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What does Ōme mean?

In Japanese History on February 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm

青梅
Ōme (literally “green plum,” but more at “unripe plum”)

ome station

Ōme calls itself the Shōwa Town. The station looks intentionally old to evoke nostalgic feelings.

Ōme is an incorporated “city”[i] named after an ancient village in the area formerly known as 青梅村 Ōme Mura Ōme Village. This is the northernmost and easternmost part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. Usually when you think of Tōkyō, you think of a sprawling urban center with skyscrapers and packed trains. Ōme is mountains, forests, and rivers; one of the most beautiful parts of Tōkyō. It’s so rural that the train stations in the area are often unmanned and the train doors require you to push a button to open them because… um, people just don’t get off the train here much. The local people tend to use cars for everything.

In our last article about Shinjuku, we learned how the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō Kōshū Highway forked at Shinjuku and branched off into a new road called the 青梅街道 Ōme Kaidō Ōme Highway. Before 1603, the village of Ōme wasn’t really famous for anything. At that time a post town called 青梅宿 Ōme-shuku Ōme Inn Town was established and the post town and the highway got some recognition.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about:

tama river ome.jpg

Ōme is famous for its foliage in every season, but autumn is one its most beautiful in my opinion.

But first, Let’s Look at the Kanji!

 


ao

blue, green[iii]


ume

a fruit translated as Japanese apricot; but in the late winter, the flowers are translated as plum blossoms or just ume

青梅
aoume

an unripe Japanese apricot; literally green ume

Sadly, there’s no clear etymology. The place is clearly quite ancient. The primary etymology is said to be a product of the Heian Period (794 – 1185). That said, the name could easily be older. But if the name does indeed derive from something like ao ume, a shift from /aou/ to /aoː/ or /au/ and then to // is not inconceivable[iv].

At any rate, the prevalent theory has an interesting story behind it so let’s go with that.

Amagasecho

Note the Tama River. Note Amagase-chō. Note Kongō-ji.

A Samurai Did It

A high ranking samurai named Taira no Masakado visited the area that is present day 青梅市天ヶ瀬町 Amagase-chō Ōme-shi Ōme City, Amagase Town. The name Amagase means “heavenly shoal” or “heavenly rapids” and is a reference to a shallow section of the 多摩川 Tama-gawa Tama River. Struck by the beauty of the area, he decided to pray to 仏 Hotoke Buddha. He took the ume branch he was using as a horse whip and planted it into the ground. Then he said to the ume branch 我願成就あらば栄ふべししからずば枯れよかし waga negai jōju ara ba sakayu be shi, shikarazu ba, kare yo ka shi if my prayer is heard, grow tall; if it isn’t heard, then wither and die, bitch.

masakado statue

Well, if the legend is to be believed, the ume branch took root and grew into a splendid tree. It even bore fruit at the end of summer. However, the fruit did not ripen. Instead it remained green (aoume). Furthermore, the fruit was said to not fall off the tree. Because of this, the tree came to be called 将門誓いの梅 Masakado Chikai no Ume or just 誓いの梅 Chikai no Ume. The name literally means “Oath Ume,” but I think we can translate this as “Masakado’s Prayer Ume.”

ume branch.png

an ume branch

At any rate, since the branch took root, Masakado took this as a sign that his prayer was heard by Buddha. As an act of gratitude, Masakado paid for the establishment of a temple called 金剛寺Kongō-ji Kongō Temple at the location of this little miracle. The temple claims that this tree is the origin of the place name, Ōme, and so it literally means “unripe ume.” In fact, today the tree is a protected monument of the Tōkyō Metropolis[v] and, although it’s looking a bit rough around the edges these days, the Masakado’s Prayer Ume still blooms to this day at the entrance of Kongō-ji.

chikai no ume.jpg

Masakado Chikai no Ume

What did Masakado Pray for?

