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What does Tamachi mean?

In Japanese History on May 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm

田町
Tamachi (field town, rice paddy town)

Tamachi Station in the rain

Tamachi Station in the rain

Let’s Get the Kanji Out of the Way First


ta, da, den
field, rice paddy

machi, chō
town, neighborhood

Present day 田町 Tamachi is a stop on the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line snuggled between 品川 Shinagawa and 浜松町 Hamamatsu-chō[i]. It’s also home of 慶応大学 Keiō Daigaku Keiō University established by 福沢諭吉 Fukuzawa Yukichi whose countenance graces the ¥10,000 note[ii]. It’s also home to one of the best burger shops in Tōkyō, Munch’s Burger Shack[iii].

Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and innovator in Japan.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and innovator in Japan.

Today there is no official area called Tamachi. In its most limited sense, the name Tamachi refers to the area directly surrounding 田町駅 Tamachi Eki Tamachi Station (which is technically located in 芝 Shiba). In its broadest sense, it is used to refer to a vague area in Shiba and the edge of 三田 Mita). There was an area known as 芝田町 Shiba-Tamachi until 1947 when the 23 wards were restructured.

Today you can take a stroll down Keio Naka-dori Shoten-gai. It's a bunch of izakaya and drinking/eating places that retain some of the Edo aesthetic.

Today you can take a stroll down Keio Naka-dori Shoten-gai. It’s a bunch of izakaya and drinking/eating places that retain a tiny bit of the Edo aesthetic.

Theory #1
Tamachi – Field Town

The most commonly given etymology is that the area was more or less plots of land used by farmers (it’s unclear whether vegetables or rice). With the development of Edo Bay by the Tokugawa Shōgunate, a merchant town was established in the area and given the rustic name 田町 Tamachi, literally “town in the fields.” This explanation is bolstered by the fact that the name Tamachi first appears in the Edo Period and that the town was located near the sea and the 東海道 Tōkaidō Tōkai Highway, both factors that would have necessitated and encouraged the growth of new merchant towns as the shōgun’s capital grew.

For the non-samurai, non-merchant population of Old Japan, this was your reality. No wonder Hideyoshi locked the classes down. He more than anyone knew that if you wanted to end the

For the non-samurai, non-merchant population of Old Japan, this was your reality.
No wonder Hideyoshi locked the classes down. He more than anyone knew that if you wanted to end the “warring states” period, you HAD to tie people to this work.

Theory #2
Mita Machi – Honorable/Divine Rice Paddy Town

Another theory ties into the origin of the place name Mita, which is right next to former Shiba-Tamchi. This theory points at evidence that there was a special set of rice paddies here that were under direct control of the Emperor (in the late Heian Period) and later, the Kamakura Shōgunate. This kind of rice paddy was called a 御田 mita “honorable rice paddy.” A related theory states that the type of rice paddy here was actually a 神田 mita[iv] “divine rice paddy.” This rice would be sent as offerings to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture and nearby 御田八幡宮 Mita Hachiman-gū Mita Hachiman Shrine[v]. Whichever it was, an honorable rice paddy or divine rice paddy, it appears the name Mita is quite ancient and we do find 御田 Mita honorable rice paddy in the historical record and in the name of the shrine[vi].

rice tamachi

Rice paddies don’t change over the ages.

At any rate, at some point in history, the town 御田町 Mita Machi came to be written with the more easily recognized kanji 三田町 Mita Machi. The area near present day Tamachi Station preserved the old writing but people were mistakenly reading the name as 御田町 O-tamachi honorable field town and eventually just dropped what they perceived as an honorific 御 o (because usually town names don’t get honorific prefixes) and the place name was reduced to 田町 Tamachi, literally “field town.”

Furthermore, in the Edo Period, there were many 藩邸 hantei daimyō residences in the area and so you would have had samurai from all over Japan speaking their own dialects and having some idiosyncratic rules about kanji use. As a new pair of Edo dialects came to emerge under Tokugawa rule, it’s not unreasonable to imagine 御田町 Mita Machi being read as O-tamachi, especially when compared to nearby 三田町 Mita Machi which is relatively unambiguous in this part of Japan[vii].

Living in the suburbs of Edo was nice. Rustic, but nice. Repeat to yourself, the Yamanote was forested like most of Japan was.

Living in the suburbs of Edo was nice. Rustic, but nice. Repeat to yourself, the Yamanote was forested like most of Japan was.

I’m gonna say right now that there’s not much of a chance of knowing the etymology for sure, but a mixture of those two stories is my pet theory. But wait, there’s something pretty hilarious that’s gonna happen.

