What does Nagatachō mean?


(town of the eternal fields, but more at “Nagata Town”)


The other day, I was riding the 南北線 Nanboku-sen Nanboku Line and looked at the list of stations. I realized that I’d written articles about almost every station on the line. In fact, I even covered the name of the train line itself! But there was one glaring exception. Today, I plan to remedy that situation.

nanboku line
Nanboku Line Stations – except for 4, I’ve more or less covered everything. Today the undone shall become 3.

Today, we’re talking about Nagata-chō. This place name is synonymous with the Japanese government. As an American, I want to say it’s the Japanese equivalent of Washington DC, but maybe Downing Street in London is a closer analogy[i]. In this area, near 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle (present day 皇居 Kōkyo the Imperial Palace), you can find the 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet, which is the Japanese Parliament. You can also find the 首相官邸 Shushō Kantei[ii] Prime Minister’s Official Residence. This concentration means the area is inextricably linked with the Japanese government – specifically the post-Edo Period government.

Related Articles:

nagata-cho kurosawa soba
Nagata-chō Kurosawa. The building is about 60 years old and was originally a ryōtei with geisha. Today the restaurant is a famous soba shop with a very traditional vibe.

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji


a samurai family name that literally means “eternal fields”

machi, –chō

town, but in Edo has a nuance of “commoner neighborhood” (ie; non-samurai)

Before the Edo Period, not much is known about the area. However, it’s safe to assume that because of the area’s high elevation, this plateau was inhabited by local strongmen for centuries. Once 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo his capital, we really get a clear picture of the area from local maps commissioned by the shōgunate. The name is most definitely a product of the early Edo Period.

nagata no baba san'nō o-tabisho
Nagata no Baba San’nō O-tabisho – this shrine, usually called by its old Buddhist name. San’nō-gū. in the Edo Period, was the final destination of the o-mikoshi (portable shrine) of San’nō Hiei Shrine in Akasaka (or a nearby satellite shrine). This area has always been shitamachi and is located present day Kayaba-chō.
nagata no baba san'nō-gū.jpg
Nagata no Baba San’nō-gū by Andō Hiroshige, aka Hiroshige 2: Electric Boogaloo. Anyways, we’ll talk about what a “baba” is in a minute.

An Elite Area from the Edo Period to Present Day

Due to its proximity to not-yet-shōgun Ieyasu’s castle, the area was soon populated by 旗本 hatamoto his direct retainers. At the same time, daimyō who curried the would-be shōgun’s favor were granted sprawling plots of land in the area for residences that would later come to be called 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residences[iii]. I say they “would come to be called” because the system of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternative attendance[iv] hadn’t been formally implemented yet. But it’s important to keep this in mind because we will see this in the later narrative. Just don’t forget: in the Edo Period, the top of this hill was all elite samurai residences with very close connections to the shōgun and his court at Edo Castle.

takada no baba.jpg
This is Takada no Baba (not Nagata no Baba), but you’ll get the point in a second. Note the samurai riding horses in the upper left and the archery targets on the track below that.

On this hill, there was a field reserved for high ranking samurai to practice horse riding[v]. This kind of field was called a 馬場 baba which literally means “horse place.” One of the first families in the area was a hatamoto family who lived in a large residence across the street from the baba. Their name was the 永田家 Nagata-ke Nagata family. As a result, the riding grounds were commonly known as the 永田馬場 Nagata no Baba Nagata Horse Riding Grounds. In a very broad sense, the name Nagata no Baba/Nagata Baba came to be associated with the area in general.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a commoner district that came to be called 永田町 Nagata-chō Nagata Town taking its name from the prestigious samurai neighborhood at the top of the hill[vi].

kato kiyomasa.jpg
Fashion victim Katō Kiyomasa and his ridiculous hat.

Shitty Samurai

One of the first daimyō to move into the area was 加藤清正 Katō Kiyomasa who is most famous for supporting Tokugawa Ieyasu by also hating Ieyasu’s rival, 石田三成 Ishida Mitsunari, and just sitting around in Kyūshū with his dick in his hand when the 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara went down in 1600. As we all know, the Battle of Sekigahara was a decisive Tokugawa victory that pretty much landed Ieyasu the title of shōgun.

