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Posts Tagged ‘etymology’

What does Kameari mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex on April 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

亀有
Kameari (we’ve got turtles, yo!) l_01 It’s been a few weeks since my last update and so I sincerely apologize for the delay, but I have a good excuse. My 7 or 8 year old PC, ピノコちゃん Pinoko-chan Pinoko, finally died. Loads of data, including several works-in-progress went missing. I had to buy a new computer and my new machine is Windows 8. It’s a total departure from previous incarnations of Windows, so not only am I setting up a new computer, I’m actually learning how to deal with the new OS[i]. So anyways, so much has happened since my last update. If you only read the blog, I just want to make sure that you know you can get different updates from me via Facebook and via Twitter. I treat Facebook like the Japan This Plus. I treat Twitter like Japan This On Crack. Either way, you can customize how much you want to deal with me based on those criteria. If you can’t get enough of me, then by all means subscribe to all. If prefer me in small doses, then just keep doing what you’re doing. Also, leave comments whenever you want to! I really love those.

Kameari Station

Kameari Station

OK, so let’s get into today’s Tōkyō place name. Today we’re talking about 亀有 Kameari in 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward. It’s an interesting place name because it’s easy to speculate about the etymology because of the kanji. .


kame

turtle


ari

existence, possession

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Judging by the kanji, one would think this is a place where there were many turtles. But you’d be wrong. First of all, it’s 亀有 kameari not 亀居 kamei. Anyone who’s studied even a little basic Japanese knows that the language makes a distinction between the existence of things that move 居る iru be and things that don’t move ある aru be so this rules out turtles being in the area. Aru can be used for possession, though. So if you guessed “having turtles” people wouldn’t fault you and you might be in line with what people generally think when confronted with the name. However, it seems that this is not actually the case. There’s a bit of mystery here.

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cute turtles    .

What We Do Know?

The place was originally written 亀無 Kamenashi “turtle” “without/not having” and 亀梨 Kamenashi “turtle” “Japanese pear.”
The name was mysteriously changed in 1644 to 亀有 Kameari turtle having.

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The first theory that I came across, seems plausible. The story goes that there were no turtles here (or even if there were, they weren’t the source of the name). The name is actually a reference to the shape of the terrain. This is something we see time and time again in place names (valleys, mountains, plateaux, hills, slopes, etc.). We don’t just see this in Japanese place names, but all over the world[ii].

Anyhoo, this theory suggests that at the confluence of the 古隅田川 Ko-Sumida-gawa Old Sumida River[iii] and the 葛西川 Kasai-gawa Kasai River there was a mound – built up over time by the accumulation of detritus from the rivers. The shape and the colors of the foliage on the hill made it look like a turtle’s shell. This theory purports that the origin of the name was 亀を成し kame wo nashi making a turtle/turning into a turtle. By scribal error (or a later adjustment) 亀成 became 亀無 Kamenashi having no turtles – perhaps it was easier to read. Reality check. Just for the record, 亀成 Kamenashi “making a turtle” isn’t an attested form.

.nukui1

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The deus ex machina for this legend is that the local villagers thought the spelling was inauspicious. Well, everyone knows that having a bunch of turtles is so much better than not having any turtles at all. Nobody wants to look like a bunch of losers with no turtles. Rather, they were the people who had turtles. Lots and lots of turtles. All of the turtles because… who the fuck knows? So they asked the shōgnate to change the name from 亀無 Kamenashi (no turtles) to 亀有 Kameari (we got fuckloads of turtles up in this biatch).

This sounded fishy, so I had to go digging around a little more. My first stop was 亀有香取神社 Kameari Katori Jinja Kameari Katori Shrine[iv]. They claim that the name first appeared in the Kamakura Period.

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temlr-gurls[7

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This was easy to verify, as the words 亀梨 and 亀無 Kamenashi are first mentioned in 2 documents. The area is referred to as 下総国葛西御厨亀無村 Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Kamenashi Mura Kamenashi Village, Kasai Mikuri, Shimōsa Province in 1398 in the 下総国葛西御厨注文  Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Chūmon Shimōsa Province’s Kasai Mikuri Annotation[v], a document of the Kamakura Shōgnate. It was mentioned again in 1559 in the 小田原衆所領役帳 Odawara Shū-Shoryō Yakuchō Register of the Territories and Peoples of Odawara, a document of the 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi Late Hōjō Clan who controlled this area until Toyotomi Hideyoshi annihilated them in 1590/91[vi].

The next time the place is mentioned is in 1644 during the reign of the 3rd shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu on a map drafted by the Tokugawa Shōgnate called 正保改定図 Shōho Kattei Zu Map of the Shōho Reforms. This map inexplicably has the area formerly referred to as 亀無 Kamenashi “no turtles” labeled as 亀有 Kameari “we’ve got turtles, yo.”

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kuniyoshi014_thumb2

OK, also I’ve been burying the lead about this whole turtle thing. Why were Japanese people so concerned about turtles? I can’t say if they really were or not, any more than I can say the average Roman was really concerned about Vesta or the average Christian is concerned about Little Baby Jesus, but what I can say is that the reference would have been universally recognized across Japan.  Within the syncretic Shintō world view, a turtle was a symbol of 長寿 chōju longevity[vii]. It was an auspicious creature and the kanji was equally auspicious. This is at the heart of why people say the “no turtles” name was changed to “yes, turtles!”[viii]

 20090525184125a72

Why Are You Talking About Maps and Documents That I’ll Never Bother Looking At?

Basically, so you don’t have to. And, also because the name change is very strange, IMO. As I mentioned earlier, we have a clear change in 1644 from 無 nashi having none to 有 ari having some. But there appears to be no official account of this change[ix]. That said all the sources I’ve checked seem to repeat the story that the local villagers petitioned the shōgnate for this change or that the shōgnate itself saw 無 nashi as in auspicious and opted for something more positive. From this point on, the area is consistently referred to as 亀有 Kameari and not 亀無 Kamenashi. In the late Edo Period, Kameari Shrine began decorating the shrine precinct with turtles. Many shrines are guarded by a pair of 狛犬 koma inu guardian dogs, but Kameari Shrine is protected by 狛亀 koma-kame guardian turtles. The earliest extant set of guardian turtles dates from about 1860 – literally the closing years of the Tokugawa Shōgnate.

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Koma kame

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Alternate Theories

So, is the story above true? Long time readers’ bullshit detectors should be going off by now, but 4 things are definitely true in regards to the historical record.

    The kanji 亀 kame turtle has always been present
    In the Edo Period, a seemingly clear phonetic change in the kanji occurred
③    In the Edo Period, Kameari Katori Shrine began promoting “having turtles” with statuary
    Your mom

There are some other theories out there that… well… should at least be looked at. The biggest mystery for most people is the kanji change in 1644 under the Tokugawa Shōgnate. In short, if I may repeat myself, the standard theory claims that the change is based on the fact that Kamenashi was an inauspicious name because 長寿の亀がない chōju no kame ga nai there is/are no avatar of long life. Turtles were seen to be symbols of long life.  From the 1300’s-1600’s no one gave a crap about changing name phonetically, despite this being such an inauspicious name. The closest thing to a name change is the writing 亀梨 Kamenashi turtle pear, which doesn’t make much sense, but is clearly not talking about a lack of something.

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mito_komon

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The Mito Kōmon Did It Theory

Mito Kōmon visited the area and changed the name because if you don’t have turtles of long life, you suck. So more turtles of long life for everyone! Everyone loves Mito Kōmon, right?[x] This theory is based on the fact that the lords of Mito and their entourage would pass through the area to do falconry in Kasai. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m tired of stories of shōguns and famous daimyō passing through areas and just renaming shit willy nilly[xi].

ainu_bnr.

The Ainu (or Somebody Else) Did It Theory

OK, and here’s the least popular theory, but for me it might be the most likely. The area was known since time immemorial as カメナシ Kamenashi and the kanji were originally ateji[xii]. If this theory is correct, it would suggest that the all of the kanji are useless in determining this place name. It may also allude to a non-Yamato people living in the area. It also throws us into absolute conjecture mode – which means we’ve exhausted our discussion of the etymology of this place name.

box_hashutujo

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Who Gives a fuck about Kameari?

A lot of people, actually. I don’t read manga or watch anime[xiii], but the average Japanese person probably knows about this area because of manga and anime.

But it’s the setting for こちら葛飾区亀有公園前派出所 Kochira, Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo This is the Local Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward.[xiv]. This manga has been running for more than 30 years[xv].  Statistically, I think it’s the 4th best-selling manga of all time, but don’t quote me on that. It’s affectionately referred to as  こち亀 Kochi-Kame (you can quote me on that) and statues of major characters from the story can be found on the streets near the station.

The area used to be known as the site of the factories of the Japanese pharmaceutical company 三共 Sankyō[xvi] and the famous Japanese electronics company日立 Hitachi, the people who bring much joy to women all over the world due to misuse[xvii] of their best-selling Hitachi Magic Wand. Today, the area is a shitamachi shopping district surrounded by a quiet residential area. Today the name survives as a station name, 亀有駅 Kameari Eki Kameari Station and as 2 postal addresses, 亀有 Kameari Kameari (5 blocks) and 西亀有 Nishi Kameari Kameari West (4 blocks).

