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Book Review – Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective

In Book Reviews, Japanese History on December 28, 2015 at 6:07 pm

Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective
Nicolas Fiévé & Paul Waley


The subtitle of the book is Place, Power and Memory in Kyōto, Edo and Tōkyō[i].

Since last year, all of my book reviews have a standard format. You can read a description about it here. This message won’t appear in reviews from 2016 on. I just expect you to go to the reviews page if you don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m pretty sure it’s OK.

Nicolas Fiévé is a scholar of Japanese architecture and pre-modern urbanism. Paul Waley is scholar of human geography[ii]. The two have extensive backgrounds in disciplines that often overlap. This book is a testament to that overlapping. They brought in other big guns to fill in the gaps and the result is a really unique 500ish page collection of historical comparisons and contrasts of urbanism in Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō[iii].

Quick Review


  What I expected What I got
Overall Impression Nothing. My friend, Rekishi no Tabi[iv], suggested it to me. So, I bought it because I trust his taste in these sorts of books more than most people’s. A really interesting exploration of the development and portrayal of Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō. This book is now in the permanent collection of books I keep within an arm’s reach while writing JapanThis!.
Type of Book A comparative analysis of the history of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. Some comparative analysis, but the articles are much more interested in exploring Kyōto and Tōkyō on their own terms and in their respective urban histories – as it should be.
Readability I expected it to be very readable. It is extremely accessible. Many of the chapters about Edo-Tōkyō serve as a good companion to Seidensticker’s book which I reviewed before.
Bias I expected very little bias. I didn’t perceive any bias in the book. There was a little cynicism about some of Tōkyō’s post war and bubble era policies, but they were spot on. Any fan of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum would agree.
Audience Scholars, university students, history nerds. People with in depth and active knowledge of the city. Long time JapanThis! Readers can get a lot out of this book. Yes, the more in depth and active understanding you have of both Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō helps. But I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I’d like to be but I had no problem keeping up with the chapters on the imperial capital.
Stars[v] ★★★★☆

Pros & Cons

I’ll start with the cons – because there aren’t many of them.

The first con is no fault of the authors or of the book itself. This is an academic book. It presumes the reader is familiar with the geographies of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. It also presumes the reader is familiar with the history of both cities. Furthermore, it presumes the reader is familiar with the vocabulary of historical architecture and urban studies – in particular, that of Japan. Depending on your level familiarity with the subject matter, this could be a major or minor hurdle. For example, as I mentioned before, I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I am with Tōkyō so I found myself spending a lot of time with the Kyōto maps in the book and checking some other books/maps when I was confused.

In the article, Metaphors of the Metropolis, William Coaldrake makes some assertions about Utagawa Hiroshige mocking the shōgunate’s use of architecture as a symbol of authority and power in his 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints. I’m not an expert on ukiyo-e, but I do love it and consider myself fairly familiar with the greats – such as Hiroshige – and when I look at the prints he cites, I just don’t see the same thing he does. While I disagree with him on this point, the rest of the article is really fascinating as he brings up reference guides for samurai to identify the rank of daimyō by the architecture used in their gates – indicating that there was a literal architectural vocabulary in Edo.

And lastly, while it’s fine to put citations at the end of an article or at the end of the book, I just wish more people would put footnotes at the bottom of the page. It’s so much more reader friendly. Who wants to constantly flip to the end of a chapter or the end of a book just to get some further information about something they just read. It makes no sense for writers to maintain this convention in the age of the internet where we have hyperlinks and instant access to things. Even though I’m reading a physical, printed copy of the book, I shouldn’t be expected to flip back and forth. It seems so archaic. This isn’t a criticism of just this book, though. There’s no reason for any writers or editors to do this.

So Let’s Go Through the Book

There are 13 contributors to this book. It starts off, and rightly so, with a focus on Kyōto from its simple and well planned beginnings (end of the Nara Period) to the chaos of the 応仁の乱 Ōnin no Ran Ōnin War[vi] which literally brought the city to its knees and plunged the country into a century of civil war. The book comes back to Kyōto in the final chapters, mainly discussing how the political climate after the ’64 Tōkyō Olympics left Kyōto to fend for itself. The establishment of standards for the preservation of the city is a fascinating insight into the successes and failures of preserving an active urban space that is second to none – I dare say a city that is on par with Rome in terms of cultural heritage and significance[vii].

The majority of the book, as you can imagine, deals with Edo-Tōkyō. This is out of no ill will towards Kyōto. In fact, many of the articles compare and contrast Edo-Tōkyō with the old capital. However, it’s obvious that the legacy of Tokugawa controlled Edo still resounds throughout the capital, the country, and the world in general. We also just have much better records from the Edo Period.

Here are a few interesting tidbits from the book from my notes.

Japan was one of the first countries to establish laws protecting its ancient architecture. “Modernization” began almost as soon as the foreign powers arrived in 1850’s, but believe it or not, the first laws protecting national architectural and artistic treasures began in 1871 (Meiji 4). This tradition protected Kyōto until the 1964 Olympics[viii]. It protected Tōkyō, too. Unfortunately, Tōkyō was subjected to the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923 which pretty much erased Edo permanently. Thus, Kyōto and Tōkyō have evolved on distinctly different paths both culturally and legally. Kyōto’s geographic location is far less prone to destructive seismic active than Edo-Tōkyō.

Great attention is spent discussing the contrast of the streets near Edo Castle as compared to the intricate, maze-like system of gates leading into the Castle itself. I’ve argued many times, that the castle was a city in and of itself. I love the detail this book goes into about the city’s relationship with the castle.

I was really happy to see rivers, ferries, and bridges get a lot of attention. If you’ve been following JapanThis! over the years, you know about my obsession with rivers and bridges. In fact, my last article on Umayabashi was inspired by a casual reference to the bridge in this book. These places were obviously important to the people of Edo, too. They’re a constant theme in the art of the day.

While this book doesn’t address the connotative evolution of the word 江戸っ子 Edokko “Child of Edo,” the article By Ferry to Factory lends much credence to my pet theory that the current definition of Edokko is a byproduct of authors active in the Meiji Period. Those writers may have pined for Edo and they may have even been born in the final years of Tokugawa Japan. However, they lived most of their lives in Tōkyō. This is the same sentiment that Seidensticker alludes to time and time again in his epic Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa. But like this book, Seidensticker doesn’t concern himself directly with the word or concept itself, but there’s much implied about its usage when you combine the 2 books. Just like the terms 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, this term has changed with subsequent generations[ix].

