What does Kioi-chō mean?

(Kii Owari Ii Town)

I wasn’t planning on doing this place name because… well, I’ll be honest. I’d never heard of it before. But after my last article on 永田町 Nagata-chō, my friend Rekishi no Tabi[i] got on my case about my treatment of Katō Kiyomasa. In the end, I’m pretty sure we share the same opinions of the dude – or at least of the Tokugawa Shōgunate’s view of him and his family, but our conversation led to an addendum to the article. Then he brought this place name to my attention. It’s inextricably linked to the story of Nagata-chō.

It’s also related to James Bond.

Didn’t see that coming? Neither did I.

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji


Abbreviation of 紀伊

Kishū Tokugawa-ke
Tokugawa of Kishū Domain[ii]


Abbreviation of 尾張

Owari Tokugawa-ke
Tokugawa of Owari Domain[iii]


Abbreviation of 井伊

Ii clan of Hikone Domain[iv]


If you read your footnotes like a good girl or boy, you should know that the Kii and Owari branches of the Tokugawa family were 2 of the 3 most elite cadastral branches of the family. These bloodlines derived from the male children of Tokugawa Ieyasu who were not in line for succession of the office of shōgun. The Ii family, while not directly related to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family, always enjoyed a special connection to the shōgunate and the shōgunate – one that culminated in the appointment of the 16th lord of Hikone Domain, 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke, as 大老 tairō shōgunal regent.

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So… What’s the Connection?

The name of the area that’s called Kioi-chō today seems to be derived from an Edo Period nickname that blended these 3 names into one. You see, in those days the 中屋敷 naka-yashiki middle residences of Kii, Owari, and the Ii were located in the area. The hill that led up to these palatial estates came to be called 紀尾井坂 Kioi-zaka Ki-O-I Hill.


Why the Hell did they Name the Hill?

The explanation is 2-fold, maybe even 3-fold depending on your familiarity with Japan. If you’ve never been to Japan, you’re probably used to streets having names. They’re probably usually laid on in a grid pattern, too. In Tōkyō, street names and grid patterns are the exception, not the rule.

Japanese castle towns – and Edo-Tōkyō in particular – spiral out from the center of the town (ie; the castle). A daimyō would be given a huge estate here, minor shōgunate officials would be assigned there, townspeople would be put in another place, but each 町 chō town was more or less segregated from the other towns. They were also built as needed. From a modern urban planning perspective, this is a nightmare of the highest order. But before you criticize, just know that Rome – arguably the most influential western city of the ancient world developed in a somewhat similar way.

Anyhoo, because of its abundance of alleys and lack of symmetry, naming streets was sort of unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. The local people used landmarks and geographical features to develop a vocabulary of their own to talk about their neighborhoods[v]. The result of this, there is a plethora of geographically-based places names and, yeah, hills get named too. This has given rise to an obscure type of nerd in Japan: the hill nerd. They read about, visit, photograph, and blog about hills in Japan. Their influence is so strong that Tōkyō’s 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward actually posts signs on all of its major hills that explain the etymology of the name in one or two sentences.

new otani
James Bond in Kioi-chō at the New Otani Hotel… errr, I mean at Osato Chemical & Engineering Co., LTD., a front group for SPECTRE.

It’s James Bond, Bitch. James Bond!

The area is typically 山手 yamanote high city. As such it’s hilly and has a lot of trees and greenery. Many old daimyō residences have been turned into huge office spaces and luxury hotels. Kioi-chō is no different. The area has always been an exclusive residential area, but also an exclusive area for hotels, in particular for minor heads of state and politically connected CEO’s. Because of the area’s proximity to the 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet and the former residences of the imperial princes in 赤坂 Akasaka and the emperor himself at 旧江戸城 kyū-Edo-jō former Edo Castle, it’s often associated with 議員宿舎 Gi’in Shukusha apartments for the members of the National Diet. If you’re an elected representative from, say, Okinawa, you need a residence in Tōkyō to do your job. Of course, you can buy your own place in Tōkyō or just crash at the place you bought for your mistress, but most likely you’re going to stay at the government subsidized shukusha – especially when your family comes to visit you in the big city because, you know, mistresses.

Oh, look! There’s that hill we’ve heard so much about.

