(literally “green plum,” but more at “unripe plum”)
What does Ōme mean?
Ōme is an incorporated “city”[i] named after an ancient village in the area formerly known as 青梅村 Ōme Mura Ōme Village. This is the northernmost and easternmost part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. Usually when you think of Tōkyō, you think of a sprawling urban center with skyscrapers and packed trains. Ōme is mountains, forests, and rivers; one of the most beautiful parts of Tōkyō. It’s so rural that the train stations in the area are often unmanned and the train doors require you to push a button to open them because… um, people just don’t get off the train here much. The local people tend to use cars for everything.
In our last article about Shinjuku, we learned how the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō Kōshū Highway forked at Shinjuku and branched off into a new road called the 青梅街道 Ōme Kaidō Ōme Highway. Before 1603, the village of Ōme wasn’t really famous for anything. At that time a post town called 青梅宿 Ōme-shuku Ōme Inn Town was established and the post town and the highway got some recognition.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about:
- My article on Shinjuku mentions these roads and the nature of post towns
- My article of the 5 Great Highways of Edo talks about the system in general
- As always, don’t forget to check the footnotes![ii] Loads of additional info there.
- Oh, masochists might be interested in my article on the Tama River.
But first, Let’s Look at the Kanji
|a fruit translated as Japanese apricot; but in the late winter, the flowers are translated as plum blossoms or just ume|
|an unripe Japanese apricot; literally green ume|
Sadly, there’s no clear etymology. The place is clearly quite ancient. The primary etymology is said to be a product of the Heian Period (794 – 1185). That said, the name could easily be older. But if the name does indeed derive from something like ao ume, a shift from /aou/ to /aoː/ or /au/ and then to /oː/ is not inconceivable[iv].
At any rate, the prevalent theory has an interesting story behind it so let’s go with that.
A Samurai Did It
A high ranking samurai named Taira no Masakado visited the area that is present day 青梅市天ヶ瀬町 Amagase-chō Ōme-shi Ōme City, Amagase Town. The name Amagase means “heavenly shoal” or “heavenly rapids” and is a reference to a shallow section of the 多摩川 Tama-gawa Tama River. Struck by the beauty of the area, he decided to pray to 仏 Hotoke Buddha. He took the ume branch he was using as a horse whip and planted it into the ground. Then he said to the ume branch 我願成就あらば栄ふべし、しからずば枯れよかし waga negai jōju ara ba sakayu be shi, shikarazu ba, kare yo ka shi if my prayer is heard, grow tall; if it isn’t heard, then wither and die, bitch.
Well, if the legend is to be believed, the ume branch took root and grew into a splendid tree. It even bore fruit at the end of summer. However, the fruit did not ripen. Instead it remained green (aoume). Furthermore, the fruit was said to not fall off the tree. Because of this, the tree came to be called 将門誓いの梅 Masakado Chikai no Ume or just 誓いの梅 Chikai no Ume. The name literally means “Oath Ume,” but I think we can translate this as “Masakado’s Prayer Ume.”
At any rate, since the branch took root, Masakado took this as a sign that his prayer was heard by Buddha. As an act of gratitude, Masakado paid for the establishment of a temple called 金剛寺Kongō-ji Kongō Temple at the location of this little miracle. The temple claims that this tree is the origin of the place name, Ōme, and so it literally means “unripe ume.” In fact, today the tree is a protected monument of the Tōkyō Metropolis[v] and, although it’s looking a bit rough around the edges these days, the Masakado’s Prayer Ume still blooms to this day at the entrance of Kongō-ji.
What did Masakado Pray for?
No one knows. Like most of his life, this story is questionable at best. In fact, for a guy whose life is mostly legendary in a very non-specific way, it’s strange that this story actually goes into so much detail – including the words he said. Aw, who am I kidding? It’s not strange at all because at the same time, the story still remains pretty fricking vague.
Whether he actually visited this location, made a prayer here, planted an ume, or did any of this stuff is unknowable. From an etymological standpoint, I think it’s fair to say that this story is entertaining at most, suspicious at worst. From a linguistic standpoint, well… the sound changes are plausible, but… c’mon!
Who the Hell was Taira no Masakado?
Taira no Masakado was a Heian Period samurai[vi] who lived in the first half of the 900’s. This is important to keep in mind because at JapanThis!, we usually talk about Edo Period samurai (1600-1868). He was a 5th generation descendant of 桓武天皇 Kanmu Tennō Emperor Kanmu (737–806), the supposed 50th emperor of Japan[vii]. His particular branch of the Taira clan governed parts of the 関東地方 Kantō Chihō Kantō Area called 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni[viii] which bordered 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and 常陸国 Hitachi no Kuni Hitachi Province.
In 935, Masakado ran into some trouble with samurai from Hitachi, and by trouble I mean he was attacked for some reason unknown to us. While he never backed down from a battle, including retributive attacks, he genuinely seems to have tried to go through the proper channels to resolve things diplomatically with the local magistrates in Kantō and with the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto. From here, the story gets… um, let’s say… imaginative.
