What is Tokyo exactly? Is Tokyo a city or is it a state? Tokyo is often compared with world’s largest cities such as New York, London or Paris, so it is natural most people overseas would think that Tokyo is simply a city just like other major cities of the world.
Japan has 47 prefectures, and Tokyo is considered one of them. Therefore, Tokyo is a prefecture rather than a city. Tokyo Prefecture is actually called Tokyo-to, which can be translated as Tokyo Metropolis. A prefecture in Japan is, in some sense, similar to a state in the USA. (Tokyo Metropolitan Government uses the term “Tokyo Metropolis” instead of Tokyo Prefecture.)
Tokyo Prefecture comprises 23 wards, some cities such as Fuchu City, Musashino City and Mitaka City, and also some remote islands in the Pacific, e.g., the Bonin Islands located 1,000 kilometers south of central Tokyo. These remote islands are also parts of Tokyo Prefecture.
Tokyo is sometimes regarded as a de facto city. One main reason for this is because there was, in fact, a Tokyo City in the past. It existed on the eastern side of Tokyo from 1889 to 1943. The area is presently known as Tokyo’s 23 wards area.
To the question of “Is Tokyo a city or a prefecture (state)?”, the right answer is, “It is not a city but, rather, a prefecture.”
The area Tokyo Metropolis (Tokyo Prefecture) governs are central area, normally referred to as Tokyo 23 wards area, Tama area which comprises of 26 cities, Nishi Tama County which comprises of 3 towns and 1 village, and remote islands which have 4 branch local offices. The prefecture’s population is about 14,000,000 which accounts for 10 percent of the entire population of Japan. Tokyo Prefecture itself is not the largest congregation of the world but if Greater Tokyo area such as parts of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa are included, then it will be by far the largest congregation of the world.
According to Tokyo’s Prefectural Office, their official name in English is “Tokyo Metropolitan Government” and the English translation of “Tokyo-to” is “Tokyo Metropolis”. On the website of Tokyo Metropolitan Government they use the term “Tokyo Metropolis” to refer to the area they govern. Interestingly on their website, they also use the term Tokyo City as a generic term.