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Why is Roppongi called Roppongi

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on February 12, 2014 at 1:42 am

六本木
Roppongi (the 6 trees)

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Just a quick heads up, this was written in Open Office, which is one of the shittiest pieces of software ever. It’s free, so I don’t expect much, but every time I use this program, the text formatting is all funky. So please forgive all the weird font changes and font size changes. It wasn’t written that way.
Word Press and Open Office don’t play well together.

ropponig croossing

I actually wrote about this topic once beforei.

On February 10th of last year, I was still trying to figure out how to breathe life back into a stagnant blog. I was determined to commit to it and was keeping up with my idea of “if I don’t have a big topic to write about, I’ll cover one Tōkyō place name a week.” In the beginning there was minimal research put in because I just covered a few topics that I was familiar with. Now one year later, JapanThis has transformed into something beautiful – something I’m fiercely proud of.

So Roppongi wasn’t the first place name I covered, but it was one of the really early ones. The reason I chose it was because it was relatively easy. Looking back at this 2 paragraph monstrosity, I feel a deep and dark shame. It’s nowhere near the level of quality I demand of myself now. It’s embarrassing and makes me want to vomit out of my ass and/or commit seppuku.

But today I’m going to set the record straight.

Today, Roppongi is a party town. For years it’s been popular with foreigners due to its proximity to so many foreign embassies. Because of this proximity, the area is relatively English-friendly which makes it a destination for foreigners visiting Japan and the seedy businesses that often cater to (or try to take advantage of) foreigners.

Roppongi has a bad reputation among Tōkyōites and among foreigners who try learn the so-called “Japanese Way.” I’m not really into Roppongi. But I’ve learned to not hate on it so much over the years and as it turns out, the area has a very interesting history if you leave the so-called Roppongi Crossing area, which is pretty much one of the most irritating places in the world.

Alright, so let’s get into this…

b0061717_0321615

So, Roppongi. What does it mean?


If we look at the kanji:

六本
roppon

6 tall, cylindrical things


ki

trees
(generally, tall and cylindrical)

There are a few opinions about this etymology. As any seasoned reader of JapanThis knows, the kanji can’t always be trusted to accurately reflect ancient place names. I mentioned as an aside in my article on Why was Edo called Edo? That this area, now called Minato-ku had been inhabited by humans for a very long time. From the get go, I want to say that there is a chance that this is name that may or may not be Japanese. It may or may not have anything to do with the kanji we have have today. To be blunt, there is no way of knowing.

The one thing we do know for sure is that the first recorded reference to “Roppongi” came in 1828 (late Edo Period) in a correspondence with the shōgunate. However, we don’t know exactly what area was being referred to. In fact, Roppongi didn’t appear on a map until 1878 with the creation of 麻布区 Azabu-ku Azabu Wardii.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the "shoten-gai." The botom two pitctures are of Roppongi Crossing.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the “shoten-gai.” The bottom two pictures are of Roppongi Crossing.

 

THEORY 1
Literal: There were 6 tall trees used as landmarks

Roppongi is one of the highest plateaux in Tōkyō. This theory says that waaaaaaaay back – most likely some time between the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period – there was a place here called 六方庵 Roppō-an Hermitage of the 6 Directions. In the garden of this residence, there were 6 tall trees.

The kanji iori/an is puzzling. It usually refers to a rustic home or tea house. However, in the Heian Period it could refer to a military encampment, headquarters, barracks, or even a fortress. More about this later.

Anyhoo, because of it’s elevation and high visibility, the 6 tall trees were landmarks. People disagree about whether these were matsu pine trees or keyaki zelkova trees. This theory refers to a time so long ago that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. The presence of keyaki trees is intriguing, though, because today there is a street called 欅坂 Keyakizaka between Azabu and Roppongi.

If you dropped the word iori/an hermitage, and added the kanji ki trees, in the local dialect it became Roppon-gi. A variation of this etymology is that it comes from 六方の木 Roppō no ki which got reduced to Roppo’ n’ gi. More about this later.

Obviously, we don’t know if this place actually existed, but linguistically speaking, it’s plausible. These kind of sound changes are observable in Modern Japanese. Anyone with exposure to day-to-day Japanese of our era will certainly have seen and heard this kind of vernaculariii.

