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What does Taitō mean?

In Japanese History on June 28, 2017 at 5:41 pm

台東
Taitō (plateau east, more at the Elevated East)

town hall

Taitō City Hall

Today we’re looking at one of my favorite places in Tōkyō, 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward. It’s actually surprising I haven’t covered this area yet. Long time readers of the blog will be familiar with many place names located in this area. I’ve written about spots here since the earliest days of JapanThis! because… well, it’s just that cool.

Despite being jam packed with cool shit, Taitō is actually the smallest of the 23 Special Wards. In terms of the sheer density of historical remains, neighborhoods, and world class museums[i], it’s the only place in Tōkyō that gives 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward a run for its money. And Minato is twice the size of Taitō!

oiran dokuchu

The Oiran Dokuchū was a daily form of advertising carried out in Yoshiwara, the official red light district of Edo. Once a year it’s recreated today in Taitō Ward. You can see a similar recreation every day at Nikkō Edo Wonderland.

It’s home to the former red light district, 吉原 Yoshiwara[ii]. It’s home to 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, funerary temple of the Tokugawa Shōguns[iii]. It’s home to 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park, one of the most epic, historically important urban green spaces in the world. Oh, and 上野駅 Ueno Eki Ueno Station is there –a critical hub station linking a variety of local train lines, but also connecting Tōkyō with the rest of Japan and the world via 新幹線 shinkansen high speed trains as well as by other long distance trains.

ueno station 1930s

Ueno Station in the 1930’s. Keen readers will notice the pre-WWII orthography, ie; it goes right to left).

I’m not going to give you much more of a sales pitch on Taitō Ward because we’ve been here so many times before, and rest assured we will return many times again. If you want to know more about the ward’s virtues, then enjoy the Further Reading links. That’s what they’re for.

Further Reading:

sensoji

Number 1 Destination for most tourists to in Tōkyō is Sensō-ji in Asakusa. It’s a great area, but for history nerds, it requires a little poking around to find the good stuff. Like much of Tōkyō, this area suffered terribly in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and the Firebombing during WWII.

So, Let’s Look at the Kanji


tai, dai

pedestal, platform


east

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Tōkyō’s Taitō was not an Edo Period name, nor a holdover from any earlier point in history. It was, in fact, a product of the Post War Occupation restructuring of the city’s administrative districts. In short, it was a new ward to be made of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward – neither of which exist today. This new ward needed a new name to not piss off the residents of either wards, both of which had existed since the Meiji Period and whose names were deeply tied to the Edo Period in terms of spatial anthropology and socio-cultural identity[iv].

hiroshige shitaya hirokoji.jpg

Shitaya Hirokoji by Utagawa Hiroshige depicts the wide boulevard leading up to the main gate of Kan’ei-ji, funerary temple of the Tokugawa shōguns. Notice the samurai at the center bottom who are wearing western trousers, a novelty only the most elite could afford at the time Hiroshige captured this scene.

The former Shitaya Ward, whose name means “bottom of the valley,” included 上野山 Ueno-yama the Ueno Plateau where the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns were located. There’s no documentation to back this theory up, but it seems logical to assume that the Meiji Government did not want to emphasize the graves of the rulers they had overthrown in an illegal coup. Rather than creating a 上野区 Ueno-ku Ueno Ward – literally, field on the top of a hill[v] – they chose to emphasize the valley at the bottom of the plateau. Thus, they made a Shitaya Ward and included the ornate mausolea[vi] in Ueno as a kind of dis[vii]. This 下町 shitamachi low city image persists to this day, even though parts of Ueno were considered 山手 yamanote high city in the Edo Period.

Further Reading:

taito ward map

Map of Taitō Ward today

The Creation of Taitō Ward

Anyhoo, in 1947 Shitaya Ward and Asakusa Ward were officially combined to create Taitō Ward. Regardless of whether late 19th century concerns about neutralizing the place names of samurai and shōgunate lands were still an issue or not, the post-war government adopted a more conciliatory attitude that would unify the inhabitants of this historic and cherished part of Tōkyō.

However, the inhabitants of the former wards had separate agendas.

Advocates from Shitaya pushed for 上野区 Ueno-ku Ueno Ward. Advocates from Asakusa pushed for 東区 Higashi-ku East Ward[viii]. The Shitaya faction clearly wanted to shake off the “bottom of the valley” image of their former name while emphasizing the elite, yamanote implication of “field on the top of the hill” – a hill that everyone knew was important to the Tokugawa Shōguns. The Asakusa faction wanted to emphasize the eastern side of the proposed district – that is to say, the vibrant, shitamachi culture. The two factions were at an impasse, so the governor of Tōkyō stepped in and made a judgement call based on the recent approval of a project to build a new school in Shitaya. The school was to be called 台東小学校 Taitō Shōgakkō Taitō Elementary School.

Further Reading:

Seiichiro_Yasui

Yasui Sei’ichirō, the first governor of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis.

 The Compromise

Obviously, nobody wanted to piss off the residents of either faction, and I think it’s safe to say that in the reconstruction years, the Tōkyō Government wanted to ensure both Shitaya residents and Asakusa residents could save face and come out of this as winners. Furthermore, the new proposed district really did feature both yamanote and shitamachi aspects. When the new ward name was announced, it was 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward. The committee announced that the decision was based on the same criteria used for the naming of the new elementary school.

康熙字典

The book that forever changed how Japanese was written and taught.

