Tim Screech’s lavishly illustrated new book, Tokyo Before Tokyo, states that the area now occupied by the world’s largest megacity was a place of no importance prior to it being selected as the new capital, then known as Edo, in 1603. Archaeology suggests a rather different picture, one in which the layers beneath the modern city have revealed much about the past – both ancient and more recent – of the host to the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. I contacted colleagues involved in archaeology in Tokyo to take a snapshot of the situation.
It was during the Edo period (1603-1868) that Japan effectively sealed itself off from the outside world to avoid the ravages of Western imperialism that were conspicuously on display in other parts of Asia, most notably India and China. Educated Japanese urbanites of the era cultivated many hobbies, including a passion for antiquities. Knowledge of the outside world came in through a Dutch factory at Deshima in Nagasaki, far to the west on the island of Kyushu. Commodities introduced by annual trading ships included images of famous places from the ancient world, notably the Forum at Rome, allowing it to be depicted by renowned woodblock print artist Utagawa Hiroshige.
The archaeology of the city of Edo has been revealed by extensive excavations over the past century, in particular since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, such has been the pace of development in recent decades, despite the economic stagnation afflicting Japan since the collapse of the ‘bubble’ economy in the 1990s, that there are significant portions of the metropolitan area where all archaeological deposits have now been removed.
Western interest in the archaeology of Japan was piqued by American zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse’s investigations at the shell mounds of Omori in 1877. The report was rapidly published in both Japanese and English, and detailed the discoveries of cord-marked pottery, known as Jomon, which gave its name to the long prehistoric period from c.14,000-300 BC. This was a time of fisher-gatherer-hunters, which pre-dated the arrival of rice agriculture. Morse, an avid proponent of the still new theory of evolution, recognised the potential interest of the shell layers through which a railway cutting carried the new train line from the port of Yokohama to its terminus at Shimbashi. He had arrived in Japan the year before and was appointed the first Professor of Zoology at the Tokyo Imperial University, one of a generation of oyatoi gaikokujin – foreign specialists – employed by the newly established Meiji government. It was during this era that a modern nation-state emerged, with power restored to the Emperor, who took up residence in the Eastern Capital (Tokyo) in 1868.
Beneath the megacity
The modern administrative Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture (Tokyo-to) is a wedge-shaped slab of land that extends westwards from the Edo River, one of three main rivers flowing into Tokyo Bay. The shoreline that visitors see today, with its mass of concrete, steel, and glass high-rise buildings and elevated expressways is largely built on land reclaimed from the sea. A little west of the Edo River, the Ara River flows through the Tokyo lowlands, which were home to the pleasure quarters of the Yoshikawa during the Edo period.
The western portion of the modern city is located on the Musashino Terrace, bounded to the west by the Tama River. This terrace is largely made up of loam soils created by volcanic eruptions of Mount Fuji, whose iconic cone – twice as high as any other peak in Japan and featuring in the Olympic Opening Ceremony – dominates the skyline to the west of the city. It last erupted during the Edo period, and since 2013 has been a UNESCO World Heritage site on the strength of the artistic inspiration it generated. The distinction between the lowlands to the east and the higher terraces to the west is recognised in the title of one of the greatest histories of the city, Low City, High City by renowned historian and translator Edward Seidensticker.
The dating of the multiple layers of loam soils and the clarity of the stratigraphy they offer underpinned the development of Palaeolithic archaeology in Japan. We now know that the earliest humans arrived in the archipelago about 50,000 years ago, with the first Palaeolithic site identified at Iwajuku in neighbouring Gunma prefecture in 1953. In Tokyo itself, the Suzuki site has also produced large numbers of stone tools, and was designated as a Site of Special National Historic Importance in 2020.
West of the Tama River lie the Tama Hills, which were extensively developed as residential ‘bed-towns’ in the 1960s and 1970s. The resulting loss of natural habitats is vividly revealed in anime supremo Takahata Isao’s film Pom Poko, in which tanuki (racoon dogs) – shape-shifters according to popular mythology – create havoc among the construction crews and new residents. Professor Tom Keally, who has been actively involved in Tokyo archaeology since the 1960s, told me how little excavation is now going on compared to the ‘glory days’ of development – with one site close to his home in the western suburbs producing little more than badger dens. Another anime genius, Miyazaki Hayao, drew on archaeology and apparently used a famous archaeology professor from Tokyo as the model for the father in his 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro. Since 1950, the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties had placed the responsibility for ensuring that an adequate record was made of all archaeological remains destroyed through development firmly on the shoulders of the developers. This is a principle with which those of us in the UK have been familiar since the 1990s. Thanks to the 1950 legislation, vast numbers of sites were discovered and investigated when Tama expanded, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeology Centre was ultimately located there.