According to legend, he incurred the wrath of the imperial court because in 939, Masakado staged an insurrection of sorts. Allegedly, he declared himself the 新王 shin’ō new emperor and wanted the eastern provinces to be autonomous[ix]. He was eventually defeated in Shimōsa in 940 and killed in battle. His head was brought back to Kyōto to be displayed all Game of Thrones style.
His severed head, wanting to be independent and escape the oppression of the oppressive imperial court, began gnashing its teeth and groaning. After a few days of scaring Kyōtoites who came to gawk at him, his head took flight and flew back to his native Kantō. And of course it flew back. What did you think the head would do – walk back?!
Anyhoo, the head landed on a hill near Edo Bay where the local people buried it in a mound called a 首塚 kubizuka head mound, a kind of grave to be venerated. They began to revere it as a symbol of Kantō pride and independence. Soon Masakado came to be seen as a take-no-shit-from-anyone samurai who was even willing to stick it to the imperial court if push came to shove.
His 神 kami spirit was eventually enshrined at 神田神社 Kanda Jinja Kanda Shrine[x] in 江戸 Edo[xi]. When the first shōgun, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu began the refortification of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle, he had the shrine relocated because he was supposedly afraid of having such a powerful, anti-government spirit sitting right next to his castle[xii]. According to legend, there were a series of deadly accidents or dark omens during the dismantling of the shrine, so they decided to leave the grave undisturbed. The kubizuka of Taira no Masakado still sits in its original location in Tōkyō’s Ōtemachi district. It’s said that every time Masakado’s grave fell into disrepair, something bad would happen – a fire here, an earfquake there, an outbreak of cholera, or what have you. As a result, the shōgunate regularly maintained the site to avoid offending the easily angered samurai ghost head.
In the Meiji Era, the imperial government had Taira no Masakado’s kami de-enshrined from Kanda Shrine because the idea of a samurai insurrection inspired by this legendary, anti-government pro-Kantō war hero seemed like a bad idea[xiii]. After all, the emperor had just sorta waltzed into Edo, taken over the shōgun’s castle, changed the name of the city to Tōkyō, and his new government was doing all sorts of crazy shit like abolishing the samurai class and – shudder the thought – westernizing.
As far as I know, the Meiji Government didn’t mess with Masakado’s kubizuka. However, after the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake[xiv], the Ministry of Finance planned to move the grave in order to build a new office[xv]. But 14 ministry officials and executives of the construction company involved died in close succession, and so the project was aborted because it was obvious that they were pissing off Masakado’s spirit. The Ministry of Finance went so far as to erect a brand new inscribed, commemorative stone to placate him in 1926. And if you think it’s weird for a government agency to believe in ghosts, remember: this was pre-1945. Everyone – the government included – were taught and believed wholeheartedly that the emperor was a living god.
So after WWII, the superstitions must have gone away, right?
During the American Occupation, the military wanted to set up some offices so they could be near 皇居 Kōkyo the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle) to keep tabs on the emperor. Ōtemachi seemed as a good a place as any and so they planned to knock over the kubizuka. However, a bulldozer tipped over and killed the driver. There are a few other stories related to deaths and injuries of workers while trying to remove the grave. The US Army didn’t see the importance of the site, but the local Japanese workers soon refused to disturb the site anymore out of fear. Eventually the project was abandoned. Also, after the war, Masakado’s kami was re-installed at Kanda Shrine as a gesture to Tōkyōites who both loved and feared him. Maybe the Americans also wanted to appease the hot headed ghost of Taira no Masakado[xvi].
When I first came to Japan in 2005, I was told by a local that Taira no Masado was the only samurai with a bank account – specifically a bank account at Tōkyō-Mitsubishi UFJ. I thought this was a pretty remarkable story but didn’t think much of it until now.
Surprisingly, this turns out to be partially true! For many years, one of the offices directly next to the kubizuka was UFJ Bank. In 2006, Tōkyō-Mitsubishi and UFJ merged becoming the largest bank in Japan. I don’t have an exact date, but it seems that a group of senior executives at UFJ bank did, in fact, set up a special fund to be used for yearly offerings to Kanda Shrine[xvii]. When the banks merged, the fund – of course – stayed intact. In accordance with 風水 fū sui feng shui[xviii], UFJ had a longstanding tradition of banning desks from facing away from the shrine. How strictly this policy continues to be enforced – if at all – is unknown to me. But that said, I used to work in an office across from 山王日枝神社 San’nō Hie Jinja San’nō Hie Shrine and all desks on all floors were to face the shrine… without exception. So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Need some further reading?
- Here’s my article on Edo because it mentions Edo
- Here’s my article that touches on San’nō Hie Shrine
- Here’s my article on Marunouchi that mentions Ōtemachi & daimyō residences
Hopefully it’s clear that the legend of Taira no Masakado has taken on a life of its own. At this point, the legend is waaaaaay more interesting than the few historical details that we have. Hell, the ones that we do have are pretty mundane and boring. I’ll take a flying ghost head with a bank account any day.