The Hitachi Magic Wand

The Hitachi Magic Wand

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[i] I’m not even shitting you when I say I had to google how to shutdown my computer.
[ii] Not to say humans are fucking unoriginal at naming places, but there are common themes around the world. [iii] The river’s course is different today.
[iv] Shrines and temples tend to pass down great stories and for the same reason they keep awesome collections of maps and documents.
[v] To be honest, I don’t know how to translate this text’s name because 注文 chūmon usually means “order” as in “order at a restaurant,” but it has a secondary meaning of “explanatory text.” Sorry, I don’t know more about it.
[vi] Famously, this power vacuum was filled by Tokugawa Ieyasu – ever the hero of any story told from a Tōkyōite’s perspective.
[vii] ie; long life, yo.
[viii] Coming back to this later. So keep this in mind, OK?
[ix] Even if we accept the pre-Edo Period kanji of ~成 nashi making, ~梨 nashi pear, and 無 nashi nothing at face value, at least the pronunciations are the same. The 1644 change is truly remarkable.
[x] I don’t. I hate him, and in a small way blame the theocratic oligarchy of post-Meiji Japan on him.
[xi] Please bear in mind I own copyrights for the “Captain Japan Did It Theory,” the “Mito Kōmon Did It Theory,” the “Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” and the “Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It Theory.”
[xii] Phonetic use of kanji.
[xiii] This isn’t entirely true. I read some manga and watch some anime.
[xiv] I don’t know if that’s a good translation of the title. If there’s an official translation, please let me know.
[xv] Apparently, it’s also an anime series and has been re-done as movies, tv series, and it’s even been reimagined in live action as a tv show and on stage!
[xvi] Today the company is known as 第一三共 Daiichi-Sankyō.
[xvii] Or Miss Use, as I like to say.

What does Myogadani mean?

In Japanese History on March 10, 2014 at 7:25 am

茗荷谷
Myōgadani (myōga valley)

Myoga growing on Myoga Hill in Myogadani.

Myoga growing on Myoga Hill in Myogadani.

I wanted this to be a short blog post, but it turned into another epic tale of… fuck… I don’t know what happened. Today, in addition to the etymology of this place, you’re getting two extra worthless bits of Japanese history trivia. One is about Japanese ginger. The other is about Japanese dialects[i].

No, wait, what am I talking about?! This is going to be one messy ride through history, botany, kanji, and linguistics. Edo Period government bureaucracy is going to come up, too[ii]. And as always there is a lot of additional information in the footnotes, so don’t skip those. They are clickable. And there are about 25 of them.

The Marunouchi Line at Myogadani Station.

The Marunouchi Line at Myogadani Station.

Alright, let’s get started, then.

There are basically 2 conflicting arguments backed up by so much controversial evidence that I have to apologize upfront: I’m sorry, I can’t give you any determination on this place name. There is a popular theory and there is a less popular theory.

Most Popular Theory: ginger
2nd Most Popular Theory: guns

Think that’s disparate?

We haven’t gotten started. It seems that various local groups have picked their preferred derivations and stood their ground by adamantly insisting the other derivation is just wrong. But from my point of view, there is no “smoking gun” evidence for either etymology. But we’ll learn lots of good stuff along the way. So let’s get down to business, shall we?

map

As written today the kanji are easy. They mean “myōga valley.”

茗荷 myōga

myōga

tani

valley

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What is Myōga?

It’s a kind of ginger. And believe me, we’re gonna go into this ginger thing in a little bit. But from a literalist reading of the kanji, one would assume that this place was famous for many wild myōga plants or was actually a center of production for myōga. This is by and far the most popular theory. Some supporters of this theory point at 茗荷坂 Myōgazaka Myōga Hill next to the Myōgadani Station as the original site of the myōga farms, although there is absolutely no evidence to back this up. Oh, and in Japan, there are generally two types of ginger.

茗荷 myōga

Japanese ginger Zingiber mioga

生姜[iii] shōga

Regular ol’ ginger Zingiber officinale

Because we’re dealing with two types of ginger, I’m only going to use the words myōga and shōga for this article, because otherwise the word ginger is just going to be repeated ad nauseam.

Myoga

Myoga

Myōga 茗荷 myōga myoga (also known as Japanese ginger) is an indigenous woodland plant that grows wild in the hills and fields of Japan. Because it’s frequently used as a garnish, it’s also popular for people to grow at home in their gardens. Oh, and the best thing is that it’s thought to be an anticarcinogen. Yay! Because fuck cancer[iv].

Anyhoo, there’s an old wives’ tale 茗荷を食べると物忘れが酷く成る myōga wo taberu to monowasure ga hidoku naru “If you eat myōga, you’ll get really bad at remembering things.”[v] Of course, this isn’t true at all. Myōga is a really healthy plant to eat and – at least according to Wikipedia – studies have shown that the aroma of myōga and regular ginger actually help with concentration and memory recall.

Shoga

Shoga


What is Sh
ōga?

Shōga生姜 shōga ginger came to Japan in the 2nd or 3rd century from China[vi]. It was cultivated a little in the Nara Period and was in wide use by the Edo Period. The same old wives’ tale exists about this form of ginger. Traditional Japanese cuisine is often very subtle. Myōga has a strong taste and so does shōga. It’s probably because of a general distrust of vivid flavors, that people say “if you eat shōga, you’ll get really bad at remembering things,” too. But have no fear. It’s safe.

There’s a popular story that the 11th and 12th shōguns, Ienari[vii] and Ieyoshi[viii] respectively, loved shōga. When one of the most powerful 老中rōjū senior councilor of the shōgunate named 水野忠邦 Mizuno Tadakuni Mizuno Tadakuni[ix] passed a sweeping set of sumptuary laws targeting extravagance known as the 天保之改革 Tempō no Kaikaku Tempō Reforms[x]. On the list of prohibitions was – you guessed it – shōga! And when shōgun Ieyoshi started to notice that shōga wasn’t being included in his dishes anymore, he enquired about it. He was soon told that the plant was banned. Ieyoshi flipped out and stripped him of his positions and domain and banished him to 山形藩 Yamagata Han Yamagata Domain – a very, very cold place in the winter.

OK, I said there was another theory. And believe me, this one is a doozie.

stupid map

The Name Has Nothing to Do With Ginger

There is another theory. This one says there was never any myōga growing in the area. Instead this theory claims the name derives from 冥加 myōga a Buddhist term that means divine protection[xi].

On the other side of the tracks from Myōgadani Station is an area called 小石川 Koishikawa. This area was a very elite area in the Edo Period because the Mito Tokugawa clan had a massive residence here[xii]. There were other daimyō residences and samurai residences located in the vicinity. The residence of the 簞笥奉行 tansu bugyō the magistrate of the shōgun’s arsenal was also nearby, as were the barracks his samurai staff[xiii].

The idea is that the samurai who lived in the barracks town of 御箪笥町 Go-Tansu Machi would make offerings at the 稲荷神社 Inari Jinja Inari Shrine at the top of Myōgadani Hill (where the station stands today) and pray for good luck in marksmanship[xiv]. The shrine was called 冥加稲荷神社 Myōga Inari Jinja Shrine of the Inari of Divine Protection. Since this area was the valley where Myōga Inari Shrine was, the locals called it 冥加谷 Myōgadani.

Here’s where it gets weird. This theory states that the Meiji government changed the kanji. After winning the Boshin War against the last Tokugawa supporters, they kicked out all of the samurai and daimyō from the area and began repurposing the land. They hated the association of the name with the Tokugawa Shōgunate and so they changed the kanji from 冥加谷 Myōgadani Valley of Divine Protection to the less “confrontational” 茗荷谷Myōgadani Valley of Japanese Ginger.

Take that bakufu!!

koishikawa ward

Former Koishikawa Ward.
Also pictured: Ushigome, Yotsuya, and Okubo.
Okuba was famous for its shooting range.

This story comes off strong. Definitely, it has the most historical background. It talks about what the neighborhood was like in the Edo Period and references other neighborhoods and incorporates the shōgunal administration. But there are a few problems with it[xv].

First of all, the only place called Myōga Inari that still exists and is located on the compounds of 吉祥寺 Kichijō-ji[xvi] in Bunkyō Ward. However, Kichijō-ji is a 30 minute walk from its namesake in Myōgadani[xvii], also in Bunkyō Ward – but still 30 freaking minutes away on foot. Also, the name of this Inari is 茗荷 myōga ginger not 冥加 myōga divine protection.

At Kichijō-ji, Myōga Inari is enshrined together with another kami named 聖徳稲荷 Seitoku Inari (Inari of Virtuous Virtue) a mysterious kami that nobody seems to know much about except there appears to be a connection between this kami and 大権現 Daigongen, which anyone who read my series on the funerary temples of the Tokugawa Shōguns would know is none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu himself.

The shrine seems to have no connection with samurai, and these days it’s most famous for people who come to pray against infectious diseases[xviii] – or perhaps quitting myōga (because it makes you forgetful, remember?), and oddly today, it’s biggest claim to fame is curing hemorrhoids[xix].

So in short, the Tansu Machi theory is at conflict with itself on a few points:
From Suidōbashi to Myōgadani is also a 30 minute walk.
From Ushigome Tansu to Myōgadani is also a 30 minute walk.
From Koishikawa Station to Myōgadani is a 30 minute walk.

