Japanese History

What does Honjo mean?

Honjo began as one of Edo’s elite areas but soon developed a rich commoner culture. By the Shōwa Period it was a polluted flophouse on a filthy river.


(main place)

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

The Accepted Etymology of Honjo

The etymology of Honjo is pretty straight forward and actually does little justice to the neighborhood’s actual value. The name seems to be derived from the 荘園制度 shōen seido shōen system[i]. Shōen were administrative units that were originally more or less autonomous from the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court, though they owed their legitimacy to their connections to the court. In English, this is often rendered as manor or estate[ii].

Under the shōen system, the 本所 honjo main place (main estate) designated the place where the 荘園領主 shōen ryōshu lord of the shōen lived[iii]. This would include the lord’s 本家 honke main family line and their direct retainers. Branch families would live elsewhere. As such, a honjo is actually a designation of an area that is not unlike the capital of the shōen (the lord’s territory). This use was common throughout Japan and as such there are many places in the country called Honjo. The most popular story ties the area to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, but whether the name dates from Ieyasu’s time or reflects an ancient honjo is unclear. Some have even suggested it’s a reference to the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan or 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan.

Further Reading:

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area – also possible non-namer of the area.

The Origins of Honjo

When 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu was granted control of Edo in the 1580’s by 太閤豊臣秀吉 taikō Toyotomi Hideyoshi imperial regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the term 荘園 shōen was all but obsolete, but some associated place names persisted. If this line of thinking is to be trusted, by the time Ieyasu assumed control of Edo and 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces, the term was just an archaism that gave the area a touch of class. The area set one of the early models for 山手 yamanote the high city. Ieyasu required the old, local Edo samurai families to move to the area to be closer to Edo Castle where he could keep his eyes on them[iv]. To keep them in check, those samurai families were granted 旗本 hatamoto status (ie; they became direct retainers of the Tokugawa). He later ordered three 譜代大名 fudai daimyō daimyō loyal to the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara to build their 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residences on the local hilltops to keep the old Edo elite in check. I suppose granting hatamoto status and naming the area Honjo was essentially the spoonful of sugar that helped the proverbial medicine go down. But because of its elite beginnings, the area was replete with nature. It was famous for its greenery and suburban feel even in the late Edo Period despite the changes that would come with time.

Main gate of Tsugaru Domain’s upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote (high city). Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the fire watchtower inside the compound.

In the very early Edo Period, people used local terms to identify themselves. Perhaps you were 向島っ子 Mukōjimakko a child of Mukōjima.  Perhaps you were 吾妻っ子 Azumakko a child of Azuma. But for the first half of the Edo Period, if you were 本所っ子 Honjokko a child of Honjo that meant you were a real 江戸っ子 Edokko child of Edo. Your family may have even preceded the Tokugawa – or at least that was the image[v].

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might’ve heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant “Fire! Get to the other side of the river now!!!!”

In 1657, the area was still quite rustic. After the 明暦之大火 Meireki no Taika Meireki Fire[vi], the site was chosen for the burial of those who perished in the conflagration. The fire burned for 3 days in some parts of the city and destroyed 60-70% of Edo – including sections of Edo Castle itself. Some accounts say 100,000 Edoites burned to death in the disaster. To appease the souls of the dead, a temple was built to tend to the mass grave of the victims. The temple is called 回向院 Ekō-in Ekō Temple which is still located in Honjo. By the way, an 回向 ekō is a Buddhist prayer for the repose of the dead[vii].

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi ordered a mass burial mound for bodies to be dumped. This was called 万人塚 mannin-zuka “the mound of a thousands of souls.”
Since that time, the temple has been tending to the souls of the poor, those rejected by their families, the unclaimed dead, the executed, and animals. The temple has connections with sumō wrestling, too.

If the Area was so Elite, Why is it Shitamachi Today?

In 1719, the area was officially incorporated into Edo and fell under direct control of the shōgunate. This happened after the construction of 両国橋 Ryōgoku-bashi Ryōgoku Bridge. The building of the bridge saw an influx of craftsmen and laborers who worked on the project. Many remained in the area as 町人 chōnin townspeople of the commoner areas. The completion of the bridge created more demand for jobs that only commoners could do under the rigid social hierarchy of the Tokugawa.

The daimyō residences alone must have been big business. They needed maintenance of their villas, but they also needed landscaping work, they needed fish and other foodstuffs brought to their estates. They needed rain coats and new underwear. The other samurai families required the same conveniences of the day. As more businesses arose in the area, the commoner population exploded. Woodworkers and other craftsmen had quick access to the lumberyards of Kiba which made the area famous for woodwork. A unique culture emerged in the area. It was a culture of means – but one that depended on the working class. Today we might call them “essential workers” because the rich people were definitely not going to do those jobs.

The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote.
I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The daimyō residences were essentially urban palaces. The original three daimyō were joined by a few other daimyō families that built 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residences in the area. These were fairly large estates with sprawling gardens and safe, wide streets. They weren’t very populated, though. The truth is, by the middle of the Edo Period, the commoner population of Honjo far outweighed the nobility, much like some parts of 麻布 Azabu[viii].

