Last week I explained my motivation for returning to the municipality of Kunitachi for my two year stint as a JSPS International Research Fellow at Japan Women’s University. I have been in Japan for more than two weeks now and after having found a place for my family to live, I am slowly settling into a writing routine. This week found me beginning to exploring the geography and history of Kunitachi, which will be the main focus of my research project and of this blog. It is therefore worth explaining briefly the structure of local government in Japan so that the reader can gain a sense of what I mean by the municipality of Kunitachi. There are two levels of local government in Japan. The first is the prefectural-level administration for each of the forty-seven prefectures. Each of these prefectures is then divided into a number of local municipalities. This municipal level of government is the most intimate. It has responsibility for registering births, deaths and marriages under the household registration system and attends to the myriad facets of everyday life, from garbage disposal to childcare.

For most people who live in Japan their local municipal government presents itself as the most familiar face of government. For example, although I have been in Japan for a little over two weeks I have already visited my local government office to establish a record of residency in Kunitachi, join the national health insurance scheme and obtain information about local childcare options for my children. Next week when I move into our new apartment and my family arrives from Australia, we will all visit the municipal office building to register my change of address and add my family’s names to the local records.

Understanding this system of local administration is somewhat complicated by the fact that while most of the prefectural-level administrative units are referred to as prefectures (県 ken), there are some exceptional administrative units differentiated by the use of other suffixes. These include the single administrative unit that covers the island of Hokkaidō, which is the only ‘dō’ (道) as well as the three special urban prefectures Kyoto-fu, Osaka-fu and Tokyo-to. Tokyo, the site of the national capital and an exceptional urban region in many ways is designated with the suffix ‘to’ (都), a character that can mean imperial capital but today is generally translated as metropolis, as it is, for example, on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s own website.

I have included this somewhat lengthy explanation of the structure of local government because I often struggle to explain that when I say I am living in Tokyo, I really mean the Tokyo Metropolis, far to the west of what most would consider to be Tokyo proper. Tokyo is made up of two broadly defined geographical areas: a ‘central’ area that extends west from the shores of Tokyo Bay to the westernmost wards of Nerima, Suginami and Setagaya; and the much larger Tama area, which stretches much further to the west (there are actually a number of remote islands stretching far to the southeast of Tokyo Bay that are also administratively part of the metropolis but I will not consider these here).

Tokyo Metropolis Map

Map of the Tokyo Metropolis, the purple areas on the right are the central twenty-three wards while the remainder of the coloured municipalities constitute the Tama area.

Administratively the Tokyo Metropolis, like all prefectural-level bodies, is further divided into a number of local municipalities. The ‘central’ area consists of twenty-three special administrative wards which are located in the eastern part of the metropolitan boundaries. This is where some nine million of Tokyo’s thirteen million residents make their home. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government website, population density in the twenty-three-ward area is 14,746 people per square kilometre. This area is ‘central’ in terms of its function and population density but geographically it occupies the eastern extremity of a metropolis that stretches ninety kilometres from Tokyo Bay in the east to the mountains of Okutama in the west. The Tama region is made up of the vast bulk of this land area lying outside of the twenty-three wards. Tama is much less densely populated than central Tokyo, with 4.22 million people making their home in an area of 1,160 square kilometres, giving a density of 3,640 per square kilometre. It is governed by 30 separate municipalities (26 cities, 3 towns and 1 village) and is home to approximately four million people. Many parts of Tama are still quite rural and the district hosts 60 per cent of Tokyo’s forests and 75 per cent of its agricultural land.

It is in this district, with its ample forests and fields, that property developers and administrators began in the early twentieth century look for land to house the metropolis’s growing population. The municipality which is now known as Kunitachi is the result of one such scheme, begun in the 1920s, to develop uncultivated land in the north of what was then Yaho village, with the vision of creating a new, orderly city of education. At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868), the village of Yaho consisted of just 400 households scattered along the old Tokugawaera Kōshūkaidō (甲州街道), one of the five major roads which connected Edo with the feudal domains. This route led to the domain then known as Kainokuni (甲斐国), which was known by the abbreviated name of Kōshū (甲州), and went on to connect with the Nakasendō (中山道), another one of the five great roads, at Shimosuwa-shuku (下諏訪宿). To the north of Yaho village lay a great undeveloped piece of uninhabited and thickly forested land where the villagers foraged for fertiliser and timber fuel. In 1899 the Kōbu Railway (today’s JR Chūō line) was extended from Shinjuku to Tachikawa through the northern extremity of this forest, but at that time it still had no impact on the life of the villagers.

