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What does Mitaka mean?

In Japanese History on June 27, 2013 at 2:56 am

Mitaka (3 Falcons)

Three falcons.

Three falcons.
Let’s get it on!


I don’t know why I haven’t written about Mitaka yet. I’ve known the etymology of this for about 7 years. It was told to me by a monk at one of the temples located around 井ノ頭公園 Inokashira Kōen Inokashira Park – which is another interesting place name, actually.



Inogashira Park has a beautiful canopy.

Inogashira Park has a beautiful canopy.


Mitaka is part of the Tōkyō Metropolis, but it is not one of the 23 Special Wards. So it doesn’t use the word 区 ku ward, rather it uses 市 shi city, thus the full name is 三鷹市 Mitaka-shi Mitaka City. Despite not being “special,” Mitaka does have some interesting attractions. The most famous place is the town of  吉祥寺 Kichijōji where the famous Inokashira Park is located. It’s a great park, a little crowded, and popular with young people. It’s famous for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing and hippies. There are some interesting shrines and temples located in and around the park that have their own interesting stories as well. The city is also famous for the Studio Ghibili Museum[i].


Mitaka Station

Mitaka Station


My research confirmed the story I was told by the monk and also produced an alternate theory. First, I’ll give you the story I heard 7 years ago.

In the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shōguns used the area as a 鷹場 takaba falconry hunting ground[ii]. The shōguns could use any damn place they wanted for falconry – it’s good to be the shōgun – but as with all things in the Edo Period, there were restrictions on the other noble families, including the other branches of the Tokugawa clan. The vast Mitaka area was reserved for the 御三家 Go-sanke The 3 Families the 3 branches chosen by Ieyasu to provide a shōgun if his direct family line went extinct[iii]. Because members of the 三 mi 3 most elite branches of the Tokugawa family came here frequently to hunt with 鷹 taka falcons, the area came to be known as 三 鷹 mi taka, the 3 falcons.

The alternate story that I came across states that Mitaka was surrounded by 3 領 ryō territories[iv]. Those territories were 世田谷領 Setagaya-ryō ,  府中領  Fuchū-ryō , and  野方領 Nogata-ryō, therefore the area was called  三 鷹 mi taka, the takaba surrounded by 3 territories.

Falcons.... not so cool in our era....

Falcons…. not so cool in our era….

In the Edo Period, the area was just a collection of villages and the name Mitaka seems to have been a nickname or deliberately chosen later. It wasn’t until 1889 when the 22 year old Meiji government abolished the old Tokugawa civil administrative units and created the 市町村制 Shichōson Sei City-Town-Village System of administration. At that time the area that is now Mitaka was officially created. Apparently, there was a document that included the reason the name Mitaka was chosen but it was lost when the old village office was destroyed in a fire. This is one of those times when we are close enough to the creation of a name that we could have an official etymology but far enough back in time that backups and copies of things weren’t always so common and – the curse of any person interested in Japanese history – the cities were fire traps. So close and yet so far.

To be honest, both stories sound credible to me. And it’s not inconceivable that the reality lies a little in the middle.




[i] I see no reason to talk about Ghibili here…

[ii] See my article on Kōenji for more about falconry and the samurai elite.

[iii] Anyone reading my blog by now probably already knows these, but just in case, those families are the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke the Owari branch,  紀伊徳川家 Kii Tokugawa-ke the Kii branch and 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke the Mito branch. And a quick aside, the area wasn’t only for the Go-sanke’s use, of course, the shōgun family could use it if they wanted to.

[iv] Mitaka itself didn’t exist. It was just an unincorporated area of 武蔵国多磨郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District of Musashi Province.

What does Tachikawa mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex, Tokyo Rivers on April 12, 2016 at 6:51 am

(standing river)



Today’s article is a reader request. So let’s start with that reader’s message!

I love your site so much! Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge about Tokyo and Japan. I was absolutely overjoyed to stumble on Japan This!. The articles are very well-researched.
By the way, have you published anything on Tachikawa? That would be nice! Arigato! Cheers!

I love the praise and I’d like to bask in that glory for a minute or two.

“Published” is quite a big word for what I do with my silly corner of the internet, but I’ll take it! Any praise people feel compelled to hurl at me, I’ll take that too, for sure! Also, if anyone wants to hurl money at me, please go to my Patreon page and help support the site.


Anyhoo, it’s taken a while since I got that message but I’ve kept my word and today, we’re finally gonna talk about 立川 Tachikawa.

That said, I have to start this with a very particular caveat. I’m making this number up, but I’m pretty sure it’s good. I generally write 85-95% of my articles deal about areas located within the 23特別区 Nijūsan Tokubetsu-ku 23 Special Wards.

changed color

Whoa, did that thing just change colors?

Occasionally, I’ve left so-called “Central Tōkyō” and covered some other place names, but that’s been the exception and not the rule. The reason for this is simple. I live in the center of Tōkyō and the records and maps are good for these areas, especially during the Edo Period to present. Areas like 調布 Chōfu and 八王子 Hachiōji were extremely rural and even if we have good maps, there’s not a lot of local history available online. Tachikawa is located about 50 minutes[i] west of the 23 Special Wards, north of Hachiōji and west of 三鷹 Mitaka. Despite living in Tōkyō for 11 years, I think I’ve only been to Tachikawa once. I’ll talk about that later, but for now let’s dig into the etymology. What does Tachikawa mean?

Related Articles:


kanto inaka

While the term Kantō is generally associated with Tōkyō, most of the Kantō area looks like this – whether it’s Tōkyō or not…

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji

It’s a pretty straight forward place name composed of simple kanji that a first grader could easily read and write[ii].

tachi, tate

(keep in mind these 2 distinct readings)



There are a few theories about the origin of the place name Tachikawa, so shall we look at them?


The Somewhat Unhelpful and Generic Theory

This theory assumes that former path of the 多摩川 Tama-gawa Tama River or an associated tributary passed through the area long ago. By long ago, we’re talking the Heian Period or earlier. The idea being that this was a place where 川が立っていた kawa ga tatte ita a river stood. Of course, rivers can’t stand in Japanese just as they can’t in English, but the meaning is more like “a river was noticeable.” While this etymology is plausible, it doesn’t really do enough to get at the real source of the name. It really raises more questions than it answers. Was there some distinct feature of the river that was so curious that it deserved its own place name? Who knows.


The Less Unhelpful and Less Generic Theory

In the Heian Period (imagine the 1000’s), the administrative government of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province was located in present-day 府中 Fuchū[iii]. It’s said that in those days, travelers passing through the area who stayed at 府中宿 Fuchū-shuku the post town of Fuchū could see the plateau that connects the east and west sides of present day 多摩市 Tamagawa-shi Tamagawa City. That hill happens to be called 横山 Yokoyama the mountain on the side of the river. Of course, the hill was noticeable, but more noticeable was the old course of the 多摩川 Tama-gawa Tama River flowing from north to south cutting across the landscape[iv]. In Japanese, the kanji 立 tachi/dachi can be used with other kanji to mean “visible” or “stand out.”[v]  Therefore it was the “notable river” or the “river that stood out.” Thus, the river was called the 立河 Tachikawa[vi]. Whether this was considered part of the Tama River or was just a branch isn’t completely understood. Long time readers who suffered through my brutal series on the Rivers of Edo should know that before the Meiji Coup, rivers often had different names in different locations. They were thought of as local entities with unique tributaries, branches, areas, and not singular waterways with a singular name.



Some Samurai Did It

From the late Heian Period until the late Sengoku Period, a clan of local strongmen operated from a military fortress in the area. Their name? The 立河氏 Tatekawa-shi Tatekawa clan. This theory states that the name is derived from the clan name.


We Japanese history nerds tend to be obsessed with 石垣 stone walls… well, here are some stone walls left over from the Tatekawa fort.

Reinforcing this claim is the fact that in the 1350’s, the lord of this fief, a certain 立河宗恒 Tatekawa Munetsune, founded the temple 普済寺 Fusai-ji which still exists today on the remains of their old fort.  The family was active in the area until they perished with the fall of Hachiōji Castle in 1590[vii].

The existence of Fusai-ji and records confirming the existence of the Tatekawa clan make this the strongest theory, but it’s not without problems. The name of this clan is a source of confusion. Although it can be read as Tachikawa[viii], Tatekawa is the favored reading for this clan’s name. That said, from 1590-1868, without any active Tatekawa samurai in the area, it’s not inconceivable that the name could come to be read differently.



So Which is Correct?

This is a good question and it’s one that we’ve struggled with from time to time when dealing with ancient Kantō place names. In Japanese, most rural place names seem to derive from geographical characteristics[ix]. And indeed, some place names are clearly derived from what you could see from certain locations[x].

What confounds the issue sometimes is that when the Heian Period imperial court and the Kamakura Shōgunate granted fiefs to samurai, those clans started new branch families and took the name of their local fiefs. The famous example I always like to quote is the samurai of the Fujiwara clan who took the name Chichibu when given the fief called 秩父 Chichibu. Later, the samurai of the Chichibu clan took the name Edo when granted the fief called 江戸 Edo. Their ancestors were forced by Tokugawa Ieyasu to assume the name Kitami because they lived in 喜多見 Kitami when Ieyasu assumed control of Edo Castle[xi].



Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

Did the place name exist first, and the Tatekawa (or Tachikawa) clan adopted the name? This seems to have been the norm before the Edo Period[xii] and therefore the most likely theory.

Or, did the area earn its name from the presence of the Tatekawa (or Tachikawa) clan? This seems to have been rarer, but not entirely unheard of, particularly in the Edo Period[xiii].

Another option is that it’s purely a coincidence: a clan called Tatekawa could have operated near an area called Tachikawa.

And while we’re playing a magical game of “nobody fucking knows, so let’s just throw out some ideas,” how about this one? What if I told you the name could be a Japanization of a pre-existing アイヌ Ainu or 蝦夷 Emishi[xiv] place name the whole time and the Tatekawa (or Tachikawa) clan adopted that Japanized place name? If that’s the case, we may never know the origin of the name. Ouch!

To be fair, none of these etymologies are conclusive, but I will say that all of them are interesting. Not only can we explore a few possible diachronic paths Japanese place names often take, we touched on a few recurring themes that long time readers should be familiar with.


In Conclusion, What is Tachikawa Today?

I have no freaking idea to be perfectly honest. Like I said before, I’ve only come here once. But I have a friend or two from the area and I’ve visited a lot of the surrounding areas, so I can make a few short statements about Tachikawa today.

My image is that it’s a really suburban town, and while there is some train service, you pretty much need a car if you want to live out there. In short, despite being part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis, this is very, very different from “Central Tōkyō.” Anyone who has spent time here or lived here, feel free to leave descriptions of the town in the comments section below.


Tachikawa is home to 昭和記念公園 Shōwa Kinen Kōen Shōwa Memorial Park. The park was a former Air Force base for the US military, but since the early 80’s it’s been a public park. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard good things about it. They have the space and distance from the city to make a really good park. In the spring, Shōwa Memorial Park is a famous 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot and also holds a yearly 花祭 Hana Matsuri Flower Festival. In the summer, it’s famous for ヒマワリ himawari sunflowers… which brings me to the only time I ever visited Tachikawa; summer of 2005 – my first summer living in Japan!

I went with some friends to the レインボープール Reinbō Pūru  Rainbow Pool in Tachikawa which is located next to the Shōwa Memorial Park. Why would anyone in Tōkyō make a 50-60 minute trek by train to a distant suburb just to go swimming? Because it’s not just a pool, it’s a full on waterpark. There are no tall buildings in sight. The periphery is just greenery and blue skies. Oh, and it being a waterpark means bikini girls as far as the eye can see[xv]. This was like 10 years ago, but I have really fond memories of Rainbow Pool. One added bonus was that even though they had signs all over the place saying “tattoos prohibited,” I noticed that they let a lot of Japanese girls with small tattoos like hearts and flowers slip by. When I took off my shirt which exposed my back, which is completely covered in ink, no one batted an eye[xvi].

red oingt.jpg

Near 立川駅 Tachikawa Eki Tachikawa Station, there is supposedly a red light district that allows for all manner of drinking & whoring 24-7[xvii]. The English Wikipedia page on Tachikawa claims that it’s called Mini Kabukichō, but I can’t find anything else to back this up[xviii]. But again, I’ve only been to Tachikawa once and I did no drinking and/or whoring there, so… I’d love to hear more about this seedy side of the city. Again, feel free to leave comments below.