For his bravery in avoiding the battle and his loyal support in name only, Ieyasu ensured Kiyomasa’s control of 熊本城 Kumamoto-jō Kumamoto Castle and granted him a large swath of land (the present day National Diet Park) to build the upper residence of 熊本藩 Kumamoto Han Kumamoto Domain.

update: My friend Rekishi no Tabi correctly pointed out that I oversimplified Kiyomasa’s role in Sekigahara. I did this for the sake of the narrative (ie; I decided it wasn’t relevant to the story). If you want to see an excerpt of our conversation, check the very end of the footnotes.

tokugawa iemitsu.jpg
Tokugawa Iemitsu, the 3rd shōgun

Ieyasu died in 1616. The second shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, began cutting off ties with other nations and made it clear that the new Edo based shōgunate increasingly expected daimyō to come to Edo. He died in 1632.

徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shōgun, was elevated to the position in 1623 (while Hidetada held the role of 大御所 ōgosho retired shōgun). He was half-enlightened ruler/half-Prince Joffrey and 2 of his policies would define the Edo Period, sending ripples through the fabric of Japanese culture that are still felt today. The first policy was effectively closing off Japan from the rest of the world[vii]. The second was formally enacting sankin-kōtai in 1635.

In this transition from Hidetada to Iemitsu, the shōgunate started to do a lot of house cleaning to ensure Tokugawa hegemony. Old daimyō, former generals, and their kids who were old enough to remember the option of violent land grabs, overthrowing their superiors, or freely trading with foreigners and cozying up with Christians were fair game for an elite purge that usually doesn’t get discussed a lot.


Shittier Samurai

So anyways, as I said, Katō Kiyomasa set up an embassy in Edo to have close access to Ieyasu. His son, 加藤忠広 Katō Tadahiro, succeeded him and continued to serve the shōgun as his father had.

Then something went terribly wrong. Accusations flew around that Tadahiro was “mismanaging” both his retainers and Kumamoto Domain. Supposedly he didn’t like the increased pressure to attend the shōgun in Edo (which, by the way, is a fucking long way away from Kumamoto). It also didn’t help that he had supposedly become really chummy with 徳川 忠長 Tokugawa Tadanaga, younger brother of shōgun Iemitsu[viii]. “Supposedly” their mother, 江 Gō[ix], favored Tadanaga for the position of shōgun despite the precedent of the first born son becoming the family head; as a result Iemitsu despised him and eventually ordered him to commit 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide in 1634.

go hime
This is a rare actual photograph of Iemitsu’s mother, Gō. She ran everywhere and if she wasn’t running, she required a group of no less than 10 maidservants to sit in front of her waving folding fans to ensure her hair was constantly blowing in the breeze.

At any rate, before Tadanaga met his untimely demise, a document that is considered a forgery today was provided to the shōgunate as evidence of Katō Tadahiro’s complicity in a rebellion of some sort against Tokugawa Iemitsu. In light of his alleged opposition to recent policies, he was purged from the most elite level of the Tokugawa government in 1632. His family’s rank was reduced from daimyō to hatamoto, his stipend was drastically reduced, the Katō upper residence was confiscated, and to this day you’re actually legally allowed to kick anyone named Katō in the shin whenever you meet them because of his grave dishonor[x]. True story.

Control of Kumamoto Castle and Kumamoto Domain was then handed over to the 細川家 Hosokawa-ke Hosokawa clan who held the territory until the end of Edo Period.

kumamoto castle
Kumamoto Kastle™

So… What Happened to the Katō Mansion in Edo?

The Katō mansion on the top of the hill near Nagata no Baba was assigned to the 井伊家 Ii-ke Ii clan who were long time Tokugawa supporters and controlled 彦根藩 Hikone Han Hikone Domain in modern day 滋賀県 Shiga-ken Shiga Prefecture. Just for a little added comparison to the Katō, please know that the Ii provided major support for Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara and this made them a very important family to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family and their hegemony. In terms of the historical narrative that the Tokugawa shōgunate was writing, the Katō were nothing – the Ii were legends.

Ii Residence recreation.jpg
Recreation of the main gate of the Ii upper residence for the 2012 Sakurada Gate Incident which spectacularly recreated the assassination of Ii Naosuke and yamanote urban planning and architecture and went on to spectacularly fail at story telling. But, yeah, the first 40 minutes of the movie are amazing.

1853, the Americans Try to Force the Country Open

So, more than 200 years of ice cream and puppy dogs (better known as the Edo Period) had gone by[xi]. Everything was awesome until a fat American named Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Edo Bay in 1853 with some of the most advanced warships of the day demanding that Japan open up to foreign trade. The shōgunate and the domains collectively freaked out. Xenophobic samurai opposed opening up the country and threw a culture rocking temper tantrum known as the Bakumatsu.


