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What does Asakusa mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on November 13, 2013 at 3:06 am

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

I was going to keep this one short, but since Asakusa is one of those spots that comes up not just as one of the top tourist attractions of Tōkyō but all of Japan[i], I figured I’d spend a little extra time on this one and do it right the first time. So today we’ll look at an overall history of Asakusa and then take a quick look at the etymology of the name.

As far as I know, this place name only occurs in Edo-Tōkyō. The areas that preserve this place name today are:

浅草 Asakusa Asakusa
浅草橋 Asakusabashi Asakusa Bridge
西浅草 Nishi-Asakusa West Asakusa
元浅草 Moto-Asakusa Old Asakusa

However, it should be noted that an 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward existed from 1878-1947. At that time, the places called Asakusa increased. After 1947, the number of Asakusa place names decreased dramatically until what is today considered is Asakusa is defined by little more than a train station here or there and a few vestigial postal addresses. But some 江戸っ子 Edokko 3rd generation Tōkyōites might consider some nearby neighborhoods as Asakusa, when technically they are not.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

The Asakusa Station area is teeming with tourists from all over the world. I first visited Asakusa in 2002 and I loved the shitamachi flavor, but I really didn’t have any sort of appreciation for what I was seeing. But the more I learn about the Edo and the Meiji Periods, the more I feel I can really sink my teeth into the area. But to be honest, except for the temple precinct, most of the charm of the area is its lingering Shōwa Era past.  And that’s all fine and good. Just know what you’re looking at.

Most Tōkyōites would put Asakusa in their top 3 places to visit in Tōkyō[ii].

The nakamise - a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to

The nakamise – a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to “ichiban” t-shirts, to yukata and kimono, to beer.
This shot is great because you can see the Kaminari Mon, the first gate, and the nakamise. Then at the end of the nakamise you can see the massive Hozomon Gate (also called Niomon) which was built in 942 by Taira no Kinmasa. Beyond that is the main hall (honden or Kan’non-do) which was built under the auspices of Tokugawa Iemitsu. The honden was destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo. The current structure was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

The Story So Far…

The beginnings are purely mythical. In 628, some brothers were fishing in the 宮戸側川 Miyato-gawa Miyato River[iii] and – surprise, surprise – they caught a statue of 観音 Kan’non the goddess of mercy in their fishing nets[iv]. The brothers enshrined the statue in their home and kept it for private worship. It’s interesting to note, that this year, 628, just happened to be the same year as the death of 推古天皇 Suiko Tennō Empress Suiko, whose reign had seen great encouragement of Buddhism. This time in general is seen as a tipping point for the broader acceptance of Buddhism in Japan.

In 645, having been shared with the local villagers from time to time, the statue was made into a  hibutsu, image of Buddha hidden from the public. Then a proper temple was established.

Both dates, 628 and 645, are considered the founding of Asakusa-dera or Sensō-ji (we don’t know which pronunciation was prevalent at the time[v]). Also both dates would still earn it the title of the oldest temple in Edo-Tōkyō. It seems that by 942, the first 雷門 kaminari mon thunder gate[vi] had been established, although in a different location.

From here on out we will see a dichotomy between Asakusa (the area) and Sensō-ji (the temple).

Remember, all of this is preserved in the legends and records of the temple itself. There doesn’t seem to be any corroborating evidence elsewhere. In fact, the area isn’t recorded by non-temple sources until around 1266. At that time it is mentioned in a Kamakura Period text called the 吾妻鏡 Azuma Kagami Mirror of the West.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It's located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark's in all of Japan.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It’s located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark’s in all of Japan.

The common understanding is that the temple was founded on a small plateau on the west bank of the Sumida River. A 門前町 monzenchō[vii]  formed around the temple precinct and continued growing from that time. Because of the town’s location on the Sumida River, which was good for trading, the town not only prospered, but attracted the best craftsmen of the region. Temple records indicate thriving trade between the Kamakura area and this region.

Legend has it that when 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo chose Kamakura as his capital (thus establishing the first of the 3 great shōgunates), he couldn’t find sufficiently skilled craftsmen in the area. On one occasion, he camped along the Sumida River near Asakusa. He visited the temple, as one does, and was so impressed with the builders that he hired them to come to Kamakura to build 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gū which is still one of Kamakura’s grandest shrines[viii]. It’s said that trade between Asakusa and Kamakura was so intense that by the time the shōgunate collapsed, many of Kamakura’s merchants and artisans had relocated to Asakusa[ix].

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Temple and shrine building wasn’t a big deal in the Sengoku Period, but carpentry and building skills were definitely in demand. It’s not hard to imagine some of the craftsmen of Asakusa being hired to help the Toshima, the Hōjō, the Edo Clan, or even crazy ol’ Ōta Dōkan in their building efforts[x].

