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What does Meguro mean?

In Japanese History on August 12, 2013 at 2:58 am

目黒
Meguro
(Black Eyes)

Meguro Hanami Etymology

The Meguro River, as it passes through Naka-Meguro.
A famous spot for hanami in Tokyo.

Sorry for my lateness in updating. The O-bon holiday is about to kick off now in Tōkyō and I’m juggling three projects in addition to my regular responsibilities. A doctor actually told me to give the blog a rest for a while. It’s not so much his advice as much as it’s my own lack of time that has created an unusual silence over here at Japan This. But don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. The blog will continue. And I apologize for the slow pace as of late.

But I feel like that last series on Edo’s Three Execution Grounds was a great place to take a break. And I uploaded a few filler pieces since then which actually got a lot of hits and brought a lot of new readers to Japan This. That’s always fantastic, in my opinion! The more the merrier.

I shouldn’t be wasting my time (or yours, dear reader) with mindless pleasantries, so without further ado, let’s take a look at why Meguro is called Meguro.

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Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

While Naka-Meguro is great, there probably isn’t much of a reason to get off at Meguro Station on the Yamanote Line.
and OMG, this is the most annoying graphic ever….

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First thing you should know.

There is no consensus on the etymology of this place name. It appears to be fairly ancient; possibly dating back to the 800’s when the culture of the Yamato hegemony was more or less finalized in Honshū. In the early Kamakura Period (circa 1190), the name 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan first appeared in shōgunate records. We can assume this was a noble family from the Kantō area, either originating in the Meguro area of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni’s Musashi Province 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District or a noble family who controlled the area (or both). Either way, the place name does not derive from the Meguro clan. The Meguro clan’s name derived from the place name. BTW, the family claimed descent from the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan.

Following the old Japanese tradition of naming of villages based on their locations along rivers and roads, there were (and still are) a 上目黒 Kami-Meguro Upper Meguro (upstream), a 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Low Meguro (downstream), and a 中目黒 Naka-Meguro (goldilocks, baby, goldilocks)[i].

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Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros. This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.

Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros.
This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.

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OK, It’s Etymology Time, Y’all.

One common story is that the name derives from a temple called 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji in Shimo-Meguro. In the Edo Period this temple was part of series of temples dedicated to a Buddha known as Acala, who is called 不動 Fudō, “the unmovable one” in Japanese.  The temples, as a group were known as the 江戸色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō The 5 Colored Immovable Buddhas[ii]. The problem with this theory is that these temples and this grouping are products of the Edo Period. So it’s unlikely the name has anything to do with this[iii].

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If you've seen one Buddha, you've seen them all. Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.

If you’ve seen one Buddha, you’ve seen them all.
Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.

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The oldest secular etymology has an agricultural origin and strikes me as more believable[iv]. This theory suggests that the area was originally used as a pasture for grazing animals – horses in particular. The word 馬 uma horse had a dialectal variant me that when combined with 畦 kuro embankment between fields became mekuromeguro[v]. These “meguro” referred to dirt embankments and barriers that prevented horses and other grazing animals from running away.

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Meguro - A Horse Embankment?

It’s not very exciting, but this is what the theory suggests.

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As this was an era when literacy wasn’t high and ateji was the norm, the place name came to written as 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes which could be easily read – rather than 馬畦 Meguro Horse Embankment which is almost unreadable without an explanation.

The problem with this etymology is that it suggests a small area.  However, the areas that contain Meguro names in modern Tōkyō and in the Edo Period hint at a massive area – much larger than a grazing field.

So if we are to go with this theory, I might suggest that the Meguro clan was not actually descended from the Fujiwara clan, but was merely a local strong arm in the area that managed to pull sway over a larger area. They connected with the Imperial court or possibly later with the Kamakura shōgunate and they assumed the name of their place of origin. After establishing control over their little part of the Ebara District, their name was the only legacy to survive the Sengoku Period.

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[i] Although, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these 3 divisions, please see my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for a related explanation of this type of naming.
[ii] 5 colors is a cute Edo Period way of saying “various.” Religions are gimmicky wherever you go, aren’t they?
[iii] Remember the name was documented in the 1190’s, a good 400 years before the Edo Period.
[iiii] As always, keep a grain of salt handy, please.
[v] The kanji 畦 kuro, with its alternate reading, aze, survives in the modern word 畦道 azemichi a walking path (possibly also functioning as a property line) the divides rice paddies.

  1. Any connection to Mejiro?

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