(literally, “corner river,” but actually no known meaning)
First a quick note.
WordPress isn’t handling footnotes correctly anymore.
Not sure why.
You’ll have to manually scroll to the end of the article to read them. Sorry about that.
I’ve been told by Japanese people that “Japan is a country of water.” The idea being that there’s literally water everywhere and given the abundance of 温泉 onsen hot springs and rivers and… well, it’s a freaking island surrounded by water, I can’t argue with them. But herein lays the problem with this series[i]. When you have lots of water and people are living near it, the people usually have to bend the coasts and river banks to protect the villages, towns, and cities. They may dig a little deeper to make a new hot spring. They’ll merge rivers to make it easier to distribute goods. At JapanThis!, we’ve talked about reclaimed land a little bit in Edo, and we’ve seen massive landfill projects since the Meiji Period. But I underestimated how much work was being done controlling rivers as far back as the Kamakura Period[ii]. Since I’m only talking about Tōkyō place names, I haven’t even scratched the surface on this topic.
● Linguistic stuff? Yeah, I got that covered, maybe.
● Cultural and social stuff? Pretty sure that’s OK.
● Historical events? That’s the easiest part.
● The manipulation of a river over centuries of human habitation with ever increasing technological know-how? Nope! I have to admit, I’m in way over my head.
I hope I don’t drown!
In the Edo Period the Sumidagawa Didn’t Exist
At least not officially….
Until the Shōwa Period, it’s best to think of the 隅田河 Sumidagawa Sumida River as a work in progress. The river has been so modified by humans since the Heian Period (possibly earlier, but there would be no records of this). The river has also had many names. Different areas along the river referred to it by different names. In the early Edo Period, the whole area was essentially an alluvium into the bay. Over the years islands were connected and the geography was transformed slowly. From the 1920’s-1960’s a major transformation occurred. An Edo Period person wouldn’t recognize much of the river by the 1940’s and probably nothing by the 1970’s.
In short, the history of this river is a hot mess.
But the formal name of the river, at least according to the shōgunate was the 荒川 Arakawa Ara River. But you’re going to see the story gets a whole lot more confusing and incestuous. My head is hurting from trying to figure out what is what.
The Edo Period records are a mess. It seems the shogunate wasn’t so concerned with what this tributary or that was named on an official level. Again, I might be wrong here – I’m just some dude with an internet connection – but it seems like local communities in each village or township could have their own names for any landmark and people were pretty much cool with multiple names. Edoites affectionately referred to it as the 大川 Ōkawa the Big River, a name still used by older people for the area where the river empties out into Tōkyō Bay.
In its efforts to bring the country in line with western map making and census taking (and just to have useful and modern records), the Meiji Government initiated a series of surveys and eventually issued a decree in 1896 which declared that this river was officially the Arakawa. However, the decree noted that certain sections were locally referred to as 大川 Ōkawa the Big River and 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 宮戸川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 浅草川 Asakusagawa Asakusa River. In short, Sumidagawa was just a nickname for a section of the Arakawa[i]. Today, it’s used to describe a section of river from the border of 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward to 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.
I will assume your head is spinning now (I know mine is). But if I may, I should throw out a quick one point lesson in Japanese for my readers who don’t know Japanese. In Japanese, river names end with the kanji 川[iv]. Think of it as a suffix. Depending on the final sound of the name of the river, it may be pronounced as /kawa/ or /gawa/[v]. I’m going to try to be consistent, but the romanization of these river names is traditionally inconsistent. So, just know that if you see –gawa or –kawa attached to the end of the word, it means I’m talking about the river. So for example, Sumidagawa = the Sumida River, Arakawa = the Ara River (though no one actually says that to the best of my knowledge).
What Is The Sumida River?
Originally this river was the downstream portion of the 入間川 Iruma-gawa, a river originating in present day Saitama that drained into Edo Bay. When provinces were created in the Nara Period, the Iruma-gawa formed the boundary Musashi and Shimōsa.
The area was known as Sumida (written in a variety of ways, as I will show you throughout the article), though technically the river was still the Irumagawa. However, as far back as 835, there are references to the river as 住田河 and 宮戸河, both read as Sumidagawa – the latter sometimes as Miyatogawa).