‘Shimizu no tateba’, from Edo meijo zukai (Collection of famous places of Edo), 1836

A rest place on the Kōshū Kaido near the Yaho Tenmangu Shrine

It was not until after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 that the Hakone Toichi Kaihatsu Corporation, which was already in the midst of a major development project in neighbouring Kodaira, put forward a plan to develop the forested northern part of Yaho village and build a university town (学園都市) based around the Tokyo University of Commerce. The university was formerly based in the Kanda-Hitotsubashi area in Chiyoda in central Tokyo but was destroyed during the earthquake. The developer began by purchasing 100 hectares of land in northern Yaho in 1925. The following year a railway station named Kunitachi was built on the existing Kōbu Railway line. The company went on to implement an ambitious town plan featuring a great rotunda constructed in front of the Kunitachi railway station from which a grand central avenue and two other main roads radiated out at forty-five degree angles. Over these three main radials was overlaid a grid of smaller roads and the land was divided into lots of 200 tsubo (approximately 662 metres), which were offered for sale as part of this new subdivision known as Kunitachi Daigaku-chō (Kunitachi university town).

Two images of early Kunitachi. The one of the left shows the original layout for the subdivision with few lots yet taken up (1924). The one on the right shows Kunitachi College of Music at the time of its establishment (1926).


The original vision of Kunitachi as a university town was realised when the  Conservatory of Music relocated to the area in 1926 (where it was renamed the Kunitachi College of Music) followed quickly by the Tokyo University of Commerce (now Hitotsubashi University) which was built between 1927 and 1930. In 1930 the Nanbu Railway (today’s JR Nanbu line) added a second railway station to the village when it established the Yaho railway station midway between the new university town and the old Kōshū Kaidō road.

Early photograph of Yaho Railway station displayed in a shop near the current station.

This historical pattern of development remains clearly visible in the layout of contemporary Kunitachi’s streets. In this picture, a photograph of a 1930 map I snapped in a shop near Yaho railway station, you can clearly see how the jumbled knot of laneways of the former villages of Yaho and Aoyagi that spread out along the Kōshū Kaidō and down through the fertile river flats to the Tama River (at the bottom of the picture) give way to the neatly planned grid of the new town.

Old Map of Yaho,

Despite its exotic town plan, supposedly inspired by the European city of Bern, the slump that followed the 1930 economic crisis meant that sales of lots in the new town were initially quite slow. The population of the area in 1920 was 2,611 but by 1940, more than ten years after completion of the new development, it had not yet doubled in size and stood at just 4,716. Only after the war did the municipality’s population increase significantly, reaching 32,609 by 1960. Today the population of Kunitachi has more than doubled again with some 75,723 living in an area of 8.15 square kilometres, giving the city a population density of 9,291.17 people per square kilometre. While still cramped by Australian standards, a comparison with Shinjuku ward in central Tokyo gives a sense of the comparative openness of Kunitachi. Shinjuku’s population of 342,297 lives in an area of 18.22 sqm, giving a population density of 18,786 per sqm, more than double that of Kunitachi.

Returning to the earlier discussion of local administration, the exact boundaries and functions of local government in Japan have changed throughout the modern period and the local administration of what is today Kunitachi has been affected by these changes as well as by the significant growth in its population following the end of the Asia-Pacific War. At the time of the Meiji restoration the land that is now Kunitachi stood within what was then the Tama gun (郡, roughly equivalent to an American county or an Australian shire). Following the Great Meiji Consolidation of 1888–1889, when the central government reduced the number of recognised municipalities by about one fifth from 71, 314 to 15,859, the village of Yaho was created out of the merger of two smaller villages and placed under the administration of Kitatama gun. Thanks to the establishment of the Kōbu Railway’s Kunitachi railway station, the district around the station became known as Kunitachi. The origins of this name, however, are disappointingly mundane. Having been established midway between the existing railway stations of Kokubunji (分寺) and Tachikawa (川), Kunitachi (国立) station was named simply by taking the first kanji character from each of the neighbouring stations. In 1943, Kunitachi was also recognised as the name for the district (大字, ōaza) within the village of Yaho which was located near the Kunitachi railway station. Then finally in 1951 the village of Yaho was itself renamed Kunitachi and its status was upgraded from that of a village to a town (町 chō). Its growing population saw Kunitachi’s upgraded once again to become a city in its own right in 1967 and has remained an independent municipal body ever since. The many chapters in Kunitachi’s story which follow on from its original development in the 1920s will form the basis of future posts.


  • Heibonsha Chihō Shiryō Sentā (ed), 2002, Nihon rekishi chimei taikei, vol. 13, Heibonsha, Tokyo.
  • ‘Kadokawa Nihon chimei daijiten’ henshū iinkai (ed), 1983, Kadokawa Nihon chimei dai jiten, vol. 13 ’Tōkyō’, Kadokawa shoten, Tokyo, pp. 1041–44.
  • ‘Kadokawa Nihon chimei daijiten’ henshū iinkai (ed), 2011, Kadokawa Nihon chimei dai jiten, CD-ROM, Kadokawa, Tokyo.
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 2018, ‘Tokyo’s history, geography and population’, http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/english/about/history/index.html
  • Shichōson yōran henshūiinkai (ed), 2018, Zenokoku shichōson yōran, Daiichi hōki, Tokyo.


