Japanese History

What does Odaiba mean?

There’s a mall called Venus Fort in O-daiba. Today you’re gonna learn why… whether you like it or not.



What does Odaiba mean?

There are probably two reactions to the title of this post. One, Japanese history geeks are face-palming and screaming, “Why would you choose a topic so fucking simple?” The other, noobs are asking, “Batteries? But those are modern inventions!”

Well, everybody settle the fuck down. For the j-history nerds, understand that I’m going to try to focus on easy place names for the next 9 installments[i]. And just like the Cylons, I have a plan. For the beginners who are reading, don’t worry. We’re not talking about those kinds of batteries. As I said, just like the Cylons, I have a freaking plan.

First of all the term お台場 o-daiba is a modern day affectation of an Edo Period term. It was created in 1979. In the polite speak of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the term 御台場 o-daiba is what appeared in texts and maps[ii].  Of I’ll talk more about this later, but since the Meiji Period 台場 daiba was generally used to refer to certain specific places and to this day, O-daiba is not an official postal code. Daiba, however, is an official postal code[iii].

Bases for mounting cannons located on the former Battery #3. Now a public park.

OK, so WTF is a Daiba or an O-daiba?

It’s time to address the battery question. I really hope that this isn’t a problem for most people, but from time to time I get really strange e-mails… so who knows? Anyways, battery refers to an arrangement of artillery – in the case of today’s article we’re talking about cannons.

In the Edo Period, Japan was a samurai country, so why did they have cannons? Well, for the most part, it seems that they didn’t have cannons in general use[iv]. But with the arrival of the 黒船 kurofune Black Ships[v] in 1853, there was a pressing need for the wooden city of Edo existing in a successful, self-imposed isolation to admit that refusing contact with the outside world was a bad idea. Why? Well, Japanese shipbuilding and gun making technology were fossilized early 17th century stuff. They were about 2 centuries behind. Pretty embarrassing for a culture that put warriors at the top of the social hierarchy. To make matters worse, Commodore Perry gave the shōgunate an ultimatum: Open up your country, or I’ll force you open with our superior technology. He told them to take a year to think about it. Then he would come back.

And yes, apparently Edo Era Japanese artists couldn’t draw the American flag.

This threw the 天下 tenka realm/Japan into years of murderous civil unrest that culminated in an illegal coup by the most annoying domains of the late Edo Period. But before that happened, the shōgunate scrambled to beef up their coastal defenses. One of the major projects was protecting the shōgun’s capital by building a series of 11 modern, western style batteries to protect 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. Since they only had a year before Perry’s return, they really scrambled to complete the building project. Within 8 months, 5 artificial islands in the most critical areas had been built by flattening hills in the Shinagawa area and dumping the dirt into the bay.

Battery #3

Collectively, the network of batteries was known as the 品川台場 Shinagawa Daiba Shinagawa Batteries[vi]. The financing of construction and maintenance of each daiba was handled in typical Tokugawa style: the shōgunate outsourced the costs and responsibilities to a select group of 譜代大名 fudai daimyō lords descended from the supporters of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara.

Battery #6 is a nature preserve and is in inaccessible to the public, except for some occasional special openings.

Who Built Odaiba?

