The Tokyo Station neighborhood is a must-go destination because of the rich history and culture the architectures there represent, and also because you can experience everything without paying for anything. This podcast will be your museum audio guide for the outdoor museum of the dramatic modern Japanese history – Tokyo Station.
Show host Kyota Ko takes you on a virtual tour. Get out your ear pods and Google Maps!
Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today to answer a question that must be answered for everyone who’s thinking of visiting Japan. There’s Kyoto with all the beautiful temples, there’s Osaka with all the good and cheap food, but is it worth visiting Tokyo Station, the center of the capital of Japan? I’d like to answer this question with a yes and give you enough reasons to entice you to go there. Or if you already live in Tokyo and Tokyo Station is your favorite place, I want to justify why you feel that way. My name is Kyota Ko.
So in the city of Tokyo, the primary tourist magnets are Akihabara Station which is virtually a theme park of Japanimation, Ginza Station which is where all the nicest boutiques and department stores are so basically a theme park for shopaholics, Asakusa Station is where Sensoji temple is, which is basically an enormous exhibition of traditional Japanese culture, Shibuya of course is where the famous Scramble Crossing is – very Instagramable, and maybe Roppongi Station, which is where all the club-goers go.
So what does Tokyo Station have to offer? Is there really anything left to see or do? Well, if you stop and think for a moment, Akihabara, Ginza, Asakusa, Shibuya and Roppongi are all representative tourist spots of Tokyo, but they are all commercialized representations of Tokyo or Japan. Even Asakusa. Asakusa is where local merchants show you stuff that are Japanese-themed – like a plastic Katana sword or key chains with ninja mascots – so that you’ll drop some money there. Those souvenirs look Japanese, but no local Japanese person would associate any of those goods with authentic Japanese culture. Their purpose is not to share Japanese culture with foreign guests. Their purpose is to get some money out of the wallets of foreign guests.
I personally don’t really like Asakusa. At least the long shopping alley leading to Sensoji temple is too commercialized and optimized to present a very stereotypical image of Japanese culture.
Meanwhile the Tokyo Station area, I believe, is a very authentic representation of Japanese culture. And unlike Asakusa, you can enjoy it without spending hardly any money. I really like that character of Tokyo Station. It doesn’t try to make anyone pull out her purse. There are no crowds to deal with, there is no pressure to buy stuff. It just quietly lets you be and immerse in Japanese culture and history.
So let me explain how this is so.
Tokyo Station is horizontally wide stretching to the north and south, and its front entrance faces the west. If you search Tokyo Station on Google Maps, you’ll see that the imperial palace is located west of Tokyo Station. Which means Tokyo Station faces the imperial palace, and the area between the station and the palace is called Marunouchi.
Everything I will talk about in this podcast is about the Marunouchi area, the west side of Tokyo Station. If you come to Tokyo Station by train, I think most of you will, go outside the station from the Marunouchi Exits, not the Yaesu Exits which is on the east side. There’s not much to see in that direction.
There are three Marunouchi Exits on the ground floor of Tokyo Station. The Marunouchi Central Gate, the Marunouchi North gate, and the Marunouchi South Gate. They all take you to the same big plaza right outside the station. I’d like you to start your day here.
What’s so great about the Tokyo Station area is that it gets you on a time machine and takes you on a visual tour through modern Japanese history dating back from the 17th century all the way to the present. You can see hard evidence of how Japan has evolved through time – how it developed itself, how it learned from its mistakes, and how its culture has merged into modern design and technology.
So please try listening to this podcast before the day you plan to visit Tokyo Station, maybe in your hotel room, or if you’re traveling alone, try listening to it as you walk around the Tokyo Station area. It will serve like an audio-guide at a museum.
So let’s start our trip back in time by going back to the 17th century. Please head towards the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace is very easy to find if you start from Tokyo Station. After you get out of the station from the Marunouchi Central Gate all you have to do is walk dead straight along a very nice and wide open street, and you will get to the Imperial Palace. That’s where the emperor lives. You can go into their huge outer garden – it’s a vast open space with turf and pine trees. You can go all the way up to the bridge that leads to the home of the imperial family. On your Google Maps, this place is called Sakashita Gate.
