Stats of the world’s most populous city Tokyo, Japan

Greater Tokyo is the most populated city of Japan. Almost 30% of the country’s population is there. Images you may have seen of the Shibuya Scramble Crossing and rush hour trains of Tokyo accurately represent the concentration of people in Tokyo at its most intense moments.

However the population density (at 6,158 people/km2 or 15,945 people/sq mi), when compared to for example New York (at 10,465 people/km2 or 27,000 people/sq mi), is surprisingly not that high, as Tokyo is huge and household sizes are small.

Population of Tokyo 13.98 million (2020)
Population of Greater Tokyo 37.48 million (2020)
Population of Tokyo compared to population of Japan 11% (2020)
Population of Greater Tokyo compared to population of Japan 29.6% (2020)
Area of Tokyo 2193 km2 (2020)
Population density of Tokyo 6,158 people/km(2020)
15,945 people/km(2020)
Number of households in Tokyo 6.95 million
Average household size in Tokyo 1.94 people per household
People living alone in Tokyo 48.3% (2020)
Families without children in Tokyo 16.8% (2020)
Families with children in Tokyo 22.9% (2020)
all data taken from Tokyo Metropolitan Government

At 37.4 million, the population of Greater Tokyo stands at first place among the world’s most populated cities. This figure includes the surrounding three wards (Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba Prefectures) as they function as one big metropolis. Exclude these wards and the population within the technical boundaries of Tokyo is at 13.9 million as of 2020.

The world’s 10 most populated cities as of 2020

Rank in 2020 Population in 2020
1. Tokyo 37,435,191
2. Delhi 29,399,141
3. Shang hai 26,317,104
4. Sao Paulo 21,846,507
5. Mexico City 21,671,908
6. Cairo 20,484,965
7. Dhaka 20,283,552
8. Mumbai 20,185,064
9. Beijing 20,035,455
10. Osaka 19,222,665

Ever since it surpassed the population of New York City in 1955, Tokyo as a metropolis has kept its number one position in the rankings. It was in fact the first city ever to reach a population of 20 million and 30 million.

The tough population hill climb to the top

Although its growth was super fast, Japan’s population growth was no smooth sail. It experienced several immense losses over the course.

How the world’s most populated city, Tokyo got itself to the top

Let me walk you through the success story of Tokyo as the world’s most populated city, in the form of a narrative through this podcast. It’s also in text for those who prefer to read.

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. We all like reading about the world’s most successful people’s success stories, but their take-aways are all pretty much the same. Find your passion, practice makes perfect, make a sustainable habit – it’s almost always the same.

So today, I’d like to share with you a different kind of success story, not of a person but of a city.

The Metro-Tokyo area has been the most populated megacity since 1955. Tokyo became number one in population by surpassing New York City which was the world’s most populated city in 1955, just 10 years after Japan lost WWII in 1945. Tokyo City’s population in 2020 is now at almost 14 million, and if we include the population of the three surrounding prefectures collectively as Metro-Tokyo, the population is at 37 million, around 8 million more than second place Delhi of India.

But Tokyo was very competitive in terms of population from way back. Somewhere in the 1700s when it was still called Edo City, it had approximately 1.2 million people and was second to Beijing. This was when London, which was the biggest city of Europe then, had 0.7 million people. So it seems like Tokyo has been a people-magnet for a long time. Why is this so? Let’s find out today.

My point today will be that Tokyo has seen great increases in population every time it went through mass destruction. It’s kinda like Goku from Dragon Ball. Every time he gets beaten up really bad, he turns into an even  stronger Super Saiyan with unprecedented strength. So let’s talk about our Super Saiyan city, Tokyo.

The founder of the megacity: TOKUGAWA Ieyasu

Have you played the computer game Sim City?  I haven’t played any of the latest versions of the series but when I played one of the earlier versions in middle school, that was a really hard game. I never figured it out. I was always under debt as mayor and I could never make a sustainable city.

