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Posts Tagged ‘ainu’

What does Egota mean?

In Japanese History on July 30, 2015 at 1:06 am

Egota (literally, “inlet – old – field”)

Shin-Egota Station

Shin-Egota Station

This etymology is really problematic. No one can agree on how to pronounce it. No one can agree where the name come from. No one can even agree if it’s a good area or not. The people who live there like it. The people who don’t couldn’t care less about it


No Agreement – How The Fuck Do You Pronounce It?

Is it Ekoda or Egota? Well, it generally depends on who you ask (or who’s telling you). There are two stations that each bears the two major variations.

Ekoda Eki

Ekoda Station
(Seibu Ikebukuro Line)

Shin-Egota Eki

New Egota Station
(Ōedo Line)

As it stands, “Egota” is an actual postal code in Nakano Ward[i]. In the Tōkyō Metropolis, this is as official as a place name gets.  However, “Ekoda” Station in Nerima Ward uses the alternate pronunciation. It’s not an official place name. That said, Shin-Egota Station is on the boundary of Nakano and Nerima wards and uses the Nakano name. This means that the most “official” pronunciation is “Egota.”

The 2 spellings actually wreak havoc upon non-Japanese search engines. For example, English Google Maps lists both stations as Ekoda Station and Shinekoda Station[ii]. Despite all of this confusion, there does seem to be a general rule of thumb. In short, Nakano Ward tends to use “Egota” and Toshima Ward tends to use “Ekoda.[iii]” This seems to be a modern convention, though. Since the Edo Period, the place written 江古田村 Egota Mura Egota Village was referred to variously as えこだ Ekoda, えごた Egota, えごだ Egoda, and えこた Ekota.


Now Let’s Look at the Kanji


inlet, bay

ko, go


ta, da

field, rice paddy

Just an initial glance at this whole mess makes want to say that this is 当て字 ateji. Long time readers of the blog will know that ateji is when kanji are used for their phonetic qualities, not their ideographic qualities. Basically, it’s a way to make a word that might be difficult to read instantly readable. In pre-modern Japan, ateji relied on kanji that any person with a basic grasp of high frequency kanji could read. Words that didn’t have kanji or that were of otherwise “mysterious” origin were often rendered in ateji. Place names were often mysterious – as they are even today[iv].

One of the big clues that this writing is ateji is the first character. 江 e inlet or bay is the origin of the katakana character エ e. Katakana is strictly phonetic and has no meaning. is one of those “go to” kanji for that sound. This location is nowhere near the bay or any inlet thereof.

One of the problems with place names written with ateji is that they usually blur or cover up the original meaning forever. The original name could have been a dialect word. It could have been a far more ancient name passed down from the 蝦夷 Emishi or アイヌ Ainu – peoples who lived in Japan before the people whom we think of as “culturally Japanese” became dominant[v]. I don’t want to get into a huge discourse on the peoples of Japan, so just understand that other cultures and languages existed in Japan before and some of their place names may have persisted after the introduction of kanji. But we can’t be certain about many of them.

ego no ki

The Most Famous Theory – The Japanese Snowbell Theory

This is by far and wide the most popular theory about this place name. According to this theory, the area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica). In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki. The snowbell blossoms could be pressed to make cooking oil. These trees grow everywhere in Japan – all the way from the north in Hokkaidō down to the south in Kyūshū[vi]. Most people believe this theory and it gets repeated in books, magazines, and TV.

Remember this theory. We’re going to come back to it later.

A flowering shiso plant

A flowering shiso plant

The Egoma Theory

荏胡麻 egoma is a kind of oil made from Perilla frutescens – oil made from a kind of wild sesame plant. The leaves and plant are generally known as 紫蘇 shiso in Japan. Shiso leaves are popular in seasonal tempura dishes and there is a famous brand of 焼酎 shōchū that is infused with shiso leaves. In pre-modern Japan, some clans used to make 油紙 yushi[vii] oil treated paper with this leaf’s oil. This was a traditional paper treated with egoma used for archival purposes or official messages that needed to be waterproof. Like Chōfu[viii], there’s no evidence this industry ever existed in the area.

Two old Ainu dudes. (At least I think they're both dudes)

Two old Ainu dudes.
(At least I think they’re both dudes)

The Ainu Theory

Long time readers – and by long time, I mean you’ve been reading regularly for a few years now – will be familiar with certain tropes that constantly come. I’ve referred to them as “the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” “the Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It theory,” “the Captain Japan[ix] Did It Theory,” and the occasional “the Ainu Did It Theory.”

Of course when we talk about Ainu in this part of Japan, we might actually be talking about the 蝦夷 Emishi, a culture said to be related to the Ainu but that might not be. But then again, we might be talking about actual Ainu people. Nobody really knows for sure. The Emishi and Ainu are a bit of an enigma and to make matters worse the names have sometimes been used interchangeably over history. The Emishi – who appear to be a related but separate people – seem to have been absorbed into the Yamato Culture[x] – or into the Ainu Culture – or both. Again, nobody fucking knows. But the Ainu most definitely still exist in Hokkaidō, one of their ancestral homes.

In short, this theory claims that the name derives from a lost Ainu/Emishi word that means 密集 misshū which means a crowd or a dense thing or place or 集団 shūdan which means a group or a mass (and carries a connotation of “people” or “populace”). This theory was recorded in the Edo Period without citing the original Ainu/Emishi word which means one of two things: the tradition was passed on for centuries by oral tradition and the word was lost along the way or it is complete bullshit made up at some time… probably in the Edo Period.

