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What does Kanda mean?

In #rivered, Japanese History, Travel in Japan on August 23, 2017 at 5:54 am

Kanda (holy rice paddies, Batman!)

What does Kanda mean?
(Short Version)

神田 Kanda means something like “holy rice field” or “field of the gods.” You can find places all over Japan that use the same characters (with various pronunciations) that derive from this meaning. In short, these place names are references to special agricultural spaces which originally produced food for shrines connected to the imperial court during the Nara Period. These holy fields were technically tax exempt as they usually had to only send the first harvest to the court. The rest was profit. The court then used the produce as currency to fund the maintenance of the shrines they deemed most important. In the case of Edo-Tōkyō, this place name is generally associated with a religious complex called 神田明神 Kanda Myōjin Kanda Shrine[i].

There are three 神 kami deities[ii] enshrined at Kanda Myōjin. All three are earthly kami[iii], though the first two enshrinements are gods included in the earliest recorded creation and foundation myths. The third and final enshrinement was so beloved by locals in Kantō (Eastern Japan) that he subsumed the popularity of the original kami until the Meiji Coup in 1868[iv].

Ōkuninushi no Mikoto

An earthly kami who handed over control of the world to the heavenly kami who were ancestors of the imperial family and the original court. He was blended with a Buddhist kami, Daitokuten.

Ōnamuchi no Mikoto

This kami, who may or may not be the same as Ōkuninushi, was involved in the transfer of earthly lands to the control of the imperial family.

Taira no Masakado no Mikoto

A Kantō-based samurai who revolted against the imperial family in the 900’s. His attempt to secede failed, but the locals saw him as a hero defending the east’s cultural difference from the west[v]. After the Meiji Coup, he was de-enshrined, only to be re-enshrined after WWII[vi].



Ōkuninushi, Ōnamuchi, Daikokuten – many names, basically the same kami.

What does Kanda mean?
(Hardcore Version)

Today we’re looking at a place name that I’ve wanted to write about since 2013. At that time, my pieces were more short form blog posts. Obviously, things have gotten more long form and “article-like” since then, yet every time I went back to visit the subject of Kanda, it just seemed too convoluted. I couldn’t figure out a way to present the material in a coherent way. Long time readers will remember when I “got riverred” doing a series on seven great waterways of Edo[vii]. I didn’t want that to happen again.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that as far as place names go, Kanda seems as superficially straightforward as they come. However, the truth is complex as fuck. It requires a solid knowledge of geography – not just of Edo-Tōkyō, but all of Japan. It also requires a strong understanding of Japanese mythology[viii], religion[ix], and the economic system of the Nara Period[x].

I tried to keep things concise, but after 11 pages of text, it became clear that I should divide the topic into two parts. Even after that, the article got longer and longer. Long time readers will know what you’re in store for. New readers, welcome aboard. Help us batten down the hatches. Every article on JapanThis! sails through rough waters.

Anyhoo, let’s get back to the topic at hand (and be prepared for lots of tables).

kanda map
Where is Kanda?

First of all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with this: in Tōkyō today there is no official place name Kanda. After WWII, in 1947 the former 神田区 Kanda-ku Kanda Ward and 麹町区 Kōjimachi-ku Kōjimachi Ward were combined to make modern 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward. Now, don’t think Kanda just disappeared off the map completely. A few postal addresses actually still exist. For example, 外神田 Soto-Kanda is where 秋葉原駅 Akihabara Eki Akihabara Station is located, and 神田錦町 Kanda Nishiki-chō Kanda Nishiki Town is still part of 日本橋 Nihonbashi.

But in short, the area from modern 大手町 Ōtemachi to 駿河台 Surugadai (originally 神田山 Kanda-yama Mt. Kanda)[xi] was called 神田 Kanda in general. This changed over the centuries, but for our purposes today, this is good enough. That was Kanda and you can see it originally referred to a large and relatively vague area[xii].

kanda myojin mountain side

Apparently, the view from Kanda Shrine used to be pretty good and this stairway used to be hella effed up. I’m not sure what part of the shrine this depicts, but I guess it’s from the opposite point of view of Hokusai’s painting posted above.

This is a very informal rule of thumb, but if I look at a modern map, I tend to think of Kanda as the area stretching from Kanda Station to Akihabara Station to Ochanomizu Station. However, prior to the Edo Period, the area from 大手町 Ōtemachi[xiii] to Kanda Station could be considered Kanda. What changed was the building of the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui Kanda Aqueduct. With that, the name Kanda moved farther away from the castle along the waterway into the generic area of Tōkyō that we call Kanda today.

Further Reading:



Main gate of Kanda Shrine. Impressive.

So, what the hell does Kanda mean?

Well, I already told you at the beginning of this article. Are you saying that isn’t enough? Are you saying you want more? Are you a glutton for this shit?

Of course, you are.
You wouldn’t have read this far if you weren’t.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves, cuz we’re about to get knee deep in all kinds of muck and mire. This is a messy swamp of history, mythology, and linguistics. You ready to hold your nose and get down and dirty?

If that’s a yes, then let’s do this.