At the end of the Heian Period, a post town was established called 住田宿 Sumida Juku. The area flourished. See my article on Asakusa. Goods and skilled labors traveled between this area and Kamakura. There is a record showing that Yoritomo Minamoto stationed many troops at Sumida Juku at one point.
Before the Edo Period, and I’m going out on a limb here and guess it was Ōta Dōkan who did this, the 浅草川 Asakusa River and a river that preserved the writing 宮戸河 Sumida/Miyato were merged with this section of the river.
In 1594, Tokugawa Ieyasu, daimyō of the 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces[vi], asked his relative and retainer 松平忠吉 Matsudaira Tadayoshi lord of 忍藩 Oshi-han Oshi Domain[vii] to undertake a flood prevention projects on several rivers. One particular project merged the 入間川 Irumagawa Iruma River and the 荒川 Arakawa Ara River and created a few other tributaries to other rivers and channels[viii].
Throughout the 1600’s the course of many rivers, including this one were tweaked and refined. The work in the early Edo Period transformed this section of the Irumagawa into part of the Arakawa. As this section of the river came to be closed off from its original source and was more and more associated with the centrally located Sumida area[ix], it soon came to be referred to commonly as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River. The division in popular naming is evidenced by the existence of present day 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward which reflect how people viewed the sections of the river by the late Edo Period.
Furthermore, in the Edo Period, the area from 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge to the bay was referred to as the 大川 Ōkawa the Big River. In that area there are a few buildings and areas that have maintained the name Ōgawa and supposedly rakugo performers use the name to build up Edokko street cred, though I’m sure it’s not without an explanation, unless the audience is super plugged into the neighborhoods there.
To make matters more confusing, some sections of the river became tributaries or canals and are now separate with different names. Some that still exist today are 大横川 Ōyokogawa, 横十間川 Yoko-Jikkengawa, and 北十間川 Kita-Jikkengawa. Some channels are now underground and some have become sewers and drainage ditches.
But Where Did The Name Come From?
Alright, let’s get down to the etymology.
Let’s get this out of the way in the beginning. This name is 当て字 ateji. That is to say, the meaning of the kanji actually have… no meaning. They are used because they can be read this way.
As I mentioned before, this place name is quite ancient. However, no one ever thought to talk about the etymology until the end of the Edo Period. A text called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fudoki-Kō, often just called the Musashi Fudoki A Description of the Musashi Region which was written in the early 1800’s says that the word “sumi” comes from アイヌ語 Ainu-go the Ainu Language and it means “to wash away” (ie; into the bay), “to nearly drown” (ie; the current is so fast you can’t swim or pass it), or “rough waters” (and they are rough!). Always take Edo Period etymologies with a grain of salt when they start talking about the Ainu languages[x].
Interestingly, the book also presents an alternate theory. This theory hearkens back to older records. It states that in 葛飾郡 Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, there was a village called 墨田村 Sumida Mura Sumida Village. The authors seem to think this is the better theory. It should be noted that the kanji for the river and the kanji for this village are different.
From the Heian Period to the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, many variant spellings pop up. One interesting spelling is 須田川 most likely read as Sudagawa in Modern Japanese, but could have been read as Subedagawa or in the old Edo dialect as Sumidagawa. I’ve talked about dialect variances in the past, and so /b/↔/m/ and /e/↔/i/ switches shouldn’t be new to you[xi].
Just to drive home the point how irrelevant the kanji are to this river’s name, let me show you a list of spellings and variations used over the centuries. Mind you, the first three spellings in the list are found in the 万葉集 Man’yōshū Collection of 10,000 leaves, one of the most ancient compilations of Japanese poetry from the late 700’s. Kanji use was totally different at that time, so this is the main indication that we cannot use kanji to determine the origin of this place name.
|Sumi no zu|
|Sumi no sui|
Again, since this river was technically the Arakawa, the name was never super important. It was a popular name used locally. We can see that it’s quite ancient by its appearance in some of the most ancient Japanese texts. We can also see that people viewed the river in various lights, as the last name on the list, Ryōgokugawa, is a reference to the boundary between 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province. That is most definitely a local name.
Sumida River and Sumida Ward Use Different Kanji
Perhaps you’ve noticed in this article or just in your daily life that the kanji for the ward and the river are different.
