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What does Kudanshita mean?

In Japanese History on July 3, 2013 at 2:00 am

九段下
Kudanshita (Bottom of the 9 Levels, more at Bottom of the 9 Level Hill)

Cherry blossoms along the outer moat of Edo Castle.

Cherry blossoms along the outer moat of Edo Castle.

First of all, before we look at this name. I want to give a well-deserved thank you to Eric at Jcastle. Before I had seen an illustration of the Edo Era area, I had a hard time visualizing the stone wall constructions mentioned herein. But sight unseen, by the name he was able to identify the type of construction and explain it clearly and concisely. Much respect.

OK, so this place name is a vestige of a set of well-known place names in the Edo Period that became better known in the Meiji Era. The train station in the Kudanshita area made this place name the dominant name of the area since the 1960’s.

The kanji are:

kyuu/ku nine
dan level, stair
shita bottom

The second kanji is most well-known as the second character in the word 階段 kaidan stairway/stairs.

OK, so in the Edo Period, there was a big ass hill that led up from 飯田町 Iidamachi. Keeping in mind the yamanote vs. shitamachi dynamic, Iidamchi was a shitamachi town for commoners and the top of the hill was a yamanote area for samurai. Originally, the hill’s name was 飯田町中坂 Iidamachi Nakazaka.

Going up the face of the hill, the shōgunate built a residence for officials who were working in Edo Castle, but the pitch of the hill was so steep that they had to reinforce it with stone walls and stairs that ascended the hill in 9 levels.

Anyhoo, from my understanding, these were low ranking bureaucrats and so the residence wouldn’t have been anything very special. It was a essentially a barracks, which was nothing more than glorified 長屋 nagaya rowhouses. The only thing unique about it was the 9 levels (stairs, if you will) and the 9 levels of stone walls. Because of this unique feature, the building came to be known as the 九段屋敷 Kudan Yashiki 9 Levels Residence. The hill also came to be called 九段坂 Kudanzaka the 9 Levels Hill.

Iidamachi Nakazaka

Iidamachi Nakazaka
(click for larger size)

A close up. You can clearly see the 9 levels of the walls of the barracks and the 9 large steps going up the hill.

A close up. You can clearly see the 9 levels of the walls of the barracks and the 9 large steps going up the hill.

Fast forward to the Meiji Period, the daimyō are kicked out of their Edo palaces and the 旗本 hatamoto, direct retainers of the Tokugawa shōgun family are evicted from their barracks and all the shōgun’s holdings in Edo are confiscated by imperial court. The Kudan Residence was either demolished or repurposed (I’m not sure which, to be honest). And the top of the hill was cleared for the construction of 2 new important structures.

The first was the 灯明台 tōmyōdai, a lighthouse built in Meiji 4 (1871) to help safely guide in fishing boats into Tōkyō Bay. The standard word for lighthouse is 灯台 tōdai, but this one has a religious nuance to it.  灯明 tōmyō refers to an offering of light to the gods. The reason for the religious overtones will become obvious very soon.

Tomyodai in the Meiji Period

Tomyodai in the Late Meiji or Taisho.

Painting of the Tomyodai in action

Painting of the Tomyodai in action

Tomyodai as it looks today

Tomyodai as it looks today

Tomyo usually refers to this. (I took this picture at Zojo-ji)

Tomyo usually refers to this.
(I took this picture at Zojo-ji, just wanted to explain what tomyo means)

The final years of the bakumatsu was marked by a 2 year civil war between supporters of the Tokugawa shōgunate and the über lame imperial army[i] called the 戊辰戦争 Boshin Sensō Boshin War. After putting down the samurai insurgency, the imperial court built a shrine on the top of the hill to enshrine those who had died fighting in service of the emperor. As the Empire of Japan waged wars of Imperialism, the shrine became the main shrine for the war dead of Japan. The shrine is called 靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja Yasukuni Shrine[ii]. The shrine is akin to Arlington Cemetery in the United States as a place where people can reflect on the service of people who died in military service of their country. Supposedly, this is the only shrine at which the Emperor of Japan bows.

The haiden (main hall/front hall) of Yasukuni Shrine. On most occasions, this is the closest you'll get.

The haiden (main hall/front hall) of Yasukuni Shrine.
On most occasions, this is the closest you’ll get.

The honden (inner sanctuary). This is where the war dead are "actually" enshrined.

The honden (inner sanctuary). This is where the war dead are “actually” enshrined.
My understanding is that this was the main structure of the shrine until 1901 when the haiden (front hall) was built.
Today, this building (renovated) is generally inaccessible.

