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Posts Tagged ‘azabu’

Ōedo Line: Azabu Jūban

In Japanese History on July 2, 2015 at 6:57 am

Azabu-Jūban (Azabu #10)

Azabu Jūban Shrine has never been a major shrine, but it had much more land prior to WWII. Today, the shrine is an echo of its former self.

Azabu Jūban Shrine has never been a major shrine, but it had much more land prior to WWII. Today, the shrine is an echo of its former self.

In the early days of the Edo Period, the Furukawa river was tamed a bit and a series of bridges were built along it to encourage growth of the local villages that had existed in the area. The construction team that worked in this area was apparently called Azabu #10. The name stuck. There’s even a shrine called Azabu-Jūban Inari Shrine.

Today, very little remains of Azabu Jūban Shrine. (click the photo to see more of my photos of Japan)

Today, very little remains of Azabu Jūban Shrine.
(click the photo to see more of my photos of Japan)

Azabu’s reputation is glamour, fashion, expensive shops, ridiculous rent, international jet setters, and playground of the rich and beautiful. But history nerds can find a lot in this area. If you have a copy of Tōkyō: A Spatial Anthropology by Jin’nai Hidenobu and some good maps, you’ll find yourself weaving in and out of former daimyō residences, commoner towns, samurai homes of every rank, and temples and shrines affiliated with various military houses.

Even the yamanote (high city/samurai areas) of Azabu have shitamachi (low city/commoner areas)

Even the yamanote (high city/samurai areas) of Azabu have shitamachi (low city/commoner areas)

A walk in any direction out of Exit 4 will send you on an adventure illustrating how yamanote and shitamachi were actually intermixed and interdependent. But I recommend following the Furukawa River towards Tōkyō Tower or heading down the shopping street towards Roppongi Hills or Moto-Azabu. Check the maps first and don’t be afraid to hit the side streets.

This oven produces some of the best pizza outside of Italy. No joke.

This oven produces some of the best pizza outside of Italy. No joke.

You can see where Henry Heusken was killed, where Kiyokawa Hachirō was killed, where the first American Embassy was, and much, much more. Oh, and did mention that there are a handful of shops that have been in operation since the Edo Period? I recommend Sarashina Nagazaka and Sarashina Horii (both are soba shops family owned since the Edo Period)[i]. I also recommend Savoy for one of the most authentic napoletano pizzas in Tōkyō[ii].

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

[i] Both soba shops are excellent. Sarashina Horii seems to be more popular and has a wider variety, but Sarashina Nagazaka is just as good and less cramped and crowded. Sarashina Horii’s big plus for me is that they have history books about soba shops in Edo-Tōkyō sitting around that you can read while you wait for your food. Sarashina Nagazaka has a stone monument commemorating the location and a photo from the 1860-70’s of the original shop and the shopping street. In short, you can’t go wrong with either shop.
[ii] The chefs can speak fluent Italian so if you can speak the language they seem pretty eager to interact. As a result, from time to time you’ll find Italians here (including diplomats who work at the embassy, which is about a 20 minute walk from here – on, you guessed it, a former daimyō residence).
[iii] The 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residence of the Mōri clan was located here. There’s a plaque commemorating the 毛利甲斐守邸跡 Mōri Kai no Kami Teiato Remains of the Mansion of Mōri of Chōfu Domain (a branch family of main Mōri clan in Chōshū). A handful of the 47 Rōnin were held in custody here (and if I’m not mistaken, committed seppuku on the site). The nearby National Art Center Tokyo sits on the former site of the Uwajima Domain (in modern Ehime Prefecture). Tōkyō Midtown sits on the former site of the middle residence of the main branch of the Mōri clan, lords of Chōshū.

What does Hirō mean?

In Japanese History on November 21, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Hirō (Wide Tail, Spacious Tail)



The area called 広尾 Hirō[i] is the area surrounded by 渋谷区恵比寿 Shibuya-ku Ebisu Ebisu, Shibuya Ward and 南麻布 Minami Azabu, 西麻布 Nishi Azabu, and 南青山 Minami Aoyama – the 3 of which are in 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward. The area presently called Hirō is officially located in Shibuya Ward – though historically, Hirō has been considered both part of Shibuya and Azabu.

Hirō is boasts some of the priciest real estate in Tōkyō and the area surrounding 広尾駅 Hirō Eki Hirō Station has an upscale, international vibe. I can’t say much more about the area from firsthand experience because I think I’ve only been there once… and that was a month or so ago when I took Mrs. JapanThis there for Mexican food.

Let’s Look at the Kanji


wide, spacious


tail;  area where a mountain or hill fans out into a plain

Hirō is located in the lowlands under the 麻布台地 Azabu Daichi Azabu Plateau[ii] and so these kanji make sense. The hill fans out into a wide plain at the bottom of the plateau. But interestingly, this combination of kanji date from the Edo Period. There is an earlier and much more complicated writing 樋籠 Hirō that combines 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading and 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading.


gutter, conduit

basket, palanquin, secluded, etc…

This writing could just be ateji. However, there is an area called 埼玉県春日部市樋籠 Saitama-ken Kasukabe-shi Hirō Hirō, Kasukabe City, Saitama Prefecture. That place name is said to derive from its use as an emergency flood plain that protected the villages by absorbing excess water. If this kanji use is the same, the original kanji could be a reference to the nearby 渋谷川 Shibuya-gawa Shibuya River. This area was unsettled until the Meiji Period and so it could be that it was left undeveloped for the same reason: to absorb excess flood water to protect the nearby villages.

At any rate, the area came to have various names such as 広野 Hiroya spacious field, 広野 Hirono spacious field, and by the nickname 土筆ヶ原 Tsukushi-ga-hara cattail field. The nickname definitely sounds like a reference to wetlands so there may be something to the idea that this area regularly flooded or was just wet enough to not be good for building villages in the area. By the coming of the Tokugawa, new flood control and river works came to be implemented on a large scale. One can only imagine that the area became more stable and soon you had daimyō building residences on the surrounding highlands. The sprawling lowlands were left as is.


cattails… yeah.

In the early Edo Period, there was a village here called 下渋谷村 Shimo-Shibuya Mura Lower Shibuya Village[iii] but in 1664 a merchant town was established called 下渋谷広尾町 Shimo-Shibuya Hirō-chō[iv]. The suffix 町 chō indicated that this was a merchant and artisan town. These merchant towns became the residential and commercial centers of Edo Period Hirō.

Then, during the reign of the 5th Shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the shōgunate undertook a series of land surveys collectively referred to as the 元禄検地 Gen’roku Kenchi Gen’roku Land Surveys[v]. The open, spacious field previously referred to as Tsukushi-ga-Hara or Hirono/Hiroya was still there. After the land surveys, the name of the field was standardized and we start seeing maps and art with the name 広尾原 which could be read as Hirō-no-Hara or Hirō-ga-Hara.

inu kubo - tokugawa tsunayoshi

In the early 1800’s, the 江戸名所図会 Edo Meisho Zue Guidebook to the Famous Places of Edo, depicts a wide open field of ススキ susuki Japanese silver grass. You can get a real feeling for the rustic beauty of the area in the Edo Period. One of the images focuses on the area near 山下橋 Yamashita-bashi Yamashita Bridge. The bridge was also known as 水車橋 Suisha-bashi Water Wheel Bridge.

This name nickname is a reference to Hirō-chō’s most famous landmark, the 玉川水車 Tamagawa Suisha Tamagawa Water Wheel, more commonly called 広尾水車 Hirō Suisha Hirō Water wheel. The water wheel may have served several purposes, but my main understanding is that it was for flood control.

Hiroo-bashi and you can see the water wheel in the middle ground and the field in the distance.

Hiroo-bashi and you can see the water wheel in the middle ground and the field in the distance.

a colorized version of the aforementioned picture

a colorized version of the aforementioned picture

Hirō-no-Hara (or Tsukushi-ga-Hara) was a place where friends, families, and lovers would come to take a stroll in the beautiful greenery, gaze at the distant hills and mountains, and relax and enjoy picnics. Today that area corresponds to the area from 広尾5丁目 Hirō 5-chōme to 恵比寿2丁目 Ebisu Ebisu 2-chōme. If you note the picture below, I’ve highlighted the area. It’s essentially present day 広尾病院 Hirō Byō’in Hirō General Hospital and 慶應義塾幼稚舎 Keiō Gijuku Yōchisha Primary School.

The area had always been quite rustic and located just outside of the city limits of Edo, but in 1713, 広尾橋 Hirōbashi the Hirō Bridge was built over the 古川 Furukawa Furukawa River[vi]. This  added a convenient access point that allowed more traffic in and out of the area. As a result, the area was formalized under the jurisdiction of the 江戸町奉行 Edo machi-bugyō. A machi-bugyō was the senior administrative official of a large city[vii]. The term is often translated as “commissioner,” but in short, he was like a mayor, a police commissioner, a fire commissioner, a tax commissioner, and local chief justice. Regardless of what his job may or may not translate to in Modern English, the move meant that while this area had heretofore been a shōgunate holding, from 1713 on this was officially part of Edo – not some outlying suburb.

