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What does Kiyosumi-Shirakawa mean?

In Japanese History on January 14, 2014 at 1:10 am

清澄白河
Kiyosumi-Shirakawa (no translation)

kiyosumi-shirakawa_eki

Those of you who are regular readers of JapanThis! will know that every New Year’s I do a different 七福神めぐり shichi fukujin meguri pilgrimage of the 7 gods of good luck. This year I did the Fukagawa course. I rarely go to this part of Tōkyō, so it gave me a unique chance to find some really unique place names to investigate.

The other day, I talked about 森下 Morishita “below the forest.” In that article, I said that Morishita was originally a merchant town at the bottom of a hill (shitamachi) and at the top of the hill was a daimyō residence (yamanote) with a large garden or at least a sizable grove of trees. The abandoned Edo Period daimyō palace was demolished and converted into a corporate pleasure garden by Iwasaki Yatarō, the founder and first successive president of Mitsubishi[i]. The park is called 清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Tei’en Kiyosumi Garden and its name is obviously linked to this place name.

Who doesn't love chilling out in a cool Japanese garden?

Who doesn’t love chilling out in a cool Japanese garden?

If you look closely at the name, it’s actually a combination of two words.

清澄
kiyosumi

pure + lucidity
“serene”

白河
shirakawa

white + river
“clean water”

The origin of the modern place name is literally just that. Two neighboring areas – Kiyosumi and Shirakawa – were smooshed together to make Kiyosumi-Shirakawa.

At first glance, this name has a few bizarre attributes

1 – 清澄 is an actual word when read in on’yomi (ie; the Chinese reading). That would be seichō. This is a literary word for “clear” or “serene.” Japanese place names rarely use Chinese readings, unless they are derived Buddhist temples. It’s not a rule, but generally speaking, place names are more likely to use the Japanese reading[ii]. Family names are the same, of course. (By the way, the actual Chinese reading of this word is qīngchéng.)

2 – 白河 is a Chinese place name too[iii]. But in “normal Japanese” the kanji kawa river is odd. Usually kawa river is used. But appears in a lot of family names and older place names.

Wow, is there a connection between Chinese History and this part of Edo?

No.
Not at all.

whaaaa?!

whaaaa?!

What’s going on here?

So for Japanese people and for students of Japanese, this place name raises a lot of questions. Are they borrowed from China? Are they ateji[iv]? Is it actually one word? What the fuck?

Well, as it turns out, these are both family names and everything I mentioned before this point has nothing to do with the place name in question. Toss out all that excess baggage and check out this weird shit.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the high ground was held by a certain merchant family named 清住 Kiyosumi. A certain 清住弥兵衛 Kiyosumi Yahē (if I’m reading that correctly) is the landholder who is generally cited. He must have been a man of considerable means because it’s said that he financed the filling in and reclamation of the original marshland which effectively gave access to the high ground (where the garden is now located). The details about this family and personage are obscure, but if this tradition is true, these efforts to fill in the swamps would have made the lowlands not only livable, but suitable for business and its hilltop areas desirable for feudal lords serving sankai-kōtai duty. This area was located near rivers which made it good for transporting goods. So the area definitely prospered after the land reclamation and so the name of Kiyosumi Yahē apparently stuck.

The second name, Shirakawa, is much better documented. This is a direct reference to 松平定信 Matsudaira Sadanobu. He was the lord of 白河藩 Shirakawa Han Shirakawa Domain. As we all know, the Matsudaira clan was directly related to the Tokugawa shōgun family[v]. Shirakawa Domain was located in present day Fukushima Prefecture[vi]. He is arguably one of the most interesting statesmen of the Edo Period[vii].

He was enshrined at nearby 霊厳寺 Reigan-ji. Being the most famous person interred at the temple, the area enjoyed the nickname 白河さん Shirakawa-san which translates something like Mr. Shirakawa but is actually just a polite way to refer to a person from Shirakawa.

The grave of Sadanobu isn't much to look at today (notice the house in the background). It's hard to believe a place might be named after such a humble tomb, but believe me, in his day, the man was a force to be reckoned with - for better or for worse.

The grave of Sadanobu isn’t much to look at today (notice the house in the background).
It’s hard to believe a place might be named after such a humble tomb, but believe me, in his day, the man was a force to be reckoned with – for better or for worse.

The Edo Period maps I have only list the daimyō residences and temples here. There don’t seem to be any references to these names. So it seems like the townspeople had been preserving the local nicknames. When the daimyō had all been ejected from Edo and their residences confiscated or sold off to the highest bidders, new maps were made using western civil administration.