But what do historians take away from Masakado’s story? In short, his military agitation against the so-called “sedate culture” of the Heian court can be seen as a symptom of growing pains among the provincial samurai governors and local strongmen. Martial disturbances like this among the samurai would only increase. While the imperial court had their poetry, games, and elegant rituals, there were warlords in the countryside accumulating wealth and influence… and yeah, warlords tend to have armies. Sometimes they came into conflict with each other and they increasingly didn’t care what the poetry writing goofballs holed up in Kyōto thought about it. This attitude would eventually give rise to the first 幕府 bakufu shōgunate in Kamakura[xix] in 1192. In turn, that would give rise to samurai rule. Masakado wasn’t the first legendary samurai[xx], but his story is interesting if you think of it as a foreshadowing of what is to come. The story is made even better by how he ties into not just Japanese history, but the story of both Edo and Tōkyō.
[i] Its technical designation is 市 shi city, but the area is really pure countryside.
[ii] Footnote test!
[iii] I don’t want to go into a diachronic linguistic discussion about the Japanese distinction between – and apparent lack thereof – blue and green. If you want to know more, Wiki has a brief but sketchy introduction to the topic.
[iv] /au/ to /o/ is well attested in Italian, actually; cf. causa→cosa. This sound change was recorded as far back as Cicero (106 BCE-43), well before it became a manifest feature of Proto Italian in the 900’s.
[v] This doesn’t lend any credence to the story, it just means that the metropolitan government put up a sign and you might face a stiffer fine if you pee on this tree than if you just peed on a random tree at the temple. I guess.
[vi] The best date we have for him is the year of his death, 940. He inherited his father’s fief in 935 and his uprising took place in 939. His supposed visit and/or founding of Kongō-ji took place in the 承平時代 Jōhei/Sōhei Jidai Jōhei/Shōhei Period which was from 931 to 938 – the most logical assumption being sometime between 935 and 939.
[vii] 平成天皇 Heisei Ten’nō Emperor Akihito, the current emperor, is allegedly the 125th. By the way, the Japanese don’t call him “Heisei Emperor” or “Akihito,” both would be extremely rude – Heisei being the name he assumes upon death. They refer to him as the 今上天皇 Kinjō Ten’nō reigning emperor or just 天皇 Ten’nō emperor.
[viii] Shimōsa was essentially modern Chiba Prefecture and a bit of modern Ibaraki Prefecture. In the Edo Period, as a traditional but administratively unrecognized name, a small part of the ancient province was included in the Tokugawa shōgun’s capital – the area to the east of the 大川 Ōkawa Big River, the traditional name of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. By the way, I have an article about the Sumida River.
[ix] Trying to establish himself as a new emperor seems out of character, so let’s file that under “probably legend.”
[x] Today the shrine is called 神田明神 Kanda Myōjin which is also translated as Kanda Shrine.
[xi] The shrine dates back to the 700’s, so Masakado was added later.
[xii] I doubt Ieyasu gave a shit about Taira no Masakado. In reality, he probably just moved the shrine because it sat too close to where he wanted to build the castle’s 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate. The land was also going to be used for daimyō residences. Furthermore, Ieyasu requested the shrine host a yearly festival for the people commemorating his victory at the 関ヶ原合戦 Sekigahara Gassen Battle of Sekigahara which basically led to his elevation to the position of shōgun.
[xiii] In reality, the actual reason for Masakado’s de-enshrinement is a little more complicated. Sure, the samurai insurrection thing was probably part of it, but the samurai class was strongly associated with Buddhism. Until the Meiji Period decree separating Buddhism and Shintō, Japanese religion was a syncretic mix of Buddhism and Shintō (with a dash of Taoism). Removing an enshrined samurai made Kanda Shrine a purer Shintō institution. Also, Kanda Shrine was one of the most important shrines in central Edo. To promote State Shintō with the Emperor as the supreme 神 kami deity, the imperial government established the 東京十社 Tōkyō Jissha Pilgrimage of the Ten Major Shrines of Tōkyō. There was no way to omit Kanda Shrine from the list, so as a result, the controversial, insurrectionist Taira no Masakado had to go. Interestingly, the kanji for the city of Ōsaka were changed at this time. The original kanji were 大坂 which if written sloppily could look like 大士反 “large samurai opposition” (but the meaning was “big hill”). The kanji were changed to 大阪 which was also meant “big hill” but lacked any reference to 士 shi warriors.
[xiv] Which was actually Taishō 12 – almost the end of the Taishō Period.
[xv] Ōtemachi is synonymous banks and finance companies. It’s kinda like Japan’s version of Wall Street.
[xvi] This also might have been a bit of an eff you to the idea of imperial rule. Masakado was seen as anti-imperial court, and the US occupation was clearly anti-imperial. Oh yeah, and… pun intended!
[xvii] Companies visiting and patronizing shrines and temples is completely normal in Japan.
[xviii] Feng shui is Chinese geomancy. It’s pretty much BS.
[xix] Notably in Kamakura which is also in Kantō. This trend of eastern samurai pulling power away from the west doesn’t stop and culminates with the establishment of the 3rd and final shōgunate in Edo by the Tokugawa. Even the Meiji Emperor’s supporters had to concede in 1868 that the real power was in the east, in Edo-Tōkyō.
[xx] Ummmmm… there probably wasn’t even a “first legendary samurai.”