(Below the Forest)
What does Morishita mean?
Any fool with 2 weeks of Japanese under their belt can understand this place name. It means below (下) the forest (森).
Well, a quick look around the area doesn’t seem very foresty. But let’s assume there was a forest here in the past. What was that forest???
Well, as it turns out, this was just one part of 深川村 Fukagawa Mura Fukagawa Village. In the beginning of the Edo Period, 下総国関宿藩 Shimōsa Sekiydo Han Sekiyado Domain, Shimōsa Province built their 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence here[i]. As the Edo Period progressed, more and more merchants moved into the area. In fact, because of the abundance of trees (a natural resource) and rivers (viable transportation routes), the area flourished and became famous for its lumber[ii]. The center of the merchant district was located directly outside of the walls of the daimyō palace, naturally on the lower ground (ie; shitamachi), and as such it was called 森ﾉ下 mori no shita below the forest. The forest, of course, referring to luxuriant wooded area held by the successive lords of Sekiyado Domain[iii].
After the Meiji Coup[iv], the property fell into the hands of one bakumatsu opportunist by the name of 岩崎弥太郎 Iwasaki Yatarō. We’ve met him before when we talked about Marunouchi. If you study post-Meiji Coup Japan, you’ll come across the subject of 財閥 zaibatsu which literally translates as “rich merchants blowing smoke up each other’s asses while knob-hopping the burgeoning military theocracy of an inferiority complex ridden proto-fascist state.” Or maybe not. I mean, it’s only two kanji.
Anyhoo, Iwasaki Yatarō, the founder of Mitsubishi purchased the property and re-purposed it as a beautifully sculptured 庭園 tei-en garden/park befitting a gentleman in the new Meiji mode. The property was used as a retreat for high ranking Mitsubishi employees and as a place to entertain guests and business partners. Although it was a private garden, it was used as an evacuation area and temporary housing in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake[v]. Having been contaminated by the masses, the garden was donated to 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City[vi] in 1932. The park was renamed 清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Tei-en Kiyosumi Garden and still exists today. Since 1972 it’s been designated as a 名称 meishō a Place of Scenic Beauty[vii].
I’ve spent most of my time talking about the area that is now Kiyosumi Garden, which as I said was the 森 mori of 森下 Morishita. Now let’s talk a little bit about the 下 shita.
As I mentioned, the area at the bottom of the hill (“below the forest”), was a merchant town in the Edo Period. Much of the area was destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake and again the area was destroyed during WWII. The area has been gentrified, but for much of its history since the earthquake and war, it was considered a ﾄﾞﾔ街 doya-gai. Doya-gai basically translates as “slum.” But remember, this is Japan and so when you think of a slum, it’s gonna be pretty different. Crime was never high and the area wasn’t just a bunch of dilapidated shacks, especially because the area has always been a mix of a residential area and business district (both small and large businesses. Crime was never a problem here either. Actually, the word doya-gai is pretty interesting. The first part ﾄﾞﾔ doya is 宿 yado backwards[viii]. 宿 yado/shuku refers to temporary lodgings. Since a major portion of the population was made of day laborers who didn’t have permanent residences, they could lodge cheaply in the inns and temporary housing of the area.
The area has undergone gentrification since those days and has turned into (what I consider) a very drab modern shitamachi. Almost nothing remains of its Edo Period heyday and there isn’t much left from the Meiji Era either. But it’s interesting to note that the legacy of post-disaster/war its past still persists in a few subtle ways: today there are many cheap “business hotels[ix]” and many offices for finding and dispatching manual laborers are built on the former sites of the former makeshift camps for day laborers (ie; the “slums”).
So there ya go. A simple place name like 森下 that any clown with 2 weeks of Japanese under their obi can figure out actually has a much richer history than you’d think. Shit, I thought this article would take 10 minutes to write. But this story has taken us to 土佐藩 Tosa Han Tosa Domain (home of Sakamoto Ryōma and Iwasaki Yatarō). It’s touched on the establishment of Mitsubishi and the zaibatsu phenomenon. It even took us to Chiba Prefecture where we got a little daimyō and castle and soy sauce action. For what is today a boring area with a seemingly boring name, I’m pretty impressed and excited. This kind of adventure is what keeps me absolutely fascinated by Tōkyō.
[i] Sekiyado Domain was in what is now northwestern Chiba Prefecture. Noda City is the primary city today, but apparently the place Sekiyado still officially persists in some place names. A 関宿町 Sekiyado Machi Sekiyado City existed until 2003 when it was merged with Noda City and ceased to exist officially. The area is noted for having a peculiar accent. It is also home of the famous soy sauce company, Kikkoman. A version of 関宿城 Sekiyado-jō Sekiyado Castle was reconstructed in the 90’s and although I haven’t been there myself, the museum seems to get high praise from Japanese castle fans. Check out JCastle’s profile of here!
[ii] This is very similar to nearby Kiba; see my article on Shin-Kiba here.
[iii] 森 mori can also refer to a grove, so while the area may or may not have been densely wooded, the name could just as well refer to an area less wooded than what the English word “forest” generally connotes.
[iv] Or as it’s usually referred to, the Meiji Restoration…
[v] See my article on how conflagrations and disasters shaped Edo-Tōkyō.
[vi] Of course, I’m referring to the former 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City which was part of the former 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture because everyone knows that today there is no Tōkyō Prefecture or Tōkyō City, only 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis.
[vii] See this article about special designations in Japan.
[viii] Coincidentally, this is the same kanji for the “yado” of Sekiyado. Emphasis on the word “coincidentally.”
[ix] A “business hotel” is like a Japanese motel – cheap and simple.