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Posts Tagged ‘ateji’

What does Yoga mean?

In Japanese History on October 23, 2013 at 8:55 am

Yōga (Yoga)

cool subway entrance

Pretty cool amphitheater-esque subway entrance!

In Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward there is an area and a train station called 用賀 Yōga. I don’t know what native Japanese speakers think of this name, but it doesn’t really look like a place to me. The first kanji means “task” or “use.” The second kanji means “congratulations.”

If the popular etymology is true, then this place has its origins in Sanskrit and not Japanesei.

However, I’m just gonna say this right now – I have some major gripes with the popular story. This name is obviously ateji, ie; kanji used for phonetic reasons. Because it is ateji, it marks this as a very ancient place name. That said, let’s keep an open mind and listen to the story in its entirety before we jump to any conclusions.

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

The common narrative goes a little something like this. From the Heian Period to the beginning of the Kamakura Period, a ヨガ道場 yoga dōjō yoga school operated here. The name 用賀村 Yōga Village ultimately derived from this yoga schoolii.

During the Sengoku Period, Yōga Village was a 門前町 monzenchō centered around 眞福寺 Shinpuku-ji, a temple for which I can find no further informationiii. In case you forgot, a monzenchō was a small town that developed around the mon front gate of a temple or shrineiv.

By the Edo Period, the village was an established 宿場 shukuba post town on the 大山街道 Ōyama Kaidōv. It was a small town, but it managed to flourish during the stability brought by the Tokugawa in the 1600’s.

But wait, there's more!

But wait, there’s more!

A Bizarre Plot Twist

Translating from the original Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese monks used the kanji 瑜伽 for yoga. The kanji can be read in Japanese as either yuga or yogavi.

In 1578, a temple was founded in the area. This temple was associated with the 真言宗 Shingon-shū True Word Buddhismvii. The temple, which still exists today, is called 真福寺 Shinpuku-ji. The temple’s honorary mountain name (sangō) is 瑜伽山 Yuga-zan which uses the classical characters for “yoga.viii

Japanese Yoga

This is the kinda yoga I could get into.
Titty yoga.

Some More Weirdness

That’s the official narrative. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that there are more discrepancies; there was another temple in the area before the 1578 temple.

I don’t know if the original temple, 実相眞福Jissō-san Shinpuku-ji, was re-established as 瑜伽山真福寺 Yuga-zan Shinpuku-ji or if the new temple borrowed and modified the name of the old temple but… the mountain names definitely changed. And while the pronunciation of the temple name was the same, the first kanji changed.

実相瑜伽山 Jissō-sanYuga-zan True Image Mountain → Yoga Mountain
眞福真福寺 Shinpuku-jiShinpuku-ji True Fortune Temple → True Fortune Temple


The main hall (honden) of the modern Shinpukuji.

We have a very messy story hereix. Let’s re-cap:

・In the old days there was a yoga school in Yōga and the town got a name.
・The yoga school was apparently dead and gone by the Kamakura Period.
・There’s always been a connection with Shingon Buddhism.
・The town grew up around a non-extant temple.
・That temple either declined and/or a new temple showed up and assumed the same name – and yet, a different name and included the Chinese characters for “yoga” in their name.


It’s possible, man.
All of this is totally possible.
Maybe some of the inconsistencies are just byproducts of how the story has been preserved – one record remembers it this way, one temple tradition remembers it that way. But also remember how off the beaten path this place was until the Kamakura Period.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

My opinion is that most of this is not trustworthy information. There are probably kernels of truth in there, but most of this too inconsistent to be taken seriously. By the time we have temple records (1578), the Edo Period is right around the corner. Record keeping in the area got better after 1600, but come on, hundreds of years of passing down stories had been going on. Successive religious institutions are great at keeping records, but religious institutions are also notorious for passing down myths and stories that sometimes seem plausible but never completely match up to the facts.

Finally, I’d like to say that there is also a real possibility that this name, clearly written in ateji, has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga, but actually has a more ancient originx.

