(well and reeds, more at “place between Igusa and Ogikubo”)
Coming up with new place names in Tōkyō to write about is never a problem. On those rare days when I have no inspiration, a random look at a map of the city might spark an interest. Other times, I get requests from you, the reader. And it’s not unusual for certain place names to come up in face to face conversation. Today is one of those face to face instances.
Last month, I was at an event in which a very interesting story came up – a story typical of hand-me-down stories in Tōkyō. It was a lurid story that involved a train station and a lot of shit and piss[i]. (Oh, and be prepared. I’m gonna use the phrase shit and piss a lot in this article). But it’s a fitting example of how a little truth and a little fiction get mixed up over the years. It’s also a great example of how stories aren’t passed down clearly by the locals themselves leading to confusion once people try to share their local history with outsiders.
As a person obsessed with diachronic linguistics, I think this story demonstrates the murky waters we tread when exploring the etymologies of local place names[ii]. In short, this is why skepticism is important when talking about history, language, and your mom[iii].
Exploring Edo-Tōkyō Like Locals Do
So, I was introduced to a new colleague by Donny Kimball of Distant Dystopia, and when the conversation turned to Edo-Tōkyō place names[iv], my new friend suggested a place name for JapanThis!. The area was called 井荻 Iogi[v], and although I’d never heard of it before, I was intrigued. Our conversation was brief, but what I took away from it was this:
I live in a place called Iogi on the Seibu Shinjuku Line. It’s not much to look at these days, but a local old man told me trains used to carry shit and piss from Tōkyō to the countryside. They used to dump all this excrement in a lake or swamp in Iogi. Furthermore, if you look at the color of the cars on this train, they’re a shitty version of piss yellow. That color was a deliberate indicator (or direct inheritance) of this train line’s association with the transport of human excrement, ie; avoid the yellow colored train!
I’d heard about feces used for compost as early as my elementary school days. My parents had spent two years in the countryside of Kanagawa Prefecture before I was born and they showed me a curious bill that they had saved. It was a bill for a shit and piss collection service. Seemed weird to me as a young kid who knew nothing about Japan, but whatever. I soon forgot about this because, it was totally irrelevant to my life.
When I heard this story about Iogi, I remembered my parents’ story about the shit and piss collection service they paid for every month. I quickly made a connection to the Pre-Modern custom of selling so-called “night soil.” Soon I was determined to see how much of this story was true and immediately thought that you, dear reader, would be curious too.
First, Let’s Look at the Kanji
|usually this kanji means well, the sort you would draw water from; it has a secondary meaning of community.|
|this means reeds; it commonly occurs in marshy lowlands or where lakes once stood.|
The etymology of 井荻 Iogi is simple, really. Iogi is not a place name, just a station name[vi]. Located in Tōkyō’s 杉並区 Suganami-ku Suginami Ward, it’s surrounded by 上井草駅 Kami Igusa Eki Upper Igusa Station and 下井草駅 Shimo Igusa Eki Lower Igusa Station. Upper and Lower Igusa are references to their respective locations upstream and downstream on the 井草川 Igusa-gawa Igusa River. Directly south of Iogi Station is an area called 荻窪 Ogikubo. In 1927, when naming the station, the 西武鉄道 Seibu Tetsudō Seibu Railroad decided to take the 井 i from Igusa and the 荻 ogi from Ogikubo and voila! We have Iogi.
The Uncomfortable Bits
There are two other terms that are going to be critical to this story. The first is 汚穢 owai, commonly translated as “night soil[vii].” The second is 汚穢屋 owai-ya, the people or organizations who handled this so-called night soil. Night soil is the euphemistic English translation of urban shit and piss, especially in the big cities like Edo and Kyōto, but it was by no means limited to the large urban centers. Any castle town, post town, or village would have needed a way to remove human excrement from residential areas. Actually, the post towns had a particularly unique problem as they kept horses stabled for official use by shōgunate officials[viii].
And just a heads up, the term owai-ya is inextricably linked to the 穢多 eta, the class of untouchables who existed outside of the class system and were relegated to work that was considered spiritually defiled or filthy. In modern Japan, the terms owai-ya and eta are considered some of the most extreme 差別用語 sabetsu yōgo discriminatory words. So, don’t throw these terms around lightly – especially outside of specific historical contexts[ix][x]. They are extremely offensive when not used correctly.
Night Soil and its Legacy
Now that we’ve got etymology and some basic concepts out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the discussion.
