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Japanese Summer Songs

In Japanese Festivals, Japanese Music, Japanese Subculture on August 13, 2017 at 5:09 pm

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Four years ago, I took a break from history and linguistics to do a two-part series called the Top 10 Japanese Songs of Summer. The posts had links to YouTube videos that have long since been taken down[i]. But in four years a lot can change… and a lot can stay the same. Flavors of the month will come and go, but some timeless songs that celebrate the season may never change. In that spirit, I thought I’d make a new list of some of my favorite Japanese songs. There are some from the old list[ii], as well as some new additions. Also, there’s no particular order here, just a smattering of fun music to help you beat the heat and humidity.

I suggest just going to the videos to listen to the music, but if you’re into reading and stuff, there’s a little text accompanying each entry.

Original Posts:

 

阿波よしこの
Awa Yoshikono

This traditional song and its lively dance became popular in the early Edo Period in Tokushima Prefecture. After WWII, it became a nationwide phenomenon as areas hit hard by the war turned towards 夏祭 natsuri matsuri summer festivals as a way to revitalize local business and tourism, as well as boost a sense of civic pride. In the case of Tōkyō, which had expanded massively after the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing in 1945, urban sprawl meant building new neighborhoods which had no connection to ancient history or powerful shrines and temples. Many such neighborhoods invited teams of dancers to perform the Awa Dance to the tune of Awa Yoshikono. Since then, the sounds, styles, and atmosphere of this frenetic music has become synonymous with Japanese summer. To me, cicadas and Awa Yoshikono are the official soundtrack of the season.


でんぱ組. Inc
Dempagumi Inc
おつかれサマー
Otsukare Summer

Denpagumi Inc are a six-membe female idol group developed in the heart of Akihabara. They developed a devoted fan base in their early days, but exploded into the mainstream in 2015-2016. And when I say mainstream, I mean… well, I’m not sure what I mean. They’re goofy, nerdy[iii], cute, awkward, “accidentally sexy,” and quintessentially Japanese. Well, not just Japanese. They’re quintessentially Tōkyō, to the point that they were[iv] the official idol group of Tōkyō Metropolis for domestic tourism. Their 2015 video Otsukare Samā is a play on words that toys with the phrase お疲れ様 o-tsukare-sama “thanks for all your hard work” – a throw away phrase people use when you finish work or some task. The lyrics have tons of twists of phrases that are great for anyone learning Japanese. But I love this video because each member becomes an iconic part of the city. Areas represented are Odaiba, Asakusa, Ameyoko-chō, Ueno, Tōkyō Tower, Ginza, Harajuku, Takeshita Street, and Shinabashi. In keeping with the theme of Tōkyō summer, you’ll see fireworks, ukiyo-e references, yukata, rickshaws, a jet ski ride around Tōkyō Bay featuring all the prominent buildings, and discovering you’ve won a prize after eating a popsicle on a stick. Other cultural references are terms like リア充 ria-jū actually going out rather than living online at home, using the LINE app to chat with friends, waving towels (something done by fans when the Tōkyō Giants score a run), and of course, Mt. Fuji and Hachikō. There’s so much crammed into this song and video.

 

GReeen
キセキ

Kiseki

Some of you may already know, but baseball is huuuuuge in Japan. And while most people in the world think of baseball as an American sport, the Japanese took to the game like a fish to water. If sumō is the national sport of Japan, baseball is a close second. Tōkyō Giants’ shortstop and All Star player, Sakamoto Hayato, has this song played in the stadium when he’s up at bat. Total summer classic.

Interestingly, GReeen could have used kanji for the title of the song, which would have made the meaning clear, but they didn’t. Instead, they spelled the word out phonetically in katakana. As such, the meaning is unclear. Just have a look, all of these can be read as “kiseki”:

  • 奇跡奇蹟 miracle, wonder
  • 軌跡 traces of the past, path taken
  • 貴石 foundation
  • 奇石 rare stone
  • 貴石 gem, jewel
  • 鬼籍 list of dead people bound for hell (rather than reincarnation)

(Pretty sure GReeen was all about the dead people ferried off to hell[v])

 

Whiteberry
夏祭り

Natsu Matsuri

Not sure what to say about these girls. They covered an old pop song called Natsu Matsuri (Summer Festival) in August 2000 and from that day forward, that single was not only the definitive version of that song, it was also their biggest hit and made the name Whiteberry synonymous with summer. In the video, they wear yukata… but like mini-skirt yukata… while they’re rocking out on their instruments.

At any beach or outdoors area with streaming music, you’re bound to hear this classic in the background. And if you go to karaoke in Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it emanating from a room almost all year long[vi].

 

大塚愛
Ōtsuka Ai
金魚花火
Kingyo Hanabi

The title means Goldfish Fireworks and you probably already know, Japanese summer is all about festivals and fireworks. This tradition came about in the peace of the Edo Period when people had more leisure time. Because cities were made of wood, the Tokugawa Shōgunate and other local governments restricted fireworks to open spaces like rivers and lakes[vii] to prevent horrific conflagrations. Goldfish are a common prize at summer festivals and traditional decoration for yukata. The image of fireworks, water, and goldfish are highly evocative of summer.