Let’s say the jury is out on this one.

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i Let me clarify; Sanskrit – as filtered through Classical Chinese and later, Middle Japanese.

ii Yet no evidence of the school exists. Furthermore, the kanji is (not yo) in Modern Japanese. (But historical linguistics think there may have been up to 4 distinct sounds in Old Japanese that merged into the present /yo dichotomy. This may suggest an older origin, or it may evidence of a dialect, or both.)

iii The only other info I have is that its honorary mountain name was 実相Jissō-san. More about “mountain names” in a minute.

iv You can read more about this in my article on Monzen-nakachō.

v From my understanding, the Ōyama Kaidō was originally a pilgrimage route that ran from Mt. Ōyama (in Kanagawa Prefecture) and terminated near Akasaka in Edo.

vi In the Heian Period, the use of highfalutin kanji would have been the domain of highly educated monks and court elite. Ateji would have been par for the course in this rural coastal area of the Kantō. By the 1500’s, highfalutin kanji would par for the course.

vii Also called 真言秘密 Shingon Himitsu the True Word Secret. This is a type of esoteric Buddhism that I don’t know much about other than it sounds like utter horse shit. They have secret rites that teach the initiated how to summon demons, change the weather, and heal the sick by chanting or meditating or touching things. In other words, it makes claims about the nature of the universe and reality that are just as spurious as those of every other religion out there.

viii All Japanese temples have 3 names, 山号 sangō mountain name (a metaphorical mountain name), and 院号 ingō (cloister name – like a branch name), 寺号 jigō temple name (official temple name). The first two are honorary names that are generally not used in common parlance. The last name, the jigō, is the usual way to refer to a temple.

ix One which yoga schools and amateur place name websites cherry pick the fuck out of to no good end…

x I could be wrong. Or could I…?

What does Adachi mean?

In Japanese History on July 16, 2013 at 12:29 am

Adachi (Standing Legs)

Map of the Tokyo Metropolis. Adachi Ward is highlighted in red.

Map of the Tokyo Metropolis.
Adachi Ward is highlighted in red.

We had a 3-day weekend here in Japan, yesterday was 海の日 Umi no Hi Sea Day which celebrates the, um, sea which surrounds Japan and from time to time wreaks great havoc and tragedy upon this fair group of islands. I spent all of my spare time with Mrs. JapanThis and so I had no time for researching and writing. But I’m back and ready to jump into an area of  Tōkyō I don’t think I’ve covered yet. I hope this is a good segue from my last place name post.

Adachi is a very ancient name that most likely pre-dates the 大化ノ改新 Taika no Kaishin Taika Reforms of the mid-600’s. I mentioned the Taika Reforms a few times, but I think the most I’ve ever talked about it was in my article on Mita, which also linked to the Wiki page on the subject. Be sure to read that article. You’ll see how much JapanThis has changed.

Anyhoo, one of the major outcomes of the Taika Reforms was the creation of the system of 国 kuni provinces, including our beloved 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In my article on Musashi, I talked about districts within Musashi Province. If you were paying attention, I mentioned 足立郡 Adachi-gun. So this name is on the books from some of the earliest eras of Japan’s historical record[i].

The Japanese apparently sucked at using kanji in this era – or more likely, hadn’t figured out how to adapt it to their own language yet – so they wrote things in ateji. This type of early ateji is called 万葉仮名 man’yōgana. The earliest form of Adachi that we have was written out phonetically as 阿太知 Adachi Adachi. Later the word becomes standardized as 足立 Adachi Adachi. Since the name began its life in such antiquity, it’s impossible to tell what the real meaning is[ii]. But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating since the old days to the present days. So let’s take a look at some of the theories and try to evaluate them.

Adachi Ward is pretty much all Tokyo shitamachi. In the Edo Period, this area fell well outside of the city of Edo, it was a sleepy suburb of the bustling capital.