Of course I was a middle schooler and it’s doubtful if I even had a cognitive mind back then, but creating a working ecosystem from scratch is hard stuff. You need the imagination and logical mind to think ahead and a resilient mind to accept setbacks like your city getting destructed by natural disasters and yourself making dumb decisions.

Now that I’ve made and operated a few blogs and been part of the economy for two decades, I have slightly more confidence in not setting up a self-destructive suicidal city.

I would like to try Sim City again, after growing old and accumulating all the worldly knowledge I can accumulate through my life so that I’ll know almost everything I need to do what’s best.

And that’s how Tokyo was made. A very mature and experienced samurai lord was given a blank sheet of land and he Sim-citied it right from scratch to the biggest city in the world. This particular samurai’s name is TOKUGAWA Ieyasu.

The story starts in the late 1500s right after the most powerful samurai lord of the time who was called TOYOTOMI Hideyoshi picked off the last big opposition from the chess board so-to-speak. Japan was almost completely united under one ruler.

TOKUGAWA Ieyasu, our protagonist for today, was the second most powerful samurai lord then. He was 6 years older than Hideyoshi, and although Ieyasu pledged to serve for the ruler Hideyoshi, he was still seen as a threat to the new regime because so many other samurai lords respected him and were under his influence.

Now until the 1600s, the centers of politics and economics of Japan were Kyoto and Osaka. The ruler Hideyoshi didn’t want Ieyasu to acquire too much power under his new regime so he assigned Ieyasu to the Tokyo area, which was basically the middle of nowhere back then. At this time the Tokyo area was called Edo.

Edo (Tokyo) was a marshland

Edo was a marshland. There were just a few people living there because it wasn’t a great place to farm. There was a big cove called Hibiya Cove that stretched right up to Edo Castle where Ieyasu was supposed to live. Edo Castle was where the garden of the Imperial Palace is right now by the way – it’s right in front of Tokyo Station. But back when Ieyasu moved to Edo, the area Tokyo Station stands now was most likely under water. There was so much water in that area that Ieyasu had trouble finding enough land to build houses for his own servants. His boss Hideyoshi was a big jerk.

Population of Edo in 1590: *a few 100 – 1000?

*Reference: Sawa, Tarozaemon; Tokugawake Hassaku Shukuga no Kiinn, Kyu-bakufu vol. 2; pp. 75-84; 1898.

And excuse my language but Edo Castle was a shit hole when Ieyasu moved in. It was an abandoned castle with hardly any functional room left. Ieyasu had worked his way up really hard to be in a position like the Vice President of a company, so you can see that Hideyoshi was harassing him by putting him in a shabby castle.

But Ieyasu was all mature. He was cool about it. He actually decided to do minimal renovation work on the castle because to his mind, using limited resources on developing Edo into a livable town was much more important. Ieyasu is a samurai lord who later becomes the ruler of Japan after Hideyoshi dies of age. He establishes a rule that lasts over 200 peaceful and fruitful years and we can see how uncorrupt he was from before he took the throne.

So how did Ieyasu turn a megaswamp into a megacity? He played Sim City. He saw a big hill called Kanda-yama near Edo Castle so he told his staff “Look guys, we’re gonna take that hill down and dump the dirt into that cove. Just do it.” So in a matter of just a few years, much of the cove became land and houses and infrastructure were set up.

Again, the Imperial Palace is more or less where Edo Castle used to stand. If you go there or look it up on Google Maps, you’ll notice that the the Imperial Palace and its gardens are basically an island floating right in the middle of a business district. It’s completely surrounded by water. A deep and wide water-filled ditch surrounds the garden.

Bridge leading to the Imperial Palace

This body of water was not brought from elsewhere. The water is a remnant of Hibiya Cove.

As a side note, if you go there today, you’re likely to meet a couple of swans. They usually swim together on the water in front of Palace Hotel, which is a very elegant hotel located right across the Imperial Palace garden – and I hear it’s the most expensive hotel in Japan. Please say hi to the swans for me the next time you visit there.

