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What does Egota mean?

In Japanese History on July 30, 2015 at 1:06 am

江古田
Egota (literally, “inlet – old – field”)

Shin-Egota Station

Shin-Egota Station

This etymology is really problematic. No one can agree on how to pronounce it. No one can agree where the name come from. No one can even agree if it’s a good area or not. The people who live there like it. The people who don’t couldn’t care less about it

22669_18_nerima_ekoda_shopping2

No Agreement – How The Fuck Do You Pronounce It?

Is it Ekoda or Egota? Well, it generally depends on who you ask (or who’s telling you). There are two stations that each bears the two major variations.

江古田駅
Ekoda Eki

Ekoda Station
(Seibu Ikebukuro Line)

新江古田駅
Shin-Egota Eki

New Egota Station
(Ōedo Line)

As it stands, “Egota” is an actual postal code in Nakano Ward[i]. In the Tōkyō Metropolis, this is as official as a place name gets.  However, “Ekoda” Station in Nerima Ward uses the alternate pronunciation. It’s not an official place name. That said, Shin-Egota Station is on the boundary of Nakano and Nerima wards and uses the Nakano name. This means that the most “official” pronunciation is “Egota.”

The 2 spellings actually wreak havoc upon non-Japanese search engines. For example, English Google Maps lists both stations as Ekoda Station and Shinekoda Station[ii]. Despite all of this confusion, there does seem to be a general rule of thumb. In short, Nakano Ward tends to use “Egota” and Toshima Ward tends to use “Ekoda.[iii]” This seems to be a modern convention, though. Since the Edo Period, the place written 江古田村 Egota Mura Egota Village was referred to variously as えこだ Ekoda, えごた Egota, えごだ Egoda, and えこた Ekota.

nobodyknows-1

Now Let’s Look at the Kanji


e

inlet, bay


ko, go

old


ta, da

field, rice paddy

Just an initial glance at this whole mess makes want to say that this is 当て字 ateji. Long time readers of the blog will know that ateji is when kanji are used for their phonetic qualities, not their ideographic qualities. Basically, it’s a way to make a word that might be difficult to read instantly readable. In pre-modern Japan, ateji relied on kanji that any person with a basic grasp of high frequency kanji could read. Words that didn’t have kanji or that were of otherwise “mysterious” origin were often rendered in ateji. Place names were often mysterious – as they are even today[iv].

One of the big clues that this writing is ateji is the first character. 江 e inlet or bay is the origin of the katakana character エ e. Katakana is strictly phonetic and has no meaning. is one of those “go to” kanji for that sound. This location is nowhere near the bay or any inlet thereof.

One of the problems with place names written with ateji is that they usually blur or cover up the original meaning forever. The original name could have been a dialect word. It could have been a far more ancient name passed down from the 蝦夷 Emishi or アイヌ Ainu – peoples who lived in Japan before the people whom we think of as “culturally Japanese” became dominant[v]. I don’t want to get into a huge discourse on the peoples of Japan, so just understand that other cultures and languages existed in Japan before and some of their place names may have persisted after the introduction of kanji. But we can’t be certain about many of them.

ego no ki

The Most Famous Theory – The Japanese Snowbell Theory

This is by far and wide the most popular theory about this place name. According to this theory, the area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica). In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki. The snowbell blossoms could be pressed to make cooking oil. These trees grow everywhere in Japan – all the way from the north in Hokkaidō down to the south in Kyūshū[vi]. Most people believe this theory and it gets repeated in books, magazines, and TV.

Remember this theory. We’re going to come back to it later.

A flowering shiso plant

A flowering shiso plant

The Egoma Theory

荏胡麻 egoma is a kind of oil made from Perilla frutescens – oil made from a kind of wild sesame plant. The leaves and plant are generally known as 紫蘇 shiso in Japan. Shiso leaves are popular in seasonal tempura dishes and there is a famous brand of 焼酎 shōchū that is infused with shiso leaves. In pre-modern Japan, some clans used to make 油紙 yushi[vii] oil treated paper with this leaf’s oil. This was a traditional paper treated with egoma used for archival purposes or official messages that needed to be waterproof. Like Chōfu[viii], there’s no evidence this industry ever existed in the area.

Two old Ainu dudes. (At least I think they're both dudes)

Two old Ainu dudes.
(At least I think they’re both dudes)

The Ainu Theory

Long time readers – and by long time, I mean you’ve been reading regularly for a few years now – will be familiar with certain tropes that constantly come. I’ve referred to them as “the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” “the Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It theory,” “the Captain Japan[ix] Did It Theory,” and the occasional “the Ainu Did It Theory.”