The honden as it looks today.

The honden as it looks today.
This is from Yasukuni’s website so it’s a small picture.
People usually aren’t allowed in past the front hall (haiden) so your chances of seeing this building are next to none.

Yasukuni Shrine wouldn’t be anything particularly interesting outside of Japan, except that in 1969 and 1978, some of the right-wing leaning priests secretly elected to enshrine more than a 1000 people convicted of war crimes in WWII. The list included 14 Class A war criminals[iii]. Later when the documents were made public, the shit hit the fan in Korea and China and the shrine has been at the center of controversy ever since.

In 1965, a tiny wooden shrine called 鎮霊社 Chinreisha Spirit Pacifying Shrine was built. This shrine includes two separate places of enshrinement. One honors the war dead who fought against the emperor in the Boshin War (including the Shinsengumi, Shōgitai, and the forces of Aizu Domain) as well as those who died in defense of Japan in any form since 1853 when the Americans forced the country open. The other is dedicated to all war dead everywhere, regardless of nationality and era[iv]. It even includes those who fought against Japan[v].

The Chin-chin Reisha. I've heard this isn't always open to visitors, especially when the controversy pops up in the news as it does from time to time. Because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan, some Japanese right-wingers get pissed off about it.  And because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan, sometimes the Chinese and Koreans get pissed off about it.

The Chin-chin Reisha.I’ve heard this isn’t always open to visitors, especially when the controversy pops up in the news as it does from time to time.
Because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan,
some Japanese right-wingers get pissed off about it.
And because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan,
some Chinese and Koreans get pissed off about it.
Whatever.
FFS, it’s just shack in the woods behind the shrine.
DMY 

OK, so we’re waaaaaaaaaaay off track now. But anyways, that’s the tie-in with the lighthouse. The original Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 and the lighthouse was built just outside of the temple precincts in 1871. Both locations quickly became new Tōkyō landmarks. The lighthouse was a western import showcasing Japan’s mastery of foreign technology, the shrine was a traditional building that reinforced the idea of loyalty to the emperor and respect for ancestors who died defending him. The location was on one of the highest hills near 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle[vi], again reinforcing the supremacy of the emperor with technological, religious and military symbolism. Well played, Mr. Emperor. Well played.

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Another view of the hill and the moat.  Note the walls on the right side.

Another view of the hill and the moat.
Note the walls on the right side.

The name Kudanzaka was applied to the area for a long time. And even today there still exist a 九段北 Kudan Kita North Kudan and 九段南 Kudan Minami South Kudan (north and south being geographical references and having nothing to do with the hill, of course). In 1964, a subway station was built at the bottom of the Kudanzaka (Kudan Hill). The station name was 九段下 Kudanshita Bottom of Kudan and since then the name has come to be applied to the whole area.

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[i] Worst uniforms EVER.

[ii] Yasukuni means “peaceful country” but is often translated as “pacifying the country.” Kinda ironic given the Meiji Era is the beginning of Japanese expansion and imperialism which is – by definition – not peaceful.

[iii] Not including George Bush and Dick Cheney because (1) they’re not dead and (2) they didn’t serve the emperor of Japan.

[iv] I wonder if that includes the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions of the Roman Empire. I mean, they did die in war…. Hmmm, makes you think.

[v] It’s not famous, though. Most Tōkyōites have never heard of it.

[vi] When the city’s name changed from Edo to Tōkyō, the castle’s name changed too.

  1. Thanks for the kudos! I love that illustration where it’s plain as day. With all this background research you do, you should try your hand at the 江戸歴史検定.

  2. Hahaha, I actually counted the stairs. Nice one!

  3. Arigatou! I am trying to learn about the history as I am learning the language. Your cheeky, fun commentary and great pictures are wonderful!!! More, kudasai!! ( * ^ ^ * )

    • Thank you for the kind words and most of thank you for commenting!

      I think learning the history while you learn the language is the best way!! The two are totally linked!!

      Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu!!

  4. The information, lore, descriptions and pics are great. Although I lived near Yasukuni Shrine for many years I didn’t know much of the info. you give. I would put this out to friends but don’t think they’d appreciate your mixing of language registers, formal English and street talk. Better to keep words like “piss” and “ass” out of this kind of writing, especially when it’s so good and useful.

  5. […] JapanThis!: “In the Edo Period, there was a big hill that led up from Iidamachi. Keeping in mind the […]

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