Japanese History

What does Tsukuda mean?

A staple of modern Japan cuisine began in the heart of Edo on an island most Tōkyōites have never heard of!


(a cultivated rice field)

Edo’s river town origins mixed with her ultra-modern skyscraper imagine. Tsukuda a sight to behold.

佃 Tsukuda is an area in 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward. These days it’s not very famous. There are no train stations bearing its name. Unless you’re a Japanese History nerd or live in the area, there’s probably no reason to ever go there. But this small, out of the way area was one of the most famous spots of Edo and has bestowed a lasting legacy upon Japanese cuisine. Tsukuda has humble commoner roots as well as a connection to not only the samurai class, but to the very shōgunate itself.

On the surface, the kanji itself is not very helpful in figuring out where this place name came from. But actually, the origin is very simple and we’ll get to that in a minute. For the time being, I can tell you that the kanji 佃 tsukuda refers to a “cultivated rice field.” However this area was never used for rice production.

Tokugawa Ieyasu Had Some Fishing Buddies… in Ōsaka?

In 1590, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo and began his urban planning efforts. He needed to ensure a solid infrastructure for his new home, 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. Supplies, water, and food needed a way into the castle. Edo was located on a pretty bad ass bay and had a strong tradition in fishings so securing fresh fish and other seafood for the castle was an absolute priority.

This is a great picture of Edo Castle.
But see that big tower in the back? That amazing tower was built in 1607 but burnt in 1657. For most of the Edo Period, there was no tower in Edo. The shogunate knew the city was secure.

The Connection is Unclear but…

In 摂津国西成郡佃村 Settsu no Kuni Nishi Narigōri Tsukuda Mura Tsukuda Village, Nishi Narigōri, Settsu Province[i] there lived a certain fisherman by the name of 森孫右衛門 Mori Magoemon who was quite famous for his fishing techniques. Ieyasu invited him to be one of the main purveyors of fish and seafood to Edo Castle. He gave Magoemon some land in the 日本橋 Nihonbashi area and granted him control of an unnamed sandbar at the mouth of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[ii]. The sandbar ideal for keeping boats that could go out into 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay for fishing, and yet have fast access to the rivers and channels of the city.


Modern Tsukuda carries on much of its Edo Period tradition beautifully. Even though the design of this restaurant is from the Showa Era, it would be immediately recognizable to any person from the Edo Period just by the architecture.

Ōsaka Fishermen Take Control of the Island

Mori Magoemon accepted the offer and came to Edo with 32 other fishermen. They found the “sandbar” to be of a fairly substantial size were able to build a few permanent buildings and docks and could use it as a base for their business. They made a deal with the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate to send their first catches and biggest catches to Edo Castle and the rest could be sold at a profit. At the beginning of the Edo Period it was a risk (Ieyasu wasn’t shōgun yet, just a very powerful daimyō[iii]) but it turned out to be a pretty sweet deal. As the city expanded and the Tokugawa power grew, these fishermen from Ōsaka found themselves running one of the largest seafood concessions in the new metropolis. Magoemon’s son[iv], 森九左衛門 Mori Kūzaemon[v], established a wholesale fish market in Nihonbashi[vi]. That private fish market was the origin of the 日本橋魚市場 Nihonbashi Uo’ichiba Nihonbashi Fish Market[vii], Edo’s most famous fish market.

The “sandbar,” which was actually more of an island at the mouth of the Sumida River, came to be referred to by the fishermen from 佃村 Tsukuda Mura Tsukuda Village as 佃嶋 Tsukuda-jima Tsukuda Island after the place of their birth[viii]. However, maps at the time label the area 森嶋 Morishima (or Mori-jima) and 鎧嶋 Yoroi-jima[ix], but this was all soon to change.

For most of the Edo Period, the island looked like this (after the shogunate subsidized expansion in 1645).
Note the red area. That is Sumiyoshi Shrine, a branch of shrine of an Osaka-based shrine.

The Island Becomes Home to Commoners and Samurai  

In 1645, 3rd shōgun 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu granted the fishing concession rights to expand the sandbar with landfill. The shōgunate subsidized the project and extended the island’s north bank substantially creating a massive island in the Sumida River delta. Shōgun Iemitsu gave[x] the north bank of the island to a certain 石川八左衛門 Ishikawa Hachizaemon. Because of this, the north bank of the island came to be known as 石川嶋 Ishikawa-jima Ishikawa Island.