Of course when we talk about Ainu in this part of Japan, we might actually be talking about the 蝦夷 Emishi, a culture said to be related to the Ainu but that might not be. But then again, we might be talking about actual Ainu people. Nobody really knows for sure. The Emishi and Ainu are a bit of an enigma and to make matters worse the names have sometimes been used interchangeably over history. The Emishi – who appear to be a related but separate people – seem to have been absorbed into the Yamato Culture[x] – or into the Ainu Culture – or both. Again, nobody fucking knows. But the Ainu most definitely still exist in Hokkaidō, one of their ancestral homes.

In short, this theory claims that the name derives from a lost Ainu/Emishi word that means 密集 misshū which means a crowd or a dense thing or place or 集団 shūdan which means a group or a mass (and carries a connotation of “people” or “populace”). This theory was recorded in the Edo Period without citing the original Ainu/Emishi word which means one of two things: the tradition was passed on for centuries by oral tradition and the word was lost along the way or it is complete bullshit made up at some time… probably in the Edo Period.

Yama no kubochi - a basin in the hills.

Yama no kubochi – a basin in the hills.

The River Basin Theory

In some old Kantō dialects, there is a word 江古 ego[xi]. These kanji and the reading are identical to the first 2 characters in 江古田 Egota. Ego doesn’t refer to “the ego” which you may know from psychology[xii]. No, it refers to something far more mundane and boring[xiii].

In standard Japanese this word is rendered as 山の窪地[xiv] yama no kubochi “a depression in the hills” which itself is an obscure term. Kubochi is essentially a synonym for 盆地 bonchi a basin – this is a term all Japanese people are familiar with. According to this theory, 江古田 Egota means 水が流れ込む田んぼ mizu ga nagarekomu tanbo a field that water flows down into.

This looks legit on the surface. There is actually a river called 江古田川 Egota-gawa and an actual bridge called 江古田川大橋 Egota Ōhashi the Great Egota Bridge. There are hills in the area as well. The only problem with this theory is that within the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō Metropolis, virtually nothing of the old dialects remains. The evidence for this theory is supplied from other places in agricultural areas of Kantō where bits and pieces of the old dialects persist. No documents link this place with this etymology – it’s purely hypothetical[xv].

This tree look familiar? Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

This tree look familiar?
Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

Let’s Revisit the Japanese Snowbell Theory

There are more theories than I’ve listed here, but these are the big ones. However, I promised to talk about the most famous theory. That theory states (and I quote from myself) that:

The area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica).

In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki.

I don’t know why this is the “pet etymology” that gets shared the most because it’s probably the most easily disproved etymology. It’s complete shite.

On the surface, it seems legit. 江古田 ego-ta a field of snowbells could be ateji for エゴノキの田んぼ  ego no ki no tanbo a field of snowbell trees. For native speakers and non-native speakers, this theory looks pretty good.

At the heart of this conundrum lays the name of this tree, エゴノキ ego no ki. Japanese spelling[xvi] has changed over the centuries, in particular, after the Meiji Coup and especially after WWII. The etymology of ego no ki has been obscured by the modernization of Japanese orthography[xvii]. It’s also obscured by the standard Romanization, ie; ローマ字 rōma-ji .

Before the spelling reforms, this tree’s name was written as ヱゴの木  ego no ki[xviii]. That first character doesn’t exist in the modern syllabary[xix]. It’s a character that’s been obsolete since the 1940’s and is only used for dramatic effect today[xx]. The easiest equivalent I can think of in English is when “the” is written as “ye”[xxi] today to look medieval or something. In Japanese, this character actually reflects Classical Japanese (probably from the Heian Period until the Kamakura Period). That is to say, it uses characters that represent sounds that died out long ago[xxii].

However, when 江古田 Egota/Ekoda is spelled out in hiragana, the first character has historically been e. The character  we/ye came to be pronounced /e/ (ie; it’s phonetically identical to e), but it indicates a mora[xxiii] that is etymologically distinct. To make this clearer, I’ll summarize using rōma-ji: ego couldn’t have derived from “yego” (or “wego“).

my brain hurts

So WTF Is the Etymology?

As I said, there are additional theories, but most of them are tiring – at least to me. Maybe I’ll look into them a bit more later. Unless you live in Egota, which would have been a rare case until after the Great Kantō Earfquake, your chances of even knowing this area at all are low. In the Edo Period, this was just farm land.

As for my opinion, I think it’s clear that the kanji are ateji. The kanji have no meaning and actually hinder getting us to the bottom of the story. It’s also clear that the popular theory of a field of Japanese Snowbell trees is absolutely untrue.