6 trees

THEORY 2
Literal: It’s derived from a family name

This is actually two theories, but they’re based on the premise that that there was a noble family called 六方 Roppō that lived here before the Edo Periodiv.
1) In the local dialect,
六方家 Roppō-ke the Roppō Family was pronounced Roppo-ngi.
2) The area was considered
六方気 Roppō-ki Roppō-ish or Roppō style, which in the local dialect was pronounced Roppo-ngi.

The interesting thing about this theory is that it also refers to Roppō and reinforces the Roppō-an theoryv. Whether it was a rustic hermitage or noble’s fortress, the high ground would be very suitable.

Linguistically, the sound changes are absolutely plausible.

There just isn’t any other evidence besides these etymology stories. No deeds of the Edo Roppō family. No tales of legendary tea ceremonies at Roppō Hermitage. No references to this place at all. And to top it all off, Roppō isn’t a family name today (as far as I can tell)vi.

when i hear the word "庵,”  I imagine this kind of building.

when i hear the word “庵,” I imagine this kind of building.



THEORY 3
Figurative: A legendary 6 man sep
puku party went down here

During the 源平合戦 Genpei Gassen Genpei Warvii, the Genji forces pursued 6 Taira samurai and fought until 5 died here. A single Taira samurai managed to escape and rather than being cut down, slit his own belly to resist capture or execution. He died under a solitary pine tree. They group was remembered by the local people as “the 6 pines trees.” A variation of this story says that they all committed seppuku.

This isn’t a very likely etymology because, of course, there are no suriving shrines, graves, or much of anything to back up this theory. What’s more, there is another twist on this story that says these samurai were actually deserters, and traditionally Japanese people don’t take kindly to stories of deserters.

Either way you look at it, deserters or heros, this is a cool story because any story that ends in seppuku is – by definition – cool. But there’s not a single piece of evidence to back up.

There is such a thing as "seppuku fetish." And yes, is sexualized.

There is such a thing as “seppuku fetish.”And yes, it goes something like this… 

Theory 4
Creative: It’s a reference to 6 daimyō who lived here during the Edo Period

In English, this theory is usually stated as: “In the Edo Period, there were 6 major daimyō residences located here and so the area was named Roppongi.” But this is a great over-simplification, as you will soon see. There were MANY daimyō living in this area. Many city blocks of present Minato Ward still conform to the shape of the vast estates that once stood here. The crux of this theory is not that there were just 6 daimyō here, but that there were 6 daimyō who had family names that referenced trees in their family namesviii.

Let’s take a look at the daimyō who are generally cited:

 

上杉
Uesugi
米沢藩
Yonezawa Han

above the cedar trees The Minsitry of Foreign Affairs and Azabu Post Office sit on the former upper and middle residences of Yonezawa Domain.

朽木
Kutsuki
朽木藩
Kustuki Han

decaying trees I can’t find the location of their Edo residences (one source says the upper residence was in Akasaka), but the family used Sengaku-ji as their funerary temple.

青木
Aoki
新見藩
Niimi Han

green trees I can’t find their Edo residences, but the funerary temple of the Aoki clan of Niimi Domain is located at Zuishō-ji in Shirokane-dai.

片桐
Katagiri
竜田藩
Tatsuta Han

off-kilter pauwlonia tree Allegedly, this family’s lower residence was located on Toriizaka. This is hard for me to confirm because, well, I’ll get into it later.

高木
Takagi
丹南藩

Tan’nan Han

tall tree(s) The middle residence for a Tan’nan Domain was located in Azabu Kōgaibashi.

一柳
Hitotsuyanagi
(Ichiyanagi)
小野藩
Ono Han
小松藩

Komatsu Han

a single weeping willow The family funerary temple was Zōjō-ji! If I’m not mistaken, their cemetary is now located across from Tōkyō tower where Kondō Isami’s father is buried. The upper residence was once located in west Shinbashi. (There were two daimyō families located in this area with same name; I don’t know anything else about them).

This is the most popular theory by a long shot. Even Wikipedia likes it.

But it has a few problems. No Edo Period maps listed anything as Roppongi. This isn’t unusual, as time and time again we say common nicknames get applied to areas in the administrative re-shuffling that happened in the Meiji Era. But it also means, we don’t really know where the area originally referred to was nor do we know its size. Besides, if I had a penny for every Japanese family name with a reference to a tree in it, I’d be able to buy your mom – several times over.

But looking at the table above, you can see these daimyō mansions were in Shinbashi, Akasaka, Azabu, and Shirokane. This is all in present day Minato Ward – which doesn’t mean anything when trying to pinpoint a specific place. But it does mean something when you are walking somewhere, as people did before cars and trains. There is a certain centrality about the location of these daimyō.