There’s so much more to say about this book, but I think I want to wrap things up with Jilly Traganou’s chapter, Representing Mobility in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan because this is a topic of great interest to me. As with many of the other Edo-Tōkyō chapters, it ties in with the work of Constantine Vaporis, who has written extensively about mobility of both commoners and samurai in the Edo Period[x]. Anyways, Jilly introduces train maps into the discussion. Trains were the first great successors of the feudal network of highways linking major cities. Pre-modern highways, check points, post towns, rivers, ferry crossings, bridges, modern urban elevated highways, trains, and subways; these are all connected – particularly in Edo-Tōkyō where we can see remnants of the continuum of mobility.


A lot of people thought my review of Seidensticker’s Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa was negative and so if you’re one of those people, let me clarify my feelings about his book. It’s a pretty bad ass book; I just didn’t like his style of prose. It was written in a literary style that no one uses anymore[xi]. The content isn’t bad, though. This book, Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective, actually gave me a new appreciation for Seidensticker’s book. It sort of verified, clarified, and demystified a lot of what Seidensticker said. By adding Kyōto to the conversation it really pushes the discussion to places I didn’t expect it to go. This is a really good thing. I love learning new things and this book taught me a lot and best of all, it has me asking more questions. So, I give this book a solid 4 stars![xii]

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[i] The lack of an Oxford comma pisses me off to no end lol.
[ii] Waley wrote the introduction to the Tuttle Edition of the Seidensticker book that I reviewed last January. It’s a good book and I think these two books make good companions.
[iii] Kyōto is really in a world of its own. It probably warrants a similar book, that shifts things back to the mysterious kingdom of 倭 Wa the oldest recorded name of a political entity in the Japanese islands. Kyōto marked the pinnacle of that burst of Japanese civilization and culture. In this book, Kyōto is very much put in contrast to Edo and the samurai government. It also plays foil to imperial Tōkyō. I wonder what another 500 pages on Nara and Kamakura would have yielded.
[iv] Rekishi no Tabi – the name can be translated as “a trip through history” – is a photographer and Japanese history nerd based in Tōkyō. Check out his photos here. Follow him on Twitter here.
[v] About my “star system,” 4/5 is probably as good as it will get. I’m reserving 5/5 for something really mind blowing. I dunno…, a picture book of Hijikata Toshizō’s girlfriends or something. Every book, every movie, every song has some room for criticism. Also, I have no half-stars because they don’t display correctly across platforms.
[vi] What was the Ōnin War? I’m glad you asked.
[vii] At least in my opinion.
[viii] It also provided a tradition and a framework for new laws in the post-Olympic era.
[ix] I had an article about Yamanote vs. Shitamachi, but I deleted it because it sucked ass. There will be a new reference article in 2016. Hopefully in the first few months of the year.
[x] His book, Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan, is required reading for any Japanese history nerd. I’ll be reviewing this book some time next year.
[xi] I was in high school when he died – totally pre-internet. I used to enjoy, and sometimes still do, that “great books” or “classics” approach to writing. But, it just doesn’t hold up today. It’s heavy on a classical style at the sake of straightforwardness.
[xii] When I introduced my new review system, I said that getting a 5 is an almost impossible target because… well, nothing’s perfect. A 4 definitely means you should read it. It’s the highest ranking you can get on JapanThis!.

Ask Me Anything

In Japanese History on March 12, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Nandemo kiite
(Ask Me Anything)


I totally rivered[i] myself on an article. Not only was the scope of the article getting out of control, I must have accidentally deleted a portion of it. I was just frustrated and wanted to get an article out as soon as possible. So I decided to open up the floor to questions for a Reddit-style #AMA. Well, OK, it’s not reddit-style as it didn’t happen in real time. But you get the point.

If you have a question you’d like to ask for a future AMA, feel free to add in the comments section. When there’s enough demand, I’ll do this again.


Why Don’t Other Countries Use Washlettes?

Dude, this is a good question and it’s a question I’ve actually thought about myself!

For the readers who aren’t familiar, a great deal of Japanese toilets – especially in the home – are outfitted with heated toilet seats, adjustable warm water bidets, and adjustable warm water asshole cleaners. Some models have a self-cleaning function (for the water jets, not the whole toilet), a deodorizer mechanism, and even sensors that engage an auto-flush mechanism as soon as you move away from the toilet. Once you’ve become accustomed to this type of toilet, any other 1st world countries’ toilets seem barbaric.

So if these “robo-toilets” are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them? I wondered this myself for years until I was back in the US, taking a dump. I looked around the bathroom and realized that the difference most likely lays in the fact that Japanese bathrooms are laid out very different from western bathrooms. The Japanese consider the bath/shower one space, for cleaning and relaxing. The toilet is a completely separate room; it’s dirty and shouldn’t be in the same room that you relax in after a hard day’s work.

What I noticed in the western bathroom is that not only are the bath/shower and toilet combined, the toilet in American bathrooms is often right next to the bath/shower. This means that there is no safe place for an electrical outlet because… hello, risk of electrocution. You have to plug in a Washlette. Even in American bath/showers that have the toilet isolated, there isn’t much of a tradition of needing electrical outlets where the toilet is – and indeed it could get pretty unsightly stringing out cords or extension cords.

In short, bathing culture, shitting culture, and where cultures think we should have electrical outlets installed is different. That’s my thoughts on why the Washlette hasn’t caught on outside of Japan.


Any Idea Where Your Interest in Etymology Came From?

I think I’ve mentioned this here and there, but maybe not directly on the blog. In short, I’ve always been curious about “why things are the way they are now if they weren’t that way before.” This is probably a bad answer. So, let’s go back to my junior high and high school days.

In junior high, my parents encouraged me to learn a foreign language. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t a pre-requisite until high school, but for some reason my parents thought it would be good for me to start in junior high. I was pretty opposed to the idea. Learning a foreign language seemed like the most boring thing I could ever do.

I eventually relented and took Latin[ii]. Prior to studying Latin, I sucked at English – grammar, in particular. Studying Latin changed my entire perspective on the world. My grammar also got really good. As you may know, something like 80% of Modern English vocabulary is derived from Latin – much of it via French. Once I started to see the connection between Latin and English, I got really curious about why there was such a connection. 2 books in particular really sparked a flame: The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages by Mario Pei and The Story of English by Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil[iii]. I still recommend these books to anyone who is looking for a way to get into the subject. They’re both written in pretty accessible language, though admittedly, the Mario Pei book assumes you have some familiarity with a Romance Language or two.

Later, in university, I did a short stint studying abroad in Italy. It was here that I realized that having a solid base in Latin and understanding many of the rules governing sound changes in Vulgar Latin[iv] gave me VIP access to most of the local dialects that I came into contact with. And while I can’t say I understood every non-standard Italian word or phrase that I came across (I definitely couldn’t), I could definitely understand the linguistic processes at work.