One of the greatest idiots of the Meiji Coup: Saigo Takamori. Typical imo zamurai of the time.

One of the greatest idiots of the Meiji Coup: Saigo Takamori.

Theory #3
Edoites Were Making Fun of People From Satsuma

OK, this is going to require a little cultural background.

My favorite theory (but I don’t believe it for a minute) is based on the fact that one of the first daimyō residences built here was that of 薩摩藩 Satsuma-han Satsuma Domain. One of Satsuma’s 名物 meibutsu famous things was (and still is) the 薩摩芋 Satsuma Imo Satsuma potato, also known as sweet potato. The classic Edo Period put down for a country bumpkin was 芋 imo potato[viii]. The refined Edo samurai wouldn’t think twice about referring to country samurai as 芋侍 imo zamurai filthy, dirt grubbing potato samurai – an epithet that resonates with the same sort of disdain and contempt with which Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed former dirt grubbing farmer, Toyotomi Hideyoshi [ix]. It’s classism at its best[x].

Shimazu Yoshihiro, lord of Satsuma at the Battle of Sekigahara and the Osaka Campaigns when the Tokugawa eradicated the last real military resistance to their hegemony.

Shimazu Yoshihiro, lord of Satsuma at the Battle of Sekigahara when the Tokugawa eradicated the last real military resistance to their hegemony.
Spoiler Alert!
(He drops the ball).

The lords of Satsuma, the 島津氏 Shimazu-shi Shimazu clan, were 外様大名 tozama daimyō outer lords during the Edo Period because… well, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, when Tokugawa Ieyasu more or less won control of the majority of Japan. But the Shimazu clan was descended from the progenitor of the first of the three great shōgunates, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura shōgunate. They had pedigree, so Ieyasu didn’t make them relinquish their territory. As a result, they had control of trade routes and received tribute from the Ryūkyū Islands (modern Okinawa). They also had a vast, productive territory that often acted like an independent state. And while the 1st Tokugawa shōgun, Ieyasu, was lenient to them despite fucking up big time at the Battle of Sekigahara, the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, who worshiped Ieyasu, dealt with them quite coldly. One gets the impression that far off Satsuma held a grudge for being left on the outside.

3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.

3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
“Shimazu? Y’all was a bunch of treacherous bitches. Eat a bag of dicks!”
That’s a literal quote, by the way.

But back to this Edo Period put down thing. In short, they were from the farthest limits of Japan[xi], they were famous a simple, dirty tuber that grows in the dirt[xii]. This theory says that the local Edoites and Edo samurai mocked Satsuma by calling the area 田町 Tamachi field town. They were a domain subjugated by local hero Tokugawa Ieyasu, they were from the country and they were no better than filthy, stinky, sweaty, dirt eating farmers.

This is a colorful story and was no doubt made up by imaginative Edoites. But in my honest opinion, this is utterly ridiculous. As much as I hate Satsuma’s role in the 幕末 bakumatsu end of the shōgunate, and as much as I hate the role of Satsuma’s elite in the oligarchy that sent Japan on a collision course with WWII, I don’t think the shōgunate would have tolerated anyone mocking a clan as rich, powerful, and connected as the Shimazu unless the family had been shamed and abolished by Ieyasu – which they weren’t. They had strong negotiating power and as such had a unique relationship with the Tokugawa Shōgunate. They even married into the Tokugawa Shōgun Family in the final days of the Edo Period[xiii].

Anyways, as much as I would love this to be true, the Shimazu were not the laughing stock of the Edo Period that this theory makes them out to be. And now you know how to mock people from the countryside in Japan. Just add 芋 imo before any noun[xiv].

Tamachi Today

One of Tamachi's crowning jewel's is the NEC world headquarters. I used to work in this building. The top of the building is narrow, buts the base is built on a sprawling lot. I'll get back to that in a minute.

One of Tamachi’s crowning jewel’s is the NEC world headquarters. I used to work in this building. The top of the building is narrow, but the base is built on a sprawling lot.
I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Quite a few daimyō had residences in the area, but the most famous was 薩摩藩 Satsuma-han who had their massive 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence here. It was a sprawling suburban palace on the outskirts of Edo. Unfortunately, nothing remains of it today, but the entire lot is now the world headquarters of NEC[xv]. A few other major manufacturing companies are in the area: Mitsubishi Motors and Morinaga (a sweets company).

