Ōsaka is a city on Japan’s southern coast. Since antiquity, it has been an important port on the island of Honshū, serving as the center for commercial activities during the Edo period (1600-1868). This post will discuss Ōsaka in two sections, the first discussing Ōsakan history prior to the Edo period and the second looking at three maps Ōsaka – from 1691, 1854, and 1902 – and the transformations evident therein.

Ōsaka Before the Edo Period

Ōsaka’s history stretches back to Japan’s ancient period, having appeared in the Nihon shoki (c. 720 C.E.). According to legendary history, Jinmu – the mythic first emperor of Japan – first stepped foot on the island of Honshū when he landed upon the shores of what is now known as Ōsaka Bay in the 7th century B.C.E. The emperor and his divine forces would proceed to conquer the Ōsaka plain and establish it as the homeland of the Yamato family, the ancestral name of the Imperial House of Japan.

While the above account is entirely mythological, it demonstrates Ōsaka’s importance to early Japan. From the formation of the Japanese state in the 6th century C.E. until the movement of the capital to Kamakura in 1185, Japanese society was centered in the region around Ōsaka, at that time known as Naniwa (難波), literally ‘dangerous waves.’ The city itself would serve as the capital very early on, later becoming an important port during the Nara (710-794) and early Heian (794-1185) periods as the primary site for foreign trade and departure point for envoys to China.

The Heian court would stop sending such envoys in the 10th century, giving way to a period of decline for the city that would last several hundred years. Later, warfare during the Nanboku-chō period (1336-1392) would destroy virtually the entire city as the competing northern and southern courts fought with one another. The city would remain in this state of decay during the early Sengoku period (1467-1600) until the 16th century, with the construction of Ishiyama Hongan-ji, a temple which served as the headquarters of the True Pure Land sect of Buddhism.

Ishiyama Hongan-ji would grow into a massive complex of eight towns, returning Naniwa, now known as Ōsaka, to its former glory. The temple itself was an impenetrable fortress highly valued for its strategic location and powerful enough to control the surrounding provinces. By 1570, the area was a vibrant center for religion and commerce. However, all of these factors made it a prime target for Oda Nobunaga, who was attempting to unify Japan under his leadership at the time.

Nobunaga would initiate a siege of Ishiyama Hongan-ji in 1569. The temple was so well protected, however, that it would take a full 11 years before the temple’s head priest would surrender the fortress in 1580. Nobunaga would then destroy the temple, asserting control over all of Ōsaka and its surrounding region.

2 years later, after Nobunaga’s death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi would take up the mantle as Japan’s unifier and make Ōsaka his capital. On the site of the former Ishiyama Hongan-ji, Hideyoshi would begin construction of Ōsaka Castle in 1583, completing it in a mere two years with the use of several tens of thousands of laborers. Hideyoshi would also see to the construction of a brand new city around the castle, digging a series of canals to enable the movement of building materials into the city.

Hideyoshi’s efforts would lay the foundations of modern Ōsaka. While the capital would be moved to Edo by Tokugawa Ieyasu after his death, the structures erected by Hideyoshi would remain. This included the castle, within which Ieyasu would station family members in order to assure the subjugation of the city. During the ensuing Edo period (1600-1868), Ōsaka would go on to become the second most important city in Japan, serving as the commercial center of the country.

Ōsaka’s role as Japan’s merchant city was reinforced through official policy. During the Edo period, all rice throughout the whole of the country was required to be sent to Ōsaka before being redistributed. This made it a vibrant city for business and gave rise to its moniker as “the kitchen of the nation” (天下の台所 tenka no daidokoro). Despite this, merchants were still considered to be at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy put in place by the ruling samurai. Over time, this social distinction gave rise to a unique Ōsakan mercantile culture which separated the city from Edo, its eastern rival.

Shinsen zōho Ōsaka ōezu (1691)


Kaei kaisei bunken Ōsaka zu (1854)


Saikin jissoku Ōsaka-shi shinchizu (1902)


These three maps show the city of Ōsaka at three very different points in history. By comparing them to one another, we can gain a glimpse of multiple changes which occurred not only with the city itself, but more broadly across the country as a whole. These changes are not only evident in the physical transformation of Ōsaka as an urban space, but also in the information that is presented on the maps and conventions utilized in representing that information.