First, Let’s Look at some Kanji

kami, shin/-jin

deity (kami)

ta/da, den

planted field (usually rice)


bright, enlightened; fucking obvious

miya, –

divine descendant of a heavenly kami; relative of the imperial family; imperial prince/princess

na, mei

name; well known; apparent/obvious

And, Here are 2 Words Ya Best Know, Son.

kanda, shinden

literally, “god field”

mita, o-den

literally, “honorable field” – nuance is more at “field owned by a ruler”[xv] or “field owned by a god”


Now, Let’s Look at a Brief History of the Shrine

OK, so… I know this is gonna be a little annoying, but bear with me a bit more on the timeline. We need some historical framework before we can go any farther. Also, it will be good to have all of these charts to refer back some time… you know, when you need to refer back them for some reason…

Nara Period

An ancient court clan from 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province establishes a shrine in 武蔵国豊嶋郡芝崎村 Musashi no Kuni Shibazaki Mura Shibazaki Village, Mushashi Province. The shrine is called 神田ノ宮 Kanda no Miya Kanda Shrine and by orders of the imperial court in 平城京 Heijō-kyō[xvi], it is responsible for providing rice to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine.

Heian Period

Taira no Masakado, a belligerent Kantō-based samurai (east), takes over hostile fiefs on his borders. When the imperial court (west) demands submission, he says “fuck no!” and goes rogue. Samurai armies loyal to the imperial court in Kyōto (west), are ordered to suppress his rebellion.

Heian Period

Masakado is killed in battle. His in-house biographers portray him as a hero of the Kantō region and Eastern Japan[xvii]. According to legend, Masakado’s head flies back to the East and rests at Shibazaki Village where a burial mound is made for him near Kanda no Miya.

Kamakura Period
(end of Heian Period)

源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo is appointed 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun shogun[xviii] and becomes the first samurai government to rule Japan (thus achieving what Masakado couldn’t). He rules safely (but briefly[xix]) from his capital in Kamakura (also in Kantō). The system of court control over shrines and their fields is disrupted.

End of Kamakura Period

Masakado is enshrined at Kanda no Miya as a kind of local hero, he soon becomes the de factō principal kami[xx]. It’s around this time Shibazaki Village is renamed Kanda Village.

Sengoku Period

徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu formally takes control of Edo Castle.

Edo Period

Tokugawa Ieyasu is granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun shōgun. When 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle is expanded in 1603, Kanda no Miya is moved to the 神田台 Kanda-dai Kanda Plateau in order to make room for the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon the grand entrance of the castle and a new neighborhood of samurai and high-ranking merchants and artisans in 大手町 Ōtemachi, literally “main gate town.” Because of mysterious deaths and superstitions surrounding Masakado’s burial mound, his enshrinement at Kanda no Miya is considered adequate for the protection of Edo, but the burial mound is left in sitū so as not to disturb his spirit, in hopes that he will protect the castle and the samurai who come and go through the main gate, including the shōgun himself. Also, 江戸神社 Edo Jinja Edo Shrine, which was located on the castle grounds since the time of 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan, is moved to the shrine precincts[xxi].

Edo Period

The shrine is moved to its current location when the Tokugawa Shōgunate reorganized parts of the city. Although it seems very urban today, until the post-WWII period, this area was wooded and considered very 山手 yamanote high city. During the Edo Period the shrine came to be called Kanda Myōjin. The new name reflected the Buddhist philosophy of the samurai class and distanced itself from the ancient imperial court traditions.

Edo Period

The 5th shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, relocated a Confucian school next to Kanda Shrine called 湯島聖堂 Yushima Seidō Yushima Hall of Wise Men[xxii]. The shrine and temple were closely connected until 1868 when the 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzen-rei Separation of Kami and Buddhas Edict was decreed. However, Yushima Seidō still has an entrance called 明神門 Myōjin Mon Kanda Shrine Gate where people could easily come and go between the temple and shrine.

Meiji Period

Taira no Masakado was de-enshrined because he was seen as a rebel against the authority of the imperial family and he offended the sensitivities of the delicate snowflake known as the Meiji Emperor who had just moved into Edo Castle – newly renamed 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle.

Shōwa Period


Because of his local popularity and the constitutional guarantee of separation of religion and government in Article 20 of the Constitution of Japan, Masakado was re-enshrined. This move was made roughly 30 years after end of WWII, presumably because the political climate was such that the anti-imperial connection was more or less lost on the general public and the concept of a divine emperor had been lying in the trash bin of history for three decades.
kanda myojin yushima seido hokusai

In the left background, you can see Yushima Seidō and its stone walls (still extant), in the right foreground, Kanda Myōjin. Thanks, Hokusai-dono.

The Five Great Etymologies

OK, so there are 5 basic theories about the origin of the place name Kanda. All of them, except for two, are related to the shrine, Kanda Myōjin – or Kanda no Miya (as it was also known). I’m going to list the theories, and then I’m going to break them all down.


Map of Edo-Tokyo in the paleolithic era. No wonder rivers are so crucial to the development of the city.

