What does Toranomon mean?


(Tiger Gate)


Toranomon is an area in Tōkyō that is known to have been named after one of the gates of Edo Castle. The gate and the moat and bridge system that made up the area no longer exist. But the name persists officially and any Tōkyōite should be familiar with where the area is.

There are various ways to write the name.

虎門tora no monclassical “Chinese” writing
虎之御門tora no go-monhigh style writing common on Edo Period maps
(where space allowed)
虎之門tora no moncasual writing during Edo Period,
affected classical style until the Shōwa Period
虎ノ門tora no monMeiji to Shōwa style, used officially by the train and bus companies; the most common writing
虎の門tora no moncasual style before the advent of predicative text which usually suggests the spelling used by train and bus companies.
no! tora no monthe style I use to annoy people

There are roughly 8 distinct theories that I’ve found – all of varying degrees of dubiety.

It’s based on 四神思想 shijin sōō, a Chinese precept that stated that the 4 seasons and 4 compass directions were controlled by 4 distinct deities. Those gods were:

玄武genbuthe black tortoise, guardian of the north
朱雀suzakuthe vermilion sparrow, guardian of the south
青龍seiryū/seiryōthe blue dragon, guardian of the east
白虎byakkothe white tiger, guardian of the west

Pre-modern Japanese cities, or at least castles and religious buildings, were often laid out according to Chinese principals of 風水 sui feng shui and other similar mythologies. This theory states that the tora tiger is a reference to the White Tiger.

This surprised me because Toranomon is actually the southernmost gate of Edo Castle. So I did a little more research and I found out that the White Tiger and Blue are considered polar opposites in feng shui. Among other things, the Blue Dragon represents the left-hand side, which the White Tiger represents the right-hand side.

This also seems strange because if say north is the top and south is the bottom and the southernmost portion of the castle is the “front,” Toranomon is still south (not west) and just a tad to the left. In fact, if we continue this assumption, there is handful of other gates on the “right side” of the castle – including the actual front gate, 大手門 Ōtemon[i].

But that’s a freaking stretch. Another twist on this theory states that the gate was facing the right. But again, I doubt it was the only gate facing “the right.” And in architectural terms, left and right are relative terms. Only north, south, east, and west are consistent.

So this theory is baffling to me. I’m not sure how it works. If anyone has a clue what’s going on here, let me know. I’d love to know.

Clearly this person has never seen a tiger before.....
Clearly this person has never seen a tiger before…..

The explanation of the 4 gods isn’t all wasted because the second theory maintains that the gate was decorated with a white tiger, clearly a reference to the White Tiger of Chinese mythology. But again, my skeptic radar is flashing again. Is it “clearly a reference” to the White Tiger? I’m not an art history specialist, but tigers (of any color) are common in formal Japanese paintings of the day. The White Tiger of Chinese mythology has certain distinguishing features, but even at that… where is this decorated gate? We have no picture or painting of it. Also, I don’t think wooden castle gates were generally decorated – at least not like temples and funerary gates.  The Bakumatsu/Meiji Era photo I have of the gate doesn’t look very flashy. It’s pretty basic.

The original gate didn’t survive the Meiji Era, so unless there are some fantastic photos of this gate with a tiger on it, I’m not completely sold on this theory either.

The only tiger remaining in the area is this little fellow. And I think this person hasn't seen many real tigers either...
The only tiger remaining in the area is this little fellow.
And I think this person hasn’t seen many real tigers either…

On first coming across this explanation in Japanese, I was totally confused. The translation was “It’s related to tigers, of which it’s said that even if it goes a thousand ri it will return a thousand ri.”[ii]


Well, it turns out this is an old proverb.
In Japanese, it’s 千里ゆくとも無事にて千里を帰る senri yuku to mo buji nite senri wo kaeru. It’s something that was said of tigers (not indigenous to Japan) a little like people in the Anglosphere might say “an elephant never forgets” (even if elephants are not indigenous to their area).

There are 2 interpretations of this proverb:

1) A tiger is an agile and strong animal that hunts with purpose. Even if it travels a long distance on the hunt, it has the determination to walk the same distance back.
2) A tiger is an agile and strong animal that hunts with purpose. But after hunting so far away, it will always return to its young with the fruits of its labor.

This is an interesting theory, but I don’t see how it bears any connection to this particular gate. Maybe if I knew what the original purpose of this gate was, it might help. But this is a pretty random story, in my humble fucking opinion.

A variation on the previous theory is this one (and it’s not much better):
Right before Ōta Dōkan marched off to battle, he stopped here and quoted the proverb 
千里行くとも千里帰るは虎 senri iku tomo senri kaeru ha tora “Tigers, baby. They go the distance and come the fuck back like a boss.”

