So… this was an easy topic to investigate because it’s such a new place name. It dates from the 1960’s so it’s well recorded. If you want a long etymology, you won’t get one. But if you want an accurate one, I can definitely give you that.
Let’s Talk About Shinagawa Station First
If you go to 品川駅 Shingawa Eki Shinagawa Station today, you’ll encounter a massive train station that is totally unique in Tōkyō. It’s huge and has access to much of Tōkyō and Japan, but it only has 2 exits[i]. It’s one of the oldest train stations in Japan, having opened in 1872 (Meiji 5). It’s also the 9th busiest train station in the world and it hovers around the 6th busiest position for JR East, which leads me to believe it’s probably also the 6th busiest station in Tōkyō, too.
The Takanawa Exit is the oldest exit/entrance which faced former 高輪村 Takanawa Mura Takanawa Village located near the old 東海道 Tōkaidō Tōkaidō Highway[ii] which connected Edo to Kyōto. It was pure countryside in the Edo Period and became a suburb from Meiji to WWII. The train tracks of the modern 山手線 Yamanote Sen Yamanote Line and 京浜東北線 Keihin-Tōhoku Sen Keihin-Tōhoku Line originally hugged the coast of Edo Bay.
Kōnan didn’t exist at all until much later because… well, it was the sea lol.
Wanna Read More?
- My article on Shinagawa & Takanawa
- My article on the 5 Great Highways of Old Japan
- My article on Shinagawa Station – Then and Now
Let’s Look at the Kanji
The name officially dates from 1965, when the modern postal code system was created[iii]. The area, which lies on landfill built up during the prelude to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics and has remained under development ever since, was named after the fact that it is located in the southern portion of 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward. As you see above, 港 minato means “port” or “harbor.” Therefore the ward’s name is literally “the harbor ward” and this area, in turn, was named “the south part of the harbor ward.”
I have heard a folk etymology that the name derives from 江南 Kōnan southern inlet/southern bay. This isn’t an unreasonable derivation. This could have been a local reference to the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River flowing into Edo Bay. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone supporting this theory, so I think this is a false etymology.
The name didn’t just pop out of nowhere, though. The Tōkyō Metropolitan Government and Minato Ward had been working hand in hand in the development of this area. In fact, the official postal address was predated by 2 earlier entities that included the word Kōnan in their names and thus foreshadowed the official postal code.
The first was 港南中学校 Kōnan Chūgakkō Kōnan Junior High School[iv] – built in 1963. The second was the 都営港南団地 Toei Kōnan Danchi Toei Kōnan Public Housing Project which spanned the late early 1960’s to the 1980’s (the beginning of the Bubble Economy)[v]. 都営toei means operated by the Tōkyō Metropolitan government. 団地 danchi is literally apartment building but is often translated as “public housing project.” To an American like me, “public housing project” sounds like “the projects.” That is, public housing for super low income families. The image is more or less “the ghetto.” But in 1950’s-1960’s Tōkyō, this referred to low rent suburban city-owned apartment buildings that encouraged urban sprawl as a way to combat the population explosion in the center of the old city.
History of the Area
In the Edo Period (1600-1868[vi]), there was nothing here but water – literally. Beginning in the Meiji Period the land was built out into Tōkyō Bay a little bit to accommodate Shinagawa Station and manufacturing interests. The bulk of this growth took place in the Post War years. Space was needed for mundane things like train yards and storage areas for container cars when the station was still used for commercial traffic as well as passenger traffic. Most of the shipping activity was stopped in 1980. More landfill was built up further and further out into the bay until 1994 after the economic bubble burst. Unused station-related structures in the Kōnan area were slowly demolished and removed leaving vast tracts of unused land.
When I first moved to Japan[vii], I worked in Kōnan. This was 2005. A co-worker who had been living and working in the area for about 6-8 years told me about the tremendous changes he had seen in the area. He mentioned a slaughter house in the area – still active at the time[viii] – was one of the outstanding characteristics of his neighborhood. He also told me that everything I saw in Kōnan was new. The entire area and the current iteration of Shinagawa Station itself were products of huge development projects that finished about 2 years before we began working together. Today, I can confirm that’s true.