Now the reason I brought you to the doorstep of the Imperial family first is because 400 years ago, this place was called Edo Castle, which was the symbol of a very important time period of Japanese history called the Edo Period.
Now if you go to museums in Japan, you will see and hear Edo Period Edo Period everywhere. “This art work is from the Edo Period.” “This ruler ruled during the Edo Period” Edo this Edo that. And you’ll be wondering What the hell is Edo Period.
Edo Period was a time Japan enjoyed peace for over 250 years. No war for over 250 years between 1603 – 1867. Until the Edo Era, Japan was in a long period of civil war. There were several dozens of samurai lords with land and armies waging war onto each other to expand their territories. They fought so often as if they were competing in sports.
TOKUGAWA Ieyasu was the samurai lord who ultimately put an end to this madness, and to make it clear that he was in power, he built Edo Castle where the Imperial Palace is today. The castle spread across 2.3 km2, which is a little bigger than the country of Monaco. It was undoubtedly the biggest castle ever built in Japan. TOKUGAWA Ieyasu moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo. And some of you may have guessed it at this point, but yes, Tokyo used to be called Edo during the Edo Period. There is a subway train you may get on if you choose to go clubbing in Roppongi called the O-edo Line; O means big or great in Japanese, so O-edo Line translates to Great Tokyo Line.
The Edo Period was important for Japan because during much of this time frame, Japan restricted contact with other countries and therefore it was able to develop its own very unique culture.. The primary reason is said to be to control the growth of Christianity in Japan. Missionaries from foreign countries were not allowed to enter Japan during much of the Edo Period.
So ordinary people had absolutely no chance to see anything foreign, which means Japan was hardly influenced by foreign cultures for around 200 years. Many historians attribute this long period of divorce with the rest of the world with how distinct Japanese culture came to be. Japanese paintings may not have ended up looking so 2D if Western painting techniques were made accessible to Japanese artists. So Edo Period played a crucial role in forming Japanese culture as we see it today.
So anyway, again, the Imperial Palace is what used to be Edo Castle, the greatest Japanese castle ever. It had the most advanced warfare technology of the time applied into various places in its premises. You’ll see many gates and bridges with walls and turrets built around them.
It’s a bit hard to explain without visuals so I won’t go into details in this podcast, but I think it’ll be interesting to imagine it’s the 17th century and you are leading an army of thousands of spearmen trying to get through all the gates. You’ll notice you won’t be able to use the advantage of having a large troop because the gates and bridges will force your men to march through a narrow space. And they’d be annihilated by bowmen and gunmen popping up from behind the walls and turrets on the side.
Now you may notice something weird here. You may notice that in the Edo Castle premises, there is no big castle tower. If you Google the keywords Japan Castle, you’ll see pictures of temple-like structures that are several stories tall with white walls and grey roofs. That’s how typical Japanese castle towers look like. Where is it?
Actually, castle towers are only symbolic parts of castles. So technically speaking, the bridges, ditches and stone walls that serve as a fortress are all collectively a castle. But again, Edo Castle doesn’t have that symbolic castle tower. Why?
In fact, there used to be a grand castle tower that overlooked the city of Edo and it was the tallest castle tower ever built. It was a message to the samurai lords all around Japan that the TOKUGAWA family had superior military power, and that they shouldn’t even dream of trying to overthrow the ruling government. But in 1657, there was a historical, huge outbreak of fire in the city of Edo and pretty much the whole city got burnt down, and somewhere between 30,000 to 100,000 people died. The castle tower of Edo was also burnt down in this great fire.
So the government back then started rebuilding the city and the castle after the fire was finally extinguished, and of course the symbolic castle tower was going to be rebuilt too, but a pragmatic-minded government officer named HOSHINA Masayuki who was taking the lead of the reconstruction of Edo City said “You know what guys, who needs an extravagant castle tower now that we have established peace in all of Japan? There are no more samurai lords looking to overthrow the government. There is no need to boast our power. And look at the shit our people are in. Most people don’t even have a home anymore. Let’s just forget about the castle tower and focus on restoring the city.”