This is all well and good, but my understanding is that Ōta Dōkan’s fortress was located north of this area near the 大手門 Ōtemon main gate. I don’t see much reason to think he’d be using a gate that was so far from his residence (or that any gate at all existed here at the time). Again, I’m not a castle expert, so if anyone can shed light on this, let me know.

Real white tigers...
Real white tigers…

This was the location of a massive cage that held a tiger given to the shōgunate by emissaries from Korea. The Tokugawa viewed the Korean embassies as paying tribute to the shōgunate (or at least wanted to project it as a tribute).

Well, there were 12 Korean missions to Edo during the Tokugawa Period. The problem with this theory is simple. I can’t find any example of a tiger being imported to the capital. There were diplomatic missions from Korea at the time.

I mentioned in my article on Shinbashi that the area used to be called 芝口 Shibaguchi and that there was a 芝口御門 Shibaguchi Go-Mon Shibaguchi Gate. That gate was built in anticipation of the 1720[iii]. In 1734, the area was ravaged by a fire and never rebuilt[iv]. The Shibaguchi Gate ruins are a short walk from Toranomon. There could be a possible connection.

But a real tiger would have been a real attention-getter in the capital city of Edo – especially if it was located in front of the gate of the outer moat where the townspeople could see it. There doesn’t seem to be any record of this, at least not that I’ve seen.

The only thing I can think of is this: if the tiger died soon, the shōgunate would suffer some embarrassment so they’d try to write this one out of the history books. But if it were “written out of history,” I don’t think it would have persisted as a place name.

Another theory I saw that was related to Korea, which also has nothing to back it up, suggests that Korean emissaries brought a statue of a tiger that was installed in the area. Again, there is an association with Korea missions in this general area, but where’s the statue? Not a single picture or painting remains.

This is taken from an Edo Era map of the area. On the right side you can clearly see the Toranomon gate and mitsuke. Next to that is the office of the Naito clan, their upper residence is located to the left.
This is taken from an Edo Era map of the area.
On the right side you can clearly see the Toranomon gate and mitsuke.
Next to that is the office of the Naito clan, their upper residence is located to the left.

The last theory I’ve found is this… There were many 虎の尾 Tora no O tiger’s tail (a kind of flowering plant) growing in the area on the grounds of the residence of the Naitō family[v] who lived inside the gate. I checked some Edo Period maps and the Naitō clan possessed two major properties just within the gate, one of which was their Upper Residence, but they had building for government affairs right next to the gate. But sadly, again, I don’t know how to confirm this botanically-based etymology. The geography matches up, but there’s no way to confirm the presence of these plants.

The second variation is that on the Naitō property there was a particularly spectacular  sakura cherry blossom tree that had the shape of a lion’s tail.

Tora no o is a kind of sakura (cherry blossom) but it's also a kind of flowering plant....
Tora no o is a kind of sakura (cherry blossom) but it’s also a kind of flowering plant….
The etymologies say it was  cherry blossoms that grew in the area, but this unique plant has the same name.
The etymologies say it was cherry blossoms that grew in the area, but this unique plant has the same name.

The gate was demolished/knocked down in 1873 (Meiji 6) but the name continued to be used for the area, in particular the main intersection (many Tōkyō neighborhoods derive their place names from old local landmarks that persist in intersection names that became train station and bus stops in the Meiji and Taishō Eras).

In 1949 the area got the official name 虎ノ門町 toranomon-chō. In 1977, it received an official postal code under the name 虎ノ門 Toranomon.

So there you have it. 8 theories on the origins of this place name and unfortunately I have no way of confirming a single one of them. The name of the gate seem firmly in place since the expansion of Edo Castle under the Tokugawa, but the all of the above etymologies are clearly suspect. However, I hope I might be allowed to be so bold as to throw this idea out there:  is it possible that there is no story behind this name at all. They might have just chosen the name because the gate needed a name and since tigers are bad ass they chose to give the gate a bad ass name? I mean this was a samurai government after all. Samurai loved bad ass things like tigers and dragons and shit. Just my two cents.

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[i] I haven’t covered Otemachi yet, but I have covered Marunouchi.

[ii] 千里 senri 1000 ri = about 2,440 miles, but was generally used to mean “a long distance” without any specific numerical meaning attached to it.

[iii] 1719? I have conflicting dates for this mission.

[v] I mentioned the Naitō in my article on Shinjuku. They were originally from 岡崎 Okazaki but later were the lords of of 高遠藩 Takatō Han Takatō Domain (located in modern Nagano). Their lower residence in Shinjuku became 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen Shinjuku Gyoen National Park.

UPDATE: This is a different branch of the Naitō clan. These were the lords of 延岡藩 Nobeoka Han Nobeoka Domain (in present day Miyazaki Prefecture (Kyūshū).

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