Ōsaki (the great cape)
Let’s Look at the Kanji
|a cape, a land mass that juts out into the ocean|
I picked this place name because it looked easy. I mean, it seems straightforward enough. It’s located in modern 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward which everyone knows is near the bay. A big cape seems like a totally plausible thing to find in the area.
On top of that, the name first appeared on maps in the early Edo Period. It’s not a super ancient name. Dude, what more could you want? Easiest. Etymology. Ever.
If it weren’t for those Meddling Edoites
It seems to make sense until you look at Edo Period maps. Ōsaki is near Shinagawa, but it’s quite inland and, well, no. It didn’t jut out into the sea. Turns out this might be a super ancient place name after all.
Also, it seems that local tradition in the Edo Period combined with incomplete records show that the people of the area believed something totally different. By the way, in those days the area was called 武蔵国江原郡居木橋村 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Irugibashi Mura Irugibashi Village, Ebara District, Musashi Province. They seem to have claimed the name 大崎 Ōsaki “Big Cape” was a corruption of 尾崎 Osaki[ii]– a place in 武蔵国秩父郡 Musashi no Kuni Chichibu-gun Chichibu District, Musashi Province. The idea being that at one time this area was indeed jutting out into the sea and was an extension of the 秩父山 Chichibu Yama Chichibu Mountains.
But wait, you say! Chichibu is in northwest Saitama or some shit[iii]. How could there be a connection so far away? I’m not 100% sure, but even though Tōkyō is a hilly city it’s located in what is called the 関東平野 Kantō Heiya Kantō Plain, ie; it’s relatively flat compared to the surrounding areas. There is a stretch of mountains that forms a natural boundary that spans Chichibu all the way to Tōkyō Bay. Ōsaki doesn’t seem a likely place to include in that path today, given its distance from the sea. However, it may have been at one point. So, more about that later.
Another Chichibu Connection
At the end of the 12th century, samurai of the 秩父氏 Chichibu-shi Chichibu clan began to move into this area. The 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate granted them 7 fiefs in the area, including 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo Hamlet. As long time readers know, they established a fortified residence in an area called 千代田 Chiyoda and donned the name of the area thus becoming the 江戸氏 Edo-shi. Famously, their residence in Chiyoda came to be called 江戸城 Edo-jō.
I’m not sure how much control they exerted in this area – if any – but there is a particularly ancient shine in their ancestral lands in Chichibu called 尾崎神社 Osaki Jinja Osaki Shrine. Also located in their ancestral lands is an area called 千代田 Chiyoda[iv]. With the arrival of the Chichibu clan (locally renamed the Edo clan), coincidence or not, there may have been a reason for the average person on the street to associate the two areas. Or so the story goes.
- My original article What does Musashi mean?
- My original article What does Chiyoda mean?
- My original article What does Kitami mean?
- My original article What does Edo mean?
So, Now for the Mysterious (but tenuous) Shrine Connection
The main shrine in Ōsaki is 居木神社 Irugi Jinja Irugi Shrine. The shrine I mentioned before is 尾崎神社 Osaki Jinja Osaki Shrine. I cross checked all of this against a 3rd shrine called 秩父神社 Chichibu Jinja Chichibu Shrine.
It’s located in Ōsaki. Basically, there’s no founding date for the shrine. By its own accounts, it’s just sorta been there forever. Fair enough. It appears to have been established to honor a local tutelary deity and over the course of a thousand years, 2 other 神 kami Shintō spirits have been co-enshrined there. The shrine lies on a plateau that has been inhabited without interruption since Neolithic times.
It’s located in Saitama. Today the shrine lies just outside the border of the modern 秩父地方 Chichibu Chihō Chichibu Area, but I think the area was under the Chichibu clan’s control in the Kamakura Period.
It’s located in the Chichibu Mountains, Saitama. This was an important shrine for the 秩父平氏 Chichibu Hei-shi Chichibu branch of the Taira clan[vi]. 4 kami are enshrined here. 2 kami bear the name “Chichibu” using the current spelling 秩父 Chichibu and the ancient spelling of 知知夫 Chichibu.
Since the connection between the Osaki in Chichibu and Ōsaki seemed weak, I thought I’d check connections between the Chichibu clan and Edo. When nothing came up, I checked the shrines. Sadly, I found nothing. The kami enshrined in each location are completely unrelated to the best of my knowledge[vii].
OK, So Shall We Look at the History?
Present day 大崎２丁目 Ōsaki Ni-chōme 2nd block of Ōsaki and 大崎３丁目 Osaki San-chōme 3rd block of Ōsaki lie on a plateau that traditionally overlooked the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River. Today the view of the river is generally obscured by 大崎駅 Ōsaki Eki Ōsaki Station.
In the early 縄文時代 Jōmon Jidai Jōmon Period[viii] (give dates), the waters of the bay encroached quite deep into what are inland areas today. It’s a well-established fact that Jōmon people inhabited this plateau. As a high ground location, it was extremely defensible and probably safe from flooding. Its close access to sea and the rivers pouring to the bay gave it ample access to seafood. The Jōmon people were hunter-gatherers. They didn’t really have agriculture, so access to good fishing areas was critical for them.
