I wanted this to be a short blog post, but it turned into another epic tale of… fuck… I don’t know what happened. Today, in addition to the etymology of this place, you’re getting two extra worthless bits of Japanese history trivia. One is about Japanese ginger. The other is about Japanese dialects[i].
No, wait, what am I talking about?! This is going to be one messy ride through history, botany, kanji, and linguistics. Edo Period government bureaucracy is going to come up, too[ii]. And as always there is a lot of additional information in the footnotes, so don’t skip those. They are clickable. And there are about 25 of them.
Alright, let’s get started, then.
There are basically 2 conflicting arguments backed up by so much controversial evidence that I have to apologize upfront: I’m sorry, I can’t give you any determination on this place name. There is a popular theory and there is a less popular theory.
Most Popular Theory: ginger
2nd Most Popular Theory: guns
Think that’s disparate?
We haven’t gotten started. It seems that various local groups have picked their preferred derivations and stood their ground by adamantly insisting the other derivation is just wrong. But from my point of view, there is no “smoking gun” evidence for either etymology. But we’ll learn lots of good stuff along the way. So let’s get down to business, shall we?
As written today the kanji are easy. They mean “myōga valley.”
What is Myōga?
It’s a kind of ginger. And believe me, we’re gonna go into this ginger thing in a little bit. But from a literalist reading of the kanji, one would assume that this place was famous for many wild myōga plants or was actually a center of production for myōga. This is by and far the most popular theory. Some supporters of this theory point at 茗荷坂 Myōgazaka Myōga Hill next to the Myōgadani Station as the original site of the myōga farms, although there is absolutely no evidence to back this up. Oh, and in Japan, there are generally two types of ginger.
|Japanese ginger Zingiber mioga|
|Regular ol’ ginger Zingiber officinale|
Because we’re dealing with two types of ginger, I’m only going to use the words myōga and shōga for this article, because otherwise the word ginger is just going to be repeated ad nauseam.
Myōga 茗荷 myōga myoga (also known as Japanese ginger) is an indigenous woodland plant that grows wild in the hills and fields of Japan. Because it’s frequently used as a garnish, it’s also popular for people to grow at home in their gardens. Oh, and the best thing is that it’s thought to be an anticarcinogen. Yay! Because fuck cancer[iv].
Anyhoo, there’s an old wives’ tale 茗荷を食べると物忘れが酷く成る myōga wo taberu to monowasure ga hidoku naru “If you eat myōga, you’ll get really bad at remembering things.”[v] Of course, this isn’t true at all. Myōga is a really healthy plant to eat and – at least according to Wikipedia – studies have shown that the aroma of myōga and regular ginger actually help with concentration and memory recall.
What is Shōga?
Shōga 生姜 shōga ginger came to Japan in the 2nd or 3rd century from China[vi]. It was cultivated a little in the Nara Period and was in wide use by the Edo Period. The same old wives’ tale exists about this form of ginger. Traditional Japanese cuisine is often very subtle. Myōga has a strong taste and so does shōga. It’s probably because of a general distrust of vivid flavors, that people say “if you eat shōga, you’ll get really bad at remembering things,” too. But have no fear. It’s safe.
There’s a popular story that the 11th and 12th shōguns, Ienari[vii] and Ieyoshi[viii] respectively, loved shōga. When one of the most powerful 老中rōjū senior councilor of the shōgunate named 水野忠邦 Mizuno Tadakuni Mizuno Tadakuni[ix] passed a sweeping set of sumptuary laws targeting extravagance known as the 天保之改革 Tempō no Kaikaku Tempō Reforms[x]. On the list of prohibitions was – you guessed it – shōga! And when shōgun Ieyoshi started to notice that shōga wasn’t being included in his dishes anymore, he enquired about it. He was soon told that the plant was banned. Ieyoshi flipped out and stripped him of his positions and domain and banished him to 山形藩 Yamagata Han Yamagata Domain – a very, very cold place in the winter.
OK, I said there was another theory. And believe me, this one is a doozie.
The Name Has Nothing to Do With Ginger
There is another theory. This one says there was never any myōga growing in the area. Instead this theory claims the name derives from 冥加 myōga a Buddhist term that means divine protection[xi].
On the other side of the tracks from Myōgadani Station is an area called 小石川 Koishikawa. This area was a very elite area in the Edo Period because the Mito Tokugawa clan had a massive residence here[xii]. There were other daimyō residences and samurai residences located in the vicinity. The residence of the 簞笥奉行 tansu bugyō the magistrate of the shōgun’s arsenal was also nearby, as were the barracks his samurai staff[xiii].
