OK, this was a post that I’ve been putting off forever because it seemed quite daunting – and I’m both super busy at the moment and inherently lazy. But a reader on the JapanThis Facebook Page requested it and… I have a hard time turning down a request. So, I’m going to try my best to do this and do it right, while still being a little lazy. Let’s see if I can pull it off.
There are place names all over 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis that include the words 武蔵 Musashi or 武蔵野 Musashino. I’ve alluded to this many times over the last 6 months, so regular readers should have a little idea of what is coming next.
1871 was a major year for the nascent Meiji government and for Japanese geography and place names. That year, the imperial court issued an edict called 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[i] Abolishment of Han (domains) & Establishment of Ken (prefectures). I’m not an expert in this area and I have no formal training as a Japanese historian[ii], so take what I’m going to say with that in mind[iii]. Until this decree, the usual civil administrative unit of the Edo Period was the 藩 han usually translated as domain (or feudal domain[iv]). The domain would be a hereditary fief granted or allowed by the shōgun in Edo to a 大名 daimyō, a lord[v]. The domains of the Edo Period were theoretically in flux. Domains could be confiscated or abolished by the shōgun at any time – usually for some grave offense by the daimyō in charge. You can think of domains as autonomous “states” which were properties of the daimyō. The daimyō swore allegiance to the shōgun. And although they were “free” to exercise discretion in their domains, they spent half of their time in forced service to shōgun and their wives and children were de facto “hostages” of the shōgun, a holdover from the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Clusterfuck.
Another archaism that held over into the Edo Period, at least in theory, were the traditional territories called 国 kuni often translated as provinces, but usually used in Modern Japanese as country. The domains of the Tokugawa Period existed within these traditional regions.
Provinces were created during in the 7th century by an imperial decree called 国郡里制 Koku-Gun-Ri Sei the Province-District-Village Edict which established a norm for civil administration united under the imperial court in Nara, if I’m not mistaken. The Koku-Gun-Ri system created large provinces, sub-divided into districts, which were further sub-divided into territories[vi]. The system was never abolished, but it basically fell apart during the Muromachi Period as samurai culture ascended to supremacy under the leadership of 武将 bushō daimyō warlords who were fighting each other in a land grabbing free for all – essentially undermining the boundaries of the kuni.
I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in the traditional area of Musashi Province, the 郡 gun districts survived into the Edo Period. In the Meiji Period, while 国 kuni provinces and 藩 han were eliminated by the Abolition Act, many 郡 gun districts continued to exist up until WWII.
Districts of Musashi Province:
Long time readers of JapanThis will recognize some of those names, especially Toshima and Ebara. Anyone who’s spent a little time in the Tōkyō Area will recognize loads of other names as well, for example; Adachi, Chichibu, Kodama, Katsushika, Saitama, and Tama.
Domains Located in Musashi Province
|武蔵小室藩||Musashi Komuro Han|
|武蔵一宮藩||Musashi Ichinomiya Han|
Bushū Kanazawa Han
OK, so a quick re-cap
Old Japan was divided by the imperial court into large province called 国 kuni. Kuni were subdivided into districts called 郡 gun. In the Sengoku Period many 国 kuni provinces became obsolete, but the names continued traditionally. Generally, the 郡 gun districts remained intact. In the Edo Period, it seems to be case by case. So again, the province names continued to exist traditionally if not officially and territories were very much intact.
So why have I taken you on this insanely boring walk through Japanese civil administrative units from the 7th century to the 17th century?
Because the area was so large and famous, it’s important to understand how people before the Meiji Period thought of this area geographically. Also, the district names (and sometimes the domain names) are still relevant today[vii].
Anyways, there’s more to the story
So, let’s go back to the name of the imperial decree of 1871, it abolished domains and created prefectures[viii]. Go back a little further to 1868, the emperor took the Tokugawa Shōgun Family’s main holding, Edo, and renamed it Tōkyō. Things were more or less in a state of flux as the court and the government, which was slowly taking shape, figured out what the hell they were doing.