1. The Kami no To Theory

This theory states that Kanda is a contraction of 神田 Kamida, which itself is a corruption of 神ノ戸 kami no to. The idea is based on a possible etymology of 江戸 Edo which postulates that the city got its name from 江ノ戸 e no to “door to the estuary,” a reference to the hamlet’s location on the bay[xxiii]. Proponents of this theory point at the city of 神戸 Kōbe, claiming that it derives from 神ノ戸 kami no he “door to the kami” (contracted as Kanbe or Kōbe) due the presence of 生田神社 Ikuta Jinja Ikuta Shrine[xxiv] near the bay. The original location of Kanda no Miya was very near the bay before it was moved in the Edo Period. In fact, the former place name of this area was 芝崎 Shibazaki which literally means grassy cape, a clear indication that it was on the water.

While I find the similarities between Kōbe and Edo intriguing, I’m not sure if I’m onboard with kami no to breaking down to Kanda. It’s not unimaginable[xxv], but I think there are more convincing etymologies.

ise shrin

Ise Grand Shrine

2. The Kamida Theory

This is the most straight forward hypothesis. It states the name literally derives from 神ノ田 kami no tanbo sacred rice field or rice field of the kami. As I mentioned earlier, at the time Kanda no Miya was founded, shrines were expected to send 初穂 hatsuho the first harvest[xxvi] as an offering to a major shrine associated with the imperial court. In this case, the first harvest went to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine. These fields were in an area that sits roughly between the original location of Kanda no Miya and the modern location of Kanda Shrine[xxvii]. As a phrase, 神ノ田 would be read “kami no tanbo,” but as a place name it would be written 神田kamida,” which then could easily be contracted to Kanda. There are hundreds of place names throughout Japan written with the same kanji, and while their readings may differ, the etymology is generally the same. A change from /kamida/ to /kaɴda/ is quite plausible and, surprisingly, preserves the same number of mōræ of the original[xxviii].


Michi no Omi no Mikoto, a male version of the Empress Jingū, is one of the three great war gods of Japan. The Ōtomo clan, very closely tied to the ancient imperial court, claimed descent from this particular kami.

3. The Kanda Clan Theory

This theory is related to the last one, but it gets a little more political. While the foundation of Kanda no Miya dates back to historical times, it dates back to a time when eastern Japan was a fucking backwater and records are scant to say the least. While we don’t know exactly who established the shrine, a little knowledge of Nara Period court bureaucracy may shine a bit of light on the issue.

A few high-ranking clans in the imperial court were given the title 神田宿禰 kanda no sukune lords of the fields of the kami[xxix]. Many branch families and descendants from clans that held this hereditary title eventually came to use the characters 神田 as a surname, adopting a range of regional variations, including Kanda. One of the most ancient and elite families to bear the title kanda no sukune was the 大伴氏 Ōtomo-shi Ōtomo clan from 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province[xxx]. If you remember from the beginning of the article, the original kami enshrined at Kanda no Miya were two earthly gods from Izumo who play major roles in the earliest written histories of Japan.

I’ll talk more about this clan later.


Taira no Masakado was one bad muthafucka. Sadly, his life ended without his head. Happily, his story lives on… and is pretty much all about his head.

4. The Taira no Masakado Did it Theory

Again, if you’ll refer to the list of kami enshrined here and the historical timeline, you’ll recall that in 940, a samurai by the name of Taira no Masakado was killed in battle during his uprising against the imperial court. Scholars debate the motivation for Masakado’s so-called “revolt,” but one thing is certain: the people of the Kantō Area, and the area near Edo in particular, latched on to him as a kind of folk hero. He stood up against a western court that they thought lorded power over them. According to legend, Masakado’s decapitated head was reanimated and fled the imperial court of Kyōto to return to his beloved Kantō. His spirit was then enshrined as Masakado no Taira no Mikoto. This theory states that the name Kanda is a corruption of 躯 karada corpse[xxxi]. A change from /kaɾada/ to /kaɴda/ is quite plausible and, surprisingly, preserves the same number of mōræ of the original[xxxii].


Kofun Period Fashion™

5. The Fuck It, Nobody Knows Theory

This sort of theory, like all ancient place names is a last resort when all other etymologies fail. This is the diachronic linguistics version of the God of the Gaps. In short, if we can’t prove anything with historical records and can’t come up with satisfactory hypotheses, there’s a chance that the name may be hiding in proto-history. That is to say, Kanda may be a vestige of pre-literate Japan. People superimposed kanji on locally existing place names that may reflect an unrecorded Jōmon (Emishi/Ainu) place name or an unrecorded Yayoi/Kofun period dialect. In such cases, the kanji is considered 当て字 ateji, or characters used for phonetic values rather than meaning.

show me what you got-2
So, What do I Think?

Today we have such a complicated mess, I hope you can understand why I’ve hesitated to tackle this subject for so many years. I started this article but it rapidly got out of control.

First of all, I think the first theory which relates the etymology of Kōbe and Edo to Kanda is a bit of a stretch. If anything, it illustrates a fascinating link between the naming of Kōbe[xxxiii] and Edo[xxxiv], but it doesn’t do shit to explain Kanda, in my opinion. It’s an interesting pattern, and we see many place names (and subsequent family names) in the 東北地方 Tōhoku Chihō Tōhoku Region that are clearly derived from this model[xxxv]. However, applying it to Kanda doesn’t make any sense.

Secondly, the “Fuck It, Nobody Knows” theory is one that we can’t really prove one way or the other[xxxvi]. If we had some Ainu words suggested, then maybe we could make some kind of conjecture, but I couldn’t find any ideas tossed out there. Furthermore, we have a pretty nice linguistic sandbox to play in if we combine the remaining theories.


