Why is Nihonbashi called Nihonbashi?

Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge, more at “The Bridge to Japan”)

A Classic View of Edo... from Nihonbashi.
A Classic View of Edo… from Nihonbashi.

This one is going to be a bit of a monumental task. Not because the etymology of the place is name is difficult, but because the area is so steeped in history is will be forever linked to Edo and Tokyo.

Is there a bridge called Nihonbashi?
This is Nihonbashi today. (That street is the bridge, that “thing” that looks like a bridge is the highway that crosses over the bridge. Looks like shit, right? More about that later…)

I wrote a long ass blog about Nihonbashi. Loooong. After I wrote, found pictures and had everything ready to publish I realized I had made a horrific mistake. I had confused Edobashi and Nihonbashi. I found pictures and paintings which included two bridges, Nihonbashi and Edobashi. And yet somewhere I remembered learning that In the Edo Period the bridge was called Edobashi and in the Meiji Period it was called Nihonbashi. I consulted old maps and new maps, both of which had the places marked as distinct locations – albeit in the same vicinity. I found Edo Period paintings using the term Nihonbashi.

I even consulted the English Wikipedia entry, which said:

The Nihonbashi bridge first became famous during the 17th century, when it was the eastern terminus of the Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, roads which ran between Edo and Kyoto. During this time, it was known as Edobashi, or “Edo Bridge.” 

I had so much conflicting information that I killed the entry on Nihonbashi and just put it on the back burner.

Since that time, I’ve read up a little more. Looked at more pictures and maps and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I was told (and what is written in Wikipedia) is wrong.

Edobashi in the late Edo Period. Note the white warehouses that line the river. This is a typical view of the area. The river was used for transporting goods and so the warehouses were very important.
Edobashi in the late Edo Period. Note the white warehouses that line the river. This is a typical view of the area. The river was used for transporting goods and so the warehouses were very important.

Edobashi and Nihonbashi are two totally different bridges, crossing the same river, running parallel. The Nihonbashi area was the starting point of the 五街道 Go-kaidō the 5 Great Highways connecting Edo and the provinces. If you crossed the bridge, proceeded towards Kyōbashi, you were following the Tōkaidō to Kyōto and Ōsaka (today this street is 中央通 Chūō Dōri Center Street/Main Street. If you walked a little east on the river, you’d come to second bridge, Edobashi. If you crossed Edobashi, you’d follow a road along a channel to another bridge called 白魚橋 Shiraōbashi “Whitefish Bridge” (today the river is gone and, if my understanding is correct, that road was incorporated into 昭和通 Shōwa Dōri Shōwa Street, which was built as part of the revitalization of Tōkyō after the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923).

Obviously, the history of the two bridges is closely linked, but they have always been two separate bridges connecting 2 separate roads.

Anyways, I’m not a scholar of Japanese History. This is just my hobby that I use to waste my valuable free time. But that said, I don’t want to waste yours and I don’t want to spread misinformation.

What's up with the 3 ghosts in the boat????
What’s up with the 3 ghosts in the boat????

A Little Background

1590 – Toyotomi Hideoyoshi sends Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ass to Edo. He wants to uproot him from his base in Mikawa and use him to fight the Hōjō in Kantō. Essentially this keeps Ieyasu out of Hideyoshi’s hair and far enough away from Kyōto and Ōsaka to make any problems (or so he thinks). Ieyasu begins rehabilitation of Chiyoda Castle (soon to be Edo Castle) and Edo begins to prosper under the auspices of the Tokugawa.

1600 – Battle of Sekigahara. Ieyasu wins. Except for a few pockets of resistance in Ōsaka, Ieyasu is the de facto ruler of Japan.

1603 – Ieyasu is granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun (shōgun) by the Emperor. As the master of Edo and the master of all Japan, Ieyasu continues building up the city of Edo, but now with a renewed vigor to make the city a worthy capital – one that rivals Kyōto, but also expresses his vision of a final and lasting Tokugawa hegemony. It is in the year that Nihonbashi is built.

A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo, focusing on Edobashi.  (big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo's procession)
A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo, focusing on Nihonbashi.
(big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo’s procession)

So What Does the Name Mean?

Any foreigner who visits Japan learns a few basic Japanese words right off the bat. The first word is usually 日本 Nihon Japan. If you stick around long enough, you’ll figure out that 橋 hashi is bridge. There ya have it. Nihonbashi means “Japan Bridge.”

But as I briefly mentioned above, the bridge was seen as the starting point for the major roads into and out of Edo. From the beginning the Tōkaidō road linked the city directly with Ōsaka (and therefore with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s court and the nearby imperial court in Kyōto). When the bridge was built in 1603, it literally connected Edo, a small castle town, to the rest of Japan. As Edo flourished, especially with the presence of daimyō coming and going for alternate attendance duty in Edo, the bridge became a symbol of Edo’s power as a capital that unified Japan.

What does Nihonbashi mean in Japanese?
This was the “zero kilometer” marker for the 5 roads placed there by the Meiji Government. It has since been moved as a memorial thingy so you can take pictures of it without getting run over by a car.