In the Edo Period, this wouldn’t be a long distance to walk. And a name transfer wouldn’t be impossible, but it’s such a local name that it seems kind of  really. Furthermore, the existing shrine uses the kanji for myōga and not “divine protection.” And while the early Meiji Government did in fact change the writing of 大坂 Ōsaka to 大阪 Ōsaka[xx], 江戸 Edo to 東京 Tōkyō and changed a lot of other names when they abolished the Han System and establish the Prefecture System, I’m not so sure that they were just running around changing names of small, local areas out of spite.

There must be some mixing up of stories going on here. Or if this second theory is true, the name was applied to a larger area originally. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any records from the Edo Period and the name didn’t appear on maps until the Meiji Era.

I told you at the beginning this was going to be messy. 

Myoga Inari Shrine. Very tiny.

Myoga Inari Shrine.
Very tiny.

Let’s Talk a Bit About Japanese Dialects

The reading of the kanji (valley) in place names is distributed differently across Japan.



ya

More common in the east


たに
tani

More common in the west

There is a linguistic divide that occurs somewhere in Gifu Prefecture. This is also evidenced by the fact that there is a major dialect divide that cuts through Shizuoka and Aichi – compare the Mikawa dialect with the Nagoya dialect. This is thought to be part of the same “gray zone” that is part of a major split in dialects, most famously dividing the Kantō dialects and the Kansai dialects[xxi].

Distribution of Japanese Dialects

Distribution of Japanese Dialects

So why is a Western Japanese Place Name Occuring in the Shōgun’s Capital in the East?

The reading たに tani appears in only two Tōkyō place names (as far as I know). According to some, this reading supposedly signals an Edo Period place name based on the assumption that a valley would have never been named something + tani because the word didn’t exist in the local dialect. Therefore, the assumption is that it would be either (a) an affected form (b) a place name given by people from western Japan.

Looking at the old maps of daimyō residences in the area, there are two 藩邸 hantei domain headquarters in the area from western Japan. The two domains are 加賀藩 Kaga Han Kaga Domain and郡山藩 Kōriyama Han Kōriyama Domain. Kōriyama Domain was located in modern 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture, and one can imagine the dialect having some prestige due to Nara being a former imperial capital. Kaga Domain was located in modern Ishikawa and Toyama Prefectures. Neither of these residences was particularly close to modern Myōgadani station, but they were within walking distance. Could samurai from western Japan have influenced the naming of this area? It’s possible, but it’s hard to prove. Bear in mind that Edo residences maintained by daimyō were basically embassies and naturally they brought their local goods and culture with them to the capital.

Could it have been an affected form? Perhaps the local Edoites saw some value in using a western form as it seemed exotic.

Could the influx of samurai from all over Japan that was making Edo a melting pot of Japanese culture have exposed native Edoites to readings of kanji they didn’t normally use? Certainly.

Could the reading, although not common in eastern Japan, still have been lurking like a latent gene, just bubbling up to the surface from time to time?[xxii] I don’t see why not. But it seems that the most likely case is that this name does not pre-date the institution of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance. It doesn’t help us determine which of the two etymologies I mentioned above are true. But it does illustrate a very important fact about the Edo Period.

While Edo wasn’t an international city, it was the closest Japan had to one at the time in the sense that every area of Japan was bringing goods and ideas into and out of the shōgun’s capital. People tend to think that the Tokugawa Shōgunate was just a top down machine pushing a new Edo Culture onto the rest of the 天下 tenka realm. But it really wasn’t like that at all. The other domains were importing culture into Edo as well. In the place name “Myōgadani,” we may be looking at a footprint of that exchange, crystallized and preserved forever as a place name. How frickin’ cool is that?

As mentioned earlier, myoga grows wild in Japan.

As mentioned earlier, myoga grows wild in Japan.

Final Words

If you’re still reading, all I have to say is “thank you!” I said from the outset that this was going to be a messy story, but bear with me just a little bit longer.

Until 1966, an area existed called 茗荷谷町 Myōgadani-machi Myōgadani Town. At that time the town was merged with 文京区小日向 Bunkyō-ku Kohinata Kohinata, Bunkyō Ward. As such, no official postal address exists for Myōgadani. Today, only the area around the 茗荷谷駅 Myōgadani Eki Myōgadani Station is referred to as Myōgadani. There is a big hill called 茗荷谷坂 Myōgadanizaka Myōgadani Hill which, besides the station name (built in 1955), is the only link to the past. A local organization has planted myōga in the area as a reminder of the past (and also to piss off the “divine protection” faction).

Myogadani Station in the 1960's-1970's.

Myogadani Station in the 1960’s-1970’s.

In nearby 深光寺 Jinkō-ji Jinkō Temple, the author of 南總里見八犬傳 Nansō Satomi Hakkenden the Tale of Eight Dogs 馬琴 Bakin Bakin is buried[xxiii]. Interestingly, there is a small stone lantern hidden on the side of the temple called the 切支丹灯籠 Kirishitan Tōrō the Christian Lantern. It uses the word Kirishitan which is a direct reference to the Christians of Pre-Modern Japan. I’m not sure if this monument has been commemorating them since the Edo Period or if it’s a recent thing. Judging from pictures, the statue doesn’t seem very old – but it could be a replacement.

Even more curious is that another nearby temple, 徳雲寺 Toku’un-ji, which seems to make most of its money off funerals, offers a キリスト教プラン Kiristo-kyō Puran Christian Plan. At first, I thought this was related to the hidden old Kirishitan monument at Jinkō-ji, but then I saw it came under the heading 無宗教キリスト教のプラン Mushūkyō/Kiristo-kyō Puran non-religious/Christian plan[xxiv].

Shit just got real, son.

Shit just got real, son.

UPDATE:

I figured out the connection between the Myōgadani temples and Christianity.

Christianity is so rare here – like 1% of the population or something – that this immediately jumped out at me. One small Christian monument maybe raises an eyebrow, but two in the same area sets off my spidey sense. Well, it turns out that much of the area was the former 小石川牢獄 Koishikawa Rōgoku Koishikawa Prison, but is usually referred to as the 切支丹屋敷 Kirishitan Yashiki the Christian Mansion – which was anything but a mansion.

There were 3 major efforts in Japan to expel foreigners and annoying Christian missionaries. One, by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Two, by 2nd shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada. Three, by 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (though Kirishitan occasionally pop up as late as the reign of 5th shōgun, Tokugawa Ietsuna).

The first shōgun, Ieyasu, was relatively lax about Christianity. He didn’t like it, but he tolerated it to ensure trade with countries that offered technological benefits to Japan. His son Hidetada was much more skeptical of the intentions of Catholic missionaries who saw Japan as fertile ground for conversion. By the time we get to the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, the shōgunate was definitely out of the honeymoon phase and enacted an all out ban on Christianity. They rounded up many suspected Christians and sent many of them to the “Christian Mansion” for interrogation – and possibly (read ‘probably’) torture and execution. You can read more about this site and others here.

And on that happy note, thanks for reading and have a great day!

                                   

 

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[i] I’ll save the dialect info until the end.
[ii] As is par for the course.
[iii] Could also be written 生薑 or , but I’ve never seen this except in a dictionary.
[iv] Seriously, fuck cancer.
[v] It’s an old wives’ tale that apparently gets repeated ad nauseam in rakugo
[vi] Or possibly Korea.
[vii] Otherwise known as, “the party shōgun.”
[viii] The “I can’t deal with foreigner because I’m a pussy” shōgun.
[ix] You can read about the Tempō Reforms here. Needless to say, this is just a made up story. Tadakuni’s problems were waaaaaay bigger than an unlikely ban on shōga. The reforms pissed off the merchants and artisans and a fair portion of the samurai class, but when he started confiscating parts of the domains immediately surrounding Edo and Ōsaka, he pissed off a fair chunk of the daimyō class – who btw, were already paying through their teeth due to the economic strain of their sankin-kōtai duties. Tadakuni easily goes down in history as one of douchiest daimyō of the Edo Period.
[x] In an attempt to bolster the economy, he thought prohibiting people from buying luxury items would be a good idea. Here is the link to the Wikipedia page on “idiot.”
[xi] Don’t worry about the meaning of the kanji, which literally mean “increasing/adding darkness.” Like most religious terminology, Buddhist kanji is more or less gibberish.
[xii] Just a reminder, the Go-Sanke were the three families that could provide an heir to the shōgun family were Mito, Kii, and Owari).
[xiii] If none of this is ringing a bell, please refer to my article on the topic.
[xiv] But wait, you said Buddhist term, so why is there a Shintō shrine here? I’ve talk about this before, but you can catch up here.
[xv] The problems derive from the fact that the Edo Period locations in question and the modern place names don’t quite align.
[xvi] Kichijō-ji is a story unto itself – see here.
[xvii] Some people say the shrine stood where the station stands today. The kanji for the shrine is myōga (ginger) not “divine protection.” Also, why is it now preserved 30 minutes away? Kichijō-ji claims that the Myōga Inari has always been in their precinct. Here’s where we start to realize the areas are connected, but there’s no solid evidence for any of there explanations. Arrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!!
[xviii] By the way, praying doesn’t do anything. JapanThis does not endorse praying to cure diseases. We highly recommend you see a competent doctor.
[xix] I bet a cream works better for that.
[xx] The original writing contains the kanji 坂 saka hill, but if written sloppily looked like 大士反 which the new Meiji government interpreted as “great samurai uprising.” Clearly, they didn’t like this one.
[xxi] But it’s really much more complicated than that.
[xxii] If my gene analogy is off, sue me. I sucked at genetics in high school and willfully forgot everything.
[xxiii] His name is difficult, but most people call him Bakin these days. His real name was 滝沢興邦 Takizawa Okikuni, but wrote under the name 曲亭馬琴 Kyokutei Bakin. I don’t know anything about him, but my Japanese sources refer to him variably as Takizawa Bakin and Kyokutei Bakin. I think Bakin is just easier to use. If you want to know more about Japanese names prior to the Meiji Restoration, check out this article.
[xxiv] btw, 無宗教 mushūkyō means non-religious/secular as opposed to 無神論 mushinron atheism. Yours truly prefers mushinron.