The Sandbox

So…, we know the original name of the shrine was Kanda no Miya. This name is somewhat ambiguous. It can mean “Imperial Shrine of Kanda” or “Imperial Shrine of the Holy Fields.” I think these are absolutely related. Imperial Shrine of Kanda (by that, I mean the Kanda clan) seems to be a reference to a branch of the Ōtomo clan, while Imperial Shrine of the Holy Fields seems to be a reference to the fields required by law for the Kanda to maintain on behalf of the court to maintain Ise Grand Shrine. We also know that the Ōtomo (and therefore the Kanda) came from Izumo Province. In my mind, it can’t be a coincidence that the kami who were originally enshrined were Ōkuninushi and Ōnamuchi – the most important deities from Izumo.

I think we’re looking at a cut and dry example of the Nara Period system of establishing shrines dedicated to the imperial cult in the outlands and I think the name of the shrine clearly reflects that. I think the presence of the “holy fields” isn’t just related to that, it reinforces that imperial connection. However, after the gradual breakdown of imperial power in the East, the Kantō Area started to feel a little more autonomous.

This autonomy was writ large on the pages of history when Taira no Masakado essentially said “fuck you” to the imperial court and went to war[xxxvii].

Sure, he lost.

Sure, he was killed.

Sure, his decapitated head was put on display.

But like they say in Game of Thrones, “the North remembers.” Well, in this case, the East remembered, and they enshrined him at Kanda no Miya in the 1300’s. It’s also around this time that the area formerly called 芝崎村 Shibazaki Mura Shibazaki Village was renamed 神田村 Kanda Mura Kanda Village.

Do I think the /kaɾada/ (body) → /kaɴda/ etymology was the main reason? No. But I do think the timing of the name change from Shibazaki to Kanda and the strength of Masakado’s fame and spectral power worked its way into local lore and folk etymology. I can’t give a “hard no” to this theory, but I think it’s very much a part of the history of this area and its cultural tapestry.

hiroshige kanda myojin

One of Utagawa Hiroshige’s takes on Kanda Shrine in the Edo Period. This time, he chose to focus on a tree.

The End… or is it?

For most people, that’s about as much as you need to know about the origins of Kanda. In fact, that’s probably more than anyone needs to know. If you stop reading now, you’re probably doing yourself a favor. But for those of you with a masochistic streak, I’d like to explore a few tangents so we can tie up a few loose knots before I wrap this bitch up.

I’ll do that in part two of this article, which is pretty much complete as you’re reading this. I just need to find some pictures, proofread, and double check my facts. Anyhoo, expect me to post that in a day or two.

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to leave comments and questions down below, and if you’d like to support JapanThis! on social media or throw me a dollar or two, all the details are directly below this sentence.


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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Guided Tours