So that’s what they did. The castle was never to be built again, and Japan in fact had no civil war for another 200 years. Having no castle tower was the new symbol of peace. Edo Period was that kind of time period. Japanese people could focus on being human beings by living in peace. Our traditional food culture, art and entertainment all developed significantly during this Edo Period.
You can actually still see and walk on the foundation of the castle tower in the Imperial Palace garden. On Google Maps, it’s called Site of Edo Castle’s Keep. The castle tower was supposed to be built there.
So the Imperial Palace took us back to the Edo Period. And as I told you before, the Edo Period was a time of seclusion from the rest of the world. All architectures looked Japanese, everyone wore kimono – they all had that stereotypical Japanese look the world mentally pictures when they think about Japan.
You can actually see what Edo looked like and spend time walking around in it if you go to this amusement park called Nikko Edomura. It’s in a tourist-friendly area called Nikko which is a 2 hour train ride from the center of Tokyo.
Now the Edo period ended 15 years after two big black American steamboats arrived at Tokyo Bay in 1853 their purpose being to demand that Japan opens up for trade, and this was a wake-up call for Japan. The Western world had gained far advanced technology by going through an Industrial Revolution, while Japan was locking itself up for 200 years.
Japan had been governed by Shogunates, which means governments run by the Samurai class for the past 700 years until then because they traditionally had the most power, I mean literally. They knew how to use the sword and armies of men. But when those gigantic American steamboats came in – there was actually no hostile gunfire at all, nobody on either side got killed or anything – but just their floating off shore was threatening enough for the TOKUGAWA Shogunate to get really worried.
Until then, they practiced almost a complete dictatorship, but they got sandwiched between 1 the all mighty Americans who were demanding the opening of their ports, and 2 the many Japanese feudal domains with a strong sense of nationalism who didn’t want Japan to be told what to do by foreign countries. The TOKUGAWA Shogunate started asking for people’s opinions on what Japan should do, kinda like a democracy, and this actually led to the weakening of their authority from Japanese people’s eyes.
The Shogun at that time was sick in bed and in fact died during all this, and his heir was too young to take leadership. You can imagine how helpless the Shogunate officers must have felt at this time – it’s like the president of a family business died and his son took over but he’s a teenager. These circumstances contributed to a coup de tat which was realized by a group of very nationalistic feudal domains, and they backed up the emperor to gain control of the new government in 1868.
The emperor moved from Kyoto to Edo City, and Edo City was renamed to Tokyo City. Kyo in Japanese means capital, and To in Japanese means east. So Tokyo means East Capital, which means it’s a place located in the east worthy for the emperor to live in.
The emperor’s new house was in the premises of Edo Castle, which was renamed to Tokyo Castle, and eventually came to be called the Imperial Palace, because that represented the purpose of the place better. So this is the grand story behind the Imperial Palace. The Edo Period began and ended here. After the Edo Period, A new era began and it was called the Meiji period which spanned between 1868 and 1912.
So let’s get back to your Google Maps. If you input Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, which is only two blocks away from the Outer Garden of the Imperial Palace, you’ll come across a building made of red bricks and white stone. Brick buildings are very rare in Japan because above all architectural styles using bricks is of Western origin – the design of Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum is namely of British origin. And this building is a good representation of the Meiji period.
So after the big black American ships came and Japan decided to open itself up to the world for trade, loads of knowledge about Western culture came into the country. The Meiji government thought Japan needed to play catch up with the Western world really quickly, because otherwise Japan might eventually be colonized by the West and lose its independence, just like all of the neighboring Asian countries.
So it started accepting modern technology, philosophies, art, fashion, anything Western really aggressively. Western equaled modern and modern equaled good, therefore anything Western was considered good in the minds of many Japanese people back then.
