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What does Daita mean?

In Japanese History on July 5, 2013 at 4:42 am

代田
Daita (ateji; no meaning)

Daita Station is a far cry from its humble agrarian roots...

Daita Station is a far cry from its humble agrarian roots…

OK, this place name is of such a ridiculous nature that all I can say is the accepted story is true. If not, then the name may be so old that the original meaning has been obscured forever since the adoption of writing.

This Name is Ateji.

Just a quick review of ateji:
Kanji is an ideographic writing system. That means that each character has a meaning. But as such, it’s poorly suited to transcribing foreign words or transcribing native words without adding nuance.

A good example of this is the word chocolate. This is the Nahatl word[i], xocolātl, which means “bitter water. The Spanish borrowed and transcribed the word in various forms until it became standardized as chocolate and was eventually borrowed by English (same spelling, but with a different pronunciation). The English pronunciation of the word was eventually adopted by the Japanese and while modern Japanese doesn’t use kanji for the word, several kanji variants existed; one of which is 猪口冷糖 choko reitō ”sake cup chilled sugar.”

This is an extreme example. But it clearly illustrates how kanji hides the meanings of words that exist in a world outside of kanji. Keep this in mind as we proceed.

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It should go without saying, that before writing, people were speaking Japanese and naming places in their native language. When the ridiculously convoluted writing system of China was adopted, the Japanese superimposed it onto their own dialects. Suddenly Japanese place names that had their own meanings and histories were obscured by the meanings implicit in kanji. This means that really old place names are, by default, suspect.

Being in the literal middle of nowhere, we don’t see the place name 代田 Daita on maps until the closing years of the Sengoku Period. However, in 1569, when Hōjō Ujiyasu’s retainer 垪和又太郎 Haga Yasutarō[ii] was granted a fief here, the place name seems already to have existed.

Located on his fief was place (or facility) called 代田屯 Daita Tamura Daita Barracks or Daita Encampment[iii].

People are always interested in place names and the Japanese of the Sengoku Period and Edo Period were no different. They recorded an etymology that the locals told.

The giant doing his business....

The giant performing cunnilingus on a mountain…

Daidara Bocchi

There was a local legend that a giant named  だいだらぼっち Daidara Bocchi[iv] had lived in the area. There was a sink hole in the area (in the vicinity of present-day 守山小学校 Mamoriyama Shōgaku Mamoriyama Elementary School). The early villagers told a story that it was a footprint of the giant Daidara Bocchi. Over time, the footprint filled with rain water or became a natural spring and the area became a marshland. Over time, the name was shortened and the local dialect’s pronunciation changed and the name became  だいた Daita. The locals used the kanji 代田 to write the word[v].

At first I thought this was one of the stupidest etymologies ever and my gut instinct said to blow it off, except that supposedly there are places all over Japan with similar etymologies. And here’s where it gets interesting.

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There are supposedly many references to Daidara Bocchi surviving in place names, especially in the mountains and wetlands. The sheer volume of these places names has led many scholars to speculate that Daidara Bocchi was an indigenous god associated with creation myths of Japan. He may have been an early Shintō god or he may be from an earlier culture. We only have conjecture at this point because by the time we get written records in Japan he was just a giant. But the story apparently spread all over 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan. As the name had dialectal variants, all of which pre-date the arrival of writing (ie; kanji), our knowledge of this mythological character is really obscure and most likely will remain so.

If you ever go to Shimo-Kitazawa, you can walk around the area and you’ll notice the hilly terrain. But because of the buildings, you can’t notice if there is a footprint shaped valley or not. But you can get a sense that the “elite” villagers on the high ground may have had a good story to explain a unique basin wetland area.

So, for the time being, let’s file this name under “obscure and intriguing.”

I had a good time, how about you?

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[i] Aztec, for those of us who are not specialists in the languages of Mesoamerica.

[ii] Just a heads up, the name, 又太郎, can be read at Yasutarō or Matatarō. I have no idea which is correct in this guy’s case.

[iii] The tamura part is a mystery to me. It suggests an actual military base associated with the Hōjō clan, or ateji to avoid repeating the kanji – that is to say, tamura was not a military reference, but a farming one, ie; 田村 tamura rice paddy village. In the case of the latter, the word would have been rendered as 代田田村 – which just looks ridiculous.

[iv] Because there are so many dialectal variants of this name, there are a lot of options when rendering into English. Japanese folklorists tend to use this version of the name as a conventional standard. There is no standard in English. So writing the name as 2 words is an editorial call on my part. Some Japanese sources treat it as two words etymologically and that helps me render it into English in a reader-friendly way.

[v] If literally read, Daita means “generations/endless fields.” This etymology alone might seem sufficient, cf; Yoyogi and Chiyoda. Occam’s Razor would prefer this etymology.

  1. If you like ramen… and you’re interested in Daita (in this case, Shin-Daita), check this shit out:

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