What does Hikifune mean?

In Japanese History on March 1, 2014 at 4:50 pm

曳舟
Hikifune (pulling boats)

The Hikifune River

The Hikifune River

Researching the place names of Edo-Tōkyō has taken me on some incredible journeys. Asking the simple question of “Why is x called x?” rarely gets a simple answer[i]. And while all of the peripheral knowledge that I am accumulating along the way may only have value when playing Trivial Pursuit with other Japanese history nerds[ii], I’m finding my knowledge of the Edo Period challenged and enhanced every day – and sometimes, like this time, my knowledge of world history is also enhanced.

Having written about little known Takaramachi, Ohanajaya, and somewhat famous Kappabashi, I thought I’d round out this series with 曳舟Hikifune, the glue that holds these stories together. Since I’d laid out all of the groundwork, I thought this would be a 4 paragraph article just wrapping everything up in a nice bundle, but I was wrong. It took me on a quest for a missing river and an obsolete mode of transportation. It hasn’t been bad at all though; it’s given me a great insight into life in 大江戸 Ōedo the Greater Edo Area and the diachronic development of Edo-Tōkyō.

Anyhoo, the etymology of this place name is simple: in the Edo Period a river called the 曳舟川 Hikifunegawa Hikifune River flowed through here. But as usual, there’s a little more to the story than just the river.

Let’s start with the kanji.

曳き
hiki

pull, tow, drag, haul


fune

boat

There are variants of both of these kanji.

pull, tow, drag, haul

[iii]

boat

[iv]

In various combinations, these kanji actually have a range of nuances – not all of which are currently in use in Modern Japanese. One combination, is an old word using the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading 曳船 eisen (訓読み kun’yomi Japanese Reading: hikifune/hikibune) which means “tugboat.” However the modern language uses the English loanword タグボート tagu bōto tugboat.

OK, so the kanji is confusing and… in my opinion, distracting.  So let’s get back to the actual derivation.

The area takes its name from the 曳舟川 Hikifunegawa Hikifune River. I wrote about this the other day, so please read here. Originally this channel connected Kasai to Sumida for the purpose of bringing clean drinking water into Edo[v]. This waterway was an extension of another river that came from 越谷 Koshigaya in present day Saitama (near the border of the Tōkyō Metropolitan Area).

The channel was originally man-made as part of the Tokugawa shōgunate’s infrastructure. However, by 1772, the shōgunate must have felt they had enough supplies of fresh drinking water coming in from newer 上水 jōsui waterworks, that they could repurpose the Hikifune River as distribution canal.

The Koume embankment of the Hikifune River. What's up with no guard rail on that bridge? lol

The Koume embankment of the Hikifune River.
What’s up with no guard rail on that bridge? lol

So Now, Let’s Refer Back to the Kanji.

Many people assume the name refers to tugboats; essentially, boats pulling other boats. But this isn’t actually the case. The word 曳舟 hikifune actually means “pulling boats” or “a pulled boat.” The Hikifune River was a towpath that connected the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and the 中川 Nakagawa Naka River (Middle River). It was part of a network that also gave access to the 荒川 Arakawa, and the 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River.

Just walking along the river, one would think....

Just walking along the river, one would think….

So What Is A Towpath?

I had never heard of such a thing until I researched this article, but a towpath refers to an area where people or pack animals would pull small boats up and down a calm channel. These people walked on paths that lined the riverbanks. It’s literally a path for towing. I went back and looked at the picture I used in my article on Ohanajaya, and sure enough, you could clearly see people on the side of the river pulling boats. But this got me wondering… why the hell would anyone pull a boat?[vi]

And there you have it, clear as day.  People pulling boats up and down the river.

And there you have it, clear as day.
People pulling boats up and down the river.

Well, the shōgunate might have added a 曳舟道 hikifune michi towpath along a waterway for a number of reasons. One, the waterway was too narrow and required small boats (which were often weighed down with too much cargo). Two, the waterway was too shallow (heavy boats would drag and get stuck).  Three, pulling a boat would be required if you were traveling against the current. Four, the wind or some other conditions made it difficult to navigate the river. In the case of the Hikifune River, it was originally for drinking water, which meant it was shallow and narrow and wasn’t intended for river traffic. Once it became part of the infrastructure of the city, tiny boats needed to pulled through it. (I’ll show you pictures that show why later.)

Towpaths weren't a Japanese thing. Here's a European towpath.

Towpaths weren’t a Japanese thing.
Here’s a European towpath.

In the Edo Period, large boats could easily navigate the large rivers like the Arakawa or Sumidagawa. But this was just a narrow channel originally designed to bring drinking water into the capital, not support boat traffic. When the channel was repurposed, the towpath was added to allow small delivery boats and barges access. These boats were so small, in fact, that they could generally only fit one navigator to accompany the goods. Large boats on the Sumidagawa, Nakagawa, and Arakawa River would stop at the channel intersection and goods and passengers would be transferred to the smaller boats that were pulled through the towpath.

Here's part of the north part of the Hikifune River in Kameari, near the Nakagawa.

Here’s part of the north part of the Hikifune River in Kameari, near the Nakagawa a few years before it was filled in.
You can see how narrow it was.

Finding the River Today

In the years leading up to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympic Games, in an effort to appear “modern,” the government began filling all of the small canals and moats that typified Edo[vii]. The Hikifune River was no exception. The canal is almost completely paved over now, although a portion of road in the Hikifune neighborhood bears the name 曳舟川通り Hikifunekawa Dōri Hikifune River Street. Luckily for us, the old 水戸街道 Mito Kaidō Mito Highway ran alongside a portion of the river. This old footpath that connected Edo with 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain is now part of 国道六号 Kokudō Roku-gō National Route #6, so part of the path of the river is still visible when using a map. A few sections of the Hikifune River still exist and have been converted into public space. Although the width and depth of the river has been modified, you can still get a sense of the size.

The path of the Mito Highway is still preserved today as National Route 6. It takes about 11 minutes to drive from the Sumida River to the Nakagawa River today.

The path of the Mito Highway is still preserved today as National Route 6.
It takes about 11 minutes to drive from the Sumida River to the Nakagawa River today.

Here's a walking tour path that more or less follows the river's path (with a few detours here and there).

Here’s a walking tour path that more or less follows the river’s path (with a few detours here and there).

Here you can sort of imagine the route of the river.  But it is true, the original path of the river has been obscured over the years.

Here you can sort of imagine the route of the river.
But it is true, the original path of the river has been obscured over the years.

Today there is no official postal address for anywhere called Hikifune. The name is preserved in 曳舟駅 Hikifune Eki Hikifune Station, 曳舟川親水公園 Hikifunekawa Shinsui Kōen Hikifune River Water Park[viii], and a few other local place names like 曳舟小学校 Hikifune Shōgakkō Hikifune Elementary School. Even though it’s not an “official place name,” people who live in the area still use the name Hikifune.

Hikifunekawa Water Park.  Again, note how narrow it is. This section of the canal has been converted into a "hydrophilic park."  Looks like a nice way to beat the awful summer heat in Tokyo.

Hikifunekawa Water Park.
Again, note how narrow it is.
This section of the canal has been converted into a “hydrophilic park.”
Looks like a nice way to beat the awful summer heat in Tokyo.

According to Wikipedia, there are two towpaths preserved in Japan. Neither are in Tōkyō. They are the 琵琶疏水 Biwako Sosui Lake Biwa Canal and the 高瀬川 Takasegawa Takase River[ix].

Oh, and I almost forgot, a good portion of the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsuirō the Kasai Kanal is still intact in Saitama. This also may give a feel for the width and depth of the Hikifune.

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[i] And more often than not, never gets an answer at all (or at least a satisfying one). And in the case of this blog… man, I thought this would be 3-5 paragraphs and two pictures. Now it’s turned into another fucking discourse on a river that no longer exists. fml.

[ii] By the way, there is no Trivial Pursuit for Japanese history nerds because, you know what? We play that shit for real – high stakes, muthafucka – in shitamachi izakaya, yamanote strip clubs, and at yakuza riverside barbecues all day long, son. Y’all can’t fuck wit us, ya hear?

[iii] There are many more kanji for this word.  ひく hiku “to pull” is a native Japanese word that predates the arrival of kanji from China.  Like かける kakeru and かかる kakaru “to put/to take/require,” it has many uses and since each nuance was different, each nuance required a specific kanji. As you can imagine, this was a real pain in the ass and as such, in Modern Japanese the words are mostly written in hiragana except for the most common uses that require a kanji for that nuance. A comparison to English is a word like “take.” Consider the following sentences:

  • I take a bath.
  • I take a photo.
  • I take a card.
  • I take a shit.
  • I take it that ひく is a complicated word.
  • I take a day off.
  • I take $25 dollars out of my roommate’s wallet.
  • I take an hour to get ready for work.
  • I take this seriously.
    And so on.
    ひく hiku is like that.