Adachi Ward is pretty much all Tokyo shitamachi.
In the Edo Period, this area fell well outside of the city of Edo, it was a sleepy suburb of the bustling capital.

The most reasonable etymology I’ve come across is this one. As wetlands were common in this area[iii], there was a plot of land or area where many reeds were growing (ie; 葦が立つ ashi ga tatsu reeds are standing). Thus the name would have originally been 葦立 Ashidachi, but over time the pronunciation changed to Adachi[iv]. During the Taika Reforms, when the imperial court in Nara was taking inventory of the provinces they claimed dominion over, they had to render many backwater areas into kanji. Hearing the name Adachi, they chose to transcribe the name as 足立 Adachi.

The other theory I heard, is one of those ridiculous mythological stories that until I heard the story of Daita, I would have dismissed outright as sheer stupidity. I’ll probably dismiss this one outright as well, but before that, let’s at least take a look at it.

Captain Japan

Captain Japan

The story goes that this is place where 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (or as I like to call him, Captain Japan) stood up and took his first steps. Either that, or this is the place where Yamato Takeru recovered from an illness or an injury[v].

The same story is told of another dude. This time, instead of Captain Japan, the story revolves around 坂上田村麻呂 Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (or as I like to call him, the guy whose name I can’t be arsed to remember). The general idea behind these legends is that Yamato Takeru or Sakanoue no Tamuramaro’s 足が立った ashi ga tatta “(their) legs stood up.” Ridiculous folk etymology, if you ask me.

Just for those who care, Yamato Takeru was a legendary transvestite prince and son of the legendary 12th emperor. There is no reason to believe he or his father ever really existed, especially in light of his ridiculous name, which literally means Japan Warrior[vi]. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was most likely a real dude. They say he was the 2nd person to ever receive the title shōgun. According to legend, he received this appointment for subjugating the indigenous peoples of the Tōhōku area and forcing them up into Ezo (modern Hokkaidō) for Japanese lebensraum on 本州 Honshū the main island.

Both of these etymologies are lacking in my opinion, the real meaning of the word most likely obscured by ateji in the 600’s. That said, taking the etymology of a modern Japanese place name (in the Kantō area, no less) all the way back to the 600’s is a pretty impressive feat. Of all the place names we’ve covered so far on JapanThis, only a handful fall into this category.

As a result of the Taika Reforms, 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province was created. 安達郡 Adachi-gun Adachi District was created with the province. The name has been preserved in the modern 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward in the northern Tōkyō Metropolis.

This is a map of Musashi Province.

This is a map of Musashi Province.
The highlighted area is the Adachi District.
The bright red area is modern Adachi Ward.

One last thing, among snobbier Tōkyōites, Adachi Ward has a somewhat less than desirable image as a bastion of ヤンキー yankī yankee culture. Yankees are Japan’s version of white trash. I’ve heard it put to me once this way, “Yankees are the Jersey Shore of Japan. Like a bunch of people from Ōsaka and Saitama moved to Tōkyō and interbred.”

Ouch! Even if you’ve never been to Japan, there should be enough colorful cultural commentary in there to keep you thinking for days.

Tokyo's Jersey Shore?

Adachi Yankee Family.
Tokyo’s Jersey Shore?

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[i] And by historical, I mean written history.

[ii] When the imperial court chose to transcribe names with kanji, they generally ignored the original meanings and just applied the kanji as one character per syllable (ateji).
Although there is no meaning to ateji, if you must know what the characters mean, here’s the breakdown:
阿 a nook/shadow 太 ta fat 知 chi wisdom.
足 a foot/leg 立 tachi standing

[iii] What?! Another “wetlands” etymology in Kantō? I’m shocked.

[iv] Keep in mind these names most likely pre-date the use of kanji among the masses in the area (which was essentially the boonies of a “country” which was essentially the boonies).

[v] We first came across Captain Japan in my article about Kasumigaseki.

[vi] Hence, the “Captain Japan” translation.

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.