The idea is that the samurai who lived in the barracks town of 御箪笥町 Go-Tansu Machi would make offerings at the 稲荷神社 Inari Jinja Inari Shrine at the top of Myōgadani Hill (where the station stands today) and pray for good luck in marksmanship[xiv]. The shrine was called 冥加稲荷神社 Myōga Inari Jinja Shrine of the Inari of Divine Protection. Since this area was the valley where Myōga Inari Shrine was, the locals called it 冥加谷 Myōgadani.
Here’s where it gets weird. This theory states that the Meiji government changed the kanji. After winning the Boshin War against the last Tokugawa supporters, they kicked out all of the samurai and daimyō from the area and began repurposing the land. They hated the association of the name with the Tokugawa Shōgunate and so they changed the kanji from 冥加谷 Myōgadani Valley of Divine Protection to the less “confrontational” 茗荷谷Myōgadani Valley of Japanese Ginger.
Take that bakufu!!
This story comes off strong. Definitely, it has the most historical background. It talks about what the neighborhood was like in the Edo Period and references other neighborhoods and incorporates the shōgunal administration. But there are a few problems with it[xv].
First of all, the only place called Myōga Inari that still exists and is located on the compounds of 吉祥寺 Kichijō-ji[xvi] in Bunkyō Ward. However, Kichijō-ji is a 30 minute walk from its namesake in Myōgadani[xvii], also in Bunkyō Ward – but still 30 freaking minutes away on foot. Also, the name of this Inari is 茗荷 myōga ginger not 冥加 myōga divine protection.
At Kichijō-ji, Myōga Inari is enshrined together with another kami named 聖徳稲荷 Seitoku Inari (Inari of Virtuous Virtue) a mysterious kami that nobody seems to know much about except there appears to be a connection between this kami and 大権現 Daigongen, which anyone who read my series on the funerary temples of the Tokugawa Shōguns would know is none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu himself.
The shrine seems to have no connection with samurai, and these days it’s most famous for people who come to pray against infectious diseases[xviii] – or perhaps quitting myōga (because it makes you forgetful, remember?), and oddly today, it’s biggest claim to fame is curing hemorrhoids[xix].
So in short, the Tansu Machi theory is at conflict with itself on a few points:
From Suidōbashi to Myōgadani is also a 30 minute walk.
From Ushigome Tansu to Myōgadani is also a 30 minute walk.
From Koishikawa Station to Myōgadani is a 30 minute walk.
In the Edo Period, this wouldn’t be a long distance to walk. And a name transfer wouldn’t be impossible, but it’s such a local name that it seems kind of really. Furthermore, the existing shrine uses the kanji for myōga and not “divine protection.” And while the early Meiji Government did in fact change the writing of 大坂 Ōsaka to 大阪 Ōsaka[xx], 江戸 Edo to 東京 Tōkyō and changed a lot of other names when they abolished the Han System and establish the Prefecture System, I’m not so sure that they were just running around changing names of small, local areas out of spite.
There must be some mixing up of stories going on here. Or if this second theory is true, the name was applied to a larger area originally. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any records from the Edo Period and the name didn’t appear on maps until the Meiji Era.
I told you at the beginning this was going to be messy.
Let’s Talk a Bit About Japanese Dialects
The reading of the kanji 谷 (valley) in place names is distributed differently across Japan.
|More common in the east|
|More common in the west|
There is a linguistic divide that occurs somewhere in Gifu Prefecture. This is also evidenced by the fact that there is a major dialect divide that cuts through Shizuoka and Aichi – compare the Mikawa dialect with the Nagoya dialect. This is thought to be part of the same “gray zone” that is part of a major split in dialects, most famously dividing the Kantō dialects and the Kansai dialects[xxi].
So why is a Western Japanese place name occuring in the Shōgun’s capital in the East?
The reading たに tani appears in only two Tōkyō place names (as far as I know). According to some, this reading supposedly signals an Edo Period place name based on the assumption that a valley would have never been named something + tani because the word didn’t exist in the local dialect. Therefore, the assumption is that it would be either (a) an affected form (b) a place name given by people from western Japan.
Looking at the old maps of daimyō residences in the area, there are two 藩邸 hantei domain headquarters in the area from western Japan. The two domains are 加賀藩 Kaga Han Kaga Domain and郡山藩 Kōriyama Han Kōriyama Domain. Kōriyama Domain was located in modern 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture, and one can imagine the dialect having some prestige due to Nara being a former imperial capital. Kaga Domain was located in modern Ishikawa and Toyama Prefectures. Neither of these residences was particularly close to modern Myōgadani station, but they were within walking distance. Could samurai from western Japan have influenced the naming of this area? It’s possible, but it’s hard to prove. Bear in mind that Edo residences maintained by daimyō were basically embassies and naturally they brought their local goods and culture with them to the capital.