Yama no kubochi - a basin in the hills.

Yama no kubochi – a basin in the hills.

The River Basin Theory

In some old Kantō dialects, there is a word 江古 ego[xi]. These kanji and the reading are identical to the first 2 characters in 江古田 Egota. Ego doesn’t refer to “the ego” which you may know from psychology[xii]. No, it refers to something far more mundane and boring[xiii].

In standard Japanese this word is rendered as 山の窪地[xiv] yama no kubochi “a depression in the hills” which itself is an obscure term. Kubochi is essentially a synonym for 盆地 bonchi a basin – this is a term all Japanese people are familiar with. According to this theory, 江古田 Egota means 水が流れ込む田んぼ mizu ga nagarekomu tanbo a field that water flows down into.

This looks legit on the surface. There is actually a river called 江古田川 Egota-gawa and an actual bridge called 江古田川大橋 Egota Ōhashi the Great Egota Bridge. There are hills in the area as well. The only problem with this theory is that within the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō Metropolis, virtually nothing of the old dialects remains. The evidence for this theory is supplied from other places in agricultural areas of Kantō where bits and pieces of the old dialects persist. No documents link this place with this etymology – it’s purely hypothetical[xv].

This tree look familiar? Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

This tree look familiar?
Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

Let’s Revisit the Japanese Snowbell Theory

There are more theories than I’ve listed here, but these are the big ones. However, I promised to talk about the most famous theory. That theory states (and I quote from myself) that:

The area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica).

In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki.

I don’t know why this is the “pet etymology” that gets shared the most because it’s probably the most easily disproved etymology. It’s complete shite.

On the surface, it seems legit. 江古田 ego-ta a field of snowbells could be ateji for エゴノキの田んぼ  ego no ki no tanbo a field of snowbell trees. For native speakers and non-native speakers, this theory looks pretty good.

At the heart of this conundrum lays the name of this tree, エゴノキ ego no ki. Japanese spelling[xvi] has changed over the centuries, in particular, after the Meiji Coup and especially after WWII. The etymology of ego no ki has been obscured by the modernization of Japanese orthography[xvii]. It’s also obscured by the standard Romanization, ie; ローマ字 rōma-ji .

Before the spelling reforms, this tree’s name was written as ヱゴの木  ego no ki[xviii]. That first character doesn’t exist in the modern syllabary[xix]. It’s a character that’s been obsolete since the 1940’s and is only used for dramatic effect today[xx]. The easiest equivalent I can think of in English is when “the” is written as “ye”[xxi] today to look medieval or something. In Japanese, this character actually reflects Classical Japanese (probably from the Heian Period until the Kamakura Period). That is to say, it uses characters that represent sounds that died out long ago[xxii].

However, when 江古田 Egota/Ekoda is spelled out in hiragana, the first character has historically been e. The character  we/ye came to be pronounced /e/ (ie; it’s phonetically identical to e), but it indicates a mora[xxiii] that is etymologically distinct. To make this clearer, I’ll summarize using rōma-ji: ego couldn’t have derived from “yego” (or “wego“).

my brain hurts

So WTF Is the Etymology?

As I said, there are additional theories, but most of them are tiring – at least to me. Maybe I’ll look into them a bit more later. Unless you live in Egota, which would have been a rare case until after the Great Kantō Earfquake, your chances of even knowing this area at all are low. In the Edo Period, this was just farm land.

As for my opinion, I think it’s clear that the kanji are ateji. The kanji have no meaning and actually hinder getting us to the bottom of the story. It’s also clear that the popular theory of a field of Japanese Snowbell trees is absolutely untrue.

The “Ainu Did It Theory” is impossible to prove until somebody produces an Ainu word that seems to make a plausible case. I also think the “Ainu Did It Theories” are weak in general given the nearly complete cultural saturation of the Yamato Culture. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of archaeological data from the area, but it doesn’t seem to have been very populated until the last 50-100 years.

If I had to choose a favorite of theory, I think the “The River Basin Theory” is pretty good. Long time readers who remember my grueling Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series may seem some logic behind this etymology. Having researched more than 250 place names, rivers and other bodies of water seem to be one of the most common reference points. Many Japanese people have said to me the “Japan is a country of water.” Edo was often called “Venice of the East.” The most common modern epithet (which has both positive and negative connotations) is 島国 shimaguni island country. So it’s clear that from time immemorial to present day water is very important to this land and the country’s relationship with water is deeply ingrained in the culture.

That said, none of these theories can be confirmed. And as I said before, the name just reeks of ateji and ateji actually hinders understanding the origins of a name. The presence of 江 e (a water kanji) is the most confusing part of the mystery. It supports was I think is the strongest theory because it is a reference to water, but it is also the source of the katakana character エ e. That means the kanji was used so much for its phonetic usage other than its ideographic meaning that there’s almost no way to grasp which usage is more important (the phonetic meaning or the ideographic meaning).

So, yeah. This has been a wild ride. But there’s no definitive answer. Egota/Ekoda will forever be a mystery. Sometimes it’s good to have them – they keep us on our toes.

Wanna learn about Egota Station and Shin-Ekoda Station?