What does Toshima mean?

In Japanese History on May 20, 2013 at 1:24 am

Toshima (Islands Abound)

Toshima Ward's logo

Toshima Ward’s logo

“However, the name survived. Even on Edo Era maps you can see references to the Toshima District. And these days, it’s one of the 23 Special Ward of Tōkyō. Good for it.”

marky star
(from an earlier, shittier draft of this article)


I totally just quoted myself.

For no good reason.

Right then, let’s get started.

Recently I’ve shifted direction towards the northern part of Tōkyō. We’ve touched on the holdings of the Toshima clan quite a bit recently, haven’t we? Shakujii, Nerima, and Itabashi – I covered Ikebukuro a while ago. Up until this point, I’ve been referring to a certain administrative area called 豊島郡 or 豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District.

As a real political entity, it seems that the Toshima district is quite ancient. From times immemorial (take that with a grain of salt) the etymology has been consistent. The bay* had a number of undeveloped, natural inlets that meandered well into the interior of what became Edo. Left unchecked, natural channels of water may merge with other natural channels of water and result in island-like formations. This is exactly what happened in this area. In fact, numerous “islands” were formed; one might say there was a proverbial “abundance of islands.”

豊 to richness, abundance
, shima islands

The kanji 豊 to/toyo is a really auspicious character. It’s “nobility ranking” is off the meters**. Given our previouos encounters with ateji in old place names, take that with a grain of salt.

Anyways… the Toshima area is first attested in the 700’s. At the turn of the century (1000’s), the 秩父氏 Chichibu clan (a branch of the Taira) was granted influence over the area by the Imperial court. The branch of Chichibu in Toshima took the name of their fief and became an independent clan***. They maintained dominion over the area until the 1400’s when Ōta Dōkan stepped up and slapped their dicks out of their hands and face-fucked them full-force with the giant phallus that was the Sengoku Era.

Ota Dokan. Don't let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the Sengoku Period.

Ota Dokan. Don’t let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the boring part of the Sengoku Period.

There were four major clans operating in the area:
豊島氏  the Toshima
渋谷氏  the Shibuya (vassal)
葛西氏  the Kasai (vassal)
江戸氏  the Edo (vassal)
There are place names derived from all of these clans still extant in Tōkyō today

Ōta Dōkan’s actions disrupted the old status quō and throughout the Muromachi Period the area was unstable. However, the district did not collapse or disappear.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The city of Edo was just one of many small cities in the district. Before the arrival of the Tokugawa, the district had been divided into two distinct areas, 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima and 南豊島郡 Minami Toshima-gun South Toshima. More about Kita Toshima later this week.

After the arrival of the Tokugawa, much of South Toshima fell under direct rule of the shougun as part of the city of Edo. The remaining areas of district continued to exist as an administrative unit separate from the city of Edo – part of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In 1868, the Emperor entered Edo Castle and Edo’s name was changed to Tōkyō. The boundary of the new city was different from the shōgun’s capital. The Edo Era Toshima District was incorporated into the new city limits. In 1878, the district was abolished when the new system of 区 ku wards was implemented in Tōkyō. But a district called 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima District continued to exist until 1932. An official ward called 豊島区 Toshima-ku Toshima Ward was created that year when all of the districts of Tōkyō were abolished. The kita (north) part of 北豊島 Kita Toshima wasn’t thrown out altogether… and we’ll talk about that missing tomorrow.



* At this point we can’t even say Edo Bay, let alone Tōkyō Bay. It was just “the bay.”
** The so-called second great unifier of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, received his -name from the imperial court in 1586. It brought potential lasting prestige to him and his newly founded clan, BUT…. use of the kanji in names and place names declined after the rise of the Tokugawa. And take THAT with a grain of salt, too!
*** I mentioned the Toshima clan in the recent articles about Shakujii and Nerima.

What does Nerima mean?

In Japanese History on May 10, 2013 at 12:34 am

Nerima (original meaning unclear)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. What a wuss.)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune in Shakujii Park. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. Either way, dude was a wuss.)

