Kanda (holy rice paddies, Batman!)
What does Kanda mean?
神田 Kanda means something like “holy rice field” or “field of the gods.” You can find places all over Japan that use the same characters (with various pronunciations) that derive from this meaning. In short, these place names are references to special agricultural spaces which originally produced food for shrines connected to the imperial court during the Nara Period. These holy fields were technically tax exempt as they usually had to only send the first harvest to the court. The rest was profit. The court then used the produce as currency to fund the maintenance of the shrines they deemed most important. In the case of Edo-Tōkyō, this place name is generally associated with a religious complex called 神田明神 Kanda Myōjin Kanda Shrine[i].
There are three 神 kami deities[ii] enshrined at Kanda Myōjin. All three are earthly kami[iii], though the first two enshrinements are gods included in the earliest recorded creation and foundation myths. The third and final enshrinement was so beloved by locals in Kantō (Eastern Japan) that he subsumed the popularity of the original kami until the Meiji Coup in 1868[iv].
|An earthly kami who handed over control of the world to the heavenly kami who were ancestors of the imperial family and the original court. He was blended with a Buddhist kami, Daitokuten.|
|This kami, who may or may not be the same as Ōkuninushi, was involved in the transfer of earthly lands to the control of the imperial family.|
|A Kantō-based samurai who revolted against the imperial family in the 900’s. His attempt to secede failed, but the locals saw him as a hero defending the east’s cultural difference from the west[v]. After the Meiji Coup, he was de-enshrined, only to be re-enshrined after WWII[vi].|
What does Kanda mean?
Today we’re looking at a place name that I’ve wanted to write about since 2013. At that time, my pieces were more short form blog posts. Obviously, things have gotten more long form and “article-like” since then, yet every time I went back to visit the subject of Kanda, it just seemed too convoluted. I couldn’t figure out a way to present the material in a coherent way. Long time readers will remember when I “got riverred” doing a series on seven great waterways of Edo[vii]. I didn’t want that to happen again.
That said, I’ll be the first to admit that as far as place names go, Kanda seems as superficially straightforward as they come. However, the truth is complex as fuck. It requires a solid knowledge of geography – not just of Edo-Tōkyō, but all of Japan. It also requires a strong understanding of Japanese mythology[viii], religion[ix], and the economic system of the Nara Period[x].
I tried to keep things concise, but after 11 pages of text, it became clear that I should divide the topic into two parts. Even after that, the article got longer and longer. Long time readers will know what you’re in store for. New readers, welcome aboard. Help us batten down the hatches. Every article on JapanThis! sails through rough waters.
Anyhoo, let’s get back to the topic at hand (and be prepared for lots of tables).
Where is Kanda?
First of all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with this: in Tōkyō today there is no official place name Kanda. After WWII, in 1947 the former 神田区 Kanda-ku Kanda Ward and 麹町区 Kōjimachi-ku Kōjimachi Ward were combined to make modern 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward. Now, don’t think Kanda just disappeared off the map completely. A few postal addresses actually still exist. For example, 外神田 Soto-Kanda is where 秋葉原駅 Akihabara Eki Akihabara Station is located, and 神田錦町 Kanda Nishiki-chō Kanda Nishiki Town is still part of 日本橋 Nihonbashi.
But in short, the area from modern 大手町 Ōtemachi to 駿河台 Surugadai (originally 神田山 Kanda-yama Mt. Kanda)[xi] 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[xii].
This is a very informal rule of thumb, but if I look at a modern map, I tend to think of Kanda as the area stretching from Kanda Station to Akihabara Station to Ochanomizu Station. However, prior to the Edo Period, the area from 大手町 Ōtemachi[xiii] to Kanda Station could be considered Kanda. What changed was the building of the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui Kanda Aqueduct. With that, the name Kanda moved farther away from the castle along the waterway into the generic area of Tōkyō that we call Kanda today.
- What does Ochanomizu mean?