No one knows. Like most of his life, this story is questionable at best. In fact, for a guy whose life is mostly legendary in a very non-specific way, it’s strange that this story actually goes into so much detail – including the words he said. Aw, who am I kidding? It’s not strange at all because at the same time, the story still remains pretty fricking vague.

Whether he actually visited this location, made a prayer here, planted an ume, or did any of this stuff is unknowable. From an etymological standpoint, I think it’s fair to say that this story is entertaining at most, suspicious at worst. From a linguistic standpoint, well… the sound changes are plausible, but… c’mon!

edo masakado.JPG

an Edo Period representation of Taira no Masakado

Who the Hell is Taira no Masakado?

Taira no Masakado was a Heian Period samurai[vi] who lived in the first half of the 900’s. This is important to keep in mind because at JapanThis!, we usually talk about Edo Period samurai (1600-1868). He was a 5th generation descendant of 桓武天皇 Kanmu Tennō Emperor Kanmu (737–806), the supposed 50th emperor of Japan[vii]. His particular branch of the Taira clan governed parts of the 関東地方 Kantō Chihō Kantō Area called 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni[viii] which bordered 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and 常陸国 Hitachi no Kuni Hitachi Province.

In 935, Masakado ran into some trouble with samurai from Hitachi, and by trouble I mean he was attacked for some reason unknown to us. While he never backed down from a battle, including retributive attacks, he genuinely seems to have tried to go through the proper channels to resolve things diplomatically with the local magistrates in Kantō and with the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto. From here, the story gets… um, let’s say… imaginative.

According to legend, he incurred the wrath of the imperial court because in 939, Masakado staged an insurrection of sorts. Allegedly, he declared himself the 新王 shin’ō new emperor and wanted the eastern provinces to be autonomous[ix]. He was eventually defeated in Shimōsa in 940 and killed in battle. His head was brought back to Kyōto to be displayed all Game of Thrones style.

masakado head

Masakado’s head on display in Kyōto

His severed head, wanting to be independent and escape the oppression of the oppressive imperial court, began gnashing its teeth and groaning. After a few days of scaring Kyōtoites who came to gawk at him, his head took flight and flew back to his native Kantō. And of course it flew back. What did you think the head would do – walk back?!

Anyhoo, the head landed on a hill near Edo Bay where the local people buried it in a mound called a 首塚 kubizuka head mound, a kind of grave to be venerated. They began to revere it as a symbol of Kantō pride and independence. Soon Masakado came to be seen as a take-no-shit-from-anyone samurai who was even willing to stick it to the imperial court if push came to shove.

tsuka.jpg

a “tsuka” can refer to any man made hill, but it’s usually used for graves.

His 神 kami spirit was eventually enshrined at 神田神社 Kanda Jinja Kanda Shrine[x] in 江戸 Edo[xi]. When the first shōgun, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu began the refortification of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle, he had the shrine relocated because he was supposedly afraid of having such a powerful, anti-government spirit sitting right next to his castle[xii]. According to legend, there were a series of deadly accidents or dark omens during the dismantling of the shrine, so they decided to leave the grave undisturbed. The kubizuka of Taira no Masakado still sits in its original location in Tōkyō’s Ōtemachi district. It’s said that every time Masakado’s grave fell into disrepair, something bad would happen – a fire here, an earfquake there, an outbreak of cholera, or what have you. As a result, the shōgunate regularly maintained the site to avoid offending the easily angered samurai ghost head.

kanda shrine.jpg

Kanda Shrine in the bakumatsu with a little photoshop fuckery in the upper lefthand corner.

In the Meiji Era, the imperial government had Taira no Masakado’s kami de-enshrined from Kanda Shrine because the idea of a samurai insurrection inspired by this legendary, anti-government pro-Kantō war hero seemed like a bad idea[xiii]. After all, the emperor had just sorta waltzed into Edo, taken over the shōgun’s castle, changed the name of the city to Tōkyō, and his new government was doing all sorts of crazy shit like abolishing the samurai class and – shudder the thought – westernizing.