The naming of the elementary school and the subsequent ward weren’t trifling matters. They were very much part of the post-WWII zeitgeist in Japan. It was influenced by a Classical Chinese place name 台東 Táidōng which was found in the 康熙字典 Kāngxī Zìdiǎn Kangxi Dictionary – the Kōki Jiten, in Japanese. This reference book, compiled between 1710-1716, included more than 47,000 kanji, but more importantly, it laid out a simplified standard for writing them. It reduced the previously existing 540 radicals to a cool 214 standard radicals[ix]. Don’t get me wrong. The average Japanese person on the street didn’t give a shit about this 47,000 kanji dictionary from the 1700’s. However, the intellectuals involved in the sweeping post-WWII reforms of Japanese orthography[x] were very familiar with this work and they pushed for – and pushed through – the adoption of the 214 radical system proposed by the Kōki Jiten. Whether they know it or not, every Japanese teacher today is teaching kanji based on a version of this system and every student is learning from it.

cool story.jpg
So Why Taitō?

So, I know you’re saying something like, “Nice dictionary story, bruh. But why did they choose those kanji?” And to that, I can only say, “I’m glad you asked.”

台 tai is a character commonly associated with elevation – often geographic elevation, as in 台地 daichi  high ground or plateau. The Ueno Plateau which was the home to the shōgun’s tombs and present-day Ueno Park, while called 上野山 Ueno-yama by casual speakers of the time, was called 上野台地 Ueno Daichi by cartographers and smart people involved with urban planning. While creating a Ueno Ward might have annoyed the Occupation Forces by emphasizing the samurai past, using acknowledged the areas elite, yamanote status. 東 higashi/ east, on the other hand, was an easy concession to grant the Asakusa faction who were proud of their shitamachi culture that spread from the base of the Ueno Plateau to the west bank of the Sumida River.

The name Taitō gave both old wards the proverbial high ground. It was the “Elevated East.”

kan'ei-ji.jpg

Main temple complex of Kan’ei-ji as it looked before the Battle of Ueno in 1868.

Growing Pains

The name was officially promulgated as Taitō, but apparently old people often pronounced it Daitō until quite recently – you know, after they died. This wasn’t the first time there was confusion with kanji. When the city of Edo was renamed Tōkyō, many people thought it was supposed to be read Teikyō. Also, the mortuary temple of the second shōgun 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, who died in 1632, is written 台徳院 but has no official reading[xi]. Speakers are free to use Daitoku-in or Taitoku-in. There’s no one alive from the early 1600’s to confirm which pronunciation is correct, but in the case of Taitō, it’s official and spelled out phonetically in many places, including the ward’s website.

Additionally, within the ward, there’s a postal address 台東区台東 Taitō-ku Taitō, Taitō, Taitō Ward. Some people might speculate that the ward derives its name from this area. However, this just ain’t so. This so-called “display address” was created in 1967 as the result of postal[xii] reforms that are standard throughout Japan today. But make no mistake about it. It’s derived from the name of the ward, not vice-versa.

taito station.jpg

Taito Station is one of the preeminent video arcades (game centers) in all of Japan.

Taito Corporation

Some readers may associate the name TAITO with video games and ゲームセンター gēmu sentā video game arcades that go by the same name. That’s because TAITO was a major influence on the early development of video gaming culture in Japan and around the world. They still loom large in the world of gaming as an arcade-experience.

space invaders 1996

Apparently, Space Invaders was still a thing in 1996. I didn’t know this. I was too busy raving.

In the 1970’s, the company, known in Japanese as 株式会社タイトー Kabushiki-gaisha Taitō Taitō Corporation, invented a little game known as スペースインベーダー Supēsu Inbēdā Space Invaders. This was one of the first games that crossed over from the arcades to the home console/computer markets to such a degree that Space Invaders is even known to young gamers today. It’s real breakout to the home console market roughly coincided with the release of the original Star Wars movie. The merging of futuristic technology and a renewed enthusiasm for sci-fi couldn’t have come at a better time.

kogan

Nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd!

Jewish Taitō Time

In Japanese, Taitō (the company[xiii]) is always written without kanji as タイトー Taitō – a name that is simply phonetic and has no meaning. But the name of the company is way more interesting than its phonetic spelling, and it has nothing to do with Taitō Ward. Believe it or not.

The entrepreneur who built Taitō was a Russian Jew named Майкл Коган Michaell “Misha” Kogan[xiv]. I’ll let Wikipedia do a little more explaining about him:

He was born in Odessa, but his family moved to HarbinManchuria to escape the Russian Revolution of 1917, where he later met Colonel Yasue Norihiro, a member of the Japanese Army’s intelligence services and one of the architects of the Fugu Plan, an ill-fated plan to settle European Jewish refugees in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. He moved to Tokyo in 1939, where he spent most of the duration of the war studying at Waseda School of Economics. He moved to Tianjin in 1944 before returning to Japan in 1950, settling in Setagaya, Tokyo.

Michaell, Mikhail, Michael, Misha, or however you want to call the guy, was a brilliant dude. Naturally, he spoke Russian, but he also learned Chinese, Japanese, and English. He was a smart guy who was in all the wrong places at the wrong times in his childhood, and that provided him with a unique point of view and skill set that when he was in the right place at the right time, he grabbed the bull by the horns and rode that bitch straight to millionaire land. The craziest thing is Mikhail was born in the early 1900’s, but his company came to be centered on the tech industry. He started off importing Russian vodka, but soon expanded to jukeboxes and vending machines, symbols of Japanese post-war recovery. By the time he died, his company was pioneering video arcade culture. Just let that set in for a minute. He grew up as a refugee in the early 1900’s and died as a rich guy whose company made video games – arcades, in particular – mainstream. Taitō changed gaming and the promulgation of digital entertainment forever.

azabu space invader.jpg

One of many mysterious Space Invaders in Tōkyō’s Minato Ward.

