Sendagi (a lot of trees)
Sendagi is a mixed residential and shopping area between Nezu and Yanaka[i]. Today the area is distinctly shitamachi[ii]. However, if you go there you’ll notice slopes which are clear indicators that in the Edo Period the area was mixed with the elites living on the yamanote (high city) and the merchants and other people living on in the shitamachi (low city) while low ranking samurai naturally lived on the hillsides according to rank.
The area of Tōkyō extending from Ueno Station[iii] out to Nippori Station[iv] is one of the most popular destinations for lovers of Edo-Tōkyō to take walks. There are many different routes one could take through this area, but one common route is walking the 谷根千 Yanesen, an abbreviation based on the collective areas of 谷中 Yanaka, 根津 Nezu, and 千駄木 Sendagi. The area is dotted with temples, shrines, shops dating as far back as the Edo Period, and is literally so steeped in history that it would probably take a book to do it justice[v]. Also, there are a lot of references to past articles, so be sure to check the footnotes (remember, they’re clickable).
Given the cultural richness of the area, I will just point you here, and move on to the timeline of Sendagi and then get into the place name itself. If that’s alright with you…
The area was formerly part of 駒込村 Komagome Mura Komagome Village and in fact today is still officially part of Komagome[vi]. The name Komagome isn’t attested until the Sengoku Period. One the other hand, 千駄木 Sendagi isn’t attested until the early Edo Period when it appears as a label in a map. The label reads 上野東漸院持ち駒込千駄木御林 Ueno Tōzen’in mochi Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi the Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi which is controlled by Ueno Tōzen Temple. Another early Edo Period map includes the label 上野寒松院持ち駒込千駄木御林 Ueno Kanshō’in mochi Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi the Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi which is controlled by Ueno Kanshō Temple. An 御林 o-hayashi was a hilltop wooded area owned by the shōgunate, but control of the area was granted to a lord or temple[vii]. Which temple was actually in control of Komagome Sendagi O-hayashi at what time isn’t clear to me, but it’s not really important for us today[viii].
About 1656, the former hilltop forest came to be the site of a daimyō residence of the lords of 豊後国府内藩 Bungo no Kuni Funai Han Funai Domain, Bungo Province (present day Oita Prefecture in Kyūshū). The family was the 大給松平家 Ōgyū Matsudaira, a samurai family from 三河国 Mikawa no Kuni Mikawa Province, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s homeland. As Edo depended on the shōgunate and the shōgun himself was from Mikawa, having a Mikawa family bearing the name Matsudaira bolstered the area’s prestige[ix]. The hill became a yamanote town comprised of high ranking samurai residences. It seems that because the Ōgyū residence was first the prestigious palace built on the hilltop, the area came to be to be known as 大給坂 Ōgyūzaka Ōgyū Hill. If you go to the top of Ōgyūzaka there is a crappy little park with a huge gingko tree called the 大銀杏 Ōichō[x]. They say this tree stood inside the original Ōgyū property.
Nearby is another hill called 道灌山 Dōkanyama. It’s said that at the end of the Muromachi Period, 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan had a branch castle here which he built for tactical support of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle[xi]. I only jumped way back in time to mention this because… well, you’ll see.
OK, so now let’s look at the kanji.
|a pack horse;
a load carried by a pack horse
The other day, we looked at 千駄ヶ谷 Sendagaya and we learned that 千駄 senda was another word for 沢山 takusan a lot. If we want to take the kanji as they are written today, which is by all means the easiest way to do things, we can deduce that the name 千駄木 Sendagi means “a lot of trees.” From what we know, the place name is first written down[xii] in the early Edo Period. From what we know, the area was a hilltop forest at that time. One could make a very strong case that this is the origin of the name Sendagi.
But it’s Never That Easy, Is It?
So there are some other theories of varying quality – or a few variations with some anecdotal stories added to lend credence to the general narrative[xiii]. OK, so where to begin?
The 1000 Da Theory
In the late Muromachi Period and opening years of the Edo Period, the forest here was used for lumber or for firewood. You could easily get 千駄 sen da 1000 da each day. (If you don’t know what 1000 da are, you should read the last article). This is basically adding information to the above theory.
The Ōta Dōkan Did It Theory
During the construction of Edo Castle (or perhaps his aforementioned branch castle), Ōta Dōkan used the area for lumber. After cutting down so many trees, he re-forested the area by planting 栴檀 sendan Chinaberry trees here. In the old Edo accent, sendan ki became sendagi. The Ōta Dōkan thing could be true or not. Who knows? The Chinaberry tree thing? It’s possible. Still, we’re looking at a bunch of trees any way you look at it.