Tachikawa is also home to 1 of 10 remaining North Korean schools in Tōkyō Metropolis. The school is called 西東京朝鮮第一初中級学校 Nishi Tōkyō Chōsen Dai-Ichi Sho-Chūkyū Gakkō West Tōkyō North Korean Elementary & Junior High School #1[xix].


insert record scratch sound here

Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Whaaaaat?

Yes, North Korea and Japan are sworn enemies. But the 朝鮮学校 Chōsen gakkō Korean schools have operated as international schools in Japan since before WWII. In 1910, Japan made Korea part of the 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Empire of Japan and many Koreans began immigrating to the Japanese islands[xx]. Many of these Korean 在日 zainichi residents of Japan sought to preserve their Korean identity and values and one way they could do that was through education. Everyone knows Japan and Korea haven’t been on the best of terms since the late 1500’s, but things got really bad in the mid-20th Century. These days, South Korea and Japan have a love-hate relationship, but things aren’t so bad. They’re actually military allies, sort of.

But North Korean schools in Japan? That’s fucked up, right?

Rather than explain it myself, here’s a brief excerpt from a 2013 article in the Economist:

Between 1905 and 1945, when Japan occupied Korea, ethnic Koreans were considered Japanese nationals. After Japan lost control of the peninsula in WWII, Koreans wishing to stay in Japan (known as Zainichi Koreans) were provisionally registered as nationals of Joseon, the name of undivided Korea between the 14th and 19th centuries. But when the North and South declared independence in 1948, the term Joseon no longer corresponded to a specific country. From 1965 Zainichi Koreans could register as South Koreans. Those who retained their Joseon nationality (rather than register as either South Korean or Japanese) became de factō North Korean citizens.

A hiccup in history produced a generation or so of people living in a political and national limbo. The question that most Japanese people (and probably most readers of this blog) are asking is, “well, if you live in Japan, speak Japanese, pay Japanese taxes, and are most likely culturally more Japanese than Korean, why not register as a Japanese citizen? Or if you really want to maintain your Korean-ness, why not just register as a South Korean?” Good questions, but…


This is a question we should probably all ask ourselves every morning…OK, probably not in the morning, but maybe during lunch.

As an American, I grew up in a multicultural, multi-racial society that encouraged integration while celebrating diversity[xxi], so I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s a very messy issue and we’re not going to save the world here today, but some of you may not have heard about these North Korean schools in Japan. I don’t want to rabble rouse, but I definitely think that this phenomenon might be an interesting note to leave on.

And you thought the etymology was complicated!

As always, feel free to leave a comment on this article, like it, or share on Facebook or Twitter or wherever. I hope you enjoyed it.


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[i] By train
[ii] I’m not saying this to be a jerk to my non-kanji reading readers, Mrs. JapanThis! is actually an elementary teacher and told me this. But that’s OK, if you learn Japanese, these kanji will be among the first you learn too.
[iii] A name which seems to mean “government center.”
[iv] Or that unnamed tributary alluded to earlier.
[v] Maybe the best example is 目立つ medatsu to stand out, literally “stand before your very eyes.”
[vi] 立河 and 立川 are variations of the same word. In many old sources, was preferred over 川. I haven’t heard any convincing arguments in terms of usage.
[vii] See my article about Hachiōji here.
[viii] Tachigawa and Tategawa are also possible readings, but are rare in the Kantō area. In Kamakura and Sengoku Period records, the name is generally recorded as 立河 which is just a variant of 立川, and so can be read as Tatekawa or Tachikawa (or any of the other variants mentioned above).
[ix]さかsaka hill, ~ –hara field, ~田 ta rice paddy are among the countless examples long term readers will be familiar with.
[x] Granted, these are quite rare, but they’re not unrepresented. The best example is ~富士見 fujimi can see Mt. Fuji which has countless examples in Tōkyō alone.
[xi] For this whole convoluted story, you need to read 2 articles: What does Edo mean? and What does Kitami mean?
[xii] But it definitely wasn’t a rule.
[xiii] But this name is clearly much older. Most indications put it at the Heian Period which means it could be even more ancient.
[xiv] The Ainu and the Emishi were essentially the same people, at least genetically, though culturally they may have been distinct. They are both descendants of the 縄文 Jōmon people – the Paleolithic first people of Japan. You can read more about them here.
[xv] And to be fair, if you’re into dudes, I suppose there’s even better “people watching” lolol.
[xvi] When my girlfriend at the time asked a lifeguard about the park’s tattoo policy, he told her that tattoos were not allowed, but the staff rarely enforced the rule and they were only on the lookout for yakuza tattoos. That’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart, and basically I have never cared about entering public baths in Japan since. But if someone says something, you have to be able to be confident and polite and explain your position in Japanese. Then it’s no problem. The whole “no tattoos” thing in hot springs and pools is somewhat negotiable in my experience.
[xvii] Because if you’re not drinking & whoring 24-7, you’re not really drinking & whoring properly, are you?
[xviii] English Wikipedia pages on Japan tend to be shit anyways.
[xix] And yes. As the name implies, there is a #2.
[xx] Some came by choice seeking economic opportunities; others were forced by military or labor conscription. It’s a really complicated issue that I’ll admit I don’t fully understand and have no intention of getting into here because it’s way outside of the scope of this article (and my blog in general).
[xxi] And America isn’t perfect, but it is diverse and most of the time it works.

Ōedo Line: Yoyogi & Shinjuku

In Japanese History on July 8, 2015 at 4:49 am

Yoyogi (never ending trees)



Yoyogi Park is one of Tōkyō’s greatest parks. It’s pretty much beautiful all year long, but it’s really famous for cherry blossoms in the spring. It attracts a younger and less conventional crowd, including foreigners. For history nerds there is very little to see here unless you search the grounds of 明治神宮 Meiji Jingū the Meiji Shrine for the remnants of the Ii clan’s estate (of which virtually nothing is left).

In my original article, I went into detail about the etymology of this location. But even if you don’t care about Japanese history, Yoyogi Park is a lot of fun. It is without a doubt, one of the most exciting public spaces in Tōkyō. In terms of liveliness, it ranks in my top 3 “party parks” with Ueno Park and Inokashira Park. But all three parks are distinct. There’s no true comparison.

This station gives you access to:

Yoyogi Park is a famous 青姦 aokan (outdoor sex) spot. If you can get away with it, do it!

Yoyogi Park is a famous 青姦 aokan (outdoor sex) spot. If you can get away with it, do it!

Shinjuku (new post town)


If you’ve been following this series from the beginning, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve come full circle. The Ōedo Line begins at Shinjuku Nishiguchi, the east side of Shinjuku Station. From this point on, we’re going to venture outside of shōgun’s capital. In the Edo Period, this area was on the outskirts of the city. It was suburban along the 青梅街道 Ōme Kaidō Ōme Highway and 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō Kōshū Highway and more or less country if you veered off the main roads.

The old Ōme Kaidō passes under the elevated train tracks near Shinjuku Station.  The tunnel is referred to by foreigners as the

The old Ōme Kaidō passes under the elevated train tracks near Shinjuku Station.
The tunnel is referred to by foreigners as the “rape tunnel” because it was so shady at night, but now it’s well lit and actually features art exhibits 24 hours.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has been raped in there. It’s just a really off color joke by foreigners that I heard. I’ve walked through there at night and it’s always crowded and lively. You’re more likely to smell a homeless person sleeping than encounter any kind of violence there. Nevertheless, the horrible nickname persists.

Shinjuku Station gives you access to almost the whole world. It’s one of the busiest train stations in the world. The name literally means “New Post Town” and refers to its old name as 内藤新宿 Naitō-Shinjuku. Naitō was the daimyō family that had an estate here on the Kōshū Highway which led to modern day Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures. Once their estate was built, a post town for travelers popped up. In the post war era, the name Naitō was dropped and the area has officially been known as Shinjuku ever since.

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This is part of an ongoing series that begins here

[i] Before the end of 2015, I will have a comprehensive article about Shinjuku. I promise.

What does Chōfu mean? (Part One)

In Japanese History on March 30, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Chōfu (mood cloth)

The banner says "Kondō Isami's Home Town, Chōfu."

The banner says “Kondō Isami’s Home Town, Chōfu.”

Just a heads up.
This article rambles a little. It’s actually 2 articles merged together. Basically, I had the general etymology, but I found more info later and tried to insert it as is into the middle of the original article. Then I tried to smooth things out, but the end result was a little sloppy and there is some repeating. Sorry about that.
All in all, it should make sense, though.

A banner for Tōkyō's soccer team, F.C.Tokyo. It bears the Shinsengumi motto 誠 makoto (sincerity) and reads "Kondō Isami's Hometown, Chōfu."

A banner for Tōkyō’s soccer team, F.C.Tokyo. It bears the Shinsengumi motto 誠 makoto (sincerity) and reads “Kondō Isami’s Hometown, Chōfu.”

The first story I heard about the etymology of Chōfu was this: 調布 Chōfu was a town that paid its taxes 調 chō with 布fu/nuno cloth. It seemed legit enough and I didn’t know much about the area or taxation in old Japan so this was good enough for me at the time.

However, this isn’t good enough anymore. After all, this is freaking JapanThis!. We have a certain level of skepticism to maintain around here.

Am I right?


Well as it turns out, the city of Chōfu didn’t exist until the Meiji Era. That said, the city cites one of the oldest and most loved poetry collections of Japanese poetry as the source of its namesake. That anthology is none other than the 万葉集 Man’yōshū Collection of 10,000 Leaves which was compiled in the 700’s[i]. One poem that refers to the beautiful young women of the area is cited as the source of the name.

The fact of the matter is that the etymology of “paying taxes with cloth” seems to be a conflation of an ancient taxation system and a little bit of poetry. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Tenjin Street is a shopping street that lines the sandō (approach) to Fuda Tenjin Shrine. The street is lined with characters from the anime "Gegege no Kitarō."

Tenjin Street is a shopping street that lines the sandō (approach) to Fuda Tenjin Shrine. The street is lined with characters from the anime “Gegege no Kitarō.”

Administrative Reforms in the Asuka and Nara Periods

In the late 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period[ii], starting with the 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin Taika Reforms[iii] in 645, the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court began enacting sweeping administrative reforms based on a Chinese model. One of the results of this was the establishment of the 律令制 ritsuryō-sei ritsuryō system. This resulted in the civil administrative units of 国 kuni provinces, 郡 gun districts, 郷 gō hamlets, and 里 ri/sato neighborhoods. There were many other changes regarding taxation, ranking, governance, and criminal justice[iv].

Reconstruction of a farmer's home in the Asuka Period.

Reconstruction of a farmer’s home in the Asuka Period.

I mentioned the establishment of civil administrative units, but some of this should look familiar to long time readers[v]. The recognition of traditional nomenclature like 国 kuni province and 郡 gun district persisted throughout the Edo Period. Districts can still be found throughout Japan. Place names all around Japan often retain references to old provincial names, district names, and more local divisions (hamlets, villages, or neighborhoods).

The etymology of 調布 Chōfu coming from taxes is dependent on a particular outcome of the ritsuryō system, a concept called 租庸調 soyōchō. Most dictionaries define this term as “corvee” which looks a little bit like Corvette but is totally different because taxes are boring as hell and Corvettes are cool.

A corvette, as opposed to a corvee.

A corvette, as opposed to a corvee.

