Yotsuya (“4 Valleys,” but more at “nobody fucking knows…”)
When I first started writing about Tokyo place names, I wanted to tackle Yotsuya right away. I assumed it would be an easy target. Three or four paragraphs and… done!
It’s an interesting area even if just viewed from the windows of the 丸ﾉ内線 Marunouchi Sen Marunouchi Line as you wait at the station. Just peering out the window of the train, you’ll immediate notice that the subway has magically stopped in a valley. The train didn’t emerge from the depths of the earth. The lay of the land dropped down below the subway level. If I’m not mistaken, when you see the tennis courts and the steep incline of the hill, what you’re looking at isn’t just a natural valley, this was once the outer moat of Edo Castle.
Anyways, when I first started this blog, my articles were much shorter and – looking back – not as well researched as they are now. But back then, a topic like Yotsuya, which goes into dialects and may be related to other place names, turned out to be extremely daunting. Just considering this topic at that time was biting off more than I could chew. I wanted to write an article in 1 or 2 hours.
Now, even though it takes a lot more time to cover a topic, I’m not afraid to come to dead ends[i] or take the extra time to do my research right and make my explanations clear. And while I might lose readers going further in depth, I’d rather offer quality over quantity. I’m also a lot more confident in my ability to cover these topics. And so, at JapanThis! it’s balls to the walls Tōkyō Place Names. No turning back, son.
Most people seem to think the name Yotsuya is old. Old as in it pre-dates the Edo Period. But one thing that is consistent in most of the etymologies is the first kanji, 四 yottsu four. Much of the mystery of this place name seems to come from the final character. That said, the “number 4” character is also suspect. So let’s be skeptical, shall we?
Oh yeah, I’ve also identified 2 categories for most of these theories: the “4 things group” and the “valley group.” These are just categories I’ve invented for organizing this article so they don’t reflect any legitimate linguistic groupings, but I think they’re good for our purposes here.
“Four Things Group”
|四つの家||yottsu no ya||four houses were here[ii]|
|四つの屋||yottsu no ya||four shops were here[iii]|
|四つの谷||yottsu no ya||four valleys were here|
On this blog, I keep harping on yamanote and shitamachi and how fluid the terms have been through history. But the basic meaning derives from the Sengoku Era practice of putting the samurai families on the (literal) defensive high ground. I feel like a broken record always babbling on and on about hills and valleys. I blame Jin’nai Hidenobu for this. But I think he’s absolutely correct: if you want to understand Edo-Tōkyō, you have to pay attention to the hills, valleys, rivers, and plateaux[iv]. I can’t unsee the world his book, Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, turned me on to.
So let’s look at two words that will come often in the future, both of which we should keep in mind today.
|台地||daichi||plateau, elevated area|
OK, so let’s talk some etymology, yo.
Yotsuya means 四つの家 yottsu no ya four houses. Of course, the kanji 家 can mean house and family or family business. Presumably this pre-dates the Edo Period, so you can imagine 4 bad ass noble families chilling in their fortifications on 4 hills in the area. It seems like pure conjecture to me, but this is not an unreasonable etymology.
Yotsuya means 四つの屋 yottsu no ya four shops. This is a reference to four teahouses located on the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō (the road to 甲府 Kōfu – present day Shizuoka). The names of the teahouses have been preserved.
These 4 teahouses were not all in operation at the same time until the Gen’na Era (1615-1624)[v] which places the origin of the name at the beginning of the Edo Period. This is at odds with the other theories which claim a place called “Yotsuya” existed before the coming of the Tokugawa. Again, not an unreasonable etymology but more recent than many other explanations.
There were originally 4 valleys with 4 hamlets each. The explanation is easier with a visual.
|English meaning||Japanese meaning||Pre-modern spelling||Extant names||Rōma-ji|
The words with * in front of them are hypothetical. That is to say, there is no documented case of those words. For the explanation about Ichigaya, see my last article. I don’t really buy into this theory for a few reasons. One, the etymology of Ichigaya is suspect. Two, there’s no trace of the other place names anywhere. And three, Yotsuya lacks the genitive particle which seems to be present in Ichigaya. If these names were a set, you’d think they’d be preserved as a set. Now, in defensive of this theory, if these names were especially ancient and written without any genitive particles and 2 of the names fell into disuse, the mental connection between the 2 remaining names could have been lost due to writing system. For example, Tōkyōites read 山手 as Yama no te, but no is not written. People from outside Tōkyō might read it as Yamate. Both readings are technically correct depending on where you live. So while I’m not a big fan of this etymology, I can at least imagine some conditions under which it could be true.
So now let’s look at some more of what I call the “Valley Group.”