The first map, Shinsen zōho Ōsaka ōezu, was completed by Hayashi Yoshinaga in 1691, the 4th year of the Genroku era (1688-1704). Genroku was an especially vibrant era, marked by tremendous economic growth and a flourishing in the arts, and often being considered a ‘golden age’ for the Tokugawa bakufu. The map is a plan of Ōsaka, likely having been used for administrative purposes, and shows the subdivisions (chōme, today written 丁目 but written in the Edo period as 丁メ) of the city. It is oriented to the east in order to show city’s castle at the top of the map, a common convention in Edo period maps of large Japanese cities.

The second map, Kaei kaisei bunken Ōsaka zu, is an 1854 woodblock print by Morikawa Hōbyakudō. Much like the first map, Morikawa’s was also completed at a time of great transformation for Japan, the so-called ‘black ships’ from America having arrived on Japanese shores and forced the country to open itself to trade only one year prior. It also follows roughly the same format as Hayashi’s map, showing the city’s subdivisions and being oriented to the east.

Saikin jissoku Ōsaka-shi shinchizu, the third map, represents a great departure from the style of the previous two maps. Completed in 1902, the map dates from the latter portion of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and reflects the innumerable cultural, political, and economic changes which occurred in this time. Like the previous two maps, it appears to have had an administrative purpose, showing many fine details in the city’s planning. Unlike them, however, it is oriented to the north, reflecting the tremendous influence of western mapping conventions on post-Meiji Restoration maps. Additionally, it covers a larger portion of the city (reflecting urban growth), and includes two inset maps of the neighboring city of Sakai (which borders Ōsaka to the south) and nearby port of Kōbe (on the northern shore of the Ōsaka bay). The name of the map includes the phrase saikin jissoku (最近實測), meaning ‘recent and accurately measured,’ which emphasizes the use of new survey techniques that had arrived in Japan during the Meiji era with western geodetic science.

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Above: the maps cropped and with orientation adjusted for the sake of comparison; the location of Ōsaka castle is static in each image on the right-hand side

The transformation of the city as a physical space from 1691-1902 is perhaps most evident in the Tenpōzan region of the city. Nowhere to be seen in the map from 1691, Tenpōzan is small artificial island just off the coast of the city. The island was built between the years 1830 and 1844 as part of a large-scale dredging of the Aji River’s mouth intended to allow larger boats to enter the river. Soil from the river’s bed was piled to form the island. On the new island, a lighthouse was built which was a notable landmark for travelers to Ōsaka, being the first sight one would see upon entering the city by boat.

1691 Map2 copy
The future site of Tenpōzan at the mouth of the Aji River in 1691
1854 map2 copy
Tenpōzan in 1854; note the outlined image of the lighthouse

In 1855, as a response to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships,’ the southern side of Tenpōzan was converted into a daiba, or artillery battery. Such daiba were constructed throughout Japan, from the southernmost regions of Kyūshū to the frontier of Hokkaido. They were intended to help defend Japanese shores from the immense firepower of western ships. The most famous of these is of course the Tōkyō daiba, which has been converted into a popular entertainment district and is now simply referred to as Odaiba. Similarly Tenpōzan today is the site of a ferris wheel and city’s massive aquarium Kaiyūkan.

1902 map2 copy
Tenpōzan in 1902, now converted into an artillery battery

Also of note is the inclusion of Kōbe in the 1902 map. Its exclusion in the previous two maps is not merely the result of decisions by the cartographers; the city quite literally did not exist in 1691 or 1854. A small fishing village for most of the Edo period, the city was created in 1858 as a foreign settlement and commercial port for western traders. The shogunate specifically chose the location of Kōbe for this purpose due to both its proximity to and distance from Ōsaka – its closeness meant that goods could easily be brought to the city’s capital of commerce, while the distance meant that foreigners would have minimal contact with native Japanese people. The settlement was even run by foreigners.

Kōbe, as it appeared in 1902

From the outset, Kōbe had an important relationship with Ōsaka. This relationship was further emphasized in 1874 with the completion of the first railway in the Kansai region which connected the two cities. Since, multiple additional railways between Ōsaka and Kōbe have been opened by several different companies. The two cities have come to be so closely related to one another that the term ‘Hanshin’ (阪神) has come to refer to the metropolitan region of both cities collectively, even lending its name to the local professional baseball team: the Hanshin Tigers.



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Contributor: Willie