By this time, the island was famous first and foremost for providing seafood to the shōgun at Edo Castle and secondly for providing fresh fish to the citizens of central Edo. This location served both the commoners and samurai. The walk from Tsukuda to 大名小路 daimyō koji daimyō alley[xi] would have been 30-40 minutes tops on foot. That meant the most elite lords who served the Tokugawa could get a fresh fish in less than an hour. If the delivery was sent by boat, maybe we can halve that to about 15 minutes. Tsukuda was a force to be reckoned with. It was prime bayside property. It had access to Edo’s major river delta. It was enfranchised by the shōgunate. It was also producing a new, local product that would put the name Tsukuda in the history books. That product was called 佃煮 Tsukuda-ni. But let’s talk about that later…

Tokugawa Ienari looking quite dapper and not-so-riddled by syphilis.

For most of the Edo Period, Tsukudajima and Ishikawajima were marked as separate on maps (presumably because the south bank was for lowly fishermen and the north bank was a samurai’s fief). However, in 1817, a monumental land survey of shōgunate holdings and later the entire realm was undertaken. The Party Shōgun, 徳川家斉 Tokugawa Ienari[xii], commissioned a map made by “western standards[xiii].” The map in question is known as 江戸実測図 Edo Jissokuzu A Realistic Map of Edo[xiv].  At this time, the area began appearing on maps as 佃島 Tsukudajima with no regard to the north/south differences[xv].

Inō Tadataka – the first “modern” map maker of Japan.

Modern Tsukuda 1-chōme and the northern part of Tsukuda 2-chōme make up the former Tsukuda-jima and Ishikawa-jima. Now the island is supplemented by reclaimed land that includes 月島 Tsukishima, 勝鬨 Kachidoki, and 晴海 Harumi. The collective area is generally referred to as 月島地域 Tsukishima Chiiki the Tsukishima Area or just Tsukishima, though technically speaking 中央区佃 Chūō-ku Tsukuda Tsukuda, Chūō Ward is a real postal code.

If you compare the blocks, and bridges, you can still make out much of the late Edo Period layout of the island despite all of the expansion. The river’s path has also been modified since the Edo Period.
The easiest way to get your sense of size and direction is to use Sumiyoshi Shrine as an anchor.

Why Did Ishikawajima Disappear?

It didn’t really.

And if you look at the map above this paragraph, you’ll see it didn’t. Scroll up a little higher to review the Edo Period map.

Today there are no official references to the Ishikawa family except for a park called 石川島公園 Ishikawajima Kōen Ishikawa Park and 石川島記念病院 Ishikawajima Kinen Byōin Ishikawajima Memorial Hospital. Interestingly enough, in the bakumatsu, the land called Ishikawajima was bought by 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain to be used as a shipyard – presumably to follow through with their psychopathic 尊王攘夷 sonnō jōi[xvi] philosophy. This happened in 1853. After the Meiji Coup, the shipyard was privatized in 1876 (Meiji 9) and became 石川島造船所 Ishikawajima Zōsensho Ishikawajima Shipyard[xvii]. Until the shutdown of the shipyard in 1979, much of the traditional atmosphere of Tsukudajima was preserved.

Ishikawajima Shipyard in the Meiji Era

After the shutdown of Ishikawajima Shipyard, the old facilities were cleared out and real estate developers descended upon the area with a vengeance. They began throwing up massive タワーマンション tawā manshon sky rise apartment buildings. This forever changed the look of this traditional area via 都心回帰 toshin kaiki – renewing antiquated or depressed areas as modern residential areas desirable to families. Toshin kaiki is essentially the Japanese version of gentrification. As a result, the area is mix of modern sky rise apartments towering over traditional 1 and 2-story wooden residences. You can still get a feel of the Edo Period – or at least the pre-bubble Shōwa Period – but it’s fast disappearing. The Tōkyō Metropolitan Government has deemed the traditional wooden buildings and their tiny traditional alleys a fire hazard. In order to protect the city from a conflagration in the event of a major earthquake, in 2012 they enacted a 10-year plan to rid the city of old wooden buildings. The traditional legacy of Tsukudajima will surely disappear sooner rather than later.

A “panoramic” shot of Tsukuda 1-chōme in 1989.

About The Name

I’ve been throwing around the names Tsukudajima and Ishikawajima. Some local residents still refer to the area as Tsukudajima, but in 1967, 佃島 Tsukudajima and 石川島 Ishikawajima were merged into an official postal code as 佃 Tsukuda. Interestingly, while the former Ishikawajima has been expanded greatly and is more or less unrecognizable when compared to its Edo Period predecessor, Tsukuda still retains much of the original street plan. Even the shape strongly resembles the shape of the island in the late Edo Period.

Tsukuda 1-chōme in January, 1988.

