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Ōedo Line: Kuramae

In Japanese History on June 15, 2015 at 4:00 am

蔵前
Kuramae (in front of the warehouse)

Location of the original

Location of the original “kura” (warehouse).

The name means “in front of the warehouse” and is a reference to the shōgunate owned a giant rice warehouse used to pay the stipends of the retainers of the Tokugawa. Think of the area as the ATM of Edo. Conveniently located on the Sumida River, the area was home to a ferry that took the freshly paid samurai to the Yoshiwara for epic benders of drinking and whoring. The Meiji government took control of the warehouse and reused the land for new government buildings as rice was no longer used the basis of the Japanese monetary system.

Like most warehouses in the Edo Period, this one was located on a river which was the cheapest, fastest, and easiest way to transport heavy material like rice. In this case, we’re talking about the Sumida River.

This is a famous ukiyo-e print of a man with one shoe on/one shoe off making a snowman is set at Kuramae. You can see the small canal in the midground. I believe that's the Sumida River in the background.

This is a famous ukiyo-e print of a man with one shoe on/one shoe off making a snowman is set at Kuramae. You can see the small canal in the midground. I believe that’s the Sumida River in the background.

There is a commemorative sign where the warehouse once stood and you can see the river the ferries used to go to the Yoshiwara. You also can take a leisurely walk to 両国 Ryōgoku, an area that should be on every tourist’s to-do-list because… it’s freaking awesome (I’ll talk about it tomorrow).

If there’s no warehouse left and there’s just a sign, is there any reason to actually go there? There might be. In the area is a very old shop called 浅草御蔵前書房 Asakusa O-kuramae Shobō Asakusa O-kuramae Bookstore. The same Asakusa O-kuramae is the Edo Period name of the place and shobō is an old word for bookstore[i]. The store sells Edo Period and Meiji Period books, maps, and other printed documents – in particular those that are related to Edo-Tōkyō!

Now that's what I call a bookstore!!!

Now that’s what I call a bookstore!!!

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

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[i] The modern word is 本屋 hon-ya. The modern word is “book store” while the old word literally means “writings/documents room.”

What does Kuramae mean?

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

蔵前
Kuramae (In Front of the Warehouse)

The only picture of the warehouse I could find.

The only picture of the warehouse I could find.

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

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

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

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

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

The plaque stands on the site of the old warehouse.

The plaque stands on the site of the old warehouse.

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

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