What does Ikebukuro mean?


(literally Pond Bag, but closer to Damp Wetlands)

Ikebukuro - Saitama's Playground
Ikebukuro Station

Today’s Tokyo place name is one of my least favorite places in Tokyo.

It’s dirty.
It’s crowded.
It’s crimey and yakuza-y.
And it’s infested by riff raff from Saitama. (no offense to people from Saitama…)

Yes, that’s right. It’s Ike-fuckin’-bukuro.
The one and only.

At first glance, it’s a strange place name. It’s made of two kanji that literally mean “pond” and “bag.” The strange “pond bag” name has been documented since at least the Sengoku Period (15th-17th centuries). The area to the northwest of Ikebukuro Station was referred to as 池袋村 Ikebukuro Mura (Ikebukuro Village).

Well, let’s take a look at what the English Wikipedia page says:

The kanji for Ikebukuro literally means pond bag. Outside the west exit of Ikebukuro station near an entrance to the Fukutoshin Line is a small plaque explaining three origins of the name Ikebukuro. The first is that in the northeastern part of the village there was a lake shaped like someone holding a bag. The second is that there was once a large number of lakes in the area of various sizes (thus implying a bag full of lakes). The third is that long ago a turtle came out of the lake carrying a bag on its back.

Now, I don’t want to hate on Wikipedia, but… seriously… fuck Wikipedia. (no offense to Wikipedia…)

I looked around for this alleged plaque and guess what…

plaque? what plaque?
Where the fuck is this alleged plaque?

There’s no plaque proclaiming these ridiculous derivations. Especially the stupid one about the turtle crawling out of a lake with a bag on its back. That totally smacks of bullshit folk etymology. (no offense to turtles…)

Anyways, here’s the real plaque:

Eff you Wikipedia!
Not a damn word about turtles or a “bag shaped” lake. In your face, Wikipedia!

OK, so now that we know Wikipedia can’t be trusted for shit, here’s the real deal.

Originally, this area was a damp, low lying wetland habitat (低湿地 teishicchi in Japanese) with a lot of spring water. Naturally, there were many lakes and ponds in the region, hence the ike (pond).

The fukuro (bag) part is interesting. If you check a good dictionary, has an extended meaning as “a plot of land surrounded by water.” In particular it can be used to refer the land where rivers or lakes meet – such as happens in wetlands. I asked a few Japanese people around me if they had ever heard of this meaning and no one seemed to know it. That said, one person said that she’d heard of another place – besides Ikebukuro – that had the kanji in it. So in my [admittedly limited] experience, this use of the kanji is for place names and not everyday discourse. The word fukuro changes to bukuro when combined with according to a phonological rule called 連濁 rendaku. The word fukuro/bukuro is reinforced by the onomatopoeic word ぶくぶく buku buku, the sound of water bubbling up, as from a spring.

So while it literally translates as “Pond Bag,” the real meaning is more like “Wetlands.”

I hate the Ikefukuro
Lamest meeting place in all of Tokyo. If you wait here, you just get in the way of the other people from Saitama who are walking around the station.

What’s up with the freakin’ owl?

Spend 24 hours in Japan, and you’ll realized that everything must have a character. That includes towns and schools and even snacks. If you don’t have a character to promote your whatever, you’re not cool. So, as we said before, the word for bag is fukuro. The word for owl is fukurō (fukuro being a variant pronunciation). Some genius at town hall came up with the idea of making Ikebukuro’s mascot the “Ikefukuro.” So all over Ikebukuro you will see these stupid looking owls everywhere. The original Ikefukuro is located at the station’s East Exit and is used as a landmark. People from Saitama use the statue as a meeting so they don’t get lost in the big city. (again, no offense to people from Saitama…)

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16 thoughts on “What does Ikebukuro mean?

  1. Interesting one! I’d always wondered about that. I used to live next to Ikebukuro and didn’t find it THAT bad. Lots of good Asian restaurants, the big ass department stores supply all your shopping needs, Ikebukuro Shopping Park, comparatively cheaper rent for Yamanote line…. Anyway, your explanation probably works for 沼袋 too then ???

  2. Hahahaha, yeah it’s not THAT bad. Just a little hyperbole for comic effect. I always noticed a funky smell there, though. And, of course, Tokyoites love to rip on Saitama — and Ikebukuro is often seen as the place “where Saitama people go.” Elitism at its very best. Hahaha.

    As for Numabukuro, if you mean the one in Nakano-ku, it seems that is the case. 沼 is a swamp or pond (or a lake) and 袋 refers to the area – implying there were probably more than one swamp or lake and a substantial area of land for a tiny village to utilize the ponds. Might have to dig a little deeper and do a proper post on this one.

    I used to live in Nakano-ku, so… I really should do it.

    1. It’s not surprising there are some similar “marshland” references in names around Tokyo. until Ieyasu came in to straighten the place out, Edo was one big swampy river delta.

      1. Well, if my understanding is correct, the area from Edo Castle to the bay was definitely all flatland with lots of inlets, and as you go further inland it gets more hilly, but in general I suppose all of Kanto is plainy…

        (is that even a word?)

        But, you’re right, there seem to have been a lot of wetlands, lakes, rivers, and springs. About the only good thing it had going for it in Ieyasu’s time were (1) it was far from Osaka/Kyoto (2) it had a great bay, (3) there was already a castle.

        I guess we could add (4) plenty of marshlands… lol

  3. what you got against people form saitama? my wifes from saitama.

    an what that poor owl ever do to you???

  4. Even if Ikebukuro is (supposedly) dirty, that’s what makes the experience more thrilling. I would rather visit a place like that than a lot nicer city, because it would be fun to find its few nice qualities, and secrets as well. Thank you for this article, it was very helpful, even if it was from two years ago.

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