Today’s place name is another request. It was on my TO DO list but I sorta put it off because… well, let’s just say “can of worms.”

The history of Tōkyō generally starts with the Edo Period. But it wasn’t like this city just popped into existence in 1600. Before Tokugawa Ieyasu, there was Ōta Dōkan. Before him there was the 豊島氏 Toshima-shi Toshima Clan* and (spoiler alert) the Edo Clan. In terms of written records and political relevance, this area’s history actually begins in the Kamakura Period and only accelerates from there.

Toshima family crest

Toshima family crest

The necessary background is this:

The Toshima clan controlled large areas of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province. Most of their dominion fell within the present Tōkyō/Chiba area. The 郡 gun district was called 豊島郡 Toshima-gun. Their seat of governance was in at 平塚城 Hiratsuka-jō (also known as 豊島城 Toshima-jō), but the family was firmly established in their residential estate in Shakujii Castle and had another fortification at Nerima Castle).** Today in Kita Ward, there is still a shrine called 平塚神社 Hiratsuka Jinja Hiratsuka Shrine. So the Toshima influence was strongest in the north region of Tōkyō. Place names that will definitely come up later will be Itabashi and Edo. The only reason I mention this is because these names will come up again later, for sure.

But OK, back to the subject at hand…

What does Nerima mean?

At first glance the kanji are confusing.

練 neri training, kneading
 (u)ma horse

First, let’s look at the etymologies that make use of the 練り neri “training” and ma “horse” theories

★ One of the oldest stories, documented from the Kamakura Period says that sometime between 700 and 800, there was a road connecting 武蔵国 Mushashi no Kuni Musashi Provice and 下総国 Shimōsa no kuni Shimōsa Province. On that road the Toshima clan had a 宿駅 shukueki a horse relay station. The name of the relay town was 乗沼 Norinuma, “ride-swamp”. This etymology claims that because the area was a wetland it had many lakes and, well, you could refresh your horses there, too. The local accent changed “Norinuma” to “Nerima” and eventually the kanji was changed to ateji.

a horse relay station

a horse relay station

★ Another theory says vassals of the Toshima family were training horses here. This is the most believable story, though it isn’t attested as early as the previous theory. So the name “training horses” is literal.
Compare this to Takadanobaba.

horse training place

horse training place

★ Another literal theory says some dude was stealing horses and keeping them here and then training them for resale. This kind of etymology, while entertaining, is unlikely IMO. But who knows…

dumb theory

Now let’s look at the clay theories

★ Another theory uses an alternate meaning of the kanji 練 neri. The kanji can also mean “knead” as in “knead bread” or “knead clay.” Supposedly there was an abundance of great clay for pottery making and the place was famous for kneading clay. This etymology says the name was originally 練場 Neriba Kneading Place. There are many examples of diachronic changes and dialect variants where ば ba becomes ま ma (and vice-versa). So linguistically speaking, it’s not impossible. On the site of the former Nerima Village (present day 貫井 Nukui), archaeologists discovered a type of kiln which was rare in the Edo-Tōkyō area.

kiln excavation

kiln excavation (this isn’t the one from Nukui, I couldn’t find a picture of that one)

★ Another clay theory claims that the dirt and clay in the area was sticky as if it had been kneaded professionally. Thus the area was called 練場 Neriba, just as in the theory I just mentioned. Over time the pronunciation changed from Neriba to Nerima. The clay hypotheses are intriguing.

wet clay! yummy!

wet clay. yay!

★ I’ve saved the weirdest theory for last. The Shakujii Basin lowlands were an expanse of lakes and swamps and so if you looked at water filled rice-paddies they looked really deep, as in “deep to the roots.” 根 ne root + 沼 numa swamp, marsh = 根の沼 Ne no numa root deep swamp, which changed to 根沼 Nenuma root swamp. Eventually Nenuma changed to Nerima and the kanji was changed to ateji (just like Hibiya).

