Udagawa-chō (Uda River Town)
Oh, Shibuya! Thy crazy intersection is overrun by tourists
Chances are, even if you’ve only been to Shibuya once in your life, this is probably the part of town you came to. As soon as you walk out of the overcrowded and annoying ハチ公出口 Hachikō Deguchi Hachikō Exit, you enter 宇田川町 Udagawachō Udagawachō. Since the 1970’s, the neighborhood has become increasingly commercial, made up mostly of shops, restaurants, clubs, and businesses. In fact, the largest landholders in the area are 渋谷区役所 Shibuya Kuyakusho Shibuya Ward Office, 西武百貨店 Seibu Hyakkuten Seibu Department Store, パルコ PARCO Parco Department Store, LINE CUBE SHIBUYA (a concert venue), and 渋谷区立神南小学校 Shibuya Kuritsu Jinnan Shōgakkō Jinnan Elementary School. It’s also home to the infamous 渋谷スクランブル Shibuya Sukuranburu Shibuya Crossing (“Shibuya Scramble”), often touted as the busiest intersection in the world[iii]. If you’ve ever walked out of the Hachikō Exit and crossed that insanity, chances are you also walked down 渋谷センター街 Shibuya Sentā Gai Shibuya Center Street[iv]. If you’re a fan of the movie Lost in Translation, the karaoke scene was shot at the Udagawachō branch of カラオケ館 Karaoke-kan[v], a nationwide karaoke chain.
While most of Udagawachō is commercial these days and the place is literally teeming with people on every street and in every alley, as of 2017, there were actually only 530 households registered within this postal address, making it home to some 769 residents and an unknown number of pets. Estimates of the number of cockroaches, rats, and super-lethal death-crows are unconfirmed as of the publication of this article[vi].
Anyhoo, if you’ve ever been to Shibuya, you know it’s a shitshow – super-crowded with shoppers and, more recently, completely overrun by tourists. The area is so annoying that Tōkyōites refer to the residents of Shibuya as 渋豚 Shibuta “astringent pigs.”[vii]
Let’s Look at the Kanji
|This character means “eaves,” but was commonly used as ateji[viii] and is the origin of the hiragana う /u/ and the katakana ウ /u/ which represent the same sound.|
So, at first glance, it looks like this means “town that sits along the Uda River” and I’ll be honest with you: in my personal opinion, this is a case of what you see is what you get. I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor. However, the story can be made more complicated and I’d like to drag you down the rabbit hole with me, so roll up your sleeves and let’s dive into it!
A Tale of Two Families (but probably just one…)
Records from the 1400’s, late Muromachi Period, state that two clans called Udagawa or Utagawa[ix] controlled coastal areas from 品川 Shinagawa Shinagawa to 葛西 Kasai Kasai. The sources aren’t clear, but both families are said to have been illegitimate offshoots of the 佐々木氏 Sasaki-shi Sasaki clan (and possibly the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan)[x]. These clans were sent to develop the areas surrounding a minor seaside hamlet called 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo village by the warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan Ōta Dōkan on behalf of the Uesugi clan[xi]. As time went on, branches of the Udagawa clan spread this peculiar family name throughout what is present day 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. In fact, this name is mostly found in Tōkyō, with more than 7000 people registered as Udagawas[xii]. Some family members have even settled in present-day Shibuya. We’ll talk more about this hypothetical Shibuya Udagawa clan later.
A Connection to Art that You Never Saw Coming!
Interestingly, the main branch settled in Shinagawa and gave their name to an area that used to be called 芝宇田川町 Shiba Udagawa-chō Udagawa Town, Shiba[xiii]. In the 1700’s, a certain artist named 但馬屋庄次郎 Tajimaya Shōjirō who lived in that coastal village borrowed the name of the town and started calling himself 歌川豊春 Utagawa Toyoharu, literally “poetic river abundant spring.”[xiv] If that spelling looks familiar, it’s because Toyoharu was the ukiyo-e master who established 歌川派 Utagawa-ha the Utagawa school of art[xv]. If the name still doesn’t ring a bell, maybe 歌川豊広 Utagawa Hiroshige, the most famous master of this style[xvi], will. If there’s anything we know for certain about this whole narrative, it is that the Utagawa School definitely takes its name from the coastal Udagawa-chō/Utagawa-chō village. The Shibuya connection is still a mystery.