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[i] 中野区江古田 Nakano-ku Egota Egota, Nakano Ward.
[ii] The missing hyphen is technically a mistake, too. The official station name is clearly hyphenated in signage.
[iii] There seem to be a few exceptions to the rule, but I couldn’t find specific examples.
[iv] The tradition of ateji was born out of necessity when kanji (a Chinese writing system) was first imported to Japan. The Japanese presumably had no standardized writing system – if any writing system at all – and began transcribing their spoken language into the ideographic writing of the Chinese. You can read more about ateji here.
[v] I don’t want to get into the Emishi and Ainu here. It’s a really big topic and may not have any connection to this. You can read more here.
[vi] They actually grow in some parts of Okinawa, which is farther to south and more or less tropical.
[vii] Also read abura-gami.
[viii] Did I mention I have an article about Chōfu?
[ix] Captain Japan, of course, being my nickname for the semi-legendary 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru character of the old Yamato State.
[x] Basically, the “Japanese people” who followed the Imperial Family and took over the main islands of Japan (with the exception of Hokkaidō and Okinawa – territories annexed by the Meiji government after the 1868 Meiji Coup).
[xi] I use “is” in the loosest of possible senses. Most of the Kantō dialects have died out and been replaced with 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese. So, “there was a word” might be more appropriate, but I’m not sure what linguistic hijinks is going on the backwater farming communities of Kantō.
[xii] That word, ego, is actually the first person singular pronoun in Latin. It’s the Latin word for “I.”
[xiii] But absolutely intrinsic to place names in a county that is mountainous and covered in rivers.
[xiv] Sometimes written as 山の凹地 yama no ouchi (same meaning).
[xv] This theory was proposed by linguistics using modern dialectal dictionaries.
[xvi] Spelling is what we call this in English normally, but I’m actually talking about orthography.
[xvii] Are shitting me? You didn’t read the last footnote? Orthography is how you write words. To use the loose term, spelling.
[xviii] It can also be written entirely in kanji as 野茉莉 egonoki, but usually isn’t.
[xix] Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet; it has 2 syllabaries reinforced by kanji.
[xx] Occasionally archaic spellings even make it into their Romanized counterparts, sometimes you might see Yedo for Edo, Yebisu for Ebisu, Iyeyasu for Ieyasu, Kwan’non for Kan’non, and kwaidan for kaidan. These aren’t just random affectations. They actually reflect the etymological origins of these names and words. The kana in question is sometimes rendered as we, especially when standing alone because it occurred in the わ行 wa-gyō “wa” row: わ waゐ wi, blank, ゑ we, を wo.
[xxi] “Ye” meaning “the” is one of the greatest examples of how misunderstood orthography can explode in your face.
[xxii] There are probably more examples in English than any other language, but consider the word “comfortable.” This spelling reflects a pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time which was 4 syllables /ˈkom for tə bəl/ but the modern pronunciation is 3 syllables /ˈkʌmf tər bl/.
[xxiii] What the fuck is a mora??!!!

The Tone River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on June 8, 2014 at 1:19 pm

The Tonegawa (useful root river, but actual meaning isn’t known)

The Tone River flowing past Sekiyado Castle in Chiba Prefecture. Notice Mt. Fuji in the background.

The Tone River flowing past Sekiyado Castle in Chiba Prefecture.
Notice Mt. Fuji in the background.

I’ve often heard that the 利根川 Tonegawa Tone River is the longest river in Japan. Actually, it’s not. The 信濃川 Shinanogawa Shinano River[i] is the longest, but the Tonegawa has the largest watershed. That is to say, we’re not referring to a single river, but the entire network of rivers and tributaries that veer off from the source like the veins of a leaf. And like a leaf, there is an ending point for the veins. These are the natural boundaries that stop the river, where the river loses energy and “dies,” or where it empties out into the sea. On a map, you can actually pinpoint these boundaries and chart the watershed, which is the entire water system from start(s) to finish(es).

Example of a watershed. Hopefully the leaf analogy makes sense now.

Example of a watershed. Hopefully the leaf analogy makes sense now.


By strict definition, the river begins on the 大水上山 Ōminakami Yama Ōminakami Mountains (literally, “Great Headwaters Mountains[ii]”) in Gunma Prefecture and empties out into the Pacific Ocean at 銚子 Chōshi in Chiba Prefecture. That said, the entire watershed is littered with towns and waterworks which reference the river, despite being off the official government designated course. The Arakawa and Edogawa are often cited unofficially as exit points of the river. You can clearly see on one of the maps on my Sumidagawa article that in the earliest days of the Edo Period, the main river flowing through Edo was, in fact, the Tonegawa.

The history of the river is really long and complicated and I don’t want to get bogged down in as much craziness as I did last time with the Sumidagawa. Plus, since most of the Tonegawa is not in Tōkyō, it’s beyond the scope of this blog. Just know that from the earliest records, the Tonegawa had a reputation for periodic horrible flooding and changing course over the years. As such, it was sort of the bad boy of Japanese rivers and was considered untamable. But that didn’t stop people from trying to tame it. Through all of recorded history, there are references to various building projects at various points along the river attempting to calm the raging river.

The headwaters of the Tonegawa in Gunma Prefecture.

The headwaters of the Tonegawa.

The Tone River emptying into the sea.

The Tone River emptying into the sea in Chiba Prefecture.