It’s a Reference to a Traditional Japanese Prayer For Rain
The last theory is interesting. The godfather of Japanese folklore and linguistics, 柳田國男 Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), actually spoke about this place name. The reason his story bears repeating is because he insisted that prior to the Meiji Restoration, the common narrative of Japanese history was the story of the elite classes only. The day to day toils and reality of the commoners was just omitted. He was also fascinated by the variety of Japanese dialects and began laying the groundwork for modern Japanese dialectology.
Anyhoo, his theory says that in the Edo Period, and indeed, in his youth, at the beginning of summer as the rains got scarcer, the farmers would bring 1000 da of reeds or wood to the nearest body of water and burn them as an 雨乞い amagoi prayer for rain. In the common parlance, this activity was called 千駄焚き senda-taki burning 1000 da. While he was making some of the first modern dialect maps of Japan, he noticed that in many parts of the country the phrase senda-taki was contracted to sendaki. He speculated that this might be the origin of both Sendagi (sendaki – burning 1000 da of wood) and Sendagaya (senda kaya – buring 1000 da of reeds).
His speculation is interesting because he’s a guy who was born with the first 10 years of the Meiji Era, watched Japan modernize, go all crazy theocratic and fascistic, be occupied by a foreign power for the first time ever, modernize again, and host the Olympics. He also lived through the greatest and fastest advances in linguistics and the scientific method.
So Which Theory Is Correct?
With all this talk of Yanagita Kunio, it’s gotten me thinking about my choice in terminology up to this point on JapanThis!. Linguistics is a science and as such when talking within the framework of science, terminology is important. I’ve been using the word “theory” for some time in the vernacular sense. But “theory” actually means a kind of testable model – something that is so predictable that we can say it’s a fact – for example; the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Evolution. These things we know are true. The correct term for dealing with much of what I write about on this blog is “speculation.” Unless we have an actual historical document saying “so-and-so named this place such-and-such because of this-and-that” were are dealing with speculation[xiv].
As usual, we saw some interesting speculations today. Without extraordinary evidence, I tend to err on the side of simplicity. For me, I like the literal reading of the kanji. There were a lot of trees in the area. I think the rest of the stories are embellishments, folk etymologies, or downright wishful thinking and coincidence.
Then again, what do I know? I’m just some dude with an internet connection.
If you like JapanThis, please donate.
Click Here to Donate
Click Here to Buy Awesome Nerdy J-History Goods
[i] See my article on Yanaka.
D’oh! I’ve never written about Yanaka before. Weird. Well, anyways, if you scroll down a little bit, on the right hand side there is a list of the 50 most recent articles. Above the list is a search field. If you type “yanaka,” a ton of articles will come up. (If you click word “yanaka” above, it will bring up the same list of articles. Can everyone say, “let me google that for you?”)
[ii] In the modern sense of the word.
[iii] See my super old article on Ueno. Or not, because I just looked at it and it sucks. It’s from when I started covering place names. Night and day difference.
[iv] See my super old article on Nippori. One of the early ones that got researched well.
[v] Here’s an English article I came across about the Yanesen.
[vi] See my article on Komagome here.
[vii] The emphasis on hilltop is most likely because the low city was developed for commerce and commoners and wouldn’t have had many trees, whereas the hilltops were kept lush and green.
[viii] More interesting is that both temples still exist. Tōzen’in was established in 1649 and is affiliated with Kan’ei-ji, the Tokugawa Funerary Temple. You can find Tōzen’in in Uguisudani. Kanshō’in, established in 1627, is also in Uguisudani and is also affiliated with Kan’ei-ji. In fact, later they became of a sub-temple of 上野東照宮 Ueno Tōshō-gū. See my article on Uguisudani here. Don’t worry that the temples are located in Uguisudani and not Komagome – although it’s walking distance, both temples have actually been relocated a few times.
[ix] Keep in mind, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s real family name was Matsudaira.
[x] Literally, big ass gingko tree.
[xi] However, there is an alternate theory which claims the name Dōkanyama is actually derived from a powerful noble who had a fortified residence here in the Kamakura Period. His name was 関道閑 Seki Dōkan.
[xii] A first attestation doesn’t necessarily mean the name was created at that time. It only means it was the first time anyone bothered writing it down. So, in theory, a name in Kantō could be hundreds of years old before anyone made a record of it that we still have.
[xiii] It’s not always the case, but when you get anecdotal stories, your BS Detector should start blinking; often times these stories reek of folk etymology.
[xiv] Even in that case, the document would have to be proven authentic and written by the person who named the place.
2 thoughts on “What does Sendagi mean?”