Talking about modern taxation is boring as hell so trust me; I don’t want to get deep into the taxation practices of the Nara Period so here is the simplest explanation I can think of. Soyōchō didn’t require people to pay money; rather you were required to pay in goods and services. For example, if you were a fisherman, a certain percentage of fish of a certain quality might be expected from you. Essentially, you had to do a certain amount of work for free for the good of your local lord, who was presumably a representative of the imperial court. I’m assuming certain types of goods would have made their way all the way to the imperial court in 奈良 Nara or 平安京 Heian-kyō[vi].

The system is much more nuanced than my explanation, but this isn’t a medieval tax blog. It’s about place names for crying FFS.

The word soyōchō actually represents the 3 types of payments: rice, labor, and silk/cloth.

The word soyōchō actually represents the 3 types of payments: rice, labor, and silk/cloth.

Anyhoo, if you were paying attention to the kanji, you probably noticed the final character of soyōchō was 調 chō. This is the same chō in Chōfu. Under the soyōchō system there were two particular taxes put on textile workers. The two main categories were: 調絹 chōkinu paying with silk and 調布 chōfu paying with cloth. Please note that the latter has the same kanji as the present day place name. OK, seems legit.


Good luck with that, buddy.

Is Everyone Defined By Taxes?

But something bugs me about this etymology. Who would have been proud of how their ancestors paid taxes? Especially if you were a farmer?

I think no one would. And herein lays the biggest problem with this this etymology.


The Plot Thickens

Nobody likes to pay taxes. I reckon people of this day and age know more about how their tax dollars are spent more than Askuka/Nara period peasants did. I don’t know which group might hate tax more, but I can’t imagine that giving away your profits to rich lords of varying ability would be a source of pride…


Unless your village was famous for some trade and everyone had pride that they were the best. Everyone knew that your cloth was the finest in the area. People came from far and wide to procure your fine cloth. Your cloth was so fine that it captivated the imaginations of the imperial court in Kyōto. It was so fine, that the area was defined (get it?) by that industry.

Oh nuno, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind. Oh nuno! Oh nuno!

Oh nuno! You’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind. Oh nuno! Oh nuno!
(JapanThis! being the wonderous place it is means that this is a clickable link)

The problem is that there seem to be no records of this area being famous for textile production. Adding to the mystery is that the kanji 布 fu/nuno is rampant in the place names along the 玉川 Tamagawa Tama River. Surely at least one of these places was famous for cloth production?

Is it all Bullshit?

It could actually all be bullshit. But maybe not complete bullshit. More like some of that folk etymology bullshit that comes up from time to time.

Until quite recently, the area was quite rural. Today it’s a suburban area. However, until the post-war period, the area was primarily agricultural.

Present day 調布市 Chōfu-shi Chōfu City is located outside of the 23 Special Wards (it’s still part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis). But when you read accounts of 近藤勇 Kondō Isami and 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō of 新撰組 Shinsengumi[vii], it’s often said that they were men of 多摩郡 Tama-gun Tama District. Isami’s hometown was the village of 武蔵国多摩郡上石原村 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Kami-Ishihara Mura Upper Ishihara Village, Tama District, Musashi Province. Today this particular location is part of Chōfu City. Whether Isami would have considered the area Chōfu[viii], I can’t say for sure but he must have been familiar with the term, for reasons I’ll explain later. But until the Meiji Period, Kondō Isami’s hometown was not Chōfu. It was Kami-Ishihara.

But both Isami and Toshizō would have identified themselves as men of the Tama District[ix].

This picture is purported to be the Kondō residence in Chōfu.

This picture is purported to be the Kondō residence in Chōfu. Even though this is clearly a samurai residence, it’s very rustic.

The Man’yōshū

OK. No cloth makers. Lots of farmers. Place names referring to cloth all over the river basin. So what’s going on then?

So earlier, I mentioned that the 万葉集 Man’yōshū Collection of 10,000 Leaves makes a reference to the beautiful young women who lived along the 玉川 Tamagawa Tama River. The Man’yōshū is one of the oldest collections of Japanese poetry. It’s a collection of poetry from various parts of Japan written in various dialects using a version of Japanese writing that was very much in its infancy. For people interested in place names, it’s both a boon and a bane. It often seems to be helpful and wildly confusing at the same time.

和歌 waka were a style of poem[x] that we first find evidence of in the Man’yōshū. It’s in this collection of poems that we find a particular 東歌 Tōka a kind of waka from ancient Kantō. Let’s look at the waka in question, shall we?


Tamagawa ni
sarasu tezukuri
sarasara ni
nanzo kono ko no

koko da kanashiki

Like the cloth
they bleach until its
silky and white,
I wonder why these girls
are so freaking cute

This old poem painted a picture of bleached cloth that was white and tender, just like the beautiful young girls who lived along the Tama River. It doesn’t say anything about a textile industry, but it does evoke a pretty image and it does point out the Tama River. Keep in mind that in the 600’s or whenever this was written, the Tama River was spider-like network of rivers. Whatever section of the river the author refers to as “the Tama River” is completely lost to us[xi], though it is presumably somewhere in Tama District.

But the keyword in the text is: tezukuri (or tatsukuri/tazukuri). The popular translation is cloth. Keep this in mind as we move forward with this crazy conflation.

A new image arises: beautiful young women bleaching cloth in the Tama River.

A new image arises: beautiful young women bleaching cloth in the Tama River.

Was a Town on the Tama River Famous for Cloth or Textiles?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. My sources say it was famous for farming and nothing more. And surely the Tama River provided ample water for irrigating rice paddies right up to the modern era. The beautiful poem in the Man’yōshū would tie in well with the old taxation system theory if we could locate a famous textile village. But if this industry existed in the area, outside of the Man’yōshū we don’t have much literary evidence or physical evidence. What’s more, the Man’yōshū is really vague[xii] and the Kantō region of the 600’s is mysterious place to us today.

A young girl bleaching cloth in the Tamagawa

A young girl bleaching cloth in the Tamagawa

So Why Is the Area Called Chōfu?

The word てづくり tezukuri (or たつくりたづくり tatsukuri/tazukuri) is used in the poem. Today, this is usually written 手作り tezukuri handmade/homemade but the term could be used for any kinds of goods. After all, in those days, there were no machines, so everything that wasn’t natural was handmade, right?

The fact is that the product in question is vague. The verb さらす sarasu means “to expose something” but has another meaning of “to bleach something.” Subsequent generations seem to have taken sarasu tezukuri as “bleaching cloth,” but I wonder if there might have been another meaning (perhaps dialectal?). I’m not qualified to say either way, but seems like a fair question to ask. But one thing is certain.  A famous image arose of beautiful, young maidens with fair skin, happily bleaching soft cloth in the clean, life giving waters of the Tamagawa River. This image was to persist right up to the Meiji Period.

tama river bleach bitch

Edo Period Poetry in Motion

In a 1000 years, a lot can change – especially if you have shoddy records. Because of the poem from the Man’yōshū, the local people – who were most definitely farmers in the Edo Period – had a certain sense of pride. FFS, 6th century nobles supposedly used to talk about how great their hometown was. Anyone who lived along the Tama River could take pride in their good produce/products and beautiful people. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?

But what actually seems to have happened is that a literary phrase, 調布の玉川 Tezukuri no Tamagawa, had entered the poetic language of the day. The interesting thing is the kanji 調布 which should normally be read as Chōfu had the irregular reading of Tatsukuri/Tezukuri. The phrase Tezukuri no Tamagawa had become a 枕詞 makura kotoba a so-called “pillow word.” This way of writing Tezukuri which reflected “paying taxes with cloth” would then be a special reading of the kanji[xiii]. I’m assuming that for reasons of poetic meter Tezukuri no Tamagawa (9 syllables) was alternatively read as Chōfu no Tamagawa (8 syllables) – Chōfu being preferred to Tezukuri because it was easier to read and because tezukuri is just so goddamn vague.

Bleaching cloth in a van down by the river.

Bleaching cloth in a van down by the river.
Wait! Don’t put the baby in the bleach bucket!!
And wait! Is that baby smoking a pipe? What the hell is wrong with you?


But Wait. Did You Say “Pillow Word?”

Yes, I did.

I'm exhausted from all this work. Let's take a break and smoke this joint I got from Kichiemon.

I’m exhausted from all this work. Let’s take a break and smoke this joint I got from Kichiemon, the village headman’s son. He always gets the best shit.

What the Fuck is a Pillow Word?

Good question!

I don’t read classical Japanese poetry[xiv], so I could be butchering this explanation. But it’s my understanding that waka[xv] used “pillow words” to allude to established literary imagery or to instantly conjure up a traditional sentiment. Many of the references referred to poems in the Man’yōshū, but I don’t think they were restricted to that text alone.

Today, if a rapper (or anyone, for that matter) says “got my mind on my money,” clued in listeners will instantly have an image in their head because they know the reference. Wikipedia says that “Japanese poets use makura kotoba to refer to earlier poems and show their knowledge of poetry and the imperial poetry collections.” So I think that supports my explanation[xvi]. Fingers crossed.

Anyhoo, the local people knew the poem quite well. By the Edo Period, artists who painted the Tama area would have known the expression or would have been told by the local villagers. Edo Era locals clearly interpreted tezukuri and tazukuri (handmade) as nuno (cloth). This is when the ancient “cloth tax” story came back into play.

The idea of a 武蔵国調布 Musashi no Kuni Chōfu Chōfu, Musashi Province had entered the imagination. With it came the image of beautiful young girls of the area. This is a concept with a long history in Japan, the local 美女 bijo beautiful women. Some areas are famous for beautiful women[xvii] more than others. Artists from Edo who often wouldn’t bother to make the trip to the Tama District had an image in their head of beautiful, young girls with pure white skin happily bleaching cloth in the Tama River.

I may be reading this picture all wrong, but the woman in the foreground strikes me as a prostitute. The towns along the Tama River were post towns. If I'm right, is this a clue?

A beautiful woman holding a white cloth in Chōfu. You can see the river in the bottom lefthand corner. At first I thought the woman might have been a prostitute because of the flashy clothes, but it was pointed out to me that she has a walking stick and a hat for traveling. Maybe she’s just a traveler and not a local woman.

Meiji Villagers Name a New Town and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next…

Somehow the local legends and the poem from the Man’yōshū had merged so perfectly that something amazing happened in the Meiji Period.



After the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken abolition of the domains and creation of prefectures in 1871 (Meiji 4), a whole lot of rural areas were overlooked in the grand changes of the Meiji government. That is to say, day to day life didn’t change very much[xviii]. But new, Western style civil administration was applied to the countryside as well as the cities. This meant that previously autonomous 村 mura villages were combined to create to create 町 machi towns. Now, for the first time, independent villages were asked to re-consider their place in this new system. Sometimes the largest village name was used for the new combination, but other times, completely new names were chose.

So it seems that when forced to look at themselves as a group and not as independent villages, the local people took pride in the pillow word that united them all, 調布の玉川 chōfu no Tamagawa[xix]. Actually a number of villages along the Tama River basin used some variant of the chōfu name and to the best of my knowledge, these efforts weren’t coordinated. It was just ingrained into the spirit of the people who lived along the river.

It all just disintegrated into river monkeys. The people of Tama District just goofed off in the river. How quaint.  This is why Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, despite having skills, were dismissed outright by higher ranking Edoites. The curse of the country samurai.

It all just disintegrated into river monkeys. The people of Tama District just goofing off in the river. How quaint. This is why Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, despite having skills, were often looked down upon by their social superiors. The curse of the country samurai.

The first time we see Chōfu on a map is in 1889 (Meiji 22) when a new place name was created; 北多摩郡調布町 Kita Tama-gun Chōfu Machi Chōfu Town, North Tama District. The town deliberately chose to reference the pillow word. The new town incorporated the former villages of 布田小島分村 Fuda-Kojima Wakemura[xx] Divided Village of Fuda-Kojima, 上石原村 Kami^Ishihara Mura Upper Ishihara Village and 下石原村 Shimo-Ishihara Mura Lower Ishihara Village, 上布田村 Kami-Fuda Mura Upper Fuda Village and 下布田村 Shimo-Fuda Mura Lower Fuda Village, 国領宿 Kokuryō-juku Kokuryō Post Town, 上ヶ給村 Agekyū Mura Agekyū Village, and 飛田給村 Tobitakyū Mura Tobitakyū Village.