In 1870 (Meiji 3), 渋谷広尾町 Shibuya Hirō-chō was split into 3 towns: 渋谷広尾町 Shibuya Hirō-chō, Shibuya Kami-Hirō-chō, and 渋谷下広尾町 Shibuya Shimo-Hirō-chō[viii]. Since then the area has been further divided and re-administered many times. As such, even though the area called Hirō is actually in present day Shibuya Ward, 広尾神社 Hirō Jinja Hirō Shrine is in 港区南麻布 Minato-ku Minami Azabu Minami Azabu, Minato Ward.

The "wide field"

The “wide field”

A Few Famous Places in Hirō

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve only been to Hirō once – as far as I know. That said, I’ve been told by Rekishi no Tabi that Hirō is a goldmine of Edo Period coolness if you know where to look. Given its proximity to massive residences of some of the richest daimyō, I am sure this is true. So apologies if my list comes up short compared to his.

La Jolla Mexican restaurant in Hiro.

La Jolla Mexican restaurant in Hiro.

The First Mexican Restaurant in Tōkyō

A throw’s stone away from Hirō Station is a small Mexican restaurant called La Jolla. Mexican food is still a bit scarce in Tōkyō. If you’re an American used to a variety of home-style dishes and high end Mexican food readily available in your hometown, you’ll find yourself going without for a long time in Tōkyō. I’ve met foreigners who have standing offers to blow anyone who can get them a decent tamale and some pico de gallo that actually has flavor.

This shop opened in 1987 and claims to be the first Mexican restaurant in the metropolis. The shop came highly recommended by a few people and was actually what brought me to Hirō in the first place. It wasn’t bad and if you’re in the area and have a craving for enchiladas or something, it might cure your hankering for a spankering of la cocina mexicana. I’m still looking for the perfect plate of tacos al pastor and… yeah, I’d probably blow you for a decent tamale[ix].

Kuroda Nagamasa's grave or something...

Kuroda Nagamasa’s grave or something…

The Grave of Kuroda Nagamasa at Shō’un-ji

黒田長政 Kuroda Nagamasa was a famous general during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and early Edo Period. He was originally a retainer of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and despite having to lead his troops into Korea on Hideyoshi’s ridiculous mission to invade China, Nagamasa and his samurai held off the Koreans and protected the Japanese forces as they retreated from the Korean Peninsula. It was a shit job, but he was paid well for it. Oh, and if his family name sounds familiar, that’s because he was the son of his even more famous father, Kuroda Kanbei, who was the subject of a recent NHK Taiga Drama.

Later, Nagamasa served directly under 2nd shōgun, Tokugawa Hidetada, in the Winter and Summer Sieges of Ōsaka Castle in 1614 and 1615 respectively. The Kuroda Clan were the lords of 福岡藩 Fukuoka Han Fukuoka Domain until 1871 when a certain douchebag named Price Arisugawa Taruhito was installed as a Provincial Governor. But more about that later.

Anyhoo, Nagamasa’s grave is located at 祥雲寺 Shō’un-ji Shō’un Temple. The temple is located on the 広尾商店街 Hirō Shōtengai Hirō Shopping Street near Hirō Station. In the Edo Period, the temple served as a 菩提寺 bodaiji family temple of the Kuroda family. The Kuroda clan had close connections to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family and began intermarrying early in the Edo Period. A newly formed branch called the 松平黒田家 Matsudaira Kuroda-ke Matsudaira Kuroda Family was established that had direct bloodlines to the shōgun family. As a result, various shōguns or emissaries of the shōgun family came to this temple for お墓参り o-haka mairi visiting and maintaining graves and observing Buddhist memorial services.

Autumn foliage at the former estate of the Morioka Domain.

Autumn foliage at the former estate of the Morioka Domain.

The Remains of the Nanbu Estate

OK, things might get a little messy now…
Near Hirō Station there is a large park with lush greenery. This park actually lies in Minami Azabu and not Hirō, but that’s neither here nor there. In English, the park called Arisugawa Park – more about that later.

In the Edo Period, this plot of land was the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence[x] of the 南部氏 Nanbu-shi Nanbu Clan.  They were the lords of 盛岡藩 Morioka Han Morioka Domain and based out of 盛岡城 Morioka-jō Morioka Castle in present day Aomori. These days, most people think of Morioka as a city and Nanbu as a region and a dialect – especially people from Aomori. That’s because during the Edo Period the 2 cadet branches were formed that held 支藩 shihan satellite domains[xi]:

Domain Name

Year Established


Morioka Han



Hachinohe Han



Shichinohe Han



Since all three domains were controlled by the same family, it was and is easier to refer to the area collectively as 南部藩 Nanbu Han Nanbu Domain. The Nanbu were loyal to the Tokugawa to the bitter end and fought against the Meiji Coup even after the shōgunate fell. As a result, the Nanbu clan was punished by the newly formed Meiji Government[xiii]. In a moment, we’ll see how this affected their lower residence near Hirō.

But in fiction, Morioka/Nanbu Domain plays a major role in the movies 壬生義士伝 Mibugishiden When the Last Sword is Drawn and たそがれ清兵衛 Tasogare Seibei Twilight Samurai. The Japanese seem to love the idea of a bunch of country bumpkin samurai fighting to the death for a lost cause. The problem is that having been defeated and humiliated by the winners of the Meiji Coup, the Nanbu Clan and their retainers switched sides and went 100% pro-Imperial Theocracy. I’m not even joking when I say that these “fierce Tokugawa loyalists” drank the Meiji Kool Aid so fast it hurts. Case in point: Some prominent 20th century figures in Pre-WWII and Post-WWII descended from high ranking Nanbu retainers. The most infamous were convicted war criminals 板垣征四郎 Itagaki Seishirō and 東條英機 Tōjō Hideki. In our own time, the Nanbu family has gone so far off the deep end that the 45th generational head of the family was the Chief Priest of 靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja Yasukuni Shrine from 2004-2006.

Anways, the shape of modern day Arisugawa Park is more or less the same as the lower residence of the Nanbu Clan. I haven’t been to this park yet, so I don’t know if anything of their palace remains, but I highly doubt it.

If you haven't seen "When the Last Sword is Drawn," close your browser and go rent it now.

If you haven’t seen “When the Last Sword is Drawn,” close your browser and go rent it now.


Arisugawa Park

Today, the former lower estate of the Nanbu Clan is a beautiful park. The full name of the park is 有栖川宮記念公園 Arisugawa-no-miya Kinen Kōen Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park – commonly abbreviated as Arisugawa Park. As I mentioned earlier Arisugawa was a dude… a dude whom longtime readers will know I don’t hold in very high regard.


Who was Arisugawa?

I recently wrote a little about him in my 15 page review of Romulus Hillsborough’s book, Samurai Revolution. Feel free to download the review (it’s a PDF), but I’m going to give you more Arisugawa Taruhito than you can shake a stick at now.

His full name was 有栖川宮熾仁親王 Arisugawa-no-miya Taruhito-Shinnō. The name can be abbreviated as Prince Arisugawa Taruhito. The family name is technically Arisugawa but the suffix miya is attached. This suffix indicates that the person is a member of the imperial family. His given name was Taruhito. And the suffix shinnō indicates that he was an imperial prince[xiv].

Despite being a courtier, Taruhito seems to have been a fairly intelligent and capable guy. However, personality-wise, he was a total douche bag. He was a close advisor of 孝明天皇 Kōmei Tennō the Emperor Kōmei. The emperor was fiercely xenophobic and anti-foreigner, though he believed the shōgunate was the only apparatus capable of running the country. Later, he was a close confidant of 明治天皇 Meiji Tennō the Meiji Emperor, whose court was made up of anti-shōgunate radicals from Satsuma and Chōshū.

Prince Arisugawa cosplaying as a white imperialist dickhead

Prince Arisugawa cosplaying as a white imperialist dickhead

In 1861, he was betrothed to 和宮親子内親王, Kazu-no-miya Chikako-Naishinnō – daughter of Emperor Ninkō[xv]. She is usually referred to as just Kazunomiya or sometimes Princess Kazu[xvi]. The title naishinnō means imperial princess and is similar to the aforementioned title, shinnō. The engagement was broken off so that she could be married to the 14th shōgun, 徳川家茂 Tokugawa Iemochi. The intention was to build a stronger bond between the imperial court in Kyōto and the shōgunate in Edo[xvii].

In the end, Taruhito ended up being married to a daughter of the batshit crazy daimyō of Mito Domain[xviii], Tokugawa Nariaki. Nariaki, despite being a close relative of the shōgun family who shared a name with the shōgun family, and owed all of his wealth, status, and privilege to the shōgun family was essentially a pro-imperial, xenophobic nutball who was considered a loose cannon by everyone around him.


Kazu-no-miya. I’d hit it.

Do You Have a Point?

So I’m going on and on about this dude’s background and bombarding you with footnotes. I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this (if you haven’t already quit reading). But rest assured – I have a point. I’m trying to paint a picture of Taruhito’s environment. He was surrounded the most negative and radical elements and philosophies of the Bakumatsu for his whole adult life.

This is why it should come as no surprise that after Prince Arisugawa was given nominal control of the newly named “Imperial Army,” he set out to make a name for himself as the imperial courtier who restored the martial dignity of the imperial family that had been dead for… oh, I don’t know, about 600 years. What better way to restore that dignity than bitch slapping the Tokugawa? Yes, the Tokugawa who had protected the imperial court and more or less suppressed war for about 250 years? Oh, and I said he was given “nominal control” over the anti-shōgunate army, right? For all intents and purposes, the psychologically unstable, pro-imperial, anti-shōgunate Satsuma native, Saigō Takamori was really calling all the shots.