 

Begin
島人ぬ宝

Shimanchu nu Takara

The title is not Japanese, it’s Okinawan, a language related to Japanese. Before being annexed by the Japanese Empire, Okinawa was known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom – a culturally and linguistically distinct country with close ties to Taiwan, China, and Japan. Although the main language is now Japanese and the islands are fully integrated as a prefecture and operate within the administrative framework laid out in the post-WWII Japanese Constitution, Okinawa is still very unique, very proud, and pretty much summer all year long. Wubba lubba dub dub!

I’ll put it like this, if anyone in modern Japan knows how to do summer, it’s the Okinawans. Begin released this song, which means “Treasure of the Islanders[viii],” in 2002 and to this day it serves as a kind of pop anthem for natives of the Okinawan islands. The song features Okinawan instruments, some Okinawan words, and most recognizably, call and response phrases ripped straight from traditional Okinawan festival dances that are still performed today.

Speaking of…

エイサー踊り
Eisā Odori

So, while we’re on the topic of traditional Okinawan dance, I’d be a dumbass if I didn’t bring up Eisā, the traditional summer music of Okinawa. I’m not an expert on Okinawa. In fact, I know very little about it, to be completely honest, but no matter what the roots of Eisā are, no one can argue that after the first Japanese tourism boom that occurred after WWII, all kinds of local dance forms began gaining notoriety in Japan. After the Bubble Economy, and Japanese tourists began looking for domestic options, Okinawa was seen as a particularly exotic destination. You could speak Japanese, but visit a beautiful island with a distinct cultural tradition and people who looked kinda different and ate different food. It’s at this time that this unique music and dance found popularity in Tōkyō.

Sure, many Okinawans came to the capital for work, but with abundance and variety of summer festivals to choose from in Tōkyō, Okinawa’s impressive Eisā became a niche selling point for secular neighborhood festivals. In particular, Shinjuku Ward and Nakano Ward embraced this combative and lively music that features aggressive drumming and exotic instruments and refrains from the southern islands.

By the way, the video I shared was shot at the Shinjuku Eisā Festival[ix] and features the Nakano Group, which is made up of Okinawans living in Nakano and other locals who love this music. I used to live in Nakano, so I may be biased, but the Nakano Group is the best. Seriously. They rock it every time.

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Thanks for Reading. The Article is Finished.

But if you’re still reading, you may remember our second video, which was by Dempagumi.

Recently, Dempagumi fans were dealt a big blow. On August 6th, 2017 最上もが Mogami Moga retired from the unit[x]. While the six core members achieved success as idols, on the side, Moga skyrocketed into stardom as a gravure idol – essentially, a bikini and lingerie model. This brought a lot of positive attention to the group from 2014-2016. Her departure from the group seems to be a desire to switch from Akihabara Idol to serious actress.

I’ll just say this outright, I’m not a huge fan of Dempagumi, but I really appreciate what they do. I’ve even seen them live… and it was so much fun.

So, I’m linking two more videos to this post. Why? Because Dempagumi is about as summer as you can get. They’re also the idol queens of Japan[xi]. If you enjoy Japanese culture and the songs you’ve heard up until now, give these last two a listen.

でんぱ組. Inc
Dempagumi Inc

ノットボッチ…夏
Not Bocchi… Summer (Not Alone… Summer)

This is another summer classic by Dempagumi.

でんぱ組. Inc
Dempagumi Inc
生きる場所なんてどこにもなかった
Ikiru Basho Nante Doko ni mo Nakatta

The first time I saw Dempagumi live they opened with this song. The big crowd pleaser was the intro:

みりん!りさ!ねむ!えい!もが!ピンキー!
Mirin! Risa! Nemu! Ei! Moga! Pinky!

Now that Moga is gone, who knows what will happen to the group. All I know is, I’m happy they left us with some crazy summer music and I’m happy I got to see them live.

Two Sections ago I Said the Article was Done.

But thanks for sticking around to the very end. It’s like watching a movie’s credits until the theater lights come on. If you like what I do, then please leave a comment or question below and lets get a little conversation going. And as always, share with your friends.

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Guided Tours

 

 


[i] Japanese record companies – Avex, in particular – are really uptight and regressive when it comes to posting music YouTube. While they promote upcoming acts online with full videos, videos by older acts are taken down and replaced with official videos that are nothing more than short clips.
[ii] Some were cut simply because Japanese record companies had the full versions removed because they’re jerks.
[iii] All members claim to be certified オタク otaku geeks.
[iv] Not sure if they still are, but they were for a while.
[v] Of course, I’m joking, but actually, Japanese summer has a lot of connections with death. It’s when the Buddhist season of お盆 O-bon occurs. This is when deceased ancestors return to the main family’s house. It’s also when living family members return to the family graves to clean and maintain them. It’s also when family and friends used to sit around a candle in a dark room and try to tell 100 ghost stories before the candle burnt out.
[vi] No joke. I’ve heard it in the dead of winter. That’s how good the song is.
[vii] And today, bays.
[viii] Which really means “Treasure of the Okinawan People.”
[ix] Which happens every year…
[x] In Japanese, they use the euphemism 卒業 sotsugyō graduate. By fans she was known as もがちゃん Moga-chan, もがたん Moga-tan, or もがたんぺ Moga-tanpe.
[xi] Normally, I’d say Perfume were the idol queens of Japan, but they’ve matured… and matured well. They’re still idols, but there’s no excitement around what they’ll do next.

What does Taitō mean?