The Black Ships

Fast forward to 1858. The Ii family had always maintained very close relations with the Tokugawa Shōgun Family, but their shining moment was when 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke, the 15th lord of Hikone Domain, was elevated to a the rare rank of 大老 tairō shōgunal regent. He essentially ruled in the name of the 14th shōgun, 徳川家茂 Tokugawa Iemochi, who was too young to rule at a time of crisis.

Today, Naosuke is best known because of the 桜田門外の変 Sakuradamon-gai no Hen Sakuradamon Incident in 1860. That’s when he was assassinated by a goon squad of 芋侍 imo-zamurai country samurai from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[xii]. At the time, Naosuke and his entourage were en route from Hikone Domain’s upper residence near Nagata no Baba to Edo Castle’s 桜田御門 Sakurada Go-mon Sakurada Gate (called Sakuradamon today).

This well was located on the Hikone Domain’s upper residence, it was moved 10 meters in 1968 to the present location.

After the Edo Period

After the relatively peaceful surrender of Edo Castle and the shōgun’s capital in 1868, the daimyō were sent back to their respective domains. Although many daimyō residences were initially kept intact and repurposed for new government bureaus, the majority of them were torn down. This meant that much of the great 山手 yamanote high city real estate was ripe for rebuilding.

lost yamanote
Edo’s lost High City

In 1872 (Meiji 5), a place name 永田町 Nagata-chō was officially created. Because of its proximity to the emperor, who was currently squatting at former Edo Castle[xiii], the area became the center of the most powerful echelons of the military and government, mostly led by former samurai of 薩摩藩 Satsuma Han Satsuma Domain and 長州藩 Chōshū Han Chōshū Domain – the domains who led the Meiji Coup.

Prior to 1945, in Nagata-chō you could find the 大日本帝国陸軍省 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugunshō Department of the Army of the Empire of Japan, the 大日本帝国参謀本部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Sanbō Honbu General Staff Headquarters of the Empire of Japan, the 大日本帝国教育総監部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kyōiku Sōkanbu Inspectorate General of Military Training of the Empire of Japan, and the 大日本帝国陸軍航空総監部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun Kōkū Sōkanbu Inspectorate General of Aviation of the Empire of Japan.

Department of the Army
The military center of the Empire of Japan
department of war
The building is often referred to the Department of War since all the major branches were located here. The photo is taken from Sakuradamon, note the castle walls on the right.
general staff office
Same view from an ukiyo-e style post card that says it’s the General Staff Headquarters.

The Prime Minister’s Residence

Prior to 1929, the Prime Minister[xiv] lived in a modest western style, 2 story wooden house to the north of the current location called the 太政大臣官舎 Daijō Daijin Kansha Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Japan, usually just called the 官邸 Kantei today. This building was destroyed in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. Between 1923 and 1929, I’m not sure where they lived, but I suspect they just lived in their own homes. In 1929, a new 2 story, art deco building with ample office space for staff was built. Japanese prime ministers used this same building until the early 2000’s, when it was torn down to build the present 5 story structure. Interestingly, during the construction of the new residence, the stone foundations and some other remains of the upper residence of 村上藩 Murakami Han Murakami Domain were discovered[xv].

former prime minister's house
Main building of the 1929-2002 Kantei
kantei now.JPG
Main building of the current Kantei
japanese house.jpg
The property is extensive and the PM has a proper residence for his family. In the Meiji Period it was a Japanese style house (originally the residence of the Nabeshima clan of Saga Domain. This house wasn’t built by a daimyō, but by Marquis Nabeshima – as opposed to Marquis Star. See what I did there, eh?
In the 1930’s a mixed Japanese style and western style residence was built. The private family residence has taken on many forms over the years. Interestingly, current PM Abe Shinzō refused to bring his family to the present house. Many speculate it’s because of tales of ghosts of the Imperial Army said to haunt the property.

The Japanese Diet Building

The current 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet Building was completed in 1936 and this is when Nagata-chō truly came to be thought of the political heart of Japan[xvi]. However, the site of Japan’s main deliberative government body wasn’t always located at this spot and is it’s actually a bit of a complicated story.

1st diet.jpg
The 1st Diet Building

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why is Japan’s parliament called a “diet?” In short, when the Meiji Government was deciding on how to translate their new emperor-centric institutions, they found themselves drawn to the examples of Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleonic France because they were also emperor-centric states[xvii]. The word “diet” actually derives from the Medieval Latin word diæta which meant something like a “daily assembly.” Later in French, the word diete took on a meaning of “daily rations” which is where the modern English “to go on a diet” comes from. Anyhoo, the word diet was used to refer to Prussia et alii’s governing bodies and the Japanese thought words like “diet” and “prefecture” were the best ways to translate 2 of their new western-style administrative constructs[xviii].