I can see where this is going...

I can see where this is going…

Arisugawa’s Demands

Before the pro-imperial forces had reached Edo, Arisugawa proved himself to be a total dick. First, he asked for Edo Castle to be surrendered. He wanted every Tokugawa warship (they had some of the most state of the art western warships). He wanted all weapons, arsenals, and munitions of any sort handed over.

But then his demands got ridiculous. The first of his insane requests was that Tokugawa Yoshinobu turn himself over to the so-called imperial army to await 天誅 tenchū divine punishment or heaven’s revenge. In the context of pro-imperialism, this term implies that you are at the mercy of the emperor (or his cronies) as a living god incarnate. In the context of the Bakumatsu, this was a word that pro-imperial, anti-shōgunate terrorists used to justify their acts of violence. Supposedly, many of them would shout this word at their victims before assassinating them. The word was short hand for a certain, unquestionable death sentence. Yoshinobu would have known that because he was brother of Arisugawa’s wife and they shared a father. Yes, the batshit crazy Tokugawa Nariaki.

Come on. Look at this face. You don't want to behead me. What would the ladies do? Tokugawa Yoshinobu

Come on.
Look at this face. You don’t want to behead me.
What would the ladies do?
Tokugawa Yoshinobu

But wait, there’s more.

Arisugawa didn’t stop at demanding his brother-in-law’s head. He demanded that all 旗本 hatamoto be put under house arrest. Hatamoto were the direct retainers of the Tokugawa Shōgun Family. There were ranks within the grouping of hatamoto and I’m not sure which definition Arisugawa was referring to, but we can say that depending on how strictly or loosely he was using the term, the number of hatamoto could have been somewhere between 5000- 17,000 samurai.

Imagine your city had a population of 1,000,000 people. Now, imagine 5,000-17,000 public officials serving various administrative roles where suddenly, randomly confined to their homes and weren’t allowed to work. Now, imagine what would happen to the infrastructure and day to day operations of the government. The imperial army had a war strategy, but they had no plan in place for governing the country. Clowns.


Arisugawa… remember this face.

But wait, It Gets Better

Demanding his brother-in-law submit to execution was harsh. After all, the former shōgun was the protector of his relative and ex-fiancée, Kazunomiya[xix] and the other imperial women and court women in the 大奥 Ōoku women’s quarter of Edo Castle[xx]. Killing the shōgun would also turn not just the city of Edo against you, it could have caused fence-sitting Tokugawa branch families to turn against you as well. It could have turned Edo into a guerrilla warfare battleground that resulted in the utter destruction of the city. But all of this wasn’t enough.

In Arisugawa’s imagination, he would march his army into a pristine Edo with no shōgun. Magically, the city would have no hatamoto doing any jobs because they were under house arrest. And again, magically, the government would be fully operational and the commoners and merchants would welcome the Meiji Army as liberators. But Arisugawa had one final way to ingratiate himself with the people of Edo. He demanded that 100 shōgunate official be beheaded.

Beheading would have been the ultimate insult to a member of a samurai family. 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide would have at least allowed the offending member of the family to ritually atone for his transgressions in an effort to take ownership of his actions and release the family from any responsibility. I don’t know if he had a list of names or if he just wanted 100 random samurai officials, but FFS, I have no idea what he thought beheading all those people would accomplish. But all of these insane demands basically secured Arisugawa’s reputation as a total asshole.

Beheading 17 people looks like this. Imagine 100.

Beheading 17 people looks like this. Imagine 100.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū worked out a deal with 西郷隆盛 Saigō Takamori and negotiated a peaceful and bloodless surrender of Edo Castle. Later, the Nanbu clan joined an alliance of northern domains and rebelled against the imperial government. The coalition was called the 奥羽越列藩同盟 Ō-U-Etsu Reppan Dōmei[xxi] also known as 北部同盟 Hokubu Dōmei the Northern Alliance. The coalition soon fell apart and all the clans were punished by the Meiji Government. The Nanbu clan’s estate in Hirō was confiscated and supposedly Saigō Takamori took it over as a temporary residence.

Saigo Takamori and Katsu Kaishu negotiating a reasonable surrender of Edo Castle in Mita (modern day Tamachi Station area)

Saigo Takamori and Katsu Kaishu negotiating a reasonable surrender of Edo Castle in Mita
(modern day Tamachi Station area)

Prince Arisugawa had expressed a desire to buy the property and retire there, but it seems he never had the chance. He got malaria or some shit while staying Kansai[xxii] and died in 1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War. In 1896 the Arisugawa-no-miya family formally acquired the property and 有栖川宮威仁親王 Arisugawa-no-miya Takehito-Shinnō Prince Arisugawa Takehito moved in. Takehito died in 1913 without an heir, thus ending the Arisugawa-no-miya line. His best friend had been adopted into the family but wasn’t allowed to continue the family name, so he established a new cadet family under the name 高松宮宣仁親王 Takamatsu-no-miya Nobuhito-Shinnō Prince Takamatsu Nobuhito.

Prince Takamatsu looking  fabulous in his imp-wear.

Prince Takamatsu looking fabulous in his imp-wear.

Nobuhito seems to have been a pretty cool dude. Although he served in the imperial army in various capacities, his diaries expressed his objections to Japan’s actions in Manchuria and he opposed military action against China and the US. In November 1941 he told his older brother, Hirohito[xxiii], that Japan couldn’t defeat America and would possibly face defeat in “about 2 years.” Hirohito, who was too busy playing war god while squatting in Edo Castle[xxiv], started to ignore Nobuhito and the two became estranged. He and the empress actually pressed the cabinet and the emperor to remove Tōjō Hideki from his role as Prime Minister.

At any rate, before the war Nobuhito had taken an interest in the role of nature as a tool for educating children. In 1934, upon the anniversary of the death of Arisugawa Taruhito, he donated the land to Tōkyō City as a park for children to play sports and enjoy nature. That is when Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park was born. In 1975, the Tokyo metropolitan authority transferred the administration of the park to Minato Ward.

And now I realize how truly bizarre it is that I spent the bulk of this article talking about this park which isn’t even in Hirō. The end.



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[i] Also written Hiroo.
[ii] If you walk from Azabu past Arisugawa Park, you’ll notice that you are descending the Azabu Plateau and the Hirō Station area is lowlands.
[iii] I’ve mentioned this before 下 shimo lower was a prefix that designated a village that sat downstream, whereas 上 kami upper was a prefix that designated a village that sat upstream. The village in between would have been prefixed with 中 naka which means middle.
[iv] The merchant town quickly expanded and soon there were: Shimo-Hirō-chō, Naka-Hirō-chō, and Kami-Hirō-chō.
[v] Gen’roku is 年号 nengo a Japanese era name that occurred during Tsunayoshi’s reign. The Gen’roku Era is roughly 1688-1704, however these surveys took place here and there from 1680-1697.
[vi] The name for this stretch of the Shibuya River.
[vii] Edo actually had 2 machi-bugyō – and for a short time 3!
[viii] The 上 kami, 中 naka, and 下 shimo place names have long since disappeared from the official post codes. I’m not sure if bus stops bear these designations anymore either, but I couldn’t find anything via Google, so I’m assuming those labels are now defunct.
[ix] Somebody should start a Mexican Food in Tōkyō Blog!
[x] What’s a lower residence? Please read a quick primer on sankin-kōtai.
[xi] Literally, branch domains.
[xii] Kokudaka is the system for determining land value for taxation purposes in Edo period. One 石 koku was more or less the amount of rice it took to feed one person for a year. The system was used to value the incomes of daimyō and homes and fields of landowners. Read more about it here at Samurai Archives.
[xiii] In 1871, the Nanbu were divested of prefectural control and some dickhead named Arisugawa was given control. More about this later.
[xiv] The 世襲親王家 seshū shinnōke were the 4 cadet branches of the Imperial Family that could provide a successor to the Chrysanthemum Throne via adoption. 親王 shinnō is usually translated as “imperial prince” (but the literal meaning is more like “close blood relative of the emperor”). Basically, this was the imperial version of the Tokugawa 御三家 go-sanke, the three cadet families who could provide a successor to the shōgunate.
[xv] The emperor before Kōmei.
[xvi] If her name is modernized it would be Kazunomiya Chikako or Kazu Chikako.
[xvii] This effort was called 公武合体 kōbu gattai, Union of Court and Camp. The Japanese term for shōgunate, 幕府 bakufu, originally referred to the shōgun’s camp on the battleground. The reason for this particular princess to marry the shōgun was because Kazunomiya had been raised to the rank of naishinnō. If I’m not mistaken, this particular rank meant she could provide a successor to the imperial throne. If this was the case, then had she and Iemochi given birth to a boy, there would have been a very possibility that an emperor born of mixed imperial and Tokugawa blood could have ascended the throne instead of the Meiji Emperor. Japanese history would have taken a very, very different course…
[xviii] Who happened to also be the father of the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
[xix] Who loyally supported the Tokugawa after her marriage, it must be noted.
[xx] The wives of the shōguns had long been chosen from the imperial court.
[xxi] You can read more about the Northern Alliance here.
[xxii] As one does.
[xxiii] That’s 昭和天皇 Shōwa Tennō Shōwa Emperor to you and me.
[xxiv] 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle.

