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The City of Edo

The City of Edo, or Explaining the Long Peace of the Tokugawa Japan

To understand the decisive role that the city of Edo played in the long peace of the Tokugawa, one must first recall that Japan, prior to the Tokugawa, had the cities at the eastern end of the Setonaikai (Japan’s Mediterranean) as its center, namely Osaka(Naniwa), Nara and Kyoto. This is quite natural as Japan has always had to be conscious about its gigantic neighbor to the west, China. The pre-Tokugawa capitals were far enough from China to maintain independence, while close enough with it for trade between the two countries to continue. While the first samurai government was built in Kamakura, close to latter day Edo, the city itself was small in comparison to the older capitals and had never achieved economic importance to compete with them.

Edo was therefore built on the peripheries of traditional Japanese territory. It was practically frontier land. Before the Tokuagawa, the Kanto plain surrounding the city of Edo was sparsely populated and large parts of it not suitable for cultivation. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, therefore had to invest considerably in the development of the area. Why, then, go through all the trouble? Why not just take over Osaka, whose previous master, the Toyotomi, had so thoroughly been destroyed, as the Tokugawa capital?

To answer this question, one must think of the impact of Toyotomi rule. Before Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan had been ruled by the nobility and high-ranking samurai who had branched out from the Imperial family. That Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a commoner from the humblest of origins, reached the position of Imperial Regent, with his ranking in the Imperial nobility second only to the Emperor himself, meant the destruction of this political tradision that could be traced back to the birth of the country. In short, a socio-political revolution that made traditional authority too weak to keep ruling Japan.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the author of another revolutionary change, this one in the field of foreign relations. Before the Toyotomi, Japan was not a major player in the international relations of East Asia. This was all changed in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Korean expeditionary war (1592-1598). In this war, Japan, with a population of 13 million, sent between 130,000 and 150,000 men to the Korean peninsula with the objective of conquering China The war ended in stalemate on Korean soil and failed to achieve anything for Japan, but Japan’s military might, enhanced by Japan’s century and half era of civil war (Sengoku), left a mark, both within Japan and without. The Japanese soldiers were ferocious fighters, often beating Chinese forces 10 times its size.

In short, after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan was left with a vacuum of authority (the traditional elite were proven to be impotent by the Toyotomi!) and a war fever (demands for another attack on Korea and China were acutally strong among lower ranking Samurai). Although Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the ultimate Samurai warlord victor following his win in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, these problems remained unresolved.

To create a new capital in the shape of Edo at border of Japan proper and its hinterland was, then, a stroke of genius. The soldiers, who had become unemployed with the arrival of peace (thus the war fever) were mobilized to reclaim land, tame river flows, dig ditches and canals, and build Edo Castle that will serve as administrative center of the nation rather than a military base, thus contributing to peace through the absorption of an excess labor force as well as increased production thanks to dramatically improved infrastructure.

by Iehiro Tokugawa, 19th Head of the Tokugawa Shogunal Household

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