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What does Azumabashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 1, 2015 at 3:18 am

吾妻橋
Azumabashi (my wife bridge, but more at “Azuma Bridge”)

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?! Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!! Now I remember!

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?!
Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!!
Now I remember!

Today we’re going to look at one of Tōkyō’s most iconic bridges in one of Tōkyō’s most popular tourist destinations near 浅草 Asakusa and 東京スカイツリー Tōkyō Sukaitsurī Tōkyō Skytree. Stand on the bridge and take in the sight of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. I guarantee you’ll be in awe of the river that gave life to this part of the city. You can watch it flow out into the bay that also made this area an important part of town as far back as the Kamakura Period.

5 bridges spanned the Sumida River in the Edo Period. Azumabashi was the last one built. In 1769, a local merchant and priest headed a group that petitioned the shōgunate to build a privately held bridge as an alternative to the 竹町の渡し Takechō no Watashi Takechō Ferry Crossing[i]. The shōgunate approved the project and after 5 years of construction, the first wood bridge was completed in 1774 during the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu[ii].

Two geisha on Azumabashi throwing a bunch of crap into the river or something. Littering is bad, mkay?

The bridge was initially called 大川橋 Ōkawabashi Ōkawa Bridge a reference to the 大川 Ōkawa Big River, one of the popular names of the Sumida River[iii]. Edoites, who seemed to have nicknames for freaking everything, casually called it 東橋 Higashibashi (which can also be read as Azumabashi) which literally means “the east bridge.” Interestingly, it was a toll bridge. It cost 弐問 ni mon 2 mon[iv] per person to cross… unless you were a samurai, then it was free. Bitches love samurai.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn't about truth in advertising, it's about a feeling... much like Japanese advertising today. Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn’t about truth in advertising, it’s about a feeling… much like Japanese advertising today.
Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Anyhoo, the “East Bridge” was said to be extremely well built. In fact, in 1786 the Sumida River flooded; one bridge was damaged and 2 others completely destroyed, but the East Bridge withstood the flood and didn’t sustain any damage. As a result, shōgunate rewarded the people who designed and built the bridge. It’s said that around this time, the kanji and pronunciation 東 higashi/azuma (east) were informally changed to 吾嬬 azuma which means “my wife” but can also refer to the east. The name is a reference to a nearby shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

In 1876 (Meiji 9), the bridge was renovated and the name was formally registered as 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge[v]. Coincidentally, this was the last wooden incarnation of the bridge. In 1885 (Meiji 18), there was a massive flood that ripped the 千住大橋 Senju Ōhashi Great Senju Bridge from its base and sent the bridge down the river at full speed until it smashed into Azumabashi causing irreparable damage. Daaaaaaang.

I can't find an actual photo of the wooden bridge. This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the last photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

This is the only photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

In 1887 (Meiji 20), a modern truss bridge built of steel was erected. This was the first of its kind on the Sumida River – evidence of how important the bridge had become over the years. Originally built for pedestrians, a signal system and tracks were later installed to allow pedestrians and trolley service to utilize the bridge. In 1923, the wooden portion of the bridge was burnt away in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. The bridge was maintained in a temporary state on a shoestring budget while Tōkyō rebuilt herself. Finally, in 1931 the current steel and concrete bridge was built and stands to this day.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.
Notice they have viewing walkways on both sides of the main thoroughfare. That was for viewing the city and the far off mountains.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

So What About That Shrine?

The bridge takes its name from an ancient shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine on a road and river route to the east of the bridge. Apparently, it was quite a splendid shrine with excellent pedigree in those days. However, today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha).

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha). The shrine was located in a large grove of trees called Azuma Mori (Azuma Forest).

The shrine claims a mythological provenance. It’s located in 墨田区立花 Sumida-ku Tachibana – said to derive from 弟橘姫 Ototachibana-hime Princess Ototachibana, wife of 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru, or as I like to call him, Captain Japan[vi]. In Japanese mythology, Captain Japan embarked on a triumphant 東征 Tōsei Eastern Expedition to conquer Eastern Japan in the name of the Emperor. Long story short, his wife, Princess Ototachibana, had to throw herself into the sea to appease the 神 kami spirits of the Pacific Ocean to ensure Captain Japan’s safe passage. When her personal effects washed ashore, people would bury them in small mounds called 吾妻塚 azumazuka “my wife mounds.” Many of these mounds became 吾妻神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrines, literally “my wife shrines.” These mounds and shrines can be found all over Japan. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what kind of personal effects the shrine claims to have washed ashore in the area, it was a small shred of her clothing[vii].

Hi! I'm Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Hi! I’m Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Azuma Shrine today

Azuma Shrine today

Alright, so that’s it. The first article of the year. Hope you liked it!

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__________________________
[i]
The Takechō Ferry was where most men would begin their trip to Yoshiwara. Even though the bridge was built, ferry service seems to have continued right up to 1876 (Meiji 9).
[ii] For those of you scratching your head, he was the 10th shōgun.
[iii] The name Sumida River wasn’t officially applied to the whole river until after the Edo Period. See my article here.
[iv] I’m not sure how to convert mon into modern currency, but this was just pocket change at the time. Samurai Archives has a great article on currency and it mentions that 8 mon would buy one piece of low quality sushi (today that would be about ¥100-¥120 yen). 16 mon would get you a bowl of soba (today that would be about ¥200-¥400 in front of a train station for shitty soba). Now the part I’m curious about, 300-500 mon would get you one night with a prostitute in 宿場町 shukuba machi a post town (today 40 minutes at a ピンサロ pinsaro pink salon in 静岡県沼津市 Shizuoka-ken Numazu-shi Numazu City, Shizuoka would set you back between ¥4000-¥8000 depending on the quality of the establishment and girls). I have no idea if comparing those things is even realistic, but whatever…
[v] If you’ve been a long time reader, you’ll be aware that the Tokugawa Shōgunate wasn’t really in the business of going around assigning official names to things.
[vi] Rest assured, I’ll go into more detail when I write about Tachibana.
[vii] Is it just me or does this sound like people were venerating trash that washed up on the beach?

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