The Tama River


(“super scratchy river,” more at unknown)

A typical river crossing in the Edo Period
A typical river crossing in the Edo Period

Hello and welcome back to the clusterfuck of river-related bullshit that JapanThis! has recently become. For my own sanity, the river posts require time off. Also, my day job has become busier recently. To make matters more complicated, I just took a trip to Kyōto and had to edit the photos and I’m in the middle of reading Romulus Hillsborough’s latest book, which I will be reviewing shortly. Needless to say, I’m fucking busy right now. But anyways, we’ve got another river to check off the list 7 rivers that I promised[i].

So, please forgive my lateness and please bear with me. I thought this one would be one of the easy ones. Clearly, I was totally mistaken. But I found a way to rejuvenate my love for writing the blog again.

Let’s get it on, my brother/sister. It’s time to go deeeeeeeeeeep.

OK, so let’s get down and dirty. 

shinsengumi teams

Tama’s Image in my Mind

When I hear the name “Tama,” I think of the phrase 多摩の誇り Tama no Hokori the Pride of Tama which was used repeatedly in the 2004 NHK 大河ドラマ Taiga Dorama Taiga Drama, 新撰組!  Shinsengumi![ii] The upper echelons of the group were natives of 武蔵国多摩郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District, Musashi Province. The Shinsengumi’s 局長 kyokuchō commander, 近藤勇 Kondō  Isami was originally from present day 調布 Chōfu which is located in the Tōkyō Metropolis today[iii]. The 副局長 fuku-kyokuchō vice-commander, 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō[iv] was from present day 日野 Hino which is located near present day 立川 Tachikawa. In my article on Musashi, I mentioned that the name “Musashi” has a very country image these days. In the Edo Period, this image was even stronger because the area was so outside the city limits of the shōgun’s capital. It’s important to understand that Edo and Tōkyō are not – and never have been – mutually interchangeable terms, especially in regards to territory. Anyways, as a region, Tama conjurors up an image of Chōfu and Hino, and as such, to me that means “Shinsengumi.”

This is a little creepy idol worship, but… the Shinsengumi got the short end of the stick by the Meiji Coup.

The other thing that comes to mind is BBQ.

As an American, I assume you can barbecue anywhere – usually your own backyard. But in Japan’s crowded cities, towns, and villages, you can’t just put a BBQ pit in your backyard and have a party. Because of that, rivers are the de factō place to grill food and hang with your friends. The Tama River runs through the border of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture. As you can imagine, the metropolis starts to melt away into countryside here. So it’s along this river that Tōkyōites and neighboring denizens have found common ground for barbecuing and all the debauchery ensues. All kinds of parties go down along the river. I’ve been to a range of events for the whole family to events that would even make Tokugawa Ienari blush[v].

The river isn't really the focus of the BBQ...
The river isn’t really the focus of the BBQ…

But the reality is, the 多摩地方 Tama chihō Tama region is essentially the bulk of 西東京 Nishi-Tōkyō Western Tōkyō, ie; the area outside of the 23 Wards. It’s countryside[vi], but it’s not complete flyover territory. 青梅 Ōme is famous for its mountains and autumn colors. 八王子 Hachiōji is famous for a Late Hōjō clan castle that was built to last for generations only to be burnt to the ground by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590 in one of his last moves to unify the country under his rule as regent of the emperor. Oh, and 吉祥寺 Kichijōji is in the Tama region. Kichijōji is one of the most desirable places to live in Tōkyō, despite not being in the 23 Wards[vii].

West Tokyo. That's right. This is Tokyo.
West Tokyo.
That’s right. This is Tokyo.

Tama River Trivia

Despite the association with the Shinsengumi, who were eventually 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Edo Shōgunate, the river never flowed through Edo. Even today, the river doesn’t flow through central Tōkyō, though it does mark a boundary between Tōkyō Metropolis and Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Tama River course.
The Tama River course.

At first site, the river looks quite shallow and unimpressive, though much of the river’s course is accompanied by tall, ugly, concrete levees. But, don’t let the river’s shallowness fool you! The river actually floods often; those ugly levees have saved countless lives and provided safe and secure areas for barbecues.

stone levees....
stone levees….

Because it never ran through a major urban center or capital, the river’s course hasn’t changed dramatically over the years.  Archaeology seems to show that people lived along the river since Paleolithic times. There are many 古墳  kofun burial mounds located along the river. The river may have played a role in spreading the culture of 邪馬台国 Yamatai Koku the Yamato State and burial mound culture.

This doesn't look like much, but it's a kofun (burial mound) in Tamagawa burial mound park.
This doesn’t look like much, but it’s a kofun (burial mound) in Tamagawa burial mound park.