In Japanese History on June 28, 2017 at 5:41 pm

台東
Taitō (plateau east, more at the Elevated East)

town hall

Taitō City Hall

Today we’re looking at one of my favorite places in Tōkyō, 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward. It’s actually surprising I haven’t covered this area yet. Long time readers of the blog will be familiar with many place names located in this area. I’ve written about spots here since the earliest days of JapanThis! because… well, it’s just that cool.

Despite being jam packed with cool shit, Taitō is actually the smallest of the 23 Special Wards. In terms of the sheer density of historical remains, neighborhoods, and world class museums[i], it’s the only place in Tōkyō that gives 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward a run for its money. And Minato is twice the size of Taitō!

oiran dokuchu

The Oiran Dokuchū was a daily form of advertising carried out in Yoshiwara, the official red light district of Edo. Once a year it’s recreated today in Taitō Ward. You can see a similar recreation every day at Nikkō Edo Wonderland.

It’s home to the former red light district, 吉原 Yoshiwara[ii]. It’s home to 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, funerary temple of the Tokugawa Shōguns[iii]. It’s home to 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park, one of the most epic, historically important urban green spaces in the world. Oh, and 上野駅 Ueno Eki Ueno Station is there –a critical hub station linking a variety of local train lines, but also connecting Tōkyō with the rest of Japan and the world via 新幹線 shinkansen high speed trains as well as by other long distance trains.

ueno station 1930s

Ueno Station in the 1930’s. Keen readers will notice the pre-WWII orthography, ie; it goes right to left).

I’m not going to give you much more of a sales pitch on Taitō Ward because we’ve been here so many times before, and rest assured we will return many times again. If you want to know more about the ward’s virtues, then enjoy the Further Reading links. That’s what they’re for.

Further Reading:

sensoji

Number 1 Destination for most tourists to in Tōkyō is Sensō-ji in Asakusa. It’s a great area, but for history nerds, it requires a little poking around to find the good stuff. Like much of Tōkyō, this area suffered terribly in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and the Firebombing during WWII.

So, Let’s Look at the Kanji


tai, dai

pedestal, platform


east

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Tōkyō’s Taitō was not an Edo Period name, nor a holdover from any earlier point in history. It was, in fact, a product of the Post War Occupation restructuring of the city’s administrative districts. In short, it was a new ward to be made of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward – neither of which exist today. This new ward needed a new name to not piss off the residents of either wards, both of which had existed since the Meiji Period and whose names were deeply tied to the Edo Period in terms of spatial anthropology and socio-cultural identity[iv].

hiroshige shitaya hirokoji.jpg

Shitaya Hirokoji by Utagawa Hiroshige depicts the wide boulevard leading up to the main gate of Kan’ei-ji, funerary temple of the Tokugawa shōguns. Notice the samurai at the center bottom who are wearing western trousers, a novelty only the most elite could afford at the time Hiroshige captured this scene.

The former Shitaya Ward, whose name means “bottom of the valley,” included 上野山 Ueno-yama the Ueno Plateau where the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns were located. There’s no documentation to back this theory up, but it seems logical to assume that the Meiji Government did not want to emphasize the graves of the rulers they had overthrown in an illegal coup. Rather than creating a 上野区 Ueno-ku Ueno Ward – literally, field on the top of a hill[v] – they chose to emphasize the valley at the bottom of the plateau. Thus, they made a Shitaya Ward and included the ornate mausolea[vi] in Ueno as a kind of dis[vii]. This 下町 shitamachi low city image persists to this day, even though parts of Ueno were considered 山手 yamanote high city in the Edo Period.

Further Reading:

taito ward map

Map of Taitō Ward today

The Creation of Taitō Ward

Anyhoo, in 1947 Shitaya Ward and Asakusa Ward were officially combined to create Taitō Ward. Regardless of whether late 19th century concerns about neutralizing the place names of samurai and shōgunate lands were still an issue or not, the post-war government adopted a more conciliatory attitude that would unify the inhabitants of this historic and cherished part of Tōkyō.

However, the inhabitants of the former wards had separate agendas.

Advocates from Shitaya pushed for 上野区 Ueno-ku Ueno Ward. Advocates from Asakusa pushed for 東区 Higashi-ku East Ward[viii]. The Shitaya faction clearly wanted to shake off the “bottom of the valley” image of their former name while emphasizing the elite, yamanote implication of “field on the top of the hill” – a hill that everyone knew was important to the Tokugawa Shōguns. The Asakusa faction wanted to emphasize the eastern side of the proposed district – that is to say, the vibrant, shitamachi culture. The two factions were at an impasse, so the governor of Tōkyō stepped in and made a judgement call based on the recent approval of a project to build a new school in Shitaya. The school was to be called 台東小学校 Taitō Shōgakkō Taitō Elementary School.

Further Reading:

Seiichiro_Yasui

Yasui Sei’ichirō, the first governor of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis.

 The Compromise

Obviously, nobody wanted to piss off the residents of either faction, and I think it’s safe to say that in the reconstruction years, the Tōkyō Government wanted to ensure both Shitaya residents and Asakusa residents could save face and come out of this as winners. Furthermore, the new proposed district really did feature both yamanote and shitamachi aspects. When the new ward name was announced, it was 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward. The committee announced that the decision was based on the same criteria used for the naming of the new elementary school.

