What does Kamata mean?


(Fields of Cattails)

It’s been a minute. Post-pandemic depression yada yada yada. But that’s not important to y’all. So, let’s just get right into it, shall we?

The Meaning of Kamata (TDLR)

Kamata is most likely related to the Kamata Clan. It’s unclear whether the clan gave their name to the area or the area gave its name to the clan. But for such a sleepy, boring, and inconvenient part of Tōkyō, it has a pretty interesting history.

Never Heard of Kamata? Many People Haven’t Either

蒲田 Kamata is a place in modern 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward, next to 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward. In the modern imagination, it doesn’t have a reputation for much. It’s just kinduva suburb, to be honest. Cheap キャバクラ kyabakura hostess bars are all that come to mind when I think of it. Because… well, I like to save money. And, I’m not gonna lie, in my 20 years in Japan, I’ve probably spent a total of two hours in Kamata [i]. In the 90s, there was apparently a problem with ヤクザ yakuza the Japanese mafia. It was so bad that the government had to crack down on it. These days, if there’s any yakuza presence, it’s super lowkey. Like I said, it’s basically just a suburb of Tōkyō, even though it is still one of 二十三特別区 Nijūsan Tokubetsu-ku the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō[ii]. It was just rice paddies and a smattering of disparate villages until the post-war era.

However, the name is interesting – like all Tōkyō place names. Well, let’s not get our expectations too high. It follows a similar pattern to many place names in the outskirts of central Tōkyō. And, spoiler alert! Longtime readers will not be shocked by this. It derives from the provincial samurai governors who controlled the area.

Further Reading:

First Let’s Look at the Kanji

, kama

, ta/-da
rice paddies

The family name 蒲田 Kamata is extremely old, and I’ll be honest, I can’t find how they got that particular name1. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to guess, I’d probably say they got their name from a fief they controlled in the past – and then, Kamata got its name from them. So, it’s a kinda like taking a selfie in a mirror in a mirror; a name that keeps on giving, if you will. The first known governor of the area was a samurai by the name of 鎌田政清 Kamata Masakiyo. Careful readers will notice that the first kanji are different. And even more careful readers will notice that the first kanji of Kamata Masakiyo is the same kanji used in the place name 鎌倉 Kamakura. Masakiyo was a warlord who lived from 1123 to 1160 and was one of 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo’s main generals. Longtime readers will remember that Yoritomo established his shōgunate in Kamakura in 1185. Because of this discrepancy, it’s unclear if there’s a connection between the names, but I’d say it’s not silly to assume that, at least for a while, the Kamata clan used that same kanji to attach themselves to Minamoto no Yoritomo and the Kamakura Shōgunate.

Ancient Farmlands and Samurai Landlords

Anyhoo, no matter what kanji they used, the Kamata clan was influential in 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and their fief became known as 蒲田郷 Kamata-gō Kamata Hamlet. The area they controlled was very ancient, even in their times. A register of shrines compiled in 927, 延喜式神名帳 Engishiki Jinmyōchō the Engi Register of Shrines[iii] lists Kamata’s 薭田神社 Hieda Jinja Hieda Shrine as 氏神 ujigami a tutelary protector of 荏原郡 Ebara-gun the Ebara District[iv]. Note the final kanji 田 ta/-da. It’s the same as the final character of the name 蒲田 Kamata. There’s no etymological connection, but I don’t think it’s crazy to assume the names don’t reinforce each other. And the final character, 田 ta/-da, simply means “agricultural fields”[v] which totally makes sense, given how rural the area was until the 1970s.

We know that by the 1500s, the Kamata clan still held this territory. A document called 小田原衆所領役帳 Odawara Shūryō Yakuchō, a land-tax registry compiled by 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi the Late Hōjō Clan refers to them as 江戸蒲田氏 Edo Kamata-shi Edo Kamata Clan and calls them a branch of 武蔵江戸氏 Musashi Edo-shi the Edo Clan of Musashi Province. It’s clear that by this time, the name was being spelled without the reference to Kamakura, but instead used the “cattails” kanji that is still used today in Modern Japanese.