- What does Edo mean?
- What does Kasai mean?
- What does Dōkan’yama mean?
- Who was Ōta Dōkan?
- The Uesugi Clan
- What does Shinagawa mean?
- Shinagawa Station Then & Now
- What does Shiba mean?
- What does Ōmori mean?
- A Visit to Ōmori Kaizuka
- Utagawa Hiroshige
- Utagawa School
But Alas, I Digress[xvii]
The story goes that this part of Shibuya used to be called 宇陀野 Udano the Uda Fields. This combination of kanji is most likely ateji and so the true origin of the place name is probably lost to time. However, if this river existed and flowed through the area, it would logically be named 宇陀川 Udagawa the Uda River. The kanji 陀 ta/-da is fairly obscure in Japanese, usually only showing up in Buddhist loanwords from Chinese, so it was eventually changed to 田 ta/-da. However, the first clan using the name, was definitely in present-day Shinagawa and not Shibuya.
As is often the case in Japanese history, clans usually took family names from their holdings. Due to high infant mortality rates, the 公家 kuge imperial court families in Kyōto tried to have as many sons as possible in order to pass on their lands, titles, and names to their first-born son. But what happened when you more than one son survived? The best solution was to send them out into the boonies to collect taxes and keep the peasants in check. These sons would establish new branch families and take the name of their fief as a family name. If there was another Uda River in Shinagawa, that would make sense. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
As for the hypothetical Shibuya Udagawa clan, we might have an example of the opposite thing happening. In this case, it’s possible that the area’s name derives from the clan. You see, by the same process of spinning off extra sons, the Sasaki clan that I mentioned earlier were descendants of the imperial family. The full name of the clan is 宇田源氏佐々木氏 Uda Genji Sasaki-shi the Uda Minamoto Sasaki clan.
OK, I know this is complicated, but bear with me. 宇多天皇 Uda Tennō, Uda the 59th emperor[xviii], established the Minamoto clan (also called Genji). This Minamoto clan spun off the Sasaki clan, which in turn, spun off the Udagawa clan. By this story, they included the name of Emperor Uda to remind people they had imperial blood in their veins – after all, they were two clans (Minamoto and Sasaki) and more than 400 years removed from their godly ancestor[xix]. If this were the case, the clan may have received their name (or petitioned for it) at the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto and then were sent east to Edo in order to fortify the coast and used their spiffy new name to look super-cool to all the stinky, dirt-crusted peasants and fishermen living in the area.
If we want to assume the family brought their name from the west to the east, there is another theory. This one claims that the family name derives from 大和国宇陀郡 Yamato no Kuni Uda-gun Uda District, Yamato Province in present day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture. Nara is very near Kyōto and this doesn’t seem any more unreasonable than the last origin story I told you. In short, the result would be the same as above: an elite family is sent eastward and the local people adopt their new lords’ name because it’s prestigious. Suddenly, you’re not just a bunch of filthy, dirt-grubbing, fish-mongering peasants. No, you’re peasants whose masters are a clan of a clan of clan from way out west with a tiny drop of imperial blood running through their veins.
What Really Happened?
The source of the clan name, while not completely understood, at least has some reasonable origin stories. However, we know that an Uda River existed in Shibuya. By the Edo Period, this appellation referred to a very specific tributary of 渋谷川 Shibuyagawa the Shibuya River[xx]. This waterway existed right up until modern times and was ultimately covered up during the build up to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics. Like many rivers in Tōkyō, the Uda River is now a sewer. If we apply Occam’s Razor, this is really best etymology we can come to. In my opinion – as I stated earlier – the name literally just means “the town on the Uda River” and no more. The connection to the Udagawa clan in Shinagawa is a mere coincidence at best. I think this theory is tidy and logical.