The “Ainu Did It Theory” is impossible to prove until somebody produces an Ainu word that seems to make a plausible case. I also think the “Ainu Did It Theories” are weak in general given the nearly complete cultural saturation of the Yamato Culture. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of archaeological data from the area, but it doesn’t seem to have been very populated until the last 50-100 years.

If I had to choose a favorite of theory, I think the “The River Basin Theory” is pretty good. Long time readers who remember my grueling Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series may seem some logic behind this etymology. Having researched more than 250 place names, rivers and other bodies of water seem to be one of the most common reference points. Many Japanese people have said to me the “Japan is a country of water.” Edo was often called “Venice of the East.” The most common modern epithet (which has both positive and negative connotations) is 島国 shimaguni island country. So it’s clear that from time immemorial to present day water is very important to this land and the country’s relationship with water is deeply ingrained in the culture.

That said, none of these theories can be confirmed. And as I said before, the name just reeks of ateji and ateji actually hinders understanding the origins of a name. The presence of 江 e (a water kanji) is the most confusing part of the mystery. It supports was I think is the strongest theory because it is a reference to water, but it is also the source of the katakana character エ e. That means the kanji was used so much for its phonetic usage other than its ideographic meaning that there’s almost no way to grasp which usage is more important (the phonetic meaning or the ideographic meaning).

So, yeah. This has been a wild ride. But there’s no definitive answer. Egota/Ekoda will forever be a mystery. Sometimes it’s good to have them – they keep us on our toes.

Wanna learn about Egota Station and Shin-Ekoda Station?

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[i] 中野区江古田 Nakano-ku Egota Egota, Nakano Ward.
[ii] The missing hyphen is technically a mistake, too. The official station name is clearly hyphenated in signage.
[iii] There seem to be a few exceptions to the rule, but I couldn’t find specific examples.
[iv] The tradition of ateji was born out of necessity when kanji (a Chinese writing system) was first imported to Japan. The Japanese presumably had no standardized writing system – if any writing system at all – and began transcribing their spoken language into the ideographic writing of the Chinese. You can read more about ateji here.
[v] I don’t want to get into the Emishi and Ainu here. It’s a really big topic and may not have any connection to this. You can read more here.
[vi] They actually grow in some parts of Okinawa, which is farther to south and more or less tropical.
[vii] Also read abura-gami.
[viii] Did I mention I have an article about Chōfu?
[ix] Captain Japan, of course, being my nickname for the semi-legendary 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru character of the old Yamato State.
[x] Basically, the “Japanese people” who followed the Imperial Family and took over the main islands of Japan (with the exception of Hokkaidō and Okinawa – territories annexed by the Meiji government after the 1868 Meiji Coup).
[xi] I use “is” in the loosest of possible senses. Most of the Kantō dialects have died out and been replaced with 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese. So, “there was a word” might be more appropriate, but I’m not sure what linguistic hijinks is going on the backwater farming communities of Kantō.
[xii] That word, ego, is actually the first person singular pronoun in Latin. It’s the Latin word for “I.”
[xiii] But absolutely intrinsic to place names in a county that is mountainous and covered in rivers.
[xiv] Sometimes written as 山の凹地 yama no ouchi (same meaning).
[xv] This theory was proposed by linguistics using modern dialectal dictionaries.
[xvi] Spelling is what we call this in English normally, but I’m actually talking about orthography.
[xvii] Are shitting me? You didn’t read the last footnote? Orthography is how you write words. To use the loose term, spelling.
[xviii] It can also be written entirely in kanji as 野茉莉 egonoki, but usually isn’t.
[xix] Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet; it has 2 syllabaries reinforced by kanji.
[xx] Occasionally archaic spellings even make it into their Romanized counterparts, sometimes you might see Yedo for Edo, Yebisu for Ebisu, Iyeyasu for Ieyasu, Kwan’non for Kan’non, and kwaidan for kaidan. These aren’t just random affectations. They actually reflect the etymological origins of these names and words. The kana in question is sometimes rendered as we, especially when standing alone because it occurred in the わ行 wa-gyō “wa” row: わ waゐ wi, blank, ゑ we, を wo.
[xxi] “Ye” meaning “the” is one of the greatest examples of how misunderstood orthography can explode in your face.
[xxii] There are probably more examples in English than any other language, but consider the word “comfortable.” This spelling reflects a pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time which was 4 syllables /ˈkom for tə bəl/ but the modern pronunciation is 3 syllables /ˈkʌmf tər bl/.
[xxiii] What the fuck is a mora??!!!

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