So, years later when I moved to Japan, I found myself staring at train station names and quickly looking up the kanji. I saw names like 渋谷 Shibuya “astringent valley,” 新宿 Shinjuku “new lodging,[v]谷中 Yanaka “middle of the valley” and I was curious about the stories behind these. At first, I took them at face value but as I began to investigate more – for the purpose of this blog, that is – I realized that more often than not we can’t take the kanji at face value. As I’ve written more and more, I’ve also realized that I can use my geeky curiosity about etymology as an excuse to explore the history of the city as well.

So, I think my interest is really based on a fascination with change and the dynamics of recorded history. Edo-Tōkyō has evolved and changed over the years and so has the Japanese language and culture.

japanese history

What Got You Interested in Japanese History?

Short answer. After I came to Japan, I wanted to understand Japanese culture more deeply and I wanted to have a shared background with the people around me.

Long answer. When I first visited Japan in 2002-2003, I was staying in 鶯谷 Uguisudani and almost every day, I’d take a walk around the area that I now know is the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi Ueno Plateau. I stumbled across what is left of 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, one the 2 Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo-Tōkyō[vi]. I found the 勅額門 chokugaku mon imperial scroll gates of Tokugawa Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi (4th and 5th shōguns, respectively). I later found the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a stone’s throw away in Yanaka. When I asked my Japanese friends about who these shōguns were, I couldn’t get any good answers. One friend said, “I think Tokugawa Iemitsu was gay.” Well, whatever. Lots of people are gay, but only 15 people were Tokugawa shōguns. I needed answers and I wasn’t getting jack shit.

So before I’d go to bed each night, I’d log on to the public computer at the hotel I was staying at and google as much as I could on the shōguns. As a random sort of game, I made it my goal to visit all 15 shōguns’ graves before I returned to America. In the end, on that trip I only visited 5[vii]. I knew nothing about Japanese history so I felt like I was a detective uncovering a great mystery. Every layer I peeled away made the next layer so much more tantalizing.

Before I knew it, I was obsessed with this old culture and its ways. Soon I found myself strung out on the most hardcore strains of J-History. I was blowing history professors in Shinjuku 2-chōme for a fix of Bakumatsu here, a Nobunaga story there. Then I hit rock bottom – I tried to write a series of articles about the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō.

Miniature diorama of Nihonbashi at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Miniature diorama of Nihonbashi at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

You Often Use The Phrase Edo-Tōkyō…

That’s not a question.

But anyhoo, yes. I often use the term “Edo-Tōkyō.” Other than the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum, I don’t see the word in English much. However, the term 江戸東京 Edo-Tōkyō is something I come across from time to time in Japanese. Since Edo eventually became Tōkyō, this is a convenient Japanese word to describe the city as a continuum. Clearly Edo is not the same as modern Tōkyō, but they don’t exist independent of each other. Since a lot of my blog deals with the history of Edo and Tōkyō, I decided long ago to use the concept of Edo-Tōkyō as a term and an approach to dealing with the life of the city.


How Long Have You Been in Edo?

Hahahaha. Nice reference to this.

My 10 year anniversary was in January of this year.

Where has the time gone? I still remember my first night in my first apartment on my 2nd day as a resident like it was yesterday[viii].

Women of the Ōoku in Edo Castle

Women of the Ōoku in Edo Castle

What Exactly Are The “Shōgunal Duties” Performed Within The Friendly Confines of The Ōoku?

Well, I know this is my boy, Rekishi no Tabi, just messing with me, but OK. Sure. Let’s talk about what went down in the Ōoku.

First of all, Ōoku means “the great interior” and refers to a physical location in 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. In theory, it was the most isolated interior section of the castle compound. This is where the women lived. Many people translate the term as “the shōgun’s harem.” Rekishi no Tabi and I love to joke around about this too. In popular culture, the Ōoku was and is often imagined as the shōgun’s garden of earthly delights. In reality, this was just the women’s quarters of the shōgun’s court. The women held official posts within a hierarchy, with the shōgun’s 御台所 midaidokoro legal wife at the top[ix]. In a culture steeped in ritual, one did not simply strut into the Ōoku and fuck until one’s dick fell off.

The Ōoku existed because Japanese culture at this time was strictly patrilineal. This meant any family with a name needed sons to carry on the family line. Women had value in the culture in so far as they could provide heirs to the male head of the family. Love happened. Marriages happened. But males were expected to keep the family going and you need women for that. Once you’re talking about imperial succession, daimyō succession, or most importantly shōgunal succession, combined with high infant mortality rates, taking concubines isn’t such a crazy idea. It’s basically a non-egalitarian form of polyamory[x]. You have a primary partner that you’re expected to respect and take care of, but the man is expected to get a little on the side for the benefit of the family line. Women of elites weren’t extended this privilege in the Edo Period – though many of them most certainly did. Even in modern times Japanese culture is fairly monogamish[xi].

But of course, everyone wants to hear about the sex – myself included – so let me take this chance to teach you some sexxxy Ōoku vocabulary. Regardless of rank within the hierarchy, women could be divided into 2 clear categories: 御手付 o-tetsuki “those touched by the shōgun” and 御清 o-kiyo “the pure ones.” The number of o-tetsuki skyrocketed during the reign of the 11th shōgun and my personal hero, Tokugawa Ienari[xii], the Party Shōgun.


When a Japanese Person is Named Sakura (for example), How Can One Tell If It’s a Male or a Female?

About the given name “Sakura…” As far as I know, this is only a female name. There are a variety of ways to write it in kanji: 桜 Sakura (cherry blossom), 愛咲 Sakura (love blooms), さくら Sakura (cute way to write “cherry blossom”). There is also a family name 佐久良 Sakura (has nothing to do with cherry blossoms).

The easiest way to identify a female name is if it’s written in hiragana only. In this case, it would be さくら Sakura. If you were to meet a man with the name “Sakura,” the name would be written with kanji that look “masculine.” However, I’m not sure what that would look like, though. In general, cherry blossoms and most flowers are considered delicate and feminine so I doubt you will find many men named “Sakura.”

On a side note, katakana is considered more masculine than hiragana, so theoretically you could name a son サクラ Sakura, but to my eyes, this looks like a manga character or a young girl who works in the sex industry. I’m not sure how to wrap up this answer tidily, but I’d say men’s names generally don’t include kanji for flowers and fruit.

UPDATE: That said I found the name 秋桜 Sakura as a boy’s name on the website DQNネーム Fucked Up Names. All of the comments on that name expressed shock at both the name and the way of writing it. The kanji mean “autumn cherry blossom” with the first kanji being completely silent. I showed it to a few native speakers and they were just confused by it. 2 people were surprised it was even a name. They thought it was a species of tree. Everyone thought it was weird to give a boy this name at all.