[i] The original name was 神田ノ宮 Kanda no Miya Kanda Shrine.
[ii] Deity and god are just rough translations. To learn more about what a kami is, check out this article on Wikipedia. If you already have a good understanding of how kami differ from the English words “god/goddess,” “deity,” and “spirit,” then you might want to do a little further reading.
[iii] I’m not going to get into the intricacies of Shintō cosmology, but in short, kami are generally divided into two groups: 天津神 ama tsu kami heavenly kami and 国津神 kuni tsu kami earthly kami. At the end of the 神世 Kami no Yo Age of the Gods, the heavenly deities descended to earth with a mandate from the sun goddess 天照大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami to rule over the lands of the earthly gods and all of humans that inhabited those lands, thereby establishing the Yamato clan – the imperial family.
[iv] This is something we’re gonna talk about in part two.
[v] A rivalry still very much alive in Japan today, particularly in Japanese Professional Baseball, with the Tōkyō Giants and Hanshin Tigers being the fiercest rivalry.
[vi] As I said, more about that later.
[vii] Years ago, I did a series on Edo’s rivers, which you can read here. I didn’t really understand the scope of what I was getting into and I got to a point where I literally almost quit JapanThis! completely – or at least I was ready to quit the series.
[viii] Because of a recent project, I’m getting more and more familiar with Japanese mythology.
[ix] I think I have this down to a certain degree, but I’m def not an expert.
[x] I’m gradually getting better acquainted with ancient and classical Japanese culture, but since Edo-Tōkyō is my favorite period, all of my recent studies on these three topics (mythology, religion, and ancient/classical Japan) are all strictly for improving the quality of JapanThis!.
[xi] Roughly 千代田区神田駿河台一丁目と二丁目 Chiyoda-ku Kanda-Surugadai Icchōme to Nichōme 1st and 2nd blocks of Kanda-Surugadai, Chiyoda Ward.
[xii] Long time readers will know that before the Meiji Coup in 1868, place names were quite generic. machi/-chō tended to be fixed but only referred to blocks (neighborhoods organized by social class and rank). But areas like 上野 Ueno, 麻布 Azabu, 芝 Shiba, 品川 Shinagawa, etc., were slightly ambiguous.
[xiii] Ōtemachi refers to the neighborhood of rich merchants and high ranking samurai bureaucrats that sat in front of the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon main entrance of Edo Castle.
[xiv] Don’t worry, you don’t need this word for this etymology, but if you go back to my old article about Mita, it might be helpful, since this article sheds light on the old one.
[xv] Usually the imperial court.
[xvi] Modern day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture.
[xvii] Game of Thrones fans could think of him as Rob Stark. And rather than “the North remembers,” this is “the East remembers.” Masakado became the archetype of eastern samurai, Kantō samurai in particular, overcoming the overbearing and failing imperial court in the west.
[xviii] Who is Minamoto no Yoritomo? Glad you asked!
[xix] Dude had bad luck with horses, and that bad luck finally caught up with him. The whole article is interesting, but if you’re interested Yoritomo and horses, check out the section on Ashige-zuka and the associated footnotes.
[xx] I say de factō because the locals saw Masakado as the most powerful kami of Kanda no Miya, even though he was officially 3rd in rank.
[xxi] Who is Ōta Dōkan? Maybe you should read What does Toshima mean? You might also want to learn a little about Edo Castle, by reading What does Edo mean? Oh, I almost forgot. The kami enshrined at Edo Shrine (established in 武蔵国豊嶋郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province in 702) is 建速須佐之男命 Takehaya Susano’o no Mikoto, usually shortened to Susano’o – the kami of seas and storms (and brother of the sun goddess, 天照大御神 Amaterasu Ōmikami).
[xxii] While not popular today, this is one of the few spots where you can really feel the 山手 yamanote high city atmosphere of the Edo Period. Of course, Kanda Shrine was high city, but it was always open to the public. It also banks on its popularity with the masses. Yushima Seidō shuns the masses, maintaining its Edo Period elite status as a center of Confucian and Buddhist learning. The amount of greenery on the site is testimony enough to its desire to left to its own devices – a very Edo Period mentality. Not sure about low city vs. high city? Check out my article about Yamanote vs Shitamachi.
[xxiii] There were many inlets from the bay that pushed far inland. The Kanda River once flowed out into the bay before the Tokugawa Shōgunate re-routed it into something closer to its modern course.
[xxiv] There are three major ancient shrines in Kōbe, not all of them near the bay. But apparently the area where Ikuta Shrine is located was home to a handful of other shrines as well.
[xxv] One idea being that as the land was reclaimed for agriculture and the sea retreated, the kanji 戸 to door was replaced with 田 ta/da field. But, I’m not going to lie, I think this is a stretch.
[xxvi] Usually rice, but sometimes wheat.
[xxvii] The place is called 神田美土代町 Kanda Mitoshiro-chō today, and I’m thinking about covering that place name next time.
[xxviii] WTF is a mōra? Glad you asked!
[xxix] This translation is mine. I might also render it as “lords of the kanda,” or “overseers of the kanda.”
[xxx] In modern 島根県 Shimane-ken Shimane Prefecture.
[xxxi] This word usually appears as and 身体/ kaɾada and usually just means “body.” The kanji listed above is specifically for dead bodies and has a ghostly or spectral connotation.
[xxxii] WTF is a mōra? Glad you asked!
[xxxiii] In the west of Japan…
[xxxiv] In the east of Japan…
[xxxv] The primary examples are family names like Kanbe (rather than Kōbe), and 一戸 Ichinohe, 二戸 Ninohe, and 三戸 Sannohe – Tōhoku place/family names that literally mean “first door,” “second door,” third door,” and so on…
[xxxvi] If you take this position, you have to deal with some evidence that might not be so clear at first. One, the name Kanda no Miya doesn’t appear in records until the Heian Period. Two, the Ōtomo clan’s peak was in the 5th century. By the 700’s when Kanda no Miya was established they were in steady decline. In fact, they disappear from the historical record in about 940. It’s not hard to understand why branch families would have seen using new names as wise political moves.
[xxxvii] In short, once the imperial court had consolidated power, it adopted and promulgated a Chinese socio-political framework. It held for a while, but as Japanese culture and society was different from that of China, it slowly broke down. During this breakdown, power vacuums came to be filled by samurai. This trend continued until the samurai class took power in the Kamakura Period.

The Arakawa River

In #rivered, Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on June 26, 2014 at 5:53 am

Arakawa (raging river)

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

Welcome to my 3rd installment of my 8 part series on the Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō[i]. My second article, which was about the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, literally tore me a new hole. It broke me. I thought rivers would be an easy topic, but they’re not. Researching this article broke my brain again. And my apologies for publishing so late. I had to step away and come back with a fresh perspective.

That said, every article I write enhances my view of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum more and more. I’m only 3 rivers deep into this series and I feel like I’m slowly starting to wrap my head around things. I probably shouldn’t have started with the 3 most incestuously confusing rivers in Kantō. But there’s no looking back, is there? Yes, I’m an idiot. (But this shouldn’t be news to any of you, my dear readers)

Just like “Sumida” became 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, there is an 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and an 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward[ii]. I touched on this briefly in my article on the Sumida River. And I promise to talk about this later. There are going to be a few big surprises as we go on, but before that let’s do the etymology.


By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and  derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.

By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.


The Name of both the River and the Ward are the Same.

So let’s look at the kanji first so we know we have a base point from which to start.


wild, rough, rude; devastating




Unlike most etymologies we’ve encountered at JapanThis!, there actually seems to be some sort of consensus about this river’s name. I’ve looked all over and I can’t find an alternate or older way of writing the name of the river. The name of the river seems to have been written 荒川 Arakawa since the Heian Period.


Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.  Remember this name, we're coming back to Senju in a bit.

Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.
Remember this name, we’re coming back to Senju in a bit.


Etymology of the River


araburu kawa

unruly, wild, malevolent river

arareru kawa

stormy, short-tempered river


This river was part of the Tone River watershed. As mentioned in my previous article, the Tone had a reputation for being uncontrollable and wild. Not only did the river periodically flood, these floods often changed the course of the river. As such, the Arakawa was a dangerous and scary river. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that the kanji are literal in this case.


Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.  Some of the reference points I've added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.

Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.
Some of the reference points I’ve added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.


Why do we say Arakawa River and Arakawa Ward and not Ara River and Ara Ward?

You just asked the $100k question, son! If you didn’t care about why Sumida Ward and Sumida River use different kanji, if you can’t read or speak Japanese, or you fucking hate grammar with every fiber of your body, you might want to skip to the next section. If you’re a Japanese grammar nerd, then stick around because you might dig this.


OK, so one of these is not like the other one. Sesame Street style, see if you can spot the difference.



Romanization English


Sumidagawa the Sumida River


Tonegawa the Tone River


Fuji-san Mt. Fuji


Edo Machi the city of Edo


Arakawa the Arakawa River


Can you spot the difference?

.Except for Arakawa, all of those examples follow this pattern:

Japanese Romanization


river name + river suffix


mountain name + mountain suffix


city name + city suffix


prefix + suffix (ie; inseparable)

So the typical pattern is “name + river/mountain/lake suffix.” However, ara by itself is not a word. Ara by itself is not a name. In fact, in this case, it’s a prefix. Therefore ara can’t be spilt from kawa and kawa can’t be split from ara. (This leads some people to say that “Arakawa” was originally a nickname or just a normal word in itself meaning “a raging river” – indeed there are Arakawa rivers all over the country).

Furthermore, the convention for signposts and naming will split the words from river/lake/mountain. So Tonegawa can easily be split into Tone and kawa – which is then rendered into English as “the Tone River.” If we split ara from kawa we get a non-word (a freestanding prefix) plus the word for river[iii]. I can’t think of an equivalent name in English, but imagine trying to convince someone that Opportunity should be split into two separate words Op and Portunity. It’s just weird, man.

But keep in mind, as Japanese has no spacing between words and this is just a convention (not a law) for romanization of Japanese words, there are occasional exceptions[iv]. Also, the Japan River Society, while having no real ability to affect laws, has strong opinions on the matter (Japanese only).

Totally random fact, but I've been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.

Totally random fact, but I’ve been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.


Etymology of the Ward

☆ Short Answer:
Name of the ward is derived from the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River. The ward was officially created in 1932 and named after the river.

☆ Long Answer:
You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?
OK, this is pretty complicated, especially because I haven’t described the course of the river or its history yet. So you’re going to get some spoilers. But that’s fine because this is history and there aren’t really spoilers – just shit you don’t know yet.

The name of the ward comes from the Arakawa River flowing through the northeastern part of Arakawa Ward. But – surprise! – the river flowing through the northeastern part of the Arakawa Ward, is called the Sumida River.


The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. The red one is the original. The big blue one is the new one.
Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

Say What?!

From 1924-1930 a project was undertaken to create a man-made river to drain excess water from the Arakawa River and dump it into the 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River which would then expediently flushes it all out to sea. This feat of civil engineering is sometimes credited with keeping Tōkyō relatively flood-free since 1916 (fingers crossed!)[v].

This construction of this man-made canal meant the Arakawa was split into 2 discrete waterways:

 The so-called 荒川放水路 Arakawa Hōsuiro Arakawa Drainage Canal began at 岩淵水門 Iwabuchi Suimon Iwabuchi Floodgate in 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward and then meandered through 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward, 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward, 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, 江戸川区 Edogawa-ku Edogawa Ward, and 江東区 Kōtō-ku Kōtō Ward.

 The other waterway, the Arakawa went from the Iwabuchi Floodgate in Kita Ward to create the borders of Adachi Ward and Arakawa Ward, then marked the borders of Arakawa Ward and Sumida Ward, then to mark the borders of Sumida Ward and 台東区Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, then Sumida Ward and 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward, then to mark the borders of Chūō Ward and Kōtō Ward where it dumped out into Tōkyō Bay.

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

In 1965, the Arakawa Drainage Canal was formally designated as the official path of the Arakawa River. This meant the stretch of the Arakawa from Iwabuchi Floodgate to Tōkyō Bay was designated as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, which you can read about here. That stretch of river had had the unofficial nickname of Sumida River since the Edo Period and since it delineated many borders of Sumida Ward, the changing the name seemed obvious.

But because of this new, formal re-designation of the Arakawa’s “main path,” it meant that the border of the 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward was no longer the Arakawa River, it was the Sumida River.

Yes, that’s right, folks. The Arakawa River does not flow through (or even touch) Arakawa Ward – at least not officially[vi].