Some people claim there are piranha in the Tama River. There were reports of 4 piranha pulled out of the in river in 2010. The English language media dubbed the river the “Tamazon.” While alien fauna are popping up in rivers all over the world, I find it hard to believe that piranha are flourishing in the Tama River. But who knows… maybe you next BBQ by the river may include an uninvited meat-eater.

Google "piranha attack victim" at your own risk.
Google “piranha attack victim” at your own risk.

The Legal Definition of the River

Today the river is defined as the stretch of flowing water from 笠取山 Kasadori Yama Mt. Kasadori to 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay at 羽田 Haneda[viii]. Mt Kasadori, by the way, lies at the border of 甲州市 Kōshū-shi Kōshū City (former 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province and modern 山梨県 Yamanashi-ken Yamanashi Prefecture) and 秩父市 Chichibu-shi Chichibu City (former 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province and modern 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Dasaitama Prefecture).

From Mt. Kasadori, it flows eastward to the hilly and rural part of Western Tokyo. At Hamura, an otherwise unremarkable backwater of rural Tōkyō, is the source of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tama River Aqueduct – which we will talk about in a minute.


Etymology, Part One (Kanji)

I hate to say this, but this is gonna be messy. Time and time again, we’ve seen 当て字 ateji, that is to say, easily understood kanji that have no meaning, but can be easily read. The kanji used for the Tama River are ateji… or possibly not. It’s a really convoluted story and I’m not exactly how to present the facts in the best way.

First let me say, we don’t know – and probably can’t know – the exact origin of the name of this river. Throughout the regions where the river flows there are a few place names that seem to be related – nothing that really ties everything together etymologically speaking, but you’ll see. From time immemorial, the name タマ Tama has been used in the area, but different areas used different kanji. In the Pre-Modern Era, people weren’t such sticklers for standards – as we’ve seen time and time here at JapanThis!, and as such it wasn’t until the Meiji Era that we started seeing efforts to standardizing the Japanese Language. Even in the Post-War years, which saw sweeping reforms to 標準語  Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, allowances have always been made for regional cultural differences and traditions – or sometimes a train station just needs to differentiate itself from another train station. Shit happens.

Since the name goes back to some of the earliest extant documents of Japan, there is reason to suspect that the name predates literacy in Japan. If that’s the case, the name could not even be Japonic in origin. But just like all the etymologies I’m gonna throw out there, it’s all speculation.

Ferry service across the Tama River
Ferry service across the Tama River

Kanji Chaos!

So let’s look at all that kanji, then, shall we? Keep in mind, this list is by no means exhaustive, but these are words said to be related to the river and/or region.

many, multi-;
chafe, polish, scrape;
jewel, ball, pebble;river
Tamagawa Jōsui
jewel, ball, pebble;river;
Tama Reien
many, multi-;
polish, brush, improve;
usually written without kanji, but the meaning is 二子玉川 “Twin Tamagawa Villages”
interior, deep;
many, multi-;polish, brush, improve
interior, deep;many, multi-;chafe, polish, scrape
many, multi-;chafe, polish, scrape
cape, promontory;
jewel, ball
Recently, I’ve been told that hating on Saitama by calling it “Dasaitama” has become unclassy…
or has it?

Trends in the Spelling

Although none of this was standardized until recent years, there are some trends in the spelling that take us back to the first documentation of the river in written Japanese. None of this really helps out with the true derivation, but it does give us a fantastic lesson in how kanji was used and how it really muddles up efforts to study diachronic changes in Japanese.

In the Nara Period, there is a vague reference to the river, though we do know if this is upstream or downstream. The reference occurs in the 万葉集 Man’yōsha The Compilation of a 1000 Leaves, and the spelling is 多麻河 Tama-gawa. This book was written at a time when kanji use in Japanese hadn’t been standardized, so the kanji are more or less phonetic – though not 100% so.  The literal meaning of the kanji are “much,” “hemp,” and “river.” We’ll come back to this later.

In the Heian Period, we find a few references to the midsection of the river as 武蔵国石瀬河 Musashi no Kuni Iwasegawa Iwase River of Musashi Province. The literal meaning of the kanji are “pebble/jewel,” “shallow,” and “river. We’ll come back to this later.

From the Kamakura Period, when we finally get more consistent documents from Eastern Japan, until the Edo Period, the upper portion of the river seems to have been known as the 丹波川 Tabagawa. The kanji literally mean “red,” “waves,” and “river.”[x] Pretty sure we’re coming back to this later, too.