Why is the river written as 隅田川 and the ward as 墨田区? I’m happy to say I can bring closure to this issue. There was no standardization of the Japanese language during the Edo Period. People in the individual domains spoke their local dialects. When lords and their attendant samurai came to Edo for sankin-kōtai duty, they had to adjust to the local dialect in Edo. As you can imagine, they didn’t encounter just the local dialect, but dialects from all over Japan as every domain was represented in shōgun’s capital. The Meiji Government initiated language reforms that created a 標準語 hyōjungo a standard language[xii].
During the American Occupation, further standardization efforts were made. The Japanese writing system itself was completely overhauled. Prior to these reforms, people wrote from top to bottom, right to left. A spelling system that was a legacy of Classical Japanese was still in use, including syllabary characters that represented sounds not present in modern language. After these spelling reforms, left to right writing style became a kind of norm (it’s the norm, but books and temples still use more conservative styles).
But the most important change was a designation of the so-called 常用漢字 jōyō kanji daily use kanji. Given that there are thousands upon thousands of kanji with a myriad of variations, the government saw a benefit in restricting the kanji used in newspapers and for official government use. The restricting and standardization of kanji use began in the 1920’s and saw its most sweeping changes during the Occupation when the number of daily use kanji was restricted to 1850 characters. In 1981, they increased the number to 1945 characters, but 2010 saw a second increase to 2136 characters. Yikes!
Anyways, after the war, 隅 was eliminated from the official list of daily use kanji. The name 隅田川 Sumidagawa was irrelevant because it wasn’t an “official” place name, so no official documents or signs were affected. But some conservative publishing institutions, especially newspapers, were at a loss as to what kanji to use and what kanji not to use when using the popular name “Sumidagawa.” Using the new system was progressive; using old kanji meant that new readers couldn’t read their publication[xiii]. So, newspapers continued to use the old kanji because it was so well known that changing it would confuse readers more than going with the new system. This actually happened with a lot of place names.
Two years later, 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward was officially created in 1947. In support of the language reforms, it proudly boasted the new spelling – shunning the old kanji. As you can imagine, occupied[xiv] Japan wanted to put the past behind them and push on into a new era[xv]. But remember, this is the first time the name “Sumida” was being used officially.
But of all kanji, why did they choose 墨 (which means “ink”) instead of any other kanji?
Well, there is an easy answer to that. In short, the kanji 隅 is far rarer and more obscure than 墨 and as such is harder to read. While any long term resident of Edo-Tōkyō may recognize the word 隅田川 Sumidagawa, the rest of the country probably wouldn’t. 墨 is instantly readable by anyone with a junior high education[xvi]. But all of that said, why does the modern river use the old kanji? Well, even though the kanji 隅 became a daily use kanji once again in 1980, the river’s name was referred to in official post war documents and signs as すみだ川 avoiding the kanji altogether, or with the new kanji. But local people and private interests continued to use the old spelling. As daily use kanji are an official recommendation to educators a publishers, but are not imposed on the private sector, anyone can use any damn kanji they want and it doesn’t really matter. In short, the writing of the river’s name persists out of tradition and affection, while the ward’s spelling is exists out of a bureaucracy that was promoting a new wave of change in post-war Japan.
Taking boats down the Sumidagawa is actually quite popular among weird people… I’m looking at you, dear reader.
Since this river flowed through the center of Edo, it was one of the most important rivers then and still is now. The Edo Era bridges were more or less landmarks. Today, some people like to walk or ride bicycles along the river to see all of the bridges.
If you’re interested in such a journey, here is a description of the course of the river with a list of bridges which I just straight up stole from Wikipedia. You can’t cross all of them today, but you’ll definitely get a unique view of the modern city and some glimpses of Edo.