As far as I know, the Meiji Government didn’t mess with Masakado’s kubizuka. However, after the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake[xiv], the Ministry of Finance planned to move the grave in order to build a new office[xv]. But 14 ministry officials and executives of the construction company involved died in close succession, and so the project was aborted because it was obvious that they were pissing off Masakado’s spirit. The Ministry of Finance went so far as to erect a brand new inscribed, commemorative stone to placate him in 1926. And if you think it’s weird for a government agency to believe in ghosts, remember: this was pre-1945. Everyone – the government included – were taught and believed wholeheartedly that the emperor was a living god.

So after WWII, the superstitions must have gone away, right?

masakazou

Masakado ain’t finished being angry, bitch.

During the American Occupation, the military wanted to set up some offices so they could be near 皇居 Kōkyo the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle) to keep tabs on the emperor. Ōtemachi seemed as a good a place as any and so they planned to knock over the kubizuka. However, a bulldozer tipped over and killed the driver. There are a few other stories related to deaths and injuries of workers while trying to remove the grave. The US Army didn’t see the importance of the site, but the local Japanese workers soon refused to disturb the site anymore out of fear. Eventually the project was abandoned. Also, after the war, Masakado’s kami was re-installed at Kanda Shrine as a gesture to Tōkyōites who both loved and feared him. Maybe the Americans also wanted to appease the hot headed ghost of Taira no Masakado[xvi].

When I first came to Japan in 2005, I was told by a local that Taira no Masado was the only samurai with a bank account – specifically a bank account at Tōkyō-Mitsubishi UFJ. I thought this was a pretty remarkable story but didn’t think much of it until now.

Surprisingly, this turns out to be partially true! For many years, one of the offices directly next to the kubizuka was UFJ Bank. In 2006, Tōkyō-Mitsubishi and UFJ merged becoming the largest bank in Japan. I don’t have an exact date, but it seems that a group of senior executives at UFJ bank did, in fact, set up a special fund to be used for yearly offerings to Kanda Shrine[xvii]. When the banks merged, the fund – of course – stayed intact. In accordance with 風水 fū sui feng shui[xviii], UFJ had a longstanding tradition of banning desks from facing away from the shrine. How strictly this policy continues to be enforced – if at all – is unknown to me. But that said, I used to work in an office across from 山王日枝神社 San’nō Hie Jinja San’nō Hie Shrine and all desks on all floors were to face the shrine… without exception. So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Need some further reading?

masakado kubizuka today

The alleged original kubizuka. Notice the frogs. In Japanese “frog” (kaeru) is a homophone with “return” (kaeru). People make these offerings for various personal reasons, but all of them are inspired by Masakado’s miraculous return from Kyōto to his ancestral lands in Kantō.

Hopefully it’s clear that the legend of Taira no Masakado has taken on a life of its own. At this point, the legend is waaaaaay more interesting than the few historical details that we have. Hell, the ones that we do have are pretty mundane and boring. I’ll take a flying ghost head with a bank account any day.

But what do historians take away from Masakado’s story? In short, his military agitation against the so-called “sedate culture” of the Heian court can be seen as a symptom of growing pains among the provincial samurai governors and local strongmen. Martial disturbances like this among the samurai would only increase. While the imperial court had their poetry, games, and elegant rituals, there were warlords in the countryside accumulating wealth and influence… and yeah, warlords tend to have armies. Sometimes they came into conflict with each other and they increasingly didn’t care what the poetry writing goofballs holed up in Kyōto thought about it. This attitude would eventually give rise to the first 幕府 bakufu shōgunate in Kamakura[xix] in 1192. In turn, that would give rise to samurai rule. Masakado wasn’t the first legendary samurai[xx], but his story is interesting if you think of it as a foreshadowing of what is to come. The story is made even better by how he ties into not just Japanese history, but the story of both Edo and Tōkyō.