Prior to the Edo Period, Asakusa was just a prosperous temple town on the river. But with the coming of the Tokugawa, everything changed. Urban sprawl from nearby by Chiyoda/Edo soon brought the area under the influence of the shōgun’s capital at such an early stage that Edo Period people and modern Tōkyōites generally just considered the area to have been part of Edo since time immemorial – even though for most of its existence, Asakusa was a separate town from the hamlet of Edo.

This

This “shinkyo” or sacred bridge is all that remains of Asakusa Tosho-gu.

The temple came under a particularly special patronage by the shōgun family because the head priest of Zōjō-ji had claimed that Asakusa Kan’non was the strongest deity in the Kantō area and that she had served Minamoto Yoritomo well[xi]. Tokugawa Ieyasu believed this deity helped him achieve total victory at the Battle of Sekigahara and as such it received great honors from the shōgunal family. While the temple was endowed by Edo’s most elite, its main mission was catering to the common people – a brilliant PR move on both Ieyasu and the temple’s parts[xii]. The temple has always been important to the commoners of Edo-Tōkyō.

In 1657, after the Meireki Fire[xiii] burned Edo down to the fucking ground, the licensed pleasure quarters called Yoshiwara was relocated from Nihonbashi to the area north of Asakusa because this was just a northern suburb at the time. Remember, we’re only 57 years into the Edo Period, son. Anyways, this transformed the area from just a pilgrimage spot to a proper tourist destination. And not just any old tourist destination; a tourist destination with a happy ending – if you know what I mean.

As lively as the area had become, its fame was only getting greater. In the 1840’s, after some crack downs on unlicensed kabuki theaters[xiv], the three prominent licensed kabuki theaters were forced to relocated to the Asakusa area. The area’s reputation as a center of nightlife was already secured, but adding popular theater to the area guaranteed this legacy for several more generations[xv].

By the way, if you’re curious about kabuki, Samurai Archives has a 2 part podcast crash course that you can listen to here.

Kabuki

Kabuki

In the Meiji Era, kabuki received imperial patronage and the underground kabuki theaters were as legit as the formerly licensed ones. Soon cinemas opened up in the area which showcased a foreign art form that the Japanese immediately became infatuated with. The area was now a bigger destination than ever; home to one of Tōkyō’s grandest temples and a vibrant theater district. Nearby Yoshiwara was still going off like crazy. Until WWII, Asakusa and Yoshiwara defined nightlife Japanese style.

It should be noted that in the Meiji Period, the temple lands were made into a park, naturally called 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park. The area was not unlike modern 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The centerpiece of the park was Sensō-ji, but the real attractions were the theaters, cinemas, izakaya, and pleasure quarter overflow.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan's first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan’s first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

I’m sad to say that most of Sensō-ji and the Asakusa area were destroyed in the firebombing of March 1945. In a pattern similar to the other major temples of Edo-Tōkyō – Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji – Sensō-ji found itself one of the biggest landholders but without a single yen to rebuild. They basically had no choice but to sell off their lands to get the money to rebuild the temple. The look of Asakusa changed dramatically. Today, the area retains nothing of its Asakusa Park halcyon days and even less of its Edo Period look.

During the Occupation, places like Yoshiwara came under the puritanical eye of the Americans at GHQ. The Yoshiwara was mostly burnt to the ground and so under General MacArthur’s orders it was not to be rebuilt. Plans were made for the moats to be filled in and the area was to be normalized into the reconstructed Tōkyō. While Asakusa and Yoshiwara were not the same place, keep in mind that their histories were intertwined since the Edo Period.

I mentioned this briefly in my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, so I should mention it here again because very few people know about this. If you turn towards the east of the 本殿 honden the main temple of Sensō-ji (ie; if you’re facing the honden, turn right and walk toward the bay), you’ll walk out of the east entrance which is called 二天文 Niten Mon[xvi].

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it's now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan'ei-ji.

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it’s now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan’ei-ji.

This gate didn’t survive the firebombing, but when it was rebuilt, Kan’ei-ji and the Tokugawa family made a special donation. Gen’yūin, Tokugawa Ietsuna’s mausoleum in Ueno[xvii], was also destroyed in the firebombing. Apparently, the gate itself was destroyed beyond repair, but the statues inside survived. The statues were moved here to Sensō-ji to remind the people of Tōkyō that the spirits of the Tokugawa shōguns were still protecting them.

So That’s The Story
What’s the Etymology?

Sorry, that’s the only reason come here anyways, lol.

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

The etymology of Asakusa has been researched by people since the Kamakura Period[xviii] and people have been coming across the same roadblock every time.

