The area of Edo, literally “river estuary”, was not very developed in the early 17th century, although it was very favourable for human habitation. In 1603, Ieyasu Tokugawa became shōgun and this city where his residence was located rapidly started to thrive.
The dominance of the provincial daimyō and their subordinate samurai made Edo a city with quite a grim and strict ambiance. Edo’s female population was small: in 1733 there were two men for every woman. This gender imbalance, among other things, caused an incredible rise in the popularity of the pleasure quarters.
Many picturesque images of Edo are related to Shitamachi (“low town”), an area populated by low-rank samurai, tradesmen and artisans. They established a new estate — chōnin (“urban dwellers”), and gradually became the core around which Edo’s mass culture was formed, with Kabuki theatres, sumo wrestlers, courtesans, itinerant actors, self-publish presses of the sort and other amenities of city life.
Following the great fire of 1657, which lasted for three days and claimed the lives of 100,000 people (a quarter of the population), Edo was rebuilt virtually from scratch. While areas were previously populated according to the occupation of its residents, the new Edo disregarded this principle, intermingling various inhabitants. No wonder its contemporaries used to say: “Edo wa tanka no hakidamari” (“Edo is a rubbish heap under the sun”).
The backstreets of central areas were turning into slums, mostly inhabited by bachelors who came to Edo to seek work. Edokko, rare third-generation indigenous residents of Edo, derisively referred to these visitors as mukudori (“hillbillies”).
In the early 18th century the new capital became the most populous city in the world, with the number of inhabitants reaching 1.3 million.