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What does Takaramachi mean?

In Japanese History on February 14, 2014 at 8:04 am

宝町
Takaramachi (treasure town)

takarabako_treasure

First a quick note.

There are 2 places in Tōkyō with the same kanji: One is Takarachō in the Chūō Ward; the other is Takaramachi in Katsushika Ward. Today, I’m talking about the one in Katsushika.

The history of this place name is actually a mystery but it is usually explained by a legend. The interesting thing is that this place name may be based on the ultimate oyaji gag. Oyaji gag refers plays on words and puns[i].

The Japanese generally look down on puns and will soon dismiss them as oyaji gags, but truth be told Japanese history is rife with these sort of things and so is Japanese advertising and… well… I think most people secretly like them, but are just afraid to admit it.

Map of Takaramachi

Map of Takaramachi

Let’s start with the present day kanji for this place.


takara

treasure


machi

town

For my readers who don’t read Japanese, let me refresh an important concept in Japanese writing:

音読み
on’yomi

Chinese readings of kanji

訓読み
kun’yomi

Japanese readings of kanji

Of course, this is a simplified explanation, but for our purposes today, that’s all you need to know.

One more concept that is important is tsuka mounds. There are mounds all over Japan. Mounds in Japan are often associated with graves. This goes waaaaay back in history to the 3rd century 古墳 kofun burial mounds[ii]. I mentioned typical Shintō burials in my article on Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s grave. I said that they’re associated with graves because just because a mound was built doesn’t mean there necessarily must be a body inside. Some mounds were purely symbolic. An interesting thing is that even in the Edo Period the graves of elite were often elevated – or in the case of the Tokugawa, always built on the highest ground. On the other hand, a tsuka can just refer to a small hill. As “just a hill” it may be valued for its high ground or it may be imbued with some symbolic meaning. It might just be a land mark.

This doesn't even encompass all of the meaning of "tsuka," but it should give you a general idea.

This doesn’t even encompass all of the meaning of “tsuka,” but it should give you a general idea.

OK, now that you know the basics, let’s get this party started.

This area was once controlled by the Kasai family, an offshoot of the Edo clan and vassals of the Toshima clan[iii]. On (or near) the premises of西光寺 Saikō-ji Saikō Temple there was a 塚 tsuka mound dedicated to one of the heads of the clan named 葛西清親 Kasai Kiyochika. His title was 伯耆守 Hōki no Kami Lord of Hōki Province, which is located in modern 鳥取県 Tottori-ken Tottori Prefecture[iv]. We don’t know much about Kiyochika Lord of Hōki as records are scant, but his name graced the mound which came to be known as 伯耆塚 Hōki-zuka Hōki Mound[v].

In 1227, a rock star monk from Kyōto allegedly visited Saikō-ji. The name of said rock star monk is 親鸞 Shin’ran and at the time his sect of Japanese Buddhists had prohibitions against sexual relations and using animals for food. In fact, taking part in these kinds of activities could actually get you killed. But Shin’ran wasn’t about to give in to the man. He was all about barbecuing and fucking and he didn’t give a fuck what you thought[vi]. I’m usually not down with holy rollers, but I’d throw back a few bottles of sake with this guy.

Fuck with my meat and ho's and you gunna get fucked back, son. Simple as that.

Fuck with my meat and ho’s and you gunna get fucked back, son. Simple as that.

So the legend goes, as Shin’ran was hanging out at Saikō-ji – perhaps lodging – he hung his vestments on a tree[vii]. And as the area was nicknamed 伯耆塚 Hōkizuka, he looked around to see if anyone was watching and slyly said, “Hey man, this is 法喜塚 Hōkizuka! Get it? Get it? 法喜塚 Hōkizuka!!!” The surrounding people cringed and slowly backed away and disappeared into their huts and never spoke to him again.

OK, it probably didn’t go down exactly like that, but according to legend, Shin’ran called the place 法喜塚 Hōkizuka. So what’s the difference in the kanji? Well, at first glance, 法喜塚 looks like Buddhist religious gibberish; like a temple name. Auspicious or “holy” kanji are juxtaposed to create a new word – an alien non-Japanese word that leads to the mystery of the religion[viii].

.

Today Saikoji is... well.. apparently, a little diminished in stature...

Today Saikoji is… well.. apparently, a little diminished in stature…

.

In its actual recorded history – outside of the etymology legend – the area was written with a few kanji variations. The writing was standardized in the Edo Period[ix].

法喜塚
Hōkizuka

religious gibberish

宝樹塚
Hōkizuka

secular gibberish

宝木塚
Hōkizuka

simplified secular gibberish

So, if all of this is true, the name Takaramachi is one big oyaji gag that snowballed out of control. Let’s go back to the kanji so we can see exactly what Shin’ran did and how the name changed later.

