We had a 3-day weekend here in Japan, yesterday was 海の日 Umi no Hi Sea Day which celebrates the, um, sea which surrounds Japan and from time to time wreaks great havoc and tragedy upon this fair group of islands. I spent all of my spare time with Mrs. JapanThis and so I had no time for researching and writing. But I’m back and ready to jump into an area of Tōkyō I don’t think I’ve covered yet. I hope this is a good segue from my last place name post.
What does Adachi mean?
Adachi is a very ancient name that most likely pre-dates the 大化ﾉ改新 Taika no Kaishin Taika Reforms of the mid-600’s. I mentioned the Taika Reforms a few times, but I think the most I’ve ever talked about it was in my article on Mita, which also linked to the Wiki page on the subject. Be sure to read that article. You’ll see how much JapanThis has changed.
Anyhoo, one of the major outcomes of the Taika Reforms was the creation of the system of 国 kuni provinces, including our beloved 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In my article on Musashi, I talked about districts within Musashi Province. If you were paying attention, I mentioned 足立郡 Adachi-gun. So this name is on the books from some of the earliest eras of Japan’s historical record[i].
The Japanese apparently sucked at using kanji in this era – or more likely, hadn’t figured out how to adapt it to their own language yet – so they wrote things in ateji. This type of early ateji is called 万葉仮名 man’yōgana. The earliest form of Adachi that we have was written out phonetically as 阿太知 Adachi Adachi. Later the word becomes standardized as 足立 Adachi Adachi. Since the name began its life in such antiquity, it’s impossible to tell what the real meaning is[ii]. But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating since the old days to the present days. So let’s take a look at some of the theories and try to evaluate them.
The most reasonable etymology I’ve come across is this one. As wetlands were common in this area[iii], there was a plot of land or area where many reeds were growing (ie; 葦が立つ ashi ga tatsu reeds are standing). Thus the name would have originally been 葦立 Ashidachi, but over time the pronunciation changed to Adachi[iv]. During the Taika Reforms, when the imperial court in Nara was taking inventory of the provinces they claimed dominion over, they had to render many backwater areas into kanji. Hearing the name Adachi, they chose to transcribe the name as 足立 Adachi.
The other theory I heard, is one of those ridiculous mythological stories that until I heard the story of Daita, I would have dismissed outright as sheer stupidity. I’ll probably dismiss this one outright as well, but before that, let’s at least take a look at it.
The story goes that this is place where 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (or as I like to call him, Captain Japan) stood up and took his first steps. Either that, or this is the place where Yamato Takeru recovered from an illness or an injury[v].
The same story is told of another dude. This time, instead of Captain Japan, the story revolves around 坂上田村麻呂 Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (or as I like to call him, the guy whose name I can’t be arsed to remember). The general idea behind these legends is that Yamato Takeru or Sakanoue no Tamuramaro’s 足が立った ashi ga tatta “(their) legs stood up.” Ridiculous folk etymology, if you ask me.
Just for those who care, Yamato Takeru was a legendary transvestite prince and son of the legendary 12th emperor. There is no reason to believe he or his father ever really existed, especially in light of his ridiculous name, which literally means Japan Warrior[vi]. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was most likely a real dude. They say he was the 2nd person to ever receive the title shōgun. According to legend, he received this appointment for subjugating the indigenous peoples of the Tōhōku area and forcing them up into Ezo (modern Hokkaidō) for Japanese lebensraum on 本州 Honshū the main island.
Both of these etymologies are lacking in my opinion, the real meaning of the word most likely obscured by ateji in the 600’s. That said, taking the etymology of a modern Japanese place name (in the Kantō area, no less) all the way back to the 600’s is a pretty impressive feat. Of all the place names we’ve covered so far on JapanThis, only a handful fall into this category.
As a result of the Taika Reforms, 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province was created. 安達郡 Adachi-gun Adachi District was created with the province. The name has been preserved in the modern 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward in the northern Tōkyō Metropolis.
One last thing, among snobbier Tōkyōites, Adachi Ward has a somewhat less than desirable image as a bastion of ヤンキー yankī yankee culture. Yankees are Japan’s version of white trash. I’ve heard it put to me once this way, “Yankees are the Jersey Shore of Japan. Like a bunch of people from Ōsaka and Saitama moved to Tōkyō and interbred.”
Ouch! Even if you’ve never been to Japan, there should be enough colorful cultural commentary in there to keep you thinking for days.
[i] And by historical, I mean written history.
[ii] When the imperial court chose to transcribe names with kanji, they generally ignored the original meanings and just applied the kanji as one character per syllable (ateji).
Although there is no meaning to ateji, if you must know what the characters mean, here’s the breakdown:
阿 a nook/shadow 太 ta fat 知 chi wisdom.
足 a foot/leg 立 tachi standing
[iii] What?! Another “wetlands” etymology in Kantō? I’m shocked.
[iv] Keep in mind these names most likely pre-date the use of kanji among the masses in the area (which was essentially the boonies of a “country” which was essentially the boonies).
[v] We first came across Captain Japan in my article about Kasumigaseki.
[vi] Hence, the “Captain Japan” translation.