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What does Setagaya mean?

In Japanese History on July 8, 2013 at 6:47 pm

世田谷
Setagaya (Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy)

All of Setagaya looks like this.  Every last bit of it. And they have flying monkeys too...

All of Setagaya looks like this.
Every last bit of it.
And they have flying monkeys too…

This place name is ancient. So take all of this with a grain of salt. But the generally accepted theory is as follows.

瀬戸 seto usually means a strait, as in the Strait of Gibraltar[i], but in Old Japanese, it could also be applied to 谷地 yachi a narrow marsh in a valley. In the old dialect of the area, it’s said that word seto was pronounced seta and written 瀬田 seta. Old Japanese had two possessive particles. Modern Japanese uses の no, but Old Japanese also used が ga. It survives in place names all over the country, the most famous being 関ヶ原 Sekigahara[ii], which literally means “the checkpoint gatehouse’s prairie/field.” Thus 瀬田ヶ谷 seta ga ya meant something like 瀬田の谷地 seta no yachi “the narrow marsh in the valley’s narrow marsh in the valley,” which I would have said was a totally ridiculous name, if they had asked me. But they didn’t.

Eventually, the first kanji was swapped out with 世 se “generation, world” because it’s an auspicious character. 世田 sounds like rice paddies that are bountiful forever, hence my translation of “Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy.” Also, is a standard ateji character. It was so common in phonetic renderings that the shorthand form of became katakana セ se.

The first attestation of the name is in 1376 as 世田谷郷 Setagaya-gō Setagaya Hamlet. By the Edo Period, the town was listed as 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village and this name lasted until the Meiji Era. In the Edo Period it was not part of the city of Edo, but of 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province[iii]. In 1871, when the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[iv] the abolition of domain and establishment of prefectures was enacted, the eastern section of what is now Setagaya Ward was absorbed into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City within 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture. In 1936, the boundaries of present day Setagaya Ward were pretty much fixed. It became a special ward of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis in 1946 and lived happily ever after.

Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

Oh wait, I forgot something kinda cool.

So that cat is called 招キ猫 maneki neko, it’s kind of a good look charm for businesses in Japan. 招く maneku means to invite or beckon and 猫 neko means cat[v]. There are a few origin stories for this good luck charm. One involves Setagaya Ward.

The story goes that once upon a time, there was an impoverished temple called 豪徳寺 Gōtoku-ji. Even though the head priest of the temple had barely enough food for himself, he took in a white stray cat and cared for him. Nice guy.

The temple isn't impoverished anymore.  They have a huge market share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

The temple isn’t impoverished anymore.
They have captured a huge share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

According to the legend, the daimyō of Hikone Domain, Ii Naotaka[vi], a contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada, was passing through Setagaya Village with his entourage as a storm was coming up. As Naotaka’s group passed by the temple, the daimyō noticed the white cat beckoning them to enter the temple precinct. As it was totally about to rain, he and his group commandeered the temple for shelter. It started raining and maybe some lightning struck somewhere and, you know, some legend shit happened. I dunno, maybe it was a crazy storm.

Naotaka was thankful for being able to take shelter at the temple. As a result he requested to make the temple the Ii clan’s 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple in Edo and the family made endowments to the temple and basically just made it rain[vii] on them throughout the Edo Period. As a result the family of the priest attributed the family/temple’s good luck to the white cat[viii]. And they found another awesome way to make money. They  started selling little white cats and telling people that if you buy this little white cat, a hereditary daimyō  might pass by your place and start throwing money at you for 2 and a half centuries. Well, anything’s possible, right?

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

Anyhoo, whatever you think of this story, the Ii clan was definitely a major patron of the club, err, I mean temple. The place is definitely in Setagaya Ward. The temple plays up the maneki neko story and the characters is known far and wide. Even in the ancestral Ii lands based around Hikone Castle, they use a cat character called Hikonyan, a reference to the maneki neko legend.


[i] I don’t know why I gave this example. After all, there are perfectly good Japanese examples.

[ii] As in the Battle of Sekigahara which secured Tokugawa Ieyasu’s position of dominance over Japan. This set the stage for him being granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei-i taishōgun, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces against the eastern barbarians, as they say.

[iii] See my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for another passing reference.

[iv] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan the public groping abolition of domains.

[v] It’s also slang for a “submissive” male homosexual.

[vi] I don’t want to get side tracked, but he is the illustrious ancestor of the no-less illustrious Ii Naosuke who was the regent of the clown shōgun, Tokugawa Iesada.

[vii] Make it rain. If you haven’t experienced this, then (a) you’re not a stripper or (b) you’re not rich or (c) you haven’t lived your life vicariously through rich people and strippers like me.

[viii] Because religious people love to thank imaginary shit instead of the people who actually help them.

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