Urban migration beyond the West: the cases of Tokyo and Rabat

Manchester, Berlin and Chicago share two basic similarities: industrialisation and nineteenth-century rapid growth. This migration-fuelled growth, however, was not limited to Europe or North America.

Cities in other parts of the world experienced similar inward migration, but not necessarily under the same circumstances. For example, after Tokyo was chosen as the new national capital of Japan in 1869, people from across the country were actively encouraged to move to the city to support its demographic and industrial growth. Its population subsequently increased from 500,000 in 1869 to 2 million in 1905. The city would also acquire a number of foreign communities. Koreans represented the largest community by far. After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, thousands of impoverished rural Koreans moved to Tokyo and other parts of the country in response to rising labour demand. Although they were legally citizens of the Empire of Japan, they often had to face the brunt of Japanese hostility towards foreigners.

In the wake of the devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which destroyed much of Tokyo and caused over 100,000 deaths, up to 5,000 Korean civilians were massacred after false rumours spread claiming that this group had committed arson and robbery and had poisoned the water supply. Anyone mistakenly identified as Korean faced a similar fate. In fact, about 700 Chinese mostly from Wenzhou, were also killed by mobs. The Japanese government had to call up the army to protect the city’s foreigners, and the violence of 1923 has had a lasting impact upon Japanese wariness about inaccurate information in the event of a major natural disaster

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century also saw the evolution of a different kind of urban settlement, specifcally in Africa and Asia: the colonial city of Africa and Asia. This involved a different type of city-bound migration: that of the colonial ruling class and settler community. This migration is often overlooked but it is one that dramatically changed the form and layout of many cities, as they were physically altered in preparation for their new inhabitants.

An illustrative case is Rabat in Morocco. After the country became a French Protectorate in 1912, the new colonial administrator decided to relocate its political capital from the bustling inland city of Fez to the more sedate coastal town of Rabat. This decision triggered a major expansion of the town as the French designed a modern administrative sector called the ‘Ville Nouvelle’ (New Town), to be located next to Rabat’s ancient Medina. The swift construction of the new district in the 1920s allowed for the arrival of thousands of colonial migrants from France, who, during the 1930s, constituted over 40% of the city’s 55,000 inhabitants.

The redesign of Rabat resulted in the juxtaposition of two distinct cities. On the one hand, a model European district was created to showcase the administrative capacities and sanitary concerns of the French colonial state, on the other, the indigenous Medina was preserved as testimony to the city’s architectural heritage and as an attraction for western tourists. But this distinction also reflected a deep disparity in living conditions: healthy, modern facilities for the European migrants; unhealthy and overcrowded accommodation for the Moroccans.

In short, the colonial city offers us a very different perspective on the relationship between migration and cities. Here the migrant is not the worker, as was typically the case in Chicago, Berlin or Manchester, but is part of a ruling elite that has sought to determine the shape of the city and the lives of its ‘local’ residents.

The movement of European settlers towards colonial cities in Africa and Asia reached its peak during the early twentieth century. The Second World War and its aftermath would mark the end of such migration as anti-colonial independence movements spread across the two continents. Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, and even if the French Protectorate had lasted little over 40 years, the redesign of Rabat and of other Moroccan cities to meet the requirements of colonial migration left a lasting legacy on the new nation.

In the meantime, the Second World War had spelt destruction for many cities across Europe. New waves of migration would now be fundamental for their revival.

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This article is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)