You’ll often hear the Japanese praise the Edo Period, and Pre-Modern Japan in general, as being particularly environmentally friendly. There are a lot of ways in which this was true. In the case of disposal of human excrement and sanitation, this is pretty much undeniable. While westerners were just dumping their chamber pots out on to the street spreading germs and disease, the Japanese had developed a so-called circular economy[xi]. They weren’t the first in doing so – most pre-industrial societies made attempts at this – but the Japanese excelled at it in many regards.
So, what’s a circular economy? The term describes an efficient loop system where produced items are either repaired, reused, or recycled[xii]. In this kind of closed loop, there is no waste produced that isn’t used. The owai-ya, night soil collectors, would visit public latrines and toilets of private residences at night and collect[xiii] the day’s contents in order to bring them to the nearest agricultural lands to compost and sell as fertilizer. Farmers could pay for this natural fertilizer with money, or by repaying the collectors with high end crops grown in the rich soil they had purchased. This meant, human waste was no longer urban pollution, but rather a valuable commodity. It was a source of employment for Edo’s outcastes who were relegated to the filthiest and most abhorrent types of work[xiv].
This closed loop economy kept cities sanitary in the Edo Period, and the system was particularly rigorous in the shōgun’s capital. The business became so lucrative for the night soil collectors that many of them had relationships both directly and indirectly with the shōgunate that made several outcaste families very wealthy[xv]. Sure, they could never marry up. But, some of them did better than low level do-nothing samurai of the late Edo Period who had status, but not much else[xvi].
Interestingly – but not unsurprisingly – there was a hierarchy of shit and piss that mirrored the hierarchy of Edo Period society. Naturally, the excrement of the samurai class was deemed the most valuable – that of the shōgun’s castle being at the top of the pyramid, followed by the daimyō and their castles and residences. Of these samurai families, the night soil was further divided by gender – men’s feces being deemed more valuable than women’s, as men were generally served higher quality food than women because… you know, misogyny and all. The human and animal waste of the 下町 shitamachi low city (ie; commoner districts) was presumably higher in volume, but fetched the lowest price on the market because… you know, fuck the poor.
This system of waste disposal was so efficient by the end of the Edo Period and the “companies” that dealt with the retrieval, transport, and sale of all this shit and piss were so highly developed that, even as the newly established Meiji Government began building the first western-style sewers in Japan, they saw no need to abolish this delicate balancing act between Japan’s castle towns and agricultural areas. On top of that, the introduction of germ theory from the West confirmed the superiority of Japan’s night soil economy over that of America and Europe in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s[xvii].
In Edo, the system was so effective and so integral to the economy that it wasn’t just dirty outcaste guys pushing carts of excrement from residential areas to local fields. No, there were huge barges on the rivers transporting excess night soil from the shōgun’s capital to strategic agricultural domains in modern Saitama and Chiba Prefectures on a regular basis. Believe it or not, seaworthy “tankers” even transported enormous amounts of excreta from Edo to the cotton fields of Kansai, on the complete other side of the country.
Those Toilets, Though.
An interesting side note about Edo Period toilets. Samurai and rich merchants had toilets in the homes, but the average commoner in a huge city like Edo was stuck using public latrines. In the 下町 shitamchi low city, they were not separated by gender. They were, however, generally restricted to individual use[xviii]. These latrines consisted of little more than a space to do your business over a deep pit dug into the ground that was periodically cleaned out by the outcastes during the day to keep them from overflowing.
Relegated to the back alleys off the main thoroughfares, they afforded a little privacy and reduced the problem of “main street stink.” The half-doors gave a little privacy, but the upper door was cut away for circulation so you didn’t choke to death on the smell of all your neighbors’ shit and piss. Because of this opening, you were theoretically exposed to the view of anyone passing by[xix]. The nature of the kimono and yukata combined with the shame of being watched while doing your business reinforced the habit of squatting while using a toilet to such a degree that you can still find squat toilets – albeit in a modern form with plumbing – to this day all over Japan, even in central Tōkyō. Normally, I hate these modern 和式 washiki Japanese-style toilets, but if I’m wearing a kimono or yukata, I prefer them.
The toilets of Edo Castle or any samurai residence in the city were a different story altogether. These were completely private, and located in a remote corner of the building near a small garden[xx]. These residences were raised off the ground and the toilet was simply a hole in the floor with a lid to contain the stench. Underneath the hole was a wooden trough that collected the excreta, which could be easily removed at night or at regular intervals during the day by a night soil collector who climbed under the house and pulled out the trough and replaced it with a clean one.