I can’t find what happened to the Edo Kamata Clan after the 1500s, but I assume that after 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu took over 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces in the late 1590s, they were either absorbed into his dominion or had already been obliterated by the warlord 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi during his annihilaton of the 小田原後北条氏 Odawara Go-Hōjō-shi the Odawara Late Hōjō Clan[vi]. The clan name never appears in the historical record after that last reference I mentioned.

Further Reading:

Kamata as rice paddies, Kamata as now

Kamata Blooms Like a Flower

The next time we see a reference to Kamata is simply as a place name. It appears in a document compiled between 1830 and 1860 called 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fudoki-kō Revised Catalog of Musashi Province. This encyclopedic description of lands, nature, history, local products, shrines, temples, famous places, historic sites, and regional customs only gives us one bit of interesting information. That is, by the end of the Edo Period[vii], Kamata was apparently known as 梅の木村 Ume no Kimura the Village of Plum Orchards and was famous for these trees that bloomed in late winter before 桜 sakura the cherry blossoms came out in early spring.

During the Edo period, 歌川広重 Utagawa Hiroshige depicted Kamata’s renowned plum groves, and it became known as 蒲田梅屋敷 Kamata Ume-yashiki the Kamata Plum Estate. Hiroshige’s 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock print appears in his 1856–59 compilation titled 名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei 100 Famous Scenes of Edo[viii], he includes a view of Kamata which he titled 蒲田之梅園 Kamata no Baien the Plum Groves of Kamata. While this technically wasn’t Edo proper, it tells us that by the 1850s, this rural suburb was considered a beautiful spot for urbane 江戸っ子 Edokko Edoites to make the 4-hour trek just to enjoy the beautiful and deliciously fragrant plum blossoms in February. It was probably a great excuse to get out of the bustling capital and just relax with nature. Even now, the plum tree is 大田区の区の花 Ōta-ku no Ku no Hana the Official Flower of Ōta Ward, the administrative district to which Kamata belongs today.

Further Reading:

Kamata’s Recent Violent Past

Kamata’s history isn’t just about an ancient samurai clan, nor is it all about plum blossoms, ice cream, and kitty cats. The area has seen its fair share of hardships.

The first of Kamata’s fall on hard times came on April 15, 1945. During the final stages of the Pacific War[ix], the American Firebombing of Tōkyō resulted in the utter obliteration of the area around present-day Kamata Station, killing thousands of civilians. After the war ended, the entire region had to be rebuilt from scorched earth into some semblance of a habitable area.

However, by the 1960s, Kamata was recovering nicely. But the post-war era marked rapid change in Japan – politically, economically, and population-wise. There was a lot of upheaval in those days. The younger generation was more progressive, but those who remembered the war (and everyone remembered the Occupation) were restless and unsure about the new direction Japan was taking.

On November 16, 1969, clashes between demonstrators and riot police occurred near the east exit of the former 国鉄蒲田駅 Kokutetsu Kamata Eki Japan National Railways Kamata Station, as well as at 京急蒲田駅 Keikyū Kamata Eki Keikyū Kamata Station. Then Prime Minister 佐藤栄作 Satō Eisaku[x] was on route to visit the US. He was a staunch American ally and supported 日本国とアメリカ合衆国との間の相互協力及び安全保障条約 Nihon-koku to Amerika-gasshūkoku to no Aida no Sōgo Kyōryoku oyobi Anzen Hoshō Jōyaku the Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty between Japan and the United States of America[xi]. He also supported US military action in Vietnam, which many Japanese were opposed to, given the US penchant for just burning everything to the ground – a strategy the Japanese citizenry were all too familiar with2.

Protestors got into street fights, threw Molotov cocktails, and a full-on riot ensued. The area turned into a sea of flames and physical violence. More than 1,600 people were arrested in the incident. In response to the student unrest, local shopping district representatives organized vigilante groups to counter them. Never a recipe for success. Obviously, the police had their hands full, and believe it or not, it took a week for the violence to subside. Needless to say, people in Kamata were really pissed off that Prime Minister Satō was taking a train through their recovering town to go to the airport to show his support for the Americans who were currently waging an illegal war in Vietnam while using Japan as their main military hub in Asia. For the record, the Japan-America Security Treaty is still in place today[xii].