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon "Red Floodgate." It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon “Red Floodgate.” It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

Arakawa Ward’s Dark Secrets

Prior to and during the Edo Period the area was made of rural, agricultural communities in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District (this was never part of Edo). The area was only associated with peasant farmers until 1651, the first year of 4th shōgun Tokugawa Ietsuna’s rule. In this year, the shōgunate built 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground in the village of Minami Senjū. Around this time, the area of Minami Senjū came to have a heavy association with the 穢多 eta outcastes (literally “abundances of filth”)[vii] in the Edo Period. These were people at the bottom of the social class structure who did “unclean work” such as execution, clean up and disposal of dead bodies, leather work, butchery, etc. Minami Senjū’s reputation as a village of “unclean” people and a place of death and torture has tarnished the area for centuries[viii]. Also, it didn’t help that it was one of the most mismanaged execution grounds of the shōgunate.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Present day Arakawa Ward is also home to 浄閑寺 Jōkan-ji Jōkan Temple, often called 投込寺 Nagekomi-dera the “dumping temple.” I mentioned this briefly in my article on Yoshiwara, but this was where most licensed prostitutes were interred. The name seems to imply that dead prostitutes were just impiously dumped at the temple gates at all hours of the day throughout the Edo Period, but this is probably not the case. In 1855, there was a major earthquake which burned down much of Yoshiwara[ix]. As a result, the corpses of the girls were wrapped in sheets – or whatever facilitated easy transport – and they were dumped in a massive heap in front of the temple. At any rate, the sight of the pile of bodies of young girls (mostly 12-20 years old) made an impact on the local people and the nickname stuck. At any rate, thinking of girls sold off by their families to be sexual slaves and then dumped at a crappy temple in the countryside because no one else would take them is pretty fucking depressing.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren't just Edo Period 'tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.  It's estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren’t just Edo Period ‘tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.
It’s estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.


In 1868, 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture was established and this area the Toshima District was included in the newly created Tōkyō. In 1932, the area called Arakawa Ward was formally incorporated into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City[x]. Even by the 1930’s, the area’s image hadn’t improved.

The reason for this is that with the Meiji Coup came industrialization. The industrial revolution in Europe and the US was a filthy and polluted affair. Japan was no different. In Meiji Japan, many factories were built along the Arakawa River (present day Sumida River). This area was chosen for a number of reasons. First, the river allowed for the transport of raw material into the factories and distribution of finished products. Garbage and waste of the factory could be dumped into the river. Factories were dirty and produced unnatural smells and smoke and waste, so it was better to put these outside of the city center. As a result, other businesses and factories associated with “unclean” work were relocated to the area along the present day Sumida River. Of course, the people working these jobs were none other than the recently “liberated” and “integrated” 部落民 burakumin, the new polite word for the outcastes and their descendants. Burakumin villages lined the Arakawa river system. And what about good ol’ Minami Senjū? (Nowhere near the Arakawa River, by the way.) Well, the execution ground was shut down early on by the Meiji Government, but the area still bore a massive stigma. Its inhabitants continued doing “unclean” work that was forbidden in the city center, ie; leatherwork, slaughtering animals, butchery, and disposing of corpses.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?  Yup. These people.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?
Yup. These people.


To the surprise of most Tōkyōites, some traditionally burakumin areas in Tōkyō still exist. There seems to be some controversy as to whether these areas are populated by the descendants of actual burakumin. Privacy laws and anti-discrimination laws have wiped identifiable burakumin village names from maps and postal addresses. Even the infamous 山谷 San’ya area, whose name persists in the minds of locals, does not exist as a modern place name.  Many of these areas are still economically depressed. Many of these areas can be found in Arakawa and 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward and Taitō Ward. I’ve been in some of these areas and you can tell something is off (a lack of signs identifying the area and a “silence” on your GPS is one sign that you’re there).

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60's when people pined for traditional Japan. There's still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60’s when people pined for traditional Japan. There’s still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

If someone really wants to know precisely where an Edo Period burakumin village used to be located, it’s not hard to find that information. However, villages after the Edo Period are harder to pinpoint due to the sensitivity of the issue. And the reality of the situation is that in most parts of Japan, there isn’t any discrimination towards them. In fact, there’s almost no way of finding out who is a descendant of this class; it’s also not important to most people these days anyway. Also most of the old villages have just melted into the metropolis of Tōkyō since the 1960’s. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of doubt if the descendants of the burakumin populate these areas anymore. The only thing that is certain is that many of those traditional areas are still economically depressed.

Most Tōkyōites are generally repulsed by discrimination against the burakumin and may be shocked to hear the “they even exist anymore” (in many ways, this is an Ōsaka problem, not a Tōkyō problem). So don’t get the idea that there is rampant hatred and oppression of these people. There isn’t. It’s just part of the history of this area. Some of it from the Edo Period, most of it from the Meiji Period – but it’s part of a dark legacy that happens to be encapsulated within the confines of modern Arakawa Ward and has kept the ward less well off than some its counterparts in the Tōkyō Metropolis. Also, don’t think that things aren’t changing. There’s a lot of gentrification going on in Tōkyō’s shitamachi and blue collar districts. Families who want to live in a タワーマンション tawā manshon skyrise apartment but want to save money can find reasonably priced, spacious, modern apartments in the heart of a shitamachi neighborhood. That’s a combination of yamanote living in the heart of a traditional Shōwa Era neighborhood. It’s like having the best of both worlds and paying half the price for it.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn't give a shit about. They've re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and "low city" feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo's last dying gasps for air.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn’t give a shit about. They’ve re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and “low city” feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo’s last dying gasps for air.