The 2nd Diet Building (used from 1891-1925)

In 1890, a temporary 2 story, wooden, western style assembly building was built in 日比谷 Hibiya – also near the Imperial Palace. The building burned down and a slightly larger building of roughly the same design was erected in 1891. The building was called the 大日本帝国議会 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Gikai Diet of the Japanese Empire/Imperial Diet and remained in Hibiya until it was severely damaged in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake. However, since the beginning of the Meiji Period until 1945, Imperial Japan was constantly at war with her neighbors to the west, a provisional assembly building was built in Hiroshima. This was the広島臨時仮議事堂 Hiroshima Rinji Kari-Gijidō Hiroshima Provisional (temporary) Diet built to be closer to the action of the 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō First Sino-Japanese War which took place from 1894 to 1895 (Meiji 27-Meiji 28).

The Hiroshima Provisional Diet Building

After the Great Kantō Earfquake, the current site in Nagata-chō was chō chō chosen[xix]. But the project seems to have been badly managed. Between 1923 and 1936, the whole issue of getting parliament to meet while they built the current building was a total clusterfuck[xx]. Some workers even accidentally burned down the building while it was still under construction and they had to more or less start over again from scratch.

The 1936 current Diet Building

As I said earlier, the current diet building was finished in 1936 and looks like it. And by that, I mean it looks like dignified cement and stone state building of the Soviet Era[xxi], which is really a shame because they had been planning on using this location since the 1880’s. Some parts of the building, particularly certain sections of the interior feature some expertly crafted relief work, but… well, to each their own.

The one positive thing I can say about the Diet Building and its pyramid style middle arch is this: from the 1880’s, the Meiji Government set out to make an impressive urban landscape that displayed Tōkyō’s importance as the leading city in Asia. The notion of a 参道 sandō an approach to a shrine is very much present. Approaching a shrine, a samurai’s house, even a teahouse was seen as setting the stage for what would happen next – it creates a sense of ceremony, protocol, and respect that is inherently Japanese. The Diet Building actually achieved this. It sat at the top of a hill near the Imperial Palace and you had to approach formally using a long, uphill driveway. At the top of the hill was an impressive modern building whose center of focus was a pyramid shaped centerpiece that towered over the city.

The Diet Building about the time of the ’64 Olympics. Without other tall buildings or skyscrapers, it’s easy to recognize the classic yamanote characteristics: hills overlooking the city, spacious estates, and sprawling gardens/greenery. Until recently, the building must have been an impressive sight visible from all over the city on days that weren’t bogged down by Shōwa Smog™.

I’m sure it was really impressive until all the skyscrapers went up. Today, the Diet Building is eclipsed by high rise apartments and office buildings. Its location on a hill that used to be one of the most elite neighborhoods of the Edo Period is a nuance that has been lost to the history books… or in this case, relegated to the history blogs.

That said, everything we’ve learned about today is based on stuff I’ve read. I’ve actually never been to the Diet Building – despite working near it for ages. Because of this, I’ve added something new to my “to do” list: go to the Diet; take loads of pictures for the blog, and do a proper history walk of Nagata-chō. This one needs to be on my bucket list[xxii].

