Welcome to Tokyo - Welcome to a New World

Author: John Hacking

Tokyo is not a city for the hurried tourist making a quick stopover en route to other destinations in Japan. Tokyo comes as a real surprise to most travelers. Much more than a city, it is a completely different world.

When visitors to Japan first arrive at Narita International Airport, they often experience immediate culture shock. Signs point the way in Kanji (Japanese characters), but most tourists can't read them. Without a few helpful signs in English, it would be easy to get quite lost.

At first sight, Tokyo itself is crowded, loud and not especially beautiful. The air quality is not particularly good. Men wearing white gloves shove people inside the regional transit cars in order to fit more people inside, and most Japanese respond with a blank stare when spoken to in English.

Tokyo can be hard to negotiate and travel around town can be stressful - but it is also a unique and exhilarating experience.

Kagemusha, the Shadow Warrior.

Prior to 1456-1457, there is very little salient knowledge available about the city of Edo, Tokyo's predecessor. With the building of the Edo Fortress during these years in the mid-fifteenth century, the city on Hibiya Bay gained in importance.

The greatest advance, however, came in 1653, when the shogun Tokugawa leyasu established his centre of government here. Director Akira Kurosawa staged the life and work of this prominent, powerful shogun in his 1980 film Kagemusha - The Shadow Warrior. George Lucas did not shoot the backdrop of the film, but he spun the threads, so to speak.

In his novel Shogun, writer James Clivell also painted a portrait of the most imposing figure in Japanese history. Ieyasu is considered the founder of modern Tokyo, even though the city did not take its official name or become the "Capital of the East" until the emperor moved there in 1868.

Beginnings of Western influence.

The population of the city is said to have already exceeded a million at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Edo was not only the capital city under the Tokugawa shogunate, it was also the economic centre of Japan. The end of the shogunate is closely connected to the history of Edo, and by association, Tokyo. The balance of power changed under the Meiji emperors. Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa, who was rather weak with regard to the West, especially the United States, abdicated in 1867 and left Edo to the emperor.

But the actual goal of sealing Japan off from the West was never implemented by the shogun's adversaries, headed by the emperor. In fact, just the opposite occurred: a very active period of modernization based on the Western model began.

Destruction and rebuilding.

In Tokyo, European-style houses were built right in between traditional wooden houses. Some of the most famous examples are the houses on Ginza Street, which were built from red brick in order to create more European surroundings for foreign residents of the capital. In spite of everything, such changes were mainly superficial. The city plan and homes of the native Japanese remained closely tied to the Edo tradition of the Shogun Era. But that changed in 1923, the year of the Great Earthquake, measuring more than 8.0 on the Richter scale.

The earthquake itself and the fires that resulted from the it reduced nearly all of Tokyo to ruins. However, destruction has always represented an opportunity for change in Japan. Tragically, the Second World War came quite soon after the earthquake, signaling yet another period of devastating destruction.

The new development of Tokyo began after the end of the Second World War, and literally began on top of debris and ashes. On the basis of new technologies, a modern Tokyo cityscape consisting of skyscrapers, steel and concrete emerged. Special construction methods had to be used, because Tokyo lies in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. Earthquakes are nothing out of the ordinary here, and smaller tremors can be felt in the city almost daily.

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