Originally, the area was to be called 清澄 Kiyosumi, but when it came to time for the official designation, the combined version 清澄白河 Kiyosumi Shirakawa won out.

This area is located in the former 深川村 Fukagawa Mura Fukagawa Village. Today Fukagawa is a postal code located within 江東区 Kōtō-ku Kōtō Ward. There area is famous for a few places:

富岡八幡宮
Tomioka-Hachiman-gū

One of the most famous shrines in Tōkyō.

Read a little bit about it here.

門仲
Mon’naka

Nickname of 門前仲町 Monzen-Nakachō.

Not so famous, but read a little bit about it here.

清澄庭園
Kiyosumi Tei’en

Again, these days, not so famous, but a Japanese garden worth your attention.

I talk about its history here!

霊厳寺
Reigan-ji

Definitely a major temple in the Edo Period, today it’s a shadow of its former self.

This article

深川江戸資料館
Fukagawa Edo Shiryōkan

The Fukagawa Edo Museum

Don’t wait for a blog entry. Just go check it out!


A Side Note

Oh, I almost forgot! Fans of 新撰組 Shinsengumi may recall that 沖田総司 Okita Sōji‘s family originated from Shirakawa Domain. Sōji was actually born in Shirakawa’s lower residence (being the son of an ashigaru (foot soldier) he presumably would have lived in a rowhouse on the property of this compound). This suburban diamyō palace was located in present day 西麻布 Nishi Azabu West Azabu. Sōji returned to Edo to convalesce from his tuberculosis, but ended up dying while still in Edo. It’s said that he was staying at the Shirakawa lower residence when he died. His grave is a short walk away at 専称寺 Senshō-ji Senshō Temple (located in present day 元麻布 Moto Azabu Old Azabu). This is even less related, but just for some perspective: walking from the Shirakawa lower palace to to Kondō Isami’s dōjō in Ichigaya would have taken about an hour to an hour and a half depending on your walking speed. Whether he made this commute regularly or had lodging near the Shieikan is unknown.

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[i] If you haven’t read that article, I highly recommend you read it now so you can get a bearing on the bigger picture of this area
[ii] Consider 浅草 Asakusa. The temple in Asakusa uses the Chinese reading, 浅草 Sensō, but the area uses the Japanese reading 浅草 Asakusa. The kanji are the same.
[iii] The true Chinese reading is “báihé.”
[iv] Using kanji in a purely phonetic way.
[v] Tokugawa Ieyasu was of the Matsudaira clan, but as his power base grew, he launched a new branch under a new name (Tokugawa).
[vi] Tread lightly here. Prior to 3/11, Fukushima Prefecture quietly basked in its status one of Japan’s bread baskets and was home to Aizu Domain which is still one of the darlings of those of us who love the Edo Period.
[vii] There are a number of reasons why Sadanobu was such an interesting – and at times, contradictory guy. But his biggest claim to fame was enacting the 寛政の改革 Kansei no Kaikaku the Kansei Reforms, a general name applied to years of reactionary laws attempting to slap bandages over the shōgunate’s perceived liberality – emphasis on the word “perceived.”

  1. I saw Sadanobu’s grave last summer – lots of great little sites in that area (e.g. graves of famous figures).. but I failed to actually visit the Kiyosumi Gardens. Maybe next time.

    • The area is fantastic, isn’t it?

      You just stumble across stuff left and right there. I love it.

      I just stay away from the Fukagawa Meshi. Blandest food ever lololol.

  2. I love your blog! I’m an American who has lived in Tokyo for 22 years now, and ive spent much of that time geeking out on local history — exploring the kind of things you write about, but with much less aplomb and almost total secrecy due to a lingering touch of chronic EGS*.

    I understand you offer paid tours. I don’t particularly need that, but I will make you an offer: I would be willing to pay a modest fee for a few hours of your time. Lets put our heads together and see what we can both learn. I live in Mitaka and actually am nearly housebound due to actual medical problems, so you would have to drag yourself out to Kicijoji or Mitaka if you are willing to take me up on this infomal brainstorming “consultation offef.” Please give me time to reply…I don’t check email much these days.

    Best regards and thanks for your fantastic writing. You have taught this old dog some new tricks.

    *EGS: “Esoteric Gaijin Syndrome”: A common ailment that causes the victim to obsessively and secretly hoard ever-more arcane historical/religious/geographical Japan-related information based on the narcissistic and idiotic delusion that this somehow makes him “unique.” Generally incurable.

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