Did you know that Tokyo technically isn`t a city? Technically, Tokyo is a prefecture, made up of 23 smaller mini city pocket special wards. However, Tokyo prefecture is only a small fraction of The Greater Tokyo Area…so how big is Tokyo, and how do we even begin to define it as an area?
It’s…pretty complicated. Let’s first go over the facts.
How is the area of Tokyo defined officially? Is Tokyo a city, a prefecture, a state, or an area? The confusion continues…
Tokyo is technically one of the 47 prefectures that make up the country. However, unlike most other prefectures, the Tokyo prefecture does not contain a capital. Whereas the capital of Osaka prefecture is Osaka city, the Tokyo prefecture is instead comprised of 23 special smaller ‘wards’, which are essentially smaller government jurisdiction pockets that make up the prefecture of Tokyo.
So Tokyo isn’t a city? A bit of history
Not currently. However, there did originally exist a Tokyo city (which was historically renamed to Tokyo from Edo when it became the capital of Japan in 1868 ), however, Tokyo city was abolished in 1943 and would merge with Tokyo Prefecture to form the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. This would allow the areas in and around Tokyo city to be governed from the then central government, with the governor of Tokyo reporting directly to prime minister, who would then report to the emperor and so-on. This direct control would continue until 1947 when the current structure of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was introduced. In the process of decentralizing power from the central government, the areas that comprised Tokyo city would be split up into 23 independent wards which make up the areas of the Tokyo prefecture. This is the current system that is still in place today. So, currently, Tokyo is not a city. Tokyo is a prefecture.
A quick summary; What all of these definitions means
So, to summarize, Tokyo isn’t a city, but is instead a prefecture made of 23 mini-city areas known as special wards. You can think of a prefecture as being similar to what a state would be in the United States. That being said, Tokyo is conceptually thought of as a city in Japan. While technically defined as a prefecture, the lifestyle of the average Japanese person make it very difficult to define where the boundaries of Tokyo begin and end. Put simply, it’s very difficult to define what exactly Tokyo means.
Oh, but believe me…people sure have tried! They really. REALLY tried *cries and crumbles under the pressure of research materials gathered to write this article.
Based on my research, there are dozens of different ways the various municipalities around Tokyo choose to define the city.
Have you ever played any of the Civilization games, where you can view filters on different areas of your land that allow you to see different trade routes, religious spread, population, etc? It`s kind of like that.
The different ways the boundaries of Tokyo have been defined. Tokyo isn’t a city, but is it a prefecture or greater area?
There are dozens of different definitions of what Tokyo even means, and which area’s are considered Tokyo in an official capacity, and which areas are colloquially referred to as a part of Tokyo, but are actually a part of a separate prefecture. One example of how politicians have defined the area of Tokyo as a concept is the idea of `One Metropolis, Three Prefectures` (一都三県, Itto Sanken), which states that the `area of Tokyo` consists of the Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures. However, this leaves out many of the smaller neighborhoods that many people would commonly refer to as Tokyo.
As with most of my articles, please allow me to provide you with added context. Wow, what a hero I am!
So, why is it so difficult to define the area of Tokyo?
Japan is a ‘commuting nation’. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, about 86 percent of Japanese companies pay their employees’ tsukin teate, or “commuting allowance.” Japan’s dense population and excellent public transportations system, along with the fact that most companies pay 100% of their employees transportation to work means that it is extremely common for people to commute from Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture’s on a daily basis. In fact, when looking at the data, 34.8% of the working population of surrounding prefecture Saitama (埼玉) commutes to Tokyo daily. 32.1% of the working population of Chiba (千葉) commutes to Tokyo daily, and so on. (source: Statistics Bureau of Japan)
So an extremely high number of workers commute into Tokyo daily, but there’s another factor to consider
Japan’s group-mentality means that more often than not, people will choose to meet up in the most centralized location. Due to the geography of the area, somebody who lives in Saitama (north-west of Tokyo), and somebody who lives in Chiba (far-west of Tokyo) can meet in the middle at some of Tokyo’s most centralized stations. Tokyo’s central location makes it a hub of-sorts for all surrounding prefectures.
With the choice between Saitama, Chiba, and Tokyo, most people will always choose to go out in Tokyo.
This is a fact.