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[i] Its technical designation is 市 shi city, but the area is really pure countryside.
[ii] Footnote test!
[iii] I don’t want to go into a diachronic linguistic discussion about the Japanese distinction between – and apparent lack thereof – blue and green. If you want to know more, Wiki has a brief but sketchy introduction to the topic.
[iv] /au/ to /o/ is well attested in Italian, actually; cf. causacosa. This sound change was recorded as far back as Cicero (106 BCE-43), well before it became a manifest feature of Proto Italian in the 900’s.
[v] This doesn’t lend any credence to the story, it just means that the metropolitan government put up a sign and you might face a stiffer fine if you pee on this tree than if you just peed on a random tree at the temple. I guess.
[vi] The best date we have for him is the year of his death, 940. He inherited his father’s fief in 935 and his uprising took place in 939. His supposed visit and/or founding of Kongō-ji took place in the 承平時代 Jōhei/Sōhei Jidai Jōhei/Shōhei Period which was from 931 to 938 – the most logical assumption being sometime between 935 and 939.
[vii] 平成天皇 Heisei Ten’nō Emperor Akihito, the current emperor, is allegedly the 125th. By the way, the Japanese don’t call him “Heisei Emperor” or “Akihito,” both would be extremely rude – Heisei being the name he assumes upon death. They refer to him as the 今上天皇 Kinjō Ten’nō reigning emperor or just 天皇 Ten’nō emperor.
[viii] Shimōsa was essentially modern Chiba Prefecture and a bit of modern Ibaraki Prefecture. In the Edo Period, as a traditional but administratively unrecognized name, a small part of the ancient province was included in the Tokugawa shōgun’s capital – the area to the east of the 大川 Ōkawa Big River, the traditional name of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. By the way, I have an article about the Sumida River.
[ix] Trying to establish himself as a new emperor seems out of character, so let’s file that under “probably legend.”
[x] Today the shrine is called 神田明神 Kanda Myōjin which is also translated as Kanda Shrine.
[xi] The shrine dates back to the 700’s, so Masakado was added later.
[xii] I doubt Ieyasu gave a shit about Taira no Masakado. In reality, he probably just moved the shrine because it sat too close to where he wanted to build the castle’s 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate. The land was also going to be used for daimyō residences. Furthermore, Ieyasu requested the shrine host a yearly festival for the people commemorating his victory at the 関ヶ原合戦 Sekigahara Gassen Battle of Sekigahara which basically led to his elevation to the position of shōgun.
[xiii] In reality, the actual reason for Masakado’s de-enshrinement is a little more complicated. Sure, the samurai insurrection thing was probably part of it, but the samurai class was strongly associated with Buddhism. Until the Meiji Period decree separating Buddhism and Shintō, Japanese religion was a syncretic mix of Buddhism and Shintō (with a dash of Taoism). Removing an enshrined samurai made Kanda Shrine a purer Shintō institution. Also, Kanda Shrine was one of the most important shrines in central Edo. To promote State Shintō with the Emperor as the supreme 神 kami deity, the imperial government established the 東京十社 Tōkyō Jissha Pilgrimage of the Ten Major Shrines of Tōkyō. There was no way to omit Kanda Shrine from the list, so as a result, the controversial, insurrectionist Taira no Masakado had to go. Interestingly, the kanji for the city of Ōsaka were changed at this time. The original kanji were 大坂 which if written sloppily could look like 大士反 “large samurai opposition” (but the meaning was “big hill”). The kanji were changed to 大阪 which was also meant “big hill” but lacked any reference to 士 shi warriors.
[xiv] Which was actually Taishō 12 – almost the end of the Taishō Period.
[xv] Ōtemachi is synonymous banks and finance companies. It’s kinda like Japan’s version of Wall Street.
[xvi] This also might have been a bit of an eff you to the idea of imperial rule. Masakado was seen as anti-imperial court, and the US occupation was clearly anti-imperial. Oh yeah, and… pun intended!
[xvii] Companies visiting and patronizing shrines and temples is completely normal in Japan.
[xviii] Feng shui is Chinese geomancy. It’s pretty much BS.
[xix] Notably in Kamakura which is also in Kantō. This trend of eastern samurai pulling power away from the west doesn’t stop and culminates with the establishment of the 3rd and final shōgunate in Edo by the Tokugawa. Even the Meiji Emperor’s supporters had to concede in 1868 that the real power was in the east, in Edo-Tōkyō.
[xx] Ummmmm… there probably wasn’t even a “first legendary samurai.”