In the Edo Period, the spelling 玉川 Tama-gawa “pebble river” seems to have become a standard in many documents; areas surrounding the river in particular came to be spelled this way. A few variations that I mentioned earlier persisted, but for whatever reason, a trend towards this new spelling – admittedly easier to read – had begun. The old kanji 多摩 Tama didn’t fade into oblivion, but two contenders for the correct writing became dominant in the Edo Period. A third spelling, 多磨 tama would exist until the 1920’s, when it got a cemetery and train station named after it – and it persists today. The reason for this was to honor the name of 多磨村 Tama Mura Tama Village, the original village in that area.

This sign shows both spellings 多摩川 and 玉川 side by side.
This sign shows both spellings 多摩川 and 玉川 side by side.

Etymology, Part Two (Folklore)

There are a few theories floating around… None of them are very satisfying.

➊ As I mentioned, at one point, the upper portion of the river was called 丹波川 Taba-gawa; this is ateji used to represent タバガワ出 Taba-gawa no de. This name literally means “outflowing of the Taba River” and referred to a 手離れる出 which looks like te hanareru de in modern Standard Japanese, but in the ancient local dialect was ta banareru de. The meaning is that the river that separates from 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province (modern Yamanashi Prefecture) at this place[xi]. The name was either corrupted or underwent a natural sound change from Taba-gawa to Tama-gawa[xii]. There is a village near the headwaters called 山梨県丹波山村 Yamanashi-ken Tabayama Mura, Tabayama Village, Yamanashi Prefecture which preserves the first 2 kanji. In that area, the river is locally called 丹波川 with 2 variant readings: Taba-gawa and Tanba-gawa.

I don’t know enough about Old Japanese or the dialects of the region, so let’s take this one with a grain of salt, but preservation of these ancient kanji is impressive.

The Tabagawa (ie; Tamagawa) in Tabayama Village.
The Tabagawa (ie; Tamagawa) in Tabayama Village.

 多摩 tama is ateji for /霊 tama (soul, spirit). This is a reference to the ancient kami 大国魂命 Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto[xiii]. This kami was the deification of the very province itself, in this case 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni or whatever territory the area was known as prior to the Taika Reforms (some argue that it may have been called 魂国 Tama no Kuni Tama Province). By this thinking, the river was sacred to or controlled by Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto, or was a physical manifestation of the kami itself. As this was either Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto’s river or Tama Province’s river it was called 魂川 Tamagawa (the kami’s river), the kanji was changed to 多摩川  Tamagawa because the ateji were presumably easier to read phonetically.

This is interesting. The only part of it that jumps out at me is that 魂川 isn’t difficult to read. In fact, I can’t think of another way to read the name in Modern Japanese. While the name is clearly of the Yamatai culture, this could also be syncretism at work, merging a pre-Yamatai deity or state with a Yamatai one.

Ōkuni Shrine in Fuchū in the Tama Region. Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto isn't enshrined here per se, but this is most definitely a Kuni Tama, a Shintō tutelary deity of a Province.
Ōkuni Shrine in Fuchū in the Tama Region. Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto isn’t enshrined here per se, but this is most definitely a Kuni Tama, a Shintō tutelary deity of a Province.

➌ The name comes from the ateji  多麻 tama which means “an abundance of hemp.” The idea is that a buttload of hemp naturally grew along the banks of the river and came to be farmed by the local people. Supporters of this theory point at 麻布 Azabu, 麻生 Asaoku, 調布 Chōfu, and 砧 Kinuta as place names that may have similar origins.

Nearby Chōfu, Asaoku, and Kinuta absolutely give a level of plausibility to this particular theory. Azabu may have a similar origin, but has no connection to the Tama River.

Whatever the origin of the name, in 712, the name was first recorded as 多麻 “abundance of hemp,” but over time came to be 多摩 “a lot of chafing.” Hemp was a common material for making clothes. But “a lot of chafing” is just bad. So it’s no wonder why the shōgunate preferred 玉川 “pebble river” over a “hurtful river.” But just as the shōgunate didn’t survive the Meiji Coup of 1868, their terminology scattered like their retainers and so we’re left with an etymological mess.

Japanese hemp.
Japanese hemp.

 Oh, I forgot to mention this one. It’s often repeated that he name is derived from the 玉川兄弟  Tama Kyōdai the Tamagawa brothers, 玉川庄右衛門  Tamagawa Shōemon and 玉川清右衛門 Tamagawa Seiemon. This fraternal team managed the excavation of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tamagawa Aqueduct in 1653. Early in the Edo Period, the shōgunate realized that the main aqueduct, the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui was insufficient for the city, whose size and population had skyrocketed due to the policy of sankin-kōtai.

This etymology is demonstrably false.

