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What does Eitaibashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 3, 2015 at 5:08 am


永代橋
Eitaibashi (eternity bridge, but more at “Eitai Bridge”)

Eitaibashi at night.

Eitaibashi at night.

A few days ago, I wished everyone a happy new year and I promised you 2 articles about bridges on the Sumida River that were named after shrines. I’m pretty sure I followed through with that promise[i]. So, please accept my humble apologies as I present a 3rd article about a bridge on the Sumida River. This time the bridge is associated with a temple instead of a shrine.

Let me briefly outline the history of this area first. First there was an island, then there was a temple, next there was a birthday, and finally there was a bridge.

It's become a fairly photogenic bridge over the years.

It’s become a fairly photogenic bridge over the years.

The Kanji You Should Know For This Place Name

永代
eitai

forever, eternity,
endless generations


shima/-jima

island


tera, –ji

temple


hashi
/-bashi

bridge

Prior to the coming of the Tokugawa, there was small fishing village located on a shoal in the shallows of the present day 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. The area was called 永代島 Eitai-jima Eitai Island (literally “the eternal island”)[ii]. Once Tokugawa hegemony was established, the area was connected to the mainland by landfill in order to encourage business. A Buddhist temple was established in the area in 1624 during the first year of 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu’s reign[iii]. That temple was called 永代寺 Eitai-ji Eitai Temple. It took its name from the name of the island, so the name means “Eitai Island” → “Temple of the Unending Generations.” Anyways, it’s just an auspicious name, so don’t read too much into it. A few years later in 1627, a major shrine was established here called 富岡八幡宮 Tomioka Hachiman-gū[iv] and placed under the supervision of Eitai-ji. This kind of rapid progress is typical of the reigns of the first 3 shōguns.

Today, Eitai-ji is a shadow of its former self.

Today, Eitai-ji is a shadow of its former self.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu is still a force to be reckoned with.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu is still a force to be reckoned with.


The Story of the Bridge

Prior to the Edo Period, the traditional way of crossing the Sumida River was by established ferry crossings called 渡し watashi. These established ferry crossings were located where major roads needed to connect to roads on the other side of the river, in particular 街道 kaidō highways[v]. The original ferry crossing was located about 100 meters[vi] upstream from the current location of the current bridge, Eitaibashi. It was called 大渡し Ōwatashi the Great Ferry Crossing (also known as 深川之渡し Fukagawa no Watashi the Fukagawa Ferry Crossing).

This isn't the Owatashi, but it is the Sumida River. In this particular image, the bridge in the background is the Ryogoku Bridge.

This isn’t the Owatashi, but it is the Sumida River. In this particular image, the bridge in the background is the Ryogoku Bridge.

An Eternal Bridge and an Eternal Shōgunate?

In 1698, the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, celebrated his 50th birthday. In a time where infant mortality was high, turning 50 years old in any part of the world was a pretty big deal. Let’s be realistic here. Living 7 years was pretty much a monumental feat in itself[vii]. So the shōgunate decided to go balls out. They happened to be building a 4th bridge across the Sumida River at the 大渡し Ōwatashi Great Ferry Crossing. The local temple Eitai-ji was based in nearby Eitaijima and the kanji were auspicious enough to make a good name for the shōgun’s birthday. As the bridge connected 2 business districts, the implied meaning was “an eternal shōgnate granting eternal prosperity.[viii]

Believe it or not, this is the official image of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi issued by the shogunate.

Believe it or not, this is the official image of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi issued by the shogunate.

The bridge soon became a famous sightseeing spot. From the top of the bridge you could see Mt. Tsukuba to the north, Mt. Hakone to the south, and Mt. Fuji to the west. If you looked out eastward across the bay, you could see 安房国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province and 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province (in modern 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture).

Not these clowns again? Really?  My deepest apologies... but yes, the "47 Ronin" are about to make an appearance.

Not these clowns again? Really?
My deepest apologies… but yes, the “47 Ronin” are about to make an appearance.

Famously, on the evening of December 14th, 1702 a group of armed rednecks raided the home of a hatamoto bureaucrat named 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke no Suke[ix]. Kira is the dude who is generally portrayed as the bad guy in the popular 47 Rōnin narrative[x]. In what was essentially an honor killing, the 四十人之芋侍 yonjūnin no imozamurai 47 hick samurai[xi] stalked Kira for a year and then finally beheaded him[xii] at his estate in 両国 Ryōgoku. The popular narrative often says that they crossed Eitaibashi while marching in a procession from Kira Kōzuke no Suke’s estate in Ryōgoku to their lord’s grave at Sengaku-ji in 高輪 Takanawa. The route would have been possible. Maybe they just wanted to check out the new bridge. Or maybe since both events happened during Tsunayoshi’s reign, the stories were conflated. At any rate, Eitaibashi figures into to some versions of the 47 Rōnin story.

