Cities Larger Than Many Countries

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, PRB

If it were a country, what city would be the 34th largest on Earth? Tokyo!

Based on censuses, the UN Population Division estimates that Tokyo would be larger than 209 of the world’s countries. The “Tokyo” referred to here is the Kanto Major Metropolitan Area (MMA), as defined by the Japan Statistics Bureau. Tokyo’s population in 2012 was 37 million, just behind Poland and just ahead of Algeria, Uganda, and Canada.


Source: NASDA.

Currently, 30 percent of Japan’s population resides in the MMA, but it wasn’t always that way. In the aftermath of World War II, just 14 percent of the country’s population lived in the MMA. From 1950 to 1970, Tokyo grew at a speedy 3.6 percent every year. Today, however, growth is much more modest at 0.7 percent per year. What is remarkable about the Tokyo metro area is its comparatively compact size at roughly 120 kilometers (70 miles) across. Compare that to the Washington, D.C. metro area, which is about 250 kilometers (150 miles) at its widest point and a population of nearly 6 million.

Expansion of Tokyo geographically is limited by the ocean on one side and mountains to the west. As a result, its population density is about 2.5 times that of Bangladesh.

Mention should also be made of Tokyo’s competitor for the top spot—Delhi. India’s capital is expanding rapidly in all directions, and its annual growth rate is 3.1 percent. In 1950, Delhi was not even ranked in the UN’s list of the 30 largest metro areas; the city first appeared as Number 30 in 1965 when its population was around 3 million. By 2012, it had grown to 23 million and is projected to reach 33 million by 2025, just 12 years away. Delhi can be expected to pass Tokyo not long after 2030.

There’s nothing simple about what is really meant by the terms “urban,” “city,” and “metro area.” That’s a good topic for a forthcoming blog.

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