Despite all the muck I’ve dragged you through, dear reader lolololololol
Clan Name and Place Name Confusion
The annoying this about this particular place name is as annoying as Shibuya itself. Sources constantly try to make a connection between the Udagawa clan and Udagawachō to such an extent that I couldn’t find anything that tried to disentangle the two. This could very well just be a case of folk etmology, but if someone put a gun to my head forced me to reconcile these stories, I think I could present something that sounds plausible given what we know (just so I wouldn’t get shot in the head).[xxi]
“I suspect that in the Muromachi Period, a branch of the Sasaki clan was granted the name Udagawa/Utagawa in Kyōto for either reason stated above[xxii]. They were granted a large coastal fief and acted as governors of that territory on behalf of the Uesugi clan, much as Ōta Dōkan also was. Their name came to be attached to their lands, so that’s how the name transferred. As new cadet branches spun off, one family settled in present-day Shibuya[xxiii] and the name stuck, as it carried some imperial prestige. The fact that there is a river in Shibuya probably didn’t hurt. It would have reinforced this name. And the rest, as they say, is history.”[xxiv]
I haven’t heard a trigger go “click” yet, so I think we’re good.
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[i] His name ド助兵衛 is code for ドスケベ do-sukebe “total pervert.” And yes, this is completely made up, stupid.
[ii] Please tell me you remember what ギャル gyaru were. If not, GTFO lol
[iii] I dunno. I’ve seen some crazy intersections in Ho Chi Minh City… just crowded with scooters instead of people, but whatever…
[iv] The nuance is like Main Street, but uses a word for “town,” “block,” or “neighborhood.”
[v] The room used in the film is actually commemorated with a plaque and can be booked in advance by phone. But warning, it uses the Joy Sound system, which is lame AF.
[vi] To put this into perspective, 西新宿 Nishi-Shinjuku, the area west of Shinjuku Station, is home to just as many businesses (probably more) but also houses 15,700 domiciles with roughly 22,600 residents. This gives it a balance that Udagawachō lacks. It’s basically a town devoured by consumerist culture and tourist culture. In short, there’s no community. It’s a neighborhood drunk on “meh.”
[vii] I totally just made that up.
[viii] We’ve talked about 当て字 ateji many times at JapanThis!. It’s when kanji are used for their phonetic values, rather than ideographic meanings. In the far countryside, like Edo before the 1600’s, many place names used ateji because the meaning of the name had been lost or it was just easier for semi-literate people to understand.
[ix] Both pronunciations are valid and families used them in addition to spelling variations to distinguish their unique family lines. For example, 宇田川 and 宇多川.
[x] That means, somebody been makin’ babies out of wedlock and shit. Awwwwww yeah.
[xi] Both the Ōta and Uesugi were based in Kamakura at that time, but they wanted to relocate to Edo. It seems the Udagawa clans were the vanguard of their development strategy.
[xii] The name is not restricted to Tōkyō, though. There are about 19,200 Utagawas throughout all of Japan. Also this spelling only takes into account 宇田川 Udagawa and not its more distinguished alternate spelling 宇多川 Udagawa/Utagawa.
[xiii] This area is near present day 新橋 Shinbashi Shinbashi, although their castle (fortified residence) was in 北品川 Kita-Shinagawa North Shinagawa, I would assume somewhere on the 高輪台 Takanawa-dai Takanawa Plateau.
[xiv] 歌 uta can mean song or poem.
[xv] When we use “school” in this sense, think of it as a style passed down from master to apprentice, not like some dude is taking finger painting classes on the weekends or like a modern fine arts university.
[xvi] Arguably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, ukiyo-e artists of all time.
[xvii] Who? Me? lol
[xviii] Emperor Uda ruled from 887 to 888. A short reign to be sure, but he lived from 867 to 931.
[xix] Godly in the sense that the imperial family claims descent from the sun goddess, 天照 Amaterasu, and the other court families likewise claim heavenly descent from other gods.
[xx] Some people believe the name is a coincidence of history. One theory about the origin of the place name Shibuya says it is a reference to a dried up, rust-colored riverbed, but I think that theory is a bit of a stretch.
[xxi] Not a fan of getting shot in the head. Jussayin’.
[xxii] Perhaps they initially lived in Nara…
[xxiii] The area was pretty much the boonies until the 1920’s, so obviously records would be spotty at best.
[xxiv] Again, I’m not convinced that the Shinagawa Udagawa clan and Udagawachō in Shibuya are related. I’m also not convinced there couldn’t be any overlap. There just isn’t enough information to make a strong argument either way other than Occam’s Razor.