The Meiji government brought over experts of all fields imaginable from England, Germany, France and the Netherlands, to learn from them and adopt Western techniques and ideologies into many projects to modernize Japan. Among them was architect Josiah Conder, who taught many of the founding fathers of modern Japanese architecture and also took on construction projects himself, such as Mitsubishi Ichigokan which was completed for the first time in 1894. The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum we see today is a restoration of the original building.
Tokyo Station, which I will discuss in detail later, was designed by a Japanese architect called TATSUNO Kingo, who was one of the very first students of Josiah Conder at Tokyo University. Conder has great influence on modern Japanese architecture and he has a special place in Japanese history and the hearts of people who know about him because he fell in love with Japan and decided to keep living here even after his contract with the Japanese government ended. He got married with a Japanese woman and lived in Tokyo until he died at the age of 67, which was 43 years after he first came to Japan, and I would like to add here that he died just 11 days after his Japanese wife passed away. You can still see some examples of his architectural masterpieces in various places in Tokyo.
Anyway, there were some other buildings made of red bricks in the neighborhood of Mitsubishi Ichigokan and this district collectively was called Little London. So this is a good representation of what the Meiji Period was all about. It was a period where Japan absorbed Western culture like a sponge.
So now let’s walk towards Tokyo Station, but I’d like you to input K I T T E – Kitte in your Google Maps first. This is a commercial complex with many shops and restaurants offering products of quality Japanese craftsmanship.
Kitte is built across the street from the Marunouchi South Gate of Tokyo Station. The facade of this building is made of concrete and it has an interesting design if you look at the windows closely from outside. You’ll notice that the grid of the window glasses are 3 x 4 on the bottom three floors, and 3 x 3 on the next two floors. So the windows get vertically narrower as you go upstairs.
The reason is because when you look out the window from the bottom floors, you need a tall window to capture the view of Tokyo Station in its entirety. When you look out the window from the 4th or 5th floor, you don’t need the window to be that tall to get a complete view of the station.
So the windows of Kitte, which used to be the headquarters of the Japan Postal Service, were kinda built for the purpose of viewing Tokyo Station. The station was that important, as a symbol for Japan.
So Why? Because Tokyo Station was always associated with the emperor. There is a special entrance to Tokyo Station right in the dead center of its facade, and just that part looks a bit Japanese in design, with pine trees decorating it. This entrance was made only to be used by the emperor. And this emperor’s entrance faces the emperor’s residence, Tokyo Station is a station for everyone, but it also serves very formal purposes – it kinda greets the emperor into our world when he needs to get out into the public to do something.
Now Tokyo Station was first built in the Taisho Period, which was the era that came right after the Meiji period, which ended in 1912. Japan marks off periods whenever the emperor of the time passes away, so when the Meiji emperor passed away, his heir took over, and the new era was called Taisho. The Taisho Period was actually very short – it lasted only 14 years because the Taisho emperor passed away early due to a heart attack.
Taisho marked Japan’s joining the ranks of countries in power. Japan had grown and modernized really quickly and had come to be considered among the Big 5 countries along with The US, Great Britain, France and Italy by the early 20th century, Japan won a war over China, won another war over Russia, and Japan got on the winning side of WWI, so you can imagine how confident the Japanese government had become by then.
After the short Taisho period comes Showa period starting from 1926. By the time the Showa emperor took over, Imperial Japan, had become overconfident. Especially the military and navy must have thought they were omnipotent or something. I think many Japanese people back then felt Japan could not possibly lose any war, because they were blindly believing in the omnipotence of the emperor. This had a lot to do with the education Japanese people were getting – they were brought up to believe that they were children of the emperor and they should feel proud of living their lives for the emperor. In Shintoism, the emperor is the descendent of gods.
Now one peculiar thing to remember is that while the emperor has always been the symbol of Japan and the Japanese identity, until the end of the second World War, it was written in the constitution that he had the right to give the final approval to government and military activities. He was supposed to be the head of the nation and its military. But here’s an important plot twist that helps us understand why Imperial Japan started behaving like a lunatic under the Showa emperor during World War 2. The constitution also said that the emperor could not give orders or make any decisions for any government activity, including war.
