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Once again this year, Tokyo is considered the “smartest city” in Asia by the University of Navarre’s School of Management, which ranks cities around the world according to 50 indicators and seven analytic criteria: mobility, respect for the environment, economy, innovation, resource management, governance and social cohesion. With 39 million inhabitants, the Japanese capital is also the most populous metropolis on the planet. And the safest. As for its economy, it’s ahead of every entire country in the world, with only seven exceptions. How did it get here?


In the 16th century, Japan was torn apart by civil war. General Toyotomi Hideyoshi managed to subdue the main part of Kyushu Island, as well as the north and east of the country. But instead of completing his attempt at unification, he set out to conquer China, and his armies were bogged down in Korea. After his death in 1598, his chief vassal, Tokugawa Ieyasu, to whom he had entrusted the six eastern provinces of Honshu Island, seized power. Ieyasu clashed with General Ishida Mitsunari, who intended to defend his son and alleged heir of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

On October 21, 1600, in the province of Mino near Sekigahara, 210,000 men came to battle in the pouring rain. The following day, several daimyos rallied behind Tokugawa Ieyasu, ensuring his victory. Three years later, he received the hereditary title of Shogun and established his capital in Edo. But Kyoto remained the official capital of the country and the city of residence for emperors. Until 1868.

That year, the 15th and final Japanese Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was defeated by his opponents. Imperial power was restored. The young emperor Mutsuhito selected Edo as his new place of residence. The city was immediately renamed Tokyo, which literally means “Eastern Capital.” It was the beginning of the Meiji era, which saw Japan and its new official capital open itself to modernity and to international trade.

But its development came with a price: pollution. From this, “satoyama,” the principle of harmony between city and nature, was born. The word’s etymology comes from “sato” and “yama,” which mean “village” and “mountain,” respectively. It’s still alive today in Tokyo’s parks and green spaces, which cover 20% of Tokyo’s metropolitan area. Among them include Shinjuku Gyoen, which contains 20,000 trees, including 1,500 brilliant flowering cherries in springtime. Or the Yoyogi, which contains the Meiji shrine.

The interminable city

In 1922, Albert Londres settled into Tokyo as a reporter after 46 days of travel. He set about the city in all directions. It confounded him. “This is the city of discouragement.” So he hired a driver to try to escape it. “Do you have good tires?” he asked him. “Are you single? That is, are you a man who can handle adventure? Yes. So take me to the end of Tokyo. No! No! Not to the temples, the gardens, the palace. I only want to see the end of Tokyo. Go on! I’ll pay in gold.

An hour and a half later, “having traversed at racing speed neighborhoods on neighborhoods,” the driver braked. “Keep going!” Albert Londres exclaimed, beside himself, his head at the door. The driver stretched his arm out before him. In front of them, “all blue,” was the Pacific. “Where am I?” the journalist asked. “Yokohama!” the driver responded. Tokyo has no end, Albert Londres decided.

The following year, on 1 September 1923, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit Tokyo and Yokohama. Shuddering, the earth knocked over the stoves preparing lunch and set fire to the wooden houses, igniting a fire of such force that the Sumida River started boiling. 140,000 people died.

For Pierre-François Souyri, a French historian specializing in Japanese history, “there was a before and an after this earthquake. In the days that followed, rumors spread. Tens of thousands of Korean workers, imported to Japan for labor, were accused of poisoning the wells. The police encouraged rescuers to find them and lynch them. We believe around 6,000 Koreans died along with several hundred Chinese.

In addition, Tokyo police officials arrested anarchist leaders, including Osugi Sakae, one of the heads of the anarcho-syndicalist movement, with his wife and their seven-year-old nephew. They were strangled in the police station. A certain number of crimes were committed directly by the police, until Japanese intellectuals banged their fists on the table and the government finally reacted by imposing a curfew.

The calm lasted almost 20 years. Then the War broke out. And in the night of 9-10 March 1945, the American army rained explosive and incendiary bombs on Tokyo, destroying a third of the city and killing 95,000 people. It was, according to the military historian and former American pilot Kenneth P. Werrell, “one of the deadliest aerial raids ever, worse than Dresden, Hamburg and Nagasaki, at a scale comparable to Hiroshima, and definitely one of the most destructive.

After the Second World War, Japan no longer had access to the world’s oil reserves. The government decided to invest in rail transportation. In 1964, just in time for the first Tokyo Olympics, the country inaugurated the first high-speed rail line in history, the Shinkansen Tokaido, which connected the capital to Osaka. Today, its metropolitan rail service carries 40 million passengers every day, including 3 million from Shinjuku Station alone.

To avoid traffic congestion, Tokyo residents can also count on the Tokyo Wan Aqua-Line, a route opened in 1997 composed of submarine tunnels and bridges connecting the prefecture of Chiba with that of Kanagawa on the other side of the Tokyo Bay. Tokyo Wan Aqua-Line reduced travel time by 15 minutes. Construction took more than 30 years and required a 1.4 trillion-yen investment, or $11.2 billion at the time.

Tokyo 2020

In 2016, Tokyo’s government gave itself four years to “recreate the three cities of Tokyo in the perspective of putting Tokyo’s citizens at the forefront”: “a Tokyo where everyone can live in peace, have dreams and lead an active life; a sustainable Tokyo that continues to generate growth; a Tokyo that shines throughout the world as the engine of Japanese growth.

We’re going to protect the lives and property of the people of Tokyo from all types of disasters and build a dynamic and vibrant Tokyo,it promised. “We’re going to create a Tokyo that embraces diversity, full of kindness and warmth, where everyone can lead an active life and participate in society. As a megalopolis, capital of Japan and engine of the national economy, we’re going to create a sustainable Tokyo capable of meeting the challenges facing megalopolises and continuing to develop until we’re victorious in the international competition of cities.

To do it, Tokyo’s government decided to invest 4.8 billion euros. And it would seem that it can count on help from sponsors of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to make the Japanese capital shine. In February, Intel and Toyota more or less announced that they want to take advantage of the event to demonstrate their technological prowess. Intel, for example, wants to deploy 5G throughout the city, broadcast live 4K videos everywhere and develop a “ubiquitous facial recognition” technology for security and access to stadiums.

Tests are already underway. In 2017, the Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo experimented with Nokia to live broadcast an 8K video in 5G. Then it broadcast a 4G video from an observation platform of the Tokyo Skytree Broadcast Tower on a first-floor screen. And according to the Japanese press agency Jiji, the two other mobile phone companies in the country, KDDI and SoftBank, have also conducted new demonstrations or are about to do so. KDDI used 5G to project virtual reality content into moving vehicles, while SoftBank is experimenting with 5G in autonomous cars. 

The telecommunications giant SoftBank has also invested heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence. Its Pepper model has become a frequent presence in Tokyo stores. It will be robots that welcome tourists at the city’s airport during the Olympic Games. They will carry bags, point tourists on their way, and become interpreters. But the robots will also have their own Olympics: a “world summit” with expositions and competitions expected to attract the automated elite from around the world.