康熙字典

The book that forever changed how Japanese was written and taught.

The naming of the elementary school and the subsequent ward weren’t trifling matters. They were very much part of the post-WWII zeitgeist in Japan. It was influenced by a Classical Chinese place name 台東 Táidōng which was found in the 康熙字典 Kāngxī Zìdiǎn Kangxi Dictionary – the Kōki Jiten, in Japanese. This reference book, compiled between 1710-1716, included more than 47,000 kanji, but more importantly, it laid out a simplified standard for writing them. It reduced the previously existing 540 radicals to a cool 214 standard radicals[ix]. Don’t get me wrong. The average Japanese person on the street didn’t give a shit about this 47,000 kanji dictionary from the 1700’s. However, the intellectuals involved in the sweeping post-WWII reforms of Japanese orthography[x] were very familiar with this work and they pushed for – and pushed through – the adoption of the 214 radical system proposed by the Kōki Jiten. Whether they know it or not, every Japanese teacher today is teaching kanji based on a version of this system and every student is learning from it.

cool story.jpg
So Why Taitō?

So, I know you’re saying something like, “Nice dictionary story, bruh. But why did they choose those kanji?” And to that, I can only say, “I’m glad you asked.”

台 tai is a character commonly associated with elevation – often geographic elevation, as in 台地 daichi  high ground or plateau. The Ueno Plateau which was the home to the shōgun’s tombs and present-day Ueno Park, while called 上野山 Ueno-yama by casual speakers of the time, was called 上野台地 Ueno Daichi by cartographers and smart people involved with urban planning. While creating a Ueno Ward might have annoyed the Occupation Forces by emphasizing the samurai past, using acknowledged the areas elite, yamanote status. 東 higashi/ east, on the other hand, was an easy concession to grant the Asakusa faction who were proud of their shitamachi culture that spread from the base of the Ueno Plateau to the west bank of the Sumida River.

The name Taitō gave both old wards the proverbial high ground. It was the “Elevated East.”

kan'ei-ji.jpg

Main temple complex of Kan’ei-ji as it looked before the Battle of Ueno in 1868.

Growing Pains

The name was officially promulgated as Taitō, but apparently old people often pronounced it Daitō until quite recently – you know, after they died. This wasn’t the first time there was confusion with kanji. When the city of Edo was renamed Tōkyō, many people thought it was supposed to be read Teikyō. Also, the mortuary temple of the second shōgun 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, who died in 1632, is written 台徳院 but has no official reading[xi]. Speakers are free to use Daitoku-in or Taitoku-in. There’s no one alive from the early 1600’s to confirm which pronunciation is correct, but in the case of Taitō, it’s official and spelled out phonetically in many places, including the ward’s website.

Additionally, within the ward, there’s a postal address 台東区台東 Taitō-ku Taitō, Taitō, Taitō Ward. Some people might speculate that the ward derives its name from this area. However, this just ain’t so. This so-called “display address” was created in 1967 as the result of postal[xii] reforms that are standard throughout Japan today. But make no mistake about it. It’s derived from the name of the ward, not vice-versa.

taito station.jpg

Taito Station is one of the preeminent video arcades (game centers) in all of Japan.

Taito Corporation

Some readers may associate the name TAITO with video games and ゲームセンター gēmu sentā video game arcades that go by the same name. That’s because TAITO was a major influence on the early development of video gaming culture in Japan and around the world. They still loom large in the world of gaming as an arcade-experience.

space invaders 1996

Apparently, Space Invaders was still a thing in 1996. I didn’t know this. I was too busy raving.

In the 1970’s, the company, known in Japanese as 株式会社タイトー Kabushiki-gaisha Taitō Taitō Corporation, invented a little game known as スペースインベーダー Supēsu Inbēdā Space Invaders. This was one of the first games that crossed over from the arcades to the home console/computer markets to such a degree that Space Invaders is even known to young gamers today. It’s real breakout to the home console market roughly coincided with the release of the original Star Wars movie. The merging of futuristic technology and a renewed enthusiasm for sci-fi couldn’t have come at a better time.

kogan

Nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd!

Jewish Taitō Time

In Japanese, Taitō (the company[xiii]) is always written without kanji as タイトー Taitō – a name that is simply phonetic and has no meaning. But the name of the company is way more interesting than its phonetic spelling, and it has nothing to do with Taitō Ward. Believe it or not.

The entrepreneur who built Taitō was a Russian Jew named Майкл Коган Michaell “Misha” Kogan[xiv]. I’ll let Wikipedia do a little more explaining about him:

He was born in Odessa, but his family moved to HarbinManchuria to escape the Russian Revolution of 1917, where he later met Colonel Yasue Norihiro, a member of the Japanese Army’s intelligence services and one of the architects of the Fugu Plan, an ill-fated plan to settle European Jewish refugees in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. He moved to Tokyo in 1939, where he spent most of the duration of the war studying at Waseda School of Economics. He moved to Tianjin in 1944 before returning to Japan in 1950, settling in Setagaya, Tokyo.