Let’s Look at Some Other Kanji

猶太
Yudaya

Judea (Jewish)


The East

The first set of characters is read as Yudaya (which means “Israel”), but these are 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic values rather than proper ideographs. If you combine the kanji, you can make 太東 Taitō which is essentially a Japanese abbreviation for a Chinese rendering of the 極東猶太人会社 Jídōng Yóutàirén Huìshè Jewish East Asia Company. To make things work in Japanese, the name was rendered as 極東の猶太人会社 Kyokutō no Yudayajin-gaisha, which seems to convey the same meaning as the Chinese original[xv].

OK, so long story short: 太東 Daitō/Taitō – which has nothing to do with Taitō Ward – was an abbreviation that meant “Jews in the East,” or something like that. While the pronunciation is more or less the same, the kanji are quite different: 太東 Taitō the company vs. 台東 Taitō the ward.

Taitō the company was more interested in branding itself as an international company than a Japanese company, so they used ローマ字 rōma-ji the Latin alphabet to render their name: TAITO. They back-translated the name into Japanese using 片仮名 katakana, a script traditionally associated with foreign words that also had a masculine nuance. Thus, the company didn’t use kanji for their name in Japan, they used katakana. They weren’t 太東 Taitō, they were タイトー Taitō. That said, the company tends to prefer the Latin alphabet in all caps: TAITO.

TAITO LOGO.pngAlright, so I hope you enjoyed that break down of the etymology of Taitō Ward as well as the unexpected tangent about the Taitō Corporation. Be sure to check out all the Further Reading links for articles related to this area of Tōkyō because I’ve been covering it for years. Also, if you’re ever in Tōkyō, I give a particularly nerdy and fun tour of the a major portion of the area.

If you like what I do, please consider supporting my blog on Patron. Also, all my social media accounts are listed below, so there are lots of ways that we can interact every day. I’m particularly active on Twitter, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Looking forward to hearing from you♪

 

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Guided Tours

 

______________________________________
[i]
Or musea, as I like to say – using the Latin neuter plural, like datum/data.
[ii] Shut down by US Occupation Forces, though still home to a thriving sex industry – most of which is off limits to foreigners, unless you have connections, or speak great Japanese and are willing to pay inflated prices.
[iii] The other being 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in Minato-ku. Hence, the “rivalry” between the two wards in terms of historical importance. I used “quotes” because there isn’t any real rivalry except in my own head – and that boils down to a simple question: “where should I spend my time exploring Edo-Tōkyō history?” The answer is “both places.”
[iv] In other words, Shitaya and Asakusa had actually fallen under direct control of the shōgun in the Edo Period and the people who lived here were fiercely proud of that. They considered themselves bonā fide 江戸っ子 Edo-kko Edoites, as opposed to the clowns who lived out in places like 内藤新宿 Naitō Shinjuku. (Curious about that? Here’s my article about Shinjuku).
[v] Remember, hilltops are yamanote, lowlands and riverbanks are shitamachi.
[vi] At this time, the shōguns’ funerary temples were intact, but the main temple of Kan’ei-ji had been burnt down in the 上野戦争 Ueno Sensō Battle of Ueno in 1868, when Tokugawa samurai holed up at Kan’ei-ji to protect the last (and retired) shogun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu who had put himself under voluntary house arrest at the temple in submission to the Meiji Emperor.
[vii] If the theory is to be believed. However, Shitaya was a popular area during the Edo Period up to the pre-war era. Visiting Ueno – or living in Ueno – was for rich people. Perhaps, Shitaya was just more relatable. Then again, if it’s more relatable to the common person, it’s less associated with the samurai class. This theory seems reasonable to me.
[viii] This is similar to another ward created at the same time, 北区 Kita-ku North Ward. (And yes, I have an oooooold ass article here).
[ix] What the fuck is a radical?
[x] Orthography is “spelling.” It’s boring, but here’s a history of orthographic reforms in Japan.
[xi] It’s not a place name or postal code… Oh, and it was destroyed in the war.
[xii] ZIP code
[xiii] More about this later…
[xiv] ミハエルコーガン Mihael Kōgan in Japanese.
[xv] Full disclosure: I have never studied Chinese, and the Japanese is more like “Far East Jewish Company.”

What does Mukōjima mean?

In Japanese History on August 13, 2015 at 7:21 am

向島
Mukōjima (island/s over there)

Take a good look at this map. You're gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Take a good look at this map. You’re gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible.  The word itself is written with two kanji.


mukō,
mukai

over there,
facing


shima

island
The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area.  The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.

Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.

He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.

hyakka-en

His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.

hyakka-en2

Japanese Sweets

There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.

Kototoi Dango

Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,

These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.

It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

.

Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.

Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō).  The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.

mukojima geisha

Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called “gaybies” so please don’t e-mail me asking about that.

At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.

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[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives  /ka/ and /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative // and nasal sounds /ma/ and /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.

What does Suijin Ōhashi mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 2, 2015 at 1:00 am

水神大橋 
Suijin Ōhashi (water god big bridge, more at “Great Suijin Bridge”)

Suijin Ohashi. Not one of Tokyo's more famous bridges.

Suijin Ohashi.
Not one of Tokyo’s more famous bridges.

This bridge was named after a ferry crossing, that was in turn named after a shrine, 水神社 Suijinsha or 水神宮 Suijingū Suijin Shrine. The shrine was located at the confluence of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River[i] and the 利根川 Tone-gawa Tone River[ii] and was located directly on the riverbank. After this confluence, the merged river was called the 墨田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[iii]. The origins of the shrine are lost to time, but one legend[iv] holds that in 1180 Minamoto no Yoritomo put his army to camp in this area and paid his respects to the shrine. Yoritomo is said to have felt the presence of the 神 kami spirit that lived in the river and threw some cash at the humble shrine so it could get a facelift[v].