- What does Marunouchi mean? (related to Ōtemachi)
- What does Nihonbashi mean?
- What does Akihabara mean?
- What does Musashi mean?
- What does Chiyoda mean?
- What does Edo mean?
- The Kanda River
So, what the hell does Kanda mean?
Well, I already told you at the beginning of this article. Are you saying that isn’t enough? Are you saying you want more? Are you a glutton for this shit?
Of course, you are.
You wouldn’t have read this far if you weren’t.
So, let’s roll up our sleeves, cuz we’re about to get knee deep in all kinds of muck and mire. This is a messy swamp of history, mythology, and linguistics. You ready to hold your nose and get down and dirty?
If that’s a yes, then let’s do this.
First, Let’s Look at some Kanji
|planted field (usually rice)|
|bright, enlightened; fucking obvious|
|divine descendant of a heavenly kami; relative of the imperial family; imperial prince/princess|
|name; well known; apparent/obvious|
And, Here are 2 Words Ya Best Know, Son.
|literally, “god field”|
|literally, “honorable field” – nuance is more at “field owned by a ruler”[xv] or “field owned by a god”|
Now, Let’s Look at a Brief History of the Shrine
OK, so… I know this is gonna be a little annoying, but bear with me a bit more on the timeline. We need some historical framework before we can go any farther. Also, it will be good to have all of these charts to refer back some time… you know, when you need to refer back them for some reason…
|An ancient court clan from 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province establishes a shrine in 武蔵国豊嶋郡芝崎村 Musashi no Kuni Shibazaki Mura Shibazaki Village, Mushashi Province. The shrine is called 神田ﾉ宮 Kanda no Miya Kanda Shrine and by orders of the imperial court in 平城京 Heijō-kyō[xvi], it is responsible for providing rice to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine.|
|Taira no Masakado, a belligerent Kantō-based samurai (east), takes over hostile fiefs on his borders. When the imperial court (west) demands submission, he says “fuck no!” and goes rogue. Samurai armies loyal to the imperial court in Kyōto (west), are ordered to suppress his rebellion.|
|Masakado is killed in battle. His in-house biographers portray him as a hero of the Kantō region and Eastern Japan[xvii]. According to legend, Masakado’s head flies back to the East and rests at Shibazaki Village where a burial mound is made for him near Kanda no Miya.|
|源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo is appointed 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun shogun[xviii] and becomes the first samurai government to rule Japan (thus achieving what Masakado couldn’t). He rules safely (but briefly[xix]) from his capital in Kamakura (also in Kantō). The system of court control over shrines and their fields is disrupted.|
|Masakado is enshrined at Kanda no Miya as a kind of local hero, he soon becomes the de factō principal kami[xx]. It’s around this time Shibazaki Village is renamed Kanda Village.|
|徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu formally takes control of Edo Castle.|
|Tokugawa Ieyasu is granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun shōgun. When 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle is expanded in 1603, Kanda no Miya is moved to the 神田台 Kanda-dai Kanda Plateau in order to make room for the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon the grand entrance of the castle and a new neighborhood of samurai and high-ranking merchants and artisans in 大手町 Ōtemachi, literally “main gate town.” Because of mysterious deaths and superstitions surrounding Masakado’s burial mound, his enshrinement at Kanda no Miya is considered adequate for the protection of Edo, but the burial mound is left in sitū so as not to disturb his spirit, in hopes that he will protect the castle and the samurai who come and go through the main gate, including the shōgun himself. Also, 江戸神社 Edo Jinja Edo Shrine, which was located on the castle grounds since the time of 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan, is moved to the shrine precincts[xxi].|
|The shrine is moved to its current location when the Tokugawa Shōgunate reorganized parts of the city. Although it seems very urban today, until the post-WWII period, this area was wooded and considered very 山手 yamanote high city. During the Edo Period the shrine came to be called Kanda Myōjin. The new name reflected the Buddhist philosophy of the samurai class and distanced itself from the ancient imperial court traditions.|