Michaell, Mikhail, Michael, Misha, or however you want to call the guy, was a brilliant dude. Naturally, he spoke Russian, but he also learned Chinese, Japanese, and English. He was a smart guy who was in all the wrong places at the wrong times in his childhood, and that provided him with a unique point of view and skill set that when he was in the right place at the right time, he grabbed the bull by the horns and rode that bitch straight to millionaire land. The craziest thing is Mikhail was born in the early 1900’s, but his company came to be centered on the tech industry. He started off importing Russian vodka, but soon expanded to jukeboxes and vending machines, symbols of Japanese post-war recovery. By the time he died, his company was pioneering video arcade culture. Just let that set in for a minute. He grew up as a refugee in the early 1900’s and died as a rich guy whose company made video games – arcades, in particular – mainstream. Taitō changed gaming and the promulgation of digital entertainment forever.

azabu space invader.jpg

One of many mysterious Space Invaders in Tōkyō’s Minato Ward.

Let’s Look at Some Other Kanji

猶太
Yudaya

Judea (Jewish)


The East

The first set of characters is read as Yudaya (which means “Israel”), but these are 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic values rather than proper ideographs. If you combine the kanji, you can make 太東 Taitō which is essentially a Japanese abbreviation for a Chinese rendering of the 極東猶太人会社 Jídōng Yóutàirén Huìshè Jewish East Asia Company. To make things work in Japanese, the name was rendered as 極東の猶太人会社 Kyokutō no Yudayajin-gaisha, which seems to convey the same meaning as the Chinese original[xv].

OK, so long story short: 太東 Daitō/Taitō – which has nothing to do with Taitō Ward – was an abbreviation that meant “Jews in the East,” or something like that. While the pronunciation is more or less the same, the kanji are quite different: 太東 Taitō the company vs. 台東 Taitō the ward.

Taitō the company was more interested in branding itself as an international company than a Japanese company, so they used ローマ字 rōma-ji the Latin alphabet to render their name: TAITO. They back-translated the name into Japanese using 片仮名 katakana, a script traditionally associated with foreign words that also had a masculine nuance. Thus, the company didn’t use kanji for their name in Japan, they used katakana. They weren’t 太東 Taitō, they were タイトー Taitō. That said, the company tends to prefer the Latin alphabet in all caps: TAITO.

TAITO LOGO.pngAlright, so I hope you enjoyed that break down of the etymology of Taitō Ward as well as the unexpected tangent about the Taitō Corporation. Be sure to check out all the Further Reading links for articles related to this area of Tōkyō because I’ve been covering it for years. Also, if you’re ever in Tōkyō, I give a particularly nerdy and fun tour of the a major portion of the area.

If you like what I do, please consider supporting my blog on Patron. Also, all my social media accounts are listed below, so there are lots of ways that we can interact every day. I’m particularly active on Twitter, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Looking forward to hearing from you♪

 

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______________________________________
[i]
Or musea, as I like to say – using the Latin neuter plural, like datum/data.
[ii] Shut down by US Occupation Forces, though still home to a thriving sex industry – most of which is off limits to foreigners, unless you have connections, or speak great Japanese and are willing to pay inflated prices.
[iii] The other being 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in Minato-ku. Hence, the “rivalry” between the two wards in terms of historical importance. I used “quotes” because there isn’t any real rivalry except in my own head – and that boils down to a simple question: “where should I spend my time exploring Edo-Tōkyō history?” The answer is “both places.”
[iv] In other words, Shitaya and Asakusa had actually fallen under direct control of the shōgun in the Edo Period and the people who lived here were fiercely proud of that. They considered themselves bonā fide 江戸っ子 Edo-kko Edoites, as opposed to the clowns who lived out in places like 内藤新宿 Naitō Shinjuku. (Curious about that? Here’s my article about Shinjuku).
[v] Remember, hilltops are yamanote, lowlands and riverbanks are shitamachi.
[vi] At this time, the shōguns’ funerary temples were intact, but the main temple of Kan’ei-ji had been burnt down in the 上野戦争 Ueno Sensō Battle of Ueno in 1868, when Tokugawa samurai holed up at Kan’ei-ji to protect the last (and retired) shogun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu who had put himself under voluntary house arrest at the temple in submission to the Meiji Emperor.
[vii] If the theory is to be believed. However, Shitaya was a popular area during the Edo Period up to the pre-war era. Visiting Ueno – or living in Ueno – was for rich people. Perhaps, Shitaya was just more relatable. Then again, if it’s more relatable to the common person, it’s less associated with the samurai class. This theory seems reasonable to me.
[viii] This is similar to another ward created at the same time, 北区 Kita-ku North Ward. (And yes, I have an oooooold ass article here).
[ix] What the fuck is a radical?
[x] Orthography is “spelling.” It’s boring, but here’s a history of orthographic reforms in Japan.
[xi] It’s not a place name or postal code… Oh, and it was destroyed in the war.
[xii] ZIP code
[xiii] More about this later…
[xiv] ミハエルコーガン Mihael Kōgan in Japanese.
[xv] Full disclosure: I have never studied Chinese, and the Japanese is more like “Far East Jewish Company.”

What does Koganei mean?

In Japanese History on June 12, 2017 at 8:08 am

小金井
Koganei (Little Gold Well)

koganei hanami
Although Spring and the cherry blossom season has come and gone, I thought I’d take a moment to explore one of Edo’s big 5 花見スポット Hanami Supotto Cherry Blossom Spots. Anyone who’s been keeping up with the blog since spring knows that recently I did three articles covering 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing, and in those articles Edo’s most famous cherry blossom spots were mentioned. Today, we’re not going to talk much about cherry blossoms; this will be more of a straight forward etymology thang.