So the emperor was the head of the nation but he didn’t have the right to give orders? You might think: Isn’t that contradictory? And yes, it was 100% contradictory. That was the Japanese constitution until the end of World War 2. It was a hoax. Especially during wartimes, Imperial Japan was practically controlled by the military and navy, and the emperor and even politicians couldn’t easily get their voices heard, because if they disagreed with the military officials, it was likely that they would have gotten assassinated.
Anyway, around 1930, the Great economic Depression that started in the US, affected Japan severely too. Japan had never been rich in natural resources so it always had to secure food and oil through trade. But after the Great Depression trading became difficult because many countries around the world had to protect their economy from another potential global economic depression by setting up trade barriers.
By this time, Imperial Japan had advanced its troops to the border between China and Korea. Korea had become a colony of Japan by then because Japan feared that the Soviet Union may march Southward and if they had taken over Korea, that would have caused a direct threat to Japan’s national security.
You can already see here that Imperial Japan had been behaving in a questionable manner. It modernized dramatically from the fear of being colonized by the West, but it was securing safety by means of colonizing other countries. Yes, Japanese people would have starved from the lack of resources if Japan hadn’t expanded its territories through war, but you can see that Japan was saving its people at the cost of people of other countries. They had turned into fascists.
And in 1931, the Japanese military in Korea invaded China. What happened was, the local railway Japan had been using there was bombed, and therefore the Japanese military marched into Chinese territory and took a chunk of it. But it was later found out that a Japanese lieutenant of the local military deliberately bombed the railway without being ordered to by anyone, and claimed that China had done it. He was an extremist who wanted Japan to thrive so he deliberately triggered war.
But one of the biggest political and ethical mistakes Imperial Japan had made in all of its history along with colonizing so many countries, was that it let the war carry on. It let one lunatic trooper get away with getting two countries to start yet another war.
Back over in Tokyo, this led to increasing the political power of the Military Ministry. It’s like the Military could do whatever they wanted, and as a result of invading China, an area called Manchuria, Japan was able to secure coal and iron it desperately needed. So now the Japanese military was all proud of themselves.
Now Imperial Japan was the biggest ass in the Eastern world at this point, and it needed to continue war to keep feeding its people. So the Japanese military and navy started invading other Asian countries: the Philippines, Indonesia, Saipan, many others.
This reached a point where Japan’s frontlines stretched so far out that they could no longer send resources to its men. Actually, as you can see from how it started, this war was not planned out well at all. Japan was spreading its territory across the vast Pacific Ocean without even having the means to deliver supplies to the frontline. So troops in the frontline had to take resources from locals near the battlefield.
I’m trying to point out how out of control and ethically very wrong the survival-through-warfare tactics Imperial Japan took was, and that it caused an incredulous number of deaths all over Asia. Over 5.4 million non-Japanese people were killed in Asia in WWII. And as I mentioned before, the purpose of Imperial Japan going to war was to feed its people, but at the end of the day, 60% of the 3.1 million deaths of Japanese people were due to hunger. Imperial Japan basically lost sight of their initial objective and took lives of a horrendous number of Asian people.
On top of that, the government officers of Imperial Japan were real potato heads and they wrote up a 10 page declaration of war, which took days to translate into English, and before the translation was done, the Japanese navy arrived at Pearl Harbor and attacked it. This of course angered the US and voila, Japan had invited a party that was at least 30 times stronger into their long list of enemies.
The legend of the legendary douchebags the Japanese government officials were does not end there. Unlike the US, which invested a lot of its budget on medics and the safety of its troops, Imperial Japan considered the lives of even its own people very lightly. It just let them die for nothing. They sent their sick men to the frontline with rifles and no food, to fight against healthy Americans who held machine guns. The Japanese military commanders were completely out of their minds. They were plainly and utterly dumb.
Towards the end of the war, Imperial Japan had wasted all of their ace pilots and only had really young novices who couldn’t even hit any target. And Japan was so short of resources that it made special air forces consisting of planes loaded only with fuel that lasted one way, whose mission was to commit suicide bombing. These young men obeyed orders to become bombs themselves because the military had educated them to feel happy about sacrificing their lives for the emperor. It’s said that they screamed “Hail the emperor” as they flew into enemy ships and exploded to death. As I told you before, the emperor was technically the head of the military, but had no say in anything. The military was using the emperor’s name to brainwash and control its men.