As mentioned earlier, today the river empties into the Pacific Ocean in present day Chiba. But in the Edo Period the river did not empty out there. In those days it bifurcated into 2 rivers flowing south and east in 怒藩 Oshi Han Oshi Domain in present day Gyōda, Saitama[iii] at a place which is still known today at 会之川 Ai no Kawa, literally, the meeting of the rivers[iv]. The bifurcation doesn’t exist anymore but today the remains of one river is a southeast flowing waterway today called 大落古利根川 Ōtoshi Furu-tonegawa literally the Old Tonegawa Big Drainage Channel. Though not connected today, this “Old Tonegawa[v]” eventually met at a confluence north of Edo where the Arakawa and Irumagawa, and all 3 rivers flowed happily ever after into Edo Bay in a complex alluvial patchwork.

That is until Tokugawa Ieyasu began delegating urban planning and development tasks to various daimyō as part of their sankin-kōtai service. As I mentioned in my last article, one of the daimyō tapped for carrying out river work, was one 松平忠吉 Matsudaira Tadayoshi[vi]. This dude was actually the 4th son of Ieyasu and the lord of 忍藩 Oshi Han Oshi Domain which is now present Gyōda, Saitama[vii].

Reconstruction of Oshi Castle in Gyoda. It's actually rebuilt in the wrong location. The castle's honmaru (main keep) is now an elementary school. But many areas of this sleepy, farming town retain place names referencing the castle.

Reconstruction of Oshi Castle in Gyoda. It’s actually rebuilt in the wrong location. The castle’s honmaru (main keep) is now an elementary school. But many areas of this sleepy, farming town retain place names referencing the castle.


As it turns out, the lord of Tatebayashi at the time[viii], one 秋元 長朝 Akimoto Nagatomo also worked on these flood control projects. 伊奈 忠次 Ina Tadatsugu lord of 小室藩 Komura Han Komura Domain (present day 北足立郡 Kita Adachi-gun North Adachi District, Saitama) was also asked to help out. The lord of  総社藩 Sōja Han Sōja Domain located in present day 前橋 Maebashi in Gun’ma Prefecture was also called upon to implement development of the river path.

Initially, I didn’t know why Matsudaira Tadayoshi was asked to work on this particular project (and the Sumidagawa), but if I had to guess it would be because the lords of Oshi Domain were already trying to temper and control the Tonegawa in their own domain at Ai no Kawa. But seeing the daimyō from Sōja, Tatebayashi, Oshi, and Komura in that order got me thinking. Perhaps it was because they all lived in territories through which the river flowed. As such, they already had experience dealing with this river, or by the thinking of the time, they “owned” responsibility of the Tonegawa – ie; since the major confluence that ran to Edo Bay started in and ran through their respective territories so it was their mess to clean up. That’s just my speculation, but that’s definitely something to think about[ix].


The Tone River as it flows throw Maebashi (present day Gunma Prefecture).

The Tone River as it flows throw Maebashi (present day Gunma Prefecture).


A Quick Note About the Establishment of Edo as a Capital City
What differentiates Ieyasu from the other 武将 bushō warlords before him – and indeed about the other shōgunates before him – is that more than being a general, he had a vision of governance and urban planning[x]. He also had enough kids to ensure proper dynastic succession[xi]. His plans were executed so much better than those of the Kamakura or Ashikaga shōgunates. In my humble opinion, the success of the 徳川幕府 Tokugawa Bakufu Tokugawa Shōgunate doesn’t lie in the fact that Ieyasu became shōgun. It all lays in the fact that Ieyasu set up a tactical administration of the realm that brought everyone into compliance with his system and that his subordinate daimyō actually obeyed his edicts.

Wikipedia actually lists 4 reasons Ieyasu and the shōgunate put such a high priority on taming the Tonegawa. It’s actually an interesting list:

1 – Protect Edo Castle and the administrative centers of government from floods. Also, protect the administrative centers of the domains that existed along the river[xii].

2 – Promote the development of new rice paddies and fields and protect them from flooding. Remember “rice” = “money” in the Edo Period economy. Also a stable economy and a stable farming class meant peace.

3 – Ieyasu, a military general, knew the tactical importance of a good highway system on land and a predictable, traversable network of rivers. Beyond military use, investing in a solid infrastructure that united the domains and brought goods, services, and resources in and out of the capital city was seen as a high priority.

4 – The last one is interesting if you love the Sengoku Period and/or Edo Castle. Apparently, the 伊達氏 Date-shi/Idate-shi Date clan who controlled 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain were still perceived as a potential enemy[xiii]. The shōgunate decided to cut off a portion of the Tonegawa to build the 外堀 sotobori outter moat of Edo Castle as an outer perimeter defense in case the Date decided to attack. They didn’t. But the result was a functional, secondary outer moat around the castle and the Tonegawa was diverted east towards present day Chiba.


Map of rivers in the 16th century. The Tone River clearly flows down into Edo Bay.

Map of rivers in the 16th century. The Tone River clearly flows down into Edo Bay.


Building a castle town in an alluvial plain, Ieyasu and his advisers had a myriad of concerns about the rivers. First of all, while his castle was probably immune from serious flooding, his vassals also had to be put into the 山手 yamanote on the tops of hills. Commoners (my shorthand for non-samurai) were in the 下町 shitamachi low ground that constantly flooded – unarguably the worst place to live, because more often than not it meant you lived in a flood plain or potential tsumani zone.

While all rivers were prone to flood, since the Heian Period we have records of the Tonegawa flooding violently. It also looks like the river naturally changed direction many times throughout history. As I mentioned earlier, due to its volatile nature, the people who lived along it were constantly trying to tame the river by whatever means they had at their disposal. The shōgun’s capital, in addition to averaging 1 major conflagration every 6-8 years, was also prone to flooding. Fires in a wooden city are pretty hard to prevent, but controlling rivers is apparently a little easier[xiv].