To the west of the Tama Hills lie the Kanto Mountains. Out to sea, the Metropolitan Tokyo government also administers the Izu and Ogasawara island chains, which stretch far into the Pacific, and were exploited from prehistoric times, providing obsidian for hunters.
The main venues for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are located in central Tokyo, with the Olympic Stadium lying on the edge of the Musashino Terraces. This places it adjacent to one of Tokyo’s green lungs, the forest around the shrine to the first Emperor of the modern age, Meiji, who reigned from 1868 to 1912. It has proven a popular setting, as two earlier stadiums were built in the area, including that for the previous Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Archaeological investigations nearby have recovered over 80,000 artefacts, including pottery sherds and stone tools dating from the Initial and Late Jomon periods (about 10,000 and 4,000 years ago respectively). Of most interest, though, were remains associated with a major roadway, known as the Kamakura Kaido, which from the 13th to 15th centuries AD linked the medieval capital of Kamakura, just 50km to the west of Tokyo, to its eastern provinces. As well as sections of road surface, traces were found of what appear to be one of the administrative barriers along the route, which allowed the government to control travel and trade. After the city of Edo was founded in 1603 – by Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shoguns – this area lay close to his residence in Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace). Further discoveries illustrate the presence of mansions belonging to various ranks of samurai warriors during the 17th century. Finds included stone foundations of a storehouse and other buildings, and garden features such as a water channel and small artificial lake. To the north, a cemetery that served two nearby temples was discovered, with many burials reinterred in later times. Sections of the stone wall of the original Meiji Jingu Gaien Stadium, completed in 1924, were also uncovered.
Constructing the new Sea Forest Waterway, which is one of the main Olympic watersport venues, located among the reclaimed land fronting Tokyo Bay, involved removing some 14 tonnes of magaki oysters, a Tokyo delicacy, adding an additional £1 million to the already massive budget for the Olympics. Archaeology has demonstrated that oysters and other shellfish have long been a staple food in Tokyo, with Tokyo Bay and the surrounding regions presenting one of the greatest densities of prehistoric shell middens anywhere in the world. Because sea levels rose and fell dramatically during the Jomon period, discoveries of shell middens far inland from the modern coastline – including those at Omori, investigated by Morse – are a constant reminder of the threat of climate warming and associated sea-level rises for this low-lying coastal megacity.
The fisher-gatherer-hunters of the Jomon period were among the first people in the world to use ceramic containers. Burnt residues on the sherds of a small pottery vessel from Odai Yamamoto in northern Japan were dated to around 16,000 years ago (compared to roughly 6,000 years ago for the arrival of pottery containers in Britain). The site was excavated in 1998 by Professor Taniguchi Yasuhiro of Kokugakuin University, which is another major centre for archaeological research and teaching in the capital. The first stage of the Jomon is known as the Incipient Jomon period, and a rare example of a structure known as a pit house from this era was discovered at Maeda Kochi in Tokyo. These residences are so-named because their floors were sunk into the earth, with more substantial examples from later in the Jomon period also featuring upper elements supported on a timber frame. One valuable survival was numerous charred salmon bones that were recovered from a hearth in the centre of the floor. It has long been suspected that salmon – alongside shellfish – provided an important food resource during the Jomon, but the bones needed to demonstrate this rarely survive in Japan’s volcanic soils. Further proof of the importance of fish for the earliest Jomon inhabitants has been provided by recent bioarchaeological molecular analysis of food crusts from sherds by an international team led by Professor Oliver Craig at the University of York.