Could it have been an affected form? Perhaps the local Edoites saw some value in using a western form as it seemed exotic.
Could the influx of samurai from all over Japan that was making Edo a melting pot of Japanese culture have exposed native Edoites to readings of kanji they didn’t normally use? Certainly.
Could the reading, although not common in eastern Japan, still have been lurking like a latent gene, just bubbling up to the surface from time to time?[xxii] I don’t see why not. But it seems that the most likely case is that this name does not pre-date the institution of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance. It doesn’t help us determine which of the two etymologies I mentioned above are true. But it does illustrate a very important fact about the Edo Period.
While Edo wasn’t an international city, it was the closest Japan had to one at the time in the sense that every area of Japan was bringing goods and ideas into and out of the shōgun’s capital. People tend to think that the Tokugawa Shōgunate was just a top down machine pushing a new Edo Culture onto the rest of the 天下 tenka realm. But it really wasn’t like that at all. The other domains were importing culture into Edo as well. In the place name “Myōgadani,” we may be looking at a footprint of that exchange, crystallized and preserved forever as a place name. How frickin’ cool is that?
If you’re still reading, all I have to say is “thank you!” I said from the outset that this was going to be a messy story, but bear with me just a little bit longer.
Until 1966, an area existed called 茗荷谷町 Myōgadani-machi Myōgadani Town. At that time the town was merged with 文京区小日向 Bunkyō-ku Kohinata Kohinata, Bunkyō Ward. As such, no official postal address exists for Myōgadani. Today, only the area around the 茗荷谷駅 Myōgadani Eki Myōgadani Station is referred to as Myōgadani. There is a big hill called 茗荷谷坂 Myōgadanizaka Myōgadani Hill which, besides the station name (built in 1955), is the only link to the past. A local organization has planted myōga in the area as a reminder of the past (and also to piss off the “divine protection” faction).
In nearby 深光寺 Jinkō-ji Jinkō Temple, the author of 南總里見八犬傳 Nansō Satomi Hakkenden the Tale of Eight Dogs 馬琴 Bakin Bakin is buried[xxiii]. Interestingly, there is a small stone lantern hidden on the side of the temple called the 切支丹灯籠 Kirishitan Tōrō the Christian Lantern. It uses the word Kirishitan which is a direct reference to the Christians of Pre-Modern Japan. I’m not sure if this monument has been commemorating them since the Edo Period or if it’s a recent thing. Judging from pictures, the statue doesn’t seem very old – but it could be a replacement.
Even more curious is that another nearby temple, 徳雲寺 Toku’un-ji, which seems to make most of its money off funerals, offers a キリスト教プラン Kiristo-kyō Puran Christian Plan. At first, I thought this was related to the hidden old Kirishitan monument at Jinkō-ji, but then I saw it came under the heading 無宗教・キリスト教のプラン Mushūkyō/Kiristo-kyō Puran non-religious/Christian plan[xxiv].
I figured out the connection between the Myōgadani temples and Christianity.
Christianity is so rare here – like 1% of the population or something – that this immediately jumped out at me. One small Christian monument maybe raises an eyebrow, but two in the same area sets off my spidey sense. Well, it turns out that much of the area was the former 小石川牢獄 Koishikawa Rōgoku Koishikawa Prison, but is usually referred to as the 切支丹屋敷 Kirishitan Yashiki the Christian Mansion – which was anything but a mansion.
There were 3 major efforts in Japan to expel foreigners and annoying Christian missionaries. One, by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Two, by 2nd shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada. Three, by 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (though Kirishitan occasionally pop up as late as the reign of 5th shōgun, Tokugawa Ietsuna).
The first shōgun, Ieyasu, was relatively lax about Christianity. He didn’t like it, but he tolerated it to ensure trade with countries that offered technological benefits to Japan. His son Hidetada was much more skeptical of the intentions of Catholic missionaries who saw Japan as fertile ground for conversion. By the time we get to the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, the shōgunate was definitely out of the honeymoon phase and enacted an all out ban on Christianity. They rounded up many suspected Christians and sent many of them to the “Christian Mansion” for interrogation – and possibly (read ‘probably’) torture and execution. You can read more about this site and others here.
And on that happy note, thanks for reading and have a great day!