Akihabara (Akiba’s field)
Kanda (holy rice paddies)
This is the stretch of the Yamanote Line that I’ve been dreading from the beginning. The reason is twofold: Akihabara is a loaded place name that carries a lot of baggage and it’s not my cup of tea[i]. Kanda is also loaded, but I haven’t done a proper article on it yet. That makes it one of the most overdue place names on JapanThis!. But for all intents and purposes, Akihabara and Kanda are historically kinda the same place. In fact, while the name Kanda may date back to the Heian Period or earlier, the name Akihabara wasn’t even necessary until the 1890’s when a train station was opened here. And that’s the real bitch, now isn’t it? I can refer you to my thorough article on Akihabara (the new place), I yet I can’t do much about Kanda (the old place) because I haven’t covered it yet.
So rather than go in deep this time, I’m just going to give a light description of the areas and make a promise to cover Kanda in depth before the end of the year and then update this article with a link the new article.
Before there was Akihabara there was Kanda
Originally, the whole area from平将門首塚 Taira no Masakada no Kubizuka Taira no Masakado’s Head Mound[ii] in 大手町 Ōtemachi[iii] to 駿河台 Surugadai (originally 神田山 Kandayama Mt. Kanda) was called 神田 Kanda in general. This changed over the centuries, but for our purposes today, this is good enough. That was Kanda and you can see it originally referred to a large and relatively vague area.
Early in the Edo Period – about 1613 – Edo’s main fish market was established in Nihonbashi on the border of Kanda. It was said to stink to high hell and was remained an important fixture of daily life in Edo-Tōkyō until it was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake[iv]. Also bordering Kanda was Denma-chō, home of one of Edo’s prisons and execution grounds.
By the late Edo Period, a number of very famous 剣術 kenjutsu fencing dōjō’s had come to operate in the area. These schools had close ties with the upper echelons of samurai and were some of the richest and most distinguished schools in the shōgun’s capital. With the arrival of Commodore Perry and his black ships in 1853, the shōgunate immediately established the 講武所 Kōbusho in the area. This was its official military academy to prepare elite samurai for a possible showdown with the west and teach whatever western military strategies and tactics they could get their hands on.
In the Fine Tradition of People Getting Shit Wrong on Wikipedia
Let’s see how the editors of a typical English language article on Wikipedia fare on the topic of Akihabara, shall we?
One of Tokyo’s frequent fires destroyed the area in 1869, and the people decided to replace the buildings of the area with a shrine called Chinkasha (now known as Akiba Shrine (秋葉神社 Akiba Jinja), meaning fire extinguisher shrine, in an attempt to prevent the spread of future fires. The locals nicknamed the shrine Akiba after the deity that could control fire, and the area around it became known as Akibagahara and later Akihabara.
The city was barely even Tōkyō in 1869[v], but that’s just being nitpicky so I’m not going to go there.
“The people decided to replace the buildings of the area with a shrine called Chinkasha.” Umm, no they didn’t. The fire in question burned down about 17 blocks of commoner housing. The whole area wasn’t rebuilt as a shrine. That would have been a pretty major shrine if it were in this part of town. And 鎮火社 chinka-sha isn’t the name of a shrine; it’s a category of shrine. Chinka-sha means “fire extinguisher shrine.” No, it doesn’t. 消火 shōka means “extinguish a fire.” 鎮火 chinka means “extinguished fires” with the implied Edo Period notion that more than one fire has occurred.
The locals set up a minor, impromptu shrine that honored the area and mourned the loss of life and property. This wasn’t proper shrine like you’d usually think of. Maybe something made of stones or just wherever people decided to leave offerings that may have grown over time[vi]. Furthermore, the area wasn’t rebuilt for many years because it was designated as a 火除地 hiyokechi firebreak – an empty field that, should a fire break out again, wouldn’t be breached thus protecting the surrounding blocks.
“[The] locals nicknamed the shrine Akiba after the deity that could control fire[vii].” I don’t know if they nicknamed it that or not, but through a ritual called 分霊 bunrei the dividing of a 神 kami spirit, 秋葉大権現 Akiba Daigongen[viii], a Buddhist/Shintō syncretic deity related to fire was installed in the small shrine in 1870. This is really when the place name began to take place. That said, the name could have been lost to time, had a train station not been built in the area. As this area was essentially Kanda, the train company had to come up with a unique name. It was for the purpose of public transportation and zoning that the place name Akihabara ever came into existence[ix].
The explanation of the writing lacks any nuance at all, so I’ll just leave it alone. Ugh.
I have to say I was totally dreading writing this mash up of these 2 places. But now that I think about it, they were pretty easy to bring together without getting outside the scope of this series. This also makes a good launch pad for us when I finally get around to discussing Kanda. Like I said, I think Kanda is going to be a bit of an epic article.
For me, I’m just happy that there are only 5 more stations until we make a full circle on the Yamanote Line. I’m thinking about how to break these up in terms of stations. In order to keep up the 2 stations per post, I may include the “ghost station” that is planned between Tamachi and Shinagawa is still just a glimmer in the eye of the JR East. I’m sure they’ll build it – the plan is before the 2020 Olympics – but, honestly, there doesn’t seem any immediate need for it. Worse yet, this station would serve to condense more of Japan’s population in Tōkyō at a time when it should probably be developing urban centers outside of the capital. Anyhoo, that would be a place marker because I can’t write about it until it’s actually built and active as a station lol.
- My Original Article on Akihabara
- My Article on Denma-chō Prison
- My Article on Ōme mention the Kubizuka
- My Future Article on Kanda lol
If you’re gonna be in Japan, let’s take a history tour together!
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[i] But even that’s not completely true; there are things about Akihabara that I like. Mainly, maids. Oh, and the giant sex shop. Oh, and the Oculus Rift demo software with the bikini girl on the beach. Oh, and that really good kebab shop whose name I can’t remember. Oh, and the ruins of a samurai residence. Oh, and… oh. That’s all.
[ii] The allegedly haunted burial mound of the head of Taira no Masakado.
[iii] Ōtemachi refers to the district located in front of Edo Castle’s 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate. Now it’s pretty much just a banking and finance district.
[iv] The replacement was Tsukiji Market, which is being moved to Toyosu this year and is a huuuuuge controversy.
[v] The name of the city changed from Edo to Tōkyō in 1868.
[vi] There seem to be no surviving pictures of the shrine.
[vii] Akiba isn’t the only kami who has power over fire.
[viii] Or Akiha Daigongen.
[ix] If you read my original article, you’ll see there were a lot of different ways to refer to this area before the train companies and government standardized things.