Professor Taniguchi recently led a major research project on one of the most-intriguing components of later Jomon material culture, polished stone bars (sekibo in Japanese). At the Midorikawa Higashi site, a series of these objects was found, carefully placed on the floor of a pit house. These stone bars are often interpreted as objects that were used in male-focused rituals, presenting counterparts to female-focused ceremonies involving ceramic dogu figurines (many of which featured in the The Power of Dogu exhibition at the British Museum in 2009, see CWA 37). The use of stone artefacts and features for ceremonial purposes by Jomon foragers is perhaps best illustrated by the Tabata site, where a small stone circle was discovered. Some 20 Jomon stone circles are known – more circular arrangements of stone settings than the megalithic stone circles with which we are more familiar in Europe. They are mainly located in northern Japan, where four sites with stone circles are included in the Jomon Sites of Northern Tohoku and Southern Hokkaido UNESCO World Heritage inscription. (Jomon stone circles will feature in a special exhibition at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre in the UK from September 2022.) One of the most exceptional Jomon sites discovered in Tokyo in recent years is Shimoyakebe, where a large number of lacquered wooden objects were found in waterlogged deposits. Among these objects were bows and ceramic containers, some of which were used to hold the lacquer resin, as well as a shell apparently used as a lacquer palette, while other well-preserved wooden artefacts included a half-complete canoe and stone-axe hafts, along with woven baskets containing nuts. A wooden handle is considered to be phallic-shaped, and may have fulfilled a similar ceremonial function to the stone bars from Midorikawa Higashi.
During the 1st millennium BC, a new way of life based on the cultivation of rice in paddy fields spread throughout much of Japan from the western island of Kyushu, where this new agricultural technology had been introduced from the Korean peninsula. In 1884, distinctive thin red pottery sherds, recognised as being quite different to the cord-marked Jomon sherds identified by Morse at Omori, were discovered during excavations on the edge of the campus of the University of Tokyo (then the Tokyo Imperial University), at a place called Yayoi 2-chome. This provided the name for the time when early rice farmers became established in Japan: the Yayoi period. An important Yayoi village was excavated as one of the first major digs in Japan after the devastation of the Second World War. In 1948 at Toro, on a former aircraft factory in sight of Mount Fuji, extensive remains of paddy fields, houses, and raised-floor storehouses were discovered. Rice-farming supported larger populations and underpinned the development of socially stratified communities. Settlements started to be enclosed by deep ditches, possibly for defence, as seen at Otsuka in neighbouring Kanagawa prefecture, and important people began to be interred in rectangular ditched burial enclosures, as found at Utsuki-Mukohara in Tokyo.
In 2019, a series of massive burial mounds (kofun in Japanese), including the largest funerary monuments of the ancient world – the 485m-long Daisenyama, believed to be the final resting place of the 5th-century emperor Nintoku – were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage. The Mozu and Furuichi tomb clusters are located 500km west of Tokyo, in the Kansai region. This lay at the heart of the ancient Japanese state and was home to the early capitals of Asuka, Heijo (Nara), Naniwa (Osaka), and Heian (Kyoto). Although apparently far from these early centres, the political elites of what would become the Tokyo region were also buried in mounds of various sizes. At the far end of the runway of Narita Airport, the main point of entry for international visitors to Japan, an exceptional group of such tombs has long been known, guarded by terracotta tomb figures in the shape of warriors. An inscribed iron sword from the Sakitama-Inariyama tomb cluster (close to two further Olympic venues: the Saitama Super Arena and the Saitama Stadium) makes clear the close relationship between these elites and the emergent imperial power in distant Kansai. In Tokyo itself, clusters of tombs can be encountered along the middle and lower reaches of the Tama River, including one within strolling distance of the Tokyo National Museum, in the heart of Ueno Park.
The construction of burial mounds came to an end at the start of the 8th century (with the exception of emperors, who continue to be interred beneath mounds, including the most recently deceased Showa Emperor, Hirohito, reputedly buried with grave goods including his trademark oval spectacles). The arrival of Buddhism in the mid-6th century, and its promotion as the official state religion in the 7th century, saw the construction of a series of new temples across Japan. These National Temples (kokubunji in Japanese) were established in each province, creating a network of Buddhist power across the nation. At its centre was the largest temple of all, the Great Eastern Temple, or Todaiji, in Nara, which was consecrated in 742, and is still the largest wooden building in the world.
The establishment of a new capital in Kamakura by the Hojo family, who assumed the role of military shoguns in the late 12th century, marks the beginning of the Japanese medieval period. It runs through until the reunification of Japan (and founding of Edo) at the beginning of the 17th century by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who is enshrined at the impressive mausoleum at Nikko, a short distance north of Tokyo. In effect, Japan ceased to operate as a unified nation during the medieval era, the later stages of which are known as the Warring States period (sengoku jidai in Japanese). Endemic warfare was rife, and a huge battle was fought at Yuigahama, close to Enoshima, the site of the Olympic yacht harbour, in Kamakura. Bones of the fallen warriors have been recovered and examined, revealing much about causes of death, as well as the general health and diet, of these fighting men. Analysis of the injuries revealed cut marks to the forehead, suggesting that many of these individuals met their fate at the hands of cavalrymen wielding short tachi swords. Nagaoka Tomohito and his colleagues further suggest from analysis of hundreds of skeletons from the medieval capital of Kamakura that life expectancy in this city of some 200,000 people, thought to be the fourth largest city in the world at that time, was no longer than it had been in prehistory.