I haven’t seen the movie for ages, so I don’t know if they allude to any of this, but this governmental connection to what the Cold War west would have called the intelligentsia was most likely behind the decision to shoot a certain car chase scene in Kioi-chō in the 1967 James Bond movie 007は二度死ぬ Daburu Ō Sebun Wa Nido Shinu You Only Live Twice. Japan had been a pariah in both the east and west after WWII, and the 1964 Olympics did a lot to showcase a kinder, gentler Japan – a more modern Japan. You Only Live Twice really capitalized on exoticizing Japan – the book does much more than the movie – but it presented Japan as a Cold War ally to the west at a time that China, Korea, and Vietnam were pretty much the de factō enemy communist kids who didn’t play fair in the sandbox.

This is Helga Brandt, Mr. Osato’s secretary. She reprimand’s James Bond for smoking, telling him that “Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest.” No shit. That’s an actual line from this scene. (Later, she’s eaten by piranhas.)

James Bond under the alias Mr. Fisher visits Osato Industries and after the initial meeting receives a death sentence from the company’s CEO. From there, the most geographically ridiculous car chase scene ever ensues. It goes from god-knows-where to Kioi-chō/Akasaka/Nagata-chō to the Japanese countryside and then back to the Bay Area where you can see Tōkyō Tower.

But if all of that wasn’t mind blowing; get this! The screenplay was written by Roald fucking Dahl. Does that name sound familiar? That’s the guy who wrote Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.


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[i] Not only is Rekishi no Tabi a dude who knows his shit about Japanese History, he’s an amazing photographer who produces some of the most awe inspiring photography of Japan. Sometimes I take a nice picture here and there, but he’s the real “Photography Yoda” of Japanese History. I highly recommend that you follow his work on Flickr.
[ii] The Kii Tokugawa were one of the 御三家 go-san-ke 3 Honorable Families – branches of the main Tokugawa line that could provide a male heir to be accepted into the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family in the case the main line couldn’t produce a successor itself. The go-san-ke  were the Mito Tokugawa, the Owari Tokugawa, and the Kii Tokugawa.
[iii] The Owari Tokugawa were one of the 御三家 go-san-ke 3 Honorable Families – branches of the main Tokugawa line that could provide a male heir to be accepted into the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family in the case the main line couldn’t produce a successor itself. The go-san-ke  were the Mito Tokugawa, the Owari Tokugawa, and the Kii Tokugawa.
[iv] The Ii were longtime allies of the Tokugawa in Western Japan since the Sengoku Period.
[v] This is still very much a feature of giving directions or talking about places in Tōkyō today. “Go straight 2 blocks on 1st street, turn right. Walk 3 blocks on Pine Avenue, turn left on 5th Street, and the post office is on your right” just doesn’t work. Usually what you’ll hear is something more along the lines of “Go straight. When you see the train station, turn right. Go straight and when you see bakery, turn left. The post office will be on your right hand side. It’s across from the bookstore.”

6 thoughts on “What does Kioi-chō mean?

  1. On my first visit to Tokyo I stayed at the New Otani Hotel which was constructed smack in the middle of the old Ii estate. The grounds/garden at the hotel was ‘supposedly’ part of Kato Kiyomasa’s original residence, maintained and renovated over the years of course. That fact meant very little to me back then, but it was a very nice garden for a stroll.

    By the way, is the map at the top of this article from an interactive edo-era google maps??

    1. The Okura Hotel, which was also built on a daimyo residence CLEARLY retained characteristics consistent with the geography of such an estate. When I first saw it, I didn’t know it was the famous hotel, I just remember looking at the greenery and the geography and thinking “if this wasn’t a daimyo residence, I must be insane.” Then I saw a plaque that confirmed that confirmed it was indeed a former daimyo residence.

      Roppongi Hills’ garden is supposedly a remnant of the Mōri clan’s lower residence garden. But like you said about the New Otani, who knows. I suspect in both cases, very little is actually intact besides the overall geography. That said, I even question the authenticity of gardens like Koishikawa Kōrakuen or Rikugien.

      As for the map, it’s not from an interactive Google map. I wish it was.

      It’s just taken from an old scan of an Edo Map and I superimposed some English text on it for clarification because some of my readers can’t read Japanese or don’t have time to deal with the courtly titles that are used on the map itself.

  2. Great article as usual, just one thing a little typo – “紀尾井町 Kioi-zaka ” I think you mean 尾井坂?

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