Scale: 1/30)

Edo, literally the gateway of rivers, has been a legend of urban planning (Figure 2) since her establishment in the 16th century. As of 1721, the population of Edo reached 1 million, surpassing London and Paris, and became the biggest city in the world. Serving as Japan's capital city in politics, commerce, and innovation, the city now embraces her inclusive mission with a continuously growing vitality among her 44 million metropolitan residents, equivalent to 43% of the population of Japan. Nevertheless, behind the efficient transportation, business enterprise, and vibrant global supply chains, the concepts making the city great are still evolving systematically. This study introduces the urban planning elements from Edo to Tokyo that contributed to its development throughout history from three aspects:

Figure 2: Estimated coastline before the Edo period (by the author)

A city of the ocean thanks to hydro engineering, Edo was designed in the Japanese transition period from wartime to the feudal Tokugawa shogunate. It first benefitted from massive canal moats and lagoon landfill projects carried out by other feudal lords. Construction was initially done under order, reflecting the contemporary power balance, but eventually was presented as proof of loyalty, and there was also the incentive of gaining more privileged residence areas if landfills could be made in the coastal areas. The overall urban planning successfully protected Edo from flood hazards, and the canals facilitated resource logistics (Figure 3) and a well-water supply system. The “Foresight” spiral-like design of the city has also allowed the urban area to expand unto the present day.

Figure 3 The busy water logistics under Nihonbashi Bridge

A city of resilience with disaster risk reduction and preparedness
Being an island state located on the Pacific Rim, Edo had high exposure to almost all kinds of natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and storms. However, for hundreds of years, the support provided by the public administrative and social system has ensured stability in the aftermath and rapid recovery. This rooted sense of resilience –“falling at times, but building back better and stronger.” Such a spirit has allowed Tokyo to overcome obstacles regarded as insurmountable, and even continually attract more residents for its inclusive growth.

A city of innovation toward Society 5.0
Edo became a consumption oriented city thanks to the "Change of Attendance" commanded by the Tokugawa feudal government, costing regional feudal lords a fortune traveling back and forth with a huge number of retainers every year. Creative industries prospered, incentivizing more sophisticated specializations. The importance of canals for logistics was reduced, as their critical space was thus transformed into urban highways. (Figure 4). As of 2015, the port of Tokyo resumed its top rank in Japan, mainly due to the shipping of alternative energy such as LNG and, soon, hydrogen power. A super smart society, or "Society 5.0," is under preparation to welcome decarbonization with eco-friendly transportation, production, and human-centered connectivity.

Figure 4 Highways built above the canals have served as major arteries

Tokyo is unique in being highly exposed, damaged by disasters, but always built back and then moving forward with resilience. Up to the 21st century, Tokyo has remained the prime destination for population inflow due to its convenience, opportunity, and potential, despite Japan's severely shrinking demography. This paper aims to generalize these critical elements with policy implications for cities that are emerging or confronting difficulties. The experience of Edo-Tokyo demonstrates a showcase of effective urban planning with its examples of profound wisdom in innovative and sustainable development.

Figure 5 A city still evolving with the embrace of the ocean – Tokyo-Edo

Michael C. Huang
Research Fellow
The Ocean Policy Research Institute

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