Chofu Station used to have elevated platforms, now it's a subway.

Chofu Station used to have elevated platforms, now it’s a subway.

Chōfu is Actually a Pretty Cool Place

Chōfu is located outside of the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō. That can mean BOOOOOORING to many people. Even if you take a train from 新宿駅 Shinjuku Eki Shinjuku Station[xxi], you need to take an express train to get to Chōfu in a reasonable amount of time. It’s out there. Many people who live in the center of Tōkyō probably wouldn’t see much use in going there. It’s the suburbs. Outside of the station area, you need a car – or at least a bike.

That said, I think Chōfu is a pretty cool place. If I’m not mistaken, many of its charms are accessible on foot, most of them by bus, and all of them by bicycle[xxii]. Modern 調布市 Chōfu-shi Chōfu City is essentially a collection of Edo Period 宿場町 shukuba machi post towns on the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō Kōshū Highway. There are some Edo Period structures extant here and there along the old postal road, most notably the 赤門 akamon, a temple gate that has survived since 1649. There’s also a 七福神巡り shichi fukujin meguri 7 gods of good luck pilgrimage if you’re a walker[xxiii].

Statue of Kondō Isami at Ryūgen-ji.

Statue of Kondō Isami at Ryūgen-ji.

As I mentioned earlier, Kondō Isami was born and raised here[xxiv]. The home where the Kondō residence once stood is no longer there, but there is a plaque and a picture of a house purported to be his 実家 jikka parents’ home. At nearby 龍源寺 Ryūgen-ji Ryūgen Temple is one of Kondō Isami’s many graves[xxv]. There’s another shrine, 上石原若宮八幡神社  Kami-Ishihara Wakanomiya Hachiman-gū, where Kondō Isami allegedly went to pray for victory of the 甲陽鎮撫隊 Kōyoū Chinbutai – essentially a new name given to the Shinsengumi[xxvi].  A short walk from the station will bring you to 布多天神社 Fudatenjin-ja known by locals as simply Fudatenjin. One of the shrine’s little known secrets – even to locals and Shinsengumi enthusiasts – is that on the precincts there is a large stone monument erected by Isami’s father, 近藤周助 Kondō Shūsuke. The shrine is famous for its 梅 ume plum blossoms in the late winter.

Map of Jindai-ji.

Map of the Jindai-ji temple complex

I’m sure there are more charms than these[xxvii], but the real show stopper in Chōfu is a sprawling temple complex called深大寺 Jindai-ji Jindai Temple[xxviii]. I’m sure it’s beautiful any time of the year, but the time I went was in the autumn – just as the leaves were changing – and it was pretty amazing. I felt like I had stepped back in time. It was years ago when I went, but the beauty of the atmosphere and nature made a big impression on me. It’s said to be the second oldest temple in 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The area is famous for soba, so it’s a good place to relax and have something to eat. The distance of this place from Chōfu Station is why I think that if you want to “do Chōfu,” you should probably rent some e-チャリ ii-chari electric bicycles to hit all of the spots. And believe me, I haven’t mentioned all the spots in this area.

OK, we’ve wandered way outside of the 23 Wards but we’re still in Tōkyō Metropolis. I think long time readers can guess what the next few articles will be about. Feel free to take a stab at it in the comments section below.

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That’s the Nara Period to you and me.
[ii] Wanna know about the Asuka Period, here ya go!
[iii] What the hell are the Taika Reforms?
[iv] Much of the system was superseded by new innovations in the 10th century (Heian Period), but some of these administrative units stayed in place until the Meiji Period.
[v] When you talk about place names, you have to talk about civil administrative crap all the time.
[vi] Modern day 京都 Kyōto.
[vii] What’s the hell is the Shinsengumi, you ask? This is the Shinesengumi.
[viii] Today Chōfu City bills itself as 近藤勇のふるさと Kondō Isami no Furusato Kondō Isami’s Hometown.
[ix] Hijikata’s hometown, by the way, was in nearby 武蔵国多摩郡日野 村 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Hino Mura Hino Village, Tama District, Musashi Province.
[x] Waka come in all shapes and sized, so I’m not going into detail. I don’t want to discuss waka any more than I want to discuss taxes. lol. But here’s the Wikipedia article. Knock yourself out.
[xi] Wanna learn more about the Tama River?
[xii] Japanese poetry tends to be pretty fucking vague.
[xiii] And fair enough. Kanji are fairly flexible in how you want to use them in Japanese.
[xiv] I rarely read any poetry anymore, for that matter.
[xv] Read more about waka here.
[xvi] If I’m wrong, say something in the comments.
[xvii] Some areas are famous for handsome men too.
[xviii] In much of rural Japan, daily life didn’t change much until WWII.
[xix] Long time readers who actually read my unbearable river series should know well that in the Edo Period the ancient kanji 多磨 Tama were used for the geographical area and the kanji 玉川 Tamagawa were used for the river and aqueducts.
[xx] I’m rendering 分村 as wakemura. It’s an obsolete word meaning “separated village” – this I’m sure of – but I’m not sure of the reading. It could be bunson (doesn’t look like a place name, though) or wamura or bunmura. I can’t find any information except on Weblio. So, until I hear otherwise, I’m sticking with that reading. But if anyone can confirm or correct this, I’d really appreciate it.
[xxi] You can get to anywhere in the world from Shinjuku Station…
[xxii] I recommend an electric bike because… dude, they’re freaking amazing.
[xxiii] The course is here.
[xxiv] Just for clarification, his 道場 dōjō, the 試衛館 Shieikan was located in 市ヶ谷 Ichigaya, near Shinjuku. I think I wrote an article about Ichigaya, but I don’t remember… Oh well.
[xxv] The temple is technically in 三鷹 Mitaka, not Chōfu. #BorderProblemz.
Also, I’m not joking when I say Kondō Isami has many graves. I wonder if someone has compiled a list of all of them. This might be a good start. #CmonInternetDontFailMeNow
[xxvi] Read more about the Kōyoū Chinbutai here. If memory serves me well, the new name was given by 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū. The 2004 Taiga Drama, 新撰組! Shinsengumi! made the re-naming of the group look terribly insulting and implied that Katsu Kaishū was just trying to get rid of them by either breaking their morale or getting them killed. That’s just a TV show, but it’s an intriguing theory.
[xxvii] Microsoft has an office here, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing.
[xxviii] For the record, Jindai-ji is technically in Mitaka, not Chōfu.

The Tama River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on August 6, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Tama-gawa (“super scratchy river,” more at unknown)

A typical river crossing in the Edo Period

A typical river crossing in the Edo Period

Hello and welcome back to the clusterfuck of river-related bullshit that JapanThis! has recently become. For my own sanity, the river posts require time off. Also, my day job has become busier recently. To make matters more complicated, I just took a trip to Kyōto and had to edit the photos and I’m in the middle of reading Romulus Hillsborough’s latest book, which I will be reviewing shortly. Needless to say, I’m fucking busy right now. But anyways, we’ve got another river to check off the list 7 rivers that I promised[i].

So, please forgive my lateness and please bear with me. I thought this one would be one of the easy ones. Clearly, I was totally mistaken. But I found a way to rejuvenate my love for writing the blog again.

Let’s get it on, my brother/sister. It’s time to go deeeeeeeeeeep.


OK, so let’s get down and dirty. 

 shinsengumi teams

Tama’s Image in my Mind

When I hear the name “Tama,” I think of the phrase 多摩の誇り Tama no Hokori the Pride of Tama which was used repeatedly in the 2004 NHK 大河ドラマ Taiga Dorama Taiga Drama, 新撰組!  Shinsengumi![ii] The upper echelons of the group were natives of 武蔵国多摩郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District, Musashi Province. The Shinsengumi’s 局長 kyokuchō commander, 近藤勇 Kondō  Isami was originally from present day 調布 Chōfu which is located in the Tōkyō Metropolis today[iii]. The 副局長 fuku-kyokuchō vice-commander, 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō[iv] was from present day 日野 Hino which is located near present day 立川 Tachikawa. In my article on Musashi, I mentioned that the name “Musashi” has a very country image these days. In the Edo Period, this image was even stronger because the area was so outside the city limits of the shōgun’s capital. It’s important to understand that Edo and Tōkyō are not – and never have been – mutually interchangeable terms, especially in regards to territory. Anyways, as a region, Tama conjurors up an image of Chōfu and Hino, and as such, to me that means “Shinsengumi.”

This is a little creepy idol worship, but… the Shinsengumi got the short end of the stick by the Meiji Coup.

The other thing that comes to mind is BBQ.

As an American, I assume you can barbecue anywhere – usually your own backyard. But in Japan’s crowded cities, towns, and villages, you can’t just put a BBQ pit in your backyard and have a party. Because of that, rivers are the de factō place to grill food and hang with your friends. The Tama River runs through the border of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture. As you can imagine, the metropolis starts to melt away into countryside here. So it’s along this river that Tōkyōites and neighboring denizens have found common ground for barbecuing and all the debauchery ensues. All kinds of parties go down along the river. I’ve been to a range of events for the whole family to events that would even make Tokugawa Ienari blush[v].

The river isn't really the focus of the BBQ...

The river isn’t really the focus of the BBQ…

But the reality is, the 多摩地方 Tama chihō Tama region is essentially the bulk of 西東京 Nishi-Tōkyō Western Tōkyō, ie; the area outside of the 23 Wards. It’s countryside[vi], but it’s not complete flyover territory. 青梅 Ōme is famous for its mountains and autumn colors. 八王子 Hachiōji is famous for a Late Hōjō clan castle that was built to last for generations only to be burnt to the ground by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590 in one of his last moves to unify the country under his rule as regent of the emperor. Oh, and 吉祥寺 Kichijōji is in the Tama region. Kichijōji is one of the most desirable places to live in Tōkyō, despite not being in the 23 Wards[vii].

West Tokyo. That's right. This is Tokyo.

West Tokyo.
That’s right. This is Tokyo.

Tama River Trivia

Despite the association with the Shinsengumi, who were eventually 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Edo Shōgunate, the river never flowed through Edo. Even today, the river doesn’t flow through central Tōkyō, though it does mark a boundary between Tōkyō Metropolis and Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Tama River course.

The Tama River course.

At first site, the river looks quite shallow and unimpressive, though much of the river’s course is accompanied by tall, ugly, concrete levees. But, don’t let the river’s shallowness fool you! The river actually floods often; those ugly levees have saved countless lives and provided safe and secure areas for barbecues.

stone levees....

stone levees….

Because it never ran through a major urban center or capital, the river’s course hasn’t changed dramatically over the years.  Archaeology seems to show that people lived along the river since Paleolithic times. There are many 古墳  kofun burial mounds located along the river. The river may have played a role in spreading the culture of 邪馬台国 Yamatai Koku the Yamato State and burial mound culture.

This doesn't look like much, but it's a kofun (burial mound) in Tamagawa burial mound park.

This doesn’t look like much, but it’s a kofun (burial mound) in Tamagawa burial mound park.

Some people claim there are piranha in the Tama River. There were reports of 4 piranha pulled out of the in river in 2010. The English language media dubbed the river the “Tamazon.” While alien fauna are popping up in rivers all over the world, I find it hard to believe that piranha are flourishing in the Tama River. But who knows… maybe you next BBQ by the river may include an uninvited meat-eater.

Google "piranha attack victim" at your own risk.

Google “piranha attack victim” at your own risk.

The Legal Definition of the River

Today the river is defined as the stretch of flowing water from 笠取山 Kasadori Yama Mt. Kasadori to 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay at 羽田 Haneda[viii]. Mt Kasadori, by the way, lies at the border of 甲州市 Kōshū-shi Kōshū City (former 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province and modern 山梨県 Yamanashi-ken Yamanashi Prefecture) and 秩父市 Chichibu-shi Chichibu City (former 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province and modern 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Dasaitama Prefecture).