I could detail each and every change to the river from the Edo Period until recent years, but that would just get boring after a while. Although, in the Edo Period, the river emptied out into Edo Bay where the present day 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River flows into Tōkyō Bay, the end result is that the river was diverted east – and in much the same way as the Sumidagawa was created out of nothing, the Tonegawa was sent out of Edo. It now flows into a former tributary that takes the river into former 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province which is more or less modern Chiba Prefecture[xv].


In 1910, a typhoon caused most of Tokyo's rivers to flood including the Sumida and Kanda Rivers. Pretty much all of the shitamachi areas were  flooded for 3-10 days (depending on sea level elevation).  I'm told this picture is Asakusa. This kind of flooding rarely occurs in Tokyo since the 1960's,

In 1910, a typhoon caused most of Tokyo’s rivers to flood including the Sumida and Kanda Rivers. Pretty much all of the shitamachi areas were flooded for 3-10 days (depending on sea level elevation).
I’m told this picture is Asakusa.
This kind of flooding rarely occurs in Tokyo since the 1960’s,

Why doesn't Tokyo flood anymore? This is why. There are massive underground drainage tanks (like this) that fill up with flood water and then pump it out to the sea.

Why doesn’t Tokyo flood anymore? This is why. There are massive underground drainage tanks (like this) that fill up with flood water and then pump it out to the sea.


Hey, Marky. You Haven’t Said Anything About Etymology Yet…

Oh, sorry. You’re right. And after all, that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? Well, the river name is quite old. You’ve already heard me mention the Heian Period, but of course, the river has been here much, much longer. As you can imagine, there are multiple conjectures about where the name comes from. Also, let’s be aware that the old sections of the Tonegawa have the nickname 坂東太郎 Bandō Tarō (Bandō is a pre-modern alternate for Kantō; Tarō is a name or suffix for a the eldest son, in this case it means “the oldest son of Japanese rivers” or is just a sign of affection or endearment).


Let’s look at the kanji, shall we?






This kanji use is ateji, that is to say, the kanji are not used for their ideographic meaning, but rather for their phonetic qualities. The first kanji, is rarely read as /to/ in Modern Japanese. The second kanji occurs in many ancient place names. The combination of kanji would normally be read as 利根 rikon which is an obscure term that means “cleverness” or “innate intelligence.”


Despite its wild and unruly reputation, some stretches of the Tone River seem quite beautiful.

Despite its wild and unruly reputation, some stretches of the Tone River seem quite beautiful.


The Ainu Did It.
Of course they did. And there’s no way to prove them wrong (lol). Well, there isn’t, but of course I’m being a little facetious here. Anyhoo, this theory assumes the word is derived from アイヌ語 Ainugo the Ainu language. The word in question is トンナイ ton’nai which in the Kantō dialects could easily be reduced to トンネェ ton’nēトネェ tonēトネ tone. In the Ainu language, ton’nai means “giant valley” and is said to refer to either the Tonegawa river basin or some valley that it flows through. Unfortunately for us, we don’t know what valley that is, so let’s chuck this one up to way out there speculation and impossible to confirm.

Another theory states that it comes from another old Ainu word トンナイ ton’nai which meant a swampy, lakey, wide river, which the Tonegawa most definitely was. As I mentioned before, it’s the largest watershed in Japan and it changed course often. The land received great benefits from river in the form of lakes and swamps, all of which could be used for farming or fishing or, you know, whatever you use lakes for. I dunno, maybe fucking ducks.

The Musashi Waterway in Gyoda, Saitama leads the Tone River towards its confluence with the Arakawa (itself part of the Tone Watershed).

The Musashi Waterway in Gyoda, Saitama leads the Tone River towards its confluence with the Arakawa (itself part of the Tone Watershed).

The Mountain Did It.
As I mentioned earlier, the Tonegawa headwaters are at the top of 大水上山 Ōminakami Yama Ōminakami Mountains in 群馬県 Gun’ma Ken Gun’ma Prefecture. This theory states that on the mountain there were many 尖った利き峰 togatta kikimine which translates as something like “dominated by sharp/pointy peaks” or “useful pointy peaks.[xvi]” The idea here is that regardless of kanji the words 尖った togatta sharp and 利 kiki/ri useful were combined. This combination produces a hypothetical form 尖利 toto/tori “sharp + useful” as an abbreviation for the concept that the mountains were either dominated by sharp peaks or useful peaks. From this idea came a later word 利根 tone which literally means the “root/source of usefulness/benefit.”

I don’t think this an impossible etymology, but it is particularly convoluted and requires a lot of back story. Long time readers will know that I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor and because of that I’m a little skeptical of this theory.



The Ominakami Mountains, source of the Tone River. I guess they do look kinda sharp and pointy.


Some Gods Did It.

This is a really weird theory because it asserts that the river is named after either 等禰直 Tone no Aitai or 椎根津彦 Tone Tsuhiko, two terrestrial 神 kami deities with associations to water shrines that are briefly alluded to in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki The Chronicles of Japan and 古事記 Kojiki Record of Ancient Matters, two ancient books telling the Japanese creation myths and legendary foundation stories. I don’t know much more about them.

Tone Tsuhiko. Kind of a boring kami.

Tone Tsuhiko. Kind of a boring kami.