Discover the fascinating history of Kamata, from an ancient #samurai clan’s influence to its transformation into a modern, safe urban suburb. Uncover the secrets of cattails, plum blossoms, and the #yakuza’s impact in this intriguing journey through #Tokyo’s lesser-known past.

Cleaning Up Kamata

During the heyday of the Bubble Economy (late 80s and early 90s), the yakuza who had helped rebuild Kamata in the post-war era and after the riots of 1969 had turned the town into a straight up gangsta paradise. The area was notorious for all kinds of criminal activity, mostly involving the distribution of illicit goods and the sex industry (and sex-adjacent businesses). After the Bubble burst in the mid-90s, property values in Kamata remained the same or declined steeply. The locals were basically old farming and merchant families who had been there for generations and yakuza who ran the area like their own personal fief. Many people suffered when the Bubble Economy collapsed, but Kamata got really bad. Pretty much the only local businesses operating were ラブホ rabu ho love hotels, 水商売 mizu shōbai the water trade3, and 風俗 fūzoku the sex industry. The yakuza ran widespread, predatory loan shark schemes and often coerced local women to work in the water trade or sex industry in order to pay off their debts. Rival gangs openly took care of vendettas in seedy bars and committed random acts of violence openly in the streets while the police looked the other way4.

Kamata wasn’t just a sleazy red-light district[xiii], but had gained a reputation for being one of the most dangerous and violent parts of Tōkyō. So, on October 1, 20195, Tōkyō designated 蒲田五丁目 Kamata Go-chome 5th Block of Kamata as 暴力団排除特別強化地域 Bōryokudan Haijo Tokubetsu Kyoka Chiiki Special Enforcement Area for the Elimination of Gangsters in accordance with new anti-organized crime laws. Within the designated area, loansharking[xiv] was the main activity the police cracked down on. Violators, even those who paid the fees, could face penalties of up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to ¥500,000 (roughly $5000 USD) if they were found to have yakuza ties. While this doesn’t seem like a lot of money today, especially to Americans, who are familiar with far more draconian penalties, it shows how desperate people in the area were for money. They most likely weren’t borrowing ¥500,000, but amounts closers to ¥30,000〜¥50,000 ($300-$500 USD) – mostly for rent and groceries. At any rate, law enforcement’s pressure to clean up the area was successful.

Today, Kamata is boring af. But some vestiges of the old business networks and neighborhoods the yakuza promoted still survive. As I said at the beginning of this article, Kamata is famous for cheap hostess clubs and other red-light district kinda shops. But overall, these days, it just feels like an urban suburb of Tōkyō – totally safe and innocuous. I can’t think of any reason to personally go there. I even asked my friend if she wanted to go check out the area while I researched and she was like “Ewwwwww, have fun, loser.”6

This is the end of the article, but I thought I’d include a little addendum to tell you about the family name Kamata, because it still exists today.

So, if you’re into that sorta thing…

Remains of the Kamata Clan Today

So, now that we know the history of the Kamata Clan, the former-village-and-now-town of Kamata, let’s look at what impact the Kamata Clan has had on the landscape of Japanese family names.

First, let me start with a brief summary of the relationship between the Kamata Clan and Kamata Town.

Despite the paucity of information we have on this clan and this particular place name’s etymology, I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest a simple narrative.

⭐️ A family called Kamata (no matter how they wrote it) was given a fief in this area by the Imperial Court or by the Kamakura Shōgunate. Regardless of their benefactors, it’s clear they used the same kanji for kama that appeared in the place name Kamakura – again, most likely to show loyalty or respect to the shōgun.

⭐️ After the collapse of that government and the rise of the second shogunate and the subsequent 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Period, any attachment to Kamakura was unnecessary[xv]. This is probably when the kanji changed from 鎌田蒲田, the latter of which sounds more like a reference to the marshy lands that were familiar to the locals (even though the name preceeds the clan’s arrival in the region). Also, in an era of scatter shod literacy, 蒲 kama cattails is an easier and more useful kanji than 鎌 kama scythe. However, there’s no way to be sure. The latter writing is just the one that survived – the kind of “linguistic Darwinism” we see all the time here on JapanThis.com.

⭐️ The clan clearly lost control of the area at the end of the 1500s, but the family name never went away. In fact, branches had been firmly established in other parts of Japan for centuries and the name still very much exists today. Meeting a person with the family name Kamata is not unusual.