As for the toilets of the daimyō class and the residences of the first westerners in Japan, we have an interesting account from a Jesuit priest named João Rodrigues who visited Japan in the late 1500’s. He wrote that toilets of the elites were kept extremely clean – cleaner than in Europe. They were “perfumed” and had “fresh cut paper” provided for wiping, and in the case of the most elite, a stream of clean water was available to wash your hands. He also noted that there were attendants who ran in to clean out the toilet after each use to make sure the next person who used it wouldn’t be squicked out[xxi]. The custom of squatting while doing the do was pretty much the norm among the elites, too. But the conditions seem to have been waaaaaaaay better if you had the money and rank.
Night Soil After the Meiji Coup – Train Time!
Anyhoo, back to this circular economy concept. As I mentioned earlier, the system was so sanitary and so efficient, and the industry was so robust and integrated into daily life, the Meiji Government saw no need to abolish it. In fact, the new government encouraged this lucrative business to grow and the train companies were the first to try to expand the existing business model and push it into the new era. Rather than pushing carts of shit and piss around on dirt roads, they built special train lines that could transport more of this rich fertilizer farther, faster, and more discreetly than ever before. This new technology-based efficiency made the companies that dealt with 糞尿輸送 funnyō yusō excrement transportation extremely profitable. The main companies in Tōkyō were the 西部鉄道 Seibu Tetsudō Seibu Railroad and the 東武鉄道 Tōbu Tetsudō Tōbu Railroad[xxii]. Both companies were highly competitive in various aspects of business, chiefly the transport of humans and goods between Tōkyō to Saitama[xxiii].
End of the Traditional Loop Economy
Because the night soil trade was such a huge part of the day to day economy, the Japanese were slow to modernize their toilets and sewerage systems. During the Edo, Meiji, and Taishō Periods[xxiv], they were far superior to the West in this regard. However, by the Shōwa Period, they had fallen far behind, and by the end of WWII, the Americans and other foreigners operating in Japan were shocked and appalled by the massive cargo trains transporting foul smelling, steaming hot excreta out of the city on sizzling summer days. It’s in the post-war era that the night soil business began to disappear in the big cities, with Tōkyō leading by example. By the early 1970’s, the business still existed in the countryside, but the model had changed fundamentally: in the past, people paid to buy shit and piss, now people were paying to get rid of it.
You’d think that by 2017, this industry would be a thing of the past. But I wouldn’t be too sure. I first visited Japan in 2002/2003. At that time, I spent the New Year’s holiday with a friend’s family in their remote cottage home in the mountains of Nagano. It was a traditional wooden house with an 囲炉裏 irori traditional farmhouse stove and no running water; you had to use a local 温泉 onsen hot spring if you wanted a bath. The toilet was in a small corner room away from the main living area[xxv]. There was a small hole in the floor, beneath which I could see a large rectangular plastic tub and from which I felt the frosty winter air rushing in and filling up the unheated room. There was toilet paper, but that’s it. There were 6 of us staying there.
Needless to say, I was shocked and horrified by the contents accumulating in the dark tub below. Japan clearly wasn’t a third world country, but what was this primitive horror show? I resigned myself to not using the toilet unless it was absolutely necessary.
The next afternoon, when we all hopped in the car to drive back to Tōkyō, I asked my friend’s dad what happens to… you know, all that shit and piss. He told me, “Before we leave, I call a service that comes and picks it up and turns it into compost.” Then I put that awful memory out of my head forever. That is, until this article brought that memory flooding back. That was 2003, and the area was really isolated, but if they still don’t have running water up there, I can totally imagine that system still working now[xxvi].
That said, upon reflection, I think my reaction to such a primitive latrine would be very different today. I wouldn’t be overjoyed to use it, but you know, first world problems. And as for modern Japanese toilets, such as the Washlette… all I have to say is anywhere I go in the world, even my native home of the United States, I look down on toilets as barbaric and primitive. I can’t wait to get back to the luxurious Japanese toilets. So, the country really has kind of gone all the way around from good to bad to the best.
Yo, I Thought this Article was about Iogi, Dawg.
Yes. Yes, it is. So, now let’s talk about how accurate the original story I was told about Iogi was.
In short, the story is pretty close to the truth, which makes all this talk of shit and piss meaningful and not just an excuse to talk about people in kimono squatting down to poop. Iogi Station is indeed located on the Seibu Railroad which connects 新宿 Shinjuku and 荻窪 Ogikubo[xxvii]. Today this particular stretch of tracks is a commuter route known as the 西武新宿線 Seibu Shinjuku-sen Seibu Shinjuku Line. Furthermore, special trains owned by Seibu did indeed carry night soil from the outskirts of central Tōkyō to this once rural area – kind of.