Japanese NameEnglish NameDomainCurrent Status
dai-ichi daiba
Battery #1川越藩
Kawagoe Han
Kawagoe Domain
The surrounding areas have been filled in and the site of the former battery is now just a small bit of 品川埠頭 Shinagawa futō Shinagawa Wharf, a pier for loading/unloading cargo.
dai-ni daiba
Battery #2会津藩
Aizu Han
Aizu Domain
Apparently, it was demolished and is currently underwater.
dai-san daiba
Battery #3忍藩
Oshi Han
Oshi Domain
Preserved. Today it’s called 台場公園 Daiba Kōen Battery Park[vii]. It’s easily accessible and
dai-yon daiba
Battery #4佐賀
Saga Han
Saga Domain
Halfway through construction a fire broke out and the landfill was re-purposed as a dock for the shōgunate. Today, it is part of 天王洲アイル Ten’ōzu Isle. The area is commemorated by the name シーフォート Shī Fōto Sea Fort. And the Edo Period stone walls have been recycled to make up the Ten’ōzu Isle Boardwalk.
dai-go daiba
Battery #5幕府
Like Battery #1, the surrounding areas have been filled in and the site of the former battery is now just a small bit of 品川埠頭 Shinagawa Futō Shinagawa Wharf.
dai-roku daiba
Battery #6幕府
The island is preserved, however, access is strictly forbidden. Today it is a wildlife preserve overgrown with vegetation and whatever animal life lives there.
dai-shichi daiba
Battery #7 ?Begun, but never finished.
dai-hachi daiba
Battery #8never builtnever built
dai-kyū daiba
Battery #9never builtnever built
dai-jū daiba
Battery #10never builtnever built
dai-jūichi daiba
Battery #11never builtnever built

The most critical batteries were built first, those being Batteries 1-3. Next, they built Batteries 5-6, however, Battery 4 was never completed.

Here you can see where the batteries once stood with all of the modern development of Tokyo Bay. As you can see, Batteries 3 and 6 are the only remaining islands.

The batteries proved to be effective, though. When Commodore Perry returned he tried to disembark at Edo, but was turned away by the modern gunnery installed in the forts. The shōgunate negotiators told him to take his fleet to 横浜 Yokohama, as they had agreed to open the port of Yokohama for the resumption of negotiations. The batteries were more or less untested, nonetheless they served their purpose well.

Battery 3 and Battery 6 were left intact, but the other 3 batteries were dismantled to allow greater access to the Port of Tōkyō. From the 1940’s to the 1970’s the dismantled batteries were reclaimed as more landfill was built up for ports and docks for shipping containers. What people generally call O-daiba is a generic term for the 東京臨海副都心 Tōkyō Rinkai Fukutoshin Tōkyō Waterfront Second City. And as alluded to earlier, there is no postal address “O-daiba.” 港区台場 Minato-ku Daiba Daiba, Minato Ward – on the other hand – is an official postal address.

Japanese history nerds get boners for ishigaki (stone walls). I don’t know why, but it seems par for the course.
The stone walls of Battery #4 were recycled to decorate Tenozu Aisle Boardwalk.

Further Reading:


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[i] That said, usually when I choose something I think will be easy, there turns out to be a total clusterfuck in the historical record and the posts become epic. Fingers crossed that won’t happen with this one.
[ii] The polite prefix , sometimes uselessly translated as “honorable,” was used much more in the Edo Period than today. In low frequency words Modern Japanese words, it is seen as too formal – or even classical – these days. So high frequency Modern Japanese words usually use the hiragana  お o or ご go. Using the kanji is difficult because the classical use of the kanji has a range of readings that have to be memorized and are of little use to the day to day lives of the average Japanese speaker.
[iii] Good for it.
[iv] Cannon use or manufacture seems to have escalated a little bit before the Battle of Nagashino (1575) and from what little I know about the subject, seems to have become kind of hush-hush technology except to high ranking strategists of the shōgunate or the domains. I could be wrong on this, tho…
[v] A fleet of state of the art (at the time) coal burning ships commandeered by Commodore Matthew Perry, the naval officer charged with opening up Asian ports useful to America and their trading partners’ interests. And yes, they really were black.
[vi] Another name was 品川砲台 Shinagawa Hōdai the Shinagawa Forts.
[vii] And yes, the name of NYC’s Battery Park is basically the same story. That’s why there’s no Energizer Bunny there either.
[viii] Only because I can’t find a reference to another domain being tasked with this construction.
[ix] Only because I can’t find a reference to another domain being tasked with this construction.


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