The Family Name Today

As of the writing of this article, there are about 108,000 people in the country with the name Kamata. In descending order, there are about 11,000 people named Kamata in 北海道Hokkaidō, then 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis (10,900), then 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture (7,700), then 宮城県 Miyagi-ken Miyagi Prefecture (7,500), and then 秋田 Akita-ken Akita Prefecture at about 7200 people[xvi].

And that’s it, folks. Thanks for reading to the end.
I look forward to your comments down below!

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[i] Not in hostess clubs lol. Mostly just changing trains. And I visited the shrine. Not much to say about the shrine, though.
[ii] Even though Kamata is part of modern 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis, this was not part of 江戸 Edo (part of the shōgun’s capital).
[iii] 901年〜923年
[iv] Interestingly, while Ebara District doesn’t exist anymore, that’s where I live now lolololol. Just for those keeping score at home, the primary tutelary 神 kami (ujigami) is 恵比寿 Ebisu who is venerated at 荏原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine on the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River at the border of 北品川 Kita-Shinagawa North Shinagawa and 南品川 Minami-Shinagawa South Shinagawa just off the 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō Old Tōkaidō Highway.
[v] can refer to any agricultural fields, but is generally understood to refer to rice paddies, which sounds very country to modern sensibilities, but remember: rice was the standard of currency. Like the “gold standard”of modern eras. It meant the area was productive and generated food and therefore wealth because… well, everyone needs to eat.
[vi] I can’t figure out whose side – if anyone’s side – they were on when the Tokugawa decimated the Odawara Clan. The Odawara resisted Tokugawa attempts at total domination of the region until the bitter end. And, well, let’s just say, family names like Hōjō and Odawara don’t exist in modern Japanese. That’s just how complete Tokugawa Ieyasu’s subjugation of the region was. It’s not genocide, but it was a definite purge of samurai clans that wouldn’t submit to Tokugawa hegemony… and they paid the price.
[vii] This document was published in 1860, and the Tokugawa Shōgunate collapsed in 1868. And for those of you who can’t remember dates, the Edo Period is 1600-1868.
[viii] One of my personal, all-time favorite collections of Edo Period art!!!
[ix] That’s WWII to us Yankees…
[x] Satō Eisaku was PM 1964-1972. He was the third-longest serving Prime Minister. Many PMs lost their position and then regained it. However, Satō holds the honor of being the second longest uninterrupted PM to date. He’s a pretty boring dude, but if you’re a glutton for nerdy punishment, here’s his Wikipedia page lol
[xi] Usually just called “the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty” in English or 安保条約 Anpo Jōyaku in Japanese (which just means “security treaty”). And if you really want to practice your English or Japanese, try saying both phrases 10 times in a row. Ugh. What a mouthful.
[xii] My understanding is that this treaty had a fixed 10 year limit with the option to renew in perpetuity – or at least until one side decides they want to annul the agreement.
[xiii] Although, it was indeed, a seedy redlight district. And elements of that past still persist to this day, but it’s much tamer and 100% safe now.
[xiv] Borrowing immediate cash from the yakuza was a big deal, especially after the Bubble Economy collapsed. If you are familiar with plots from Japanese porn from the early 90s, the wife of a deadbeat husband who has to borrow money from gangsters and pay it back with sex was a super common trope. This trope is all but dead now.
[xv] And who knows. The Kamata Clan was probably not even around anymore at this time. Or at least, they had no influence anymore.
[xvi] I have no explanation for why Hokkaidō has the highest number. There might be another place name, Kamata, up north, or a branch of the Kamata family moved to Hokkaidō during the 幕末 Bakumatsu final days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate or early years of the Meiji Period.If anyone has any info on this, I’d love to hear it.

  1. ↩︎
  2. ↩︎
  3. The water trade refers to a segment of the entertainment and hospitality industry, often involving bars, clubs, and nightlife establishments. It’s often, but not always, sex work-adjacent. ↩︎
  4. Obviously, the yakuza were paying off the cops. ↩︎
  5. ↩︎
  6. And who says Japanese people don’t say their real feelings? lolololololol ↩︎

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