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[i] Neither are perfect analogies by a long shot, but c’mon.
[ii] It’s also called the 総理大臣官邸 Sōri Daijin Kantei Prime Minister’s Official Residence. 総理大臣 Sōri Daijin refers specifically to the Japanese Prime Minister. The prime minister of another country is called 首相 shushō. 官邸 kantei just means official residence.
[iii] The upper residence was essentially an “embassy” from the 藩 han domains that dealt directly with the affairs of the shōgunate and also the affairs of their own domain from afar. Read my article on sankin-kōtai here.
[iv] Here’s my article on sankin-kōtai.
[v] Low ranking samurai and non-samurai were forbidden to ride horses.
[vi] In Edo, non-samurai districts were generally suffixed with 町 chō/machi which just means town. The nuance is distinctly non-samurai, though. Perhaps this is why the Meiji Government, which abolished the samurai class, chose to go with this suffix rather than perpetuating baba in the place name. Just a conjecture on my part.
[vii] Except a limited set of trade partners.
[viii] This is a totally different story, but Wiki has an article about him. Keep in mind, there seems to be a bit of a mystery surrounding Tadanaga and his unfortunate demise.
[ix] The wife of the 2nd shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, is known by many names: 江 Gō, 小督 Ogō, 江与 Eyo. She’s usually referred to in English by the latter with an honorific prefix: お江与 O-eyo. In Japanese, she’s usually referred to by the name she took when she retired as a Buddhist priest, 崇源院 Sūgen-in. However, recently, in casual conversation most people called her 江姫 Gō-hime Princess Gō because of the 2011 NHK Taiga Drama, 江〜姫たちの戦国〜 Gō: Himetachi no Sengoku, which popularized her for a minute.
[x] I sincerely hope you know I’m joking. Please don’t kick anyone – Japanese or otherwise – in the shin.
[xi] Alright, it wasn’t all ice cream and puppy dogs, but it was the most stable period Japan had known for years.
[xii] The samurai of Mito were indoctrinated in a particular philosophy called 水戸学 Mito Gaku Mito Learning. The redux of this philosophy in the 1850’s-1860’s was that emperor was a living god and the shōgun’s rank was a gift of the emperor. The last shōgun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was actually from Mito and was very familiar with this mode of thought. Here’s a little background on Mito Gaku.
[xiii] When the city was renamed, the castle was also renamed: 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle. Later it came to be called the 皇城 Kōjō Emperor’s Castle and after that it became the 宮城 Kyūjō which literally means “emperor’s castle” but was translated as “the Imperial Palace.”
[xiv] The term Prime Minister is a much more recent term. Prior to the End of WWII, this position was often translated as Supreme Chancellor, Grand Minister, or something like this because of the peerage system. The Japanese was 太政大臣 Daijō Daijin Chancellor of the Realm, a term of the imperial court that dates back to the Heian Period.
[xv] Murakami Domain was located in modern day 新潟県 Niigata-ken Niigata Prefecture.
[xvi] Prior to this it was thought of as the military center of the Empire of Japan – at least in the post-Tokugawa eras.
[xvii] I touched on this in my article Why does Japan have Prefectures?
[xviii] Besides Germany, I think Japan is the only country that still uses the word “diet.” The German parliament is called the Bundestag which literally means “federal day” and echoes the Medieval Latin reference to “daily assembly” and is rendered in to English as “Federal Diet.”
[xix] For those of you who don’t know, this is a reference to The Simpsons.
[xx] Think about this timeline a little. When the original wooden structure burned down in 1890, they had a bigger and badder structure rebuilt by 1891 that lasted until the 1920’s. But it took them 16 years to build the modern cement structure.
[xxi] A style of architecture still alive and kicking in North Korea today.
[xxii] Because “having a threesome with Kashiyuka and Nocchi from Perfume” is becoming an increasingly impossible dream.

Note about Katō Kiyomori just standing around with his dick in his hand: Quoting directly from Rekishi no Tabi: “Sekigahara coincided with two other major planned campaigns, one in Tōhoku led by the Date (East side) vs Uesugi (West) and the other campaign was in Kyūshū where the Katō and Kuroda fought on the East side against Mitsunari’s pals. Katō’s most hated rival, Konishi Yukinaga, occupied the southern half of Higo. Kiyomasa, of course, invaded and unified the province. Most importantly, the fact [that] he was ready to pounce on Yukinaga’s fief tied up the bulk of his army, which otherwise would have gone off to Sekigahara. Also, the Shimazu were hesitant to commit forces to Mitsunari with Kiyomasa menacing so close by. Thus, the Shimazu contingent at Sekigahara was relatively small in comparison to their overall force size. Kiyomasa’s troops were without a doubt the most effective fighting force the Japanese landed in Korea. Kiyomasa was the one general who the Ming and Koreans feared the most. So, dick in hand in Kyūshū … Nah. Way off.”

He’s absolutely correct, but none of this relates to the story of Nagata-chō and would have been a huuuuuuuuuge tangent that I didn’t want to go down (the article was already 8 pages in MS Word). But for the history of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and, by extension, the history of Edo-Tōkyō, it’s important to know that Ieyasu didn’t quite trust Kiyomasa because of his connection with Toyotomi Hideyoshi – a point that Rekishi no Tabi also brought up:  “But there are plenty of stories that Ieyasu had him poisoned… It was all supposed to be a part of Ieyasu’s patient plan to destroy the Katō. Iemitsu finished what granddaddy started.”

My response: “Like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader.”

4 thoughts on “What does Nagatachō mean?

    1. Thank you so very much!

      I’m trying my best to keep the quality as high as I can on a topic most people don’t care about. So, again I thank you. It means a lot to me.

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