Tsukudajima: The Flavor of Geography in Your Mouth


simmering, boiling

Tsukudani, in its most generic sense, is a vegetable or seafood simmered in soy sauce and sugar, dried, and then served as a topping on rice or eaten as a side dish. There is probably an infinite variety of tsukudani available all across Japan. Today it is as ubiquitous as 御新香 o-shinko Japanese-style pickled veggies – second only to… I dunno… rice? This type of dish is so widespread and so entrenched in the pantheon of modern Japanese cuisine that few people even give a thought to where it began. Well, of course, it originated on Tsukudajima in Edo.

Kelp tsukudani.
The modern versions use sugar to make the taste mild.
While Edo Period food would be a bit bland to the modern international palate, tsukudani was considered quite flavorful. This was a hallmark of the Edo flavor of Kanto in comparison to the light flavors of Kyoto.

The Origin of Tsukudani

When the fishermen of Tsudajima had bad weather or bad fishing conditions, they wouldn’t have food for themselves or their families. Also, when they were on the boats fishing, they needed a kind of preserved food that was small and light and that they could take with them. For these times, the wives used cooking techniques called 煮付ける nitsukeru hard simmer and 煮切る nikiru reduce by simmering[xviii]. They would hard simmer very small fish, minnows, and shellfish in salt and soy sauce and boil it down until no liquid remained. The end result was a preserved food that could be stored for a rainy day or brought out to sea by the fishermen.

As Edo’s population exploded and prospered, it wasn’t long before the process was used for making a side dish or topping for rice, rather than a staple for starving fishermen[xix]. The simple and delicious seasoning combined with the unique, gelatinous texture was an instant hit with the 江戸っ子 Edokko Edoites. Tsukudani quickly became popular in the areas surrounding Tsukudajima and soon became one of many 江戸之名物 Edo no Meibutsu Special Dishes of Edo. Also, because it was a stable, preserved food, samurai serving sankin-kōtai service in Edo would bring it back to their domains as 御土産 o-miyage souvenirs for friends and family. As such, tsukudani – which was not difficult to replicate – spread throughout the samurai families of the various domains and many local variations began to develop among the households of the elite.

Edo-mae tsukudani made from seaweed.
It’s rice time, baby!!!

The Imperial Army placed huge orders for tsukudani in 1877 (Meiji 10) during the 西南戦争 Seinan Sensō the Satsuma Rebellion. It’s said that the dish endowed the emperor’s soldiers with such superhuman strength that Saigō Takamori actually never had a fighting chance[xx]. Again, in 1894 (Meiji 27), tsukudani played an important role in the Imperial Army’s strategy during the 日清戦争Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War[xxi]. After the wards, the soldiers came back to their hometowns with a taste for the real deal, the so-called 江戸前佃煮 Edomae tsukudani Edo Style Tsukudani. It’s after these two wars that the dish really took off with the common people. By the middle of the Meiji Period it had become a standard household side dish.

Note the gelatinous texture… that is the result of the cooking process.

With advent of modern packing, refrigeration, and other technological advances, tsukudani is an ubiquitous food throughout Japan. You can make it from pretty much anything given it is tiny enough or julienned small enough for the cooking process. The most popular form across the country is without a doubt 昆布佃煮 konbu tsukudani kelp tsukudani. The modern versions are often coated with sesame oil and sesame seeds for a richer flavor.

Shio-konbu (salted kelp), Tokyo’s new twist on Tsukudani.

Although it’s technically not tsukudani, one of my favorite toppings for cabbage is a tsukudani-inspired condiment called 塩昆布 shio konbu salty kelp. It’s not made through the simmering and boiling down process, but rather dried and cured with salt. The end result is similar to tsukudani but with a much more intense flavor that is aligned with the globalizing Japanese palate.

As I mentioned earlier, the dish was originated in a fishing community. It diversified to a point where marine vegetation came to be included. To this day, the most common forms of tsukudani are seafood and plant and fungus based. But there are always a few people who have to take a good idea and fuck it up for everyone. The word tsukudani has a dark side. Ask a person from the extreme country or far mountain villages[xxii] what tsukudani means and they may tell you that it’s something like 蝗佃煮 inago tsukudani. This dish is basically cooked locusts[xxiii]. Another rustic variation is ざざ虫佃煮 zaza mushi tsukudani. Zaza mushi refers to a variety of semi-aquatic insects in Nagano[xxiv]. Silk worms and bee larvæ[xxv] are also fair game for this type of insect tsukudani.

And there it is… tsukudani’s logical conclusion….

I’m a picky eater, but believe it or not, yours truly has actually eaten 蝗佃煮 inago tsukudani (locusts). The taste was actually good. But I have to be honest. I had to eat them with my eyes closed, because seeing segmented legs and robot-like antennæ is a major gross out.