So anyway, eventually Ieyasu became the ruler of Japan himself by outliving Hideyoshi. We don’t know what caused Hideyoshi’s death for sure, but it’s rumored that he was having too much sex and that caused kidney failure. Hideyoshi died at 61. But Ieyasu was like the stereotypical ideal of a disciplined Japanese man and he was very health-conscious, so unlike Hideyoshi, he lived up to 73 during an age where people typically died in their 30s.

He won against his rival by outliving him. Very inspiring.

Edo’s first rapid growth

Population of Edo around 1600: 60,000 – 15,000?
There is no official record of Edo’s population until 1693. Historian SUZUKI Masao estimates the population of Edo in 1600 should have been at least *60,000. Rodrigo de Vivero, a Spanish noble who stayed in Japan for a year after being saved from a shipwreck, reports that the population of Edo was **150,000 in 1609.

*Suzuki, Masao; Maboroshi no Edo Hyakunen; Chikuma Shobou, 1991.
**Roderigo De Vivero. An Account of Japan; 1609.

So now that Ieyasu was the ruler, he started giving pieces of land in Edo to each of the major samurai families working under him.

At this time, each of the over 200 regions spread across Japan was governed by a different samurai family. Before Ieyasu and Hideyoshi united the whole country, these samurai families grew their territories by invading neighboring regions. War was going on somewhere in Japan almost daily.

But by the end of the 16th century, all these regions had been united into one Japan, and at this point samurai lords wanted to show that they didn’t wish to try to revolt or anything. If they did, their whole family would have been annihilated by the all mighty Ieyasu. So they built their second houses in Edo and had their wives and children live there instead of in their home grounds. They showed loyalty by keeping their family members close to Edo, which meant they were handing their family members over to Ieyasu as hostages.

After Ieyasu’s death, this movement became standard practice among all samurai families. Every major samurai family had a second house in Edo, and peace continued for another 200 years. This had a lot to do with Edo’s drastic population growth.

Each samurai family hired several lesser samurai families as staff, and each samurai family had hundreds or thousands of servants who looked after the day-to-day operations. So making a second residence in Edo meant that around half of their staff was going to move to Edo City. If you imagine all the major companies located in different states in the US set up headquarters in Washington DC all at once, that’s close to what happened in Japan at this time.

Tens of thousands of people working for samurai families across the country moved to Edo, and therefore this was a big business opportunity for everyone. All kinds of peasants started moving to Edo because there was a definitely high demand for all kinds of labor and services.

Fire dragged population down, but also facilitated innovation

The Great Fire of Meireki

So that’s how Edo got its start as a mega city. And the population eventually reaches over 1 million people, but it was not a steady climb. In case you didn’t know, natural disasters occur frequently in Japan, namely earthquakes and typhoons. Earthquakes and famine caused by extreme climate change had killed thousands of people everywhere in Japan. But a bigger concern for Edo City in particular had been fire.

Houses were all built of wood, and they stood close to each other so a small fire could spread across the entire city very easily. And that’s what happened in 1657. An incident called the Great Fire of Meireki. It’s said that up to 100,000 people died at a time the entire population of Edo was no more than 700,000. So 1 in 7 people died because of that fire. And also almost the entire city of Edo was turned into a pile of ashes.

Population of Edo in 1657: almost 60,000?

From records of the number of households that were given disaster relief money after the Great Kanto Earthquake, historian Yasusuke Komiyama estimated the peasant population of Edo to be at approximately *28,000 in 1657. It is said that the population of the samurai ruling class and those serving for samurais living in Edo was around the same as that of the peasant population. Add the two together and you get around 60,000.

*Komiyama, Yasusuke; Edo Kyu-jikou; 1891.

There were 3  major fires that practically demolished the whole city, the one I just talked about in 1657 which killed 100,000 people, another one in 1772 that killed almost 15,000 people, and one more in 1806 that killed 1,200 people. You can see that every time there were less casualties. This was thanks to the government learning from the preceding disaster and preparing more fire fighters and improving their knowledge in extinguishing fire.