The Man’yōshū Did It.
It’s said that the 大水上山 Ōminakami Yama Ōminakami Mountains had the nickname 刀嶺岳, 刀根岳 Tonetake Sword Peak Mountains or Sword Root Mountains, respectively. The nickname was applied to the river and eventually replaced with other kanji because is usually read as // not /to/. Supporters of this theory point out that the earliest reference to the river in the 万葉集 Man’yōshū the Anthology of 10,000 Leaves (8th century) and it was written in ateji as 刀禰 Tone.

As I’ve said time and time again, with really ancient place names written in ateji, there is almost no way of ever recovering the original meaning. The name could predate the spread of the Yamato people, as the Ainu theory suggests, but it could also be much older than that, it is a major watershed so it would have been hard to miss by anyone living near it.
I’m sad to say I can’t point at any of these theories and say “I like this one.” They’re all a little out there and I think the kanji in every case are just afterthoughts. The end.



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[i] The Shinano flows from Nagano to Niigata.
[ii] For those who don’t know “headwater” means the source of a river.
[iii] “Wait, why are you talking about Saitama?” You may be asking. It ties into Edo, you’ll see.
[iv] Even to this day name applies to where all sorts of vestiges of the Tone Watershed and drainage ditches and irrigation ditches and any kind of waterworks you can imagine keep this rural, farming community supplied with water.
[v] “Old” is a modern label, in its day it was all just part of the Tonegawa, baby.
[vi] Remember, Tokugawa Ieyasu assumed the name Tokugawa. His original family name was Matsudaira. Without going into specifics, the two are more or less equal in meaning.
[vii] Neighboring 館林藩 Tatebayashi Han Tatebayashi Domain, present day Tatebayashi, Gun’ma Prefecture, was also a Tokugawa holding. As mentioned in my article on Hakusan, the 5th shōgun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi was originally lord of this domain. Although this area is the straight up boonies today with some of the worst weather in the entire country, it is a very fertile agricultural area. Both domains were directly plugged into – by blood – to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family. I have family in both towns, and I can assure you that this is a source of pride to some of the local people.
[viii] The Ina clan only held Tatebayashi Domain for a generation or two. Soon a branch of the Matsudaira took it over, but they were eventually superseded by the Tokugawa.
[ix] Or students/scholars, if you’re looking for a thesis topic, there ya go. You’re welcome.
[x] That said, he also had the somewhat stable luxury of being in a position where Nobunaga and Hideyoshi never could have been.
[xi] Something like 11 sons, if I remember correctly. He had a bunch of daughters too, but in the Edo Period women didn’t really count.
[xii] This may be why daimyō considered loyal to the Tokugawa seem to be placed along the river. Hmmmmm.
[xiii] Yes, that Date clan.
[xiv] Don’t get me wrong, Edo flooded frequently. Tōkyō also flooded frequently. These days if floods occur, there are a number of secondary and tertiary contingency plans, including vast underground receptacles that excess water can drain in to. You can actually take free tours of these drainage systems.
[xv] The Tone River now flows past 関宿城 Sekiyado-jō Sekiyado Castle in Chiba. I briefly mentioned the castle in my article on Morishita.
[xvi] I’ve shown this phrase to a few native Japanese speakers and they couldn’t make any sense out of it. It’s nonsense in Modern Japanese. But it is possible to read + as /to ne/) if you want to stretch your imagination.

What does Musashi mean?

In Japanese History on July 10, 2013 at 4:36 am

Musashi (etymology uncertain)

Musashi-Kosugi Station in East Bumfuck, otherwise known as Kanagawa. One of many stations that bare the name "Musashi."

Musashi-Kosugi Station in East Bumfuck, otherwise known as Kanagawa.
One of many stations that bare the name “Musashi.”

OK, this was a post that I’ve been putting off forever because it seemed quite daunting – and I’m both super busy at the moment and inherently lazy. But a reader on the JapanThis Facebook Page requested it and… I have a hard time turning down a request. So, I’m going to try my best to do this and do it right, while still being a little lazy. Let’s see if I can pull it off.

There are place names all over 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis that include the words 武蔵 Musashi or 武蔵野 Musashino. I’ve alluded to this many times over the last 6 months, so regular readers should have a little idea of what is coming next.

There's a common thread among places which include the word Musashi. They tend to be boring places in the suburbs and country...

There’s a common thread among places which include the word Musashi.
They tend to be boring places in the suburbs and country…

1871 was a major year for the nascent Meiji government and for Japanese geography and place names. That year, the imperial court issued an edict called 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[i] Abolishment of Han (domains) & Establishment of Ken (prefectures). I’m not an expert in this area and I have no formal training as a Japanese historian[ii], so take what I’m going to say with that in mind[iii]. Until this decree, the usual civil administrative unit of the Edo Period was the 藩 han usually translated as domain (or feudal domain[iv]). The domain would be a hereditary fief granted or allowed by the shōgun in Edo to a 大名 daimyō, a lord[v]. The domains of the Edo Period were theoretically in flux. Domains could be confiscated or abolished by the shōgun at any time – usually for some grave offense by the daimyō in charge. You can think of domains as autonomous “states” which were properties of the daimyō. The daimyō swore allegiance to the shōgun.  And although they were “free” to exercise discretion in their domains, they spent half of their time in forced service to shōgun and their wives and children were de facto “hostages” of the shōgun, a holdover from the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Clusterfuck.

The provinces of Japan.

The provinces of Japan.
Musashi is #10.

Another archaism that held over into the Edo Period, at least in theory, were the traditional territories called 国 kuni often translated as provinces, but usually used in Modern Japanese as country. The domains of the Tokugawa Period existed within these traditional regions.