Suijin Shrine it's former glory. Note the torii on the riverbank. That was one possible landing point for the Suijin Ferry.

Suijin Shrine its former glory. Note the torii on the riverbank. That was one possible landing point for the Suijin Ferry.

The kami was popularly referred to as 水神様 Suijin-sama or 水神さん Suijin-san (literally “water spirit”). Over the years, the shrine itself went by various names: 浮島神社 Ukijima Jinja[vi] and 浮島宮 Ukijimagū Ukijima shrine or 水神社 Suijinsha and 水神宮 Suijingū Suijin Shrine[vii]. The shrine was famous among the people who worked on the river. It was also popular with the girls who worked at the tea houses that served the horny boatmen[viii].

At the bottom right you can see Suijin no Mori (Suijin Grove) and if you look carefully you can see Suijin Shrine (labeled Sumidagawa Jinja here). The river is flowing by and in the distance you can see Mt. Tsukuba. Also notice the yaezakura (double cherry blossoms).

At the bottom right you can see Suijin no Mori (Suijin Grove) and if you look carefully you can see Suijin Shrine (labeled Sumidagawa Jinja here). The river is flowing by and in the distance you can see Mt. Tsukuba. Also notice the yaezakura (double cherry blossoms).

The shrine was so popular with the locals and that the whole area came to be referred to as just 水神Suijin. One of the oldest ferry crossings on the Sumida River was built here and was called 水神渡し Suijin Watashi Suijin Crossing[ix]. In the Edo Period, the area along the river and near the shrine was famous with locals for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The Suijin Crossing allowed Edoites great access to the area. The ferry crossing was active until the bridge was built and put the traditional ferrymen out of work…… wait for it……….… in 19-fucking-88!!

Yes, that’s right, kids. Taking a ferry across the river was an alternative to using the bridge until the late 80’s.

A typical river ferryboat.

A typical river ferryboat.

The last ferry crossing still in use on the Sumida River is used to transport employees of Nippon Kayaku (Japan Pharmaceuticals).

The last ferry crossing still in use on the Sumida River is used to transport employees of Nippon Kayaku (Japan Pharmaceuticals).

The bridge was built in 2 stages. Initially, a pedestrian bridge was built in 1988 as an evacuation route in the event of a fire or natural disaster[x]. As the areas on both sides of the bridge developed, it became clear that a pedestrian-only bridge spanning a wide river wasn’t really good use of a bridge (ie; nobody was really using it). So they expanded the bridge and added 2 car lanes to allow traffic to flow both directions in 1996.

See the elevated highway in the background? We're going to talk about that in a minute.

See the elevated highway in the background?
We’re going to talk about that in a minute.

Today the shrine is near the river, but not on the river.
So what gives?

In the Edo Period, the Tone River was diverted eastward to the Pacific Ocean and so for much of the Pre-Modern and Modern Eras, there was no confluence here. However the Sumida River (or what is now called the Sumida River) has always been here. But that’s not the only thing that changed, in 1872 (Meiji 4) the name of the shrine was changed to 隅田川神社 Sumida-gawa Jinja Sumidagawa Shrine[xi].

Sumidagawa Shrine today.

Sumidagawa Shrine today.

But until recently, the shrine was still located on the river. When the unsightly elevated highway that is 国道6号 Kokudō Roku-gō National Highway 6 was built in the 1960’s, the shrine was moved about 150 meters to the east, partly to protect the shrine from being so close to the river and mostly to make way for the highway. This highway expansion, like all of the other elevated highways in Tōkyō, became an instant eyesore and destroyed the scenery of this once historic area. This area was once so famous for its view of the river, of cherry blossoms, and of far off 筑波山 Tsukuba-san Mt. Tsukuba that even 歌川広重 Utagawa Hiroshige painted it. Judging from its former fame and from the splendid representation by Hiroshige, it’s kind of a tragedy we lost this one. All we have now is a fairly obscure – and fairly ugly – bridge and the shrine that started it all is an afterthought of a bygone era living under a filthy, noisy highway.

Supposedly this is the torii that once stood on the riverbank (from the B/W photo above)

Supposedly this is the torii that once stood on the riverbank (from the B/W photo above)

Just a quick note, if I may. Part of what inspired me to right this article is an old post by blogger, Rurōsha, who is a lover of the Sumida River and of Tōkyō’s 下町 shitamachi low city. If you love Tōkyō’s rivers and shitamachi, you may like her blog. She gives a little more info about the shrine and her impressions of it.

Also, I visited the site the other day and took these pictures.

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[i] Here’s my article on the Arakawa.
[ii] Here’s my article on the Tone.
[iii] Yes, the kanji is “wrong” intentionally. More about that in my article on the Sumida River here.
[iv] Another, much more ridiculous legend, says the shrine was established by 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto Yamato Takeru, ie; Captain Japan. Long time readers should be able to guess my feelings on this theory.
[v] Keep in mind, this is a local tradition preserved by the shrine. There are no documents that verify Yoritomo’s visit.
[vi] Ukijima (or Ukishima) means something like “floating island.”
[vii] There are shrines called Suijinsha and Suijingū all over Japan.
[viii] Is it just me? Or does “Horny Boatmen” sound like a great band name? Somebody get on that stat!
[ix] There are traditions that say 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo and later 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan had built bridges here but these fell into disrepair, once again giving rise to a ferryboat system. I can’t say if this was true or not.
[x] I’m assuming this was in reaction to a string of destructive earthquakes in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s. They were nothing as bad as the 1995 Kōbe Earthquake or cataclysmic 2011 Tōhoku Earfquake, but still there was a lot of damage done and a lot of people died.
[xi] Judging from the Hiroshige print, I’m guessing Sumidagawa Shrine had become a popular name for the shrine by the late Edo Period..