Why is Roppongi called Roppongi

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on February 12, 2014 at 1:42 am

Roppongi (the 6 trees)

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Just a quick heads up, this was written in Open Office, which is one of the shittiest pieces of software ever. It’s free, so I don’t expect much, but every time I use this program, the text formatting is all funky. So please forgive all the weird font changes and font size changes. It wasn’t written that way.
Word Press and Open Office don’t play well together.

ropponig croossing

I actually wrote about this topic once beforei.

On February 10th of last year, I was still trying to figure out how to breathe life back into a stagnant blog. I was determined to commit to it and was keeping up with my idea of “if I don’t have a big topic to write about, I’ll cover one Tōkyō place name a week.” In the beginning there was minimal research put in because I just covered a few topics that I was familiar with. Now one year later, JapanThis has transformed into something beautiful – something I’m fiercely proud of.

So Roppongi wasn’t the first place name I covered, but it was one of the really early ones. The reason I chose it was because it was relatively easy. Looking back at this 2 paragraph monstrosity, I feel a deep and dark shame. It’s nowhere near the level of quality I demand of myself now. It’s embarrassing and makes me want to vomit out of my ass and/or commit seppuku.

But today I’m going to set the record straight.

Today, Roppongi is a party town. For years it’s been popular with foreigners due to its proximity to so many foreign embassies. Because of this proximity, the area is relatively English-friendly which makes it a destination for foreigners visiting Japan and the seedy businesses that often cater to (or try to take advantage of) foreigners.

Roppongi has a bad reputation among Tōkyōites and among foreigners who try learn the so-called “Japanese Way.” I’m not really into Roppongi. But I’ve learned to not hate on it so much over the years and as it turns out, the area has a very interesting history if you leave the so-called Roppongi Crossing area, which is pretty much one of the most irritating places in the world.

Alright, so let’s get into this…


So, Roppongi. What does it mean?

If we look at the kanji:


6 tall, cylindrical things


(generally, tall and cylindrical)

There are a few opinions about this etymology. As any seasoned reader of JapanThis knows, the kanji can’t always be trusted to accurately reflect ancient place names. I mentioned as an aside in my article on Why was Edo called Edo? That this area, now called Minato-ku had been inhabited by humans for a very long time. From the get go, I want to say that there is a chance that this is name that may or may not be Japanese. It may or may not have anything to do with the kanji we have have today. To be blunt, there is no way of knowing.

The one thing we do know for sure is that the first recorded reference to “Roppongi” came in 1828 (late Edo Period) in a correspondence with the shōgunate. However, we don’t know exactly what area was being referred to. In fact, Roppongi didn’t appear on a map until 1878 with the creation of 麻布区 Azabu-ku Azabu Wardii.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the "shoten-gai." The botom two pitctures are of Roppongi Crossing.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the “shoten-gai.” The bottom two pictures are of Roppongi Crossing.


Literal: There were 6 tall trees used as landmarks

Roppongi is one of the highest plateaux in Tōkyō. This theory says that waaaaaaaay back – most likely some time between the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period – there was a place here called 六方庵 Roppō-an Hermitage of the 6 Directions. In the garden of this residence, there were 6 tall trees.

The kanji iori/an is puzzling. It usually refers to a rustic home or tea house. However, in the Heian Period it could refer to a military encampment, headquarters, barracks, or even a fortress. More about this later.

Anyhoo, because of it’s elevation and high visibility, the 6 tall trees were landmarks. People disagree about whether these were matsu pine trees or keyaki zelkova trees. This theory refers to a time so long ago that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. The presence of keyaki trees is intriguing, though, because today there is a street called 欅坂 Keyakizaka between Azabu and Roppongi.

If you dropped the word iori/an hermitage, and added the kanji ki trees, in the local dialect it became Roppon-gi. A variation of this etymology is that it comes from 六方の木 Roppō no ki which got reduced to Roppo’ n’ gi. More about this later.

Obviously, we don’t know if this place actually existed, but linguistically speaking, it’s plausible. These kind of sound changes are observable in Modern Japanese. Anyone with exposure to day-to-day Japanese of our era will certainly have seen and heard this kind of vernaculariii.

6 trees

Literal: It’s derived from a family name

This is actually two theories, but they’re based on the premise that that there was a noble family called 六方 Roppō that lived here before the Edo Periodiv.
1) In the local dialect,
六方家 Roppō-ke the Roppō Family was pronounced Roppo-ngi.
2) The area was considered
六方気 Roppō-ki Roppō-ish or Roppō style, which in the local dialect was pronounced Roppo-ngi.

The interesting thing about this theory is that it also refers to Roppō and reinforces the Roppō-an theoryv. Whether it was a rustic hermitage or noble’s fortress, the high ground would be very suitable.

Linguistically, the sound changes are absolutely plausible.

There just isn’t any other evidence besides these etymology stories. No deeds of the Edo Roppō family. No tales of legendary tea ceremonies at Roppō Hermitage. No references to this place at all. And to top it all off, Roppō isn’t a family name today (as far as I can tell)vi.

when i hear the word "庵,”  I imagine this kind of building.

when i hear the word “庵,” I imagine this kind of building.

Figurative: A legendary 6 man sep
puku party went down here

During the 源平合戦 Genpei Gassen Genpei Warvii, the Genji forces pursued 6 Taira samurai and fought until 5 died here. A single Taira samurai managed to escape and rather than being cut down, slit his own belly to resist capture or execution. He died under a solitary pine tree. They group was remembered by the local people as “the 6 pines trees.” A variation of this story says that they all committed seppuku.

This isn’t a very likely etymology because, of course, there are no suriving shrines, graves, or much of anything to back up this theory. What’s more, there is another twist on this story that says these samurai were actually deserters, and traditionally Japanese people don’t take kindly to stories of deserters.

Either way you look at it, deserters or heros, this is a cool story because any story that ends in seppuku is – by definition – cool. But there’s not a single piece of evidence to back up.

There is such a thing as "seppuku fetish." And yes, is sexualized.

There is such a thing as “seppuku fetish.”And yes, it goes something like this… 

Theory 4
Creative: It’s a reference to 6 daimyō who lived here during the Edo Period

In English, this theory is usually stated as: “In the Edo Period, there were 6 major daimyō residences located here and so the area was named Roppongi.” But this is a great over-simplification, as you will soon see. There were MANY daimyō living in this area. Many city blocks of present Minato Ward still conform to the shape of the vast estates that once stood here. The crux of this theory is not that there were just 6 daimyō here, but that there were 6 daimyō who had family names that referenced trees in their family namesviii.

Let’s take a look at the daimyō who are generally cited:


Yonezawa Han

above the cedar trees The Minsitry of Foreign Affairs and Azabu Post Office sit on the former upper and middle residences of Yonezawa Domain.

Kustuki Han

decaying trees I can’t find the location of their Edo residences (one source says the upper residence was in Akasaka), but the family used Sengaku-ji as their funerary temple.

Niimi Han

green trees I can’t find their Edo residences, but the funerary temple of the Aoki clan of Niimi Domain is located at Zuishō-ji in Shirokane-dai.

Tatsuta Han

off-kilter pauwlonia tree Allegedly, this family’s lower residence was located on Toriizaka. This is hard for me to confirm because, well, I’ll get into it later.


Tan’nan Han

tall tree(s) The middle residence for a Tan’nan Domain was located in Azabu Kōgaibashi.

Ono Han

Komatsu Han

a single weeping willow The family funerary temple was Zōjō-ji! If I’m not mistaken, their cemetary is now located across from Tōkyō tower where Kondō Isami’s father is buried. The upper residence was once located in west Shinbashi. (There were two daimyō families located in this area with same name; I don’t know anything else about them).

This is the most popular theory by a long shot. Even Wikipedia likes it.

But it has a few problems. No Edo Period maps listed anything as Roppongi. This isn’t unusual, as time and time again we say common nicknames get applied to areas in the administrative re-shuffling that happened in the Meiji Era. But it also means, we don’t really know where the area originally referred to was nor do we know its size. Besides, if I had a penny for every Japanese family name with a reference to a tree in it, I’d be able to buy your mom – several times over.

But looking at the table above, you can see these daimyō mansions were in Shinbashi, Akasaka, Azabu, and Shirokane. This is all in present day Minato Ward – which doesn’t mean anything when trying to pinpoint a specific place. But it does mean something when you are walking somewhere, as people did before cars and trains. There is a certain centrality about the location of these daimyō.

But today Roppongi is a specific area and postal address. None of these daimyō had mansions in the area we would consider Roppongi today. In all fairness, the Takagi and Katagiri were literally right on the border, though. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the exact locations of some residences isn’t completely known – and in some cases, the daimyō family moved (or were re-shuffled).