Also, in case you’re new to JapanThis! or you’re too lazy to look back at previous posts, I’ll quickly remind you of the most popular hanami spots Edoites loved. There’s no official list, but the sites that seem to have been the most popular were 上野山 Ueno-yama Ueno Hill, 飛鳥山 Asukayama Asuka Hill, 隅田川堤 Sumida-gawa Tsutsumi Sumida Riverbank, 御殿山 Goten’yama Goten Hill, and a stretch of the 玉川上水 Tama-gawa Jōsui Tamagawa Aqueduct in a village called 小金井 Koganei. Of all these spots, Koganei was without a doubt the farthest from the city of Edo. In fact, on modern paved roads, it would take you at least five hours to walk non-stop from 日本橋 Nihonbashi in central Tōkyō to Koganei. I imagine people in the Edo Period would have walked all day, found lodging, then enjoyed the cherry blossoms the next day, and maybe visited few temples and shrines before returning home – making this a legit two day excursion sandwiched between two days of some serious-ass walking. Also, make no mistake about it: Koganei was waaaaaay outside of the city limits. In those days, this was 武蔵国多磨郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District, Musashi Province. This was not cosmopolitan Edo. It was East Bumfuck[i].

Further Reading:

koganei nowhere.jpg

Central Tōkyō is located on the bay in the East. Koganei is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. That fuchsia colored spot doing nothing other than looking fuchsia. BTW, I have nothing against fuchsia, I grew up in the 80’s. I actually love the color lol.

Famous Hanami Spot Turned Lame Suburb

Today, Koganei is pretty much synonymous with the “lame suburbs.” You’d have to go to 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture or 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture to get lamer, but at least Koganei is actually part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The area that is called 小金井市 Koganei-shi Koganei City is made up of roughly 12 Edo Period villages and rice fields[ii] that were combined to create 小金井村 Koganei Mura Koganei Village when the Meiji Government set up new administrative districts in 1889 (Meiji 22).

koganei hanami meji period.jpg

Hanami along the Tama Aqueduct in the Meiji Period.

Sadly, the old Tamagawa Aqueduct hasn’t aged well as a cherry blossom viewing spot. That said, Koganei is still famous for this cherished springtime tradition. These days, the main attraction is 多磨霊園 Tama Reien Tama Cemetery[iii]. While it’s most definitely a public cemetery, it’s functioned more as a park since the 1960’s[iv]. Completely covered in cherry blossoms, it feels more like an urban green space than a graveyard. There are quite a few famous historical personages interred here, but the most notorious is probably 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, a crazy right wing Japanese author who tried to launch a silly military coup in the 1970’s. When it was obvious that his little political stunt was going to fail, he tried to commit 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment. His boyfriend was to deliver the coup de grace, but apparently sucked at using swords and tried to behead him multiple times before another dude stepped in to behead them both[v]. Total clusterfuck.

Further Reading:

mishima yukio.jpg

Mishima Yukio making a speech during his attempted military coup.

OK, Let’s Look At the Kanji 

The modern place name Koganei is written with three kanji. However, this apparently wasn’t always the case. In order to explore the name, we’re going to have to focus on four kanji in particular, although later, we’ll be looking at some interesting variations.


ko

small


kane, –gane

gold, money


i

well, spring; community


hara

field, meadow, plain

Theory One

There seem to be three theories, two of which are closely connected. The first one, though, is a bit of a long shot, but not completely improbable. It suggests that there was a well in the area. Its water was so abundant and pristine that it was worth its weight in 黄金 kogane gold (using the kanji for “yellow” and “gold”)[vi]. The story goes, the locals wrote the name 黄金之井 Kogane no I The Golden Well[vii]. We know the genitive particle 之 no wasn’t necessary when speaking because the name was also rendered in a mix of hiragana and kanji as こがね井 Koganei. Using hiragana was an effective way of communicating the pronunciation (at the expense of the meaning of the first two syllables[viii]), and the use of that single kanji reinforced the meaning of “well.” This theory is vague, yet the orthography kinda supports it… kinda.

koganei park

Present day Koganei Park

Theory Two

The next theory states that the plains on the southside of a cliff in the modern city used to be called 金井原 which was read as Koganeihara, Koganei Meadow. The cliff is thought to be くじつ山 Kujitsu-yama Mt. Kujitsu in present day 小金井公園 Koganei Kōen Koganei Park. The field is the south side of present day 前原町 Maehara-chō Maehara Town[ix]. If you’re familiar with this area, you may know that this is one section of Tama Cemetery. It’s a sprawling, modern cemetery that is very, very flat. The geography matches the etymology to a point. However, we’re left with a mystery. What did the kanji 金井 refer to? They mean “gold” and “well,” but did they refer to an actual well, or even gold for that matter?

Kanai-Hachiman-Shrine.jpg

Kanai Hachiman Shrine – a direct connection to the god of war, Hachiman, tutelary kami of the Minamoto clan, and by clan bloodlines, affiliated with the Nitta and Kanai clans.