What does Azumabashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 1, 2015 at 3:18 am

吾妻橋
Azumabashi (my wife bridge, but more at “Azuma Bridge”)

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?! Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!! Now I remember!

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?!
Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!!
Now I remember!

Today we’re going to look at one of Tōkyō’s most iconic bridges in one of Tōkyō’s most popular tourist destinations near 浅草 Asakusa and 東京スカイツリー Tōkyō Sukaitsurī Tōkyō Skytree. Stand on the bridge and take in the sight of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. I guarantee you’ll be in awe of the river that gave life to this part of the city. You can watch it flow out into the bay that also made this area an important part of town as far back as the Kamakura Period.

5 bridges spanned the Sumida River in the Edo Period. Azumabashi was the last one built. In 1769, a local merchant and priest headed a group that petitioned the shōgunate to build a privately held bridge as an alternative to the 竹町の渡し Takechō no Watashi Takechō Ferry Crossing[i]. The shōgunate approved the project and after 5 years of construction, the first wood bridge was completed in 1774 during the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu[ii].

Two geisha on Azumabashi throwing a bunch of crap into the river or something. Littering is bad, mkay?

The bridge was initially called 大川橋 Ōkawabashi Ōkawa Bridge a reference to the 大川 Ōkawa Big River, one of the popular names of the Sumida River[iii]. Edoites, who seemed to have nicknames for freaking everything, casually called it 東橋 Higashibashi (which can also be read as Azumabashi) which literally means “the east bridge.” Interestingly, it was a toll bridge. It cost 弐問 ni mon 2 mon[iv] per person to cross… unless you were a samurai, then it was free. Bitches love samurai.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn't about truth in advertising, it's about a feeling... much like Japanese advertising today. Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn’t about truth in advertising, it’s about a feeling… much like Japanese advertising today.
Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Anyhoo, the “East Bridge” was said to be extremely well built. In fact, in 1786 the Sumida River flooded; one bridge was damaged and 2 others completely destroyed, but the East Bridge withstood the flood and didn’t sustain any damage. As a result, shōgunate rewarded the people who designed and built the bridge. It’s said that around this time, the kanji and pronunciation 東 higashi/azuma (east) were informally changed to 吾嬬 azuma which means “my wife” but can also refer to the east. The name is a reference to a nearby shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

In 1876 (Meiji 9), the bridge was renovated and the name was formally registered as 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge[v]. Coincidentally, this was the last wooden incarnation of the bridge. In 1885 (Meiji 18), there was a massive flood that ripped the 千住大橋 Senju Ōhashi Great Senju Bridge from its base and sent the bridge down the river at full speed until it smashed into Azumabashi causing irreparable damage. Daaaaaaang.

I can't find an actual photo of the wooden bridge. This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the last photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

This is the only photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

In 1887 (Meiji 20), a modern truss bridge built of steel was erected. This was the first of its kind on the Sumida River – evidence of how important the bridge had become over the years. Originally built for pedestrians, a signal system and tracks were later installed to allow pedestrians and trolley service to utilize the bridge. In 1923, the wooden portion of the bridge was burnt away in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. The bridge was maintained in a temporary state on a shoestring budget while Tōkyō rebuilt herself. Finally, in 1931 the current steel and concrete bridge was built and stands to this day.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.
Notice they have viewing walkways on both sides of the main thoroughfare. That was for viewing the city and the far off mountains.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

So What About That Shrine?

The bridge takes its name from an ancient shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine on a road and river route to the east of the bridge. Apparently, it was quite a splendid shrine with excellent pedigree in those days. However, today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha).

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha). The shrine was located in a large grove of trees called Azuma Mori (Azuma Forest).

The shrine claims a mythological provenance. It’s located in 墨田区立花 Sumida-ku Tachibana – said to derive from 弟橘姫 Ototachibana-hime Princess Ototachibana, wife of 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru, or as I like to call him, Captain Japan[vi]. In Japanese mythology, Captain Japan embarked on a triumphant 東征 Tōsei Eastern Expedition to conquer Eastern Japan in the name of the Emperor. Long story short, his wife, Princess Ototachibana, had to throw herself into the sea to appease the 神 kami spirits of the Pacific Ocean to ensure Captain Japan’s safe passage. When her personal effects washed ashore, people would bury them in small mounds called 吾妻塚 azumazuka “my wife mounds.” Many of these mounds became 吾妻神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrines, literally “my wife shrines.” These mounds and shrines can be found all over Japan. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what kind of personal effects the shrine claims to have washed ashore in the area, it was a small shred of her clothing[vii].

Hi! I'm Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Hi! I’m Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Azuma Shrine today

Azuma Shrine today

Alright, so that’s it. The first article of the year. Hope you liked it!

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[i]
The Takechō Ferry was where most men would begin their trip to Yoshiwara. Even though the bridge was built, ferry service seems to have continued right up to 1876 (Meiji 9).
[ii] For those of you scratching your head, he was the 10th shōgun.
[iii] The name Sumida River wasn’t officially applied to the whole river until after the Edo Period. See my article here.
[iv] I’m not sure how to convert mon into modern currency, but this was just pocket change at the time. Samurai Archives has a great article on currency and it mentions that 8 mon would buy one piece of low quality sushi (today that would be about ¥100-¥120 yen). 16 mon would get you a bowl of soba (today that would be about ¥200-¥400 in front of a train station for shitty soba). Now the part I’m curious about, 300-500 mon would get you one night with a prostitute in 宿場町 shukuba machi a post town (today 40 minutes at a ピンサロ pinsaro pink salon in 静岡県沼津市 Shizuoka-ken Numazu-shi Numazu City, Shizuoka would set you back between ¥4000-¥8000 depending on the quality of the establishment and girls). I have no idea if comparing those things is even realistic, but whatever…
[v] If you’ve been a long time reader, you’ll be aware that the Tokugawa Shōgunate wasn’t really in the business of going around assigning official names to things.
[vi] Rest assured, I’ll go into more detail when I write about Tachibana.
[vii] Is it just me or does this sound like people were venerating trash that washed up on the beach?