We’re still talking about Tokyo Station here, don’t worry. Now the American air force finally reached mainland Japan in 1945, and bombed the city of Tokyo. Much of Tokyo turned into rubbles. Until then, the Japanese military and navy had been losing many big battles at sea but they were reporting victory to the emperor and Japanese citizens. The emperor was very doubtful about the reports he was getting so he had been secretly gathering information from his network of friends, and when the bombing of Tokyo started in the spring of 1945, it was dead obvious that the secretaries of the military and navy had been lying to him. The top half of Tokyo Station was blown up into oblivion during this bombing of Tokyo.
So in the summer of 1945, the emperor, with the newly appointed prime minister Suzuki and some other sensible ministers plotted a surrender. They had been wanting to surrender for at least a year but while the military and navy still had a lot of credibility, proposing to surrender would have led to a coup de tat by Japan’s own army and Japanese people would have been forced to fight the war until the last man standing, and meanwhile a good chunk, like a third or a half of the population would have starved to death.
At this point, the Soviet Union had a cease-fire agreement with Japan and so the prime minister and his staff were hoping that the Soviets would help them negotiate something better than unconditional surrender. So when the US told Japan to surrender, it declined. Japan still had a possible future to avoid unconditional surrender. Accepting unconditional surrender means the victorious side will be legally able to do anything they’d please onto the losing side. Imperial Japan thought it should avoid this and seek for alternatives, namely asking the Soviets to help out.
But the problem was, Japan and its people sucked at negotiating. This has not changed much 70 years after the war, but while they were struggling to make a deal with the Soviet ambassador, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atomic bombed, and 210,000 people died either immediately or slowly within that year. Soon after, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and that was when Imperial Japan was left with just one option. Unconditional surrender. And it did.
If you look carefully at the brick walls of Tokyo Station, you’ll see that the colors of the bricks in the bottom half and the top half are slightly different. This is because the top half of Tokyo Station was rebuilt after it was blown up in World War 2.
I think the now non-existing top half symbolizes the great mistakes Japan had made in the first half of the 20th century. The modernization by Westernization of Japan itself was a great feat helping Japan to be recognized globally, until it started abusing its newfound power at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives in other cultures and of its own. The top half we see now symbolizes Japan’s learning from its mistake and valuing peace more than anything.
Over in the US, Kyoto was the first to be considered as the target of atomic bombing. But the US Secretary of War at the time, Henry Stimson, refused to bomb Kyoto. He was fully aware that he was partly being emotional because he spent his honeymoon in Kyoto and had seen the cultural value of Kyoto in person. But because the US concluded that destroying a city with cultural assets of over 1000 years of age would make it devastatingly difficult for Japanese people to look up to the US after the war, Kyoto was spared. Kyoto as we see now exists largely thanks to the mercy of Henry Stimson.
Imperial Japan had taken thousands of lives of American soldiers by that time, and it seems Stimson felt he needed to end the war without risking any more casualties of his own people, and therefore he finally approved to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but still, he kept in mind that his enemies were people with emotions.
So again, the blown-up top half of Tokyo Station, I think, is the symbol of Imperial Japan’s great failure to have compassion towards people’s emotions. And around Tokyo Station outside the Marunouchi exits, you’ll see that all the buildings have one thing in common. The bottom 6 floors have a retro-looking facade, and then from above the 7th floor, there’s a sky scraper built, reaching for the sky.
The city planners of Tokyo had deliberately made the whole Marunouchi area this way in order to maintain the resemblance of Tokyo as it looked before and at the same time allow it to move on from the biggest turning point of its modern history, and develop as the center of economic and social activities.
All this was a lot to take in, I’m sure. Thank you so much for listening. To my eyes, this is the story Tokyo Station tells us about Japan. So should you visit Tokyo Station on your next trip to Japan? Please do. I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。