It’s like naming an American boy Jennifer. You could do it, but everyone of our generation will think of it as a girl’s name.

Hope that answered your question…

caste system t-shirt

Where Do Doctors Fit Into the 4-Tier Class System?

Great question!

I haven’t researched this, but I think I can take a good stab at it. If someone else knows more, I’d love to hear it.

Much to do is made of the 士農工商 shinōkōshō system – it means “samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants” and from top to bottom it lays out a social hierarchy with samurai at the top and merchants at the bottom. To understand Edo Period society, you have to know this rigid system. But there are 2 more things you need to know. First, these castes were essentially inherited ranks and secondly, they weren’t always linked to your profession. There were also professions and/or families that existed outside of the system. Also, contrary to popular belief, social mobility was a possibility in certain situations. Adoption of males into families that lacked male heirs was one way, but samurai status could also be bought or sold in some domains.

As for doctors… just think about today. It costs a lot of money to become a doctor because you need access to the latest research and you need to get certain qualifications. An Edo Period doctor didn’t need certificates (as far as I know[xiii]), but he needed access to the best Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch medical knowledge available. This means an Edo Period doctor needed to be rich enough or hold enough rank to get access to certain texts. While it’s possible that some merchant families could buy this kind of education for their sons, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that only samurai families and imperial court families could do this. Of those samurai families, 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun would be likely candidates. The 朝廷 chōtei imperial court and the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate had their own special doctors. I’m assuming the government of each 藩 han domain also had their own network of doctors.

A similar question came up on Twitter a while back about Buddhist monks. Where did they fit into the system? The monks/priests of Shintō and Buddhism could theoretically come from any rank. So someone might have been elite, but for some reason or another they decided to became a Buddhist priest. An elite would then become an elite in the religious order. Their elite status didn’t just disappear. The wives of the Tokugawa shōguns were required to become monks upon the death of the shōgun.

In short, the so-called “4 classes of the Edo Period” weren’t as strict as they could have been[xiv]. But, doctors and monks would have been afforded respect worthy of the class they were born into[xv] and do to the amount education required to become a doctor or a monk, these positions would have been filled by men (and sometimes women) who had a lot of money. By default this means the samurai and court nobles, but certainly could have included merchants and rich farmers.


Can I Get A Geisha In This Day And Age? How Much Does It Cost?

Yes, you can. But enjoying geisha entertainment today is going to cost you so much more than it would have in the Edo Period. The age of a geisha today will be somewhat older than the age of an Edo Period geisha. You’ll also probably have to be introduced by an acquaintance before you’re allowed to attend a geisha’s performance.

Also your phrasing “Can I get a geisha” is a little bit disturbing to me. But I’ll talk about that later.

I, for one, have never enjoyed a proper geisha performance. It is way out of my price range and even if I wanted to get into that scene, I don’t have the right connections. And believe me it takes connections, time, and money to get access to that world today. As such I can’t quote you clear prices, but I once spoke to ex-Kyōtoite who is a manager of a 料亭 ryōtei traditional restaurant in Tōkyō that features geisha. She told me that a night of entertainment starts at about 50,000円-60,000円 ($500-$600 USD) and can go anywhere upwards of that.

In short, it’s not cheap.

Onsen geisha

Onsen geisha

I will say that there is something called 温泉芸者 onsen geisha (“hot spring geisha”). This is a term that has evolved over time, just as the terms 芸子 geiko and 芸者 geisha have also evolved over time. Geisha isn’t a consistent term historically and it also varied from location to location. Onsen geisha may be a cheap alternative to high ranking geisha. But you have know what you’re getting into.

Today the general understanding to the average Japanese person is that a geisha is a performer – a kind of artist or entertainer. Some even say that she’s the precursor of the modern アイドル aidoru idol.

The persistent western image of the geisha as a sex worker is most definitely a misunderstanding of geisha’s job. It’s also born out of the changing culture from the Bakumatsu up to the WWII era. Geisha weren’t prostitutes by default. They were performers, entertainers. But they were human so sometimes sexual relationships happened. Sex with customers wasn’t a requirement of the job in most cases. But even geisha fall in love.

In Yoshiwara and in the Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa onsen towns, the “onsen geisha” became a profitable job for a woman of traditional musical talents and conversation. She would have been looked down upon by her colleagues in Kyōto and Tōkyō, but the services wouldn’t have been much different[xvi]. The difference in Meiji Era Tōkyō is that the geisha of Yoshiwara were in direct competition with prostitutes. I think there was a strong social pressure for geisha at any time in history to exchange sex for money, though they didn’t have to.

The Bubble Economy saw a new generation of liberated Japanese women in Tōkyō, but women in small towns, especially rural onsen towns, were left behind economically. By the time the Bubble burst, domestic tourism to onsen towns (as opposed to overseas tourism) increased. Demand for traditional entertainment waned and the onsen geisha rose in popularity as curious sexual fetish. As a result the onsen geisha is now just a nostalgic version of what in Tōkyō is usually thought of as デリヘル deri heru delivery health (outcall prostitution). In the case of onsen geisha, they show up at your hotel room at the hot spring dressed as geisha. But these girls are not geisha. It’s just cosplay.

All of this said, there are still some onsen geisha who aren’t prostitutes and will come and perform and party with you at a hot spring.

onsen geisha now

Can I Get a Woot Woot?

Yes, you can.

Woot woot!


Me & My Girlfriend Are Coming to Tokyo This Summer For Our Honeymoon. I Fancy Myself a Bit of a History Buff, So Where Do You Recommend For the Ultimate Edo Experience?

First of all, congratulations!

Second of all, I hate this question because I don’t want to fuck up your honeymoon. lol
I don’t know what you guys like and what you’d like to see.

Ummmm… OK, so if you read my blog, then I assume you like history and traditional stuff.

I’d recommend these things:

  • Edo-Tokyo Museum
  • Ueno Park
  • Yanaka Ginza
  • Yanaka Cemetery
  • Edo Castle
  • Tōkyō Water Works Museum
  • Kōrakuen
  • Rikugien
  • Hama Rikyū Teien
  • Shiba Rikyū Teien
  • Zōjō-ji
  • Tōkyō Tower
  • Kappabashi
  • A bicycle ride along the Sumida River
  • Ride a yakatbune (party boat in Tōkyō Bay)
  • A walk from Ueno Station through Ameyoko-chō and Okachimachi to Akihabara
  • Or look through the blog for individual places you’d like to see!

Also keep in mind, there’s no “Ultimate Edo Experience.” Very little of Edo remains so you have to really go out of your way to look for it. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with a mere memorial plaque or an old stone wall. Anyways, I think I made a pretty decent list for you.

