Komagome (Crowd of Horses)
The name, first documented in the Sengoku Period, consists of two kanji:
swarming, huddling, amassed, crowded,
If you know a little Japanese, two things will stick out immediately.
One, the Japanese word for horse is 馬 uma.
Two, 込 is read as komi, not gome.
Let me address the horse thing first. In modern Japanese, the kanji 駒 koma is classified as a variant of 馬 horse. It’s a rare variant that usually only shows up in a few places, ie; names of animals or plants (which are usually written in katakana anyways) and in shōgi idioms. 将棋 shōgi is Japanese chess. The original meaning of the kanji in Chinese was 仔馬 ko-uma a small horse, a colt, or a pony. However, in Japan it has always been just another word for horse[iii].
As for the komi/gome discrepancy, long time readers of Japan This! should already be familiar with the two phenomena going on here. The first is a very regular morphological change in Japanese compound words called 連濁 rendaku (see the Wiki article). Long story short, often in compound words you get a euphonic change to make a difficult word easier to pronounce. In this case, when you combine koma + komi it will become koma–gomi[iv]. The second thing that is happening is confusion between the phonemes /i/ and /e/, something that is very common in Japanese dialects, particularly in the old dialects of the Kantō area[v]. We’ve seen this vowel confusion before, most notably in my article on Akabane.
OK, now with the kanji and the linguistics out of the way, let’s get down to the etymology. There are basically 6 theories as to the origin of this place name, a few of which overlap. And let’s get this out in the open before going any further; there is not a shred of evidence to support any of these claims. Except for one, all of them are based on the kanji, which we’re starting to see are less than reliable in pre-Edo Period Kantō.
The Traditional Explanations
☆ The “Seems Reasonable”™ Theory
This theory has for a long time played it safe and went with the 駒 koma means horse and 込 komi means crowded literal reading. This was an area of the Musashi Plain where a lot of wild horses flocked together.
☆ The “Captain Japan Did It!”™ Theory
Two emergent patterns I keep seeing here at Japan This! are Iemitsu Did It™ and Captain Japan Did It™. The story goes that when 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto aka Captain Japan made his 東征 tōsei Eastern Expedition[vi] he saw his local ally’s troops with a shit ton of horses. He was all like, “Whoa, it’s full of horses!” and so the name stuck[vii].
☆ The “Somebody Just Totally Made This Up”™ Theory
This theory states that a 小 ko or 子 ko (little) + 孫 mago grandchild + め me (an untranslatable pejorative suffix) = a komago-me once lived here, that is to say, a worthless little grandchild[viii].
The Modern Explanations
☆ The “No Frills”™ Theory
If we take the kanji at face value, they seem to refer to a place where horses were herded into a confined space, perhaps a large stable of a local noble. If this is to be accepted, then it’s not a far leap given the fluidity of the Kantō dialects from こまごみ komagomi → こまごめ komagome. This theory relies on the use of 込 in some of the uses mentioned in the footnotes which have associations with “barging in” or “going into crowded spaces.”
☆ The “Sorry, We Don’t Have a Fucking Clue”™ Theory
In Hon-komagome, Jōmon Period artifacts were found which have lead a few people to speculate that the place name may be a borrowing from a pre-Japonic language (Ainu or whatever language Jōmon people of this region spoke) and that would make the kanji ateji and the original meaning of the word would then be lost to time.
In the past, 豊嶋郡駒込村 Toshima-gun Komagome-mura Komagome Village, Toshima District was located where present 本駒込 now stands (they’re neighboring areas even though today Komagome is in Toshima Ward and Hon-komagome is in Bunykō Ward).
Is Hon-Komagome the Original Komagome?
No, it isn’t.
When the same place name has variations, the kanji 本 is sometimes read as moto “source” (in place names, often “old, original.”[ix] But Hon-komagome is different. In the former Tōkyō City, there was an ward called 本郷区 Hongō-ku Hongō Ward but in 1966 administrative units were re-assigned when the city became the Tōkyō Metropolis. At that time, Bunkyō Ward and Toshima Ward found themselves both in possession of areas called Komagome. The area in Toshima (the former Toshima District) kept the original name Komagome. The new Bunkyō Ward merged the former Hongō Ward name with the old name and so it became Hon(gō) + Komagome = Hon-komagome. So the meaning is not “Original Komagome” as some might think, the original Komagome is the area still called Komagome.
In conclusion, I think all I can say is that I don’t know. The kanji evidence all points to horses, but my gut instinct is to side with a possible non-Japonic source (which basically commits to very little in this case). If someone finds a mass grave of horses or post holes in a pattern of stables or anything like that, I may be persuaded to the horse story side.
Well, alright… I’m going to bed now.
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[i] At that time Japan This! must’ve had like 3 readers… whom I probably begged to read.
[ii] This kanji appears in a lot of compound words, for example; 詰め込み tsumekomi cram into, 押し込み oshikomi push into, crowd into, 入り込み irikomi barge into, break into, 申し込み mōshikomi application, 吹き込み fukikomi blow into, 追い込み oikomi herd into, 売り込み urikomi to sell, 立て込み tatekomi tied up, busy, crowded, バンパイヤの心臓に杭を打ち込み banpaiya no shinzō ni kui wo uchikomi drive a wooden stake through a vampire’s heart… just to name a few.
[iii] Just think about how many words there are in English for horse. Off the top of my head I can think of horse, stallion, steed, mare, nag, sarah jessica parker, mustang, colt, foal, filly, pony, bronco. And I’m sure there are more. I’m not sure what the nuance of 駒 was throughout the evolution of pre-modern Japanese, but today the kanji is hardly used even though it’s only a level 8 kanji for native Japanese.
[iv] The Wikipedia article is actually quite good at explaining the phenomenon. If you really want to get nerdy about what’s going on underneath the hood of the Japanese Language, here’s a fascinating treatment on the subject from a linguistics perspective.
[v] The same phenomenon happened with Latin dialects. Compare the Latin cominitiare and the French commencer (commence), and the Latin oleum with the Italian olio (olive oil)
[vi] 東征 tōsei, the so-called Eastern Expeditions, appear in various myths about the founding of Japan. Yamato Takeru is not the only one said to have subjugated the east, the most well-known tōsei is the 神武東征 Jinmu Tōsei Emperor Jimmu’s Eastern Expedition. Jimmu is the legendary first emperor of Japan.
[vii] The story specifically uses an Old Japanese phrase 駒込たり koma komitari “horses be all up in this bitch, yo.”
[viii] I totally just made this up by the way. Blame it on the booze.
[ix] For example 元麻布 Moto-Azabu “Old Azabu.”