Stretching across the Kantō Plain on Japan’s eastern seaboard lies its capital city, Tokyo. Together with the neighbouring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa, it forms one of the world’s largest conurbations. Tokyo’s enormous population is densely packed. One can ride the train for an hour or two in almost any direction through the city and stare out the window while an endless parade of tower blocks, two-storey homes and commercial and industrial districts unfold before the eye. This vast horizontal expanse is paralleled in vertical space, as soaring towers containing both commercial and residential premises stretch ever upwards, jostling with one another to dominate the sky. Full use is also made of the space beneath the streets for basement bars, live music venues and businesses of all description.

It is difficult to encapsulate the Tokyo that is the subject of this blog in a single post. Yet I have to start somewhere and so I shall start with my own Tokyo: the place I have got to know over three separate periods living in the city between 1997 and 2013. My relationship with Tokyo began in 1997, when I spent a year living in Suginami, one of the 23 special administrative wards that make up the heart of the Tokyo Metropolis. As a 15-year-old high school exchange student with Youth For Understanding, I attended Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School in neighbouring Meguro ward for a full academic year and experienced first-hand the daily grind of commuting during the morning peak on the JR Yamanote and Marunouchi subway, two of the busiest commuter railway lines in the world. When school finished, I tried to avoid returning home for as long as possible and so wandered aimlessly through the vastness of Shibuya and Shinjuku, finding bookshops where I could hole up for hours and leaf through volumes I could only barely understand.

In that year I wandered mostly alone, though kind teachers and host family members, fellow students and fellow travellers reached out to me from time to time. Little did I realise, however, that in 1997 some high school students were already getting involved in a political movement that would help lay the groundwork for the explosion of the precarity movement some ten years later. Dame ren, a network of alienated misfits, depressed shut-ins and burgeoning political activists was already addressing many of the social issues that I struggled to put into words despite my acute experiences of alienation and displacement.

I only fully began to appreciate Tokyo as a political space when I returned more than ten years later to take up a position with a large English conversation school chain in Saitama, one of the prefectures that makes up the Greater Tokyo Area. From there I travelled weekly into the heart of the city, where I attended film screenings and discussions at places like Irregular Rhythm Asylum in Shinjuku and nestled inside the toasty kotatsu at Shirōto no Ran’s Shop No 12. While meeting activists, artists and miscreants from around Japan and across the world, I came to learn of the struggles that were going on over whose Tokyo this really was, such as during the battle to save the much-loved Miyashita Park in Shibuya from privatization and prevent the eviction of its homeless population. I began to see the streets as combat zones, where competing memories and competing futures were locked in struggle. Who would decide what kind of city Tokyo is and was and what it was to become?

On returning to the city once more in 2011, for an eighteen month stay as a research student at Hitotsubashi University, I began to assemble a lexicon to describe this battle for the city, this struggle for an autonomous Tokyo. There in the seminar rooms of Hitotsubashi, where I quite coincidentally landed in the urban sociology seminar of Professor Machimura Takashi, I came to understand that the sociology of the city could be a way of using Marx to read the streets. The explosion of protest then rippling across the world, from the Jasmine Revolution in North Africa to Occupy Wall Street and the anti-nuclear movement in Japan, enabled me to see what struggle for ‘the right to the city’ was all about. But it was in the streets of Tokyo and in its activist spaces, tucked away in obscure laneways and underneath cheap buildings, that I came to understand how important space was not only as a container for political activity but as the stuff from which autonomy is made. These investigations finally found form in my PhD and later in my book, Anti-nuclear protest in post-Fukushima Tokyo: power struggles (Routledge 2018).

During my time at Hitotsubashi I found myself living in a share house not far from the Tama River in the older part of the municipality of Kunitachi. The connections I formed in this period, swept up in the rhythms of the local music scene and in acts of protest and remembrance, have tied me irrevocably to this place. And hence it is to Kunitachi that I have now returned to once more take up the work of mapping and meandering, living and resisting in the autonomous city that lies inside, outside, against and beyond the mean streets of Tokyo. The Tokyo that I have come to know and love over the past 22 years is a vast and complex place. Often dingy and grey due to the particulate pollution that hangs in the humid air, its concrete skin conceals a colourful and intense urban flesh. Politically, the struggle for Tokyo that I have witnessed unfolding over the past decade is inspiring because of what it says about what humans living together in cities can aspire towards. In this blog, I will explore the continuing struggle for autonomy and dignity that is taking place in the midst of this wonderful example of the human love affair with the urban.