From Mt. Kasadori, it flows eastward to the hilly and rural part of Western Tokyo. At Hamura, an otherwise unremarkable backwater of rural Tōkyō, is the source of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tama River Aqueduct – which we will talk about in a minute.


Etymology, Part One (Kanji)

I hate to say this, but this is gonna be messy. Time and time again, we’ve seen 当て字 ateji, that is to say, easily understood kanji that have no meaning, but can be easily read. The kanji used for the Tama River are ateji… or possibly not. It’s a really convoluted story and I’m not exactly how to present the facts in the best way.

First let me say, we don’t know – and probably can’t know – the exact origin of the name of this river. Throughout the regions where the river flows there are a few place names that seem to be related – nothing that really ties everything together etymologically speaking, but you’ll see. From time immemorial, the name タマ Tama has been used in the area, but different areas used different kanji. In the Pre-Modern Era, people weren’t such sticklers for standards – as we’ve seen time and time here at JapanThis!, and as such it wasn’t until the Meiji Era that we started seeing efforts to standardizing the Japanese Language. Even in the Post-War years, which saw sweeping reforms to 標準語  Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, allowances have always been made for regional cultural differences and traditions – or sometimes a train station just needs to differentiate itself from another train station. Shit happens.

Since the name goes back to some of the earliest extant documents of Japan, there is reason to suspect that the name predates literacy in Japan. If that’s the case, the name could not even be Japonic in origin. But just like all the etymologies I’m gonna throw out there, it’s all speculation.

Ferry service across the Tama River

Ferry service across the Tama River

Kanji Chaos!

So let’s look at all that kanji, then, shall we? Keep in mind, this list is by no means exhaustive, but these are words said to be related to the river and/or region.

Kanji/Rōma-ji Meaning[ix]
many, multi-;
chafe, polish, scrape;
jewel, ball, pebble;river
Tamagawa Jōsui
jewel, ball, pebble;river;
Tama Reien
many, multi-;
polish, brush, improve;
usually written without kanji, but the meaning is 二子玉川 “Twin Tamagawa Villages”
interior, deep;
many, multi-;polish, brush, improve
interior, deep;many, multi-;chafe, polish, scrape
many, multi-;chafe, polish, scrape
cape, promontory;
jewel, ball

Recently, I’ve been told that hating on Saitama by calling it “Dasaitama” has become unclassy…
or has it?

Trends in the Spelling

Although none of this was standardized until recent years, there are some trends in the spelling that take us back to the first documentation of the river in written Japanese. None of this really helps out with the true derivation, but it does give us a fantastic lesson in how kanji was used and how it really muddles up efforts to study diachronic changes in Japanese.

In the Nara Period, there is a vague reference to the river, though we do know if this is upstream or downstream. The reference occurs in the 万葉集 Man’yōsha The Compilation of a 1000 Leaves, and the spelling is 多麻河 Tama-gawa. This book was written at a time when kanji use in Japanese hadn’t been standardized, so the kanji are more or less phonetic – though not 100% so.  The literal meaning of the kanji are “much,” “hemp,” and “river.” We’ll come back to this later.

In the Heian Period, we find a few references to the midsection of the river as 武蔵国石瀬河 Musashi no Kuni Iwasegawa Iwase River of Musashi Province. The literal meaning of the kanji are “pebble/jewel,” “shallow,” and “river. We’ll come back to this later.

From the Kamakura Period, when we finally get more consistent documents from Eastern Japan, until the Edo Period, the upper portion of the river seems to have been known as the 丹波川 Tabagawa. The kanji literally mean “red,” “waves,” and “river.”[x] Pretty sure we’re coming back to this later, too.

In the Edo Period, the spelling 玉川 Tama-gawa “pebble river” seems to have become a standard in many documents; areas surrounding the river in particular came to be spelled this way. A few variations that I mentioned earlier persisted, but for whatever reason, a trend towards this new spelling – admittedly easier to read – had begun. The old kanji 多摩 Tama didn’t fade into oblivion, but two contenders for the correct writing became dominant in the Edo Period. A third spelling, 多磨 tama would exist until the 1920’s, when it got a cemetery and train station named after it – and it persists today. The reason for this was to honor the name of 多磨村 Tama Mura Tama Village, the original village in that area.

This sign shows both spellings 多摩川 and 玉川 side by side.

This sign shows both spellings 多摩川 and 玉川 side by side.

Etymology, Part Two (Folklore)

There are a few theories floating around… None of them are very satisfying.

➊ As I mentioned, at one point, the upper portion of the river was called 丹波川 Taba-gawa; this is ateji used to represent タバガワ出 Taba-gawa no de. This name literally means “outflowing of the Taba River” and referred to a 手離れる出 which looks like te hanareru de in modern Standard Japanese, but in the ancient local dialect was ta banareru de. The meaning is that the river that separates from 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province (modern Yamanashi Prefecture) at this place[xi]. The name was either corrupted or underwent a natural sound change from Taba-gawa to Tama-gawa[xii]. There is a village near the headwaters called 山梨県丹波山村 Yamanashi-ken Tabayama Mura, Tabayama Village, Yamanashi Prefecture which preserves the first 2 kanji. In that area, the river is locally called 丹波川 with 2 variant readings: Taba-gawa and Tanba-gawa.

I don’t know enough about Old Japanese or the dialects of the region, so let’s take this one with a grain of salt, but preservation of these ancient kanji is impressive.

The Tabagawa (ie; Tamagawa) in Tabayama Village.

The Tabagawa (ie; Tamagawa) in Tabayama Village.

 多摩 tama is ateji for /霊 tama (soul, spirit). This is a reference to the ancient kami 大国魂命 Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto[xiii]. This kami was the deification of the very province itself, in this case 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni or whatever territory the area was known as prior to the Taika Reforms (some argue that it may have been called 魂国 Tama no Kuni Tama Province). By this thinking, the river was sacred to or controlled by Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto, or was a physical manifestation of the kami itself. As this was either Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto’s river or Tama Province’s river it was called 魂川 Tamagawa (the kami’s river), the kanji was changed to 多摩川  Tamagawa because the ateji were presumably easier to read phonetically.

This is interesting. The only part of it that jumps out at me is that 魂川 isn’t difficult to read. In fact, I can’t think of another way to read the name in Modern Japanese. While the name is clearly of the Yamatai culture, this could also be syncretism at work, merging a pre-Yamatai deity or state with a Yamatai one.

Ōkuni Shrine in Fuchū in the Tama Region. Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto isn't enshrined here per se, but this is most definitely a Kuni Tama, a Shintō tutelary deity of a Province.

Ōkuni Shrine in Fuchū in the Tama Region. Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto isn’t enshrined here per se, but this is most definitely a Kuni Tama, a Shintō tutelary deity of a Province.

➌ The name comes from the ateji  多麻 tama which means “an abundance of hemp.” The idea is that a buttload of hemp naturally grew along the banks of the river and came to be farmed by the local people. Supporters of this theory point at 麻布 Azabu, 麻生 Asaoku, 調布 Chōfu, and 砧 Kinuta as place names that may have similar origins.

Nearby Chōfu, Asaoku, and Kinuta absolutely give a level of plausibility to this particular theory. Azabu may have a similar origin, but has no connection to the Tama River.

Whatever the origin of the name, in 712, the name was first recorded as 多麻 “abundance of hemp,” but over time came to be 多摩 “a lot of chafing.” Hemp was a common material for making clothes. But “a lot of chafing” is just bad. So it’s no wonder why the shōgunate preferred 玉川 “pebble river” over a “hurtful river.” But just as the shōgunate didn’t survive the Meiji Coup of 1868, their terminology scattered like their retainers and so we’re left with an etymological mess.

Japanese hemp.

Japanese hemp.

 Oh, I forgot to mention this one. It’s often repeated that he name is derived from the 玉川兄弟  Tama Kyōdai the Tamagawa brothers, 玉川庄右衛門  Tamagawa Shōemon and 玉川清右衛門 Tamagawa Seiemon. This fraternal team managed the excavation of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tamagawa Aqueduct in 1653. Early in the Edo Period, the shōgunate realized that the main aqueduct, the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui was insufficient for the city, whose size and population had skyrocketed due to the policy of sankin-kōtai.

This etymology is demonstrably false.

Originally, the brothers were farmers who lived along the river. They took the job and finished in roughly 18 months. For the efficiency and diligence in building a superior aqueduct to the existing Kanda Aqueduct, the shōgunate rewarded them with hereditary management of the aqueduct, samurai status, and a family name, 玉川 Tamagawa. As mentioned before, this was the preferred spelling of the shōgunate. But more importantly, this was a great gift that could be passed down through the family forever.However, that was not to be. The Tamagawa surname was abolished when it was discovered that the 3rd generation head of the family – for his own financial gain – was pimping out Tamagawa Aqueduct water to the locals. Not only was he stealing from the shōgun, he proved himself to be an ingrate to the very system that had raised his family’s fortunes from peasant to samurai.

What a dick.

Not to understand what the Tamagawa Brothers accomplished, here's the entire stretch of the aqueduct. Click to enlarge.

Not to understand what the Tamagawa Brothers accomplished, here’s the entire stretch of the aqueduct.
Click to enlarge.

The Tamagawa Brothers, (It's just a statue, not the real guys...)

The Tamagawa Brothers,
(It’s just a statue, not the real guys…)

Today How Are the Kanji Used?

The kanji 玉川 Tamagawa (the Edo Period kanji preferred by the shōgunate) is now generally applied to place names associated with the river basin, while the older 多摩川 Tamagawa refers to the river itself and the 多摩川水系 Tamagawa Suikei Tamagawa river system, ie; actual waterways that diverge from the river itself, man-made or otherwise. That said, it seems this usage is not entirely uniform. For example, 多摩市 Tama-shi Tama City uses the name of the river.

The famous hanami spot, 多磨霊園 Tama Reien Tama Cemetery, uses a variant for /ma/, but it’s clearly based on the pre-Edo Period version. The reason for this difference is based solely local tradition. By the way, if you’re a fan of the psychopathic, right wing author, 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, after he committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment in 1970, he was interred at Tama Cemetery. If you want to take a selfie with a douchebag’s grave, you can do it here.

Tama Cemetery.

Tama Cemetery. Mishima would love the pink.

二子玉川 Futako-Tamagawa (often misread as Futago-Tamagawa) is not an official place name. It’s just a train station name, but as is often the case in Tōkyō, areas tend to be referred to by their station names.  Many stations and business names in the “Futako-Tamagawa area” bear the name 玉川, but the name 玉川 rarely appears as a postal address. 二子村 Futako Mura Futako Village was a village located on the Kanagawa side of the river in present day 川崎市 Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City. On the present day Tōkyō-side of the river in present day Setagaya-ku, was 玉川村 Tamagawa Mura Tamagawa Village. This part of the river was part of an important ferry that took passengers back and forth between Tamagawa Village and Futako Village which was called the 二子之渡し Futako no Watashi, meaning something like “the twin village crossing.”[xv]

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[i] Note to self: never promise more than 3 articles on a subject you know nothing about yet.
[ii] If you don’t know who the Shinsengumi were… I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog. But that said, you can find a quick description here at Samurai Archives.
[iii] Though his family’s dōjō was located in Edo in the 柳町 Yanagi-chō neighborhood. I have an article about that are here.
[iv] The Hijikata family still owns property in the area, promotes Shinsengumi-related tourism, and still teaches 天然理心流 ten’nen rishin’ryū – the style of sword play taught at the Kondō dōjō.
[v] The Great Grilled Tama River Orgy of 2012 is a post for another day.
[vi] Here’s what Wikipedia says about former Tama District.
[vii] I’ve talked about Kichijōji many times before. Check out some of my articles here.
[viii] See my article about Haneda here.
[ix] I use the term “meaning” in the loosest of possible senses.
[x] We’ve seen references to “red rivers” many times before, but this one comes to mind first.
[xi] 手離れる出 ta banareru de seems pretty cryptic to me, but it seems to mean “the outflowing [where the river] lets hands go.” In Modern Japanese 手離れ tebanare means a child who doesn’t always need to hold mommy’s hand (it can also mean “completing a project”).
[xii] We’ve seen this sound change many times here at JapanThis!. The examples I like to give are modern Japanese variants さむい samui vs さぶい sabui (cold) and さみしい samishii vs さびしい sabishii (lonely).
[xiii] This kami’s name means something like the “His Majesty, Spirit of the Great Country.”
[xv] Today, the Tōkyō-side of the river, in Setagaya, there is a postal code 玉川. The Kanagawa-side does not have any postal codes with this name that I know of but buildings and businesses absolutely use it. That said, Kanagawa isn’t Tōkyō so I’m not covering it for this blog.