That said, the location of funerary temples of some of the lesser daimyō in the vicinity does lend a bit of credence to the story. The other interesting thing is that some of the “mystery residences” are those of the Aoki, the Kutsuki, the Takagi, and the Katagiri. The first three just barely met the minimum kokudaka for daimyō status. If their domains’ value slipped below 10,000 koku, they could have had their domains confiscated. In 1650, Katagiri Tametsugu was demoted to hatamoto status for 無嗣断絶 mushi danzetsu the crime of dying without an appointed heirix. Tatsuta Domain was confiscated, subsequently abolished, and the family was reshuffled. Dying without an heir was considered an act of such abject stupidity by the shōgunate, that it always required immediate action. I would tend to agree. In a “feudal” society, if you don’t have a designated successor, you probably shouldn’t be governing anything. But then again, the boy was only 15.

Anyhoo, this seems to be the strongest theory simply because it’s the only with any evidence. It’s not air tight by any stretch of the imagination; much of its appeal coming from the fact that most people don’t know (or care) exactly where daimyō Edo residences were. True or not, in my opinion, this is the most interesting theory.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion. This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were. They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion.
This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were.
They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.
And yes, this is their upper residence. and as such it’s located at Edo Castle.

Figurative: 6 hitching poles…

There’s another theory about 6 poles (by extension, places) where you could tie up your horse. This is mostly a reference to (by Edo Period standards) nearby
Nihonbashi and not this area. Perhaps the idea being, samurai traveling long distances, could swap out a horse there, and then proceed to their 藩邸 hantei domain residence (essentially an embassay) on a horse that didn’t look worn out.

So, yup! Someone thought hitching poles near Nihonbashi would make a great place name over in Roppongi. The one thing I can say in defense of this theory is that, as I said before, until the name Roppongi was made official in the early Meiji Era under a western administrative system we have no idea where the name Roppongi referred to.

In conclusion, we have no idea where the name comes from. If you love historical linguistics or dialects, you might favor theories 1 & 2. If you’re a big fan of the Edo-Tōkyō, you probably like theory 4. Admittedly, they are appealing. The others have some charm, but ostensibly lack credibility.

But if you know them all, you can really see the hidden beauty of Edo-Tōkyō. Hopefully you can see why I’m so passionate about this city’s history. This is something I would never have said about Roppongi a few years ago. Foreigners who become “lifers” in Tōkyō generally shun Roppongi because Roppongi is for the newbies. Roppongi is for the idiots, Roppongi is for rich foreigners who can’t speak Japanese, Roppongi is where every sort of shadiness goes down. But for those of us who love Japanese History, especially Edo-Tōkyō, there is sooooooooooo much good shit in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for us, most of the best parts of Tōkyō are hidden. You really have to know where to look.

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

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i OMG, OMG, OMG, don’t get me started on how bad this blog started out.
ii Pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Azabu Ward no longer exists.
iii Some well known examples are 本当 hontō true reduced to honto and no is regularly reduced to /n/. And /g/ is often pronounced with a /n/ sound before it; すごい sugoiすんごい sungoi.
iv Allegedly.
v I haven’t come across this etymology, but one wonders if a mix of the Roppōan and Roppō family is possible. If there were 6 trees located on the property of the Roppō family, you could get a pun based on 六方の木 Roppō no ki (Roppo’ n’ gi) the Roppō’s trees and 六本木 Roppongi 6 trees. Call me crazy, but that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
vi A Google search just pulls up restaurants and geometry references (roppō literally means hexagon).
vii What exactly was the Genpei War? In short, it was a war between the Minamoto and Taira. More details here!
viii If you’re wondering what the hell a daimyō is and why there residences are CRUCIAL to understanding the history of Tōkyō, please read my short summary of sankin-kōtai here.
ix The family continued and committed mushi danzetsu a couple more times. After been so heavily punished by the shōgunate, you’d think the family would have set up some policy. I guess they weren’t the brightest bunch.

What does Keyakizaka mean?

In Japanese History on February 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Keyakizaka (Zelkova Hill)


Today’s place name etymology is another easy one. The first kanji is 欅 keyaki and means zelkova tree. The second kanji is 坂 saka hill. The kanji for keyaki is pretty rare in Modern Japanese, so this name is almost always written as ケヤキ坂 keyakizaka so people can actually read it. The Roppongi area has a long standing connection with zelkova trees. In fact, some people cite 6 giant zelkova trees as the etymology of the place name Roppongi[i].

But basically, the Azabu and Roppongi areas were a short walk from 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay but and the terrain was marked by lush wooded high ground (which became yamanote) and not-too-wet lowlands (which became shitamachi). The lush high ground was perfect for daimyō residences and lowlands were suitable for the merchant towns that catered to the elite domain “embassies.” Interestingly, the area is home to a number of embassies – many occupying former daimyō properties.

Anyhoo, I’m getting side tracked. I can’t say whether this name has survived from the Edo Period or not, but this 400 meter or uphill promenade is definitely befitting of the area’s Edo Period elite history. The street is wide and lined with trees and flower beds. The flowers are changed seasonally. The zelkova trees are richly illuminated – much more so now than the first time I visited in 2003. The street runs through a part of the Roppongi Hills “urban center” connecting the formerly shitamachi Azabu-Jūban shopping street with the 5-star Grand Hyatt Tokyo at the top of the hill. If you view off the road into the Roppongi Hills complex you will come upon the so-called Mohri Garden.

A quick word about this garden’s name. Roppongi Hills was developed by a dude named Mori Minoru. This garden is named after the Mori Clan who ruled 長州藩 Chōshū han Chōshū Domain. The developer’s name is 森 Mori and the daimyō’s name is 毛利 Mōri (spelled Mohri in the official Roppongi Hills jargon). So don’t confuse the two. But all I wanted to point out is that the developers claim that the garden is a partial holdover from the original daimyō garden. Take that with a grain of salt. It’s definitely a nice garden, if not a busy garden, and it’s definitely in the Japanese style. But I’m not willing to vouch to say any of it is actually a remnant of the Edo Period.

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[i] 六本木 Roppongi literally, “6 Trees.” Another version of the story says they were pine trees and not zelkovas. I don’t buy into that theory at all because there is a much more compelling derivation.
BTW – I just looked up my original article on Roppongi and was shocked at how short and uninformative it was. So I’m adding Roppongi to my “do over” list and will give a detailed explanation about the ‘Pong. 

What does Kiyosumi-Shirakawa mean?

In Japanese History on January 14, 2014 at 1:10 am

Kiyosumi-Shirakawa (no translation)


Those of you who are regular readers of JapanThis! will know that every New Year’s I do a different 七福神めぐり shichi fukujin meguri pilgrimage of the 7 gods of good luck. This year I did the Fukagawa course. I rarely go to this part of Tōkyō, so it gave me a unique chance to find some really unique place names to investigate.

The other day, I talked about 森下 Morishita “below the forest.” In that article, I said that Morishita was originally a merchant town at the bottom of a hill (shitamachi) and at the top of the hill was a daimyō residence (yamanote) with a large garden or at least a sizable grove of trees. The abandoned Edo Period daimyō palace was demolished and converted into a corporate pleasure garden by Iwasaki Yatarō, the founder and first successive president of Mitsubishi[i]. The park is called 清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Tei’en Kiyosumi Garden and its name is obviously linked to this place name.

Who doesn't love chilling out in a cool Japanese garden?

Who doesn’t love chilling out in a cool Japanese garden?

If you look closely at the name, it’s actually a combination of two words.


pure + lucidity


white + river
“clean water”

The origin of the modern place name is literally just that. Two neighboring areas – Kiyosumi and Shirakawa – were smooshed together to make Kiyosumi-Shirakawa.

At first glance, this name has a few bizarre attributes

1 – 清澄 is an actual word when read in on’yomi (ie; the Chinese reading). That would be seichō. This is a literary word for “clear” or “serene.” Japanese place names rarely use Chinese readings, unless they are derived Buddhist temples. It’s not a rule, but generally speaking, place names are more likely to use the Japanese reading[ii]. Family names are the same, of course. (By the way, the actual Chinese reading of this word is qīngchéng.)

2 – 白河 is a Chinese place name too[iii]. But in “normal Japanese” the kanji kawa river is odd. Usually kawa river is used. But appears in a lot of family names and older place names.

Wow, is there a connection between Chinese History and this part of Edo?

Not at all.



What’s going on here?

So for Japanese people and for students of Japanese, this place name raises a lot of questions. Are they borrowed from China? Are they ateji[iv]? Is it actually one word? What the fuck?

Well, as it turns out, these are both family names and everything I mentioned before this point has nothing to do with the place name in question. Toss out all that excess baggage and check out this weird shit.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the high ground was held by a certain merchant family named 清住 Kiyosumi. A certain 清住弥兵衛 Kiyosumi Yahē (if I’m reading that correctly) is the landholder who is generally cited. He must have been a man of considerable means because it’s said that he financed the filling in and reclamation of the original marshland which effectively gave access to the high ground (where the garden is now located). The details about this family and personage are obscure, but if this tradition is true, these efforts to fill in the swamps would have made the lowlands not only livable, but suitable for business and its hilltop areas desirable for feudal lords serving sankai-kōtai duty. This area was located near rivers which made it good for transporting goods. So the area definitely prospered after the land reclamation and so the name of Kiyosumi Yahē apparently stuck.

The second name, Shirakawa, is much better documented. This is a direct reference to 松平定信 Matsudaira Sadanobu. He was the lord of 白河藩 Shirakawa Han Shirakawa Domain. As we all know, the Matsudaira clan was directly related to the Tokugawa shōgun family[v]. Shirakawa Domain was located in present day Fukushima Prefecture[vi]. He is arguably one of the most interesting statesmen of the Edo Period[vii].