To my understanding, from 1869 to 1943, 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City embodied the former city of Edo plus many suburban and urban holdings. Tōkyō Prefecture absorbed a much larger area that included the city of Tōkyō and mixed an agrarian and metropolitan area into a new civil unit.
There’s much more to the story than this, but this is all we need for now.
Wasn’t this article about the meaning of Musashi?
Why, yes. Yes, it was.
|武蔵国||Musashi no Kuni||Musashi Province|
These are alternate names for more or less the same area. The kanji used today are slightly simplified variants. The original way to write it was 武藏國 Musashi no Kuni, which give me a headache if I look at it too long.
The province was spread over areas of present day Tōkyō, Kanagawa, Saitama, although the bulk of is still within Tōkyō. Most places that include the name Musashi were outside of the Edo or direct control of the shōgun, so they could claim a little prestige by adding Musashi to their name. This became a big thing with the implementation of train systems, when differentiating station names became necessary.
Any place name in Tōkyō, Saitama, or Kanagawa is more or less is a reference to Musashi province. Even today, many of these places are not just suburban areas, but areas considered really country by Tōkyōites in the 23 Special Wards. But this is their heritage. They are preserving an ancient name that wasn’t a political reality since the 15th century. Nice, right?
Other related place names are
|武蔵野台||Musashinodai||Musashi Plain Plateau|
So What Does Musashi Mean?
There are many competing theories, none of which is considered a prevailing theory. Most of the theories seem so shaky that they’re not worth getting into here. It is interesting to note that the earliest recorded instances of the name in the 7th century are written with different kanji: 无耶志国 Muzashi no Kuni Muzashi Province.
Other variants were
The problem with all of these variants is that they are all ateji – which means they don’t tell jack shit about the origin of the word or meaning. Because it was always written with ateji as far back as the historical record goes, it has prompted some linguists to speculate that it was a non-Japanese word. They’ve pointed an Ainu word, ムンザシ munzashi, which means a grass covered plain. The similarity is uncanny. But I don’t know much about the Ainu, where they lived, their language, or… well, anything. So, I can’t say if this is better than the other weird theories I heard[xii].
OK. So there it is. Nobody knows what the fuck Musashi really means and it has taken me roughly 2000 words to say so. But that said, we’ve been able to take a good look at the size and administrative reality of Musashi Province and I hope that this post will be a good point of reference for past posts and future posts. And since a lot of my readers are new to Japanese history, hopefully I was able to unweave the rainbow a little bit in terms of how Japan, or at least the Japan surrounding Edo-Tōkyō was administered in the old days.
And like I said in the beginning of this post, I’m not an expert on civil administration in the Edo Period – the era I know the best so there may be some mistakes in here. If anyone sees any glaring ones, let me know. Also, if I wasn’t clear about anything, feel free post your questions. I’m hoping this is a nice launching point for more place names and hopefully more discussion on bad ass Tōkyō history.
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[i] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan abolition of domains & public groping.
[ii] Never even had a single class in Japanese history.
[iii] And if you can shed some light on this, your knowledge would be greatly appreciated.
[iv] This isn’t an accepted term among scholars of Japanese history, but the terminology is out there for generalists and n00bs and since I’m trying to keep this blog accessible to everyone, I sometimes use it myself.
[v] Often translated with the Eurocentric term, feudal lord – again not used by serious scholars of Japanese history, but often tossed around by generalists because it is easily understood by westerners.
[vi] As time went on and the population in urban center ballooned, further sub-divisions were created. One that is confusing for me is the the existence of 2 ri; 里 ri village and 領 ri territory/county.
[vii] I didn’t even get into the 領 ri territories/counties (too many of them), but these territories account for most of the extant place names in the former Musashi Province.
[viii] Where this word comes from is also interesting, but let’s leave that for another day.