It was also at this time that the administrative barrier on the Kamakura Kaido road found beneath the Olympic Stadium functioned, while local warlords built castles throughout Japan. One of these, Hachijoji Castle, which is now a Site of National Historic Importance, had a carefully designed and beautifully laid-out garden that was rediscovered during excavations. Despite the ever-present fighting, the medieval period saw the flourishing of many of the arts, not all of them martial, for which Japan is now justly famed – including the tea ceremony, which was an arrival from China in the 12th century, and often inspired by Zen Buddhism. The greatest tea master of them all, Sen no Rikyu, was also involved in the arms trade, which was transformed following the introduction of guns by the Portuguese who arrived on the southern island of Tanegashima in 1492. It was a development that changed the course of Japanese history.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu established Edo as the capital of his newly reunified Japan, he set about creating a massive castle for himself in the centre of the city, where it is now the Imperial Palace. Ieyasu knew the first Englishman to arrive in Japan. William Adams was one of very few survivors from an ill-fated flotilla of ships dispatched by the newly formed Dutch East India company, and took up residence at the English factory at Hirado, on the north-eastern tip of the westernmost island of Kyushu. Adams (who took the Japanese name Miura Anjin) advised the Shogun on Western ship-building technology, but it was soon found that the narrow-keeled ships of the West were not well suited to transporting heavy loads (such as the massive stone blocks used in the construction of Edo Castle), unlike the traditional flat-bottomed Japanese ships. Recent analysis of bones from what is considered Adams’ grave in the foreigners’ cemetery in Hirado have provided fascinating genetic insights into the man (and his relationship with the first Tokugawa Shogun). Mizuno Fuzuki and colleagues extracted mitochrondrial DNA of haplogroup H from the bones, which is common in Europe but is not present in indigenous Japanese populations, while stable isotope analysis indicated that the individual had lived in Japan for many years, eating the same diet as the other residents of Edo.
It was not long, however, before the shogunal government, alarmed in particular by the growing political influence of the Jesuits, decided to shut Japan off from the rest of the world through its policy of sakoku (‘closed country’). Christianity was outlawed, resulting in the ‘hidden Christians’, who were celebrated in a further World Heritage inscription in 2018 of 12 churches in Nagasaki. The only contact with the outside world for the next 250 years was through the occasional visits of Dutch and Chinese ships via Deshima, also in Nagasaki.
The archaeology of Edo has been summarised by Constantine Vaporis, who provides an engaging account of discoveries. The Tokugawa Shoguns kept the regional lords (daimyo in Japanese) in close check by forcing them to be resident in Edo for large parts of the year, and in effect holding parts of their households hostage at other times. The system, albeit oppressive, was effective, and brought an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity to the country. Daimyo spent considerable resources on their Edo estates, as exhibited by excavations at the Kaga Clan residence now underneath the campus of the University of Tokyo, close to where the first sherds of Yayoi pottery were discovered. An excellent example is at Hama Rikyu – today surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers and corporate headquarters – where an exquisite tea house has been reconstructed on the site of another of these daimyo estates. Archaeology can also throw light on areas that go largely unreported in the extensive historical sources available for this period. Through meticulous archaeozoological analysis, Uchiyama Junzo exposed the ‘meat-eaters of San’ei-cho’, revealing the fleshy culinary tastes of at least some of the denizens of a city in which Buddhism officially forbade the consumption of meat.
The arrival in 1853 of Commodore Perry’s so-called ‘black ships’ off the coast of Kanagawa prefecture, and the actual and threatened bombardment of Japanese towns and cities by Western navies led to the capitulation of the Tokugawa government, the signing of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’ facilitating international trade, and the opening of five major ports to foreign vessels, including Yokohama, the port of Edo. The next 15 years witnessed what was, in effect, a civil war between forces loyal to the Tokugawa Shoguns and those who supported the restoration of imperial authority. The imperial side won, and in 1868 the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, with the Emperor restored as the constitutional Head of State, who – as he traced his ancestry back directly to the sun goddess Amaterasu – was also divine. The new government undertook a massive programme of modernisation and industrialisation, under the themes of progress, civilisation, and enlightenment.