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

Asakusa-dera is the native Japanese reading. This reading is plainer than the Chinese reading, Sensō-ji. As most of the major Buddhist teachings came to Japan via China, the Chinese reading would be more prestigious – more in touch with this new foreign and exotic religion.

There are no written records to support this but common sense would lead one to the conclusion that the name Asakusa is the older name – it most likely predates the temple. Once a proper temple was built and Chinese learning was imported, the temple assumed the local name but used the Chinese reading. So 浅草 asa kusa became 浅草 sen sō in the Chinese reading.  The village continued to use its native Japanese name. Today the area is still called Asakusa, even though the temple is called Sensō-ji.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Look at the Kanji

This is the least reliable way to look at ancient place names, including Asakusa. However, in this case, I think we can trust these kanji because a temple would require reading and writing of its priests. The temple’s history pre-dates any attempted at standardization of kanji, but what they present is fairly solid.

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

There are many theories, but the most popular one is this:

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

The idea being, the Musashi Plain was famous for its untamed and tall grasses[xix]. This area had no grass. Long time readers of Japan This! will know that the grasses of the Musashi Plain were famous and appear time and time again in etymologies. Another interpretation is that the grasses were short, not tall as in other untamed areas.
Some other etymologies have been suggested.

麻草 asa kusa hemp grass[xx]
藜草 akazakusa goosefoot or lamb’s quarter


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

After the firebombing in March 1945.
This isn’t Senso-ji. It’s Higashi Hongan-ji, located in the former Asakusa Ward.
But you can see how utterly complete the destruction was.
The wooden city was burned to the ground and thousands of lives were lost.

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

Asakusa isn’t really next to the sea today. Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay) is located a bit south of the area). But it’s located on the west bank of the Sumida River, one of the largest inlets that lined the area in ancient times. While it’s hard to consider it “crossing the sea” today, maybe 1500 years ago it was more like crossing the sea. While we can use imagination and give it a little head nod, we can never know if this is true.

Tibetan

アーシャクシャ aashakusha place where a Buddhist holy man lived

Not to be an asshole, but c’mon… this is the most contrived etymology EVER.

But as I said, the first theory, the literal one (low grass) is the predominant theory. The Ainu language theory carries a certain amount of weight, but can’t really be proven. I think we can dismiss the others.

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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[i] Asakusa as a tourist destination goes back all the way to the Edo Period when the area truly began to flourish under the patronage of the Tokugawa shōgun family.
[ii] I wouldn’t put it on my Top 5 list, though it would make my Top 10. Asakusa doesn’t really make sense unless you understand Edo-Tōkyō history well. So Tōkyōites hold it up as something awesome, but I feel it’s a massive let down for outsiders. But I suppose it depends what you’re looking for…
[iii] Today this is the  隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River.
[iv] Where have we heard this before? (too many times to count by now…)
[v] But we have a good idea. More about this later!
[vi] Or lightning gate. The kanji are the same.
[vii] Please don’t make me explain what monzenchō were again…
[viii] The name nicely translates to “Great Shrine to Hachiman on the Hill of Cranes.” Hachiman was the war god.
[ix] Presumably the Sumida River made for better trading/business.
[x] Purely conjecture on my part.
[xi] Ieyasu used a contrived genealogy to link his family to the Minamoto clan as a familial claim to the rank of shōgun.
[xii] There used to be a Tōshō-gū on the premises but it was destroyed in WWII.
[xiii] Read more about fires in Edo here.
[xiv] The Tokugawa shōgunate always had a bug up its butt about sexual impropriety. The glorified martial virtues of the Sengoku Period were often in conflict with the arts and the “looser living” of the non-martial classes. In short, they felt that artists and actors and commoners made for a “loose morals ticking time bomb.”
[xv] As I’ve often gone on about 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, the lower classes and upper classes of Tokugawa society weren’t often legally allowed to mix – although they did. Asakusa was quite unique in the fact that they received patronage from the shōgunate but were always allowed to keep their humble mission of serving the common people intact. It might be said that Asakusa is where samurai and commoner were equal. Some of this might also be due to the proximity of Yoshiwara in which, in theory at least, all customers were to be treated as equals.
[xvi] Here’s a quick explanation of what Niten means.
[xvii] Tokugawa Ietsuna was the 4th Tokugawa shōgun, my article on his mausoleum is here.
[xviii] Well, at least that’s the first time we see it recorded.
[xix] The word is 草深い kusabukai verdant grass, literally deep grass.
[xx] The Japanese varieties seem to never have been cultivated for their psychoactive qualities, so these were plant cultivated firstly for building and cloth making and occasionally for medicine making in the form of 漢方 kanpō fake herbal medicine from China.

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