In 2003, 品川インターシティ Shinagawa Intāshitī Shinagawa InterCity and many of the luxury sky rise apartments and office spaces were completed. InterCity is a massive business, residential, hotel, and restaurant development begun in 1984 (in 2005, it was home to certain engineering departments of Sony)[ix]. The sprawling complex is built on the ruins of a demolished switchyard and shipping container area and gives direct access to Shinagawa Station.
Kōnan Exit isn’t the only Claim to Fame
Most expats living in Tōkyō know Kōnan as the home to a particularly special kind of hell – the 入国管理局 Nyūkoku Kanrikyoku Immigration Bureau of Japan, located in 港南五丁目 Kōnan go-chōme 5th block of Kōnan. Other than extremely long wait times[x], I’ve never had much of a problem with Immigration as others. But from what I’ve heard, the experience varies depending on your nationality. It can be a nerve wracking experience for some. After all, your chance of getting a visa or being told to get the fuck out of the country hangs in the balance. Yeah, the long lines suck (this can be avoided by going early on a Monday morning and avoiding Friday like the plague – also it doesn’t hurt to have a good history book or some nice podcasts), but probably the single most annoying thing is… other foreigners. Hygiene varies from country to country so there are some stinky muthafuckerz up in there. Crying babies with mothers who scold them in irritating languages you never want to hear abound. Rambunctious kids get bored out of their minds so they just run around the place like shaved monkeys on crack. At least there’s a little comic relief from the Japanese immigration lawyers greasing the wheels on behalf of hostesses and prostitutes from Russia and the Philippines as they hand over essential yakuza paperwork for getting entertainer visas for their clients.
A Restaurant History Nerds Might Dig
土風炉 Tofuro is a chain of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style restaurant/pubs. They serve typical izakaya fare – sushi, sashimi, soba, tofu, edamame, grilled fish, and so on. Izakaya are great places to relax and eat and drink socially for extended periods of time.
Although my preference is for small, privately owned izakaya, this particular branch of Tofuro is pretty unique. It has a spacious décor designed to look like one of Edo’s 下町 shitamachi commoner towns[xi], complete with bridges, rivers, and warehouses. The lighting and background audio runs a cycle from dawn to morning to afternoon to dusk to evening to night. At dawn, roosters crow. In the afternoon, you can hear the sounds of a lively merchant city. As soon as the “sun” sets, a mock 花火大会 hanabi taikai fireworks display takes place in the sky (ie; ceiling). At midnight, the frogs and crickets are occasionally interrupted by periodic calls to put out any fires while you sleep. For a place you just go to eat and drink, it’s pretty full on.
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[i] OK, this isn’t completely true. Shinagawa Station is actually a combination of 2 stations – a massive JR East station which includes 新幹線 shinkansen access and a shitty ass 京急 Keikyū station. The JR station has 2 exits. The janky ass Keikyū station has one exit – at least as far as I know.
[ii] Literally, the “eastern sea route.”
[iii] In Japanese, the current postal address system is called 住居表示 jūkyo hyōji displayed addresses. I usually refer to this as the postal code/post code – there is no standard translation of the term that I know of.
[iv] Or, Kōnan Middle School. Where I grew up we had junior highs, other places had middle schools. Same difference – lots of awkward kids with pimples.
[v] A quick note, I couldn’t find exact dates for the beginning and the end of the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government’s involvement in this particular development project, but these rough dates should be good enough in a general sense. There are still government owned apartments in the area, so in a sense, the city has never abandoned the project – it’s only development that has stopped. The area is located on the 山手線 Yamanote Sen Yamanote Line and 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station is a major hub station, so private developers have had a field day in the area since the 1990’s.
[vii] Not visited, mind you – moved.
[viii] I don’t know about now. But I bet it’s still there.
[ix] I’m not sure if they’re still there because about this same time, Sony began building a new headquarters building in Kōnan (it was formerly in nearby 大崎 Ōsaki), so I’m guessing they consolidated a few things in their own building at that time. But… I’m not sure.
[x] I sat there for 3½ hours once.
[xi] I usually translate this as “low city,” but gonna keep things interesting because of my last article about Yamanote vs Shitamachi.