[iv] In my dictionary, the last kanji is grouped with the first. The meaning is quite different in modern Japanese, but there is an historical connection. The first two are straight up “boat” kanji and I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know the difference between them.

[v] Remember Edo-Tōkyō is located in a bay, so there is a lot of undrinkable salt water coming into the area.

[vi] And I’m ashamed to say, I grew up in a river town. You’d think I would know this stuff.

[vii] Edo is often referred to as the “Venice of the East” because of its vast system of waterways which were used for transportation, recreation, and distribution.

[viii] What’s a “water park?” This.

[ix] Read about the Lake Biwa Canal here. Read about the Takase River here. The English Wikipedia pages are shit, though.

What does Kappabashi mean?

In Japanese History on February 26, 2014 at 6:57 am

かっぱ橋
Kappabashi (kappa/rain coat bridge)

The famous kappa statue at Kappabashi.

The famous kappa statue at Kappabashi.

Today’s article is another reader request. Always appreciate the requests and they usually get put on the front burner. That’s how I roll. Fan Service.

Kappabashi is a typical modern shitamachi area but its main claim to fame is the manufacture and sale of realistic mock ups of food called 食品サンプル shokuhin sanpuru food samples. Maybe it’s part of a kanji using culture that some people claim is more “visual-oriented” than other cultures[i] or maybe it’s not, but in the late 1960’s, Japanese restaurants started using plastic mock ups of their menu in the windows[ii]. Since the advent of high resolution printers and reasonably priced, illuminated plastic signage, the plastic mock up is a dying art form. But if you were a restaurant owner, for a good 40 years, the best place in Tōkyō to get mock ups of your dishes for your window displays was Kappabashi. In fact, if you need anything for a restaurant or just your home kitchen, this is the place to go. Pots, pans, cooking chopsticks, baking tools, spatulas, or wholesale utensils, you name it! The fake food shops are still here and restaurant and kitchen suppliers are in no short supply.

Fake food makes me hungry for real food.

Fake food makes me hungry for real food.

The name is often written in hiragana because no one seems to agree on how the first word かっぱ kappa should be written. As such there is much debate as to where this name actually derives from. There are 3 contending theories. Although kanji isn’t always reliable, let’s take a look at the 2 competing spellings and go from there.

合羽
kappa

kappa
an Edo Period rain coat

河童
kappa

kappa
a mythical riparian creature

Again, we can’t always rely on the kanji, but if we are talking about a 合羽 kappa raincoat, this is actually a foreign word. It derives from Portuguese capa which itself derives from the same Late Latin word that gives us “cape” – as in Superman, Darth Vader and Dracula[iii].  When speaking, this kappa is sometimes called 雨合羽 amakappa rain kappa to clearly distinguish it from the creature kappa. That word is alternatively written 雨かっぱ amakappa which is totally ambiguous – because Japanese people are really losing their kanji skills[iv].  Anyhoo, today, the usual word for a raincoat is a loanword from English: レインコート rein kōto raincoat.

Notice the "cape" or overcoat worn by the Portuguese. This was a "capa." (And what's up with the balloon pants?)

Notice the “cape” or overcoat worn by the Portuguese. This was a “capa.”
(And what’s up with the balloon pants?)

Various styles of "kappa" - including both samuria and farmers.  Not much difference.

Various styles of “kappa” – including both samuria and farmers.
Not much difference.

If we talk about a 河童 kappa then we are talking about a mythological species/culture of amphibious humanoids who live along the rivers of Japan. They aren’t antagonistic to humans[v], but they aren’t exactly on the best of terms with them and they will take you out if you mess with them. However, they’re said to have a profound respect for manners.  They feel a compulsion to uphold promises – which in the mythology, always bites them in the ass. That is to say, there’s always a way to trick them into helping you. Many depictions of kappa exist. Some have a dish on their heads; some have a bald spot, some look froglike, and some have beaks. Some wear kappa (the raincoat) showing how far back the confusion and subsequent interweaving of kappa mythology and raincoats has gone.

A few depictions of kappa including the much neglected ass raping kappa whose legends barely made it down to the modern era.  (I'm serious about that last point, actually...)

A few depictions of kappa including the much neglected ass raping kappa whose legends barely made it down to the modern era.
(I’m serious about that last point, actually…)

The “A Real Guy Did It” Theory

In the Edo Period, this area stood a major alluvium of Edo Bay. The bay overflowed into many major inlets here, including 隅田川 Sumida-gawa the Sumida River.  Because of this proximity to the bay, the area frequently flooded. In the early 1800’s, a certain merchant who lived here named 合羽屋喜八 Kappaya Kihachi Kihachi the Umbrella Seller got fed up with his shop and all of his neighbors and friends getting flooded all the time. So one day he said, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of money saved up. I’m gonna tear this city a new one.” And by “tear” he meant “dig” and by “a new one” he meant “a proper drainage system.”

In nearby 曹源寺 Sōgen-ji Sōgen Temple, now nicknamed かっぱ寺 Kappa-dera Kappa Temple, there is a grave that they claim is Kihachi’s, using his “nickname,” 合羽屋川太郎 Kappaya Kawatarō. 川太郎 or 河太郎, both read Kawatarō, is another word for the creature called kappa, but it also looks like a fairy tale name of the merchant class[vi]. So Kappaya Kawatarō means “kappa-selling kappa.” It’s a kind of Edo Era joke that clearly doesn’t stand the test of time.

The alleged grave of Kihahi Kawataro.

The alleged grave of Kihahi Kawataro.

The “A Bunch of Kappa Did It” Theory

In keeping with the previous theory, the area frequently flooded. Its closeness to Edo Bay made this an unavoidable tragedy. All living things near the bay suffer during an oceanic flood. Humans build the most, but all the other animals’ shelters are destroyed, too.

The prominent umbrella merchant, Kappaya Kihachi, noticed this and after his shit got fucked up bad for the last time, he organized an effort to make a controlled canal instead of the natural inlet that existed. Maybe it was hard year weather-wise or maybe ol’ Kihachi didn’t really have the resources to complete the project in a timely fashion, but the kappa who lived along the Sumida River noticed the slow progress. This was their home, too. So if the humans were going to alter the landscape, it had to be something that benefitted all the creatures in the flood plain.

Although the humans’ progress was slow, they were moved by Kihachi’s effort to stabilize the area. One night, when the workers quit earlier because of heavy rain, the kappa all felt obligated to help out – after all, the area would flood again. So, at night, after everyone went to sleep, hundreds of kappa (who are nocturnal by nature) finished building the canal and saved the area from another flood.

A less popular, slight variation on this story is that Kappaya Kawatarō was actually the name of certain kappa who lived in the area and built the waterworks that protected the area.

A bunch of filthy kappa digging a trench in the rain.

A bunch of filthy kappa digging a trench in the rain.

The “A Bunch of Country Bumpkin Samurai Did It” Theory

The 上屋敷 kami-yashiki lower residence of 新谷藩 Niiya Han Niiya Domain was located here. Niiya Han was an impoverished 支藩 shihan sub-domain of 大洲藩 Ōzu Han Ōzu Domain (modern Ehime Prefecture). There are two stories. The first is that because the domain was so poor, they had to supplement their income by manufacturing and selling 合羽 kappa raincoats. They would sell the kappa near the bridge. The other story is that after rainy days – when the sun came out – the lowest ranking retainers and foot soldiers would come here to hang dry the wet 合羽 kappa raincoats in a row on edge of the property. Since the bridge was right there, people called it “raincoat bridge.”

Kappabashi in the Meiji Era and Showa Era. You can see the actual bridge in the first picture. Does anyone know where I can find a bigger version of the top photograph?

Kappabashi in the Meiji Era and Showa Era.
You can see the actual bridge in the first picture.
Does anyone know where I can find a bigger version of the top photograph?

Which Theory is Correct?

There’s no way to tell. The word 河童 kappa a mythological river creature is forever tied to rivers in Japan. During the Sengoku Period, when the Japanese saw Portuguese missionaries wearing capas (capes), they seem to have seen some similarity to their own raincoats. To the Japanese who had contact with these missionaries, the word was brought into Japanese as かっぱ kappa and it was given the ateji 合羽 kappa which became raincoat.

I reckon the truth may lie a little in the middle. Obviously, the daimyō residence and raincoats stories the most plausible and there could very well have been a dude selling raincoats whose name name was Kihachi (there is a grave after all[vii]). Because of the water connection (ie; the river, the kappa, the raincoats), the connection to the mythological creatures could just be a play on words – an example of Edo Period “kawaii.”

But you can’t ignore the tradition. The three stories depend on each other – which makes for some great folklore!

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[i] Whether one culture is more “visual” than another culture is a way out of my league. But some have made the case.

[ii] Some claim that this was a reaction to an influx of foreign tourists during and after the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics. Because of a paucity of adept English speakers in Tōkyō and Kyōto there was much confusion in restaurants which typically used hand written, text only menus, which were illegible to foreign tourists. Tantalizing, visual representations of the menu would serve to attract customers as well as providing them a way to communicate their order clearly – by pointing. Problem solved.

