History of Kyoto, Japan

Perspective Pictures of Places in Japan: Sanjūsangen-dō in Kyoto Toyoharu, c. 1772–1781

Kyoto is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture, based in Japan. Situated in the Kansai region on the Honshu island, Kyoto forms a central part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area along with Kobe and Osaka. Kyoto had a population of 1.52 million as of 2019.

The Name- Kyoto

In Japanese, Kyoto was previously called Miyako (都), Kyō (京), or Kyō no Miyako (京の都). In the 10th or the 11th century (historians aren’t sure about the century), the town was renamed “Kyōto” ( “capital city”), from the Chinese kiang-too. After the city of Edo was renamed “Tōkyō” (which means “Eastern Capital”) in 1868 and the king moved the seat of the emperor there, Kyoto was for some time known as “Saikyō” (which means “Western Capital”). Kyoto is also called the thousand-year capital.

Technically, the National Diet never properly passed any law choosing a capital. The city name’s foreign spellings have included Miaco, Kioto, and Meaco, mainly by Dutch cartographers. Another term that refers to the town in the pre-modern era was Keishi, which means “capital.”

Origin and History of Kyoto

Extensive archaeological data proves human settlement in the area of Kyoto started as early as the Paleolithic era. However, not much-published material is retained about social activity in the district before the 6th century, around which period the Shimogamo Shrine is understood to have been installed.


During the 8th century, when influential Buddhist clergy became involved in the royal government’s affairs, Emperor Kanmu decided to relocate the capital to distance it from Nara’s clerical institution. His ultimate choice for the site was the village of Uda, in the Kadono region of Yamashiro Province.

The new city, Heian-kyō (meaning “peace and tranquility capital”), a scaled reproduction of the then Chinese Tang dynasty capital Chang’an, became the seat of Japan’s court in 794, started the Heian era of Japanese history. Although military rulers installed their courts either in Kyoto or in other cities such as Edo (Tokugawa shogunate) and Kamakura (Kamakura shogunate), Kyoto stayed as Japan’s capital until the shift of the imperial court to Tokyo in 1869 during the period of the Imperial Restoration.

Daidairi (palace in the center) and the cityscape of Heian-kyō

The city suffered widespread destruction in the Ōnin War of 1467–1477 and did not revive until the mid-16th century. During the Ōnin War, the Shugo collapsed, and the government was split among the military families. Disputes between samurai factions spilled into the streets and included the religious factions and court nobility (kuge). Nobles’ homes were converted into fortresses, deep channels dug throughout the town for defense and as firebreaks, and various buildings burned. The town has not seen such extensive destruction since.

In the 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the city by constructing new streets to double the number of north-south streets in central Kyoto, forming rectangle blocks replacing ancient square blocks. Hideyoshi also built fortification walls called odoi covering the city. Teramachi Street in Kyoto is a Buddhist temple district where Hideyoshi assembled temples in the city. Throughout the Edo era, the city’s economy flourished as one of three major cities in Japan, the others being Edo and Osaka.

Modern Kyoto

The Hamaguri revolution of 1864 burnt down 30,000 houses in the town, showing the rebels’ disappointment with the Tokugawa Shogunate. The consequent move of the monarch to Tokyo in 1869 undermined the economy. The emperor formed the modern city of Kyoto on April 1, 1889. The development of the Lake Biwa Canal in 1890 was one measure taken to restore the city. The population of the city topped one million in 1932.

During World War II, United States initially planned to throw Atomic Bombs in Kyoto. However, in the end, at the demand of Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies, the city was excluded from the list of targets and succeeded by Nagasaki. The city was also primarily spared from bombing, although small-scale air raids resulted in some casualties.

Timeline of Kyoto

Until 19th Century

  • 794 CE – Kanmu relocates Japanese capital to Heian-kyō from Nagaoka-kyō.
  • 947 CE – Kitano Shrine built.
  • 970 CE – Gion Festival begins.
  • 1202 CE- Zen Buddhist Kennin-ji (temple) founded in Higashiyama by Eisai.
  • 1319 CE – Daitoku-ji Temple built.
  • 1397 CE- Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) founded.
  • 1431 CE – Famine.
  • 1444 CE – Political protest by merchants, at Kitano Shrine.
  • 1467 CE – Ōnin War begins.
  • 1480 CE – Ikkō-ikki unrest.
  • 1560 CE – Aritsugu swordsmith in business.
  • 1586 CE – Jurakudai (palace) built.
  • 1788 CE – Great Kyoto Fire.

19th century and Beyond

  • 1854 CE – Kyoto Imperial Palace rebuilt.
  • 1872 CE – Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures held
  • 1877 CE – Kyōto Station opens.
  • 1879 CE – Kamigyō-ku and Shimogyō-ku ward established
  • 1886 CE – Maruyama Park opens.
  • 1897 CE – Imperial University of Kyoto established
  • 1921 CE – Higashiyama-ku ward created
  • 1922 CE – Kyoto Sanga Football Club formed.
  • 1924 CE – Kyoto Botanical Garden established
  • 1928 CE – Hirohito’s imperial enthronement ceremony held in Kyoto

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