天王洲 I S L E
(island of the sandbar of the heavenly king)
I hope everyone is staying at home as much as possible. Deaths worldwide are up 13,000 since the last article. Yeah, so… you know what? Today we’re going to look at a popular man-made island in 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay that is connected to a 神 kami god who has the power to protect mankind from disease epidemics. So, how ya like dem apples, Corona-chan?
It’s dusk, on a hot summer’s eve and you’re strolling along a fashionable boardwalk on a rectangular man-made island. Couples and families bounce in and out of the galleries, restaurants, and creative spaces that line the boulevard as bridges tower overhead. Enjoying the sea breeze in the wind, you pause to take in the flittering lights that dance across the waterfront. It doesn’t seem so hot anymore. The salt water in the wind soothes you. Looking down to where the sea splashes up against the land, you spot something familiar – something old. Everything fades into the background as you squint to get a better look at… yes, yes, you can see them clearly now. This is the only thing that matters now.
Edo muthafuckin’ Period stone walls, bitch. Focused on what must be done now, you grunt with satisfaction and begin rolling up your sleeves and hock a loogie into the water. A seagull perched on a rooftop above inhales deeply, opens its beak wide, and releases a single stream of fire writhing like a whip. You growl to the stone walls, “Oh yeah, baby. You ready for this? You think you’re ready? You better be. That’s right. You know you love it. It’s time to get nerrrrrdy. Awwwwwwww yeah.”
The seagull flies away aaaaaaaaaaaand… SCENE!
First Let’s Look at the Kanji
|sandbar, mid-ocean sandbank|
Today’s place name is a combination of two words: 天王 tennō heavenly king and 洲 su sandbar. It has a spiritual connotation which could better be translated as “sandbank sacred to the heavenly king.” In this case, the heavenly king is a reference to 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō – a syncretic deity with Shintō, Buddhist, and Hindi aspects[ii]. He is the god of plagues, pestilence, and pandemics, who has the power to bring epidemic destruction as well as take it away and protect from it. Soon after the importation of this Indian deity through Buddhism, the Japanese came to equate him with the kami of storms and seas, 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto. The center of Gozu Tennō worship is 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine in 京都 Kyōto.
Obviously, Tennōzu Isle glaringly includes an English word. In Japanese, island is 嶋・島 shima/-jima and so theoretically we could’ve gotten *天王(洲)島 *Tennō(zu)jima Tennōzu Island, but let’s face it. That sounds dumb. So, the cool English word “isle” is used in ローマ字 rōma-ji romanization rather than 片仮名 katakana the simplified syllabary, which would be アイル airu. Also, the area is officially known as 天王洲 I S L E, but at the train station name is written only in Japanese characters as 天王洲アイル.
Anyways, the keen reader has probably figured out that water is pretty important to this story. We’ve got the sandbar in the middle of the ocean, a mashup kami who deals with the seas, and a reference to an island. Keep the water theme in the back of your mind.
Before any artificial islands were built here, there was a large sandbar formed by the accumulation of sediment. It was well known by fisherman who worked in 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay for centuries.
The story goes that one day in 1751, a fisherman cast his nets across the sandbank, but when he tried to pull it back aboard, there was something heavy weighing it down. He soon realized that he had caught a wooden carving of the face of Gozu Tennō. Realizing that this was “miracle” – which was a more common occurrence than you’d think[iii] – the people began referring to this place as Tennō’s Sandbar. The people of 品川 Shinagawa gathered round and took the sacred object up the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to 荏原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine which protected all of 荏原国 Ebara no Kuni Ebara Province. Gozu was enshrined as Susan’o and came to be worshipped as a triune kami. Furthermore, the locals began celebrating 天王洲祭 Tennōzu Matsuri Tennōzu Festival every spring by parading 御神輿 o-mikoshi portable shrines decorated with the 神面 shinmen sacred visage of Gozu Tennō down to the bay. There, in a rite called 海上渡御 kaijō togyo[iv] they would return him to the sandbar whence he arose to present himself to the good people of Shinagawa.
It’s a good story and I suppose it does a decent job of explaining the etymology of this place name. Except, according to Ebara Shrine itself, Gozu Tennō was enshrined as Susano’o all the way back in the Kamakura Period – June 19th, 1247, to be precise. Priests at Yasaka Shrine[v] in Kyōto perfumed a ritual called 勧請 kanjō and split the spirit of Gozu Tennō and sent it all the way across the country to Ebara Shrine. That’s about 500 years before the Edo Period story I just told you!
So Which is Correct?
Who the fuck knows? But clearly, there’s a strong association between Ebara Shrine and the sea and the local people who make a living off the bay – and I suspect that has to do with the sea god aspect of Gozu Tennō. In the 1200’s, the villages around Edo experienced a boom, so it makes sense that with a little finagling and a little help from the Minamoto court in Kamakura, the shrine could convince the priests of Yasaka Shrine to share a bit of their juju with Shinagawa, both areas were now fairly connected via the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō ancient Tōkaidō trail[vi].
