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What does Oshiage mean?

In Japanese History on August 27, 2015 at 6:09 am

押上
Oshiage (push up)

oshiage station

Whenever I make the arduous journey to and from 成田空港 Narita Kūkō Narita Airport, I pass a station next to Tōkyō Skytree called 押上 Oshiage. Every time I pass it, I think, “hmmmm, I should write about this place name” but then I soon forget because of all the excitement of traveling. Every time I pass it on the way back home, I think, “hmmmm, I should write about this place name” but then soon forget because I’m so exhausted and it takes like 3 hours or some shit to get home from Narita[i]. Today I can finally talk about this place name that I’ve been dying to talk about for a long time.

Most people take a train to the station so they've probably never seen this sign. lol.

Most people take a train to the station so they’ve probably never seen this sign. lol.

First Let’s Look at the Kanji


oshi

push, compel, be diffused (light/water)


age

go up, raise, tide comes in, land a boat
Oshiage in the 60's-70's

Oshiage in the 60’s-70’s

Most of the theories about this etymology focus on the verb 押し上げる oshiageru which means “to push up,” but I included some other nuances of the kanji above that might be useful in understanding the etymologies we’ll be looking at today.

Sadly, I could only find 3 theories, all of which stand on shaky ground, in my humble opinion. All of them are based on the kanji. Kanji usually leaves much to be desired with pre-Edo Period names. But in this case, the kanji seem to be consistent with Kamakura Period documents[ii]. There’s nothing earlier than that.

Today you can visit Tōkyō Sky Tree from Oshiage Station

Today you can visit Tōkyō Sky Tree from Oshiage Station

Let’s Talk Etymology, Baby.

Before 徳川家康公 Tokugawa Ieyasu-kō Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu came into the area, there was already a district called 押上村 Oshiage Mura located on the east bank of the Sumida River.  So where did that name come from? Interestingly, nobody set out to ask and answer that question until the Edo Period – or at least nobody bothered to write anything down until then.

Sumidagawa Shrine

Sumidagawa Shrine which houses the kami (deity) of the Sumida River.
(click the picture to see more photos of the shrine)

The Sumida River Did It

Anyone who has read my articles about the Sumida River and any of the lands[iii] along 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay knows, the shape of the Sumida River and the shape of the bay have changed dramatically over the centuries. In the days when the river emptied directly into the bay, it’s said that the gushing freshwater torrents would crash into the salty waters of the bay at high tide. The turbulence created at the mouth of the river was said to create 押し上げられた潮 oshiagerareta shio salt water currents/splashes[iv]. Today, the bay is quite some distance from this area because it’s been built up with landfill since the Edo Period until quite recently.

A 2nd similar theory states that the force of the river hitting the waters of the bay created an embankment on the east side of the Sumida River as it pushed up sand, mud, and debris over the years. This 押し上げられた土 oshiagerareta tsuchi pushed up ground eventually became usable and was reclaimed by the locals. Thus the area was named after the land created by the meeting of river and bay.

The first version is interesting because it echoes a sentiment we’ll see in the 3rd theory – a much more mythical story. The 2nd version is interesting because we just saw a similar etymology based on reclaiming land created by the Sumida River in my last article on Mukōjima – located a stone’s throw from Oshiage.

yamato takeru captain japan

Captain Japan Did It

Long time readers should be aware that 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru Yamato Takeru Captain Japan often shows up in Kantō etymologies. He’s a semi-legendary character who is most famous for his 東征 Tōsei Eastern Expedition[v] which is purported to have taken place in the early 1st Century. A famous story that took place during the Eastern Exhibition is when his boat encountered rough waters off the coast of the 三浦半島 Miura Hantō Miura Peninsula[vi]. His concubine[vii], 弟橘姫 Ototachibana-hime Princess Ototachibana, knowing that Captain Japan had fallen in love with another concubine, decided to perform a final act of selflessness. In order to appease the local 海神 kaijin sea god, she committed 犠牲死 giseishi sacrificial suicide, by jumping into the ocean and drowning herself. The local deity was satisfied[viii] with the sacrifice and allowed Captain Japan and his army to pass the waters safely.

Ototachibana’s personal effects were said to have washed ashore in this area and the place where those items 押し上げられた oshiagerareta were pushed up on the beach came to be known as 押上 Oshiage. This etymology is almost identical to the etymology of nearby 吾妻橋 Azumabashi which literally means “my beloved wife” bridge[ix].

Princess Ototachibana drowning in the ocean. (interestingly, this is a common theme in yakuza tattoos)

Princess Ototachibana drowning in the ocean.
(interestingly, this is a common theme in yakuza tattoos)

Interestingly, while I put zero credence in this particular Captain Japan Theory, the rapid, thrusting current of the Sumida River combined with its wide girth pounded hard into the warm, salty waters of Edo Bay when the tide was high[x]. This kind of turbulence would have made traveling through the mouth of the river very hard. A person could easily have been thrown off a boat into the rough waters and their body and personal effects could have easily been discovered at low tide or have washed up ashore as the tide came back in. Some belongings of a woman or a person of either gender could have been found and ascribed to Princess Ototachibana. That, I think, is plausible. Would that warrant a place name? Who knows. But I think this is a very unlikely origin of the place name Oshiage. Still, the proximity to Azumabashi is intriguing.

So there you have it. Did you find any of those explanations compelling?

I found them interesting. But I can’t help but wonder whether or not this is a much more ancient place name and the kanji are ex post factō 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic value rather than meaning. This would have happened because the meaning was either forgotten long before the place name was written down or because the place name was actually a word belonging to the people who lived here before the Yamato State took the area by force[xi].

Tokyo Skytree and Mt. Fuji

Tokyo Skytree and Mt. Fuji

If you’re interested, here are a few related articles:

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[i] Not including all the time I wasted going through immigration. I always end up in line behind complete morons who take forever.
[ii] Much of Kantō’s history is shrouded in myth and legend before the Edo Period when the Tokugawa Shōgunate was established in the area. However, the earlier eras aren’t a complete blackhole. The Kamakura Shōgunate left many documents that shine a light on much of the mysterious eastern regions – if only for a moment.
[iii] There are too many to list, but off the top of my head, Tsukuda, Tsukiji & Tsukishima, Shinagawa, etc…
[iv] The connotation being “rough waters.”
[v] This is essentially a literary description of the Yamato State’s eastern conquest of 本州 Honshū, the main Japanese island, which had up to that point been populated by Yayoi peoples described as アイヌ Ainu or 蝦夷 Emishi.
[vi] In modern 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture.
[vii] By some accounts, his wife. I referred to her as his wife in my article on Azamabashi.
[viii] In the earliest texts of Japanese mythology, human sacrifices to sea deities are fairly common.
[ix] There are places all over Japan where her belongings were said to have washed ashore. When they did, the local people buried them in mounds called 吾妻塚 Azuma-zuka “beloved wife mounds.”
[x] And holding on. I’m gonna be your number one♪
(and the waters of Tōkyō Bay aren’t particularly warm, btw).
[xi] The Yamato State, having adopted Chinese Learning, spread kanji throughout their holdings.

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