Happy birthday, Tokyo

No doubt everyone reading this knows that Tokyo used to be called Edo. But did you know that it changed on this day in 1868, a.k.a. Meiji 1? Yes! Via an Imperial edict affectionately known as the Decree that Named Edo Tokyo (江戸ヲ称シテ東京ト為スノ詔書).

Here is the edict itself, in semi-modernized orthography:


I at this time settle all matters of state myself in the interest of the people. Edo is the largest city in the eastern provinces, a place in which things gather from every direction. It were well that I should personally oversee its governance. Therefore from this time on I shall call it "Tokyo" ("Eastern Capital"). This is so that I might oversee all affairs in the land equally, from east to west. Let the people heed this my will.

Note the emphasis on Imperial self-determinaton, this being the whole point of the Restoration. This isn't just about renaming a city: it's the Emperor announcing that he is serious about getting back into governance, and preparing to move his base of operations as the first step in that direction. Also note use of chin 朕, the [+emperor] first-person pronoun.

There's additional text below the edict itself, but it's mostly about how great and prosperous a town Edo/Tokyo has always been, plus reassurances that Tokyo and by extension Japan's post-restoration future is so bright that everyone in it should be wearing shades. Unfortunately, shades had not yet been invented, so those who could afford it settled for imported bowler hats and umbrellas. True story.

The Meiji Emperor's big move to Tokyo happened the following year, but he never did officially transfer the capital — unlike the previous emperors who had overseen more than a dozen transfers before finally settling on what would later become Kyoto in the Heian period — and so some people argue that technically, the capital is still Kyoto. On the other hand, laws have been passed referring to a "capital area" 首都圏 which is clearly centered on Tokyo. It's complicated, but a purely semantic issue. (Test: Does it bother you that the tomato is technically a fruit, not a vegetable? If not, you don't have to worry about whether Tokyo is really the capital of Japan or not.)

Popularity factor: 14


What I didn't know about this until today is that the 偏 (hen) of this character is not from 月 (tsuki) or 肉 (niku), but from 舟 (fune; small boat) And the 旁 next to it is supposed to both arms lifting something up high. Hmmm...

L.N. Hammer:

Don't some of those technicalities of the transfer involve rituals conducted by the divine emperor, which in our case we have not got? Admittedly, they still did when they had a Meiji emperor ...


Technically the edict was to rename Edo (江戸) to Eastern Capital (東京). For several decades this was variously read as Tōkei before settling on Tōkyō.


It's not too late to change the reading of 東京 to Dong King!


Ah, good point, Kindaichi... Thus we see the importance of furigana, and also not imposing one's modern viewpoint on the past.

L. N. Hammer: A non-divine emperor seems to have sufficed for the past 20 years or so, unless there has been serious controversy about incomplete rituals that I haven't run into. It must be more about just not needlessly antagonizing Kyoto at this point.


Some of the old ascension rituals are still done (not a completely continuous tradition, for when cash was mad tight in the Sengoku period, a lot of court protocol had to be dropped)--the Heisei emperor did the 大嘗祭, which consists of food offerings to deities. (And Harootunian wrote a florid piece including it, I think.)

But the Dajōsai can be done anywhere you've properly purified first, as far as I'm aware. Most of the rituals centered on the Tennō, as opposed to done by him, are pretty portable, actually. So long as you have an appropriate place to perform them in. (And the Meiji court calendar was a bit different from, say, the 延喜式, which is also only partially tennō-specific.)

Sgt. Tanuki:

Wow. I hadn't realized that the Emperor never officially transferred the capital to Edo/Tokyo. But now that I think about it, it seems to explain some things, lexically.

"東京," however you pronounce it, means "Eastern Capital," which sounds subordinate, when you think about it. It sounds like it presupposes another capital, of which this is just the Eastern BFF.

Up to now, I had always assumed that the Emp was thinking of the Chinese precedent, which had given the world a 南京 and then a 北京. But now I wonder if 東京 may not have been meant to suggest a subordinate position. I.e., if the word 東京 wasn't meant to be more or less equivalent to the word 東都, an epithet for Edo that was current at least in the early 19th century (Bakin uses it all the time). In fact, I'm positive I've seen 東京 itself used to refer to Edo in something from before 1868, although I can't for the life of me remember what it was.

A related question: is 1868, then, when 京都 stopped being a descriptor and started being a name? In early 19th century things (which is what I spend most of my time on), 京都, 京師, 都, and 京 all seem to occur with about the same frequency, maybe with 京師 having a slight edge. When did 京都 get the nod?

language hat:

"For several decades this was variously read as Tōkei before settling on Tōkyō."

Wow, that's fascinating -- when and why did the change occur? I mean, if people had been going around for decades talking about living in Tōkei, going to Tōkei to see a man about an umbrella, etc., why would it occur to someone to suddenly start saying Tōkyō instead, and why would other people follow their lead instead of pointing and laughing?


Kindaichi might have better information, but as I understand it, most of the regular folks were pronouncing it "Tokyo" right from the start, while the emperor and certain other upper-class folks said "Tokei" (thus "variously"). Eventually the more commonly used, and logical in light of the pronunciation "Kyoto" etc., pronunciation won out over the socially isolated minority.

Sgt. Tanuki: Wikipedia says that 京都 gradually became a proper noun (and not a description) over a long period starting in the late Heian. Maybe the official founding of 京都府 in 1868 was the decisive blow?


I wonder about that Wikipedia. How would you know a proper noun from a description, or be precise about the distinction? But, yes, I believe I've seen 京都 in a diary or two.

On multiple pronunciations settling out over a life time, I only have to say: Arkansas. (Although a law set the pronunciation of that one, at least officially.)

language hat:

Thanks, that makes sense.


For those who read Japanese, there is a bit of historical detail on the topic of Tōkei vs. Tōkyō here:



There's something hair-raising, martially intimidating about decrees containing katakana okurigana, sort of like a King James English Commandment, as opposed to a Revised-to-be-Wishywashy English Commandment. Was that Tokugawa orthographic practice for official edicts as well? Or did it begin with Meiji?


"Tōkei", being the kan'on pronunciation, is of course more Confucian and "kaika" and high-browed than the go'on of Buddhism and Edo proles.

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