List of Bridges on the Sumida River
|○ = Allows Pedestrians (most bridges allow for pedestrians)|
|× = No Pedestrians (usually for trains, cars, or utilities)|
♥ = Only Pedestrians (only one bridge)
|Bridge Name Wards|
|① Divergence from the Arakawa|
|② Confluence with the Shinbashigawa.|
|○||Shin-Toyo Hashi||Kita, Adachi|
|×||Central Circular Route|
(a national highway)
|③ Confluence with the Shakuji’igawa[xvii]|
|×||Nippori-Toneri Liner Sumidagawa Bridge||Arakawa, Adachi|
|×||Jōsui Senjū Suikanbashi[xviii]|
(an aqueduct demolished 2013)
|×||Keisei Main Line Sumidagawa Bridge[xix]||Arakawa, Adachi|
|×||TEPCO Sōdenbashi[xx]||Arakawa, Adachi|
|×||Senjū Suikanbashi||Arakawa, Adachi|
|○||Senjū Ōhashi||Arakawa, Adachi|
|×||Jōban Line Sumidagawa Bridge||Arakawa, Adachi|
|×||Tsukuba Express Sumidagawa Bridge||Arakawa, Adachi|
|×||Hibiya Line Sumidagawa Bridge||Arakawa, Adachi|
|○||Senjū-Oiri Ōhashi||Arakawa, Adachi|
|④ Confluence with the Old Awasegawa|
|○||Suijin Ōhashi[xxi]||Arakawa, Sumida|
|×||Tōbu Hanakawado Railroad Bridge[xxiii]||Taitō, Sumida|
|⑤ Confluence with the Kita-Jikkengawa|
(one of the most famous bridges in Japan!)
(power lines and waterworks)
|×||Sōbu Main Line Sumidagawa Bridge[xxv]||Taitō, Sumida|
|⑥ Confluence with the Kanda River|
|⑦ Confluence with the Tatekawa|
|×||Ryōgoku Ōhashi||Chūō, Sumida|
|⑧ Confluence with the Ogigawa|
|⑨ Confluence with the Sendai Horigawa[xxvii]|
|○||Sumidagawa Ōhashi||Chūō, Kōtō|
|⑩ Confluence with the Nihonbashi “River”|
|⑪ Confluence with the Ōyokogawa|
|○||Chūō Ōhashi||Chūō, Chūō|
|⑫ Confluence with the Kamejima-gawa|
|⑬ Branches off to the Tsukudagawa tributary[xxix]|
|○||Tsukuda Ōhashi||Chūō, Chūō|
|⑭ Confluence with the Tsukishima-gawa[xxx]|
|⑮ Branches off to the Shin-Tsukishima-gawa|
|⑯ Empties out into Tōkyō Bay|
And that concludes my rambling, confusing, and insanely long tour of the etymology of Sumida… Strangely, I feel no closure with this article. I also sense more confusion coming in the next few articles because all of the rivers I’ve chose for this series have been seriously manipulated over the centuries. This is going to be a bumpy ride. I’m thinking of adding a recap at the end of the series to bring everything together. Not sure if it’s necessary yet, though. Let’s see.
But in closing, I’d like to share two links with you from another blogger who goes by the name Rurōsha who wrote a 2 affectionate articles about the Sumida River. She goes into a Suijin Shrine (now Sumidagawa Shrine) and its unfortunate demise and separation from the river. The first article is here and the second article is here. I’ve referred to her blog a number of times because she really seems to have a passion for Tōkyō’s shitamachi style and history – she also probably knows way more about the Sumida River than I do. Interestingly, the first kanji in the word Rurōsha is 流 ru which means “river current” or “flow.” Check her out!
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Wanna ride bikes along the Sumida River and through Tokyo’s shitamachi neighborhoods?
[i] And I was afraid of this before I started it.
[ii] I’m gonna refer to Japanese Eras a lot, so if you need a refresher, please check out my cheat sheet here.
[iv] Without getting into more detail, the kanji 河 kawa/gawa also means river. But it’s an older form.
[v] To my knowledge, this is an unpredictable sound change. But for what it’s worth, it’s called 連濁 rendaku and you can read about it here.
[vi] At this time he was not shōgun.
[vii] Present day Gyōda, Saitama.
[viii] No specifics from me cuz…….. this way over my head.
[ix] Gonna talk about this more, trust me.
[x] I myself have never studied a word of Ainu, so I’m going to withhold any opinion on this. I just can’t verify or deny it.
[xi] If this is new to you, I’d recommend going back to the beginning of this blog and just re-reading everything. If you don’t have the time, this might push you in the right direction.