Did the Shit Trains Stop at Iogi Station?
No, they didn’t.
Seibu’s shit trains picked up and dropped off at five stations only. Those were 東久留米駅 Higashi Kurume Eki Higashi Kurume Station, 秋津駅 Akitsu Eki Akitsu Station, 三ヶ島村駅 Mikajima Mura Eki Mikajima Mura Station[xxviii], 仏子駅 Bushi Eki Bushi Station, and 飯能駅 Hannō Eki Hannō Station. The first two are located in modern 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis, while the last three are located in modern 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture. After WWII, the shit train path was modified and a little, causing it to pass through Iogi Station on the north set of tracks. Luckily for the good people of Igusa, Suginami[xxix], they didn’t make stops here. They merely passed through. They also weren’t dumping shit and piss into – god forbid! – a well for drinking water, or some random lake in the area.
Now that we know, they weren’t dumping trainloads of excrement into a lake anywhere near Iogi Station, I’d like to talk about why I mentioned at the beginning of the article that skepticism is important. The kanji 井 i, which means “well,” always refers to a well for human use or human consumption. The very inclusion of this character sent off warning alarms in my head. Why would anyone do something as unsanitary as dump feces into a source of water used by humans? Additionally, knowing that the city of Edo recycled excrement as fertilizer for profit, why would anyone just dump the shit into a lake in the countryside. It didn’t add up, and hopefully you also understand why now.
Color of the Seibu Shinjuku Line and Night Soil
So, about the color of the Seibu Shinjuku Line. According to the story I was told, it’s a nasty color and that was by design, perhaps to steer people clear of it. However, after a little research, it seems there are actually two main colors on the modern Seibu trains: yellow and orange, with a third variant for rush hour trains that run on certain sections of track, and a fourth variant of green. I’m not interested in the color differences. I just want to know if the current color is a holdover from the shit trains of yesteryear? One might ask, “is it a shit stain of the shit train?”
Well, it’s a little bit of yes and no. There’s one theory that it was a reference to 黄金 ōgon yellow gold, a reference to the value of night soil[xxx]. However, the original color of the Seibu shit trains was two-tone, actually. They were painted 黄色 ki’iro yellow and 茶色 cha’iro brown. Whether this reflected the foul contents or not, there’s no record either confirming nor denying. However, it’s known that this yellow and brown design persisted until the night soil transportation system disappeared after the war, and yellow is most definitely still used to this day.
Another theory about the yellow color of the Seibu Shinjuku Line is branding. In those days, the color was called 金色 kin’iro gold – not 黄色 ki’iro yellow – and was applied to most of the Seibu trains to make them stand out and look cool. The color was expensive in its day, and looked dramatic at the time. It also may have been a safety measure. Trains that were gold/yellow colored moving at high speeds on cloudy days, at night, or running through tunnels could be spotted quickly by pedestrians walking along the tracks[xxxi]. This seems way more reasonable to me than the idea that the company made the shit and piss train brown and yellow as a reference to its contents, so… I’m going with branding.
Oh, and while I couldn’t find information on the color of the Seibu shit trains, they don’t seem to have been decorated. So there’s no connection between the modern color of the Seibu Shinjuku line and th shit trains of old.
Let’s Wrap This Shit Up
So, this has been a pretty long, strange trip. But let’s be honest. It usually is, isn’t it? lol
As always, thanks for sticking around to the end of the article. And thank you in particular because I think this time I gave you guys a little insight into my approach to Japanese history, etymology, and local stories. More than that, I hope you could see how old stories get muddied over the years, but also how they often have a kernel of truth in them. It also shows how one part of the Edo Period economy survived the Meiji Coup, yet collapsed when post-war Japan transformed into the power house it has become. Sure, we’ve been talking about shit and piss, but we’ve been talking about so much more. As always, feel free to leave a comment – especially if you’ve had any experiences with night soil.
[i] Shit and piss is now an official tag and searchable term on the site. However, at this point, this is the only article using it lol.
[ii] Folk etymology is real.
[iii] You know your mom was a little crazy in her youth, right? Good.
[iv] As it usually does, no?
[v] It’s not Logi, but Iogi.
[vi] 井荻駅 Iogi Eki Iogi Station.
[vii] The modern PC term in Japanese is 人糞 jinpun which literally means “human feces.” The un-PC Edo Period term owai literally means “filthy dirt” or “dirty filth.”
[viii] And you know, um, horses shit a lot. Like a lot. And this issue came up in my article on Shinjuku.