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 Senju mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm

千住
Senju (1000 Homes, but the actual meaning is lost)

Kita-Senju Station

Kita-Senju Station

Most people in Tōkyō have been to (or at least heard of) 北千住 Kita-Senju North Senju. Few people have heard of its depressing counterpart, 南千住 Minami-Senju South Senju. If you read about life during the Edo Period, especially sankin-kōtai, you’ll come across the name 千住 Senju (usually without a “north” or “south” attached to it).

“1000 Homes” makes this place sound like a bustling suburb of Edo (I’m sure it was a great place to raise a family lol). But the fact of the matter is that this place name is officially a mystery. Let’s look at the 3 prevailing theories about this place name, shall we?

Kita-Senju yankee.

Kita-Senju yankee.

THEORY #1

The 千葉氏 Chiba-shi Chiba clan lived here during the Sengoku Period[i]. This theory would have us believe that the place name is a play on words. The family name Chiba is made of two kanji, 千 chi/sen 1000 and 葉 ha leaves. The word for “lives in” is 住む sumu. With the implicit understanding that the kanji 千 sen represented the Chiba clan and 住 shu represented living, the resulting combination 千住 Senju would mean 千葉氏が住んだ所 Chiba-shi ga sunda tokoro “the place where the Chiba clan lived.” This etymology is not just boring; it’s insulting to the intelligence[ii].

The Chiba clan family crest

The Chiba clan family crest

THEORY #2

Another theory is the 8th Ashikaga shōgun, Yoshimasa[iii], kept a mistress whose hometown was a small village in the area. Her name was 千寿 Senju. The area adopted her name to raise its prestige[iv]. Long time readers of JapanThis can probably guess what I think of this theory, so let’s move on.

Since the place name for Senju first appears in the historical record in 1279 with the ateji 千寿, these Muromachi and Sengoku Era names are most likely fake, but there are schools and other places in the area that still use the kanji 千寿. This probably has little to do with Yoshimasa’s prostitute lover, though, and more to do with the auspiciousness of the kanji. 千 sen means 1000 and 寿 su/kotobuki means “congratulations!” or “long life!” Thus, 千乃寿 sen no kotobuki means “congratulations 1000 times!”[v] Since this is the earliest way of writing the word and it is obviously ateji, it leads me to believe that this represents a much older place name which has unfortunately been lost to history.

Another NO GO. This theory isn't very likely...

Another NO GO.
This theory isn’t very likely…

THEORY #3

The next theory? OK.  A statue of 千手観音 Senju Kan’non 1000 armed Kan’non, was pulled out of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa (River)[vi]. Thus the area was known as 千手 Senju 1000 Arms, which just sounds creepy. Over time, the place name came to be written as 千住 Senju 1000 Homes, which sounds like a nice place to raise to a family. Believe it or not, this is the most accepted etymology.

1000 armed Kan'non.

1000 armed Kan’non.

I say “poppycock” to the random 1000 armed statue floating down the river; however the statue was housed at the nearby temple, 勝専寺 Shōsen-ji Shōsen-ji, so it’s possible there might be some connection. But given the antiquity of the place name, I would venture to say that it’s actually the other way around. The old name Senju was the reason for making a senju statue. Japanese temples and shrines capitalize on this kind of play on words all the time; I don’t see why Shōsen-ji would have been any different.