The Kanda River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers, Travel in Japan on July 15, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Kanda-gawa (literally, “divine fields river,” but actually “river in Kanda”)[i]

Hajiribashi, a concrete arched bridge crossing the Kanda River near Ochanomizu Station.  If you eliminate the train station and modern buildings, this a typical Edo Period river setting.  The bridge itself is not much to look at now, but it was built after the Great Kanto Earthquake which river travel was still common. Such bridges were designed to be viewed from below by boats passing underneath them.

Hajiribashi, a concrete arched bridge crossing the Kanda River near Ochanomizu Station.
If you eliminate the train station and modern buildings, this a typical Edo Period river setting.


The name 神田 Kanda is one of the oldest place names in Edo-Tōkyō and believe it or not, 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River is not that old at all. Well, most of the river isn’t. Well, part of it might be.

Well, it’s complicated.

In short, after doing this research, I’ve realized I have to make a separate article about the area called 神田 Kanda – and by that, I mean just etymology. So I will write about that in the future – and I promise not to put it off too long. But let’s just deal with the river for the time being, mkay?


Let’s Look at the Kanji



ta, -da

rice paddies

kawa, -gawa



This river is manmade. So the etymology seems to be clear. At the beginning of the Edo Period, in the 神保町 Jinbō-chō area there was a small waterway that cut through a hilly are called 神田山 Kandayama Mt. Kanda. It’s said that since this area in general was called 神田 Kanda[ii] the original waterway was then called 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River.

If you only wanted to know the etymology of the river, you can stop reading here. From this point on it’s going to turn into a crazy – possibly boring – river mess. If you’re a JapanThis! masochist, then by all means, read on. You may actually enjoy this.




A view of Hajiribashi when it was new. The bridge itself is not much to look at now, but in the 1920’s it was new and river travel was still common. Such bridges were designed to be viewed from below by boats passing underneath them (or without tall buildings in the background).


Where to Start??

Up until now, every river we have looked at was at some point a naturally occurring river. The Kanda River is quite different from those rivers. There was a time within recorded history that the Kanda River never existed. Though, a portion of it was once a natural tributary of a long vanished inlet of Edo Bay, it is, in fact, a man-made river. All though it may not be on the lips of every Tōkyōite, today the river is a well-recognized part of the well-manicured urban landscape of the modern city.

I actually first mentioned the Kanda River back in June, 2011 in an article about Yodobashi[iii], a small bridge that crosses the Kanda River at the border of 中野区 Nakano-ku Nakano Ward and 新宿区 Shinjuku-ku Shinjuku Ward. So this is something of a little homecoming for me. I started this blog when I still lived in Nakano (lived there for about 6 years).



Yodobashi in the Taisho Era, before the Great Kanto Earfquake. The area is rustic and a in sharp contrast to the present area. Today it marks the border of Nakano and crazy-ass Shinjuku.


What is the Kanda River Today?

The modern river’s official designation is the channel of water that flows from 井之頭池 Inokashira Ike Inokashira Pond to 飯田橋 Iidabashi (literally, Iida Bridge) where it empties into the 外堀 sotobori outer moat of Edo Castle. But it’s at this junction where the river flows into a disparate network of waterways. So you could say, unofficially, that the Kanda River flows into the 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa Nihonbashi River and the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River at 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge, essentially taking the water to the Tōkyō Bay.


Wellspring of the present-day Kanda River at Inokashira Park.

Wellspring of the present-day Kanda River at Inokashira Park.


Now Let’s Talk History

As mentioned in my article on the etymology of Edo, the original 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle or 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle was not built by 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan as is often cited[iv]. In reality, a minor branch of 平家 Hei-ke the Taira clan[v] moved to the area at the end of the 11th century and built a fortified residence[vi] on a hill overlooking the sea. As was common practice for new branch families with new fiefs, they took the name of the village 江戸郷 Edo-gō as their own and they became the 平江戸氏 Taira Edo-shi Edo branch of the Taira clan[vii]. In the 12th century, the area prospered due to its proximity to the capital of the Minamoto shōguns in Kamakura. However, it seems the Edo clan didn’t do much to develop the area’s rivers[viii].

In those days, the now long gone 日比谷入江 Hibiya Irie Hibiya Inlet was a saltwater inlet used for 海苔 nori seaweed farming[ix]. There was a certain freshwater river known as 平川 Hirakawa “the wide river” which emptied into the inlet. This fresh water river originally made up part of the natural boundary between 武蔵国豊島郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province and 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara Province, Musashi Province. This fresh water tributary seems to be where the story of the Kanda River begins.


Edo Hamlet


Fast Forward a Few Centuries

By the 15th century, Japan was balls deep in the bloody, sweaty mess that was the Sengoku Period[x] and Ōta Dōkan found himself re-fortifying the Edo family’s fort in Chiyoda using water from the coastline and other small rivers with the latest moat-building technology of his day. The new and improved “Edo Fort” he built for the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan brought new channels and waterways into the village. This manipulation of water provided tactical advantages to the new fort in that food and goods could come in and there were more escape routes. There were now logical, defensible waterways. Lucky side effect, certain areas of the village were less exposed than before and local merchants and fishermen had new distribution routes and… BOOM!  Ladies and gentleman, we have a budding 城下町 jōka machi castle town[xi].

Although all of Dōkan’s efforts were pioneering and crucial in the taming of the rivers and sea and urban planning of Edo-Tōkyō, one of the most important changes to Edo’s waterways was diverting the 平川 Hirakawa the ancient “wide river” eastward into what is today called the 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa Nihonbashi River. This is critical to our story today. And the place where this new confluence occurred is actually marked by a bridge called the 神田橋 Kandabashi Kanda Bridge. The Hirakawa River doesn’t exist anymore, but a quick look at a map of Edo Castle will show you a 平川門 Hirakawa Mon Hirakawa Gate and 平川濠 Hirakawa-bori Harakawa Moat[xii]; the former, the gate that stood guard on the moat[xiii]; the latter, a vestige of the old river itself. Today, 平川見附 Hirakawa Mitsuke the bridge and fortified gate installation on the moat is a popular sightseeing spot.


Part of Edo Castle today. At the top, notice Hirakawa Gate and at the bottom right, notice the Ote Mon (main gate). They are on the same moat. That is the former Hirakawa.

Part of Edo Castle today. At the top, notice Hirakawa Gate and at the bottom right, notice the Ote Mon (main gate).
They are on the same moat. That is the former Hirakawa.
I used to generate this map. Click on the picture to find THE premiere website on Japanese Castles in English.


So, as I’ve said before – and will say again – Tokugawa Ieyasu moved into an Edo that was well fortified, strategically sound, and extremely defensible by sea and by land. Oh, and did I mention, there was a burgeoning village life, supported by fishermen, farmers, and artisans[xiv]. Between Ōta Dōkan’s time and the time Ieyasu entered Edo, a technological revolution had occurred in Japan. From Nobunaga’s rise to power on, Japanese castles began to take on the look of what we think of today when someone says “Japanese Castle.[xv]” The castles of the Tokugawa Period are based on these new advances in castle building technology and reflected the amount of luxury the ruling class could not just afford, but were expected to maintain to project their image of superiority.





OK, OK! Castles, Can We Please Get Back to the River?

Yes, of course. Sorry for getting distracted.

(But we’re probably coming back to castles)

The Tokugawa Shōgunate kept meticulous records of the changes they made to the area. The great waterworks projects were no exception. But I’m not going to get into every change they made. It’s so boring it’s unreal. So let’s just look at some of the major changes and what I think are the takeaways of what created the Kanda River.

Since I got distracted, let’s go back to the beginning.The beginning of the story is 1456-1457, when Ōta Dōkan began manipulating waterways to build moats for his pre-cursor to Edo Castle – though work on the moats most likely preceded construction of the fortress, so we might say 1455-1457. In 1486, Dōkan was assassinated and in 1524 the 江戸合戦 Edo Gassen Battle of Edo saw the rise of influence of the 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi and the decline of the Ōta and Uesugi. This meant that the fortifications in 千代田 Chiyoda[xvi] (the area where the Sengoku forts where built and the fields around them) were abandoned and lay fallow for almost 70 years[xvii].

In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu transferred his clan and top retainers to Edo and began modernizing the old Sengoku Period fortifications of the Edo and Ōta. He cautiously applied some of the latest castle building technology following the examples of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It’s said that the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate was one of the first construction project undertaken and this required crossing an existing moat – one affiliated with the later Kanda Aqueduct/Hirakawa.

The Ote-mon (main gate) at the time of the collapse of the shogunate.

The Ote-mon (main gate) after the Meiji Coup.


1603 is the watershed moment. Ieyasu is named 征夷大将軍 seii tai-shōgun shōgun and is the effective military ruler of Japan. From this point, the real history of the Kanda River begins. In 1604, Nihonbashi is built and the 5 Great Highways of Edo are defined. Strict entry & exit points by land and by river are laid out in order to preserve the new Tokugawa hegemony. Edo’s waterways are no longer “just Edo waterways;” they are tactical routes, trade routes, and a means of regulating nature for the protection of the commoners who lived along the rivers and were, essentially, part of the city’s infrastructure. In short, the rivers of Edo became a stabilizing mechanism for the shōgun’s capital.


Hirakawa Gate when Edo Castle still had a tenshukaku (that tower thingy).

The Ote-mon (main gate) when Edo Castle still had a tenshukaku (that tower thingy). Tokugawa Power! Activate! This is where the name Otemachi comes from.


From 1616 to 1620, during the reign of 2nd shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada, something really resembling a “Kanda River” in a modern sense came in to existence. This is when the 神田山 Kandayama “Kanda Mountain”[xviii] was cut through and the Kanda River and Nihonbashi River became 2 discrete waterways. Kanda and Ryōgoku began to take on unique personalities at this time.

Colorized photo of the Hirakawa Gate. Check out how bad ass the castle was. Truly something to behold.

Colorized photo of the Hirakawa Gate.
Check out how bad ass the castle was. Truly something to behold.


In 1657, disaster struck on a colossal scale. The 明暦大家 Meireki Fire[xix] ripped through the city destroying well over half of the metropolis[xx]. Although city planning was essential from the beginning, the shōgunate hadn’t anticipated the rapid growth that accompanied their sankin-kōtai policy and just the economic stability brought on by… um, stability in general.



Edo Castle was a city within a city, When the main keep burned down, budgets and policies were reconsidered.


In part of the rebuilding efforts after the Meireki Fire, from 1659-1661 various waterways in Edo were widened and more open space along the rivers was added. Edo grew so rapidly after the arrival of the Tokugawa, that the city had become a firetrap[xxi].



Ryogoku Bridge today


By some accounts, 60%-70% may have be burnt to the ground. Given the relative clean slate available to the shōgunate after this particular conflagration, certain rivers were designated as firebreaks and widened to keep fires localized[xxii]. It’s at this time that the Kanda River was dramatically widened – most notably, at the confluence of the Kanda River and Ryōgoku River, the 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge was built. Even today, the expanse of the river here is something to see, but in the Edo Period, with no buildings over 2 stories, it was clearly a sight to behold. Soon the area became famous for a dazzling annual fireworks display in the summer[xxiii]. Some of the most iconic 浮世絵 ukiyo-e “scenes of the transient world” come from this area. The 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum is located in this area… for obvious reasons.