Now what’s interesting is that while these big fires were of course unfortunate incidents, they played a major role in helping Edo AKA Tokyo become a city that could accommodate a large population.

So the whole city including Edo Castle was burnt down in 1657. Ieyasu’s regime – which is called the Tokugawa regime taken from his family name – the Tokugawa regime took that as an opportunity to rethink how the city should be arranged. They Sim-Citied the whole city again!

They moved around rivers to make room for more straight line paths so that the city could sprawl more easily. Edo was able to accommodate more population growth every time they had a fire or major earthquake.

For example if you have visited Tokyo, you may know the Tsukiji fish market because it’s often recommended in tour guides. What’s now the fish market in Tsukiji used to be in Nihonbashi area, which is like the dead center of Tokyo’s finance. The central bank’s located there and a bunch of securities companies are there too. It’s the Wall Street of Japan!

The Nihonbashi fish market

But Nihonbashi used to be the center of business AND the biggest fish market until 1935. Nihonbashi is also the name of a bridge in Japan and it’s still there. It’s now made of stone but it used to be made of wood. There’s still a river flowing under it and when it was a fish market, hundreds of slim wooden boats would come in from upstream and downstream to carry loads of fish that were caught that morning.

The boats would park along the sides of Nihonbashi bridge and sell off the fish to shoppers and nearby restaurants within that day, because of course there were no refrigerators back then. And there were over a million people living in Edo by the 1700s, so there were many bellies to feed.

Population of Edo at its peak in the 1700s: 1 – 1.2 million
The remaining records of the official population surveys conducted by the Tokugawa government state that there were over 580,000 people living in samurai households in 1723 and over 470,000 citizens in 1724 (The two groups were counted separately). Therefore it is likely that the population of Edo was over 1 million. Some written records say the population was over 1.28 million, and the exact figure is unknown. However it seems the population of Edo stagnated around 1 million for several decades.

Kouda, Shigetomo; Edo no Chounin no Jinkou, Shakai Keizai Gakkaishi, vol. 8, 1938年.

The great comeback from the Great Kanto Earthquake

Nihonbashi area after Kanto Earthquake hits

But all that changed in 1923 when the Great Kanto Earthquake hit Tokyo and demolished almost the entire city. For your information, by then Edo had become the capital city of Japan. Edo City was the center of politics but not the capital because it was not where the emperor lived. The emperor lived in Kyoto so Kyoto was the capital. The Tokugawa family was practically the ruler of Japan, while the Imperial family remained to be the official symbolic ruler of Japan.

But the Tokugawa government was overthrown in the 1860s and because the emperor was moved to Edo, Edo became the capital city and was renamed to Tokyo. “To” stands for east, and “Kyo” stands for capital. So Tokyo just means East Capital.

Now there were almost 4 million people living in Tokyo by 1923, but 100,000 people died from the Great Kanto Earthquake and many lost their jobs. Now the Japanese government had been telling the Nihonbashi fish market to move since 1868 because their facilities had become old being used for hundreds of years and there were sanitation problems, but they didn’t move for like 50 years. Who likes change, right?

Population of Tokyo in 1923: 3.86 million
There were *3.98 million people living in Tokyo before the earthquake, but the population decreased by 120,000 due to the crisis.

*Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

But then the earthquake occurred and everything was destroyed. So that moved the fish market to Tsukiji, which opened officially in 1935. Somethings just cannot be done by mankind. Nature is what forces Tokyo to innovate.

Safety was another area the Kanto Earthquake made Tokyo better at. So most houses were made of wood and many office buildings were made of bricks and stone and steel in the early 1900s. They were aesthetically pleasing. But all of them were torn down by the earthquake, except this one bank building in Tokyo designed by a Japanese architect who is now known as the Father of aseismic structures, Mr. Tachuu Naito. His building kept standing as if nothing had happened.

Nippon Kougyou Bank Building designed by Tachuu Naito

So naturally the whole country realized the value of seismic technology, and ever since, earthquake resistance has been pursued. So Tokyo has had a few big earthquakes in the last few decades but thanks to the city learning from past disasters, damage has been minimal.