A Few Year’s Later the Situation Changed..

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

By the reign of 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune (1716-1745[xiii]) the shōgunate found itself in a financial crisis. Yoshimune’s first act as shōgun was his first – and apparently only – act of extravagance. He commissioned a gorgeous mausoleum called 有章院 Yūshō-in at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji for the child shōgun, 徳川家継 Tokugawa Ietsugu[xiv]. After that, his entire reign (and indeed his pre-shōgunal career) was marked by austerity and frugality. His emphasis on fixing the shōgunate’s deficit culminated in the 1630’s when the 享保之改革 Kyōhō no Kaikaku Kyōhō Reforms became law. But preceding these reforms there were a string of actions that attempted to return the government to solvency. One such act was when the shōgunate decided to relinquish control of Eitaibashi in 1719.

Yusho-in is undoubtedly one of the greatest monuments of Edo.  Sadly, the mausoleum was firebombed into oblivion and does not exist today.

Yusho-in is undoubtedly one of the greatest monuments of Edo.
Sadly, the mausoleum was firebombed into oblivion and does not exist today.

For whatever reason, the shōgunate saw the upkeep and maintenance of the bridge as a money pit. However, the local townspeople freaked out when they heard about this. After all, they depended on the bridge for their livelihoods. Accordingly, they petitioned the shōgunate for the right to maintain and control the bridge themselves. The shōgunate agreed to the arrangement and the bridge was privatized for about 88 years.

Let's talk about parties. Then let's talk about the structural integrity of wooden bridges.

Let’s talk about parties.
Then let’s talk about the structural integrity of wooden bridges.

However, on September 20th, 1807 tragedy struck. Every 12 years Tomioka Hachiman-gū has a special 御祭 o-matsuri festival. The tradition continues today and thousands of people descend upon the area to participate in this crazy Edo Period festival. In 1807, so many people gathered on the bridge at the same time that the bridge collapsed into the river. It was so horrific that we actually have documents describing the collapse in vivid detail and the event is preserved in 落語 rakugo[xv]. About 1400 people died (or were reported missing)[xvi].

Nightmare situation...

Nightmare situation…

The shōgunate once again realized the importance of the bridge and – perhaps not trusting the local townspeople to manage things – rebuilt it and maintained authority over the new structure. This wooden bridge remained in use until it started to fall into serious disrepair after the Meiji Coup in 1868.

The closest thing I can find to a picture of the wooden bridge.

The closest thing I can find to a picture of the wooden bridge.

In 1897 (Meiji 30), the decaying wooden bridge was demolished, and a new site 100 meters downstream[xvii] was chosen as the site of the first iron and steel truss bridge to span the Sumida River. This bridge being one of the first of its kind in Japan was a sort of experiment in engineering. The main structure was built of iron and steel, but bases were built out of wood.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

In 1904 (Meiji 37), the bridge was adapted to allow trolley service to pass through and tracks were laid for the 東京市街鉄道 Tōkyō Shigai Tetsudō Tōkyō City and Suburbs Railway[xviii]. The Meiji Period steel and iron structure served its purpose nobly until September 1st, 1923 when a major earfquake brought the capital city to its knees. This was none other than the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earthquake. It seems that the tremors didn’t break the bridge. However, the wooden bases on which the heavy metal structure rested caught fire and when their integrity was compromised, the entire bridge once again collapsed.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Reconstruction began immediately as the bridge was vital to the city’s infrastructure. A new, blue, arch-shaped European style bridge was completed in 1926. This is the structure that stands today.

Originally the bridge was red as a warning to ships. But now the bridge is blue

Originally the bridge was red as a warning to ships. But now the bridge is blue

The Shape of the Modern Bridge

The Meiji Coup was carried out by emperor-worshipping psychopaths from Satsuma and Chōshū. As they tried to modernize Japan they looked for Western examples that fit their emperor-centric world view. Prussia and the German Empire had definitely caught their eyes since they possessed cutting edge western technology, a seemingly modern system of governance, and – most importantly – an emperor at the top of the pyramid. When seeking to design a bridge suitable of the Emperor’s Great Capital[xix], the Japanese Imperial Government fixated on a bridge crossing the Rhine called the Ludendorff-Brücke Ludendorff Bridge[xx], an iron and steel truss bridge featuring a unique arch shape[xxi]. The Ludendorff Bridge served as a template for many of the arch-shaped bridges built at the time, first and foremost, Eitaibashi.