What does Kuramae mean?

In Japanese History on January 30, 2014 at 5:01 am

蔵前
Kuramae (In Front of the Warehouse)

The only picture of the warehouse I could find.

The only picture of the warehouse I could find.

This is an easy one. Just like the common Japanese word 駅前 ekimae in front of the station, 蔵前 kuramae means in front of the warehouse. “What warehouse” you ask? Why the 浅草御蔵 Asakusa O-kura. An 御蔵 o-kura was shōgunate controlled rice warehouse. This warehouse held 扶持米 fuchimai that came from shōgunate lands[i]. Fuchimai was the rice used to pay the stipends of shōgun’s vassals. The magistrate who over saw the collection, accounting, and distribution of the rice lived here and worked here, as did his officers.

A rice dealer district sprung up on the west side of the warehouse. Since rice was essentially a kind of currency, the area also became famous for money lenders. The proximity to the licensed kabuki theaters and Yoshiwara meant the area tended to be pretty lively with people coming and going. Basically, this was the Edo Period equivalent of going to the ATM on payday and then going out with the guys for a long night of drinking and whoring[ii].

An interesting side note about the rice brokers of Edo, called 札差屋さん fudasashi-ya san in Japanese, is that many of them became filthy, stinking rich as money lenders and “tax accountants” for the samurai class. They would make loans to anyone, but their most cherished clients were daimyō and insolvent samurai families who were becoming increasingly impoverished due to the stagnant Edo Period economy. As a result, these merchants – who for all practical purposes were bankers – enjoyed luxurious lifestyles. They were the taste-makers of the late Edo Period, being able to afford the latest fashions, the newest art, the hottest literature and theater, and of course, the finer pleasures of Yoshiwara. Although not of elite samurai rank, surely they were the envy of the non-elite classes.

In the Meiji Era, the warehouse fell under control of the new government only to be destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923. Today nothing remains of the warehouse, but there is a plaque. Although the area was popularly referred to as Kuramae, or more politely O-kuramae, the official place name actually dates from 1934.

So is Kuramae a literal reference to the area directly in front of the warehouse? Probably not. It’s basically a reference to the town of rice brokers, the offices and residences of the magistracy that oversaw the granaries, and the day to day business affiliated with the rice. All of those people and all of that business were “in front of the warehouse.”

The plaque stands on the site of the old warehouse.

The plaque stands on the site of the old warehouse.

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[i] 天領 Tenryō, as I mentioned in my article on Haneda, were lands that didn’t belong to any daimyō and as such fell under control of the shōgunate or 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun family.
[ii] As one does.

What does Asakusa mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on November 13, 2013 at 3:06 am

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

I was going to keep this one short, but since Asakusa is one of those spots that comes up not just as one of the top tourist attractions of Tōkyō but all of Japan[i], I figured I’d spend a little extra time on this one and do it right the first time. So today we’ll look at an overall history of Asakusa and then take a quick look at the etymology of the name.

As far as I know, this place name only occurs in Edo-Tōkyō. The areas that preserve this place name today are:

浅草 Asakusa Asakusa
浅草橋 Asakusabashi Asakusa Bridge
西浅草 Nishi-Asakusa West Asakusa
元浅草 Moto-Asakusa Old Asakusa

However, it should be noted that an 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward existed from 1878-1947. At that time, the places called Asakusa increased. After 1947, the number of Asakusa place names decreased dramatically until what is today considered is Asakusa is defined by little more than a train station here or there and a few vestigial postal addresses. But some 江戸っ子 Edokko 3rd generation Tōkyōites might consider some nearby neighborhoods as Asakusa, when technically they are not.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

The Asakusa Station area is teeming with tourists from all over the world. I first visited Asakusa in 2002 and I loved the shitamachi flavor, but I really didn’t have any sort of appreciation for what I was seeing. But the more I learn about the Edo and the Meiji Periods, the more I feel I can really sink my teeth into the area. But to be honest, except for the temple precinct, most of the charm of the area is its lingering Shōwa Era past.  And that’s all fine and good. Just know what you’re looking at.

Most Tōkyōites would put Asakusa in their top 3 places to visit in Tōkyō[ii].

The nakamise - a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to

The nakamise – a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to “ichiban” t-shirts, to yukata and kimono, to beer.
This shot is great because you can see the Kaminari Mon, the first gate, and the nakamise. Then at the end of the nakamise you can see the massive Hozomon Gate (also called Niomon) which was built in 942 by Taira no Kinmasa. Beyond that is the main hall (honden or Kan’non-do) which was built under the auspices of Tokugawa Iemitsu. The honden was destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo. The current structure was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

The Story So Far…

The beginnings are purely mythical. In 628, some brothers were fishing in the 宮戸側川 Miyato-gawa Miyato River[iii] and – surprise, surprise – they caught a statue of 観音 Kan’non the goddess of mercy in their fishing nets[iv]. The brothers enshrined the statue in their home and kept it for private worship. It’s interesting to note, that this year, 628, just happened to be the same year as the death of 推古天皇 Suiko Tennō Empress Suiko, whose reign had seen great encouragement of Buddhism. This time in general is seen as a tipping point for the broader acceptance of Buddhism in Japan.

