In former castle towns all over Japan you can find areas with similar names.
So what exactly is a kachi?
Well, a 徒 kachi [i] is one of the lowest ranking samurai of the Edo Period. They were not permitted to ride horses[ii]. Until the 1800’s, they were not allowed to wear clothes with a family crest as their families were not considered successive clans[iii]. Some people draw a parallel between this rank of samurai and low level salarymen and low level management of Tōkyō – the analogy being in the type of housing and accessible neighborhoods according to their salary. This isn’t a good analogy, in my opinion, in that the samurai ranks were highly regulated by the Tokugawa Bakufu and a modern worker can marry “out of his station” or just move to the suburbs and get a bigger place.
In more recent times this kanji has become associated with gangs and the yakuza, so, except for the station name in Tōkyō, the name “o-kachimachi” doesn’t exist in the official list of postal codes.
Even though these kachi were direct retainers of the shōgun, they were a kind of non-commissioned officer. They were expected to live in barracks[iv]. In many cases they wouldn’t be granted permission to live with their wives and children[v]. In times of war, they were forbidden from marching in the vanguard. In times of peace, they were basically the white trash of Japan. They were supposedly privileged, but in reality, they were just commoners. The commoners had to show deference to them, but the rest of the samurai elite probably shat on them.
Anyhoo, I’ve touched on this a bit in my ongoing[vi] piece on yamanote vs. shitamachi in Edo-Tōkyō. But areas of the castle town of Edo were sectioned off for people of certain ranks. This area was a border between the high town (yamanote) of Ueno and the low town (shitamachi). Today, the whole area from O-kachimachi to Ueno is considered the low town today.
O-kachimachi is roughly located between Ueno Station and Akihabara. These were the outskirts of Edo at the time. It was a bad location when you had to walk everywhere. If you pay attention to the layout of the streets in O-kachimachi, at first you’ll notice what looks like an easily navigable grid layout, but you’ll soon find it has seemingly random streets crossing at various points creating sub-neighborhoods within the neighborhood. This is typical of Japanese castle towns and typical of Edo-Tōkyō in particular. So it’s still a fantastic area to walk around.
The long blocks echo the existence of the Edo Period barracks (nagaya). And today the area has a markedly shitamachi culture that has persisted since the mid-Meiji Era. Nothing exists of its military past, but the shitamachi atmosphere hangs heavy, as does the merchant vibe that has reigned here since the Restoration was underway. The samurai who stuck around mostly became merchants themselves after the warrior class was abolished.
[i] Also written 徒士, and referred to in the common language as 御徒さん o-kachi-san, though the more polite 御侍さん o-samurai-san would probably have been used to their face.
[ii] I mentioned briefly referred to the Edo Period view of people on horseback in my article about Heusken.
[iii] This changed in 1862 (Tokugawa Iemochi), who made their status as Tokugawa retainers successive.
[iv] In Edo, these were less barracks, and essentially the same as the ubiquitous 長屋 nagaya. So it was a step up from a fully military setting. Still, you were living in a gated off dormitory kinda building with a bunch of other dudes. After a while, I’m sure it got old.
[v] In which cases, they could visit on their days off and they would be expected to send money wife and children who would reside with the parents.
[vi] Read: “unfininished.”