But Edo Period bridges had a slightly rainbow shape. It could also be argued that this was a justification for traditional Japanese architecture and a return to traditional shapes during a period of heightened nationalism.

The German model of many of Sumida's bridges.

The German model of many of Sumida’s bridges.

In the build up to the 1964 Olympic Games, much of the rebuilt city was covered up or completely overhauled. The first to get the axe was the trolley network which was susceptible to bad weather, flooding, snow, earthquakes, and car accidents[xxii]. An overall trend towards subways and new train technology took root. In 1972, the trolley was shut down and since then access to Eitaibashi has been limited to automobile and pedestrian traffic. Today you can’t see Mt. Fuji, Mt. Tsukuba, Mt. Hakone, or Chiba. So there.

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[i] Check the last 2 articles, bitch.
[ii] I couldn’t find any pre-Edo Period info on the island, but long time readers will be familiar with the use of auspicious kanji in place names. One could suppose 永代 eitai forever is a reference to a hope for abundant and prosperous fishing.
[iii] The 3rd Tokugawa Shōgun.
[iv] I’ve written about this area before. See my May 2013 article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[v] The kanji literally means “roads connecting cities” or “commercial roads.”
[vi] 109 yards
[vii] This aspect of pre-modern Japan is still preserved in the celebration of 七五三 shichi-go-san 7-5-3 wherein families celebrate their children having made it to 3 years old without dying and then 5 and 7 years old – child mortality rates being sky high for children under 10 years old in the Edo Period.
[viii] Some not so subtle propaganda for ya.
[ix] I’m using his court title “Protector of Kōzuke Province” because his actual name 吉良義央 is the source of some confusion. The traditional and most common reading is Kira Yoshinaka, but there seems to be evidence that the actual reading is Kira Yoshihisa. Using his court title avoids the confusion as his honorary title is very well known.
[x] But as usual, the popular narrative is at odds with historical records. Samurai Archives has an excellent description of the historical account of the 47 Rōnin as opposed to the hysterical account of the 47 Rōnin. I highly suggest reading the Samurai Archives’ article. In their discussion forum, the incident has been described as a “feudal driveby.” It’s a hilarious description, but it’s funny because it’s true.
[xi] I made up the Japanese term here. The Japanese do not call this group “the 47 Rōnin,” instead they use the term 赤穂浪士 Akō Rōshi the masterless samurai of Akō Domain.
[xii] ISIS/Taliban much?
[xiii] Those are the dates of his reign. He was born in 1684 and died in 1751. Say what you will about him, but he is a truly transitional shōgun – even shōgunal burial architecture reflects this change. He’s the last of the exciting shōguns (the next interesting one would be the last shōgun, Yoshinobu, 100 years later).
[xiv] I have an article about that here!
[xv] A kind of Edo Period traditional storytelling.
[xvi] Yes, 1400 people were on the bridge at the same time. That’s how big this festival is.
[xvii] The current site of Eitaibashi.
[xviii] I can’t find an official English translation of the company name but that’s what it literally meant. This company was the forerunner of the modern 東京都電車 Tōkyō-to Todensha literally, Tōkyō Metropolitan Electrified Cars, but in sad reality, only one line remains of the original trolley network.
[xix] Don’t even get me started… ugh!
[xx] The namesake of the German bridge is Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff. Ludendorff was a nationalist to the core and a supporter of Germany’s imperialism. For a while, he even supported Hitler and the Nazis, but apparently was too old for all that newfangled Nazism. Even if he wasn’t a Nazi, he still seems like a bit of douche bag.
[xxi] Hence the Shōwa government’s obsession with this shape. But to be honest, the German bridge has almost medieval brick and mortar turrets defending the entrances, so the final Japanese design is much more appealing, IMO.
[xxii] Subways were now coming into vogue.

  1. Great story!

    Since you know a lot about Japanese, can I ask you a question? What’s the connection between calling yourself 私 and 渡し you used in the story? Is 私 for if I talk about myself only and 渡し when I talk about me and other people. Like making a bridge from me to them. I heard it’s rude to use some word for MYSELF in some situations. I’d love your help.

  2. That’s pretty much correct, Nihongo Ninja. There’s one important thing to remember. We also occasionally use 綿死 in very formal situations. But if you use this form, never make eye contact. It’s seen as a curse.

  3. […] What does Eitaibashi mean? […]

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