[iii] This same Latin word, cāppa, also gave us “cap” (as in baseball cap), “accappella,” “chapel,”  “chaplain,” and “chaperone.” Italian, French, and Spanish have words for hair that also derive from this word. Although it isn’t Classic Latin, it’s got some serious etymological pedigree.

[iv] I’m just kidding, sort of. This isn’t a cheap shot at the Japanese. My Japanese sucks and the only reason I know the difference between a raincoat and a kappa is because I obsess on ridiculous topics like this. You’ll get no further in life in Japan knowing the difference between these two kanji. As the Japanese would say「 覚えなくていいじゃん!」 “You don’t have to remember them!” Any Japanese person would wipe the floor with my ass in kanji knowledge.

[v] Well, some accounts say that they eat human children, which I guess you could say is kind of antagonistic. They also seem to have had an obsession with human anuses.

[vi] The name really does look like a joke. But who knows, he could have been a poet and this was his pen name and all of this was the result of a few drinking parties…

[vii] The grave could be faked, of course, but… who knows?

Why is Roppongi called Roppongi

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

六本木
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…

b0061717_0321615

So, Roppongi. What does it mean?


If we look at the kanji:

六本
roppon

6 tall, cylindrical things


ki

trees
(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.

 

THEORY 1
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

THEORY 2
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.



THEORY 3
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:

 

上杉
Uesugi
米沢藩
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.

朽木
Kutsuki
朽木藩
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.

青木
Aoki
新見藩
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.

片桐
Katagiri
竜田藩
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.

高木
Takagi
丹南藩

Tan’nan Han

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

一柳
Hitotsuyanagi
(Ichiyanagi)
小野藩
Ono Han
小松藩

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.

THEORY 5
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 Yotsuya mean?

In Japanese History on November 29, 2013 at 6:00 am

四ッ谷
Yotsuya (“4 Valleys,” but more at “nobody fucking knows…”)

Yotsuya Station in the future.... "A train in every moat" - Tokugawa Ieyasu

Yotsuya Station in the future….
“A train in every moat” – Tokugawa Ieyasu

When I first started writing about Tokyo place names, I wanted to tackle Yotsuya right away. I assumed it would be an easy target. Three or four paragraphs and… done!

It’s an interesting area even if just viewed from the windows of the 丸ノ内線 Marunouchi Sen Marunouchi Line as you wait at the station. Just peering out the window of the train, you’ll immediate notice that the subway has magically stopped in a valley. The train didn’t emerge from the depths of the earth. The lay of the land dropped down below the subway level. If I’m not mistaken, when you see the tennis courts and the steep incline of the hill, what you’re looking at isn’t just a natural valley, this was once the outer moat of Edo Castle.

I'm in a moat!

I’m in a moat!

Anyways, when I first started this blog, my articles were much shorter and – looking back – not as well researched as they are now. But back then, a topic like Yotsuya, which goes into dialects and may be related to other place names, turned out to be extremely daunting. Just considering this topic at that time was biting off more than I could chew. I wanted to write an article in 1 or 2 hours.

Now, even though it takes a lot more time to cover a topic, I’m not afraid to come to dead ends[i] or take the extra time to do my research right and make my explanations clear. And while I might lose readers going further in depth, I’d rather offer quality over quantity. I’m also a lot more confident in my ability to cover these topics.  And so, at JapanThis! it’s balls to the walls Tōkyō Place Names. No turning back, son.

Balls to the walls, son.

Balls to the walls, son.

Most people seem to think the name Yotsuya is old. Old as in it pre-dates the Edo Period. But one thing that is consistent in most of the etymologies is the first kanji, 四 yottsu four. Much of the mystery of this place name seems to come from the final character. That said, the “number 4” character is also suspect. So let’s be skeptical, shall we?

Oh yeah, I’ve also identified 2 categories for most of these theories: the “4 things group” and the “valley group.” These are just categories I’ve invented for organizing this article so they don’t reflect any legitimate linguistic groupings, but I think they’re good for our purposes here.

“Four Things Group”

四つ yottsu no ya four houses were here[ii]
四つ yottsu no ya four shops were here[iii]
四つ yottsu no ya four valleys were here

“Valley Group”

On this blog, I keep harping on yamanote and shitamachi and how fluid the terms have been through history. But the basic meaning derives from the Sengoku Era practice of putting the samurai families on the (literal) defensive high ground. I feel like a broken record always babbling on and on about hills and valleys. I blame Jin’nai Hidenobu for this. But I think he’s absolutely correct: if you want to understand Edo-Tōkyō, you have to pay attention to the hills, valleys, rivers, and plateaux[iv]. I can’t unsee the world his book, Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, turned me on to.

So let’s look at two words that will come often in the future, both of which we should keep in mind today.

台地 daichi plateau, elevated area
谷地 yachi lowlands, basin

 。

etymology_header

 。

OK, so let’s talk some etymology, yo.

Theory 1

Yotsuya means 四つの家 yottsu no ya four houses. Of course, the kanji can mean house and family or family business. Presumably this pre-dates the Edo Period, so you can imagine 4 bad ass noble families chilling in their fortifications on 4 hills in the area. It seems like pure conjecture to me, but this is not an unreasonable etymology.

Theory 2

Yotsuya means 四つの屋 yottsu no ya four shops. This is a reference to four teahouses located on the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō (the road to 甲府 Kōfu – present day Shizuoka). The names of the teahouses have been preserved.

梅屋 ume-ya
保久屋 boku-ya
茶屋 cha-ya
布屋 nuno-ya

These 4 teahouses were not all in operation at the same time until the Gen’na Era (1615-1624)[v] which places the origin of the name at the beginning of the Edo Period. This is at odds with the other theories which claim a place called “Yotsuya” existed before the coming of the Tokugawa. Again, not an unreasonable etymology but more recent than many other explanations.

Theory 3

There were originally 4 valleys with 4 hamlets each. The explanation is easier with a visual.

English meaning Japanese meaning Pre-modern spelling Extant names Rōma-ji
first valley 一の谷 *一谷 市ヶ谷 ichigaya
second valley 二の谷 *二谷
third valley 三の谷 *三谷
fourth valley 四の谷 四谷 四ッ谷 yotsuya

The words with * in front of them are hypothetical. That is to say, there is no documented case of those words. For the explanation about Ichigaya, see my last article. I don’t really buy into this theory for a few reasons. One, the etymology of Ichigaya is suspect. Two, there’s no trace of the other place names anywhere. And three, Yotsuya lacks the genitive particle which seems to be present in Ichigaya. If these names were a set, you’d think they’d be preserved as a set. Now, in defensive of this theory, if these names were especially ancient and written without any genitive particles and 2 of the names fell into disuse, the mental connection between the 2 remaining names could have been lost due to writing system. For example, Tōkyōites read 山手 as Yama no te, but no is not written. People from outside Tōkyō might read it as Yamate. Both readings are technically correct depending on where you live. So while I’m not a big fan of this etymology, I can at least imagine some conditions under which it could be true.

So now let’s look at some more of what I call the “Valley Group.”

.

Theory 4

As mentioned before 台地 daichi means plateaux and 谷地 yachi means lowlands. The idea is that the original place name was 谷地谷 Yachiya Lowland Valley. The name was corrupted and became Yotsuya and the kanji were subsequently changed to better reflect the pronunciation. The kanji for the number 4 was chosen to make 四谷 Yotsuya Forth Valley match nearby 一ヶ谷 Ichigaya First Valley. It makes a nice pattern and it could be true. But we don’t have place name Yachiya documented, nor do we have strong evidence that Ichigaya’s original first kanji was the number 1. So again, pure conjecture.

Theory 5

This is a variant of theory 4. The difference is this says the name does derive from 谷地谷 Yachiya (which has ridiculous looking kanji and is redundant), but from 萢谷 Yachiya.  萢 yachi means wetlands/bog. The name was corrupted and became Yotsuya and the kanji were subsequently changed to better reflect the pronunciation. Apparently, in Ibaraki there are two places called Yotsuya. Both are said to have come from this word. Today those places written 四ツ谷 and 余津谷. Because one place has the same spelling with the number 4, this leads me to think there might be no connection with other numbers. The number thing might just be totally made up or a coincidence at best.

Theory 6

Yotsuya originally represented a larger area that consisted of four valleys.

千日谷 Sen’nichidani
茗荷谷 Myōgadani
千駄ヶ谷 Sendagaya
大上谷  (狼谷) Ōkamidani

This theory postulates that the meaning of the word is not “the 4th valley,” but “the 4 valleys.”

The red pin is Edo Castle. The green pin is Yotsuya Station. The northernmost pin is Myogadani Station. The easternmost pin is Yoyogi-Uehara Station (Okamidani)

The red pin is Edo Castle.
The green pin is Yotsuya Station.
The northernmost pin is Myogadani Station.
The easternmost pin is Yoyogi-Uehara Station (Okamidani)

As you can see I the picture, Sen’nichidani and Sendagaya are really close to Yotsuya – just a short walk, really. But Myōgadani is about an hour’s walk from Yotsuya. Ōkamidani (present day Yoyogi Uehara) is not just over an hour’s walk away, it was totally outside of Edo at its height. If the name predates the Edo Period, I don’t know why that valley or Myōgadani would have been included in this “4 valleys” area. People of the Edo Period themselves who commented on this derivation also seemed to have taken it with a grain of salt.