[ix] Eta, which means “extreme filth,” was interchangeable with 非人 hinin non-human. This gives you an idea of how offensive these terms are today. The descendants of these families try to hide their low status of old, or if they can’t or have chosen to embrace it, identify by the label 部落民 burakumin today. The term literally means “village inhabitant” and references the segregated communities they once lived in.
[x] The preferred term over owai is 屎尿 shinyō or 下肥 shimogoe, because, yep, this job still exists. In the remote countryside, you can still find traditional toilets that empty into containers under buildings and must be manually removed by a service (or by the owners themselves). I’ve experienced it once and it wasn’t pleasant to use or think about who was going to have to clean up the mess (more about that story later). But owai has those old class system connotations and it makes this sensitive topic difficult to discuss outside of historical contexts where everyone is on the same page.
[xi] Also called a closed loop economy or closed loop system.
[xii] And only thrown away when necessary.
[xiii] The term for the collection of night soil was 汲取 kumitori which literally means “scooping up” with a connotation of something wet and dirty. Ewwwwww.
[xiv] Instant economy!
[xv] Essentially, they had hereditary monopolies.
[xvi] Other outcaste families had lucrative family businesses during the Edo Period. Executioners, sword testers, heads of outcaste villages come to mind.
[xvii] Remember, not every city had good sewers, and cities like New York had thousands of workhorses just shitting willy-nilly all over the place. It was so bad, that the cleanup required more horses to take out the horseshit, and said horses just shat willy-nilly all over the place… creating an endless cycle of stinky, gross, and unsanitary city streets.
[xviii] That is to say, you had to wait until someone finished before you could enter. Very different from the public multiuser public toilets of the Roman Empire.
[xix] Presumably, people didn’t walk past these unless they had to. Remember, they were back in the alleyways. But who knows? There was probably the occasional pervert who wanted to sneak a peek.
[xx] Because of the Shintō belief in spiritual defilement, in samurai homes, the toilet was often located next to the 切腹の間 seppuku no ma room or space reserved for committing seppuku. I’m not kidding by the way. The seppuku room is a real thing.
[xxi] You can be sure that by “attendants” he means outcastes.
[xxii] Both companies still exist today, but they don’t work in this sector anymore.
[xxiii] These days, both companies have defined themselves. They’re not really competitors anymore. They are well established parts of the well-greased infrastructure of Kantō.
[xxiv] A quick note about Tōkyō in the Taishō Period. The city was very polluted because of companies dumping industrial waste into the rivers. Shinjuku was still a bit out of the way, so it was easy to transport excrement by train. But the center of the city, former Edo, was too congested and the shit trains were impossible, so it was still being transported by cart, and sometimes stored in tanks near rivers, where occasionally a tank would “accidentally” break and spill into the rivers. The shitamachi areas of Taishō Era Japan seem to have been a mess. That said, in the lovely yamanote areas, things were still extremely sanitary. Furthermore, because Shinjuku was sort of the epicenter of the night soil train industry, it was considered the 東京の穴 Tōkyō no Ketsu Ass of Tōkyō as early as the late Meiji Period. This is where the city blew it all out and flushed it all away.
[xxv] In retrospect, this reminds me of the construction of samurai houses and the deliberate placement of the toilet and seppuku room in a far corner.
[xxvi] Keep in mind, the locals live in towns with all the regular conveniences, but getting running water out to super-remote locations where there’s, say, one house on the north side of the mountain, and another house on the south side – and that’s it – would be costly, to say the least.
[xxvii] The company was established in the 1890’s, but this particular train route to Ogikubo only dates back to the 1920’s. And actually, as I’ll point out later, the Seibu train network actually connects Tōkyō with Saitama. The name 西部 Seibu actually means “West Musashi,” a reference to former 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province.
[xxviii] This station no longer exists. It was replaced by 狭山ヶ丘駅 Sayamagaoka Eki Sayamagaoka Station.
[xxix] Remember, Iogi Station is located in Suginami Ward. In Shimo-Igusa, to be exact.
[xxx] Similar to the notion of “black gold” meaning “oil.”
[xxxi] You may be thinking, “why the fuck would a pedestrian be walking along train tracks?” Remember, most of the early train lines ran parallel to well established highways (and people usually walked everywhere anyways, especially in the country). The new railways of the late Meiji and Taishō Periods sometimes connected rural villages better than the old Edo Period roads, and traditional farmers often opted to just walk as they had done for generations, but it’s speculated they used the new path cleared by the railroad companies. The Seibu Railroad connected Tōkyō with Saitama (ie; the countryside) and as such, probably ran over its fair share of farmers carelessly moseying along the train tracks – hence the gaudy yellow color that has been passed down to us today.