|The 5th shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, relocated a Confucian school next to Kanda Shrine called 湯島聖堂 Yushima Seidō Yushima Hall of Wise Men[xxii]. The shrine and temple were closely connected until 1868 when the 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzen-rei Separation of Kami and Buddhas Edict was decreed. However, Yushima Seidō still has an entrance called 明神門 Myōjin Mon Kanda Shrine Gate where people could easily come and go between the temple and shrine.|
|Taira no Masakado was de-enshrined because he was seen as a rebel against the authority of the imperial family and he offended the sensitivities of the delicate snowflake known as the Meiji Emperor who had just moved into Edo Castle – newly renamed 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle.|
|Because of his local popularity and the constitutional guarantee of separation of religion and government in Article 20 of the Constitution of Japan, Masakado was re-enshrined. This move was made roughly 30 years after end of WWII, presumably because the political climate was such that the anti-imperial connection was more or less lost on the general public and the concept of a divine emperor had been lying in the trash bin of history for three decades.|
The Five Great Etymologies
OK, so there are 5 basic theories about the origin of the place name Kanda. All of them, except for two, are related to the shrine, Kanda Myōjin – or Kanda no Miya (as it was also known). I’m going to list the theories, and then I’m going to break them all down.
1. The Kami no To Theory
This theory states that Kanda is a contraction of 神田 Kamida, which itself is a corruption of 神ﾉ戸 kami no to. The idea is based on a possible etymology of 江戸 Edo which postulates that the city got its name from 江ﾉ戸 e no to “door to the estuary,” a reference to the hamlet’s location on the bay[xxiii]. Proponents of this theory point at the city of 神戸 Kōbe, claiming that it derives from 神ﾉ戸 kami no he “door to the kami” (contracted as Kanbe or Kōbe) due the presence of 生田神社 Ikuta Jinja Ikuta Shrine[xxiv] near the bay. The original location of Kanda no Miya was very near the bay before it was moved in the Edo Period. In fact, the former place name of this area was 芝崎 Shibazaki which literally means grassy cape, a clear indication that it was on the water.
While I find the similarities between Kōbe and Edo intriguing, I’m not sure if I’m onboard with kami no to breaking down to Kanda. It’s not unimaginable[xxv], but I think there are more convincing etymologies.
2. The Kamida Theory
This is the most straight forward hypothesis. It states the name literally derives from 神ﾉ田 kami no tanbo sacred rice field or rice field of the kami. As I mentioned earlier, at the time Kanda no Miya was founded, shrines were expected to send 初穂 hatsuho the first harvest[xxvi] as an offering to a major shrine associated with the imperial court. In this case, the first harvest went to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine. These fields were in an area that sits roughly between the original location of Kanda no Miya and the modern location of Kanda Shrine[xxvii]. As a phrase, 神ﾉ田 would be read “kami no tanbo,” but as a place name it would be written 神田 “kamida,” which then could easily be contracted to Kanda. There are hundreds of place names throughout Japan written with the same kanji, and while their readings may differ, the etymology is generally the same. A change from /kamida/ to /kaɴda/ is quite plausible and, surprisingly, preserves the same number of mōræ of the original[xxviii].
3. The Kanda Clan Theory
This theory is related to the last one, but it gets a little more political. While the foundation of Kanda no Miya dates back to historical times, it dates back to a time when eastern Japan was a fucking backwater and records are scant to say the least. While we don’t know exactly who established the shrine, a little knowledge of Nara Period court bureaucracy may shine a bit of light on the issue.
A few high-ranking clans in the imperial court were given the title 神田宿禰 kanda no sukune lords of the fields of the kami[xxix]. Many branch families and descendants from clans that held this hereditary title eventually came to use the characters 神田 as a surname, adopting a range of regional variations, including Kanda. One of the most ancient and elite families to bear the title kanda no sukune was the 大伴氏 Ōtomo-shi Ōtomo clan from 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province[xxx]. If you remember from the beginning of the article, the original kami enshrined at Kanda no Miya were two earthly gods from Izumo who play major roles in the earliest written histories of Japan.