But today Roppongi is a specific area and postal address. None of these daimyō had mansions in the area we would consider Roppongi today. In all fairness, the Takagi and Katagiri were literally right on the border, though. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the exact locations of some residences isn’t completely known – and in some cases, the daimyō family moved (or were re-shuffled).

That said, the location of funerary temples of some of the lesser daimyō in the vicinity does lend a bit of credence to the story. The other interesting thing is that some of the “mystery residences” are those of the Aoki, the Kutsuki, the Takagi, and the Katagiri. The first three just barely met the minimum kokudaka for daimyō status. If their domains’ value slipped below 10,000 koku, they could have had their domains confiscated. In 1650, Katagiri Tametsugu was demoted to hatamoto status for 無嗣断絶 mushi danzetsu the crime of dying without an appointed heirix. Tatsuta Domain was confiscated, subsequently abolished, and the family was reshuffled. Dying without an heir was considered an act of such abject stupidity by the shōgunate, that it always required immediate action. I would tend to agree. In a “feudal” society, if you don’t have a designated successor, you probably shouldn’t be governing anything. But then again, the boy was only 15.

Anyhoo, this seems to be the strongest theory simply because it’s the only with any evidence. It’s not air tight by any stretch of the imagination; much of its appeal coming from the fact that most people don’t know (or care) exactly where daimyō Edo residences were. True or not, in my opinion, this is the most interesting theory.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion. This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were. They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion.
This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were.
They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.
And yes, this is their upper residence. and as such it’s located at Edo Castle.

THEORY 5
Figurative: 6 hitching poles…


There’s another theory about 6 poles (by extension, places) where you could tie up your horse. This is mostly a reference to (by Edo Period standards) nearby
Nihonbashi and not this area. Perhaps the idea being, samurai traveling long distances, could swap out a horse there, and then proceed to their 藩邸 hantei domain residence (essentially an embassay) on a horse that didn’t look worn out.

So, yup! Someone thought hitching poles near Nihonbashi would make a great place name over in Roppongi. The one thing I can say in defense of this theory is that, as I said before, until the name Roppongi was made official in the early Meiji Era under a western administrative system we have no idea where the name Roppongi referred to.

In conclusion, we have no idea where the name comes from. If you love historical linguistics or dialects, you might favor theories 1 & 2. If you’re a big fan of the Edo-Tōkyō, you probably like theory 4. Admittedly, they are appealing. The others have some charm, but ostensibly lack credibility.

But if you know them all, you can really see the hidden beauty of Edo-Tōkyō. Hopefully you can see why I’m so passionate about this city’s history. This is something I would never have said about Roppongi a few years ago. Foreigners who become “lifers” in Tōkyō generally shun Roppongi because Roppongi is for the newbies. Roppongi is for the idiots, Roppongi is for rich foreigners who can’t speak Japanese, Roppongi is where every sort of shadiness goes down. But for those of us who love Japanese History, especially Edo-Tōkyō, there is sooooooooooo much good shit in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for us, most of the best parts of Tōkyō are hidden. You really have to know where to look.

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

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___________________________
i OMG, OMG, OMG, don’t get me started on how bad this blog started out.
ii Pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Azabu Ward no longer exists.
iii Some well known examples are 本当 hontō true reduced to honto and no is regularly reduced to /n/. And /g/ is often pronounced with a /n/ sound before it; すごい sugoiすんごい sungoi.
iv Allegedly.
v I haven’t come across this etymology, but one wonders if a mix of the Roppōan and Roppō family is possible. If there were 6 trees located on the property of the Roppō family, you could get a pun based on 六方の木 Roppō no ki (Roppo’ n’ gi) the Roppō’s trees and 六本木 Roppongi 6 trees. Call me crazy, but that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
vi A Google search just pulls up restaurants and geometry references (roppō literally means hexagon).
vii What exactly was the Genpei War? In short, it was a war between the Minamoto and Taira. More details here!
viii If you’re wondering what the hell a daimyō is and why there residences are CRUCIAL to understanding the history of Tōkyō, please read my short summary of sankin-kōtai here.
ix The family continued and committed mushi danzetsu a couple more times. After been so heavily punished by the shōgunate, you’d think the family would have set up some policy. I guess they weren’t the brightest bunch.

  1. Any water body / source on Roppongi Hill please (now or in the past) ? Thank you

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