Miyamoto Musashi, drunk and stoned. I know the questions will come. What's the connection between Miyamoto Musashi and Musashi Province. I beg someone else to answer the question for me....  because it's not a good story. lol

Miyamoto Musashi, drunk and stoned.I know the questions will come.
What’s the connection between Miyamoto Musashi and Musashi Province?
None.So suck it. 

Provinces were created during in the 7th century by an imperial decree called 国郡里制 Koku-Gun-Ri Sei the Province-District-Village Edict which established a norm for civil administration united under the imperial court in Nara, if I’m not mistaken. The Koku-Gun-Ri system created large provinces, sub-divided into districts, which were further sub-divided into territories[vi]. The system was never abolished, but it basically fell apart during the Muromachi Period as samurai culture ascended to supremacy under the leadership of 武将 bushō daimyō warlords who were fighting each other in a land grabbing free for all – essentially undermining the boundaries of the kuni.

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in the traditional area of Musashi Province, the 郡 gun districts survived into the Edo Period. In the Meiji Period, while 国 kuni provinces and 藩 han were eliminated by the Abolition Act, many 郡 gun districts continued to exist up until WWII.

Districts of Musashi Province:

足立郡 Adachi-gun Adachi District
秩父郡 Chichibu-gun Chichibu District
荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District
入間郡 Iruma-gun Iruma District
加美郡 Kami-gun Kami District
葛飾郡 Katsushika-gun Katsushika District
児玉郡 Kodama-gun Kodama District
高麗郡 Koma-gun Koma District
久良岐郡 Kuraki-gun Kuraki District
榛沢郡 Hanzawa-gun Hanzawa District
幡羅郡 Hara-gun Hara District
比企郡 Hiki-gun Hiki District
那珂郡 Naka-gun Naka District

Niikura District
男衾郡 Obusuma-gun Obusuma District
大里郡 Ōzato-gun Ōzato District
埼玉郡 Saitama-gun Saitama District
橘樹郡 Tachibana-gun Tachibana District

Tama District
豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District
都筑郡 Tsuzuki-gun Tsuzuki District
横見郡 Yokomi-gun Yokomi District

Long time readers of JapanThis will recognize some of those names, especially Toshima and Ebara. Anyone who’s spent a little time in the Tōkyō Area will recognize loads of other names as well, for example; Adachi, Chichibu, Kodama, Katsushika, Saitama, and Tama.

Sorry for the Japanese, but this is the best I could find on short notice.  If I can't find a better map, I'll modify this one with English labels later when I have a little more time.

Sorry for the Japanese, but this is the best I could find on short notice.
If I can’t find a better map, I’ll modify this one with English labels later when I have a little more time.

Domains 藩 han  that were located in Musashi Province:

深谷藩 Fukaya Han
岡部藩 Okabe Han
本庄藩 Honjō Han
八幡山藩 Hachiman Han
東方藩 Higashigata Han
忍藩 Oshi Han
Kisai Han
Kisaichi Han
松山藩 Matsuyama Han
伯太藩 Hakata Han
Kakezuka Han
Takasaka Han
久喜藩 Kuki Han
石戸藩 Ishito Han
武蔵小室藩 Musashi Komuro Han
原市藩 Haraichi Han
岩槻藩 Iwatsuki Han


Musashi Ichinomiya Han


Kawagoe Han


Hatogaya Han


Kitami Han


Mutsūra Han
Bushū Kanazawa Han


Akanuma Han
Akamatsu Han

This map is a placeholder.   I need a map of the domains inside Musashi Province. If anyone has access to such a map (book, website, etc) or has the drive to make one themselves, I'd totally appreciate it.   I'll swap the new image for this one (which is basically a repeat of the image directly above it).

This map is a placeholder.
I need a map of the domains inside Musashi Province. If anyone has access to such a map (book, website, etc) or has the drive to make one themselves, I’d totally appreciate it.
I’ll swap the new image for this one (which is basically a repeat of the image directly above it).

OK, so a quick re-cap.

Old Japan was divided by the imperial court into large province called 国 kuni. Kuni were subdivided into districts called 郡 gun. In the Sengoku Period many 国 kuni provinces became obsolete, but the names continued traditionally. Generally, the 郡 gun districts remained intact. In the Edo Period, it seems to be case by case. So again, the province names continued to exist traditionally if not officially and territories were very much intact.

So why have I taken you on this insanely boring walk through Japanese civil administrative units from the 7th century to the 17th century?

Because the area was so large and famous, it’s important to understand how people before the Meiji Period thought of this area geographically. Also, the district names (and sometimes the domain names) are still relevant today[vii].


Anyways, there’s more to the story.

So, let’s go back to the name of the imperial decree of 1871, it abolished domains and created prefectures[viii]. Go back a little further to 1868, the emperor took the Tokugawa Shōgun Family’s main holding, Edo, and renamed it Tōkyō. Things were more or less in a state of flux as the court and the government, which was slowly taking shape, figured out what the hell they were doing.

To my understanding, from 1869 to 1943, 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City embodied the former city of Edo plus many suburban and urban holdings. Tōkyō Prefecture absorbed a much larger area that included the city of Tōkyō and mixed an agrarian and metropolitan area into a new civil unit.

There’s much more to the story than this, but this is all we need for now.