So my guess is that each of these are folk etymologies and that the real place name pre-dates all of them. The original ateji is nice, though. It’s very auspicious. But remember, ateji doesn’t have meaning, so we may never know the true origins of the name.

The shitamachi feeling of Kita-Senju.

The shitamachi feeling of Kita-Senju.

A Few Bits of Trivia About Senju:

The old Edo shitamachi dialect is preserved by some local people in the area. They don’t call the area Senju, but Senji.

The most important town in the area was 千住宿 Senju-shuku Senju Post Town, which was the first 宿場 shukuba post town on the 日光御成街道 Nikkō Onari Kaidō[vii]. Because the 水戸街道 Mito Kaidō and 奥州街 Ōshū Kaidō also branched off from here, it was one of the busiest post towns of the Greater Edo Area.

To supervise the development and maintenance of the Nikkō Kaidō, Tokugawa Hidetada constructed a small 御殿 goten shōgunal lodging at Shōsen-ji[viii]. Hidetada, Iemitsu, and Ietsuna are all recorded as having stayed here. I imagine other shōguns stayed here, too. After all, the Nikkō Kaidō was an Onari Kaidō, that is to say, it was reserved for the private use of the shōgun and his retinue[ix].

北千住 Kita-Senju (literally, North Senju) is well known throughout Tōkyō as a shitamachi (low city) area that preserves some of the so-called Edo-kko culture[x]. It’s lesser well-known counterpart, Minami-Senju (literally, South Senju) is virtually unknown. Those who do know it, have a very bad impression of the town… for reasons I’ll get into next week.

 

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[i] Yes, this is the same Chiba clan whose name now adorns present day Chiba Prefecture in all its, um, glory.
[ii] Although, I had my balls handed to me by the etymology of Daita. So I guess I should keep an open mind.
[iii] Yes, that Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The Ashikaga shōgunate sucked balls from the beginning, but this clown is the guy under whose watch the Ōnin War broke out – that is to say, it was on his watch that Japan descended into the proverbial clusterfuck that we call the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period.
[iv] As if the some chick that the 8th shōgun of the lamest shōgunate was banging was prestigious…
[v] Sushi lovers out there will recognize this kanji as the first character of the ateji 寿司 sushi sushi.
[vi] As 1000 armed statues just float down rivers and get caught in fishermen’s nets all the time.
[vii] By now you should all know what shukuba were, but feel free to check my articles on Nihonbashi, Itabashi, and Shinjuku for a quick refresher.
[viii] Goten is often translated as “palace,” but in this case, I think “lodging” is better. Basically, when the shōgun and his entourage rested here, this is where they stayed the night – it wasn’t like a second home or anything. And as making a pilgrimage to the shrines at Nikkō was a spiritual perfunctory task and the procession was a purely martial affair, this sort of goten would have befitted a shōgun but was probably quite spartan.
[ix] I go into detail about the meaning of 御成 o-nari “the presence of the shōgun” in my article on Yūshōin, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ietsugu.
[x] 江戸っ子Edo-kko child of Edo is what you call a 3rd generation Tōkyōite. The stereotype is a plain speaking local of the shitamachi area. This stereotype has more to do with the post-Tokugawa merchant middle class class than it does with Edo’s samurai past.

What does Akabane mean?

In Japanese History on June 20, 2013 at 6:44 am

赤羽
Akabane (Red Wings; but more at Red Clay)

Pre-Saitama

Akabane Station.
It’s next to Saitama, so it’s sort of your last chance to be cool and say you live in Tokyo.
It’s also so close to Saitama that it’s kinda uncool by association.
It’s like you’re trying to get your pre-Saitama on.
Preparing to graduate to Saitama[1].