Fingers crossed!

Kuramaebashi (Kuramae Bridge)

Kuramaebashi (Kuramae Bridge)

Of All the Place Names You’ve Researched, Which Investigation Produced the Results That Excited or Surprised You the Most? What Do You Consider Your Favorite “Find?”

This is a really hard question to answer.

Recently, all the “horse” places in Setagaya blew my mind… simply because it was all a coincidence that came from a reader request. Even when I tried to quit the area, another horse related place name came up. But that’s what makes writing this blog so fun for me. I like to think I’m teaching my readers about Edo-Tōkyō but the truth is that I’m learning with you… so I hope we’re fellow travelers on this journey through history.

The crazy river series I did, despite the burn out I inflicted upon myself, is something I look back at with a certain amount of pride. The rivers come in contact with so many interesting areas and related local histories. Akihabara was interesting for me because I had no idea it was such a recent invention.

Kuramae is another favorite of mine because it changed my fundamental approach to the blog. I’m actually pretty sure that’s when all the articles started getting longer. When I wrote that article, I realized that I didn’t have to focus on etymology[xvii], but I could use etymology as a launch pad to look at the bigger picture. I think that was when I started to go into the cultural history of the area.

I feel like I’m not actually answering your question and for that I apologize. The truth is, as far as linguistics and etymology go… nothing’s shocking to me anymore. My favorite “find,” as you put it, is that people actually read the blog. Of that small group of people who follow me, a few people ask questions and suggest articles. Some even donate a dollar here and there. That’s the biggest surprise for me – far bigger than any place name.

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[i] Here at JapanThis! we like to use the verb “to river oneself” to describe scope creep.
[ii] My friends took German, Spanish, and French. And everyone said the teachers were strict or mean. No one took Latin, so it seemed like the safest bet.
[iii] The book was originally a companion edition to a PBS mini-series on the history of the English language.
[iv] Not what you think it means…
[v] “Where’s the old one?” I wondered…
[vi] Here is my article on the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns.
[vii] Ieyasu (1st), Iemitsu (3rd), Ietsuna (4th), Tsunayoshi (5th), Yoshinobu (15th). There was so little information on the web at that time, that I couldn’t even figure out where the other shōguns were interred. Though I’ve been to all the sites, there are 6 graves that I haven’t actually seen with my own eyes. And by graves, I don’t mean the gate ruins. The actual graves at Kan’ei-ji are off limits to the public and photography is banned. I haven’t given up hope, though.
[viii] Mainly because I was woken up by my first earthquake.
[ix] This is an oversimplification on my part, to say the least. Also, the shōgun’s wife had an abbreviated title, 御台様 midai-sama.
[x] Another ‘modern’ concept might be “open marriage.” Though, by ‘modern’ standards, this would be a very unfair example of an open marriage.
[xi] A certain “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos is fairly prevalent.
[xii] Ienari didn’t limit his sexual explorations to the “friendly confines” of the Ōoku. There is some corroborating evidence that he regularly summoned geisha and girls from highest end shops in 吉原 Yoshiwara to Edo Castle. I trust you know Yoshiwara. It was Edo’s licensed pleasure quarter and it spanned several city blocks. You can think of it as a sexual amusement park with kimonos.
[xiii] So I could be very wrong about the no need for certification thing…
[xiv] It was a pretty stupid system anyways and that’s why it wasn’t so literal.
[xv] This horizontal mobility still exists in some traditional Japanese companies. While American companies seek specialists, traditional Japanese companies seek to develop generalists. This is an echo of the old Japanese patriarchal system.
[xvi] I’m assuming Kyōto would have been different. Kyōto has remained somewhat crystallized since the Edo Period.
[xvii] The etymology of Kuramae is actually quite simple and well documented.

What does Edo mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on September 6, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Edo (literally “Inlet Door,” but more at “Estuary”)

Edo - the shogun's personal domain.

Edo – the shogun’s personal domain.

Today’s post is a monster!
There are a lot of footnotes trying to clarify things in the text.
Please check those.
There are good links and some additional info there.

A few days ago was, if my math is correct, the 145th anniversary of day Edo was renamed Tōkyō. This happened on September 3rd, 1868 by an imperial decree called 江戸を称して東京と為すの詔書 Edo wo shōshite Tōkyō to nasu shōsho Imperial Edict Renaming Edo Tōkyō. The document was written in the ancient and pretentious language of the imperial court which is above my Japanese level so I’m not going to translate it for you. But we all know what happened. Edo ceased to exist and Tōkyō was born.

I tried to find a picture of the actual document, but I couldn’t. But if you do want to see the section of the text that laid out the command in all its highfalutin imperial court language glory, here it is:


UPDATE: I found a translation of this line at Here’s the translation:

But enough about Tōkyō.

Today’s topic is Edo.

Every guidebook and general book on Japanese history says something like:

“Before the coming of the Tokugawa, Edo was a sleepy fishing village.”

“Though it was once an insignificant village in the marshy wetlands, Tokugawa Ieyasu transformed Edo into a glorious capital befitting of the shōguns.”

And while those sorts of statements hold varying degrees of truth, just blowing off everything before the  arrival of Tokugawa Ieyasu, raises more questions because why the hell would Ieyasu just pick some crappy fishing village in a marsh and say “Build me a castle from which I can rule Japan!” Ieyasu wasn’t that impulsive and he definitely wasn’t stupid. He was made an offer by Hideyoshi and he took it. He deliberately chose Edo which means the area was strategically important and not a shithole fishing village in East Bumfuck.

One other thing we often hear is:

“A feudal warlord named Ōta Dōkan came into the small fishing village of Edo and built his castle there.”

Again, this seems strategically silly and as you will see, it’s simply not true[i]. Sure, fishing was a big deal in the area – it was for all of Edo’s existence, but things are more nuanced than that.

How do you say East Bumfuck in Japanese?


for people with short attention spans

In the 12th century, an influential branch of the Taira clan moved their base from present day Saitama to 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo Hamlet in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District in 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni  Musashi Province[ii].  Following standard practice of the time, if a powerful lord wanted to distinguish his line as a new clan, he would take the name of his territory as a surname. Thus this new clan was 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan. Edo’s place name seems to have been quite literal. It meant “estuary.”


for people with too much time on their hands

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a scholar. A lot of this backstory is not well documented.
There may be some omissions or timeline mistakes in here because my eyes glaze over at Japanese genealogy, etc.If you know something that I don’t or see a mistake, let me know, and I’ll fix it.

OK, so let’s go waaaaaaaaaay back before the Tokugawa.