Earlier, I mentioned Irugi Shrine is in Ōsaki 3-chōme. The shrine has luckily preserved evidence of the Jōmon culture that thrived in the area. On the precincts, there is a 貝塚 kaizuka shell mound. To modern eyes, the defining characteristic of these people is their pottery – a lot of pottery has been excavated here. Human bones and other evidence of a human presence is consistent from the early Jōmon Period right up to the present.
The Neolithic culture of the Jōmon people didn’t vanish overnight with the spread of rice culture and the rise of the Yamato State. But, its antiquity and its religious significance are surely the traditional raison d’être for Irugi Shrine’s existence. The importance of the area may very well be an echo of its Jōmon past.
In the 室町時代 Muromachi Jidai Muromachi Period, traffic from 多摩郡 Tama-gun Tama District to 品川宿 Shinagawa-shuku Shinagawa Post Town increased. Because of this, the 居木橋 Irugibashi Irugi Bridge was built across the Meguro River[ix]. As a result, villages began popping up near the bridge to accommodate merchants, fishermen, craftsmen, farmers, and the occasional military or imperial envoys that may have needed to pass through this god forsaken territory.
- Ōmori Kaizuka – the birthplace of Japanese Archaeology
- Ōmori – a coastal area that doesn’t exist anymore
- Shinagawa – truly, a never ending story
- Japanese Eras – what up with that?
- What’s the Tama River?
- If you really love Tama
- Meguro River???
Ōsaki – Common Family Name
You will find places all over Japan called 大崎 Ōsaki. It’s very common. But you will also meet people with this name. Invariably, this family name is derived from a local place name. In the Kantō area – Tōkyō excluded[x] – this name is often traceable back to 下総国香取郡大崎 Shimōsa no Kuni Katori-gun Ōsaki Osaki, Katori District, Shimōsa Province in modern 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture. The family has ancient origins in the 清和源氏 Seiwa Genji (Seiwa Minamoto). The clan originally descends from 清和天皇 Seiwa Tennō Emperor Seiwa (850–878) who was the 56th emperor. This particular bloodline is ultimately the root of thousands of samurai families, but the Seiwa Genji (let’s just say Minamoto from now on), was the line that gave us 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo who established the first 幕府 bakufu shōgunate in 鎌倉 Kamakura in 1192. A later descendant, a certain 足利尊氏 Ashikaga Takauji, established the second shōgunate in 1636 – also establishing a precedent that only those who could claim descent from the Seiwa Minamoto could be granted the title of 征夷大将軍 seii tai-shōgun great general who expels the barbarians[xi]. It’s a messy story, but in short, the Ōsaki family of Ōsaki, Shimōsa Province claims to be descendants of this particularly noble bloodline. Next time you meet a person named Ōsaki from Chiba Prefecture, ask them. They probably don’t have a clue lol.
But all of that said, the family name is not related to the Tōkyō place name, Ōsaki.
- Interestingly, Ōsaki is located near Katori Shrine
Wait! Wait! So What Does Ōsaki Mean??
The kanji mean “big cape,” like I said at the beginning of the article. Where does it come from? The jury is out on that one. No one has a solid etymology – least of whom is me! Enjoy the tenuous connections I’ve given you and accept the fact that some place names may forever be mysterious. I’ll see you in the next article!
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[i] There are some other readings of this kanji but saki/zaki are the most common.
[ii] This place name is cryptic – I assume it’s 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic reasons. The kanji 尾 o literally means “tail” or “slope at the bottom of a mountain.” 崎 saki, of course, means “cape.” But this area is landlocked. Anyways, it’s not in Tōkyō so it’s outside of the scope of this blog.
[iii] It’s Saitama, so no one really knows where it is. Saitama probably doesn’t even know where it is!
[iv] Don’t get too excited about this, it could very well be a coincidence. But it does make me want to check to see if there is a connection. I hadn’t seen this before. If there is a connection, I’ll have to re-write my article on Chiyoda. (Fingers crossed there’s no connection lol!)
[v] In the interest of keeping this article concise, I decided against describing the shrine in detail. However, the place sounds pretty interesting, so I may go down there on Friday to take some pictures and check it out first hand. If it turns out to be really interesting, I’ll dedicate a short article to it. If it turns out to be boring, I’ll just upload the pix to JapanThis on Flickr and tweet the link. If you don’t follow me on Flickr, you should. I tend to add a lot of historical backstory to a lot of the photos.
[vi] Or Chichibu Taira-shi. The reading isn’t important. The meaning is the same.
[vii] This is a tricky thing, though. It seems like there are different levels of affiliation/enshrinement. I’m not an expert on Shintō by any stretch of the imagination, so if anyone could help me dig deeper to see if there’s a connection, I’d really appreciate it.
[viii] I guess you could call this period Neolithic. Some people would say it’s Paleolithic.
[ix] The bridge took its name from the shrine.
[x] More than half the people you meet in Tōkyō are not originally from Tōkyō – even if they’ve lived here several generations.
[xi] A general consensus among historians says that 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga and 豊富秀吉Toyotomi Hideyoshi never sought the title of shōgun for precisely this reason. They couldn’t claim descent from the Seiwa Genji clan. 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate, on the other hand is generally believed to have falsified his genealogy to claim descent from this bloodline in order to secure his appointment as shōgun.