Theory Three

The third theory is that Koganei – or even Koganei Meadow – was a reference to the clan controlling the area who wrote their name 金井. There are several kinks in this theory, too. First, newly created branch clans usually took the name of their fief as a surname, and not vice-versa[x]. Second, this family name is usually read as Kanai[xi], not Koganei[xii]. However, the Kanai were indeed active in the region, both prior to and during the Kamakura Period. The local branch was founded by a samurai named 新田義宗 Nitta Yoshimune, later 金井義宗 Kanai Yoshimune, who controlled 武蔵国金井原 Musashi no Kuni Koganeihara Koganeihara, Musashi Province. Also, if you refer to the kanji chart above, you’ll see how 金井 could be read as both Kanai and Koganei.

nitta yoshimune

Grave of Nitta no Yoshimune (Kanai no Yoshimune)

So Which Theory do I Prefer?

Well, let’s do a recap. There may have been a well that flowed abundantly. A field may have taken its name from the well. A branch of the Nitta clan moved in and took the name Kanai (using the same kanji of their new fief). Knowing the new branch families usually adopted the name of their land holdings as a family name, I reject the idea that the area is named after the Kanai clan, but don’t see any reason to see all three of these theories as potentially one in the same. Again, there could have been a well at some point[xiii]. We know there was a huge meadow of arable land whose name referenced a well. Then these Nitta samurai came in and took the name of the field to become the Kanai[xiv]. Given that the Nitta clan was a powerful clan with connections to the imperial court, they wouldn’t want their name to reflect the backwater pronunciation of this area. It was in their best interest to use a reading that was easily intelligible by anyone with a proper education. This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at all. In fact, it seems the most logical and probable explanation.

rhe plot thickens
Further Nitta/Kanai Hints or Coincidence?

The fact that writers in the Kamakura Period alternated between 小金井 and こがね井 is interesting. To me, this could point to a couple of things. One, the name already existed since protohistoric times and the presence of the Kanai Clan was a bizarre coincidence. Two, the clan’s name was in fact derived from the meadow or village’s name, but they rejected the local reading, whereas the local villagers weren’t sure about the elite reading and just continued “villaging” under the assumption that they were correct. When we find place names written in hiragana, it’s generally done to clarify how to read the kanji since there are always multiple readings – especially in regional dialects.

Furthermore, when Koganei Village was created in 1889, there were a number of fields bearing the name 新田 shinden, which literally means “new field.” The Kanai clan was an offshoot of the 新田氏 Nitta-shi Nitta clan. The word shinden uses the same kanji as the surname Nitta. This could just be a coincidence, or it could be a hint that the local farmers were sucking up to their new samurai overlords in the 1300’s[xv]. If the former is the case, I think it’s safe to assume the area was originally named Koganei, the Kanai clan adopted the name of their fief while rejecting the local reading, and the villagers were aware of all of this.

lpganei shrine.jpg

Koganei Shrine (former Tenman-gū)

When I checked the records of 小金井神社 Koganei Jinja Koganei Shrine, I thought I’d get some clarity since ancient shrines tend to have old records and preserve local histories and legends. What I soon discovered was that while no one knows when or where Koganei Shrine was originally established, records indicated that it has been at the current location since 1205 (early Kamakura Period) when the Heian Period intellectual, 菅原道真 Sugawara no Michizane[xvi], was enshrined there and it was named 天満宮 Tenman-gū, a standard name for shrines dedicate to him[xvii].

According to a local history compiled between 1804 and 1829 called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fūdoki-kō Newly Edited Description of Musashi Province[xviii], Tenman-gū served as the tutelary shrine of 小金井村 Koganei Mura Koganei Village, 下小金井村 Shimo-Koganei Mura Shimo-Koganei Village, and  小金井新田 Koganei Shinden. This 19th century text uses the modern spelling with the initial kanji 小 ko small consistently, which means the orthography was standardized by then. But as I mentioned before, in the Kamakura Period, the place name was often written without the kanji for ko.

koganei jinja.jpg

Incidentally, the shrine itself has nothing to say about the spelling of Koganei or its development over the years. Remember, since 1205 the shrine was called 天満宮 Tenman-gū and protected three villages lying in just boring-ass farmlands where people probably didn’t give a rat’s ass how to spell their village name because… well… they probably didn’t go much farther than the next village. Tenman-gū’s name was changed to Koganei Shrine[xix] in 1870 (Meiji 3) to reflect its status as the main Shintō shrine for this particular area. By this time, the Edo Period spelling – and today’s spelling – was firmly set in stone[xx].

Further Reading:

 

small

So What About That Additional Kanji?

Although  and 黄金 can both be read as kogane, most people wouldn’t look at 金井 and think, “oh yeah, that’s Koganei.” They’d think, “oh yeah, that’s kane” in the first case, and “oh yeah, that’s ōgon” in the second case. In order to avoid any confusion, it seems that by the Kamakura Period, the kanji 小 ko small was added to make the correct reading perfectly clear. The addition of this character is thought to be a function of 当て字 ateji kanji used as a phoneme rather than an ideograph[xxi]. Some ancient place names are thought to be strictly ateji, especially ones that might not be Japanese in origin[xxii]. Other times, ateji are just used to make potentially unintelligible or confusing names easily legible[xxiii].

Regardless of the true etymology of the name, writing 小金井 koganei is pretty much the most reliable way to ensure that when someone sees the word, they’ll say, “oh yeah, Koganei.” Unless you’re a moron, that’s the only way to read it, really[xxiv].