Grave of Hattori Hanzo - ninja extraordinaire.

Grave of Hattori Hanzo – ninja extraordinaire.

To be honest, I’ve never done anything other than change trains at Yotsuya Station, but the area is pretty famous for a number of things. History lovers may want to check out 西念寺 Sainen-ji Sainen Temple and the remains of 四谷見附 Yotsuya Mitsuke. This temple is most famous for the grave of  服部半蔵 AKA Hattori Hanzō, the trusted vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu and namesake of Edo Castle’s 半蔵門 Hanzō Mon Hanzō Gate (and subsequently the Hanzōmon Line subway). You can read more about him here. A little known fact is that there is a tower on the temple grounds honoring Ieyasu’s first born son, Nobuyasu. I don’t know much about the dude, but Nobuyasu was married to one of Oda Nobunaga’s daughters and was accused of plotting against Nobunaga. Nobunaga wasn’t having that shit and to confirm Ieyasu’s loyalty, told Ieyasu to order his son to commit seppuku. Nobuyasu seems to have been kinda cunty, but still, no father wants to order their son to slit his own belly and die. Nevertheless, Ieyasu made the command like a Sengoku badass. The thing that’s interesting about this to me is that (1) the first born son was the most important child to a family in those days so this had to be hard (2) Ieyasu seems to have held a grudge against his 2nd son, the second shōgun, Hidetada, for a number of reasons. I can’t help but wonder if this was one of them.

Yotsuya Gate during the Edo Period.

Yotsuya Gate during the Edo Period.

Very little remains of the 四谷御門 Yotsuya Go-mon Yotsuya Gate and 四谷見附 Yotsuya Mitsuke. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about what I’m looking at when I visit Japanese castles. But recently, I took a walk around the remains of Edo Castle with Eric from Jcastle.info and I’ve started looking at castles in a whole new light. I’m pretty into mitsuke now and Edo Castle had 36. Gotta catch ‘em all!

Yotsuya Gate Ruins

Yotsuya Gate Ruins

And lastly, I’d be an asshole if I didn’t bring up the legendary 四谷怪談 Yotsuya Kaidan The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. As you know, telling scary stories has been a national past time in Japan since time immemorial. This is one of the most famous ghost stories in Japan because it was originally immortalized as a kabuki play, but has been retold time and time again in various genres. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on the story.

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[i] And we will – once again – come to a dead end today.

[ii] “Houses” in the historical sense of families. Think Game of Thrones or any histories that you’ve read. The House of Caesar, the House of Charlemagne, the House of Tokugawa, the House of Kardashian.

[iii] More about this later, of course. But the previous “four families” could also be taken as “four shops” in that in the Edo Period (and indeed before then) because professions were inherited so in some ways 家 ya family and 屋 ya shop were interchangeable. Just look at the kanji for the fast food chain Yoshinoya 吉野家 Yoshino-ya which uses the kanji for family and not shop. (It’s generally assumed that this is not a family name but a reference to the hometown of the founder of the company). Either way, this illustrates a certain amount of flexibility with the kanji and meaning.

[iv] His book Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology is a fantastic look at the lay of the land and its impact on the growth of the Edo-Tōkyō. I can’t recommend it enough.

[v] The Genna Era is considered by some to be the “Golden Age” of the Edo Period. I’m not sure if I agree with that assessment, but that’s just personal taste, now isn’t it? Anyhoo, this is probably the most exciting part of the Edo Period because we see the succession of the first three Tokugawa shōguns, the most dramatic expansions of Edo Castle, the rise of Edo as the premier city in the realm, and gradual closing off of Japan. This era really sets the tone as a “Tokugawa Era.”

What does Ichigaya mean?

In Japanese History on November 19, 2013 at 6:17 am

市ヶ谷
Ichigaya (Market Valley)

Ichigaya Station

Ichigaya Station

This place name has 3 variations.

市谷 ichi ga ya
市ヶ谷 ichi ga ya
市ケ ichi ga ya

Most Tōkyōites probably associated Ichigaya with train stations that bear the name “Ichigaya,” but in reality there are many places named Ichigaya. I think this is a pretty complete list:

市谷加賀町 ichigaya-chō
市谷甲良町 ichigaya kōra-chō
市谷砂土原町 ichigaya sadohara-chō
市谷左内町 ichigaya sanai-chō
市谷鷹匠町 ichigaya takajō-machi
市谷田町 ichigaya tamachi
市谷台町 ichigaya daimachi
市谷長延寺町 ichigaya nagano-chō
市谷八幡町 ichigaya hachimangū-chō
市谷船河原町 ichigaya funagawara-machi
市谷本村町 ichigaya honmura-chō
市谷薬王寺町 ichigaya yakuōj-machi
市谷柳町 ichigaya yanagi-chō
市谷山伏町 ichigaya yamabushi-chō


Don’t be surprised if we come back to those place names
[i]. There’s gold in them hills.

One of the stranger things in Tokyo is this urban fishing spot in Ichigaya.

One of the stranger things in Tokyo is this urban fishing spot in Ichigaya.

OK, so I’ve wanted to write about this place for a long time, but it is connected to a few other place names which have made it difficult to cover until now. In my non-professional opinion, this seems like a very ancient place name. I’m just gonna through this out there now and say my gut instinct tells me none of the etymologies we’ll see today are correct and we’ll never know the true etymology.

First let’s look at the kanji .

ichi

market

ga

genitive particle

ya, tani

valley

In my opinion, all of these kanji are suspect. You’ll see why soon.

So, let’s look at the circulating theories.

 There was a dude named 市谷孫四郎 Ichigaya Magojirō attested in a Kamakura Period document who controlled an area near Edo. Other than this name, nothing else is known about the guy. A cursory glance of his name isn’t very impressive. He doesn’t seem to be descended from any imperial branch families and he doesn’t have a samurai-sounding clan name. If such a guy really existed, he may have been an elite lord who adopted the local place name as a family name, but… that just raises more questions. The jury is out on this one.

 Two theories exist which say the first character is deceptive. I’ve said again and again that kanji are not reliable for ancient Tōkyō place names. Here’s a good demonstration of why. This theory states that the original name was 一ヶ谷 ichi ga ya the first valley. Nearby we can find 四ッ谷 yotsu ya the fourth valley. The problem with this theory is where are the ニヶ谷 2nd valley and 三ヶ谷 3rd valley???

 It’s almost the same theory, but…. because of the prominence of daimyō residences here, the area had a reputation as an elite residential area well into the Meiji Era. According to this theory, 一ヶ谷 “first valley” was the preeminent (ie; first) 山手 yamanote valley[ii].  This one is also weird because why this area is the first, but Marunouchi isn’t? Also valleys tend to be 下町 shitamachi low city. So this one is just weird…

 This place name is another story unto itself, but as for the general story of Ichigaya, Kameoka Hachiman-gū is important. As mentioned many times before, Hachiman is the Shintō god who protects warriors (ie; samurai). This shrine located in Ichigaya claims that after its establishment in the late 1470’s a market (or many markets) sprung up around the shrine. They say that in the old Edo Dialect 市買 ichi kai “market buying” became ichi gai and in turn as a place name 屋 shop or  valley got attached to the area.

The shrine claims to possess Ota Dokan's  gunbai uchiwa.  A gunbai uchiwa is the (non-folding) fan used by Sengoku Period generals to give signals to troops. It's also said the Ota Dokan established this shrine - that's why it's dedicated to Hachiman, the Japanese god of bad asses.

The shrine claims to possess Ota Dokan’s gunbai uchiwa.
A gunbai uchiwa is the (non-folding) fan used by Sengoku Period generals to give signals to troops.
It’s also said the Ota Dokan established this shrine – that’s why it’s dedicated to Hachiman, the Japanese god of bad asses.

On a side note, for the train freaks out there, JR and Tokyo Metro use the writing 市ケ, while Tōei uses 市ヶ (ie; JR and Tokyo Metro use a large and Tōei used a small ). The official place names as used in postal codes and regular correspondence by Tōkyōtes drop the /all together and just write the name as 市谷.

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[i] Long time readers will know that I will come back.
[ii] Of course Yamanote means “the high city” and refers to the Edo Period distribution of land in Edo. The elite lived on the hills and the commoners lived in the lowlands. Here’s my ongoing series about my impressions of Yamanote and Shitamachi (although I haven’t updated it in ages).

What does Asakusa mean?

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

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

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

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

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

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

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

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

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

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

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

The Story So Far…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

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

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

This

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

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

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

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

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

Kabuki

Kabuki

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

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

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

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

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

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

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

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

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

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

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

Look at the Kanji

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

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

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

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

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

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


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

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

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

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

Tibetan

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

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

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

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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

What does Kasai mean?

In Japanese History on November 5, 2013 at 1:51 am

葛西
Kasai (West Katsushika)

Kasai Rinkai is famous for its nature preserve, and in particular, its aquarium.

Kasai Rinkai is famous for its nature preserve, and in particular, its aquarium.