[ix] The kanji 武 bu “warrior” is the same kanji for 武士道 bushidō way of the samurai. Anyways, I doubt any of my readers don’t know that. But ぶ bu and む mu are similar sounds and there are diachronic variations across Japanese dialects, which means that the kanji 武 can be read as bu or mu. A common family name is 武藤 Mutō which also uses the softer, mu sound. Other common examples are 寂しい samishii or sabishii and 寒い samui or sabui.
[x] In Saitama, not Tōkyō.
[xi] In Saitama, not Tōkyō.
[xii] If you are interested in what some real Japanese linguists have to say on the matter (and you can read technical linguistics documents in Japanese), then knock yourself out. But it’s pretty dry.
4 thoughts on “What does Musashi mean?”
Wow, this was really well-researched and thoroughly explained. Thanks for all the Musashi info.
Thank you for the kind words! I’m happy when an old article helps someone out.
You are going to have to go very far back in history to get to the essence of “Muzashi” or however you choose to spell it.
First lets remember: “kuni” is 国 or “country.”
Basically until some point in time (probably the mid-600s, although many will argue to push the date back farther) Muzashi was a “kuni” not generally believed to be under the control of the Emperor in Yamato. Today’s imperial family ruled Yamato and Northern Kyushu for a long time. Although there is no proof, Izumo was probably a separate “kuni” country too for a very long time, but eventually they came under the sway of the Yamato.
For a long time, Kanto was considered a separate 「国」even farther away, and called “barbarians,” but they were somehow part of the imperial system by the time of Shotoku Taishi, with the regional capital in Fuchu and a Buddhist temple in Kokubunji. As the House of Yamato expanded, it always set up a big shrine/administrative center and an official Buddhist temple to chant 2 particular sutras over and over that emphasized protecting the Emperor and friends. Unity, uniformity, routine, central control of new “kuni.”
The Original Kokubunji temple is gone, but the big Fuchu shrine is still there.
The next frontiers were the lands north, which were populated by people the Yamato barely considered human, who they called the “Emishi” and a separate race. The last to fall into plac was the relatively recent Hokkaido/Ainu takeover, plus the islands north that Russia now calls their own.
Even after the “official” takeover of the Kanto area, it caused sporadic trouble, and was arguably (by some) slightly more loosy-goosey connected to the stable south than elsewhere until…well, it depends how nationalist you want to be. The Kokubunji/Fuchu setup was stable, but a lot of weirdness went on in Tama and elsewhere. Tokyo is a big flat plain, which makes it harder to control from afar than tiny little valleys hemmed in by mountains, which is basically most of the rest of Japan.
There were often needs for…police action, shall we say, in Musashi”no” (“no”as in “no” longer a real kuni, now a “province” perhaps) and shows of force that some might see as a sign of less-than-total, uh, brotherly love. But the same can be said of modern Detroit, I guess. Some rather amusing and colorful epitaphs about those freaking uncivilized Kanto beast-like ingrates exist in various medieval records from stately and civilized Kyoto.
One more thing. I highly suggest you don’t get too deep into researching “alternative” conspiracy theories of possible post-Fuchu stuff between the official takeover and Kamakura, when things finally got more locked down. The administrative/religious authorities were Fuchu-based shinto and orthodox Buddhism radiating out from Kolubunji, and they controlled what was in between. That’s the official story, and I’m sticking with it.
I considerJapan an Empire, as it does itself. The definition of an empire is a meta-state that controls various client countries: “kuni,” if you will. This might be one way to think of early Muzashi no kuni. And if you really want to crank the DeLorian back in time, there are Chinese records from much earlier mentioning a “Yamatai” land in Japan controlling “100” separate “kuni.” This may be an exaggeration (and even then, they must have been very small “countries”: but again think — tall mountains, deep valleys), but this pattern might also be part of the reason Japan is an Empire and not a “kuni” itself.
why does 武蔵 not just mean ‘warrior warehouse’ if we just take the kanji?