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What does Yoga mean?

In Japanese History on October 23, 2013 at 8:55 am


Yōga (Yoga)

cool subway entrance

Pretty cool amphitheater-esque subway entrance!

In Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward there is an area and a train station called 用賀 Yōga. I don’t know what native Japanese speakers think of this name, but it doesn’t really look like a place to me. The first kanji means “task” or “use.” The second kanji means “congratulations.”

If the popular etymology is true, then this place has its origins in Sanskrit and not Japanesei.

However, I’m just gonna say this right now – I have some major gripes with the popular story. This name is obviously ateji, ie; kanji used for phonetic reasons. Because it is ateji, it marks this as a very ancient place name. That said, let’s keep an open mind and listen to the story in its entirety before we jump to any conclusions.

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

The common narrative goes a little something like this. From the Heian Period to the beginning of the Kamakura Period, a ヨガ道場 yoga dōjō yoga school operated here. The name 用賀村 Yōga Village ultimately derived from this yoga schoolii.

During the Sengoku Period, Yōga Village was a 門前町 monzenchō centered around 眞福寺 Shinpuku-ji, a temple for which I can find no further informationiii. In case you forgot, a monzenchō was a small town that developed around the mon front gate of a temple or shrineiv.

By the Edo Period, the village was an established 宿場 shukuba post town on the 大山街道 Ōyama Kaidōv. It was a small town, but it managed to flourish during the stability brought by the Tokugawa in the 1600’s.

But wait, there's more!

But wait, there’s more!

A Bizarre Plot Twist

Translating from the original Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese monks used the kanji 瑜伽 for yoga. The kanji can be read in Japanese as either yuga or yogavi.

In 1578, a temple was founded in the area. This temple was associated with the 真言宗 Shingon-shū True Word Buddhismvii. The temple, which still exists today, is called 真福寺 Shinpuku-ji. The temple’s honorary mountain name (sangō) is 瑜伽山 Yuga-zan which uses the classical characters for “yoga.viii

Japanese Yoga

This is the kinda yoga I could get into.
Titty yoga.

Some More Weirdness

That’s the official narrative. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that there are more discrepancies; there was another temple in the area before the 1578 temple.

I don’t know if the original temple, 実相眞福Jissō-san Shinpuku-ji, was re-established as 瑜伽山真福寺 Yuga-zan Shinpuku-ji or if the new temple borrowed and modified the name of the old temple but… the mountain names definitely changed. And while the pronunciation of the temple name was the same, the first kanji changed.

実相瑜伽山 Jissō-sanYuga-zan True Image Mountain → Yoga Mountain
眞福真福寺 Shinpuku-jiShinpuku-ji True Fortune Temple → True Fortune Temple

shinpukuji-0

The main hall (honden) of the modern Shinpukuji.

We have a very messy story hereix. Let’s re-cap:

・In the old days there was a yoga school in Yōga and the town got a name.
・The yoga school was apparently dead and gone by the Kamakura Period.
・There’s always been a connection with Shingon Buddhism.
・The town grew up around a non-extant temple.
・That temple either declined and/or a new temple showed up and assumed the same name – and yet, a different name and included the Chinese characters for “yoga” in their name.

.

It’s possible, man.
All of this is totally possible.
But….
Maybe some of the inconsistencies are just byproducts of how the story has been preserved – one record remembers it this way, one temple tradition remembers it that way. But also remember how off the beaten path this place was until the Kamakura Period.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

My opinion is that most of this is not trustworthy information. There are probably kernels of truth in there, but most of this too inconsistent to be taken seriously. By the time we have temple records (1578), the Edo Period is right around the corner. Record keeping in the area got better after 1600, but come on, hundreds of years of passing down stories had been going on. Successive religious institutions are great at keeping records, but religious institutions are also notorious for passing down myths and stories that sometimes seem plausible but never completely match up to the facts.

Finally, I’d like to say that there is also a real possibility that this name, clearly written in ateji, has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga, but actually has a more ancient originx.

Let’s say the jury is out on this one.



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i Let me clarify; Sanskrit – as filtered through Classical Chinese and later, Middle Japanese.

ii Yet no evidence of the school exists. Furthermore, the kanji is (not yo) in Modern Japanese. (But historical linguistics think there may have been up to 4 distinct sounds in Old Japanese that merged into the present /yo dichotomy. This may suggest an older origin, or it may evidence of a dialect, or both.)

iii The only other info I have is that its honorary mountain name was 実相Jissō-san. More about “mountain names” in a minute.

iv You can read more about this in my article on Monzen-nakachō.

v From my understanding, the Ōyama Kaidō was originally a pilgrimage route that ran from Mt. Ōyama (in Kanagawa Prefecture) and terminated near Akasaka in Edo.

vi In the Heian Period, the use of highfalutin kanji would have been the domain of highly educated monks and court elite. Ateji would have been par for the course in this rural coastal area of the Kantō. By the 1500’s, highfalutin kanji would par for the course.

vii Also called 真言秘密 Shingon Himitsu the True Word Secret. This is a type of esoteric Buddhism that I don’t know much about other than it sounds like utter horse shit. They have secret rites that teach the initiated how to summon demons, change the weather, and heal the sick by chanting or meditating or touching things. In other words, it makes claims about the nature of the universe and reality that are just as spurious as those of every other religion out there.

viii All Japanese temples have 3 names, 山号 sangō mountain name (a metaphorical mountain name), and 院号 ingō (cloister name – like a branch name), 寺号 jigō temple name (official temple name). The first two are honorary names that are generally not used in common parlance. The last name, the jigō, is the usual way to refer to a temple.

ix One which yoga schools and amateur place name websites cherry pick the fuck out of to no good end…

x I could be wrong. Or could I…?

  1. And, then, of course, there’s also 洋画 (Western painting, oil painting). A rather different yôga.

    • hehehehhehhe, i always hear other words….

      you just gave me a great idea!

      tomorrow, i’m going to get an audio recording of 用賀, 洋画, 陽画 and ヨガ!!!!!

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