By the Edo Period, Shinagawa was home to the busiest and most prestigious post town on the shōgunate’s most prominent highway. Even to this day, the modern road is littered with temples and shrines once made rich by travelers coming and leaving the bustling capital. It isn’t hard to imagine an overly zealous Ebara Shrine priest taking a boat out one moonless night in 1751, then tossing a wooden carving of Gozu Tennō’s face into the shallow waters covering the sandbar in hopes that some dumb ass fisherman is gonna find it the next day and show it to the other mud-grubbing, low-tide-smelling lemmings of the village. Ebara Shrine would blow the fuck up over night. Every local, every traveler, every priest and monk from far and near would want to throw a few coins in the collection box just to get a look at the miracle face mask, know what I’m sayin’?
From Baby Sandbar to Big Boy Island
Tennōzu was just a sandbar only known to fishermen for most of its history. Then in 1851, Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay demanding the shōgunate open up for trade and international relations. He gave them time think about it, vowing to return in a year to accept Japan’s agreement to his terms, or he would bombard the shōgun’s capital. Understandably, the government lost its collective shit and ordered the construction of 11 man-made islands to serve as 台場 daiba cannon batteries to prevent Perry’s 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships from getting to close to the city. The government chose Tennō’s Sandbar as the most efficient spot to build 第四台場 dai-yon daiba Battery #4. Work was completed in 1853, but a fire broke out and burned down the wooden structures. The shōgunate abandoned the island, its stone sea walls being the only indicator that it had once been an artificial island, much less a sandbar.
In 1873 (Meiji 6), a shipbuilder named 緒明菊三郎 Oaki Kikusaburō bought former Daiba #4 and renamed it 緒明台場 Oaki Daiba. Then, with a little investment by the 中将 chūjō vice-admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 榎本武揚 Enomoto Takoyaki[vii], a pro-Tokugawa loyalist turned Meiji statesman, he began expanding the island to use as a shipyard. Kikusaburō made a killing building boats, and the island was still is use during 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895; Meiji 28-28) and 日露戦争 Nichiro Sensō the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905; Meiji 37-38).
From 1925-1939, further land reclamation projects expanded the island ever more. Although no longer used as a shipyard, the site became home to bayside factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. This changed the look of the former sandbar and daiba forever. The former nickname, Oaki Daiba was gradually forgotten and the traditional name Tennōzu came back into use.
Fast forward to about 1985, a group of 22 landholders designed the diabolical 東品川二丁目マスタープラン Higashi-Shinagawa Ni-chōme Masutā Puran Master Plan for the 2nd Block of East Shinagawa[viii]. It included a plan to redevelop the area as a stylish boardwalk with a waterfront view, including a new station for the super-spiffy 東京モノレール Tōkyō Monorēru Tōkyō Monorail. It’s during this expansion that the island took its final, rectangular shape which can still be seen today. Two sides (the northwest corner) of the former pentagonal daiba are still visible, this is where you can see the Edo Period seawalls.
The developers thought Higashi-Shinagawa 2-chōme was too long and re-christened the project 天王洲I S L Eマスタープラン Tennōzu Airu Masutā Puran the Tennōzu Isle Master Plan. Now, remember, this was the height of the Bubble Economy, and one of many fads at the time was studying English just because it was popular. Suddenly, 和製英語 wasei eigo Japanese English meant to be understood by Japanese speakers only began popping up everywhere. This place name is a product of that fad. Tennōzu Isle sounded like Tennō’s Isle and rolled off the tongue easier than Tennōzu-jima (both “Tennō’s Island”) [ix], but it looked foreign and exotic – perfect for a population of passively English-literate Tōkyōites with money burning holes in their pockets.
To this day, Ebara Shrine celebrates the Tennōzu Festival and local worshippers still perform the kaijō togyo ritual, returning the Oxhead Heavenly King to the sandbar he first appeared at. This tradition is said to protect the area from floods, hurricanes, and most importantly for us, massive epidemic outbreaks.
I hope you found this bite-sized JapanThis! article informative. I tried to avoid as many rabbit holes as possible, and I hope I’ve succeeded. We’re not out of the dark on this coronavirus bullshit yet, so please stay home, wash your hands, and stay six-feet apart from everyone. Call your loved ones and take care of yourself. Also, if you see a fire-breathing seagull, get the hell away from it.
- What does Hachioji mean? (for more about Gozu Tennō)
- What does Odaiba mean?
- What does Shinagawa mean?
- What does Goten’yama mean?
- What does Shimbamba mean?
- What does Aomonoyokocho mean?
- What does Samezu mean?
- What does Tachiaigawa mean?
[i] This is an older kanji still used in place names or to seem old timey. Modern Japanese tends to use 州, but this kanji can also mean “state” or “province,” so the older kanji is good for clarity in place names.
[ii] Gozu literally means “ox head” and is probably a reference to Mt. Oxhead in Southern India.
[iii] Longtime readers will remember all the other time people were just finding random Buddhist statues in the water. It’s a pretty hilarious trope. I can picture monks whose temples are lacking funds, dumping statues in the water to create “miracles” and drum up a little business for themselves.
[iv] Transferring a sacred object to the sea.
[v] Also known as 祇園神社 Gion Jinja Gion Shrine.
[vi] I use Ancient Tōkaidō and 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō former Tōkaidō (“old Tōkaidō”) to distinguish between the very well organized and regulated Edo Period highway. Ancient refers to the road as it slowly developed over centuries.
[vii] OK, ya got me! He’s real name is Enomoto Takeaki. You can read more about him here.
[viii] Well, let’s be honest. It wasn’t actually diabolical.
[ix] Though, the more natural Tennō-jima doesn’t sound bad. Just doesn’t pop like the Japanese/English hybrid.