Is Tokyo the capital of Japan? A quick history of Japan's capital cities

I was pretty blown away recently to discover that some people dispute that Tōkyō is actually the capital of Japan. No, it's not some crazy conspiracy theory. The dispute arises from the fact that the capital was never officially moved from Kyōto to Tōkyō like it was when it first moved from Nara to Kyōto over a thousand years ago.

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There's no official declaration of Tōkyō as the capital in the Japanese government, but various laws and official documents refer to Tōkyō as the shuto (首都 – capital area). While the term for transferring the capital is sento (遷都 – transfer of the capital), the transfer to Tōkyō as referred to as tento (奠都 – transfer of capital powers), which means that the ‘true’ capital remains Kyōto.

Traditionally, the capital of the country was determined by the location of the Emperor. The Nihon-Koku-Kenpo (日本国憲法 – Constitution of Japan) officially transfers sovereignty from the Emperor to the people, who are represented by the government. With the seat of government located in Tōkyō, this is the most plausible basis for saying that it's the official capital.

Does it really matter? Probably not to most people. But Japan is interesting because it has had several different capitals over the centuries of its existence.

Nara (奈良) – 710-784

Nara is about 30 minutes by train from both Osaka and Kyōto. It was the capital of Japan during the Nara period and was known as Heiji-kyo (平城京). The name 'Nara' came from the word narashita (均した – to be made flat).

Nara used to be much bigger than it is today and was modeled after the Chinese capital of the time, Xian. During this period there was a great deal of cultural and material trade with China. It was as an era of flourishing art and culture. This was the time when Buddhism was spreading widely in Japan and the capital was full of temples. Many have disappeared but quite a few are still standing today, making Nara one of Japan's top tourist destinations.

Nagaoka (長岡) – 784-794

In fact, the growth of the temples led to the capital being moved. As the power of the Buddhist clergy grew, the Emperor was moved to the nearby city of Nagaoka in order to protect him and restore his power. Nagaoka was the capital of Japan for just a decade.

Kyōto (京都) – 794-1869

The name Kyōto means 'capital city,' and it was the capital for over one thousand years. Like Nara, it was modeled after the capital city of China, which at that time was Chang'an. It was originally called Heian-Kyo (平安京), which means something like 'capital of tranquility and peace' and later came to be known as Kyōto (京都 – capital city). Kyōto was the first Japanese capital to be mentioned by travelers to Japan, spelling it Kioto, Meaco or Miako, the latter two of which are transliterations of miyako (都 – capital).

However, just because Kyōto was the country's capital doesn't mean it was the seat of power. During the several eras in which Kyōto was the capital, shogunates established their own regional capitals in other areas such as Kamakura and Edo (later Tōkyō). Tōkyō (東京 – eastern capital) was established by shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa in the 17th century and this led to a major shift in power from Kyōto to Tōkyō. Since it had been the de facto capital for hundreds of years, it only made sense to consider it the nation's capital at the beginning of the Meiji Era.

Moving On

After the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 2011, there were proposals to move the Japanese capital to avoid potential radiation damage. The truth is that there has been talk of moving the capital for over a decade, not because of radiation fears, but simply because Tōkyō is such a congested mess. Locations in the south such as Mie and Gifu Prefecture were considered, but it hasn't been in the news lately.

Cover photo by Miguel Michán

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