OK, this map is totally inadequate. But I'm trying to illustrate where modern Tokyo Metropolis stands as compared to the traditional Musashi Province.   This may be totally wrong. So if you can make a better one, I'd appreciate it. Also this map doesn't north enough in Saitama to so the other holdings.  Now that I'm looking at it, the highlighted area doesn't go far enough west.  Dammit, Jim. I'm a doctor not a map maker.

OK, this map is totally inadequate. But I’m trying to illustrate where modern Tokyo Metropolis stands as compared to the traditional Musashi Province.
This may be totally wrong. So if you can make a better one, I’d appreciate it. Also this map doesn’t north enough in Saitama to so the other holdings.
Now that I’m looking at it, the highlighted area doesn’t go far enough west.
Dammit, Jim. I’m a doctor not a map maker.

Wasn’t this article about the meaning of Musashi?

Why, yes. Yes, it was.

武蔵 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province
Bushū Warrior State[ix]

These are alternate names for more or less the same area. The kanji used today are slightly simplified variants. The original way to write it was 武藏國 Musashi no Kuni, which give me a headache if I look at it too long.

The province was spread over areas of present day Tōkyō, Kanagawa, Saitama, although the bulk of is still within Tōkyō. Most places that include the name Musashi were outside of the Edo or direct control of the shōgun, so they could claim a little prestige by adding Musashi to their name. This became a big thing with the implementation of train systems, when differentiating station names became necessary.

Any place name in Tōkyō, Saitama, or Kanagawa is more or less is a reference to Musashi province.  Even today, many of these places are not just suburban areas, but areas considered really country by Tōkyōites in the 23 Special Wards. But this is their heritage. They are preserving an ancient name that wasn’t a political reality since the 15th century. Nice, right?

The Musashi Plain

The Musashi Plain

Other related place names are:

武蔵野 Musashino Musashi Plain
むさし Musashino Musashi Plain
(variant spelling)
武蔵台 Musashidai Musashi Plateau
武蔵野台 Musashinodai Musashi Plain Plateau
福岡武蔵 Fukuoka-Musashino Auspicious Knolls
Musashi Plain[x]
大井武蔵 Ōi-Musashino Great Well
Musashi Plain[xi]

So What Does Musashi Mean?

There are many competing theories, none of which is considered a prevailing theory. Most of the theories seem so shaky that they’re not worth getting into here. It is interesting to note that the earliest recorded instances of the name in the 7th century are written with different kanji:  无耶志国 Muzashi no Kuni Muzashi Province.

Other variants were:

无射志 Muzashi
牟射志 Munzashi
牟佐志 Munzashi
無邪 Muzashi

The problem with all of these variants is that they are all ateji – which means they don’t tell jack shit about the origin of the word or meaning. Because it was always written with ateji as far back as the historical record goes, it has prompted some linguists to speculate that it was a non-Japanese word. They’ve pointed an Ainu word, ムンザシ munzashi, which means a grass covered plain. The similarity is uncanny. But I don’t know much about the Ainu, where they lived, their language, or… well, anything. So, I can’t say if this is better than the other weird theories I heard[xii].

When Tokyoites hear place names with "Musashi" in the name, this is what they think of....

When Tokyoites hear place names with “Musashi” in the name, this is what they think of….

OK. So there it is. Nobody knows what the fuck Musashi really means and it has taken me roughly 2000 words to say so. But that said, we’ve been able to take a good look at the size and administrative reality of Musashi Province and I hope that this post will be a good point of reference for past posts and future posts. And since a lot of my readers are new to Japanese history, hopefully I was able to unweave the rainbow a little bit in terms of how Japan, or at least the Japan surrounding Edo-Tōkyō was administered in the old days.

And like I said in the beginning of this post, I’m not an expert on civil administration in the Edo Period – the era I know the best so there may be some mistakes in here. If anyone sees any glaring ones, let me know. Also, if I wasn’t clear about anything, feel free post your questions. I’m hoping this is a nice launching point for more place names and hopefully more discussion on bad ass Tōkyō history.

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[i] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan abolition of domains & public groping.

[ii] Never even had a single class in Japanese history.

[iii] And if you can shed some light on this, your knowledge would be greatly appreciated.

[iv] This isn’t an accepted term among scholars of Japanese history, but the terminology is out there for generalists and n00bs and since I’m trying to keep this blog accessible to everyone, I sometimes use it myself.

[v] Often translated with the Eurocentric term, feudal lord – again not used by serious scholars of Japanese history, but often tossed around by generalists because it is easily understood by westerners.

[vi] As time went on and the population in urban center ballooned, further sub-divisions were created. One that is confusing for me is the the existence of 2 ri;  里 ri village and 領 ri territory/county.

[vii] I didn’t even get into the 領 ri territories/counties (too many of them), but these territories account for most of the extant place names in the former Musashi Province.

[viii] Where this word comes from is also interesting, but let’s leave that for another day.

[ix] The kanji 武 bu “warrior” is the same kanji for 武士道 bushidō way of the samurai. Anyways, I doubt any of my readers don’t know that. But ぶ bu and む mu are similar sounds and there are diachronic variations across Japanese dialects, which means that the kanji can be read as bu or mu. A common family name is 武藤 Mutō which also uses the softer, mu sound. Other common examples are 寂しい samishii or sabishii and 寒い samui or sabui.

[x] In Saitama, not Tōkyō.

[xi] In Saitama, not Tōkyō.

[xii] If you are interested in what some real Japanese linguists have to say on the matter (and you can read technical linguistics documents in Japanese), then knock yourself out. But it’s pretty dry.

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