The Kantō Plain appears to have first been populated in the Late Jōmon Period sometime after 3100 BC. This is well before rice culture found its way to Japan[iii]. It’s fair to say these people were hunter gatherers and don’t really figure into the history of Edo-Tōkyō as an urban space. But still, their presence here gives us some perspective of how long humans have lived here.

Happy little Jomon people having a picnic or something.

Happy little Jomon people having a picnic or something.

The Kofun Period 

Fast forward more than 2000 years and…

During the Kofun Period (200-500 AD), the influence of the Yamato State[iv] finally reached the Kantō area. It seems that around the 300’s, Kantō became a vassal state of the Yamato Court. It’s from this period forward that we can see the arrival of the people who are to become what we will later see as Japanese, physically and culturally. They were a literate people who had ideas of governance, philosophy and technology that they learned[v] from the Korean peninsula and China. The spread of Shintō accompanies the Yamato influence. BTW – Kofun are burial mounds typical of this culture. There are kofun scattered throughout the Kantō area – more than 200 exist in the Tōkyō Metropolis. The so-called 丸山古墳 Maruyama Kofun “Round Mountain” Kofun is in 芝公園 Shiba Kōen Shiba Park next to where Tokugawa Hidetada’s funerary temple was built in the early 1600’s[vi].

Here you can see the size and keyhole shape of the Maruyama Kofun.

Here you can see the size and keyhole shape of the Maruyama Kofun.

Maruyama Kofun is the largest in the area, so it must have been built for someone powerful. The kofun sits an easy walk from Edo Bay and is next to the 古川 Furukawa “the Old River,” one of many rivers and inlets in the area (at the time and, to a certain extent, today).

The hilly area surrounding it could provide high areas for residences and villages. Strategically speaking, these hills were ideal for defense because, duh, it’s better to be at the top of the hill in a ground war than at the bottom. Also, the high ground protected villages from tsunamis and flooding. The proximity to the bay was great for fishing and growing seaweed and the inlets and rivers were convenient for sending heavy supplies and foodstuffs in and out of the area. The bay also provided a natural defense as Japanese ship construction technology sucked ass at this time. The wetland areas were perfect for growing rice. In short, the area was defensible and sustainable. Whoever is buried in the Maruyama Kofun noticed this potential and most definitely exploited it to his and his subjects’ benefit.

From Maruyama Kofun, move a few clicks north on a map of Edo and you will see where Edo Castle stood[vii]. The same conditions existed here[viii] and it’s from here that our story really begins.

The kofun just looks like a big hill. Keep in mind, we don't know who was in here, but at least we can get an idea of the culture that lived in the surrounding areas along the bay.

The kofun just looks like a big hill.
Keep in mind, we don’t know who was in here, but at least we can get an idea of the culture that lived in the surrounding areas along the bay.

The Rise of Samurai in Kantō

Let’s move up to present day Saitama in the area called 秩父郡 Chichibu-gun Chichibu District near 大宮 Ōmiya Ōmiya, not far from the present day Tōkyō-Saitama boarder. At the end of the Heian Period in the 12th century, a noble clan descended from the 平氏 Hei-shi Taira Clan was in control of the area.  The original, major samurai houses descended from imperial branch families like the Taira.

The Taira Clan (called Hei-shi in Japanese) used a stylized butterfly crest called the 蝶紋 chō mon. Most branch families adapted the butterfly into new designs for themselves.

The Taira Clan (called Hei-shi in Japanese) used a stylized butterfly crest called the 蝶紋 chō mon.
Most branch families adapted the butterfly into new designs for themselves.

The family name Taira essentially means you descend from the imperial family of the Heian Period, but you are not 公家 kuge a court family, so your official status is that of a subject of the emperor. But as a samurai family with imperial blood, you – theoretically –have more power and rank than the average samurai.

By the way, this era marks the true rise of the samurai culture. Lords (daimyō) tended to take the names of their fiefs as family names to establish new branch families[ix].  So, although these families were of Taira blood, this branch took the name of their fief and became known as the Chichibu Clan. It seems that bearing the name of your territory was an expression of your dominance. (Remember that! It’s going to come up again later.)

So, for reasons unclear (to me at least), someone from this Taira samurai family in Chichibu moved south to establish a new clan. The most likely candidate is the guy generally considered the first head of the Edo Clan, Chichibu Shigetsugu.

Chichibu Shigetsugu moved south and fortified a small hill in 千代田 Chiyoda “Eternal Fields”[x]. He probably chose this area because this is where Tōkyō Bay had a major inlet that became the Sumida River. It had a strong current for bringing in goods. Being on the coast, it was immune from attacks by sea on one side and with so much seafood production and rice production in the area it was a sustainable area. The same natural features that made area appealing to the people of the Kofun Period, also made it appealing this 12th century samurai.

The area into which Chichibu Shigetsugu moved was supposedly known as 江戸郷 Edo-gō the hamlet of Edo[xi]. Following the tradition of his day, when he became lord of the area, he assumed the name 江戸 Edo and became Edo Shigetsugu. His descendants would also bear this name.

It’s thought that his fortified residence was built on what is now the current 本丸 honmaru main keep and 二ノ丸 ninomaru secondary enclosure of the Imperial Palace (areas still delineated clearly today).

TIP 1: Check to learn what the heck honmaru and ninomaru are!

This is where it gets weirder. Despite being a minor offshoot of the Taira clan, the second successive lord, Edo Shigenaga, was asked by Minamoto Yoritomo[xii] to help fight against the Taira. Lord Shigenaga switched sides (probably to save his ass) and in about 1180, after the war, he was rewarded with 7 additional fiefs in the surrounding area. I’m not sure about this, but although Edo Hamlet was still one of his holdings, it seems he made his main residence and seat of government at Kitami[xiii]. This consolidated the Edo clan’s influence over a wide area.

Edo Shigenaga continued fortification of the military residence in Chiyoda. Because of the clan’s connection to the Minamoto shōguns[xiv], the Edo family’s influence increased and Chiyoda Castle[xv] increasingly came to be referred to as Edo Castle, though the dual naming would persist[xvi].

Edo Castle at its height is highlighted. The tiny green circle is where the Edo residence is thought to have soon. By the this awesome interative map is from Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Edo Castle at its height is highlighted.
The tiny green circle is where the Edo residence is thought to have soon.
By the this awesome interative map is from
Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Edo from the Kamakura Period to the Muromachi Period

The area was still minor, but it’s clear from archaeological evidence and administrative records that the area began its first baby steps towards urbanization at this time. It was a minor military hub and because of the nearby 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and Edo Bay, logistically speaking, transportation of goods was most likely increasing.