It was during this era that the first railways were installed, including a line from the port of Yokohama to Shimbashi, a short distance from the Palace itself. This was the line (designed by a British engineer) along which Edward Morse travelled to take up his post at Tokyo Imperial University, and from which he observed the Omori shell middens for the first time. The original platform of Shimbashi station can still be seen beneath the current one, and the station buildings have recently been remodelled to reflect the original Western-inspired Meiji architecture. A short distance to the west, at Shinagawa, now a major hub on the Tokyo transportation systems, a 1.6km section of the original railway embankment was discovered earlier this year in the course of new major redevelopment. The Japanese Archaeological Association and others have been lobbying hard to have the entire stretch preserved, but JR East, the train company involved, is only able to preserve about 120m. The controversy reached the highest levels of government, with the Prime Minister taking an interest. It reflects a considerable interest in industrial archaeology in Japan, which was the first Asian country to industrialise fully. The Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2018.
The present past
Tokyo is, then, a city with a rich archaeological heritage, and there are many places where visitors can experience this. The Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, itself on the site of Kaneiji – an important temple of the Tokugawa period – houses many of Japan’s greatest archaeological treasures. The Edo-Tokyo Museum offers a fully immersive experience with life-sized reconstructions of the sites and monuments of the capital from the 17th century onwards, including the renowned Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge), from which all distances around Japan are measured. A more intimate picture of downtown (shitamachi in Japanese) Edo is offered by the Fukagawa Museum, a short distance away. The Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeology Centre hosts regular exhibits of recent discoveries, and has a reconstructed Jomon village in its grounds, complete with pit houses.
There are several excellent university museums, which display archaeological collections connected to their distinguished researchers: materials associated with Edward Morse can be seen at the University Museum, the University of Tokyo, and when I last visited the original Yayoi pot was on display at the breathtaking new Intermediateque branch of this museum in the former Central Post Office, the Kitte (Japanese for ‘stamp’) building opposite the recently restored and magnificent 19th-century red-brick Tokyo Station. The Kokugakuin University Museum in Shibuya, on the edge of the Musashino terrace, has excellent displays relating to the archaeology of early Japanese religion and an exceptional Jomon collection. The Meiji University Museum, close to Tokyo’s unmissable second-hand book quarter in Kanda and Jinbocho, presents findings from excavations by specialists from Meiji University and the history of the city. A stroll through the city will result in encounters with archaeology at many turns – kofun in parks, small archaeology display rooms operated by local ward councils, and a monument to Morse’s Omori shell-mound excavations beside the railway tracks.
There are 106 designated archaeological sites of historic significance across the city, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeology Centre today employs over 50 full-time specialists, with a budget in the current year of ¥3,144,673,000 (approximately £20,730,000). In recent years, their numbers (and budgets) have been supplemented by many private archaeological contractors. There is a sense in Japan that the era of large-scale excavations relating to massive development (such as the Tama New Town campaign) is now over, and attention is being focused on re-examining what has been discovered, employing the latest scientific techniques, and ensuring the long-term preservation of these precious remains, alongside making the findings available online and through exhibitions in languages other than Japanese. There are concerns, echoed elsewhere, that the expertise developed through long-term large-scale excavation campaigns is in danger of being lost, and efforts are being made to ensure that knowledge is passed on to new generations of researchers. All of this is testimony to the value placed on the material traces of a past stretching back long before Tokyo was Tokyo – or even Edo – in this most hyper-modern of megacities.
Many of the latest discoveries in Japanese archaeology are summarised in Steinhaus et al. (eds) An Illustrated Companion to Japanese Archaeology (Archaeopress, 2020).
The archaeology of the medieval capital of Kamakura is discussed in Kaner et al. (eds) The Archaeology of Medieval Towns: case studies from Japan and Europe (Archaeopress, 2020).
Tim Screech’s excellent account of the art and culture of Edo is Tokyo Before Tokyo: power and magic in the Shogun’s city of Edo (Reaktion Books, 2021).
Other good reads on Tokyo include Edward Seidensticker’s Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (Knopf, 1970).
For more reading suggestions, visit www.sainsbury-institute.org/tokyoarchaeology.
I wish to thank Hirata Takashi of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office of Education and Yamaguchi Keichi at the Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeology Centre, Prof C T Keally, Kutsuna Keizo (Meiji University Museum), Dr Matsuda Akira (University of Tokyo), Oikawa Yoshio (University of Tokyo), Prof Taniguchi Yasuhiro (Kokugakuin University), Prof Seki Toshihiko and the International Jomon Culture Conference, and Prof Takahashi Ryuzaburo (Waseda University).