Review of History of Tokyo

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I recently read that fewer and fewer people are choosing history as a major. It seems that majors that have more ‘real-world value’ have become more important. With the uncertain economic future, students are more interested in a major that can give them a job in the real world.

But, I think it is important to have a good background. Most of the questions about how or why a culture is a certain way can be answered with a little history. For example, the States are a very different place since it is essentially made up of immigrants. Many of them coming to the States because they saw it as a land of opportunity. This has provided the States with diversity, but also some unique America-only problems. Compare that to a country that, sort of, ‘grew up’ together, like Japan.

When I visited Paris 10 or so years ago, I was just there to see the touristy stuff like the museums and Eiffel Tower. And since I was really busy planning for other things, I hadn’t really done that much research. I just figured I would plan it out once I got there. But occasionally this meant walking by some rather famous landmark and having no real idea of why it was there. And the city itself just seemed like a big mass of streets, instead of neighborhoods with distinct personalities.

Every city has a story though and knowing that story helps bring a lot of context to what you see and also change your mundane walk through another big city into something a little more meaningful. That’s what interested me in reading through a copy of History of Tokyo, which is one of the more complete histories of the city.

Story of Rebirth

Although the book covers the history of the Meiji Restoration onward 1867~, it starts out talking about the earthquake of 1923, which destroyed a lot of the city. It covers how the earthquake was seen as devastating but also a way for the city to be reborn into a new modern city. It’s hard to imagine that Tokyo was once a fairly flat city with only a few tall buildings. Yet even with that limited capacity it might have been one of the largest cities in the 19th century, even surpassing London.

This theme of rebirth seems to be an ongoing in Japan. Japan opened it’s doors during the Meiji restoration and within 40 years was able to completely modernize. The 1923 earthquake allowed Tokyo to start again and build a better city. Japan was reborn again in the post-war period as well becoming an electronics giant. And now Japan has been reborn as a major tourist destination.

Different Approach

History of Tokyo walks you through each of these stages of rebirth, taking you from Edo (the old name of Tokyo) to late 80s Tokyo with old black and white photographs and excerpts from writers. This really helps to make the story more relatable and interesting to read.

Before I came Japan, I managed to make my way through The Making of Modern Japan. It provides a very solid picture of the making of modern Japan from the 1600s on. However, it read like your typical history book with lots of facts and details. These are useful of course, but can tend to all blend together and make it difficult to see the path Japan took. It also included photographs but like so many history books, they were all sandwiched in the middle in one big wad.

History of Tokyo instead gives you a look on history that is not as clinical and fact heavy, but still well-researched. Edward Seidensticker obviously did his homework and backed up a lot of his writing with firsthand sources and details.


I recommend this book if you are even a little interested in history. And if you are not interested in history, you should be since it can add a lot of depth to your travels. It’s a thick book, but well worth the investment in time.

Also, if you are visiting Tokyo, be sure to check out the Edo museum. It has a lot of exhibits that really show what it was like in old Tokyo. It was much more interesting than I expected and well worth the visit.

Have you been to Tokyo? What did you find the most interesting about it? Let me know in the comments.

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