I’ll talk more about this clan later.
4. The Taira no Masakado Did it Theory
Again, if you’ll refer to the list of kami enshrined here and the historical timeline, you’ll recall that in 940, a samurai by the name of Taira no Masakado was killed in battle during his uprising against the imperial court. Scholars debate the motivation for Masakado’s so-called “revolt,” but one thing is certain: the people of the Kantō Area, and the area near Edo in particular, latched on to him as a kind of folk hero. He stood up against a western court that they thought lorded power over them. According to legend, Masakado’s decapitated head was reanimated and fled the imperial court of Kyōto to return to his beloved Kantō. His spirit was then enshrined as Masakado no Taira no Mikoto. This theory states that the name Kanda is a corruption of 躯 karada corpse[xxxi]. A change from /kaɾada/ to /kaɴda/ is quite plausible and, surprisingly, preserves the same number of mōræ of the original[xxxii].
5. The Fuck It, Nobody Knows Theory
This sort of theory, like all ancient place names is a last resort when all other etymologies fail. This is the diachronic linguistics version of the God of the Gaps. In short, if we can’t prove anything with historical records and can’t come up with satisfactory hypotheses, there’s a chance that the name may be hiding in proto-history. That is to say, Kanda may be a vestige of pre-literate Japan. People superimposed kanji on locally existing place names that may reflect an unrecorded Jōmon (Emishi/Ainu) place name or an unrecorded Yayoi/Kofun period dialect. In such cases, the kanji is considered 当て字 ateji, or characters used for phonetic values rather than meaning.
So, What do I Think?
Today we have such a complicated mess, I hope you can understand why I’ve hesitated to tackle this subject for so many years. I started this article but it rapidly got out of control.
First of all, I think the first theory which relates the etymology of Kōbe and Edo to Kanda is a bit of a stretch. If anything, it illustrates a fascinating link between the naming of Kōbe[xxxiii] and Edo[xxxiv], but it doesn’t do shit to explain Kanda, in my opinion. It’s an interesting pattern, and we see many place names (and subsequent family names) in the 東北地方 Tōhoku Chihō Tōhoku Region that are clearly derived from this model[xxxv]. However, applying it to Kanda doesn’t make any sense.
Secondly, the “Fuck It, Nobody Knows” theory is one that we can’t really prove one way or the other[xxxvi]. If we had some Ainu words suggested, then maybe we could make some kind of conjecture, but I couldn’t find any ideas tossed out there. Furthermore, we have a pretty nice linguistic sandbox to play in if we combine the remaining theories.
So…, we know the original name of the shrine was Kanda no Miya. This name is somewhat ambiguous. It can mean “Imperial Shrine of Kanda” or “Imperial Shrine of the Holy Fields.” I think these are absolutely related. Imperial Shrine of Kanda (by that, I mean the Kanda clan) seems to be a reference to a branch of the Ōtomo clan, while Imperial Shrine of the Holy Fields seems to be a reference to the fields required by law for the Kanda to maintain on behalf of the court to maintain Ise Grand Shrine. We also know that the Ōtomo (and therefore the Kanda) came from Izumo Province. In my mind, it can’t be a coincidence that the kami who were originally enshrined were Ōkuninushi and Ōnamuchi – the most important deities from Izumo.
I think we’re looking at a cut and dry example of the Nara Period system of establishing shrines dedicated to the imperial cult in the outlands and I think the name of the shrine clearly reflects that. I think the presence of the “holy fields” isn’t just related to that, it reinforces that imperial connection. However, after the gradual breakdown of imperial power in the East, the Kantō Area started to feel a little more autonomous.
This autonomy was writ large on the pages of history when Taira no Masakado essentially said “fuck you” to the imperial court and went to war[xxxvii].