Today’s place name etymology is a pretty interesting one because we will get a sneak peak at the extinct pre-Edo Period dialect of the area. Akabane sits in the northern part of Kita Ward. It’s basically next to Kawakuchi, Saitama. So it’s on the literal outskirts of Tōkyō. Mind you, you won’t see any difference leaving Tōkyō and entering Saitama due to the thorough urban sprawl.

Historically speaking, 赤羽村 Akabane Mura Akabane Village wasn’t a particularly important place, but in the Kamakura Period a highway called 岩槻街道 Iwatsuki Kaidō was built. The road is better known by its Edo Era name, 日光御成街道 Nikkō O-nari Kaidō. As mentioned in my article on Tokugawa Ietsugu’s Mausoleum, 御成 o-nari refers to the presence of the shōgun. As such, this was a private highway for the shōgun family to use when visiting 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū. It was a shortcut that connected the 中仙道 Nakasendō to the 日光街道 Nikkō Kaidō. The road passed through Akabane and there was a rest station 宿場 shukuba at the next town, 岩淵宿 Iwabuchi Shuku Iwabuchi Post Station. That town was pretty important and well known.  Akabane was just another small village in the country.

A Map of the Iwatsuki Kaido as it passes through Akabane and Iwabuchi.

A Map of the Iwatsuki Kaido as it passes through Akabane and Iwabuchi.

.

OK. So now we have a little historical context for the city. Where does the name come from?

Well, if we strip away the kanji, we can find the origin of the name:

あか aka means red.
はね hane is the old local dialect word for 埴 hani, clay.

Why would anyone look at the dirt? When you considered that Japanese folk craft pottery could use this clay to make red pottery items, it becomes clear why "Red Clay" was a good place name originally. Remember, this place name pre-dates the Edo Period and gets its first mention in the Kamakura Period. This place name is OLD.

Why would anyone look at the dirt?
When you considered that Japanese folk craft pottery could use this clay to make red pottery items,
it becomes clear why “Red Clay” was a good place name originally.
Remember, this place name pre-dates the Edo Period and gets its first mention in the Kamakura Period.
This place name is OLD.

The 荒川 Arakawa River apparently deposited a lot of red colored volcanic ash from Mt. Fuji here. The buildup of this material produced a red slimy, claylike soil that was particular to the area. If an area eroded, the red clay would become exposed. Thus the area was called 赤埴 Akabani Red Clay. But in the local accent the name was pronounced Akabane. Later, as literacy rates improved in the area, the second kanji was changed to actually match the pronunciation. So 羽 hane wings was added, thus obscuring the origins of the place name as 赤羽 Akabane Red Wings[2].

For another sneak peak at the old dialect, we can look at the name of the highway that passed through here. It was called the 岩槻街道 Iwatsuki Kaidō. But place name 岩槻 Iwatsuki was originally written as 岩付 Iwatsuke. Diachronic Japanese linguists and dialectologists use evidence like this to track the development and differentiation of vowel quantities – in particular /e/ and /i/ which traditionally show great instability. So now you know.

Apparently, 赤羽橋 Akabanebashi (Red Wing Bridge) in Shiba (Minato Ward) has the same derivation. Archaeological findings in the postwar years confirmed the existence of medieval kilns and earthenware factories.

 

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[1] But the most famous pre-Saitama of all is Ikebukuro.

[2] A family name and a place name Akahani still persists elsewhere in Japan and the kanji is consistent with the original writing of the of the name. The writing of Akahani instead of Akabani reflects a conservative pronunciation before the 連濁 rendaku sound changes of the Tōkyō area became the national standard.

Go-kaidō – The 5 Highways of Old Japan

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on April 23, 2013 at 12:41 am

五街道
Go-kaidō (the Five Great Roads)

Tokugawa Roads, awwwwww yeah!

This is a beautiful example of a classic Edo Era Japanese road (taken in the early Meiji Period).

