Why is Tokyo Called The Big Mikan? (Plus Other Names The City Could Go By)

Written by Patrick MacFarland
Published: November 29, 2023
Share on:

Advertisement


Oftentimes, nicknames are a way to identify a person, place, or thing. Nicknames can be a colloquial term that is often more personal. When it comes to cities, the nickname, either good or bad, can sometimes reflect the city’s essence or the city’s feeling. New York for example is the “City That Never Sleeps” because of the buzzing taxis, the lights in Times Square, and the overall energy that seems to never go away. 

For Tokyo, there are several nicknames attributed to the city in Japan. One of the most famous nicknames it goes by is “The Big Mikan.” Let’s take a look at why Tokyo is called the Big Mikan. We are also going to explore other nicknames it goes by and several fun facts.

Where Is Tokyo?

Aerial view of Tokyo cityscape with Fuji mountain in Japan.

It may be bad manners in the US, but in Japan, if you slurp your noodles, it’s considered good manners and an indicator that you liked the food.

©tawatchaiprakobkit/iStock via Getty Images

Tokyo is located in Tokyo Bay on the island of Honshu, which is the country’s largest island. The prefecture is the most populous in Japan, with 14 million people. However, Tokyo has a whopping 37 million people in the city’s metropolitan area. It is the largest megalopolis in the world. The capital city has an area of 847 square miles.

Tokyo, being the capital city, is the seat of the Japanese government where the Prime Minister resides, and it’s also where the Emperor of Japan lives. Originally called Edo (meaning bay entrance or estuary), in 1868, the city was changed in the Meiji period to Tokyo. The city means Eastern Capital in Japanese.

Big Mikan

Shibuya

The oldest subway system in East Asia is located in Tokyo. Called the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, it opened in 1927.

©SAICHI/iStock via Getty Images

We have to talk about New York briefly because Tokyo has a connection with New York City in why Tokyo is called the Big Mikan. New York is called the Big Apple because jazz musicians wanted to compare their success in New York to getting “the Big Apple” as opposed to making it in a “Regular Apple,” or another city. Because Tokyo and New York are sister cities and the biggest cities in their respective countries, a term was popularized in the 1970s and 1980s to coin Tokyo as the “Big Mikan.”

The term never caught on, but the sentiment was there. Mikans are a type of Japanese orange. During the Edo period, kishu mikan (a type of mandarin orange) was very popular. Eventually, the popularity waned as people during the Meiji period preferred Citrus unshiu, otherwise known as unshu mikan. These oranges are popular in Japan to this day, they don’t have seeds and can be eaten as a snack or dessert. To tie Tokyo with a fruit, just like New York, they made the connection with “mikan,” thus calling Tokyo, the “Big Mikan.”

It is also said that when you open the insides of a Mandarin orange or a Japanese mikan, the webs inside the orange look like Tokyo’s web of streets. This is another reason why the nickname came about. Nevertheless, the nickname never became very popular in Japan, and eventually, people abroad have largely forgotten about the term. But there are websites and other articles that refer to Tokyo as the Big Mikan. It is said that Corky Alexander, founder of The Tokyo Weekender, the largest English-language publication in Japan, coined the term.

Other Nicknames the City Has

Tokyo Sky Tree and cherry blossom during spring at Japan.

Tokyo is the largest urban economy in the world in terms of GDP. The tallest tower in the world, Tokyo Skytree, is located here.

©fannrei/iStock via Getty Images

Like many other cities in the world, there isn’t just one nickname that people call Tokyo. Sometimes nicknames are invented to shorten the city’s name. For example, New York City is NYC or NY. But for Tokyo, sometimes the city can be called by its previous name. Let’s take a look at some of the nicknames Tokyo can be called.

Edo

As stated above, Tokyo’s original name was Edo. Edo means bay entrance or estuary. Edo used to be a castle town and was the de facto capital of Japan starting in 1603. During the Tokugawa shogunate, Edo became one of the largest cities in the country and the world. However, when Emperor Meiji became ruler of Japan in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital). He also relocated the Emperor’s seat to Tokyo, instead of Kyoto.

City of 808 Villages

While we are on the topic of Edo being the former name of Tokyo, Edo also had a nickname. It was called the “City of 808 Villages” or the “City of 808 Machi.” This referred to the number of diverse communities Edo had. Of course, by the mid-1800s when Edo was already a city of more than 1 million inhabitants, the city had about 1,800 communities.

Tokei

At the beginning of the Meiji period, Tokyo was sometimes referred to as Tokei. There was no reason for it, only that the same characters used in Tokyo were used in Tokei, so it’s an assumption that people got confused when the city’s name was changed.

The Big Smoke

There are whispers that Tokyo has also been referred to as “The Big Smoke.” There isn’t a clear picture as to why or how it got that nickname. Rumor has it that back in the 1970s and 1980s, a huge percentage of people smoked a lot. The city was seen as a smoker’s heaven, but ever since anti-smoking laws came into place, smoking has drastically decreased.

Land of the Rising Sun

Rice Terraces in Japan

One of the reasons Japan’s nickname is the “Land of the Rising Sun” is because the sun rises first in Japan than in the rest of the world.

©SeanPavonePhoto/iStock via Getty Images

It’s important to note that although Tokyo is not called this, Japan is called the Land of the Rising Sun. The way the story goes is that the Chinese Emperor referred to Japan thousands of years ago as “Wa” which means dwarf. To combat that dastardly name, Japanese elites started referring to Japan as “the country of the origin of the sun” or “country where the sun rises.” Eventually, the term Nippon or Nihon was adopted in 608 A.D. by Prince Shotoku of Japan. The prince sent a letter to the Chinese Emperor referring to himself as the “Son of Heaven where the sun rises” to establish prominence against the Chinese. And thus, the term was coined. Japan is known as Nippon, or the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Conclusion

And there you have it, Tokyo is called the Big Mikan because of how the streets are shaped like the webs of the mikan orange. The term “Big Mikan” can be a reference, or nod, to New York’s nickname, the “Big Apple.” Although the streets are shaped like a sort of web, sometimes it’s just magical to get lost in Tokyo. People flock from all over the world to visit the megalopolis in hopes of finding out what true futuristic magic is like. It’s one of the most visited cities in the world for a reason.

If you find yourself in Tokyo, go out and explore the sights and everything around you — the bright neon lights, the futuristic hotels, and restaurants, but also the old architecture that crashes into the newer, more modern buildings with perfection. Tokyo will inspire you, from its history to its people and from its food to its culture. And when you walk along a web-like street and see Mount Fuji in the distance, think about how Tokyo is truly the “Big Mikan.”

The photo featured at the top of this post is © StockByM/iStock via Getty Images


Share on:
About the Author

Patrick Macfarland is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel, geography, and history. Patrick has been writing for more than 10 years. In the past, he has been a teacher and a political candidate. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from SDSU and a Master's Degree in European Union Studies from CIFE. From San Diego, California, Patrick loves to travel and try new recipes to cook.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.