In 645, having been shared with the local villagers from time to time, the statue was made into a  hibutsu, image of Buddha hidden from the public. Then a proper temple was established.

Both dates, 628 and 645, are considered the founding of Asakusa-dera or Sensō-ji (we don’t know which pronunciation was prevalent at the time[v]). Also both dates would still earn it the title of the oldest temple in Edo-Tōkyō. It seems that by 942, the first 雷門 kaminari mon thunder gate[vi] had been established, although in a different location.

From here on out we will see a dichotomy between Asakusa (the area) and Sensō-ji (the temple).

Remember, all of this is preserved in the legends and records of the temple itself. There doesn’t seem to be any corroborating evidence elsewhere. In fact, the area isn’t recorded by non-temple sources until around 1266. At that time it is mentioned in a Kamakura Period text called the 吾妻鏡 Azuma Kagami Mirror of the West.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It's located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark's in all of Japan.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It’s located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark’s in all of Japan.

The common understanding is that the temple was founded on a small plateau on the west bank of the Sumida River. A 門前町 monzenchō[vii]  formed around the temple precinct and continued growing from that time. Because of the town’s location on the Sumida River, which was good for trading, the town not only prospered, but attracted the best craftsmen of the region. Temple records indicate thriving trade between the Kamakura area and this region.

Legend has it that when 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo chose Kamakura as his capital (thus establishing the first of the 3 great shōgunates), he couldn’t find sufficiently skilled craftsmen in the area. On one occasion, he camped along the Sumida River near Asakusa. He visited the temple, as one does, and was so impressed with the builders that he hired them to come to Kamakura to build 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gū which is still one of Kamakura’s grandest shrines[viii]. It’s said that trade between Asakusa and Kamakura was so intense that by the time the shōgunate collapsed, many of Kamakura’s merchants and artisans had relocated to Asakusa[ix].

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Temple and shrine building wasn’t a big deal in the Sengoku Period, but carpentry and building skills were definitely in demand. It’s not hard to imagine some of the craftsmen of Asakusa being hired to help the Toshima, the Hōjō, the Edo Clan, or even crazy ol’ Ōta Dōkan in their building efforts[x].

Prior to the Edo Period, Asakusa was just a prosperous temple town on the river. But with the coming of the Tokugawa, everything changed. Urban sprawl from nearby by Chiyoda/Edo soon brought the area under the influence of the shōgun’s capital at such an early stage that Edo Period people and modern Tōkyōites generally just considered the area to have been part of Edo since time immemorial – even though for most of its existence, Asakusa was a separate town from the hamlet of Edo.

This

This “shinkyo” or sacred bridge is all that remains of Asakusa Tosho-gu.

The temple came under a particularly special patronage by the shōgun family because the head priest of Zōjō-ji had claimed that Asakusa Kan’non was the strongest deity in the Kantō area and that she had served Minamoto Yoritomo well[xi]. Tokugawa Ieyasu believed this deity helped him achieve total victory at the Battle of Sekigahara and as such it received great honors from the shōgunal family. While the temple was endowed by Edo’s most elite, its main mission was catering to the common people – a brilliant PR move on both Ieyasu and the temple’s parts[xii]. The temple has always been important to the commoners of Edo-Tōkyō.

In 1657, after the Meireki Fire[xiii] burned Edo down to the fucking ground, the licensed pleasure quarters called Yoshiwara was relocated from Nihonbashi to the area north of Asakusa because this was just a northern suburb at the time. Remember, we’re only 57 years into the Edo Period, son. Anyways, this transformed the area from just a pilgrimage spot to a proper tourist destination. And not just any old tourist destination; a tourist destination with a happy ending – if you know what I mean.

As lively as the area had become, its fame was only getting greater. In the 1840’s, after some crack downs on unlicensed kabuki theaters[xiv], the three prominent licensed kabuki theaters were forced to relocated to the Asakusa area. The area’s reputation as a center of nightlife was already secured, but adding popular theater to the area guaranteed this legacy for several more generations[xv].

By the way, if you’re curious about kabuki, Samurai Archives has a 2 part podcast crash course that you can listen to here.

Kabuki

Kabuki

In the Meiji Era, kabuki received imperial patronage and the underground kabuki theaters were as legit as the formerly licensed ones. Soon cinemas opened up in the area which showcased a foreign art form that the Japanese immediately became infatuated with. The area was now a bigger destination than ever; home to one of Tōkyō’s grandest temples and a vibrant theater district. Nearby Yoshiwara was still going off like crazy. Until WWII, Asakusa and Yoshiwara defined nightlife Japanese style.

It should be noted that in the Meiji Period, the temple lands were made into a park, naturally called 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park. The area was not unlike modern 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The centerpiece of the park was Sensō-ji, but the real attractions were the theaters, cinemas, izakaya, and pleasure quarter overflow.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan's first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan’s first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

I’m sad to say that most of Sensō-ji and the Asakusa area were destroyed in the firebombing of March 1945. In a pattern similar to the other major temples of Edo-Tōkyō – Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji – Sensō-ji found itself one of the biggest landholders but without a single yen to rebuild. They basically had no choice but to sell off their lands to get the money to rebuild the temple. The look of Asakusa changed dramatically. Today, the area retains nothing of its Asakusa Park halcyon days and even less of its Edo Period look.

During the Occupation, places like Yoshiwara came under the puritanical eye of the Americans at GHQ. The Yoshiwara was mostly burnt to the ground and so under General MacArthur’s orders it was not to be rebuilt. Plans were made for the moats to be filled in and the area was to be normalized into the reconstructed Tōkyō. While Asakusa and Yoshiwara were not the same place, keep in mind that their histories were intertwined since the Edo Period.