Tokyo goes viral after Japan loses WWII

The population of Tokyo had been growing rapidly in the first half of the 1900s. The Kanto Earthquake dragged the population growth down only temporarily. By 1940 there were over 7 million people in Tokyo, but this figure suddenly drops to half in 1945. Why? World War II. Tokyo was of course the capital city, therefore it was a primary bombing target. People either died in the bombings, fled from Tokyo, or were conscripted to die abroad as soldiers. So the population of Tokyo goes down to around 3.5 million in 1945.

So Japan going to war caused ridiculously more damage than any natural disaster. So let’s just never go to war.

But after surrendering and the Imperial Japanese government was disbanded, Tokyo grew its population back to 7 million in just 8 years and kept growing at a pace of around 400,000 people per year. Can you believe that? Tokyo went viral. The primary reason was because Tokyo had to start back up from ground zero and that meant there was a lot of work and therefore lots of job opportunities. There was always something more to do and there was a lot of room for economic growth. Technology, convenience, your pay, everything was always better the following year.

Population of Tokyo in 1950: 6.28 million
After turning into scraps yet again in 1945, the population went up from *3.49 million to 6.28 million thanks to the 1st baby boom of the 20th century.

*Government Census.

It wasn’t until 1975 that population growth stagnated at around 11.7 million. It stayed there for 20 years, but yet another climb occurred in the late 1990s. This was right after the bubble economy ended. The bubble economy hiked stock prices and the average stock price then was like almost twice as high as what it is now. 24k magic was in the air and the middle class had so much cash in hand they were spending money like money ain’t shit, as Bruno Mars would put it.

But then in the late 1990s the bubble broke and stock prices took a deep dive, many companies went out of business, people couldn’t get employed, and Tokyo’s land prices took a plunge. And this may sound counter-intuitive, but it was this economic recession that pushed Tokyo’s population even higher.

Population of Tokyo in 1995: 11.77 million
*The number of births had been decreasing since 1967. In 1995, the aged population (aged over 65) surpassed the youth population (aged under 15).

*Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Because rent went down, more people were able to afford living in Tokyo. So the population started increasing yet again, and eventually Tokyo reached a population of 14 million, and Metro-Tokyo reached 37 million, and that’s where we are now.

Tokyo continues to grow while the country’s population shrinks

While the Japanese population is slowly decreasing because the birth rate has gone down, the population of Metro-Tokyo is still increasing. Real estate developers have been building affordable condominium complexes on the outskirts of Metro-Tokyo, so basically they are creating new suburbs.

Transportation is so organized in Japan that even if you live really far from the center of Tokyo where your company is, commuting is really easy. Although it may take an hour or so, you can comfortably commute sitting in the train.

And now that the corona virus pandemic has forced even the most traditional, conservative Japanese companies to start letting employees work from home, living in the outskirts of the city has become even less of a problem. Chances are even more people will look into living in newly developed suburbs around Metro-Tokyo and facilitate the sprawl.

So my point is, Tokyo has multiplied its population after every major crisis. It’s a very resilient city that has grown consistently through scrap and build. Whenever we survive mass destruction, we just start over and for some reason it results in more population.

I’m guessing and kinda hoping that our next jump in the population, if ever, will involve foreign nationals. Living here almost all my life, it’s clean, it’s safe, it’s convenient, people are self-disciplined, it’s a really pleasant place to live, and I really, really recommend people to try living here. Which is part of the reason I do this podcast in the first place. I would like people around the world to know that your final destination in life may well be here in Japan.

Now that people are more mobile and liberal, I personally think we have entered an era where your birthplace doesn’t determine your identity or your home. It’s an era where people can choose where to live by seeing whether that place fits your vibe. Your country or your hometown won’t necessarily be your vibe.

So if you feel you don’t really belong where you live now and you find yourself listening to several of my podcasts on Japanese culture, maybe you’re interested. Please give Japan a try. You might find your identity here in Japan.

Anyway, thank you so much for listening. I hope to see you in another episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。