We can only imagine that during the Kamakura Period, the villages and hamlets the fell under the protection of the Edo Clan would have grown and prospered a little. Occasionally the area shows up in records of the Kamakura Shōgunate. The Muromachi Period, however, is pretty much silent on the area. Kamakura was not so far away from Toshima and Musashi provinces and so would be up to date on things. The Muromachi Shōgunate was far off in Kyōto and probably too busy to care what a bunch of country samurai in the east were doing. But by 1467, we start to see the country descend into chaos as the shōgunate loses control of the country.

Sengoku Period
i.e.;  ザ・クラスターファック時代

The Sengoku Era saw the rise in castle towns centered around the castles of 大名 daimyō lords who were constantly at war with their positions always changing. So we see great development in castle building and military strategy, but not so much in city building or administration. In the final years of the Sengoku Period castle building reached the stage of what we usually think of when we imagine a stereotypical Japanese castle. In the early years, castle building was a little different. Think dirt-walled, wood-fenced, thatched roofed barn-like firetraps.

1457, at the beginning of the Sengoku Era, a Musashi warlord named Ōta Dōkan attacked Edo Shigeyasu. Shigeyasu surrendered to Dōkan (a vassal of the Uesugi). His life was spared and he was allowed to continue living at the Edo clan’s Kitami residence. (Remember that because it’s going to come up again).

Pretty sure Dokan couldn't get any girls in Tokyo if he walked around in pants like that.

Pretty sure Dokan couldn’t get any girls in Tokyo if he walked around in pants like that.

Dōkan and Uesugi recognized the strategic benefits of the Edo Clan’s residence near the bay (and probably its nice view of Mt. Fuji on one side and the ocean on the other side and decided to build (or develop) the structure for Uesugi Sadamasa. The new structures were built in the same area that the original Edo Clan residence had been. As stated before, this is the area that became the honmaru and ninomaru of the Tokugawa Edo Castle (today this area is the Imperial Palace East Garden). The building may not have been terribly large, but he installed a large and complex system of moats and it began to look more like an early Sengoku Era castle.

Edo Castle at its height is highlighted. The tiny green circle is where the Edo residence is thought to have soon. By the this awesome interative map is from Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Same map as before.
Edo Castle is highlighted in yellow.
Ota Dokan’s thatched roof fortress is highlighted in green.
By the this awesome interative map is from
Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Also, as mentioned before, in the Sengoku Era we see the rise of 城下町 jōka machi castle towns. As the castles got bigger, they needed to rely on goods from the local people. As fighting got worse, the people needed to be closer to the castles for protection. After all, it was dangerous out there. Also, the lords wanted rings of meandering streets around the castles for 2 reasons; one, it’s difficult to siege a castle when you have to go through a city first and two, human shields. That said, this early in the Sengoku Period, I don’t think we were seeing a lot of that. But, it’s clear that this process had begun before the arrival of the Tokugawa. Dōkan also diverted a waterway that became the Nihonbashi River, one of the outstanding traits of city during the Edo Period.

Before I said, Ōta Dōkan didn’t really build Edo Castle. But now you know the reality. By diverting water supplies and laying out a defensive system of moats, he unwittingly began the urbanization process. This new fortress was the catalyst that made the area not just a lord’s residence with a few villages scattered around here and there. It made it a defensible, sustainable, strategic area with a growing population that would look mighty attractive to one Tokugawa Ieyasu about a hundred years later (at least on paper).

Ieyasu obviously new about Ota Dokan's "castle," but you can just imagine him seeing the150 year old ruins for the first time and being like "shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit."

Ieyasu obviously new about Ota Dokan’s “castle,” but you can just imagine him seeing the 150 year old ruins for the first time and being disappointed.

In 1477, Ōta Dōkan attacked Toshima Yasutsune. He took Nerima Castle, Shakujii Castle and the clan’s administrative center, Hiratsuka Castle. Then he literally annihilated the Toshima clan. Bye bye.

In the general narrative of the Sengoku Period, Ōta Dōkan is a kind of minor guy. But history isn’t a narrative. The actions he took, some barbaric, some wise, don’t play into the unification of Japan. But in the history of Edo-Tōkyō, he looms large.

It’s safe to say that he was definitely a product of his violent age.  And in 1486, he met a violent end typical of that age when he was murdered by the Uesugi Clan for a perceived betrayal.

His control of the fortress (can we really say “castle” yet?) in Chiyoda was a little over 20 years.

Now, as for what happened next, I’m not exactly certain. I’ve usually read that the castle remained abandoned from 1486-1590, but it seems that in 1525, Hōjō Ujitsuna took possession of the region and the castle. However, I don’t know if he actually lived there or did anything with it. If I had to speculate, I’d say that in the constant state of war of the Sengoku Period, rehabilitating a hundred year old castle would have been a risky and expensive operation.
If anyone knows, I’d appreciate the info!

End of the Sengoku Period

At any rate, fast forward 100 years later to 1590. Toyotomi Hideyoshi stamped the shit out of the last independent clan remaining on his quest for unification; this last remaining pocket of resistance was the Hōjō who were based in Odawara, thus ending about 80 years Hōjō influence in the area. As everyone who studies Japanese history knows, one of the generals helping Hideyoshi in this final act of unification was Tokugawa Ieyasu.


Honmaru of Osaka Castle in Hideyoshi’s time.
One of Hideyoshi’s many amazing accomplishments was building Osaka Castle.
It was said to be undefeatable – until Ieyasu defeated it. (lol).
Since the time of Nobunaga, castle building techniques had changed dramatically.
Having gotten used to this as the future of castle building,
imagine Ieyasu’s reaction to seeing Ota Dokan’s castle ruins.
(btw – this is just a model. lol.)

Of course, we also all know that Ieyasu despised Hideyoshi and, well, Hideyoshi pretty much didn’t trust Ieyasu either, especially after Ieyasu fought – but lost – against Hideyoshi in 1584. So after the defeat of the Hōjō/Odawara, Hideyoshi devised a unique plan to pacify and distance himself from Ieyasu. At the time, Ieyasu controlled 5 provinces, Mikawa[xvii], Tōtōmi, Suruga, Shinano, and Kai[xviii] which had fast access to Kyōto. Hideyoshi offered to buy out Ieyasu of his five provinces by giving him the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces. The Kanhasshū included Musashi, Sagami, Kazusa, Shimōsa, Awa, Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, and Hitachi[xix] — quite literally the whole Kantō region.

Ieyasu's new territory. Edo Bay is totally protected.

Ieyasu’s new territory.
Edo Bay is totally protected.

Ieyasu took the deal and could have chosen any place within his sprawling new dominion for his main seat of government. But he chose Edo.