I mentioned this briefly in my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, so I should mention it here again because very few people know about this. If you turn towards the east of the 本殿 honden the main temple of Sensō-ji (ie; if you’re facing the honden, turn right and walk toward the bay), you’ll walk out of the east entrance which is called 二天文 Niten Mon[xvi].

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it's now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan'ei-ji.

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it’s now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan’ei-ji.

This gate didn’t survive the firebombing, but when it was rebuilt, Kan’ei-ji and the Tokugawa family made a special donation. Gen’yūin, Tokugawa Ietsuna’s mausoleum in Ueno[xvii], was also destroyed in the firebombing. Apparently, the gate itself was destroyed beyond repair, but the statues inside survived. The statues were moved here to Sensō-ji to remind the people of Tōkyō that the spirits of the Tokugawa shōguns were still protecting them.

So That’s The Story
What’s the Etymology?

Sorry, that’s the only reason come here anyways, lol.

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

The etymology of Asakusa has been researched by people since the Kamakura Period[xviii] and people have been coming across the same roadblock every time.

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

Asakusa-dera is the native Japanese reading. This reading is plainer than the Chinese reading, Sensō-ji. As most of the major Buddhist teachings came to Japan via China, the Chinese reading would be more prestigious – more in touch with this new foreign and exotic religion.

There are no written records to support this but common sense would lead one to the conclusion that the name Asakusa is the older name – it most likely predates the temple. Once a proper temple was built and Chinese learning was imported, the temple assumed the local name but used the Chinese reading. So 浅草 asa kusa became 浅草 sen sō in the Chinese reading.  The village continued to use its native Japanese name. Today the area is still called Asakusa, even though the temple is called Sensō-ji.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Look at the Kanji

This is the least reliable way to look at ancient place names, including Asakusa. However, in this case, I think we can trust these kanji because a temple would require reading and writing of its priests. The temple’s history pre-dates any attempted at standardization of kanji, but what they present is fairly solid.

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

There are many theories, but the most popular one is this:

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

The idea being, the Musashi Plain was famous for its untamed and tall grasses[xix]. This area had no grass. Long time readers of Japan This! will know that the grasses of the Musashi Plain were famous and appear time and time again in etymologies. Another interpretation is that the grasses were short, not tall as in other untamed areas.
Some other etymologies have been suggested.

麻草 asa kusa hemp grass[xx]
藜草 akazakusa goosefoot or lamb’s quarter


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

After the firebombing in March 1945.
This isn’t Senso-ji. It’s Higashi Hongan-ji, located in the former Asakusa Ward.
But you can see how utterly complete the destruction was.
The wooden city was burned to the ground and thousands of lives were lost.

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

Asakusa isn’t really next to the sea today. Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay) is located a bit south of the area). But it’s located on the west bank of the Sumida River, one of the largest inlets that lined the area in ancient times. While it’s hard to consider it “crossing the sea” today, maybe 1500 years ago it was more like crossing the sea. While we can use imagination and give it a little head nod, we can never know if this is true.

Tibetan

アーシャクシャ aashakusha place where a Buddhist holy man lived

Not to be an asshole, but c’mon… this is the most contrived etymology EVER.

But as I said, the first theory, the literal one (low grass) is the predominant theory. The Ainu language theory carries a certain amount of weight, but can’t really be proven. I think we can dismiss the others.

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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[i] Asakusa as a tourist destination goes back all the way to the Edo Period when the area truly began to flourish under the patronage of the Tokugawa shōgun family.
[ii] I wouldn’t put it on my Top 5 list, though it would make my Top 10. Asakusa doesn’t really make sense unless you understand Edo-Tōkyō history well. So Tōkyōites hold it up as something awesome, but I feel it’s a massive let down for outsiders. But I suppose it depends what you’re looking for…
[iii] Today this is the  隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River.
[iv] Where have we heard this before? (too many times to count by now…)
[v] But we have a good idea. More about this later!
[vi] Or lightning gate. The kanji are the same.
[vii] Please don’t make me explain what monzenchō were again…
[viii] The name nicely translates to “Great Shrine to Hachiman on the Hill of Cranes.” Hachiman was the war god.
[ix] Presumably the Sumida River made for better trading/business.
[x] Purely conjecture on my part.
[xi] Ieyasu used a contrived genealogy to link his family to the Minamoto clan as a familial claim to the rank of shōgun.
[xii] There used to be a Tōshō-gū on the premises but it was destroyed in WWII.
[xiii] Read more about fires in Edo here.
[xiv] The Tokugawa shōgunate always had a bug up its butt about sexual impropriety. The glorified martial virtues of the Sengoku Period were often in conflict with the arts and the “looser living” of the non-martial classes. In short, they felt that artists and actors and commoners made for a “loose morals ticking time bomb.”
[xv] As I’ve often gone on about 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, the lower classes and upper classes of Tokugawa society weren’t often legally allowed to mix – although they did. Asakusa was quite unique in the fact that they received patronage from the shōgunate but were always allowed to keep their humble mission of serving the common people intact. It might be said that Asakusa is where samurai and commoner were equal. Some of this might also be due to the proximity of Yoshiwara in which, in theory at least, all customers were to be treated as equals.
[xvi] Here’s a quick explanation of what Niten means.
[xvii] Tokugawa Ietsuna was the 4th Tokugawa shōgun, my article on his mausoleum is here.
[xviii] Well, at least that’s the first time we see it recorded.
[xix] The word is 草深い kusabukai verdant grass, literally deep grass.
[xx] The Japanese varieties seem to never have been cultivated for their psychoactive qualities, so these were plant cultivated firstly for building and cloth making and occasionally for medicine making in the form of 漢方 kanpō fake herbal medicine from China.

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