Further Reading:

 

tama reien map.jpg

Map of Tama Cemetery

Hanami and Tama Reien

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Koganei was famous for cherry blossoms in the Edo Period. It required a bit of time and money for an Edoite to head out there to enjoy the trees in full bloom. While some of the old groves still exist along the former Tama Aqueduct, the main attraction these days is the former Koganei Meadow, modern Tama Cemetery. That said, while Yanaka Cemetery’s 桜通り Sakura-dōri Sakura Avenue[xxv] in central Tōkyō attracts a certain amount of drunken spillover from Ueno Park who picnic and party among the graves, I don’t think that happens in Tama Cemetery. So…, if you go, look around and see what other people are doing and be respectful. When in Rome and all that.

Further Reading:

koganei logo.jpg
There’s a Company Called Koganei

This probably isn’t very interesting, but there’s a company called Koganei. They were established in 1935 (Shōwa 10) as the Yamamoto Trading Company in Tōkyō, but moved their factory and headquarters to 小金井市 Koganei-shi Koganei City in 1941 and changed their name to Koganei, Ltd in 1951. According to their website, they specialize in the “manufacture and sales of pneumatic system products, static electricity removing units, electric actuators, centralized lubrication equipment, and environmental/hygiene related products.” I’m not sure what more to do with that information, so here’s where I’m gonna finish this article.

I hope you enjoyed exploring Koganei, a suburb of Tōkyō. I also hope you’ve learned a little bit about how ateji is a big deal in Tōkyō place names. I hope you enjoyed how these place names tie in with powerful samurai families. If you like my research-intensive articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking forward to your comments down below. Have a great day, ya’ll.

 

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[i] Well, technically speaking, in relation to Edo, it was West Bumfuck. But who the hell says that?
[ii] Namely, 小金井村 Koganei Mura former Koganei Village, 貫井村 Nukui Mura Nukui Village, 下染屋村 Shimo-Zomeya Mura Shimo-Zomeya Village, 押立村 Oshitate Mura Oshitate Village, 人見村 Hitomi Mura Hitomi Village, 是政村 Koremasa Mura Koremasa Village, 上石原村 Kami-Ishihara Mura Kami-Ishihara Village, 下小金井新田 Shimo-Koganei Shinden, 梶野新田 Kashino Shinden, 関野新田 Sekino Shinden, 十ヶ新田 Jūjū Shinden (reading suspect), and 本多新田 Honda Shinden. The last five place names that end with 新田 shinden, literally “new fields” refer to uninhabited agricultural lands. More about that later.
[iii] Reien translates literally as “soul garden” or “spirit garden,” but what distinguishes a reien from a 墓地 bocchi cemetery or 墓所 bosho graveyard is that the latter is just a regular cemetery, usually – but not always – affiliated with a temple, whereas the former tends to be larger with a “park-like atmosphere.”
[iv] Apparently, it was filled to capacity.
[v] If you wanna see Mishima after his seppuku and beheading… whoomp there it is.
[vi] See my article on Iogi for another shitty use of the word “yellow gold”/”yellow money.”
[vii] Literally, “yellow gold,” but in this case, it’s just a synonym for “gold.”
[viii] If indeed there was any meaning preserved at all. The reduction to hiragana may just indicate that nobody knew or was in agreement about the origin of the “kogane” part of Koganei as far back as the Kamakura Period.
[ix] The 原 hara in Koganeihara and the 原 hara in Maehara-chō are the same.
[x] This wasn’t a rule set in stone, though. Some place names did occasionally take their names from ruling clan.
[xi] If this theory is correct, the family in question was a minor branch of the main 金井氏 Kanai-shi Kanai Clan, which itself was a minor branch of the 新田氏 Nitta-shi Nitta Clan, which was itself a branch of the 清和源氏 Seiwa Genji Seiwa Minamoto Clan – the Minamoto descended from 清和天皇 Seiwa Tennō Emperor Seiwa (858-876), Japan’s 56th emperor. This is the same bloodline that produced the first Kamakura Shōgun, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo. This connection to such an elite eastern samurai clan with a direct connection to the imperial family should put the prestige of this family in context.
[xii] Or Kanei.
[xiii] Or it could’ve been an ancient word, maybe not even Japanese.
[xiv] Why not the Koganei? Probably because nobody could read it. But let’s get to that later.
[xv] Hell, it could be both.
[xvi] Who the fuck was Sugawara no Michizane?
[xvii] Supposedly there are about 14,000 enshrinements of Sugawara no Michizane throughout the country.
[xviii] This document has come up many times since I started the blog. Fūdoki are essentially local histories and geographical descriptions that the imperial court had been compiling since the Asuka Period. Later the shōgunates, and the Tokugawa Shōgunate in particular continued the practice.
[xix] Using the kanji for ko, of course.
[xx] Though again, I think it’s safe to assume that the spelling was standardized by the Kamakura Period.
[xxi] WTF is ateji?
[xxii] This means, some ancient place names are non-Japonic in origin.
[xxiii] Japan has many dialects, ateji may smooth things out. An example where ateji wasn’t adopted is 山手 Yamate in Yokohama and 山手 Yamanote in Edo-Tōkyō. The words are written the same, but you must know the local reading to pronounce them correctly.
[xxiv] I mean, I guess you could read it Oganei, but… nah, that would just be dumb.
[xxv] Yanaka Cemetery

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