He was enshrined at nearby 霊厳寺 Reigan-ji. Being the most famous person interred at the temple, the area enjoyed the nickname 白河さん Shirakawa-san which translates something like Mr. Shirakawa but is actually just a polite way to refer to a person from Shirakawa.

The grave of Sadanobu isn't much to look at today (notice the house in the background). It's hard to believe a place might be named after such a humble tomb, but believe me, in his day, the man was a force to be reckoned with - for better or for worse.

The grave of Sadanobu isn’t much to look at today (notice the house in the background).
It’s hard to believe a place might be named after such a humble tomb, but believe me, in his day, the man was a force to be reckoned with – for better or for worse.

The Edo Period maps I have only list the daimyō residences and temples here. There don’t seem to be any references to these names. So it seems like the townspeople had been preserving the local nicknames. When the daimyō had all been ejected from Edo and their residences confiscated or sold off to the highest bidders, new maps were made using western civil administration.

Originally, the area was to be called 清澄 Kiyosumi, but when it came to time for the official designation, the combined version 清澄白河 Kiyosumi Shirakawa won out.

This area is located in the former 深川村 Fukagawa Mura Fukagawa Village. Today Fukagawa is a postal code located within 江東区 Kōtō-ku Kōtō Ward. There area is famous for a few places:


One of the most famous shrines in Tōkyō.

Read a little bit about it here.


Nickname of 門前仲町 Monzen-Nakachō.

Not so famous, but read a little bit about it here.

Kiyosumi Tei’en

Again, these days, not so famous, but a Japanese garden worth your attention.

I talk about its history here!


Definitely a major temple in the Edo Period, today it’s a shadow of its former self.

This article

Fukagawa Edo Shiryōkan

The Fukagawa Edo Museum

Don’t wait for a blog entry. Just go check it out!

A Side Note

Oh, I almost forgot! Fans of 新撰組 Shinsengumi may recall that 沖田総司 Okita Sōji‘s family originated from Shirakawa Domain. Sōji was actually born in Shirakawa’s lower residence (being the son of an ashigaru (foot soldier) he presumably would have lived in a rowhouse on the property of this compound). This suburban diamyō palace was located in present day 西麻布 Nishi Azabu West Azabu. Sōji returned to Edo to convalesce from his tuberculosis, but ended up dying while still in Edo. It’s said that he was staying at the Shirakawa lower residence when he died. His grave is a short walk away at 専称寺 Senshō-ji Senshō Temple (located in present day 元麻布 Moto Azabu Old Azabu). This is even less related, but just for some perspective: walking from the Shirakawa lower palace to to Kondō Isami’s dōjō in Ichigaya would have taken about an hour to an hour and a half depending on your walking speed. Whether he made this commute regularly or had lodging near the Shieikan is unknown.

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[i] If you haven’t read that article, I highly recommend you read it now so you can get a bearing on the bigger picture of this area
[ii] Consider 浅草 Asakusa. The temple in Asakusa uses the Chinese reading, 浅草 Sensō, but the area uses the Japanese reading 浅草 Asakusa. The kanji are the same.
[iii] The true Chinese reading is “báihé.”
[iv] Using kanji in a purely phonetic way.
[v] Tokugawa Ieyasu was of the Matsudaira clan, but as his power base grew, he launched a new branch under a new name (Tokugawa).
[vi] Tread lightly here. Prior to 3/11, Fukushima Prefecture quietly basked in its status one of Japan’s bread baskets and was home to Aizu Domain which is still one of the darlings of those of us who love the Edo Period.
[vii] There are a number of reasons why Sadanobu was such an interesting – and at times, contradictory guy. But his biggest claim to fame was enacting the 寛政の改革 Kansei no Kaikaku the Kansei Reforms, a general name applied to years of reactionary laws attempting to slap bandages over the shōgunate’s perceived liberality – emphasis on the word “perceived.”

What does Ushigome Tansu Machi mean?

In Japanese History on September 26, 2013 at 2:31 am

Ushigome Tansu Machi (Crowd of Cows Dresser Town)

Welcome to a part of Tokyo that in 8 years I have never been to. Need to rectify that situation somebody.

Welcome to a part of Tokyo that in 8 years I have never been to.
Need to rectify that situation some day.

Yesterday I talked about Ushigome.

When normal Japanese people think of the word 箪笥 tansu traditional dresser, they will think of this:

Tansu - a traditional Japanese chest of drawers (dresser).

Tansu – a traditional Japanese chest of drawers (dresser).

And indeed, that is what the word (kanji and all) means. But why would this end up in a place name?

Good question.

Well, it turns out that in this case, tansu doesn’t refer to furniture. It refers to weapons.

Wait. Whaaaa?

Well, it turns out that in the Edo Period the general term for the arms, armor, and ordnance of the shōgunate was 箪笥 tansu.

In 1713, this area was entrusted to a local magistracy and a 町 machi town was developed. The original name of the town was 牛込御箪笥町 Ushigome go-tansu machi. By the way, 御箪笥 go-tansu is the honorific term for 箪笥 tansu.

The title of the magistrate who oversaw the private arsenals of the shōgunate was 簞笥奉行 tansu bugyō[i]. His office managed the full sets of armor, bows and arrows, and lances of the shōgunate. The people who worked under this office weren’t only in charge of weapons, though. The broad office title of 御納戸役 o-nandoyaku store room service referred to the mid-level samurai[ii] who would fetch and file and take inventory and maintain the clothes, supplies and furniture of the shōgunal family. They might also do the day to day work of managing the transactions of the shōgunal coffers. When gifts had to be given to lords or (god forbid) foreign emissaries, these were the samurai clerks who made it happen. Whether the magistrate or the warehouses themselves were in this area isn’t really important. The name derives from the fact that dormitories, 武家屋敷長屋 buke yashiki nagaya long houses, and the homes of other officials associated with this type of work were based here. So while this name is confusing to us now, in the Edo Period it was a way of designating what work and what class of samurai were living in the area[iii]. A samurai clerk of this level would make a stipend of 100-200 koku[iv].

Typical samurai residences.

Typical samurai long houses of the type we might expect to see in Ushigome. As hatamoto, Notice the greenery in front of the houses to make the homes more private. As residents of the yamanote (the high city) I reckon this would have been the norm for hatamoto of this status. Some larger detached domiciles must have been located there too.
All in all, not a bad place to raise a family in the Edo Period.
(this picture isn’t from Tokyo, by the way… in Tokyo nothing like this exists anymore)

In Tōkyō, there are a few areas that still exist with this unique place name:

Azabu Tansu Machi
・ Shitaya Tansu Machi
・ Ushigome Tansu Machi
・ Yotsuya Tansu Machi

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[i] Edo period → modern Japanese .

[ii] Mostly hatamoto, but not always. I think in modern Japan, this would be the equivalent of a “normal” salaryman in middle or upper-middle management. It would have been a lot of “yes man” work and kowtowing, but it would afford you a very decent lifestyle.
The word 納戸 nando has a few meanings: back room, closet, storage room. Once we understand the meaning of the word nando the nuance of the word tansu starts become apparent.

[iv] Someone has calculated what they think is a conversion rate for koku, arriving at the conclusion that 1 koku = about $750. If that’s the case these samurai were at an income level of $75,000-$150,000 a year. Plenty of spare cash for gallivanting about[v] in Yoshiwara.
[v] Footnote of a footnote says: “gallivanting about” is a polite way to say “drinking and whoring.”

What does Mamiana-cho mean?

In Japanese History on September 3, 2013 at 2:44 am

Raccoon-Hole Town

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.   BTW - Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.
BTW – Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.


Sorry for my recent silence. I fell down the wormhole that is Game of Thrones and spent all my free time plowing through seasons 1, 2 , and 3[i]. To my delight I learned that season 4 is still in production, so I can finally get back writing Japan This!.


Today’s Tōkyō place name is a doozy.


Straddled between Azabu-Jūban, Higashi-Azabu, and Azabu-dai, is a small park called 狸穴町公園 which is freaking impossible to read unless you already know the place or you’re some kind of next level kanji master. Luckily, if you go to the area, many of the buildings don’t use the kanji (they use katakana or rōmaji) so if you stumble across this tiny area of Azabu, you’ll know how to read it. This residential area is home to about 250-260 people and is near the Russian Embassy and a non-descript S&M themed love hotel (apparently frequented regularly by Russians).

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out...

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out…

Actually the area was virtually transparent except to rich expats and diplomats 10-15 years ago. It became more accessible when Azabu-Jūban Station was built and became the convergence of the 南北線 Nanboku-sen North-South Line and 大江戸線 Ō-Edo-sen Greater Edo Area Line. It’s still a sleepy corner of the greater Azabu area, but it’s undergone massive development in the last ten years.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn't much better, to be honest).   If I'm not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn’t much better, to be honest).
If I’m not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

The reading of 狸穴町 is Mamiana-chō. The first kanji, , is usually read as tanuki. The second is 穴 ana hole. The final character, 町 chō, has come up often in this blog and it means town.

