Kuramae (In Front of the Warehouse)
This is an easy one. Just like the common Japanese word 駅前 ekimae in front of the station, 蔵前 kuramae means in front of the warehouse. “What warehouse” you ask? Why the 浅草御蔵 Asakusa O-kura. An 御蔵 o-kura was shōgunate controlled rice warehouse. This warehouse held 扶持米 fuchimai that came from shōgunate lands[i]. Fuchimai was the rice used to pay the stipends of shōgun’s vassals. The magistrate who over saw the collection, accounting, and distribution of the rice lived here and worked here, as did his officers.
A rice dealer district sprung up on the west side of the warehouse. Since rice was essentially a kind of currency, the area also became famous for money lenders. The proximity to the licensed kabuki theaters and Yoshiwara meant the area tended to be pretty lively with people coming and going. Basically, this was the Edo Period equivalent of going to the ATM on payday and then going out with the guys for a long night of drinking and whoring[ii].
An interesting side note about the rice brokers of Edo, called 札差屋さん fudasashi-ya san in Japanese, is that many of them became filthy, stinking rich as money lenders and “tax accountants” for the samurai class. They would make loans to anyone, but their most cherished clients were daimyō and insolvent samurai families who were becoming increasingly impoverished due to the stagnant Edo Period economy. As a result, these merchants – who for all practical purposes were bankers – enjoyed luxurious lifestyles. They were the taste-makers of the late Edo Period, being able to afford the latest fashions, the newest art, the hottest literature and theater, and of course, the finer pleasures of Yoshiwara. Although not of elite samurai rank, surely they were the envy of the non-elite classes.
In the Meiji Era, the warehouse fell under control of the new government only to be destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923. Today nothing remains of the warehouse, but there is a plaque. Although the area was popularly referred to as Kuramae, or more politely O-kuramae, the official place name actually dates from 1934.
So is Kuramae a literal reference to the area directly in front of the warehouse? Probably not. It’s basically a reference to the town of rice brokers, the offices and residences of the magistracy that oversaw the granaries, and the day to day business affiliated with the rice. All of those people and all of that business were “in front of the warehouse.”
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