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What does Mamiana-cho mean?

In Japanese History on September 3, 2013 at 2:44 am

狸穴
Mamiana-chō
Raccoon-Hole Town

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.   BTW - Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.
BTW – Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.

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Sorry for my recent silence. I fell down the wormhole that is Game of Thrones and spent all my free time plowing through seasons 1, 2 , and 3[i]. To my delight I learned that season 4 is still in production, so I can finally get back writing Japan This!.

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Today’s Tōkyō place name is a doozy.

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Straddled between Azabu-Jūban, Higashi-Azabu, and Azabu-dai, is a small park called 狸穴町公園 which is freaking impossible to read unless you already know the place or you’re some kind of next level kanji master. Luckily, if you go to the area, many of the buildings don’t use the kanji (they use katakana or rōmaji) so if you stumble across this tiny area of Azabu, you’ll know how to read it. This residential area is home to about 250-260 people and is near the Russian Embassy and a non-descript S&M themed love hotel (apparently frequented regularly by Russians).

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out...

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out…

Actually the area was virtually transparent except to rich expats and diplomats 10-15 years ago. It became more accessible when Azabu-Jūban Station was built and became the convergence of the 南北線 Nanboku-sen North-South Line and 大江戸線 Ō-Edo-sen Greater Edo Area Line. It’s still a sleepy corner of the greater Azabu area, but it’s undergone massive development in the last ten years.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn't much better, to be honest).   If I'm not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn’t much better, to be honest).
If I’m not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

The reading of 狸穴町 is Mamiana-chō. The first kanji, , is usually read as tanuki. The second is 穴 ana hole. The final character, 町 chō, has come up often in this blog and it means town.

The kanji 狸 tanuki is where the fun lies. Anyone who has ever walked down a Japanese street is familiar with tanuki. They often stand outside of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.  A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.
A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The scientific name for tanuki is Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus (although this taxonomy is apparently in dispute by zoologists and evolutionary biologists). The common name is Japanese Raccoon Dog and if you look at a picture of one, you’ll see why it has the combined name raccoon and dog.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

As far as I know, tanuki are neither raccoons nor dogs[ii]. They merely resemble the two. In Japanese dialects, different words are used for this animal. But in 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, it’s called tanuki, so we’ll stick to that one. The kanji was used for a range of small furry mammals with a range of readings in various dialects referring to everything from tanuki to badgers to feral cats to large flying squirrels to wild boars, etc. Kanji use aside, the word まみ mami (which was sometimes assigned to the kanji ) appears to have been an Edo Dialect word that applied specifically to female tanuki, Japanese badgers[iii], and wild boar[iv]. An alternate kanji, 猯 mami was generally used for this grouping of animals. This word was eventually replaced by the word of the elite class, tanuki, which became the standard word we use today. So this reading is a vestige of the old Edo Dialect. Also it’s clear that in pre-modern Japan[v], there was a lot of flexibility in the naming and grouping of animals – or at least a different way of thinking that was at odds with the Linnæan system of taxonomy.

A "mami" is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological).   Before the 1860's there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren't classified according to evolutionary biolog. But that doesn't mean the Japanese didn't observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of there categories were rather broad by today's standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called.

A “mami” is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological). But here you can clearly see a “mami” living in a cave or hole as pre-modern Japanese people thought of it..Before the 1860’s there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren’t classified according to evolutionary biology. But that doesn’t mean the Japanese didn’t observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of their categories were rather broad by today’s standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called. 

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OK, we’ve heard a little kanji talk, a little linguistics, dialectology, and biology. Now let’s talk etymology!

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The Prevailing Theory

The prevailing theory is that at the bottom of the hill presently called 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill, a group of 猯 mami (could have been anything from wild boar to badgers or tanuki) were thought to have lived and burrowed in holes for shelter. People gave the area the name 狸穴 mami ana mami hole.

The fluidity of animal naming/grouping (or dialect influences[vi]) led to the current spelling with the tanuki kanji instead of the mami kanji.

The Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory

As I cover more and more Tōkyō place names, the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory plays a huge and ever-growing role in the etymology[vii]. This theory states that a really big cavern or hole was in the area and the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, ordered that the hole be explored.  Some brave samurai went in the hole, looked around and determined that まみ mami (local Edo word) female tanuki were living there. They named the place and the rest is history.

The Mine Shaft Theory

It’s important to keep in mind that because of the variation in kanji (ie; and ) and the importance of somewhat non-descript animal characters in Japanese folklore, the holes may have originally been attributed to mythological or composite creatures that may not have ever existed there.

The final theory, which isn’t particularly unbelievable, states that the area at the bottom of the hill was an ancient quarry or mine. Later generations saw the remains of the facility and produced some local folklore stating the tanuki had dug the holes – or that actual tanuki or some other animals[viii] did actually live in those ruins.

As for the historicity of any of the claims, nothing can be said except that at the beginning of the Edo Period the place name was first recorded as 飯倉狸穴町 Īgura Mamiana-chō, named after a prosperous merchant family named Īgura who lived on 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill. Actually, if you walk up the hill towards Roppongi from Mamiana Park, you’ll come to an area that preserves the Īgura family name. That area is called 飯倉片町 Īgura Katamachi[ix].

Iigura Katamachi

Iigura Katamachi

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[i] All I have to say is those characters are straight up gangsta. Can’t wait for season 4!

[ii] Though they are currently grouped in the family Canidæ, they are not in the genus Canis which are actual dogs. Raccoons in the US are currently classified in the family Procyonidæ.

[iii] Meles anakuma is 穴熊 anaguma “hole bear” – Japanese Badger.

[iv] Sus scrofa leucomystax is 猪 inoshishi wild boar.

[v] ie; pre-scientific Japan.

[vi] Or both!

[vii] Many of which, but not all, should be taken with a grain of salt.

[viii] Badgers, wild boars, tanuki, your mom…

[ix] The Īgura family name is also suspect in that it could just refer to the presence of food warehouses in the area. It is a family name, but it literally means rice/food warehouse. In cases like this, without further evidence it’s a game of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

  1. Welcome back! I thought you were on summer vacation, but knowing that you were caught up in Thrones is even better. You are excused. Personally, I’ve never heard of Mamiana-cho, but it’s another interesting tidbit of folklore & history. Thanks for ferreting this one out.

    • Thanks! Slowed down posting to once a week my previous pace of every Monday thru Friday was just insane.

      As for GOT, I’m so psyched for season 4. The characters on that show are so gangsta!

  2. Once a week sounds good. Enough to keep people coming back but keeps you sane.

  3. The S&M love hotel is technically NOT in Mamiana-cho, but rather in adjacent Higashi-Azabu. And while no one in the neighborhood has ever claimed to see any tanuki, Mamiana is still populated by hakubishin — they make frequent appearances.
    Supposedly there have been several recent suicides in Mamiana Koen, a delightfully green & creepy park. And some Edo-area graves were turned up during recent construction (dated by coins among the bones).

    • Hakubishin? Really? I’ll have to go over there and hang out in the park and see if I can spot one.

      Haven’t heard about suicides over there, but it’s pretty dark at night, so yeah, I agree. It’s a little creepy.

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