The kanji 狸 tanuki is where the fun lies. Anyone who has ever walked down a Japanese street is familiar with tanuki. They often stand outside of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.  A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.
A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The scientific name for tanuki is Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus (although this taxonomy is apparently in dispute by zoologists and evolutionary biologists). The common name is Japanese Raccoon Dog and if you look at a picture of one, you’ll see why it has the combined name raccoon and dog.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

As far as I know, tanuki are neither raccoons nor dogs[ii]. They merely resemble the two. In Japanese dialects, different words are used for this animal. But in 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, it’s called tanuki, so we’ll stick to that one. The kanji was used for a range of small furry mammals with a range of readings in various dialects referring to everything from tanuki to badgers to feral cats to large flying squirrels to wild boars, etc. Kanji use aside, the word まみ mami (which was sometimes assigned to the kanji ) appears to have been an Edo Dialect word that applied specifically to female tanuki, Japanese badgers[iii], and wild boar[iv]. An alternate kanji, 猯 mami was generally used for this grouping of animals. This word was eventually replaced by the word of the elite class, tanuki, which became the standard word we use today. So this reading is a vestige of the old Edo Dialect. Also it’s clear that in pre-modern Japan[v], there was a lot of flexibility in the naming and grouping of animals – or at least a different way of thinking that was at odds with the Linnæan system of taxonomy.

A "mami" is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological).   Before the 1860's there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren't classified according to evolutionary biolog. But that doesn't mean the Japanese didn't observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of there categories were rather broad by today's standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called.

A “mami” is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological). But here you can clearly see a “mami” living in a cave or hole as pre-modern Japanese people thought of it..Before the 1860’s there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren’t classified according to evolutionary biology. But that doesn’t mean the Japanese didn’t observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of their categories were rather broad by today’s standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called. 



OK, we’ve heard a little kanji talk, a little linguistics, dialectology, and biology. Now let’s talk etymology!



The Prevailing Theory

The prevailing theory is that at the bottom of the hill presently called 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill, a group of 猯 mami (could have been anything from wild boar to badgers or tanuki) were thought to have lived and burrowed in holes for shelter. People gave the area the name 狸穴 mami ana mami hole.

The fluidity of animal naming/grouping (or dialect influences[vi]) led to the current spelling with the tanuki kanji instead of the mami kanji.

The Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory

As I cover more and more Tōkyō place names, the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory plays a huge and ever-growing role in the etymology[vii]. This theory states that a really big cavern or hole was in the area and the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, ordered that the hole be explored.  Some brave samurai went in the hole, looked around and determined that まみ mami (local Edo word) female tanuki were living there. They named the place and the rest is history.

The Mine Shaft Theory

It’s important to keep in mind that because of the variation in kanji (ie; and ) and the importance of somewhat non-descript animal characters in Japanese folklore, the holes may have originally been attributed to mythological or composite creatures that may not have ever existed there.

The final theory, which isn’t particularly unbelievable, states that the area at the bottom of the hill was an ancient quarry or mine. Later generations saw the remains of the facility and produced some local folklore stating the tanuki had dug the holes – or that actual tanuki or some other animals[viii] did actually live in those ruins.

As for the historicity of any of the claims, nothing can be said except that at the beginning of the Edo Period the place name was first recorded as 飯倉狸穴町 Īgura Mamiana-chō, named after a prosperous merchant family named Īgura who lived on 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill. Actually, if you walk up the hill towards Roppongi from Mamiana Park, you’ll come to an area that preserves the Īgura family name. That area is called 飯倉片町 Īgura Katamachi[ix].

Iigura Katamachi

Iigura Katamachi




[i] All I have to say is those characters are straight up gangsta. Can’t wait for season 4!

[ii] Though they are currently grouped in the family Canidæ, they are not in the genus Canis which are actual dogs. Raccoons in the US are currently classified in the family Procyonidæ.

[iii] Meles anakuma is 穴熊 anaguma “hole bear” – Japanese Badger.

[iv] Sus scrofa leucomystax is 猪 inoshishi wild boar.

[v] ie; pre-scientific Japan.

[vi] Or both!

[vii] Many of which, but not all, should be taken with a grain of salt.

[viii] Badgers, wild boars, tanuki, your mom…

[ix] The Īgura family name is also suspect in that it could just refer to the presence of food warehouses in the area. It is a family name, but it literally means rice/food warehouse. In cases like this, without further evidence it’s a game of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

What does Shiba mean?

In Japanese History on May 23, 2013 at 12:37 am

Shiba (grass/lawn)

Shiba. There's stil some lush greenery as well as some gaijin lushes.

Shiba. There’s still some lush greenery as well as some gaijin lushes.

The first theory I came across was one that said that the grass in this part of the Musashi Plain was particularly lush. A quick search for old art depicting any areas of the vast Musashi Plain will yield pictures of tall grasses.  Search for plants of the Musashi Plain and all that you’ll see are lush grasses. I don’t see how an area next to the sea would be particularly more luxurious than any other area.

The second theory is that the 斯波氏 Shiba clan had a residence in the area. During the Ashikaga shōgunate, the Shiba were one the families that could hold the position of 管領 kanrei deputy shōgun (literally controller). While the family line came to an end in the mid 1500’s, it’s not impossible to imagine that some member of the Shiba family had a residence here. However, there doesn’t seem to be any collaborating evidence for this theory.

Shiba this, bitch!

These are shiba (柴) at high tide in Omori Kaigan. They’ve been placed in the inlet to harvest seaweed, a centuries old technique… apparently still used.

Another theory is that in the early days, when there were many shallow inlets cutting in to what is now central Tōkyō (and this part of town was literally part of the bay, the area was characterized by brushwood used to grow and harvest 海苔 nori seaweed. The general word for brushwood is 柴 shiba*. As far back as the Sengoku Period, we know there to have been a 柴村 Shiba Mura Shiba Village in the area. In the early Edo Period, 柴町 Shiba Machi Shiba Town is attested. The name change reflects an area whose population had grown substantially. In the early Edo Period we start to see an alternate writing as 芝町 Shiba Machi. Over the course of the Edo Period, this new variation becomes the standard and the old variant dies out. Products developed in the area develop a widespread reputation as “Shiba Machi” products – like a brand name.

A view of Zojoji, one of the two Tokugawa shogun funerary temples in Edo. Notice the long sando.   (You don remember what a sando was, don't you??)*****

A view of Zojoji, one of the two Tokugawa shogun funerary temples in Edo. Notice the long sando.
(You do remember what a sando was, don’t you??)****

I couldn’t find anything to explain the change in the kanji or the demand for goods produced in the area, but I have a theory. The shōgunate built a funerary temple complex called Zōjōji in Shiba. As a result, many daimyō residences were also built in the area. I’m willing to bet that the urbanization of the bay front area and controlling the water that flowed in and out of the bay curtailed land/water use in the area. This would have produced more dry land where lush fields of grass might grow instead of mushy wetlands**. The gentrification that came with the arrival of nobles and one of the shōgun family’s main temples would have given the area a lot of prestige. This is all conjecture, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that lush grass became more of the stereotypical image of the area than swampy inlets filled with half-naked villagers checking their crappy brushwood nets for seaweed. It’s also not unreasonable to assume that as the area had grown in prestige a nice kanji like (lawn, grass) was preferable to which looks like something you’d use for kindling in a fire.

Some of that the lush-ass Musashino grass. Too bad you can't smoke that shit.

Some of that the lush-ass Musashino grass. Too bad you can’t smoke that shit.

Personally, I don’t find any of these satisfying etymologies, but the last one has a lot more to play with. The practice of using 柴 shiba brushwood to harvest nori is apparently still done in a few existing inlets (see picture).

But there is a chronology problem. In 1486, there is a reference to an area called 芝ノ浦 Shiba no ura “under Shiba.” This place name uses the “grass/lawn” kanji and not the “brushwood” kanji. The area is noted for salt production and shipping***.

In present day Tōkyō, the south of Shiba is called 芝浦 Shibaura (literally, “under Shiba”). This indicates that the grass/lawn kanji variant may have been in use prior to the Edo Period. It might also suggest that – coincidentally – there were two areas phonetically referred to as しば shiba but – possibly – unrelated to each other etymologically. If this were the case, the alternation of the kanji in the early Edo Period could reflect a confusion or ambiguity about the area that was finally resolved through standardization by the mid-Edo Era – perhaps through a process similar to what I hypothesized above…

…or perhaps not.

Shiba Shrimp - Delicious Japanese Food

Mmmmmmm. Shiba Ebi.

So, who the fuck knows? Once again, the origins of another pre-Edo Period place name prove to be elusive. But this time I won’t leave you totally empty handed. As I mentioned before, items produced in Shiba were famous throughout the land in the Edo Period. One of the products was a particularly delicious variety of shrimp that were abundant in the area and brought into port in Shiba/Shibaura. Originally 芝海老 Shiba Ebi Shiba Shrimp was the local name for this species in the area. The species wasn’t specific to this corner of Edo Bay, but the name spread and became the standard appellation for this type of crustacean everywhere in Japan. So while I can’t give you a clear etymology of Shiba, the origins of the name Shiba Shrimp is something we know 100%.

The ironic thing is that these days the water is so polluted that there are very few of them in Tōkyō Bay. Now, most Shiba Shrimp in Japan come from Niigata and Taiwan.