Originally, the brothers were farmers who lived along the river. They took the job and finished in roughly 18 months. For the efficiency and diligence in building a superior aqueduct to the existing Kanda Aqueduct, the shōgunate rewarded them with hereditary management of the aqueduct, samurai status, and a family name, 玉川 Tamagawa. As mentioned before, this was the preferred spelling of the shōgunate. But more importantly, this was a great gift that could be passed down through the family forever.However, that was not to be. The Tamagawa surname was abolished when it was discovered that the 3rd generation head of the family – for his own financial gain – was pimping out Tamagawa Aqueduct water to the locals. Not only was he stealing from the shōgun, he proved himself to be an ingrate to the very system that had raised his family’s fortunes from peasant to samurai.

What a dick.

Not to understand what the Tamagawa Brothers accomplished, here's the entire stretch of the aqueduct. Click to enlarge.
Not to understand what the Tamagawa Brothers accomplished, here’s the entire stretch of the aqueduct.
Click to enlarge.
The Tamagawa Brothers, (It's just a statue, not the real guys...)
The Tamagawa Brothers,
(It’s just a statue, not the real guys…)

Today How Are the Kanji Used?

The kanji 玉川 Tamagawa (the Edo Period kanji preferred by the shōgunate) is now generally applied to place names associated with the river basin, while the older 多摩川 Tamagawa refers to the river itself and the 多摩川水系 Tamagawa Suikei Tamagawa river system, ie; actual waterways that diverge from the river itself, man-made or otherwise. That said, it seems this usage is not entirely uniform. For example, 多摩市 Tama-shi Tama City uses the name of the river.

The famous hanami spot, 多磨霊園 Tama Reien Tama Cemetery, uses a variant for /ma/, but it’s clearly based on the pre-Edo Period version. The reason for this difference is based solely local tradition. By the way, if you’re a fan of the psychopathic, right wing author, 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, after he committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment in 1970, he was interred at Tama Cemetery. If you want to take a selfie with a douchebag’s grave, you can do it here.

Tama Cemetery.
Tama Cemetery. Mishima would love the pink.

二子玉川 Futako-Tamagawa (often misread as Futago-Tamagawa) is not an official place name. It’s just a train station name, but as is often the case in Tōkyō, areas tend to be referred to by their station names.  Many stations and business names in the “Futako-Tamagawa area” bear the name 玉川, but the name 玉川 rarely appears as a postal address. 二子村 Futako Mura Futako Village was a village located on the Kanagawa side of the river in present day 川崎市 Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City. On the present day Tōkyō-side of the river in present day Setagaya-ku, was 玉川村 Tamagawa Mura Tamagawa Village. This part of the river was part of an important ferry that took passengers back and forth between Tamagawa Village and Futako Village which was called the 二子之渡し Futako no Watashi, meaning something like “the twin village crossing.”[xv]


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[i] Note to self: never promise more than 3 articles on a subject you know nothing about yet.
[ii] If you don’t know who the Shinsengumi were… I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog. But that said, you can find a quick description here at Samurai Archives.
[iii] Though his family’s dōjō was located in Edo in the 柳町 Yanagi-chō neighborhood. I have an article about that are here.
[iv] The Hijikata family still owns property in the area, promotes Shinsengumi-related tourism, and still teaches 天然理心流 ten’nen rishin’ryū – the style of sword play taught at the Kondō dōjō.
[v] The Great Grilled Tama River Orgy of 2012 is a post for another day.
[vi] Here’s what Wikipedia says about former Tama District.
[vii] I’ve talked about Kichijōji many times before. Check out some of my articles here.
[viii] See my article about Haneda here.
[ix] I use the term “meaning” in the loosest of possible senses.
[x] We’ve seen references to “red rivers” many times before, but this one comes to mind first.
[xi] 手離れる出 ta banareru de seems pretty cryptic to me, but it seems to mean “the outflowing [where the river] lets hands go.” In Modern Japanese 手離れ tebanare means a child who doesn’t always need to hold mommy’s hand (it can also mean “completing a project”).
[xii] We’ve seen this sound change many times here at JapanThis!. The examples I like to give are modern Japanese variants さむい samui vs さぶい sabui (cold) and さみしい samishii vs さびしい sabishii (lonely).
[xiii] This kami’s name means something like the “His Majesty, Spirit of the Great Country.”
[xv] Today, the Tōkyō-side of the river, in Setagaya, there is a postal code 玉川. The Kanagawa-side does not have any postal codes with this name that I know of but buildings and businesses absolutely use it. That said, Kanagawa isn’t Tōkyō so I’m not covering it for this blog.

3 thoughts on “The Tama River

  1. These articles are fucking awesome, dude. So much detail.

    I especially love all the pictures. I never thought reading about a fucking river would be so fucking interesting. Keep up the fucking work!

    By the way, I just bought a t-shirt from your Cafe Press shop. Can’t wait to impress the ladies with a fucking Japanese history t-shirt!

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