Tamachi Station has this super-70's dasai 3D mural (mosaic?) that no one notices. But if you look closely it's Saigo Takamori and Katstu Kaishu drinking sake together in a traditional meeting. There is also a

Tamachi Station has this super-70’s dasai 3D mural (mosaic?) that no one notices. But if you look closely it’s Saigo Takamori and Katstu Kaishu drinking sake together in a traditional meeting. There is also a “kurofune” (black ship) flying out to space.
It’s brutally ugly. And the only thing that is really interesting about it is the fact that they used Saigo Nanshu as a name instead of Saigo Takamori.
This was the name he used when writing Chinese poetry.

In closing, I’d like to say that Tamachi’s role in Japanese history is mostly defined by a meeting (or series of meetings) between 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū, a hatamoto of the Tokugawa, and 西郷隆盛 Saigō Takamori, an imo zamurai from Satsuma. One of the highest ranking women in Edo Castle was 篤姫 Atsu-hime Princess Atsu who was of the Satsuma Shimazu clan and was married to Tokugawa Iesada, the 13th shōgun (I alluded to this earlier). Katsu Kaishū, as a direct retainer of the Tokugawa was dependent on them for his income. During the collapse of the Tokugawa regime, he was a genius at working within the system to change the system. He knew Tokugawa hegemony had to end and helped various groups work to that end.

I love Katsu Kaishu!

Undoubtedly (IMHO) the biggest bad ass and biggest hero of the Bakumatsu, Katsu Kaishu. After Ii Naosuke was assassinated, he was the only Japanese guy who could communicate reality to imo zamurai.

However, he never sold out the Tokugawa. When the newly formed Meiji Army marched on Edo it was led by that imo-zamurai, Saigō Takamori. He threatened to march on the city (which would probably have burned the city) or burn Edo Castle (which in turn would probably have burned the city). Katsu Kaishū negotiated a peaceful surrender of the Edo Castle – I’ve heard Atsu had a hand in this, too. The Tokugawa left the castle and 1,000,000 lives were spared a horrific holocaust at the hands of Satsuma and Chōshū. This meant Edo lived to see another day… albeit with a new name, Tōkyō.

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[i] Although, a new station is being built between Shinagawa and Tamachi, so this dynamic will change in the future.
[ii] And was one of the first Japanese dignitaries to travel abroad at the end of the Edo Period.
[iii] If you go, always remember that Japanese “rare” means “still twitching,” “medium” is “rare,” “well-done” is “medium,” and “very well done” is probably still a little pink. While some chefs have mastered the art of the hamburger, most of them fail on the cooking front because who the fuck eats a rare hamburger?? Welcome to sushi-land. The Japanese love that shit.
[iv] 神田 has multiple readings, shinden and kanda being the most common. The latter being a topic I will discuss at some point in the near future. Wink wink. That said, the reading of and as /mi/ is quite ancient and really sounds like it’s associated with the imperial courts at Heian Kyō or Nara. I feel like there’s a close connection to Shintō in that reading. But that’s just my impression.
[v] The shrine is not in its original location, though it is near Tamachi Station even today. The shrine still uses the original spelling 御田 and not the modern 三田. The shrine was founded in 709.
[vi] There’s nothing saying both weren’t true – or that the similarities are related, ie; it’s a kind of Heian Period or Kamakura Period kanji joke.
[vii] It was a long time ago, so I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but I tried to tackle this problem last year in my article on Mita. (edit: Just had a look and the article is pretty short, but wouldn’t be a waste of your time).
[viii] This pejorative use of 芋 imo potato is still around, actually.
[ix] While Ieyasu never called Hideyoshi a hick (they grew up in roughly the same part of Japan), he detested Hideyoshi because of his low birth (he was a dirty, dirt grubbing farmer) and the high rank he had achieved (he united Japan under his control, made all the daimyō pledge allegiance to him, and became the regent of the emperor). Ieyasu didn’t like that shit one bit. Just as the shōgunate vilified Hideyoshi in the histories, the tozama daimyō (outer lords) were branded as “outer” for all of the Edo Period. Add to that the fact that city people always look down on the dirty, uneducated, uncouth, and unsophisticated people from outside of the city. Edoites were no different. The elite samurai of Edo definitely viewed themselves as the cultural and moral superiors of those country samurai.
[x] Worst?
[xi] Literally, the southernmost region of Kyūshū and – at the time – the southernmost region of Japan.
[xii] Satsuma imo was not well known in Kantō before the Edo Period. The system of alternate attendance brought goods from all over Japan to Edo. That said, Satsuma imo was popular with women, not men. It was thought to be good for beautiful skin.
[xiii] More about this in a minute.
[xiv] JapanThis does not endorse mocking or discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status.
[xv] To the best of my knowledge NEC has no connection to Satsuma.

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