From its spring in Inokashira Park, the Kanda river begins its exit from the well.  Ganbare, Kanda-chan!

From its spring in Inokashira Park, the Kanda river begins its exit from the well.
Ganbare, Kanda-chan!


As I mentioned before, the official headwaters are 井之頭池 Inokashira Ike Inokashira Lake, but the river has no officially designated end point but it’s fairly certain that it ultimately empties into Tōkyō Bay. Traditionally it ends at 飯田橋 Iidabashi. The reason there’s no official ending point is because the Kanda River empties into a few rivers and drainage channels along the way before it ultimately fizzles out into the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River at 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge. If you’ve been following this series, you’ll probably be aware that the names and courses of these rivers have been changing over time and that some stretches of one river may have had multiple names depending on the area. So yeah… welcome back to the Confus-o-dome.

Thanks to the Showa Era, this is the Iidamachi Bridge (Iidabashi).  Gross.

Thanks to the Showa Era, this is the Iidamachi Bridge (Iidabashi).

The Kanda River’s Legacy

The man-made Edo Era waterway that flowed from Inokashira Pond was called the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui. Longtime readers should know what a 上水 jōsui is. But just a refresher, a jōsui is a conduit of “imported” water. This water flowed from 三鷹 Mitaka[xxiv] to Edo Castle; it also supplied drinking water to the daimyō mansions that lined its course.


The creation of the Kanda River. (by the way, this is the worst info-graphic ever)

The creation of the Kanda River in Chiyoda from the Hibiya Inlet.

The Kanda Jōsui is considered the first real aqueduct system in Japan. Before I mentioned the technological revolution in castle construction, right? Well, the Sengoku Period began stabilizing and yes, castle building was a status thing. But the distribution of water and water management showed one of the greatest advances in urban planning and administration that Japan had seen in centuries. This is why shōgunate’s founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was such a bad ass. The dude could lead an army here or there, but he had ideas about civil administration and surrounded himself with people who could advise him on these things. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were essentially one-trick-ponies who couldn’t really get out of the 戦国病気 Sengoku Byōki “Sengoku Rut.”[xxv] Ieyasu, also a product of that generation, realized that infrastructure reinforced military supremacy and brought economic stability[xxvi].


The Kanda Aqueduct

The Kanda Aqueduct

Admittedly, it’s not that exciting or cool, but the availability of clean drinking water and disposal of dirty water should never be underestimated in the study of any ancient or pre-modern city[xxvii].

The capital of the Tokugawa shōguns quickly became the biggest city in Japan and eventually the most populous city in the world. Clean water and sewerage undeniably played a part in this. But soon the Kanda Jōsui wasn’t enough. That said, it was the main source of drinking water for Edo Castle during the Edo Period.

Even if it was inadequate to supply the entire sprawling capital, Kanda Jōsui was such a successful project that it begot 6 more major waterworks in Edo, all of which benefited daimyō, samurai, and the commoner population. Of course, this technology spread throughout the realm, but for short while Edo boasted one of the most unique water infrastructures in Japan.




A Final Note

If you’re up for an interesting bike ride, a 2010 blog post at Metropolis suggests starting at the mouth of the river and riding upstream to Inokashira Pond. When the temperature starts to come down, I may give this a go myself. There are loads of spots, many covered in JapanThis!, along the course of the river, so it should be fascinating.




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[i] I know that’s not the kind of helpful explanation that will bring closure to any of the etymology fans out there.
[ii] As I said, I’m gonna revisit this topic again.
[iii] Any relation to ヨドバシカメラ Yodobashi Camera? Why, yes there is. Thank you for asking.
[iv] And calling Dōkan’s fortifications a “castle” is also a debatable point. I’ve come to prefer the term “well-moated fort.” I came up with that term all on my own… right now. Thank you very much.
[v] If you don’t know who the Taira clan is… wow. OK, here you go.
[vi] Also, as mentioned in my article on What does Edo mean?, the coastal area is littered with 古墳 kofun burial mounds and it’s clear from the archaeology that the area has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. It’s highly doubtful the Edo clan was the first strongmen to seize upon this highly defensible, coastal plateau – they are the noblest recorded family, though.
[vii] Even though other temples and villages in the area are mentioned as far back as the Heian Period, it’s seems like the name Edo itself doesn’t actually appear in any records until the Kamakura Period.
[viii] In fact the original Edo “Castle” was probably just a 出城 dejiro satellite fort, since the Edo clan seemed to have their main residence in 喜多見 Kitami in present 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward.
[ix] I have an article about Hibiya.
[x] And while this may sound like a gratuitous reference to sex on the rag, this is actually a legitimate, historical term. Ask any historian of Pre-Modern Japan. They’ll tell you. Just ask. Seriously.
[xi] Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I said “budding.” When we say “castle” and “castle town” today we are usually referring to a construct of the far more stable Azuchi-Momoyama Period (ie; essentially the end of the Sengoku Period).
[xii] On Edo Era maps these may be listed with honorifics as 平川御門 Hirakawa Go-Mon Hirakawa Gate and 平川御堀 Hirakawa O-Hori Hirakawa Moat, respectively.
[xiii] Interestingly, some people think the radius and extent of Ōta Dōkan’s moats was the result of him not having a fucking clue what he was doing. His initial “improvements” lead to more flooding and so he continually modified his plans, diverting rivers away from the castle and the villages by extending them further and further out. Thus part of the sprawling nature of Edo Castle may have been due to stop-gap measures employed by Dōkan.
[xiv] Yes, I did.
[xv] This is as different as when we use the Latin words castrum to describe a Roman military camp/walled town and a castellum a walled fortification of Late Antiquity. The transformation is truly dramatic.
[xvi] You can see my article on Chiyoda here.
[xvii] The castle itself was pretty minor and was most likely not affected by the Late Hōjō efforts to refortify the Edo area from 1583 on.
[xviii] Kandayama was located in present day 駿河台 Surugadai.
[xix] “What’s the Meireki Fire?” you ask. There’s an article for that.
[xx] By some accounts, 70% of the city may have been destroyed.
[xxi] This didn’t change until the reconstruction of the city after WWII (or, some may argue that it didn’t change until the 1960’s and that the city just got lucky with no major conflagrations in the interim).
[xxii] In theory…
[xxiii] People today love fireworks. Just imagine what people with no video, no cameras, and no Perfume must have thought of these theatrical celebrations of summer.
[xxiv] Essentially, present-day Kichijōji.
[xxv] Again, my word. I just made it up now. And yes, I’m just baiting Sengoku lovers. Actually, I like Nobunaga, too.
[xxvi] And far more importantly, put his family in a seemingly endless position as hereditary top of the food chain. Hmmmmmmmmmm…
[xxvii] And you probably never think about where your water comes from or how it gets to your house and where it all goes afterwards, but it works, right? That’s why you can live there.

What does Kichijoji mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 1, 2013 at 2:40 am

Kichijōji  (Temple of the Lucky Omens)

You can take good pictures at Kichijoji, but you can't take good pictures of Kichijoji. These kind of streets go on and on and so does the awesomeness.  Trying to get lost in Kichijoji is how you play the game.

You can take good pictures at Kichijoji, but you can’t take good pictures of Kichijoji.
These kind of streets go on and on and so does the awesomeness.
Trying to get lost in Kichijoji is how you play the game.



OK, my friends…

This is a bit of a weird one.

The place name of Kichijōji means “Temple of Auspicious Omens.”

It’s a temple’s name and yet….  there is no temple of that name here.

What could have possibly happened?


Most people enter the park this way because this is one of the closest entrances to the station. The dark portion on the left are the trees of the park, so you walk from the elevated street level down into the park. It's a fantastic way to enter a park.

Most people enter the park this way because this is one of the closest entrances to the station.
The dark portion on the left are the trees of the park, so you walk from the elevated street level down into the park.
It’s a fantastic way to enter a park.
But topside, there are many shops serving all kinds of good food for you to eat before you go into the park and as you leave the park.


The name of the temple supposedly dates back to 1458.

When the Sengoku Era warlord, Ōta Dōkan, came into Edo and began expanding Chiyoda Castle[i], he put a few temples and shrines on the premises. One of the temples he included was 吉祥寺 Kichijō-ji Temple of the Lucky Omens[ii]. He must have liked the kanji 吉 kichi/yoshi because he also included 日枝神社 Hie Jinja Hie Shrine which was actually a branch shrine of the Kyōto shrine called 日吉神社 Hiyoshi Jinja Hiyoshi Shrine which includes the same character. Hie Shrine still exists in Akasaka.

The story goes that when Ōta Dōkan was fortifying his estate and they were digging the moats, they pulled some water from a well near the 和田倉 Wadakura Mon Wadakura Gate. They found 金印 kin’in a gold stamper inscribed with the words 吉祥増上 kichijō zōjō. Kichijō means “auspicious” or “lucky omen” and so they chose the first word as the name of the temple. The second word, zōjō, is identical to the zōjō of Zōjō-ji, the Tokugawa funerary temple in Shiba. Not sure if there’s a connection, but it’s intriguing[iii]. Anyhoo, the original temple was built in 西之丸 Nishi no Maru the west enclosure of Edo Castle[iv].

When I said gold stamper, I meant something like this.

When I said gold stamper, I meant something like this.

Reversed for her pleasure.

This is what was supposedly written on the gold stamper.
Reversed for her pleasure.

In 1590, the 太閤 taikō, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, transferred Tokugawa Ieyasu to Edo Castle. In 1591, during his first expansion and rebuilding phase, Ieyasu for reasons that are not clear[v], moved Kichijō-ji temple near present day 水道橋  Suidōbashi (near Tōkyō Dome) in 文京区 Bunkyō-ku Bunkyō Ward.

As I’ve mentioned before, in old Japan, towns would spring up around temples. These towns were called 門前町 monzen-chō towns in front of the gate[vi]. So, near Suidōbashi a town called 吉祥寺門前町 Kichijōji Monzen-chō popped up. The town had a pretty sweet location near the river and main water supply of Edo.

A typical Monzencho.

A typical Monzencho.



Then Some Shit Went Down

・In 1657, the Meireki Fire happened.
・Edo was burnt to shit.
・Kichijō-ji itself was burnt to shit.
・The town of Kichijōji Monzen-chō was burnt to shit.

The Meireki Conflagration lasted 3 days and literally incinerated about 70% of Edo. More than 100,000 lives were lost. It's easy to look at this as an historical event with dispassionate eyes. But this was such a large scale tragedy that it permanently change the face of Edo-Tokyo.

The Meireki Conflagration lasted 3 days and literally incinerated about 70% of Edo.
More than 100,000 lives were lost.
It’s easy to look at this as an historical event with dispassionate eyes.
But this was such a large scale tragedy that it permanently change the face of Edo-Tokyo.


Because of its sweet-ass location, the shōgunate wanted to repurpose the land for daimyō mansions. So they offered monetary incentives to the residents of Kichijōji Monzenchō to entice them to move to 多摩郡 Tama-gun Tama County[vii]. Under the purview of some 浪士 rōshi masterless samurai, most of the community was moved to present day Kichijōji. They brought the name with them but they couldn’t bring the temple.

The shōgunate relocated the temple Kichijō-ji to nearby 本駒込 Hon-Komagome, also in modern Bunkyō Ward. The temple was rebuilt and it still stands today.

I'm not making this stuff up!!!

The main gate to Kichijo-ji in Bunkyo.
For those of you who don’t believe me, it’s clearly written right there on the stone pillar!

The modern temple isn't much to look at, but they're a pretty major land holder in Tokyo. That's prime real estate, my friend.

The modern temple isn’t much to look at, but they’re a pretty major land holder in Tokyo.
That’s prime real estate, my friend.