[xii] This arose out of a general “re-unification” policy as much as necessity. Most of the upper samurai and daimyō from the domains could handle the Japanese spoken in Edo (itself a mishmash of the local Edo Dialect, the Mikawa Dialect, and in the upper echelons, the Kyōto Dialect). But with the creation of a standing, national army headed by former samurai from Satsuma and Chōshū and staffed by men of every former class from every region of Japan who may have never heard another dialect in their lives came together. The need for a standard, national language was imperative.
[xiii] Furthermore, the reason the daily use kanji list was restricted in the first place was because literacy wasn’t high in the rural areas and there were simply too many possible readings that even city dwellers required 振り仮名 furigana syllabic subtitles for difficult kanji.
[xiv] Or liberated, depending on how you want to look at it…
[xv] Something they’d been trying to do ever since the Black Ships arrived in the 1850’s.
[xvi] There are some claims that people were harvesting materials from the river to make ink (墨), but I can’t verify them. I think these may be folk etymologies.
[xvii] I wrote about the place name Shakujii waaaaaaay back in the day.
[xviii] 水管橋 suikanbashi means water supply bridge. It’s easy and cheaper to pump fresh drinking water over a bridge than it is to dig deep under deep rivers – or to dam up the river to build an underwater pipeline. Tōkyō has so many waterways, that water supply bridges (essentially a pipe, sometimes with a pedestrian or some other bridge attached to it) are a very common thing due to their cost effectiveness.
[xix] Wanna know what Keisei means? Check this shit out, son.
[xx] Yes, that TEPCO, 東京電力 Tōkyō Den’ryoku Tōkyō Electric, the same clowns who are still mishandling the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Anyways, this bridge is just a bunch of power lines.
[xxi] Coming back to this place name sometime in the future.
[xxii] You can bet your left testicle I’ll be covering this place name. Too good to pass up.
[xxiii] More about the Tōbu Line here.
[xxiv] There’s an article for that!
[xxv] Yup. Yet again I’m referring you to my train line article. I should revisit the topic… hmmmmm…
[xxvi] Sound familiar? I talked about this area before in a double dipper!
[xxvii] I’m starting to sound like a broken record… I talked about Sendai Horigawa before!
[xxviii] This area is referenced in my article on Mon’naka.
[xxix] I haven’t covered 佃 Tsukada yet, so there’s actually a lot to talk about this area… in the future.
[xxx] If you’ve been to Tōkyō, you probably know the Tsukishima Fish Market. This area also has an interesting history, but now is not the time to get into it.
12 thoughts on “The Sumida River”
Very interesting! I can’t wait to start learning Japanese when I go to Uni in September, and this has made me even more excited 😀
Thanks for the kind words. This subject has bored some readers but brought on board new readers, so I’m pleased. Glad to have you with us!
No problem, glad to be here 🙂
Interesting article. Thank you for posting it. We like to walk down the river from Arakawa Station to Tsjiki on the relatively new footpaths alongside the water. Takes a few hours but you get a very cool sense of Tokyo that you don’t get any other way.
Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading. I agree that you can get a very unique perspective of the city along the rivers, especially given that some rivers travel through a variety unique spots in the city, many of which are ordinarily out of the way for most people.
Geez — I feel we are kindred spirits or something. A couple months ago, I was doing a ton of research on Edo era rivers. So the “snarkiness” of this post in particular resonates with me. Ha.
I love looking at Edo era maps because of the rivers. It seems no two maps show them in the same place, or with the same name. Yeah, that’s part of the charm of pre/early modern cartography, but it’s also a pain for those of us trying to understand Edo’s geography a bit more. When I was looking through stuff, I just ended up jotting down several names for the same river, then tracing their locations, and kind of cross-referencing with tidbits of info. Of course, my outline became terribly chaotic, but that can be sorted later.
Anyway, great post(s) as usual (referring to the river posts). Definitely not boring me.
Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words. “Snarky” It’s a blog so I get to be myself, lol. It is terribly chaotic, and I’m trying avoid going into the minute changes in the rivers for everyone’s sanity. Glad to hear it’s not boring you! Hope to have the next post out on Friday or Saturday.
Haha — I wouldn’t have it any other way. Definitely looking forward to your future river ramblings. By the way, some of the fruits of my research are available via this project:
Don’t mean to shamelessly promote — genuinely thought you might have some interest in it. 🙂
Superb blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
Would you advise starting with a free platform
like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there
that I’m totally confused .. Any tips? Kudos!