Until the end of the XVI century, Edo (the old Tokyo) was little more than a village inhabited by some thousands people. Yet, over about one century, it became the largest city in the world, where about one million people lived more or less permanently. The engine of the fast development of the town was the so-called "alternate attendance" (sankin kōtai) that the Tokugawa imposed on the feudal rulers of all the country after Edo became the seat of the military power under the Tokugawa clan in 1603. This practise required them to move periodically between their fi efs and Edo, typically spending alternate period in each place. During his journeys to and from Edo, feudal lords were escorted by hundreds persons; besides, during their absence from Edo, they were required to leave as hostages their wives, heirs, offi cials and retainers in mansions that they had to build, maintain and - due to the high incidence of fi res - often rebuild. The presence of this rich and demanding elite, which consumed without producing, increasingly polarised wealth, goods and people in Edo, making it the Japan’s capital of consumerism. This essay considers the descriptions of Edo left by European authors who visited the city before a series of edicts enforcing the expulsion of Europeans missionaries and merchants from the country in the 1630s. Their accounts describe a city which was still under construction, was mainly inhabited by male militaries and workers, and only partially populated by those commoners who would have occupied the ‘low city’ and were both the authors and subjects of a rich and original popular culture. This multilingual narration, fi ltered through Europeans eyes, provides a vision of Edo before the great fi re of Meireki (1657) cancelled many traces of the original town and caused a re-planning of the urban spaces, in a phase when European idea of Japan was not yet affected by those racial discourses and colonial practises which would have placed Japan in the Europe’s Orient and turned the Japanese people into a yellow race.
Keywords: Edo (Tokyo), Urban history Europe, Descriptions and voyages, Japan Cities and towns, Japan, History