Compare this to the origin of Hibiya, which is most likely derived from a different method of growing and harvesting nori. (On a somewhat unrelated note, this brushwood kanji is the same character used for 柴犬 shibaken, the famous breed of Japanese dogs.)
Check out my article on Two Famous Murders to see a picture of nearby Mita/Azabu where you can clearly see “lush grass” growing.
Compare this to the origin of Shiodome, which has a salt production theory associated with it.
**** You already forgot what a sandō was?? FFS, have a look at the origin of Omotesandō.

Why is Toriizaka called Toriizaka?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex on May 14, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Torīzaka (Torī Hill)

Looking up Toriizaka from Toriizakashita.

Looking up Toriizaka from Toriizakashita.

Between the Azabu-Jūban main street* and Roppongi 5-chōme there is a monster hill. I’ve been told it’s one of the steepest hills in central Tōkyō – I believe it. I’ve walked it many times (it’s not that bad), but you definitely get a work out. FujiTV (?) used to run a short segment at night of hot girls running up famous hills. It’s flat at the top of the hill, but the street continues to Roppongi.

(the following video is not Torīzaka, but you get the idea…)*****



The name has always be curious to me because it’s made of two very common Japanese words:

鳥居 torī the “gate” to a Shintō shrine and 坂 saka hill. It would seem obvious except for the fact that there is neither a torī nor a shrine. The closest shrine I know is 麻布十番稲荷神社 Azabu-Jūban Inari Jinja Azabu-Jūban Inari Shrine, but it’s located a fair enough distance from the hill that I doubt there is a connection.

Just now as I’m thinking about it, I suddenly remembered that when the Torīzaka street** crosses the main street (which is a valley), it goes back uphill on the other side of the street. I seem to remember seeing some floats for a small neighborhood Shintō festival one time last year. Now I’m wondering if there is a connection.

What does Toriizaka Mean?

If you know this family crest, you can probably figure out the etymology of Toriizaka by yourself….

Let the investigating begin!

The old maps say that is that a residence of the Torī clan existed here. Retainers of Tokugawa since the Sengoku Era, the family is famous for a certain 鳥居強右衛門 Torī Sunēmon, a loyal samurai who preferred crucifixion to double crossing his bros like a little bitch***. He took it like a man. It wasn’t a daimyō residence, but a relative named 鳥居彦右衛門 Torīzaka Hikoemon who a large samurai residence on the hill. The family was prestigious for their loyalty to the founder of the shōgunate and so the area took pride and referred to the area as 鳥居坂町 Torīzakachō the Torī Hill Neighborhood.


The crucifixion of Torii Suneemon, the famous ancestor of whomever lived on Toriizaka. He was crucified by Takeda Katsuyori, one of the greatest douchebags of the Sengoku Period.

The area is still upper class and the buildings – be they schools, embassies or cultural institutions are surrounded by trees and greenery that really reflect the high city of the Edo Period elite. It’s a cool area despite being located right next to Roppongi which has a reputation as the dirty-ass gaijin slime pit of Japan.


Roppongi is shithole


There is another theory that 氷川神社 Hikawa Jinja Hikawa Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in the area, was originally the bottom of the hill near Azabu-Jūban**** and the street name is a reference to the shrine’s torī. The shrine is located in 元麻布 Moto-Azabu Old Azabu. But according to the information at the shrine, they were originally established in 942 on the same street and hill in Moto-Azabu, just a little bit lower down the hill. They were relocated further up the hill in 1659. While Torīzakachō is a neighboring area, the street intersections are too far to have made any confusion. Plus, the Torī family mansion would have already been on the other hill (Torīzaka) by this time. So I don’t think this theory is valid.

So, as it turns out, there isn’t a connection to the festival I saw. It’s mostly like a case of the area taking pride in the prestige of having a relative of a Sengoku Era hero, loyal to the founder of the Edo Bakufu, in their hood. Good for them.



* The street, as most streets in former castle towns like Edo, do not have names – and this is by design. The city is not laid out on a grid, streets twist and turn and often dead end suddenly, and they rarely have names. This is to confuse invading armies and hinder an easy advance into the heart of the city, the castle. The Romans built walls around the cities and government, the Japanese built cities around the government lol. Anyways, the street is referred to as the 麻布十番商店街 Azabu-Jūban Shōtengai Azabu-Jūban Shopping Street (in the Edo Period think of it as the merchant district).
** This street also doesn’t have a name, only the hill has a name. Another normal feature of life in a castle town.
*** The Battle of Nagashino is a pretty major event in Japanese History, read more about it here.
**** This area still appears on maps as 鳥居坂下 Torīzakashita (bottom of Torīzaka), but it’s not an official postal code name.
***** I embedded this as hyperlink above, but in case you missed it, here is the direct link to pictures of model, Kawai Asuna, running up Torīzaka (sorry, no video):

What does Nogizaka mean?

In Japanese History on March 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Nogizaka (Nogi Hill)

Sign inside Nogizaka Station

Sign inside Nogizaka Station

Today’s place name is an easy one.

Nogizaka (Nogi Hill) is… you guessed it! a hill.

It’s located in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, a walkable distance from Roppongi and Azabu-Juban and Aoyama Cemetery. Officially, there isn’t an area called Nogizaka, but because the train station is named Nogizaka, the immediate area is sometimes informally referred to as such.

The hill is named after 乃木希典  Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912) who lived on the hill. Nogi was a bad ass general in the Imperial Army. He was born into a samurai family in the final years of the Edo Period and actually participated in the official smack down of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. He lost the Imperial Banner in a battle and wanted to commit seppuku to atone for his fuck up, but the Meiji Emperor wasn’t having it. “You’ll have to wait, little Maresuke,” said the emperor, “I need you now.”

General Nogi and his wife, Shizuko.

General Nogi and his wife, Shizuko.

OK, the emperor didn’t actually say that, but he effectively said that. And don’t worry… little Maresuke will get his chance to commit suicide eventually.

Maresuke’s biggest success was forcing Russia to surrender after the Siege of Port Arthur – a battle that I have to confess I know absolutely nothing about.  Well, OK, I know something about it. I know that the Imperial Army faced much harder resistance than expected and took massive casualties. Despite winning the battle, little Maresuke met with the emperor to beg for forgiveness for losing so many men. He told the emperor he wanted to kill himself… again. But this time, the emperor said, “You’ll have to wait, little Maresuke. The battle was an imperial order. You’ll have to live at least as long as I.”

Little Maresuke in fundoshi.

Little Maresuke in happier times…

And so little Maresuke waited and waited and waited.

And waited.

Then on July 30th, 1912, his chance finally came. The Meiji Emperor died and little Maresuke could finally commit seppuku after all. But there was one problem. The funeral wouldn’t be for another 45 days.

So he waited a little bit more.

Then his chance finally came. For real.

After the funeral procession had left the Imperial Palace (formerly Edo Castle), Maresuke and his wife, Shizuko, snuck out the back and headed to their home on the hill (that’s Nogi Hill to you, buddy). They went into a nice room with a view and committed 殉死 junshi (following your lord into death). He “helped” his wife “stab herself” in the neck (seems legit), a ritual called 自害 jigai. Then he performed seppuku by making three slits in his belly.

Shizuko was quite the minger in her day.

Shizuko was quite the minger in her day.

I’m not sure who had to clean up the tatami room after this little escapade, but I’m sure it wasn’t fun. Anyways, the house is still there and you can even visit the seppuku room and see the bloody kimonos they were wearing if you go in September for the special suicide anniversary extravaganza. Nearby in Akasaka is 乃木神社 Nogi Jinja Nogi Shrine where Shizuko and little Maresuke are enshrined along with their 2 kids. If you take a short walk to Aoyama Cemetery, you can visit the couple’s grave. All these sites are accessible from 乃木坂駅 Nogizaka Station.

The Nogi Residence back in the day.

The Nogi Residence back in the day.

Don't worry, they cleaned the tatami mats a long time ago.

The Nogi residence today. Don’t worry, they cleaned the tatami mats a long time ago. There’s no suicide blood anymore.

When we learn about history, we have to take the culture and the ethos of the time into consideration. While General Nogi was unquestionably a great Japanese general in these early days of the Imperial Army and Japan’s modernization and industrialization, he was essentially trapped between two worlds – the world of Tokugawa Japan and the world of Meiji Japan. He wasn’t the only one. Everyone at that time was in the same situation.

The problem I have with little Maresuke is that his junshi (ritual suicide upon a leader’s death) is the first warning symptom we get of the fanatical emperor worship that plagues Imperial Japan and eventually leads to the near annihilation of Japan in WWII. In my mind, there was no reason for him to kill himself and even less reason for his wife to do it (keep in mind he “helped” her). Maybe I’m falling into the trap of looking at this through modern eyes, then again… this wasn’t that long ago. Apparently, opinions on this “double suicide” were divided. Some people who still romanticized the ways of bushido saw it as noble, other saw it as embarrassing – a sign that Japan hadn’t yet joined Western “modernity” or at least wouldn’t be seen as “modern” in the eyes of the foreign powers that forced Japan open in the Bakumatsu.

Whatever our modern opinions of his actions, they are distinctly Japanese. And let’s just leave it at that.


Little Maresuke and Minging Shizuko’s final resting spot.

Nogi Shrine:


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