These days, it’s not a well-known temple around Tōkyō. Most people have no idea that “the real Kichijōji” is here. But the local residents definitely know about it. And the temple cares for a decent sized cemetery, which includes the grave of Ninomiya Sontoku, an Edo Period “peasant economist” dude whom I’ve never heard of, but I’ve seen countless statues and representations of him all over the place. Never realized who he was until today. Wow. Ya learn something every day, huh?


Little Edo Period boy with a backpack reading while walking = Ninomiya Sontoku. An ubiquitous image around Japan.

Little Edo Period boy with a backpack reading while walking = Ninomiya Sontoku.
An ubiquitous image around Japan.

Eventually, the little boy reading a book while walking died.

Eventually, the little boy reading a book while walking died.
This is his grave.

Of course, today when you say Kichijōji, everyone thinks of the vibrant city in Mitaka famous for reasonable shopping, a quasi-Bohemian lifestyle, and the fabulous 井ノ頭公園 Inokashira Park[viii]. But we know better now, don’t we? The real Kichijō-ji is in central Tōkyō and that famous Kichijōji is a freaking poseur. And now you’re armed with enough useless trivia about this subject to shock and bore Japanese people to pieces at parties[ix].

I haven’t been to Kichijōji in about 2 years. I used to live in Nakano and was so easy to get there that I often headed out that way just to relax and explore the town. Writing this has made me feel a little nostalgic for the area and all the time I spent there. May have to head out there again soon[x].

This turned up in a random Google search for Kichijoji. No complaints here.

This turned up in a random Google search for Kichijoji. 




[i] Also known as Edo Castle, ie; the present Imperial Palace.

[ii] Henceforth, I shall refer to the town as Kichijōji and the temple as Kichijō-ji.

[iii] Maybe someone who knows more about Japanese Buddhism in the early modern era could help me out here. Yoroshiku ne!

[iv] If you’re a long time reader of Japan This, you’ll know what a maru is. If you’re new to here, you might want to see my article on Marunouchi. You might also want to check out the explanation at and his Edo Castle Project – which is totally bad ass. Japanese Castle Explorer also has a nice piece on Edo Castle.

[v] My guess is expanding the castle was a priority and he probably saw having temples and shrines on the castle grounds as security risks. The reigns of the first 3 shōguns weren’t the most stable of times.

[vi] Literally 門前 monzen in front of the gate  町 chō town. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.

[vii] Pronounced /ˈist ˈbʌtfʌk / for you linguistics nerds.

[viii] And yes, some people think of the Studio Ghibili Museum which we’re not going to talk about. Sorry, Ghibili nerds.

[ix] Kind of like my party trick of listing all 15 Tokugawa shōguns in order. And my new party trick of listing their posthumous names in order after that for added effect.

[x] But definitely not to see the Ghibili Museum.

What does Inokashira mean?

In Japanese History on June 28, 2013 at 3:10 am

Inokashira (Well’s Head, but more at Top of the Well – a poetic way to say “source of water”)

Inokashira Park in the day time.

Inokashira Park in the day time.

This place name has some written variants:





They are all read the same way.

Also there is some dispute over the correct pronunciation of the name. The name is pronounced Inogashira or Inokashira and people who prefer one pronunciation will ardently defend their use of it by saying that the other one is just stupid. But I’m a foreigner and a non-native speaker, so I don’t fucking give a shit. Both pronunciations are perfectly acceptable[i].



Alright, now that we’re one F bomb deep,
I think we’re ready to get started.

The area that is called 井之頭 Inogashira[ii] derives its name from the lake, 井ノ頭池 Inogashira Ike Inokashira Pond. On a falconry outing to the Mitaka area for the first time, the 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, is alleged to have said something along the lines of 「ほら此処は井之頭じゃhora koko wa i no kashira ja “Yo, this is where the water comes from, homie.”

Inokashira Lake is the source of the Kanda River.

Inokashira Lake is the source of the Kanda River.

What the hell was he talking about?

Well[iii], before the Tokugawa came, Edo was a tiny coastal town. With the establishment of the shōgunate and the establishment of Edo residences for all of the lords across Japan, water came into short supply. One of the primary sources of water for Edo Castle was Inokashira lake, located some 10 km outside of Tōkyō in modern Mitaka (to be specific, Kichijōji). Whether the story of Iemitsu visiting the lake for the first time and naming the well is true or not, the fact was that this lake which had natural springs in it was providing fresh water to the shōgunal residence and providing water to the other daimyō (feudal lords) living in the yamanote. Soon that waterway was diverted to other samurai families and later to the general populace of Edo in general.

So, whether Iemitsu really named the lake or not doesn’t really matter (and I totally made up the quote). Maybe the engineering team who came in and started the building project came up with the name and Iemitsu got credited for it. What does matter is that it demonstrates how massive the city of Edo had become in a short time and that the shōgunate had the wherewithal to increase the water supply in a timely manner. It was mostly under Tokugawa Iemitsu’s watch that these changes took place.

By the way, some of the walking paths through the park were formally part of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tama River Aqueduct. They’re labeled in Japanese, but I don’t think there’s anything in English. Let me know if you’ve seen English signs.

There is another story about the lake. As the area was used for falconry by the Go-sanke, the local villagers asked Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the vice-shōgun, and lord of Mito if they could also use the water for drinking. Mitsukuni said, “Go ahead, I don’t give a shit.” The people were happy and they built a special stairway to thank him. The stairway can still be seen in the park.

Anyways, to today’s modern Tōkyōite the name is associated with the park in Kichijōji which is next to Mitaka. There is also a train line that runs from Shibuya to Kichijōji called the Inokashira Line[iv].



Some guy’s blog about the extant portions of the Tamagawa Jousui (Japanese only):
The first pix are in Inokashira Park.




[i] I would say the 江戸っ子 Edokko native Tōkyōites of 2 generations or more prefer “ga” over “ka” and that it is a dialect thing, but I’ve been told by one or two people who qualify as Eddoko that it’s not. I don’t know who to believe and at this point, it doesn’t matter. Dialects change. Personally, I use “ga” because it’s easier to say.

[ii] Or Inokashira.

[iii] Not a pun, really, I swear.

[iv] But many locals will pronounce it Inogashira.

Why is Kōenji called Kōenji?

In Japanese History on April 12, 2013 at 1:45 am

Kōenji  (High Circle Temple)



Kōenji is funky town in Suginami Ward next to Nakano. Like Nakano, it’s got everything. It’s residential and convenient, but you have plenty of places for shopping and eating and drinking and whoring.

The name seems pretty straight forward. Any place name that ends with (ji/tera) is named after a temple. Lots of those, as you can imagine. And yes, Kōenji is named after a temple.

The west part of Tōkyō – Takadanobaba, Nakano, Kōenji, Mitaka, Kichijōji, etc. – was pretty fucking rural in the Edo Period. It was a good place for bored samurai to practice various 武術 bujutsu martial arts. This particular area was well known for falconry which was what Japanese nobility did for fun because they didn’t have video games yet and life was pretty boring. Some of the Tokugawa shōguns and daimyō doing alternative attendance service came out here for falconry.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and a falcon.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and a falcon.

Wait! What the Fuck is Falconry?

In Japanese, it’s called 鷹狩 taka-gari (falcon hunting). It’s a kind of “game” by which you hunt birds or other animals with a trained bird of prey. Since getting trained birds of prey was expensive, it was a “game” that was pretty much restricted to the nobility. It sounds fucking boring as hell to me, but all the rich daimyō loved this shit.

Wait, if they loved it so much, why do you never see it much in samurai movies these days?  Because… well, it was probably boring as hell. What do you expect? These people didn’t have smartphones, purikura, bukkake, and bit torrents yet. Making a bad ass bird go catch another bird for you might be cool if you’ve never seen the internet.


The temple

Anyways, back to Kōenji.

In the mid-1550’s there was a temple established on a hill in the area. The name of the temple was (and still is) 宿鳳山高円寺 Shukuhōzan Kōenji*, but most people just call it Kōenji.  The story goes that Tokugawa Iemitsu (the 3rd Tokugawa shōgun) stopped by this temple often whilst getting his falconry on in the area. In fact, the planting of a few trees on the premises are attributed to him (a topic for another time).

It’s said that originally, the area had the name 小沢 Ozawa “little creek,” but after the shōgun became a patron of the temple, the temple’s prestige rose and the area naturally took on the name of the temple.

Koenji Awa Odori

Koenji Awa Odori

On last note, Kōenji is famous for a summer festival that features a kind of dances called 阿波踊りAwa Odori. This traditional dance comes from Tokushima (formerly 阿波国 Awa no Kuni). I have a certain friend who might slit my throat – with good justification – if I didn’t mention that this dance is not Kōenji’s local dance. It’s just a way for Tōkyō people to enjoy this traditional dance. Anyways, real 阿波踊り Awa Odori comes from Tokushima and if you meet a person from Tokushima and you say that, you may earn a friend for life. Awa Odori is beautiful and the music is cool and the costumes are beautiful. If you can’t see itin Tokushima, try it in Kōenji.

*鳳山 is an interesting word itself. 鳳 ōtori refers to a kind of mythological bird of prey that can turn into a fish. It’s not a phoenix, but if you think of it as a phoenix, it makes sense. This area was famous for bad ass birds.

Yodobashi – A Haunted Bridge in Nakano-Sakaue?

In Japanese History on June 8, 2011 at 12:00 am

The other day, I was walking home from Shinjuku. I walked on the Ōmekaidō towards Nakano and I crossed the Kanda River. The area is the border of Shinjuku Ward and Nakano Ward (the area is called 中野坂上 Nakano Sakaue). I noticed a small sign and became curious.


The sign on the modern bridge.

The sign said 淀橋 Yodobashi and talked about the history of the bridge. There’s a famous electronics shop called Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku so I got curious and decided to check out the sign.

Well, it turns out that in the Edo Period this area of the Ōmekaidō west of the Kanda river was part of 淀橋村 Yodobashi Mura (Yodobashi Village).

Yodobashi Village Nakano Sakaue Edo Period

Yodobashi Village as it looked in the Edo Period. Seems like a pretty lively place.

Supposedly, the 3rd Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu named this area.

The bridge used to be called 姿見ずの橋 Sugata-mizu no Hashi (Invisible Figures Bridge). The reason was that in this area there was a legend that a certain Suzuki Kūrō (1371-1440) – the so-called “Tycoon of Nakano” – who hid his vast fortunes underground here. While burying his treasure, he became paranoid that the people helping him dig and carry the money might try to come back to steal his money. So, he killed the dudes who helped him bury it and threw their corpses into the river. People in the town saw a group of figures (姿) go over the bridge, but only one figure (姿) came back. So they named it the “Invisible Figures Bridge” (I guess this is a kind of 15th century Japanese joke…)

Suzuki Kuro Yodobashi Nakano-sakaue Shinjuku

“Hey don’t kill me, bro! You asked me to help you carry all this shit out here and….”

The Tokugawa shōguns used to make a long journey from Edo Castle to Mitaka for falconry. One time, Iemitsu and his entourage rested their horses by the bridge and heard the local story about the bridge’s inauspicious name. He thought it was an unlucky name for the bridge. The view of the river crossing reminded him of the 淀川 Yodogawa (Yodo River) in Kyōto and so he commanded the people to name the bridge 淀橋 Yodobashi (Yodo Bridge).

Of course, it was a great honor for the people to have the shōgun rename their bridge, so they started to call their town Yodobashi. The famous electronics store, Yodobashi Camera began in the area that is now Shinjuku Nishiguchi. The name of the store and area comes from this bridge.

Yodobashi Nakano Shinjuku 1960's Tokyo

Yodobashi Bridge in the 1960’s.

Actually this area made up a ward called 淀橋区 Yodobashi-ku, but was merged with 四谷区 Yotsuya-ku in the 1947 restructuring into the 23 Special Wards. The merged area became present day 新宿区 Shinjuku-ku.

Yodobashi Bridge Nakano Shinjuku 2011

View from Yodobashi Bridge Today

UPDATE: To learn more about Shinjuku, click here for What does Shinjuku mean?

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