As such, wealthy artists, writers, farmers, and actors came to this area to hang out. Many 茶屋 chaya tea houses existed in the area that catered specifically to the non-samurai, moneyed bourgeoisie. Commoners of substantial means could come to Honjo and go drinking and whoring in a town that looked and felt like the yamanote. Commoners who grew up in this area were Edokko, heart and soul, but they typified the next generation of sophisticates of the Meiji Era. In Honjo, commoners were gentrified and cultured, well-versed in the arts and culture, and hobnobbed with the lower and lower-middle echelons of the samurai elite[ix].

Tea houses in Honjo

Rise of the Shitamachi

By the early Meiji Period, the look of the area changed dramatically. The daimyō and largest samurai residences disappeared and were either reclaimed by nature or became new homes for the working class. The lots that became overgrown with unkempt trees and tall grasses became inhabited by stray animals. They also became popular suicide spots since they were dark, secluded, and often considered haunted. This allowed despondent people a quiet space with privacy to commit their final act. In fact, it was said in the early years of the Meiji Period that at least one person a day would hang themselves in the night and be discovered the next morning. Of course, this reputation changed over the 44 years of Meiji rule, as the abandoned and overgrown estates were gradually repurposed.

By 1912, most of the abandoned lots had become factories that relied on the river for distribution, importation of raw materials, and dumping of whatever waste byproducts they produced. The Sumida River became extremely polluted and whenever the river flooded it caused outbreaks of disease because of all the waste that was left in the streets and in people’s homes after the waters receded. In short, by the end of the Meiji Period, it was fucking nasty.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

By the middle of the Meiji Period, the area was famous for cheap housing. Notably, day laborers could find daily or weekly lodging for a pittance as they hopped around from menial job to menial job. Whatever entertainment existed there in the Edo Period had long since disappeared[x]. Honjo, in contrast to nearby 向島 Mukōjima (still very much a playground for the elite), was a place to work and live, and not much more. It also failed to hold on to its vigor in contrast to 浅草 Asakusa, which lay on the other side of the river and was still a bustling hub of 下町 shitamachi low city excitement, art, and culture. Honjo died in the late Meiji Period. And talk about kicking someone when they’re down, the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923 laid another epic smack down on the area. It wouldn’t start to recover until after WWII.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can’t rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick.

So Why Should I be Interested in this Area?

Thank you for asking that question. And rest assured, I will answer in the form of biographies that show the diversity of people who have lived in the area. Unfortunately, I ended up with an article that was like 18 pages in MS Word with more than 50 freaking footnotes. The footnotes alone were like… 3 or 4 pages. So I’ve decided to cut the article in half, using the first 4 pages and more than 2,000 words to talk about the area. Part 2 will be a beast, clocking in at 13 pages and more than 6,000 words. Trust me, you don’t want the original, unsplit version.

Further Reading:

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[i] The fine folks at Samurai Archives have a good definition of this term: Shōen – Private estate exempted from central government control and often subject to a multi-layered proprietorship. Established in the Nara Period, the shōen system lasted until the late 16th Century, when it was finally eliminated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s sweeping land surveys.
[ii] I don’t like this translation, but I don’t know a better one. It’s similar in some ways to European feudalism… but in other ways it’s really different. Let’s save this discussion for another day.
[iii] Sometimes translated as “lord of the manor/estate.” I don’t like this translation either.
[iv] We’ll be coming back to this later.
[v] However, by the end of the Edo Period 江戸っ子 Edokko was the only word used to describe natives of Edo and Edoites in general.
[vi] Also called the 振袖之大火 Furisode no Taika Unmarried Woman’s Kimono Fire because legend says the fire began when a Buddhist priest burned a cursed kimono. The kimono was said to be cursed because it was owned by 3 young girls who died when it came into their possession. They never even had a chance to wear it. After the kimono had been passed to the 3rd girl and she died, the family asked the priest to destroy it.
[vii] This name should be familiar to long time readers. There is a temple of the same name near 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground. You can see my article here.
[viii] See my article on Azabu here. It’s old and not so good, but whatevs.
[ix] Not entirely true. The area was prestigious, even as a commoner area. Even to this day, samurai heredity pulls some weight. But in the late Edo Period and early Meiji Period, Honjo was prime real estate and if you lived there or hung out there, that carried a lot of social power. That said, the shōgunate didn’t want samurai and commoners hanging out with each other too much. They either turned a blind eye to it or it was done on the down low. Of course, in the Meiji Period, there was no problem with mixing if you were “a person of talent.”
[x] The only exception was Mukōjima, where a unique geisha culture emerged.

日本, 〒130-0015 東京都墨田区横網1丁目12−10

6 replies on “What does Honjo mean?”

Nice article. Finally solves the riddle for me of why the Tsugaru Kamiyashiki was here. It always seemed to me that Kamiyashiki should be closer to the castle. You may know already… or maybe it’s coming up?… they’re building a big Hokusai Art Museum on part of the former Kamiyashiki too.

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