But I Digress…

Back to the river. The Arakawa River originates on 甲武信ヶ岳 Kobushigadake Mount Kobushi which is in the Saitama Prefecture side of the border of Saitama, Nagano, and Yamanashi. That region is called Chichibu which is a reference to 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province which existed from the Taika Reforms until 1868[xi]. As mentioned before, at Iwabuchi Suimon, the river splits in two. The old river become the Sumida River, the more recent river path become the Arakawa. From there, the river merges with the Edo River and empties into Tōkyō Bay.

Let's go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It's a beautiful, clean source of water.

Let’s go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It’s a beautiful, clean source of water.

Taming Of the Raging River

At the beginning of the Edo Period the river followed the course that is now called the 元荒川 Moto-Arakawa Old Arakawa in Saitama. This river isn’t connected to the modern river today, but the Old Arakawa still flows from 行田 Gyōda to 越谷 Koshigaya where it merges with the 中川 Nakagawa. Today the river is essentially a drainage ditch. This stretch of what was once a might river lies with the boundaries of former 忍藩 Oshi Han Oshi Domain, a name that we’ve seen in the last two articles.

Again, as mentioned in previous articles, typhoons and torrential rains caused the Tone and Arakawa rivers to flood seasonally with disturbing regularity which would devastate Edo’s shitamachi areas. So, in the early 1600’s the shōgunate began massive river projects in order to protect the shōgun’s capital from flooding as well as the administrative centers along the Tonegawa Watershed. Major work on the river continued until the late 1960’s. The overall effect was that the Tone River ceased flowing south into Edo and was gradually diverted east toward Chiba over the centuries. This eventually created the two current river paths of the Sumida River and the (modern) Arakawa.

With all the manipulation of the waterway and the levees and the space between the river and the communities lining the river, one might think the Japanese have tamed the Arakawa River. This may not be the case, though. Even though the last devastating flood was in 1916, officials in Tōkyō are worried that the metropolis still isn’t prepared enough if the Arakawa (or any other river, or even the bay itself flooded). The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana and Hurricane Sandy on New York as well as the tsunami in Tōhōku raised more than a few eyebrows in Tōkyō and there has been a renewed interest in buttressing anti-flooding measures in the interest of saving lives and safeguarding existing infrastructures. If you’re interested in reading more about this renewed interest in taming Tōkyō’s rivers, here’s article from 2008 that talks about some worst case scenarios and here’s another article from 2013 that describes the progress made and what still needs to be done to keep Tōkyō safe.


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[i] Wanna start from the beginning? You can catch up by reading my first post.
[ii] There are 荒川 all over the country. Wikipedia actually has a disambiguation page (Japanese only).
[iii] Yes, there is an adjective 荒い arai but an adjective doesn’t make a place name in Japanese, it has to be something connected to the word. For example, 新宿 New Post Town isn’t written as Shin Juku or even Shin-juku, but Shinjuku. The two elements are inseparable.
[iv] The opposite also happens when many Japanese romanize the end of a phrase like おいしそうだよ oishisō da yo as oishisō dayo because many people consider da yo to be a cluster (one word, if you will), though a prescriptive grammarian would insist that they be separated as da is a copula and yo is an emphatic particle. I tend to take the prescriptive approach when I Romanize Japanese because I’m a jerk like that.
[v] That’s because the impetus to build the Arakawa Drainage Canal was the last major flood in, you guessed it, 1916.
[vi] Just to remind you… Arakawa Ward was created in 1932, reaffirmed in 1945, and it became a 特別区 tokubetsu-ku Special Ward 1947. All of this happened while the Arakawa River marked the border of Sumida Ward and Arakawa Ward.
[vii] By the way, this term “eta” is highly offensive in modern day Japan. For most people, in particular those who know they are descendants of this class, the carries the weight of the worst racial slurs you can imagine. The term seems to be used quite freely outside of Japan when talking about this group of people prior to the Meiji Coup in 1868. But don’t use it in Japan. Instead, you should use “burakumin.”
[viii] Even if most people don’t know about this today.
[ix] Remember, Yoshiwara was surrounded by a moat and there were essentially only two ways in and out. As a result, the Yoshiwara was a death trap in the case of fires. The prostitutes were indentured servants and were forbidden to leave without special permission. Clients and tea house owners could leave, but for the working girls, crossing the threshold without permission could have meant torture or “accidental” death. Of course, staying within the confines of the pleasure quarters during a fire could have meant “torture” or accidental death as well. Catch-22. Whatcha gonna do?
[x] Longtime readers will be familiar with this. Tōkyō Prefecture contained a much larger area than Edo proper. One of those areas, an “expanded Edo” – if you will – was Tōkyō City. The prefecture and city were abolished in 1943 and the whole are became 東京都Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The former Tōkyō City roughly corresponds to the modern 23 Special Wards.
[xi] Chichibu’s major connection to Edo-Tōkyō is actually its contribution of a cadet family of the 平家 Heike the Taira clan. Learn more about this in my article on Why is Edo called Edo?

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