Enter Edomachi

The area between Kyōbashi and Nihonbashi was a little island surrounded by channels to bring goods in and out. It was a commercial district, not an elite area. This area was called 江戸町 Edomachi – the town of Edo. Today this area makes up parts of Kyobashi, Edobashi, Nihonbashi and Yaesu. Because most of the channels are gone, it directly borders Marunouchi and Hachobori.

I suppose this name, Edomachi, set it apart from the samurai part of town surrounding the castle. I’m just speculating here, but the area was typified by living in close quarters with many merchant families packed into cramped spaces, so it’s being surrounded by water might have been an effort to contain fires. If the merchant area burnt down it was OK, losing the elite samurai class would have sucked balls — in the eyes of the shōgunate.

Ieyasu’s first concerns were in building up his castle and its fortifications. His second concern was surrounding the castle with the residences of his vassals, the damiyō built “modest” residences spiraling out from the castle as a secondary fortification. But the castle and the daimyō had needs, which sent business from all classes and walks of life to Edomachi.  In the beginning, Edomachi was as safely removed from the castle area and conveniently located on the major route into and out of the city. As Edo spread and became a metropolis, things changed.  but for all of the Edo Period Edomachi was the commercial heart of Edo and therefore the commercial heart of Japan.


Nihonbashi Edobashi Edomachi
Nihonbashi in the Meiji Era. Note the white warehouse can still be seen along the river. The bridge’s white stone is new and clean. Nice.

So What Happened After Edo Became Tōkyō?

1911 – A new stone bridge, in the European Style, is built across the river. It still stands today.

1923-1928 – In efforts to rebuild Tōkyō after the Great Kantō Earthquake, the canals on the east and west sides of Edomachi were filled in, thus blending the old commercial center with the surrounding areas.

1963 – In preparation for the Tōkyō Olympics, they built a freaking highway over the river. This highway killed the classical view of Mt. Fuji and made the area pretty ugly.

Present – Nihonbashi is famous as a financial and business center. The Tōkyō Stock Exchange is there, as are many large companies and banks. Some of the shitamachi flavor persists even to this day if you spend enough time walking around the area. You can find small izakaya and restaurants that have a decidedly 江戸っ子 Edokko style.

14 thoughts on “Why is Nihonbashi called Nihonbashi?

  1. Thanks for this! And with all the pretty pictures and everything too. I’ve heard rumor that they were planning on taking down the highway and making the bridge thus more open to the sky and such again, but… that was years ago, and I don’t remember where I heard it, and clearly it hasn’t happened yet, so…

    1. My pleasure! Thanks for reading/commenting!

      And yes, there was a plan to put the highway underground and expose the bridge again for the current bridge’s centennial. But the 500 billion yen price tag was too steep for governor Ishihara.

      Apparently, there is a Nihonbashi revitalization effort that still hopes for that.

      Here you can see CGI representation of what the area would look like without the ugly highway:


      1. Ooh, lookit that! I’m not surprised that the gov’t should balk at the pricetag; it’s a shame, but, it would indeed have been terribly expensive. Still, hopefully, fingers crossed, someday…

      2. Did you watch the CGI video? That would be a dream come true for history lovers in Tokyo and for civic pride.
        Such a great idea.

        Really makes me hate that highway. lol

    1. You’re very welcome! Thanks for commenting!

      And I couldn’t agree more. But after 8 years in Tokyo, I’ve just sort of accepted the fact that very little remains of Edo. Or what does is very small and very precious.

  2. What about the theory that because of width the bridge was initially called “two-lane bridge” (in Japanese 二本橋 a homonym of “nihonbashi”) for the fact that two carriages could pass in the opposite directions (which supposedly was an unusual feature in the old times). I heard it even in a lecture from London’s SOAS professor.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! And thanks especially for bringing up a really interesting point!

      Actually, I know this theory, and I considered including it, but I didn’t because I don’t buy it. One, the bridge size doesn’t appear to be particularly unique in size for a bridge in Edo. Two, the bridge was built for the express purpose of connecting Edo to the Tokaido highway. So I am of the opinion that the name was deliberate from the very beginning. Also, as opposed to village names or bridge names that predate Tokugawa Ieyasu’s initial building projects, which often have very complicated, dialectal or unclear origins, most of the things built by the shogunate have carefully chosen names and tend to be much better documented.

      While we’re on alternate theories, there’s another one I heard — which I also don’t buy. The theory states that the bridge was commonly referred to as the 二本ノ木橋 Nihon no Ki no Hashi. Nihon no ki being colloquial expression for “log” since the bridge was originally made from logs. I don’t buy this theory because a bridge made out of logs sounds shabby and the Tokugawa were definitely not shabby. Nihonbashi was made from cut wood.

      Both are interesting stories, but I think they’re just folk etymologies.

  3. There’s a big map in Nihonbashi station showing the Nihonbashi river going under the Nihonbashi bridge. This seems a bit anomalous…surely the river was there before the bridge?

    I looked into it and seems like the river got renamed Nihonbashi river from (I think) the Asakawa river. And I bet nobody the kappa about the name change, for their meishi..

  4. I had edo dream ladies in line chanting we are from from edo high court I had to bow then one came up give me a gift it was like hair pin in silver with grasshopper simple European man came up said that’s Chinese I said no
    It’s hairpin it’s edo never had power full dream like that I usual have bad dreams at nights

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