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What does Tabata mean?

In Japanese History on April 29, 2014 at 4:25 pm

田端
Tabata (on the edge of the field)

In JR's ongoing effort to put department stores in every train station, Tabata Station looks like every other JR station.

In JR’s ongoing effort to put department stores in every train station, Tabata Station looks like every other JR station.

First Let’s Start with the Kanji, Shall We?

ta

rice paddy

hata

edge, boundary, beside, close to

This is a place name found all over Japan, with reading variations.

It’s also a family name found all over Japan… yes, also with reading variations[i].

And despite sounding really backwatery to our modern ears, many people with this family name can apparently claim descent from the 源氏 Minamoto-shi/Genji Minamoto clan. So, stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

In the Edo Period, 田端村 Tabata Mura Tabata Village was located on a section of the elevated area that is geographically referred to as the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi the Ueno Plateau, but was to known at the time as 上野山 Uenoyama Ueno Mountain. The area was well known because one side was bordered by a cliff. Although, most people don’t notice it now, the west side of Tabata Station clearly shows the cliff – it’s just been woven into the fabric of the modern metropolis.

The cliff of former Tabata Village.

The cliff of former Tabata Village.

It’s said that meaning of the name is 田ノ端 ta no hata on the edge of a rice paddy. Historical records and maps from the early Edo Period are vague at best, but the area would have been quite rural at the time. The presence of 田畑 tahata rice paddies and fields is more or less a given. Speaking of tahata, a second etymology says that via rendaku, tahata became tabata. So there, you just got 2 for the price of 1.

Tabata sits on a ridge – a cliff, if you will – on the edge of the Ueno Plateau. The agricultural lands here were eventually surrendered to the Tokugawa Shōgunate in the name of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance[ii], for the purpose of building daimyō residences and samurai residences. Without clear historical records, the “edge” could have referred to rice paddies on the plateau itself, or could refer to the cliff – a proverbial “edge” clearly delineating the yamanote and shitamachi, thus indicating the farming was being done in the valley.

one the left, you can see the Hongo Plateau, on the right, the Ueno Plateau. Where you see 田端駅 is Tabata Station.

one the left, you can see the Hongo Plateau, on the right, the Ueno Plateau.
Where you see 田端駅 is Tabata Station.

A second, more intriguing theory maintains that the place name is most likely far more ancient than the kanji reveal. We’ve seen this in really old names. This theory maintains that the oldest place names are all based on the terrain. In an age where most people were illiterate and there were very few – or no – maps, short and descriptive places were the easiest way to find your way around. In my experience writing Japan This!, I’ve definitely noticed this pattern. As areas became more literate, kanji were added post hoc. However, using kanji for their phonetic values distorts forever the original meaning of the word, especially if it’s a name that predates the importation of kanji to Japan or if the place name dates from the languages of the aboriginal peoples of Japan (ie; before the spread of the Yamato people).

This alternate theory uses some archaeological findings to back it up. The area has been inhabited since the Jōmon Period[iii] but the real activity picked up around the Yayoi Period[iv]. During the early to mid Jōmon Period (7,000-4,000 years ago), this area was coastline, and the high areas were inhabited by villagers, communities highly reliant on the sea and not farming. The sea began receding during the Yayoi Period and we find evidence of all kinds of coastal fishing activity, but no farming. Because the only people who farm next to the ocean are idiots[v].

Again, if this is an ancient name – not a medieval[vi] name – the kanji does not matter. Kanji have sounds (readings) but no kanji is divorced from meaning. It always has a meaning. Going by this theory, the archaeological evidence has led a small group of people to maintain that the name comes from a very ancient place name that originally meant “the top of the plateau.” One of the more interesting speculations[vii] was that the name is evidenced by 束旗 tabahatatabata a bundle of flags, because the high ground is where you can build your fort (and of course put up your flags, which can be seen from everywhere).

A residential alley in the shitamachi area near Tabata.

A residential alley in the shitamachi area near Tabata.

So Which Theory Do I Like?

I think the 2nd theory is more or less crap. Trying to relate a place name to the Paleolithic Period or the Jōmon Period is just absurd. Even the Yayoi thing is stretch. If we had a record from the Nara or Heian Period, I’d start to loosen up my skepticism. But we don’t. This name doesn’t even seem to appear in Kamakura Period records, which is when the Kantō area really starts showing up in the historical record. No matter what activity happened here 2000 years ago, I’m willing to bet that has absolutely no connection with what was happening here by the time the Edo clan was established or Ōta Dōkan came around. I don’t know if Japanese clans were raising flags on the high ground around their forts or not before the Sengoku Period, but flags all over the place is an image I associate with the rise of the warrior culture, and in particular with the Sengoku Period[viii].

If we start messing around with ateji again, it becomes a game of unsolvable multiple choice. I’m going to use Occam’s Razor and say that “a village next to a rice paddy” is the most realistic etymology. The fact that this place name occurs all over Japan backs up this rationale as well. After all, why did people make rice paddies? Well, it was to feed villages! Even the “rice paddies and fields” makes more sense than referencing the Yayoi Period.

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[i] There are approximately 23,900 people with the surname 田端 in Japan today. As a place name or surname the variations are: Tabata, Tahashi, Tahata, Tabashi, Tabana, and Tabuchi – in order from most common to least common. As a family name, I think we can say this is fairly rare in Japan.
[ii] See my quick overview here.
[iii] I’m not going into the Jōmon thing because it’s soooo far beyond the scope of Edo-Tōkyō. That said, it bears repeating that the Jōmon people were racially distinct from the Yayoi people. The Jōmon may have been more Caucasian looking. It’s with the Yayoi people where we start getting people whose bones, at least, start looking Japanese.
[iv] Let’s say from 400 BC to 200 AD just to be conservative. But this is where we start seeing people who are racially “Japanese.”
[v] Unless you’re farming seaweed, but that’s completely different from maintaining fields and rice paddies. But try to grow some vegetables in salt water and see what happens.
[vi] This is a term I hate using, but I can’t think of a better one.
[vii] And there are a lot more!
[viii] This is just the image in my head; I honestly don’t know shit about flags and banners in Japanese history.

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