Sure, he lost.
Sure, he was killed.
Sure, his decapitated head was put on display.
But like they say in Game of Thrones, “the North remembers.” Well, in this case, the East remembered, and they enshrined him at Kanda no Miya in the 1300’s. It’s also around this time that the area formerly called 芝崎村 Shibazaki Mura Shibazaki Village was renamed 神田村 Kanda Mura Kanda Village.
Do I think the /kaɾada/ (body) → /kaɴda/ etymology was the main reason? No. But I do think the timing of the name change from Shibazaki to Kanda and the strength of Masakado’s fame and spectral power worked its way into local lore and folk etymology. I can’t give a “hard no” to this theory, but I think it’s very much a part of the history of this area and its cultural tapestry.
The End… or is it?
For most people, that’s about as much as you need to know about the origins of Kanda. In fact, that’s probably more than anyone needs to know. If you stop reading now, you’re probably doing yourself a favor. But for those of you with a masochistic streak, I’d like to explore a few tangents so we can tie up a few loose knots before I wrap this bitch up.
I’ll do that in part two of this article, which is pretty much complete as you’re reading this. I just need to find some pictures, proofread, and double check my facts. Anyhoo, expect me to post that in a day or two.
As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to leave comments and questions down below, and if you’d like to support JapanThis! on social media or throw me a dollar or two, all the details are directly below this sentence.
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[i] The original name was 神田ﾉ宮 Kanda no Miya Kanda Shrine.
[ii] Deity and god are just rough translations. To learn more about what a kami is, check out this article on Wikipedia. If you already have a good understanding of how kami differ from the English words “god/goddess,” “deity,” and “spirit,” then you might want to do a little further reading.
[iii] I’m not going to get into the intricacies of Shintō cosmology, but in short, kami are generally divided into two groups: 天津神 ama tsu kami heavenly kami and 国津神 kuni tsu kami earthly kami. At the end of the 神世 Kami no Yo Age of the Gods, the heavenly deities descended to earth with a mandate from the sun goddess 天照大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami to rule over the lands of the earthly gods and all of humans that inhabited those lands, thereby establishing the Yamato clan – the imperial family.
[iv] This is something we’re gonna talk about in part two.
[v] A rivalry still very much alive in Japan today, particularly in Japanese Professional Baseball, with the Tōkyō Giants and Hanshin Tigers being the fiercest rivalry.
[vi] As I said, more about that later.
[vii] Years ago, I did a series on Edo’s rivers, which you can read here. I didn’t really understand the scope of what I was getting into and I got to a point where I literally almost quit JapanThis! completely – or at least I was ready to quit the series.
[viii] Because of a recent project, I’m getting more and more familiar with Japanese mythology.
[ix] I think I have this down to a certain degree, but I’m def not an expert.
[x] I’m gradually getting better acquainted with ancient and classical Japanese culture, but since Edo-Tōkyō is my favorite period, all of my recent studies on these three topics (mythology, religion, and ancient/classical Japan) are all strictly for improving the quality of JapanThis!.
[xi] Roughly 千代田区神田駿河台一丁目と二丁目 Chiyoda-ku Kanda-Surugadai Icchōme to Nichōme 1st and 2nd blocks of Kanda-Surugadai, Chiyoda Ward.
[xii] Long time readers will know that before the Meiji Coup in 1868, place names were quite generic. 町・丁 machi/-chō tended to be fixed but only referred to blocks (neighborhoods organized by social class and rank). But areas like 上野 Ueno, 麻布 Azabu, 芝 Shiba, 品川 Shinagawa, etc., were slightly ambiguous.
[xiii] Ōtemachi refers to the neighborhood of rich merchants and high ranking samurai bureaucrats that sat in front of the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon main entrance of Edo Castle.
[xiv] Don’t worry, you don’t need this word for this etymology, but if you go back to my old article about Mita, it might be helpful, since this article sheds light on the old one.