As mentioned before 台地 daichi means plateaux and 谷地 yachi means lowlands. The idea is that the original place name was 谷地谷 Yachiya Lowland Valley. The name was corrupted and became Yotsuya and the kanji were subsequently changed to better reflect the pronunciation. The kanji for the number 4 was chosen to make 四谷 Yotsuya Forth Valley match nearby 一ヶ谷 Ichigaya First Valley. It makes a nice pattern and it could be true. But we don’t have place name Yachiya documented, nor do we have strong evidence that Ichigaya’s original first kanji was the number 1. So again, pure conjecture.
This is a variant of theory 4. The difference is this says the name does derive from 谷地谷 Yachiya (which has ridiculous looking kanji and is redundant), but from 萢谷 Yachiya. 萢 yachi means wetlands/bog. The name was corrupted and became Yotsuya and the kanji were subsequently changed to better reflect the pronunciation. Apparently, in Ibaraki there are two places called Yotsuya. Both are said to have come from this word. Today those places written 四ﾂ谷 and 余津谷. Because one place has the same spelling with the number 4, this leads me to think there might be no connection with other numbers. The number thing might just be totally made up or a coincidence at best.
Yotsuya originally represented a larger area that consisted of four valleys.
This theory postulates that the meaning of the word is not “the 4th valley,” but “the 4 valleys.”
As you can see I the picture, Sen’nichidani and Sendagaya are really close to Yotsuya – just a short walk, really. But Myōgadani is about an hour’s walk from Yotsuya. Ōkamidani (present day Yoyogi Uehara) is not just over an hour’s walk away, it was totally outside of Edo at its height. If the name predates the Edo Period, I don’t know why that valley or Myōgadani would have been included in this “4 valleys” area. People of the Edo Period themselves who commented on this derivation also seemed to have taken it with a grain of salt.
To be honest, I’ve never done anything other than change trains at Yotsuya Station, but the area is pretty famous for a number of things. History lovers may want to check out 西念寺 Sainen-ji Sainen Temple and the remains of 四谷見附 Yotsuya Mitsuke. This temple is most famous for the grave of 服部半蔵 AKA Hattori Hanzō, the trusted vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu and namesake of Edo Castle’s 半蔵門 Hanzō Mon Hanzō Gate (and subsequently the Hanzōmon Line subway). You can read more about him here. A little known fact is that there is a tower on the temple grounds honoring Ieyasu’s first born son, Nobuyasu. I don’t know much about the dude, but Nobuyasu was married to one of Oda Nobunaga’s daughters and was accused of plotting against Nobunaga. Nobunaga wasn’t having that shit and to confirm Ieyasu’s loyalty, told Ieyasu to order his son to commit seppuku. Nobuyasu seems to have been kinda cunty, but still, no father wants to order their son to slit his own belly and die. Nevertheless, Ieyasu made the command like a Sengoku badass. The thing that’s interesting about this to me is that (1) the first born son was the most important child to a family in those days so this had to be hard (2) Ieyasu seems to have held a grudge against his 2nd son, the second shōgun, Hidetada, for a number of reasons. I can’t help but wonder if this was one of them.
Very little remains of the 四谷御門 Yotsuya Go-mon Yotsuya Gate and 四谷見附 Yotsuya Mitsuke. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about what I’m looking at when I visit Japanese castles. But recently, I took a walk around the remains of Edo Castle with Eric from Jcastle.info and I’ve started looking at castles in a whole new light. I’m pretty into mitsuke now and Edo Castle had 36. Gotta catch ‘em all!
And lastly, I’d be an asshole if I didn’t bring up the legendary 四谷怪談 Yotsuya Kaidan The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. As you know, telling scary stories has been a national past time in Japan since time immemorial. This is one of the most famous ghost stories in Japan because it was originally immortalized as a kabuki play, but has been retold time and time again in various genres. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on the story.
[i] And we will – once again – come to a dead end today.
[ii] “Houses” in the historical sense of families. Think Game of Thrones or any histories that you’ve read. The House of Caesar, the House of Charlemagne, the House of Tokugawa, the House of Kardashian.
[iii] More about this later, of course. But the previous “four families” could also be taken as “four shops” in that in the Edo Period (and indeed before then) because professions were inherited so in some ways 家 ya family and 屋 ya shop were interchangeable. Just look at the kanji for the fast food chain Yoshinoya 吉野家 Yoshino-ya which uses the kanji for family and not shop. (It’s generally assumed that this is not a family name but a reference to the hometown of the founder of the company). Either way, this illustrates a certain amount of flexibility with the kanji and meaning.
[iv] His book Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology is a fantastic look at the lay of the land and its impact on the growth of the Edo-Tōkyō. I can’t recommend it enough.
[v] The Genna Era is considered by some to be the “Golden Age” of the Edo Period. I’m not sure if I agree with that assessment, but that’s just personal taste, now isn’t it? Anyhoo, this is probably the most exciting part of the Edo Period because we see the succession of the first three Tokugawa shōguns, the most dramatic expansions of Edo Castle, the rise of Edo as the premier city in the realm, and gradual closing off of Japan. This era really sets the tone as a “Tokugawa Era.”