Sure, he chose fixer-upper. But he chose one with a well-fortified castle that had room for expansion (and Ieyasu now had the money for it). He had waterways in and out of the city. He had a view of Mt. Fuji (a territory that had once been his). He had a view of the ocean, which not only was beautiful – it was a kind of super moat. The area was fertile and partly urbanized.

It’s said that when Ieyasu came to survey the city he planned to make the base of his 8 provinces, the castle that Ōta Dōkan had built consisted of around 100 buildings with thatched roofs surrounded by wide moats and earthen walls. Although it didn’t look like much upon his arrival, the moat system alone was enough to know he’d chosen well.

At the height of Tokugawa power, the castle is said to have been the biggest in the world and the city was likely the most populous.

Who REALLY built Edo Castle?

Ieyasu ordered his castle built in the new style.
There were 4 stages of construction throughout the Edo Period.
Look at that and then tell me who REALLY built Edo Castle.

So, um… What Happened to the Edo Clan?

Oh, I almost forgot.

Now that we’ve come to the Tokugawa Period, which is generally referred to as the Edo Period, I have to back track to something I said earlier about a certain Edo Shigeyasu.

Shigeyasu surrendered the Edo residence to Ōta Dōkan in 1457 in the early Sengoku Period. Keep in mind that ancient samurai families often took their branch names from the lands that they controlled.

Ieyasu arrived in 1590 and began establishing his new capita at Edo. He was still in the service of Hideyoshi at the time[xx], but as the lord of the Kanhasshū he had to establish rapport with his new retainers (lords in their own right). Likewise, his new retainers had to swear allegiance to him.

There was one major problem… with the name!

The Edo clan still had a residence in Kitami, which is present day Setagawa Ward. In light of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dominance over the area, it would be presumptuous (and confusing) for a clan to retain the name of the capital city when a new daimyō, appointed by the unifier of Japan, controlled that city. So in 1593, taking an oath of submission and fealty to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last Edo Clan daimyō gave up the name Edo and assumed the name, Kitami, which was where their primary holdings were.

In 1600, Ieyasu was victorious at the Battle of Sekigahara and became the de facto leader of a more-or-less unified Japan. In 1603, the emperor granted him the title of 征夷大将軍 seii taishōgun great barbarian subduing general.

Replica of the armor that Ieyasu wore at the battle of Sekigahara.  Pretty freaking Darth Vadery of him.

Replica of the armor that Ieyasu wore at the battle of Sekigahara.
Pretty freaking Darth Vadery of him.

The Edo Clan’s Final Disgrace…

In 1693, the direct family line, no longer Edo but Kitami, was extinguished after the banishment of Kitami Shigeyasu to Ise when his grandson murdered somebody or something. The once powerful country samurai family, descended from Taira blood in the 1100’s, who had held such influence over the area and had long born the name of the area, just fizzled out into oblivion[xxi].

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bye bye, Edo Clan.

Bye bye, Edo Clan.

But Wait, There’s More!

Now, if this were any other blog, that would be the end of the story. But long time readers of JapanThis! will surely be wondering why so many other ancient place name etymologies are so difficult and Edo was so easy. Is it really just “estuary???”

Well, not everyone agrees. It seems there are multiple theories on the origin of the name “Edo.”

 Theory 1 – It’s literal.
 Theory 2 – It derives from the Ainu word エト eto which means “cape” or “peninsula.” This theory claims that the name refers to the original shape of the Hibiya inlet around the beginning of the Heian Period[xxii].
 Theory 3 – It derives from 井戸 ido well. エ e and イ i confusion in the Kantō dialects is something that we’ve come across many times in Tōkyō place names. So it’s possible that an ancient spring (or hot spring) existed here at one time. References to wells in place names are common in Japan. This is because people would naturally build new villages near fresh water supplies. No wells that would be a candidate have been found, though.


There are a few other theories too ridiculous to bother with here. According to the Kadokawa Dictionary of Japanese Place Names, the literal meaning (estuary = edo) is the most likely derivation and the Ainu word (eto = cape, small peninsula) is the second most likely. I tend to agree.

So there you have it. More background on Edo before the coming of the Tokugawa than you ever wanted to know. Definitely more than you needed to know. Now you can bore your friends to tears at the next party with all of this pointless trivia.

I should probably print this whole article on a t-shirt, dammit.

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[i] It’s also incorrect to apply the term “feudal” to Japan.

[iii] Wet rice cultivation and bronze and iron technologies were imported sometime around 900 BC and eventually spread across the islands.

[iv] The Yamato Court were the predecessors of or origins of the current imperial line, depending who you ask. Their capital was based in Asuka (in current Nara Prefecture).

[v] Learned or brought, depending on who you ask.

[vii] Don’t use a map of Tōkyō because the shape of the bay is radically different today.

[viii] And it’s not unreasonable to assume that the ruler buried in Maruyama Kofun exerted influence over the Chiyoda area as well.

[ix] A reverse pattern sometimes occurs when an area derives its name from the ruling family, but this is not the case with Edo.

[xi] The name 江戸 Edo means “river/bay door.” This describes the inflow of water from Edo Bay into the rivers that gave the coastal regions life. Also, people always say Edo was a small fishing village. If I’m not mistaken, at the time a 郷 sato/ was bigger than a 村 mura village. So, technically speaking, at this point Edo wasn’t a small fishing village.

[xii] The guy who established the Minamoto Shōgunate (ie; Kamakura Shōgunate).

[xiii] In present day Setagaya Ward.

[xiv] The Minamoto Shōgunate is more commonly referred to as the Kamakura Shōgunate.

[xv] I’m not sure if we can call it a “castle” at this point. I imagine it was a large fortified residence, not unlike Shakujii Castle (see the CG reconstruction to get an idea).

[xvi] Even today, if you google Chiyoda Castle, Edo Castle will come up in the search results. Also, technically speaking any castle they held could theoretically be referred to as Edo Castle since this was also their Clan name.

[xvii] Mikawa was Ieyasu’s home province.

[xviii] If you’re good with your Japanese geography… this territory was roughly present day Nagano, Aichi, Shizuoka, and Yamanashi (think Mt. Fuji). It was a fair chunk of territory, but with so many allies at Ieyasu’s command so close to the capital, it apparently was too close for Hideyoshi who wanted a buffer around his court in Kyōto.

[xix] Again if you’re good with your Japanese geography… This is roughly Tōkyō, Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Ibaraki, a part of Gunma and Tochigi.

[xx] In fact, he would be serving him in Kyūshū for a few years, while Hideyoshi embarked on a retarded plan to invade China via Korea.

[xxi] They didn’t fizzle out into oblivion completely. There is a 喜多見駅  Kitami eki Kitami Station in present day Setagaya.

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