Nightlife in Japanese cities center around the last train
In Japan, people’s social life tend to revolve around easily-accessible train stations. “Let’s meet in Shinjuku”, usually means ‘Let’s meet at JR Shinjuku station’. It’s really just an unspoken pattern of life, which leads to more people meeting at these centralized train stations across Tokyo. This makes the timing of the last train extremely relevant in urban Japan. People talk about it constantly. ‘Shuden wa?’ (When is the last train?), ‘Shuden daijyoubu?’ (You aren’t going to catch the last train?) are two sentences you will hear if you stay out late in virtually any city in Japan. The ‘last train’ is the…last train of the night! Pretty self-explanatory, right? Every morning around from 6am-9am people pour into Tokyo from surrounding prefectures, and will often stay until shuden (the last train), which usually leaves somewhere around 12:30 am.
Do people say that they live in…Tokyo?
So…say you hypothetically commute in from neighboring Saitama, but you work in downtown Tokyo, often meeting up with friends and running errands until late at night, and sometimes until the last train. You only go home to sleep, do laundry, etc. Would you tell people that you live in Saitama? I think what often happens is people say they live in Tokyo, but that their home is in Saitama. Generally speaking, the closer one is to a major Tokyo station, the more likely they are to say that they live in Tokyo, even if their home is technically outside of the prefectural limits.
The Kanto Major Metropolitan Area; A definition of Tokyo based on commuter data
So Tokyo technically isn’t a city, and is instead a prefecture separated into 23 wards. We not know that this definition may not be practical enough in a modern sense, however. Throughout my experience combing through the many different definitions of the area that makes up Tokyo, one definition for the area of Tokyo that seems like a proper balance between the concept of Tokyo as a city, and Tokyo as a prefecture / Greater Area is the concept of the Kantō Major Metropolitan Area (関東大都市圏, Kantō Dai-toshi-ken).
The Kanto Major Metropolitan Area; The How most people who say they `live in Tokyo` would define the central Tokyo area.
This definition is especially practical because the areas designated are based on the commuting data from the surrounding region. Essentially, areas that have a high percentage of commuters riding to Tokyo on a regular basis are designated as a part of Kantō Major Metropolitan Area. To qualify to be a part of this region and be considered as a part of this more general Tokyo area areas must have 1.5% of their population aged 15 and above commuting to a designated city (Yokohama, Kawasaki, Sagamihara, Chiba, and Saitama) or the 23 special wards of Tokyo.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Kantō through Pokémon? It is based on this region.
I think this is my favorite definition of the Tokyo area, because it acknowledges the practical reality of the region. That being aid, there is a designation for the Tokyo area that is used more often. That is the designation of the Greater Tokyo Area.
What about the Greater Tokyo Area?
The Greater Tokyo Area is referred to by various terms in Japanese, with the most common of them being the shutoken (首都圏). The Greater Tokyo Area contains the entirety of the prefectures surrounding Tokyo’s 23 special wards including the neighboring prefectures; Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma) as well as the prefecture of Yamanashi. This designation includes a lot more rural areas, including areas that are practically quite distant from Tokyo. This is why I personally prefer the Kanto Major Metropolitan Area, because somebody living in West Yamanashi is over 2 hours away by train from central Tokyo…which seems just a little bit too removed in my opinion to be considered a part of the Greater Tokyo area. This has become somewhat of an inside joke with Japanese people as well, because Yamanashi and central Tokyo are about as polar opposite locations imaginable. So…is Yamanashi is a…part of Tokyo?
Yamanashi…Yamanashi a part of Tokyo? A look into the scope of the Greater Tokyo Area
Even if you`ve never heard of Yamanashi, you`ve probably seen pictures that were taken in the area. Yamanashi is famous for being right next to Mount Fuji, and is very photogenic. However, most people who visit Mount Fuji typically go through the Shizuoka prefecture, because it follows the coast and is a much shorter trip from Tokyo. This is because Yamanashi is located right in the center of a mountainous canyon range. Despite only being a 90 minute train ride from Shinjuku, Tokyo, which is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, Yamanashi has a population of less than a million (817,192 as of 2019), and is one of the more isolated prefectures in Japan.