[xv] Usually the imperial court.
[xvi] Modern day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture.
[xvii] Game of Thrones fans could think of him as Rob Stark. And rather than “the North remembers,” this is “the East remembers.” Masakado became the archetype of eastern samurai, Kantō samurai in particular, overcoming the overbearing and failing imperial court in the west.
[xviii] Who is Minamoto no Yoritomo? Glad you asked!
[xix] Dude had bad luck with horses, and that bad luck finally caught up with him. The whole article is interesting, but if you’re interested Yoritomo and horses, check out the section on Ashige-zuka and the associated footnotes.
[xx] I say de factō because the locals saw Masakado as the most powerful kami of Kanda no Miya, even though he was officially 3rd in rank.
[xxi] Who is Ōta Dōkan? Maybe you should read What does Toshima mean? You might also want to learn a little about Edo Castle, by reading What does Edo mean? Oh, I almost forgot. The kami enshrined at Edo Shrine (established in 武蔵国豊嶋郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province in 702) is 建速須佐之男命 Takehaya Susano’o no Mikoto, usually shortened to Susano’o – the kami of seas and storms (and brother of the sun goddess, 天照大御神 Amaterasu Ōmikami).
[xxii] While not popular today, this is one of the few spots where you can really feel the 山手 yamanote high city atmosphere of the Edo Period. Of course, Kanda Shrine was high city, but it was always open to the public. It also banks on its popularity with the masses. Yushima Seidō shuns the masses, maintaining its Edo Period elite status as a center of Confucian and Buddhist learning. The amount of greenery on the site is testimony enough to its desire to left to its own devices – a very Edo Period mentality. Not sure about low city vs. high city? Check out my article about Yamanote vs Shitamachi.
[xxiii] There were many inlets from the bay that pushed far inland. The Kanda River once flowed out into the bay before the Tokugawa Shōgunate re-routed it into something closer to its modern course.
[xxiv] There are three major ancient shrines in Kōbe, not all of them near the bay. But apparently the area where Ikuta Shrine is located was home to a handful of other shrines as well.
[xxv] One idea being that as the land was reclaimed for agriculture and the sea retreated, the kanji 戸 to door was replaced with 田 ta/da field. But, I’m not going to lie, I think this is a stretch.
[xxvi] Usually rice, but sometimes wheat.
[xxvii] The place is called 神田美土代町 Kanda Mitoshiro-chō today, and I’m thinking about covering that place name next time.
[xxviii] WTF is a mōra? Glad you asked!
[xxix] This translation is mine. I might also render it as “lords of the kanda,” or “overseers of the kanda.”
[xxx] In modern 島根県 Shimane-ken Shimane Prefecture.
[xxxi] This word usually appears as 体 and 身体/躰 kaɾada and usually just means “body.” The kanji listed above is specifically for dead bodies and has a ghostly or spectral connotation.
[xxxii] WTF is a mōra? Glad you asked!
[xxxiii] In the west of Japan…
[xxxiv] In the east of Japan…
[xxxv] The primary examples are family names like Kanbe (rather than Kōbe), and 一戸 Ichinohe, 二戸 Ninohe, and 三戸 Sannohe – Tōhoku place/family names that literally mean “first door,” “second door,” third door,” and so on…
[xxxvi] If you take this position, you have to deal with some evidence that might not be so clear at first. One, the name Kanda no Miya doesn’t appear in records until the Heian Period. Two, the Ōtomo clan’s peak was in the 5th century. By the 700’s when Kanda no Miya was established they were in steady decline. In fact, they disappear from the historical record in about 940. It’s not hard to understand why branch families would have seen using new names as wise political moves.
[xxxvii] In short, once the imperial court had consolidated power, it adopted and promulgated a Chinese socio-political framework. It held for a while, but as Japanese culture and society was different from that of China, it slowly broke down. During this breakdown, power vacuums came to be filled by samurai. This trend continued until the samurai class took power in the Kamakura Period.