Kasai is a general term used to describe the southern portion in Tōkyō’s 江戸川区 Edogawa-ku Edogawa Ward, ie; the portion that lies on Tōkyō Bay.

kuzu Japanese Arrowroot,
a reed-like grass that grows in wetlands
西 sai, nishi west

Nothing in this article will make sense if you haven’t read yesterday’s article on Katsushika.
As far as I know, today there is no area named Kasai, but there are train stations, bus stations and facilities that bear the name. Here are a few examples:

北葛西 Kita-Kasai North Kasai
南葛西 Minami-Kasai South Kasai
東葛西 Higashi-Kasai East Kasai
西葛西 Nishi-Kasai West Kasai
中葛西 Naka-Kasai Middle Kasai
葛西臨海 Kasai Rinkai Kasai Oceanfront
葛西海浜 Kasai Kaihin Kasai Seaside

 

The last two names are in reference to a park and nature preserve[i].

Kasai Rinkai Park and Kasai  Kaihin Park

Kasai Rinkai Park and Kasai Kaihin Park

So why is Kasai called Kasai?

The name Katsushika is attested in a census of the area in 721[ii]. It’s listed as part of 下総国葛飾郡Shimōsa no Kuni Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, Shimōsa Province[iii]. If you look at a modern map of Tōkyō, you’ll see that Edogawa is located south of Katsushika. This caused me to wonder, why is the southern area bear the name “west” when it’s clearly south?

Above the area marked #1 down to the white area (Tokyo Bay) is the former Katsushika District.

Above the area marked #1 down to the white area (Tokyo Bay) is the former Katsushika District.

But if you remember from yesterday’s article, the whole area from present Katsushika Ward to the bay in southern Edogawa Ward was part of the ancient Katsushika District.

Well, it turns out that by the Kamakura Period, the course of the 江戸川 Edo-gawa Edo River had changed the shape of the terrain[iv]. This prompted the creation of 2 new administrative districts. The west bank was called 葛西郡 Kasai-gun Katsu(shika) West District and the east bank was called 葛東郡 Katō-gun Katsu(shika) East District[v]. So in short, Kasai is a vestige of this former sub-district which doesn’t exist today.

There's little physical evidence remaining of the Kasai clan's presence in the area.

There’s little physical evidence remaining of the Kasai clan’s presence in the area. Let’s find out why!

A Side Note on pre-Tokugawa Noble Families Operating in the Area

I don’t like getting into genealogies of Japanese noble families because it’s kinda boring and I get really fucking confused after a while. But I thought this was interesting because it ties into the place names of Toshima and Edo.

The 桓武平氏 Kammu Heishi Kammu Taira Clan was established by the Emperor Kammu in the early 800’s. He granted the clan name Taira to some of his grandsons. A new branch was established when someone of this line was granted control of the Chichibu Province (present day western Saitama). The newly established clan took the name of their fief and became the 秩父氏 Chichibu-shi Chichibu Clan. In the 12 century, a member of the family was granted a fief in Edo. This family assumed the name of their new holdings and became the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan[vi]. Not long after that, a member of the Edo Clan was given control of the Kasai District of Shimōsa Province. And yes, you guessed it, this branch assumed the name of their new territory and became – wait for it……………… the 葛西氏 Kasai-shi Kasai Clan!

Family crest of the Taira.

Family crest of the Taira.

Now remember, the Taira Clan were descendants of the Emperor Kammu, but by the 12th century, the newly established 葛西家 Kasai-ke House of Kasai[vii] were merely low ranking vassals of another powerful clan in the area. And who might that family be? Why, it was none other than the 豊島氏 Toshima-shi Toshima Clan of 豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province.

Long time readers will know the eventual fate of the Toshima Clan[viii] and you might be tempted to assume that the Kasai met the same fate. But pre-Edo Period samurai were a wily bunch always looking for opportunities to increase their wealth, power, and influence. The Kasai raised an army and assisted 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo in the final subjugation of the Taira[ix]. They were rewarded with various holdings in the Tōhoku region. To this day, family names with the kanji 葛西 are common in Aomori, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate[x].

Tohoku... yeah!

Tohoku… yeah!

Back to the Kasai Area!

After the Kasai family left the region it came under the control of the 千葉氏 Chiba-shi Chiba Clan (namesake of modern Chiba Prefecture) and after that the 後北条 Gō-Hōjō the Hōjō Clan[xi]. After the destruction of the Hōjō, the area finally came under the control of Tokugawa Ieyasu and remained stable until the Meiji Restoration.

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[i] I couldn’t find good information, and I may be wrong on this, but I’ve heard that the Kasai Rinkai Park area was a lower residence of a branch of the Matsudaira family (an Edo Period landfill). Again, I’m not clear on the details, but I believe the Kasai Kaihin Park area was also an Edo Period landfill and they appear to be breakwaters, which would have protected the lord’s residence on the mainland. I could be wrong on this.

[ii] The document is the 下総国葛飾郡大嶋郷戸籍 Shimōsa no Kuni Katsushika-gun Ōshima-gō Koseki Census of Ōshima Hamlet (Katsushika District, Shimōsa Province). Here’s a description of the document in Japanese.

[iii] For those of you who haven’t been keeping up, please see my articles on Ryōgoku and Toshima and Musashi.

[iv] The Edo River, by the way, is a tributary of the 利根川 Tonegawa Tone River. The Tone River was known as this sort of uncontrollable beast. The river was notorious for flooding, then changing directions. It seems that the Edo River, being the proverbial little brother of the Tone River, had a similar reputation as a shit stirring river.

[v] The kanji are reversed, but this place name is preserved as 東葛 Tōkatsu, a region in present day Chiba.

[vi] If you remember my post on Edo, you’ll remember the Edo Clan. You’ll also remember how they were later forced to change their names to 北見氏 Kitami-shi Kitami Clan. Eventually, the Tokugawa shōgunate abolished the family line for unforgiveable transgressions.

[vii] Kasai Family to use a non-Game of Thrones term.

[viii] Please read more about the Toshima in these articles: Shakujii, Nerima, and Nerima.

[ix] Yes, folks you read that right.

[x] Apparently there are 4 variants of this kanji combination, the non-Kasai readings are said to have originated in Tōhoku: Kasai, Kassai, Katsusai, Katsunishi.

[xi] This clan, the so-called Late Hōjō, were a bunch of assholes. But they were tough assholes. Their resistance to Hideyoshi’s unification efforts eventually led to their complete annihilation. That action also led to Tokugawa Ieyasu being given the 8 Kantō Provinces… and the rest, as they say, is history.

What does Katsushika mean?

In Japanese History on November 4, 2013 at 2:50 am

葛飾
Katsushika (Adorned with Kuzu)

What does Katsushika mean?

This is kuzu, sometimes incorrectly spelled kudzu.

kuzu Japanese Arrowroot,
a reed-like grass that grows in wetlands
shika decoration, ornament, embellishment

This is a very ancient name.

The former 下総国葛飾郡 Shimōsa no kuni Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, Shimōsa Province consisted of areas that are today Tōkyō, Chiba, Ibaraki, and Saitama. This wide area comprised the modern areas of: to the north, Katsushika District, Saitama Prefecture; to the west, Sumida Ward and the eastern half of Kōtō Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis; to the east, Koga City, Ibaraki Prefecture; and to the south, Edogawa Ward, Tōkyō and Urayasu City, Chiba Prefecture.

Shimosa Province

This is Shimosa Province. The area marked #1 was the Katsushika District.


The name is attested in the 万葉集 Man’yōshū so we know this is an ancient name[i]. The probability of it not being Japanese in origin is high. As mentioned in previous articles, the kanji used in pre-Edo Period Tōkyō place names should always be taken with a grain of salt[ii].

There are various theories, but none of them are certain.

1 – Katsushika’s かつ katsu comes from an older word カテ kate or ト kato which meant cliff, hill, or knoll. しか comes from an older スカ which meant “sandbar.” The general idea being that this name referred to the lowlands on the right bank and the elevated ridge on the left bank of the 利根川 Tonegawa Tone River (present day 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River[iii]).

2 – The name was given to the area by the “people of the south sea”[iv]. According to this theory, in whatever dialect or language these people spoke it referred to a hunting ground.

3 – The kanji is literal. katsu is an on’yomi[v] and nanori[vi] of kuzu arrowroot. shika is the nanori of kazaru to decorate. Arrowroot is a kind of vine that grows near rivers. It’s an invasive plant that quickly spreads and takes over an area. It is used to make some kinds of jellies for Japanese sweets. If this etymology is accepted, the meaning is then literally “a field or area decorated (overgrown with) Japanese Arrowroot.”

Here is a lowland area overtaken by kuzu.

Here is a lowland area overtaken by kuzu.

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[i] The Man’yōshū is an ancient text written in a kind of ateji. Here is an article on the text. Here is an article on ateji.

[ii] The kanji used in the Man’yōshū – which are all ateji – are 勝鹿 win + deer and 勝牡鹿 win + male deer and 可豆思賀 nice + bean + think + auspicious. These kanji are meaningless and don’t give any indication of etymology.

[iii] This river was famous for changing course after major floods and tsunamis until the area was wealthy enough to implement proper urban planning. The present Edogawa flows through the ancient course, emptying into Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay).

[iv] 南洋系の民族 nan’yō-kei no minzoku people from the south sea is a mysterious term that may refer to other immigrant groups coming from the south, or may be a direct reference to the spread of Yamato culture, or may refer to older Yayoi or even Ainu people who just moved into the area at some point. I find this explanation ridiculously unclear – it’s obviously over my head.

[v] The Chinese reading of the kanji.

[vi] A set of common readings of a kanji used in names.

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