Because of these difficulties in reaching Yamanashi from Tokyo, I was curious what the Japanese perception on Yamanashi being included in Greater Tokyo Area was. So…I went down a bit of a google-search rabbit hole. From reading some local`s experiences moving to Yamanashi from other areas of Japan, I came across some common insights. Generally, the underlying theme I saw in all of these blog posts, forums, and YouTube videos was that Yamanashi is a beautiful place that exudes some kind of air of `exclusivity` through most facets of life there. The people, most of them having lived there their entire lives, have a very unique Japanese dialect, unique traditions, and a strong sense of community that is difficult to penetrate. Being very out-of-the-way, much of the economy is insular, and the former downtown areas of the capital city, Kofu, have been reduced year by year to an ever-barren sea of empty storefronts and chain restaurants. It’s a strange dichotomy of being so close to the largest metropolitan area in the world, yet being in the center of an isolated basic next to one of the world’s most famous icons, Mt. Fuji.
Do Japanese people think Yamanashi is part of the Tokyo identity? Is Yamanashi really a part of the Greater Tokyo Area?
In the hopes of obtaining righteous knowledge, I decided to throw a post up on Hello Talk (A language exchange app I can recommend using to supplement your Japanese studies). I asked Japanese natives what they thought about Yamanashi being included in the definition of Greater Tokyo Area.
The first responder said “It depends on the specific context, but I think that the Greater Tokyo Area should include Tokyo’s 23 wards, Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama.” The second responder said “I didn’t know! I had no idea Yamanashi was a part of the Greater Tokyo Area.” The third responder liked the post. The fourth responder said “There are a lot of people who commute to Tokyo to work from Yamanashi, so I think including Yamanashi in this definition is good.” In response to the fourth person, I would acknowledge that many people who live close to the center of Kofu, which is the capital of Yamanashi, do in fact commute to Tokyo. That being said, according to the study I had referenced early, less than 5% of Yamanashi workers to commuting outside of Yamanashi for Tokyo on a regular basis. When compared to the 34.8% of Saitama residents, and considering Yamanashi’s much smaller population, this is still a relatively low number.
In my opinion, Yamanashi continues to be considered a part of the Greater Tokyo Area in an effort to encourage Tokyo residents to move to Yamanashi, which is a good example of a rural area that is facing a crises in population decline, while the neighboring Tokyo prefecture still continues to increase in population year by year. Yamanashi’s nearby Mt. Fuji as an incredibly iconic image of Japan may be another possible reason why Yamanashi continues to be included in this definition.
Honestly though, I still don’t buy it. I would love to visit Yamanashi. In fact, it’s one of the areas I am the most interested in, as it would be the perfect escape from the amazing concrete jungle that is Tokyo. I just… I just can’t consider it a part of Tokyo though. That’s my opinion. The mountainous characteristics of the region make Yamanashi simply too difficult to reach from Tokyo to consider it a part of a cohesive area with everything else.
The reason I became interested in this question
Before moving to Tokyo, I lived in the Kansai region of Japan for over 5 years. I spent the majority of those 4 years as a university student (you can read about my experience in Japanese university here), and my last year of university looking for work. In Japan, it is the expectation that university students spend their entire 4th year going through Japan`s new graduate job hunting funnel.
It`s not a fun funnel. It`s more like a funnel of rejection and all-consuming depression.
This job-hunting void typically ends up in Tokyo, because most students are expected to travel to Tokyo for the final round of job interviews for probably around 80% of the companies in Japan. As a final year university student in Japan, your eyes really become focused on Tokyo. Having had lived in Japan for around 5 years at this point, but having spent collectively around a week in Tokyo, I started doing a little bit more research on the best place to stay, which area had cheap hotels and Air BNB’s, where to go for a little bit of fun after my apocalyptic final interview was finished, etc. etc. Basically, this time I went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole.
And I found out that the logic of how Tokyo is laid out is pretty…different
What I thought was Tokyo was always Tokyo, but a lot of the time what I assumed isn’t Tokyo was ‘kind of’ Tokyo, and that’s when I realized that this whole system must be pretty crazy. Looks like I was right.
If you’re thinking of visiting Tokyo in the near future and are wondering how to spend your night, I laid out my ideal plan for you in the article below. It gives you recommendations on initial transportation, sight-seeing spots, where to eat your first dinner, where to go for drinks / fun afterwards, and what to do on the way back. I think you’ll enjoy the trip, even if just vicariously through my writing, so please feel free to check out the article below.