Well… whatever. You only live once and sometimes having certain cultural experiences is worth stepping outside of your comfort zone. No regrets and all that shit.

Awwwwwwww yeah.


Support Japan This!

FollowJapan This! on Instagram
Japan This! on Facefook
Japan This! on Twitter
DonateSupport every article on Patreon
Donate BitCoin

Donate via Paypal


ExploreJapan This! Tours


[i] This is present day 大阪府大阪市西淀川区佃村 Ōsaka-fu Ōsaka-shi Nishi Yodogawa-ku Tsukuda Mura, Tsukuda Village, Nishi Yodogawa Ward, Ōsaka City, Ōsaka Prefecture.
[ii] Read more about the Sumida River here!
[iii] A daimyō who controlled the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces (Musashi, Sagami, Kazusa, Shimōsa, Awa, Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, and Hitachi) – most of the Kantō region.
[iv] By some accounts his first son, by other accounts his second son.
[v] Another possible reading is Kyūzaemon – both being equally ridiculous sounding names.
[vi] I have an article about Nihonbashi here.
[vii] Many other fishermen set up markets in the Nihonbashi area. Eventually these were consolidated to become the 日本橋魚河岸 Nihonbashi Uogashi Nihonbashi Riverside Fish Market. This was the largest fish market in Edo (and possibly the world). It was also the predecessor of Tōkyō’s world famous 築地市場 Tsukiji Shijō Tsukiji Market – but that’s a story for another day.
[viii] Remember, they came from Tsukuda Village in Settsu Province (present day Ōsaka).
[ix] The name 森嶋 Morishima derives from the family name 森 Mori who controlled the fishing concession on the island. The name 鎧嶋 Yoroijima (literally “armor island”) is a bit mysterious.
[x] I was going to use the verb “enfeof” but then I thought my own neologism “infief” would be better. Then I realized if modern spell checks don’t recognize either of those words, then neither will you, dear reader.
[xi] Modern day Hibiya, Yūraku-chō, Tōkyō Station, and Marunouchi.
[xii] #TeamIenari for life, y’all!
[xiii] And by “western,” we mean “Dutch.”
[xiv] This monumental survey and map-making project was conducted by 伊能忠敬 Inō Tadataka (merchant/surveyor) – he has his own stamp. He’s that important to Japanese history. He is known for completing the first map of Japan created using modern surveying techniques.
[xv] Interestingly, this is the same year Tokugawa Ienari deported Titia Bergsma. Titia sounds like “titty ya” but I assure you Ienari had no idea – if he had, he probably wouldn’t have deported her.
[xvi] I’m assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the basics, but just in case, sonnō jōi used by anti-foreign radicals. The word means “revere the emperor – expel the barbarians.”
[xvii] The company still exists, though. It’s called IHI Corporation in English. The Japanese name is 石川島播磨重工業株式会社 Ishikawajima-Harima Jūkōgyō Kabushiki Gaisha Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries. It’s a pretty major company. In 1995, the company merged with another company with a Bakumatsu connection, but since I think “business” is a boring ass topic, you can read more here, if you like.
[xviii] The entire process can also be described by a single Japanese word: 煮詰める nitsumeru the general word for “boiling down.”
[xix] Edo and fishing go hand in hand well into time immemorial. But after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the city prospered like no other city in Japan. Being a fisherman in a city of a million hungry people meant you probably weren’t going to go hungry.
[xx] OK, that’s actually not true.
[xxi] OK, that’s actually not true either, but it is true that as they had in the Satsuma Rebellion, the Imperial Army again relied heavily on tsukudani for troop rations.
[xxii] Niigata and Nagano, I’m looking at you.
[xxiii] 蝗 inago (also written in katakana as イナゴ or less commonly as 稲子) is sometimes translated as rice grasshopper. There are a variety of species in Japan and I assume they all taste more or less the same and that if you’re out in the rice paddies gathering up bugs to eat, you’re probably not terribly concerned with what species you’re getting so… let’s just go with “locust” as this is pretty much gonna cover everything.
[xxiv] Again, if you’re out there, you know, getting bugs for food. You’re probably not going to be too bothered by which species you get. This is also a reminder that every time you eat a lobster or crab or shrimp, you’re essentially eating an insect’s cousin.
[xxv] Bee larvæ, known as 蜂の子 hachi no ko “baby bees” in Japanese, is a subject worthy of discussion all on its own because there seem to be a variety of ways to make dishes from them.

One reply on “What does Tsukuda mean?”

Leave a Reply