Pre-History of Japan’s Vienna

From an American perspective, Tokyo is an old city, but in relation to other cities in Japan – Nara and Kyoto, for instance – each more than 1,000 years older – Tokyo is a newcomer. The hamlet called “Edo” didn’t even appear in historical records until 1280 and simply took its name from the dominant family domain occupying the shores of the estuary from the late 1100s.

The high ground along the west bank of the Hira (now known as the Kanda) River naturally became prime ground due to the bend in the river. Here, Edo Shigenaga established a fort of sorts, a vantage point, and a defensible position as a border post to the Minamoto clan (and at that juncture of history, the region’s Kamakura Shogunate). Although one certainly couldn’t call it a “castle” at this point, this enclosure would one day grow to be the largest castle in the world, a fact that few seem to appreciate.

Closer to the bay and at the convergence of several rivers (present day Nihonbashi; the original meaning “two logs over the river), the small hamlet of Edo would grow. Roughly meaning “entry of the estuary” in English, Edo’s position at the mouth of Hirakawa (the River Hira), and then later expanding to include even the mighty and wild Sumida River, allowed it to guard and control the water network that provided access of goods and materials to the inland areas of the huge and undeveloped forest of the Kanto Plain. Bulk transportation was almost exclusively by water (there were thousands of canals!). Beasts of burden were practically unheard of at the time.

Despite the import of its location and the presence of this border fort, for the next 135 years Edo remained a sleepy fishing village sandwiched between the highlands to the west, and swampy lowlands to the east. The harbor was mostly mud flats, and waves at high tide lapped at what is now Hibiya Park. It was a backwater of no political consequence. North of the city was hinterland, contested over by the remaining bands of Ainu – The castle at Sendai was later built as a part of a pogrom of annihilation (largely successful).

Not too far south, though, political rivalries and discontent amongst the military families of the Kamakura Shogunate would lead to its collapse (the farther south, the more violent). The Imperial Court in Kyoto would eventually split into two factions as armies of buddhist monks battled each other, and the nation would be plunged into the Warring States period – more than 130 years of civil war, where samurai lords vied with each other for territory, power, and influence. As an aside, NHK is playing a series on this specific warring period right now, Sanada Maru (staring the very popular actor Masato Sakai from the earlier hit drama, Hanzawa Naoki) (Sunday nights, 8:00 o‘clock).