.

the alleged oyaji gag

伯耆
Hōki

name of a province and Kasai Kiyochika’s title

法衣
hōki

the vestments of a Buddhist monk


dharma/principals/rule (and a reference to the vestments)


treasure


ki

joy, happiness, delight, religious ecstasy

later generations added these


ki

tree (perhaps a reference to the tree he hung his vestments on)


ki

tree (perhaps a reference to the tree he hung his vestments on)

So by the end of the Edo Period, the name was standardized as 宝木塚村 Hōkizuka Mura Hōkizuka Village (the kanji being “treasure” + “tree” + “hill”). 法 hō sounds like law or religion or method and is a quite serious word. 宝 hō treasure, on the other hand, is auspicious and, c’mon, who doesn’t like treasure? This name survived the reforms of the Meiji Era until 1932 when part of Hōkizuka Village became 宝木塚町 Hōkizuka Machi Hōkizuka Town. In 1961, when Tōkyō introduced the current postal code system[x], the 木 ki tree kanji was dropped and the area was renamed 宝町 Takaramachi.

optimus-prime

.

If we jump back in time to 1955, we will find the founding of a vinyl and plastics manufacturer called タカラ Takara.  This company would later become famous as a toy company and would eventually unleash the Transformers upon the world. The reason I mention this, is that the company, which was established in Hōkizuka Machi, used the Japanese reading of the kanji 宝 hō (Chinese) takara (Japanese) treasure. As I mentioned earlier, there are usually at least two possible readings for a kanji, the ancient Chinese and the Japanese. The company choosing this native Japanese reflects a trend whereby local people were abbreviating the odd reading which was a mix of Chinese and Japanese readings and creating a new nickname that was purely Japanese. While this nickname may be much older, it definitely is understandable that in the nationalism of the years leading up to WWII, we would see a preference for a native Japanese reading of the kanji. Also, Japanese place names rarely have Chinese readings, unless they are named after Buddhist temples or are some kind of anomaly. Mixed readings are frowned upon in Modern Japanese because they’re unpredictable.

.

This legend is great. It makes a good narrative, but it also raises a few questions. If we assume the Shin’ran legend is true, then why did 法 hō dharma change to 宝 hō treasure? Well, as I mentioned before, maybe treasure seems softer than dharma/regulation. Maybe.

Also, why did 喜 ki happiness change to boring 木 ki trees? Again I can’t say for sure, but it might have something to do with a trend to nativize the kanji readings. is ki in the Chinese reading, but usually yoshi in the Japanese reading. It’s also a kanji that rarely shows up in place names. 木 ki tree, on the other shows up all the time.

And back to the 宝 hōtakara thing. By the Edo Period, there was a lot of communication between domains and a trend towards standardization of language had begun organically. There are places called 宝町 all over Japan (two still exist in Tōkyō alone), so there must have been an overall trend to shift towards the native Japanese readings of the kanji.

Another issue is with the first part of the story. As I mentioned before, 塚 tsuka mounds are associated with graves. They don’t have to be graves. But there’s a link there. They can also just be hills. If it’s a reference to a grave, it’s not Kasai Kiyochika’s. The first reference to him is 1228 and he died around 1270. But Saikō-ji was established in 1225, before he was even born. Shin’ran’s alleged oyaji gag took place in 1227, two years after the temple was founded and quite a while before Kiyochika died. But again, a mound isn’t necessarily a funerary mound, and in this case it could just refer to an elevation on Kasai lands or residence, but there seems to be a strong connection to Kiyochika in particular.

possible tsuka

Before I finish, I have to say that there is a very real chance that all of this is bullshit. The name could have changed over centuries as kanji competency improved in the Kantō area. The one thing that makes me lean towards this theory is that the Chinese reading VS the Japanese reading and the fact that it’s associated with a temple. Buddhism was a foreign religion. It had everything to gain by using foreign words and foreign uses of kanji to exert its prestige and influence and elite image. Whether Shin’ran – who for all I know lived and died in Kyōto – had anything to do with this name or not is almost irrelevant[xi]. It illustrates the influence of Buddhism in this particular village and the unstable nature of kanji use before the Edo Period.

All in all, this has been one hell of a ride for me. Go Takaramachi!

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[i] Literally translates as “old man joke” or “dad joke.”

[ii] The so-called Kofun Period saw the rise of Shintō and the Yamato state.

[iii] For a little refresher on the Edo Clan, please read here. For a little refresher on the Toshima, please read here. The Kasai were pretty minor, but they came up in this article.

[iv] It’s just a title; surely he didn’t exert any influence over an area on the other side of the country.

[v] The temple, Saikō-ji, still exists and claims to be on the grounds of a former Kasai family residence. The graves of some Kasai lords are preserved. Unfortunately, I don’t know if the Hōkizuka remains on its property – or if anyone knows where it is today.

[vi] Do you think I’m kidding? Read a little more about Shin’ran here.

[vii] According to one source, Saikō-ji still preserves a pine tree at the spot where this allegedly happened.

[viii] The Catholic Church has been notorious for coming up with neologisms since the 2nd century, and I’m willing to bet every other religion has too. If there’s no mystery or exotic terminology, people won’t look to the religious leaders for help in understanding them. It’s a common tactic that goes across cultures.

[ix] The final change was in the modern era, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

[x] Like an American Zip Code.

[xi] However, if Shin’ran really DID come to Kasai, it adds more evidence to my assertion that Edo wasn’t the “backwater fishing village” that the standard narrative says it was. Of course, in the 1200’s, Kasai wasn’t Edo, it was just a small fief in 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province . But from this time on, you can see the area start to bubble up until it was ripe for the picking by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 1590’s.

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