What is Tokyo Exactly?

By Donnie | Japanese Geography

When people used to ask me where I lived it was really quite easy to just say “Oh I live in Tsukuba.” If I got the “Where is that?” follow-up question, I could just easily say “It’s in Ibaraki, a prefecture in eastern Japan.” Generally, that is the end of the conversation.

Now when people ask me where I live, I can say Tokyo, but after trying to remember my address, I realize there is a lot more to Tokyo than meets the eye. When you hear Tokyo, what do you think? A city in Japan, right? I know that’s what I thought of. When I hear that Tokyo is the capital of Japan, I automatically think capital city.

Yes, there was a city called Tokyo, or Tokyo-shi (東京市), but that city disappeared in the late 1800’s. Well not disappeared, but more like absorbed when Tokyo became the bustling megalopolis that it is today.

For me to say that I live in Tokyo now, is true, but slightly vague. I am now living in Kita-ku which is also considered Tokyo. Other popular places in the “Tokyo” area include Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, and a whole host of other areas. But what exactly is Tokyo? A city? A state? A town?

When you think of Tokyo think of Hakim (sorry old, poorly-timed, “Coming To America reference). When you think of Tokyo, go from broad to specific, similar to how most countries are organized. Putting it simply, Tokyo is Japan’s (possibly even the world’s) most densely-populated, metropolitan area. We can then subdivide this metropolitan area into bite-sized wards and districts. Let’s examine good old Tokyo piece by piece: Tokyo the prefecture, the wards of Tokyo, and the districts of Tokyo.


Tokyo is one of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures, plain and simple. The name of the prefecture I lived in prior to this one was Ibaraki. Haven’t heard of all 47 of Japan’s prefectures? Want to see all 47? Click here!

Prefectures are very similar to say states in the U.S.. I am from Georgia, but you can be from Atlanta, Savannah, Conyers, Decatur, or Podunk (don’t think that’s a real GA city, by the way). Similarly, prefectural Tokyo is also made up of many regions that are akin to cities.


Twenty-three wards of Tokyo

Tokyo is composed of twenty-three different wards. Here they are in alphabetical order:
1. Adachi-ku
2. Arakawa-ku
3. Bunkyo-ku
4. Chiyoda-ku
5. Chuo -ku
6. Edogawa -ku
7. Itabashi -ku
8. Katsushika -ku
9. Kita -ku (WOO HOO! Kita-ku shout out!)
10. Koto-ku
11. Meguro-ku
12. Minato-ku
13. Nakano-ku
14. Nerima-ku
15. Ota-ku
16. Setagaya-ku
17. Shibuya-ku
18. Shinjuku-ku
19. Shinagawa-ku
20. Suginami-ku
21. Sumida-ku
22. Taito-ku
23. Toshima-ku

For all intensive purposes, Tokyo’s wards are very much like cities. When I get mail, I have to write “Kita-ku, Tokyo-to.” It’s like writing the city and province (or ward and province in most eastern Tokyo examples). It similar to some who lives in L.A. having “Los Angeles, California” written on their.


After looking at all of Tokyo’s wards, I thought to myself “Okay. I got it. I understand.” But then I started looking and thinking about some of the stations I would see on the Tsukuba Express on my way to Tokyo? Or some of the other places I would visit in Tokyo? “Where’s Kita Senju? Where’s Akihabara? Where’s Ueno?

For those places we have to break things down one more level and you end up with smaller, Tokyo districts. I know this isn’t all of the subdistricts, I’m still trying to figure them all out. But here are some of the major Tokyo subdistricts:

1. Akasaka
2. Akihabara
3. Aomi
4. Asakusa
5. Daiba
6. Ginza
7. Harajuku
8. Higashiyama
9. Ichigaya
10. Ikebukuro
11. Kabukicho
12. Kagurazaka
13. Nihonbashi
14. Nishi-Shinjuku
15. Roppongi
16. Shiba
17. Ueno

Quite a few of the ward and distict names may look familiar to you, because many of the Tokyo-based train station stops are named after Tokyo them.

I think these are the basics of east Tokyo, but I know that’s not even the end of it! There are subprefectures, the cities of western Tokyo, the islands of Tokyo, and more.

Is your head spinning yet? Mine is 😀 . Looks like I’ve got a lot to learn about this place, but I think that’s a good thing.

I’ll see you next time!

Donald Ash

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  • Hey Donald! I came across your videos a few days ago (I had been curious about Japanese apartments and convenience stores, watched the others from there) Then I cam across this blog. I enjoy reading about your experiences In Japan! I have been interested in the culture since High school and just recently started really concentrating on learning it (teaching myself). I can sense the energy you have and the love you have for Japan in your posts, it makes them fun to read!

    • Donald Ash


      Thank you so much for your comment. I enjoy writing about my time here. Japan has its ups and downs, but it’s a great place to live and work. I hope to keep making interesting content. I have been a bit of a post-move funk, but I have neat stuff planned this year. Please come back and visit anytime! You’re always welcome 😀

  • You know, I’d never really thought about “defining” Tokyo until reading this entry! It makes a lot of sense, and will be helpful in the future. Thank you for this post and for breaking it down. I have learned something today. 🙂

  • Waltlanta

    Thanks for the posts. Sounds like things are exciting for you. I gather you are going to have a lot of material for this blog now that you are living in Tokyo. All the best!

  • Rambalac

    Actually 東京市 disappeared in 1943
    And actually Tokyo includes around 50 municipal entities, including villages and islands

  • berengere

    head spinning for sure! 😀

    awesome blog donald, cheers for sharing!

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