BTW – The place name 丹根沼 Tannenuma exists in Hokkaidō.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do (丹根沼、北海道)

So it looks like the jury is out on this one. And while every theory, except the last one, has an argument based on kanji, the possibility of the name being just ateji is very possible. It’s particularly possible with old names that pre-date the Edo Period. At any point in history ateji could have been used – and changed later again to support other folk etymologies. So this one will just be a mystery.

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* Toshima can be written 豊島 or 豊嶋.
** Toshima Amusement Park (called としまえん Toshima-en in Japanese) is built on the castle ruins of Nerima-jō.

Why is Hibiya called Hibiya?

In Japanese History on March 18, 2013 at 5:31 am

Hibiya (no meaning)

Today’s place name is an interesting one.

The name 日比谷 Hibiya is 当て字 ateji. Ateji are words that use kanji characters for their phonetic properties instead of their ideographic properties. That is to say, the meaning of the character isn’t as important as the sounds. The meaning of the characters may be completely irrelevant or may have some forced meaning. For example, 珈琲 kōhī (coffee) is ateji. The first character refers to a kind of ancient hair pin. The second character refers to a string of pearls. The meaning of the characters is irrelevant and they are used to represent the sounds コー kō and ヒー hī (the latter is not even an sound native to the Japanese language).

As mentioned in the post about Chiyoda, before the Edo Period, Edo was just one of many small villages around what is now Tokyo Bay. Well before the Edo Period, the areas from Chiyoda (the Imperial Palace) to the sea were a mix of sea food production sites and agricultural areas. We can’t know for certain where it was, but one of the spots was on an inlet and was marked by 篊 hibi. Hibi are bunches of bamboo or brushwood used to grow and farm 海苔 nori (nori, a kind of seaweed).

what did hibiya look like before the edo period?

this is what the original hibiya (not today’s hibiya) looked like before the edo period. these are “hibi,” by the way.

The area was known for people and shops farming and selling nori (which was grown on hibi). Those people and shops would have been referred to as 篊屋 hibi-ya (hibi-people/hibi-shops). As the area grew (and the nori farmers presumably moved out), the place name came to be written 比々谷 Hibiya which has no meaning (ateji). The first character means “comparison” and represents the sound ひ hi. The second character just means “repeat the previous sound.” (the second “hi” become “bi” according to euphonic rules called 連濁). The final character is common in Japanese place names and means “valley.” This final character is also meaningless because there is no valley here. If anything, it’s part of the alluvial plain created by the waters in Tokyo Bay*.

Sometime in the Edo Period, 比々谷 came to be written as 日比谷 and that is the way it is still written today. The characters as they are now are “sun” “compare” and “valley, respectively.

If you go to Hibiya Park today, you’ll notice that there is a large pond near the Imperial Palace (Edo Castle). This pond was part of the system of moats around Edo Castle. The moat is gone today, but the pond is in its place. If you walk around the pond, you’ll notice a line of stone wall fortifications which match the castle area. This was one of the moat’s walls. Also, you’ll notice a photo spot called日比谷見附 Hibiya-Mitsuke (The Hibiya Approach). This was the path to the 日比谷御門 Hibiya Go-Mon, one of many gates into the castle. Btw, 見附 means “approach” or “walkway.” So Akasaka-Mitsuke meant “the Akasaka Approach.” More about that later.

The area that is the park today used to house 2 daimyōs’ upper residences; Saga domain and Chōshū domain.

hibiya-mitsuke moat

remains of the stone fortifications that lined the hibiya-mitsuke moat. some homeless dude is doing his laundry on the top of it.

remains hibiya-mitsuke moat

today a pond is built on the former hibiya-mitsuke moat. you can see carp in the water, and some freaky turtles & a stupid bird on the rocks.

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* I’m not too familiar with geological terminology, but I think alluvium is the right word here. If I’m wrong, let me know and I’ll update the text.

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