Today we’re talking about the long roads that united Japan in the Edo Period. They still unite Japan today, actually.

First let’s get the etymology out of the way.

五 go is five. 街道 kaidō is usually translated as “highway,” but you could call it a road, a major artery or whatever. The word itself is made up of two characters; 街 kai/gai has multiple readings and meanings, but usually refers to a road or city/area. 道 dō literally means “road” or “way.” A 街道 kaidō sounds much more important than the 道 dō/michi or 通り dōri, both of which mean “street” in the local sense. This is illustrated by the Japanese idiom 街道を歩む kaidō wo ayumu  “to move up the ranks” – the literal meaning is taking the highroad instead of some crappy side street.

There were many “great roads” in old Japan. The 5 we’re talking about today terminated/started in Edo. So the predominance of these routes is a legacy of the Edo Period. If you look at earlier eras in Japanese History, you’ll find other highways of importance, most of which led to Kyōto/Nara.

Another great example of a well maintained Tokugawa Era road in the early Meiji Period.

Another great example of a well maintained Edo Era road in the early Meiji Period.

The 5 Great Roads are as follows:

Tōkaidō
Nakasendō
Kōshū-kaidō
Ōshū-kaidō
Nikkō-kaidō

The great highways of Japan were a little different from the first great highways of Europe built by the Romans.  But there are some similarities. The shōgunate mandated a fixed width of about 11m (36 feet) for the 5 Great Roads. (The size of Roman roads was strictly regulated for military purposes ranging from 3m to 15m depending on conditions). The 5 major routes of Japan were at the very least covered by 3cm of gravel and sand and local villages were required to maintain the road to ensure no pot holes landed a samurai in the mud. Important sections of the roads and dangerous sections of the roads were paved with large stones – similar to Roman roads. A final nicety was added. The roads were intentionally flanked by tall trees which ensured cool, natural protection from the scorching summer sun.

Nakasendo Highway in Edo Period

Here’s a paved section of the Nikko highway as it looked in the Meiji Period. Note the large stones on the main portion and smaller stones on the sides. Also, note the large trees planted along the road. (I’ve never seen those hammocky-looking things before, not sure what’s up wit’ dat)

Today some roads, like the Tōkaidō which united Edo and Kyōto, are major train routes. Originally there were (and still are) local trains, but now there are 新幹線 shinkansen high speed trains connecting Tōkyō and Ōsaka/Kyōto. But in the old days people walked on these routes – some high ranking samurai went on horse, of course. And some history/hiking nerds get in their mind these days to walk the original roads. For example, you can, literally walk from Nihonbashi to Kyōto. You can’t do it in a day (the train takes about 2.5 hours), but sure, you can walk it. And a lot of people still do. Some people walk just sections of the old roads, some crazy fucks actually walk the whole thing non-stop.

The Tokugawa insisted that post towns were established along the roads. In Japanese, these are called 宿 shuku. They were basically rest towns where you could eat, sleep, and – if you were lucky – go drinking & whoring.

A portion of the Nakasendo Highway as it looks today.

A portion of the Nakasendo Highway as it looks today.

Why Were These Roads So Important?

Here’s the weird things to us westerners; the Roman roads and subsequent European roads were pretty much open to anyone. Edo Period Japanese roads were open to local people. No problem. But crossing domain borders and walking across the country was strictly regulated. There were post stations with domainal or shōgunal representatives who would ask the Edo Period equivalent of “Your papers, please?

The reason for this can be summarized by a certain axiom 入鉄砲出女 iriteppō deonna. 入鉄砲 iriteppō means “bringing in guns.” 出女 deonna means “fleeing women.” The general idea was don’t import weapons, especially gunny weapons, into the domains via these official roads and for fuck’s sake, don’t let your womens get out. If the bitches get out, all hell will break loose.

We’ve seen this time and time again.  Ungrateful deonna. Go back to whence you come!*

A typical Japanese road in the Meiji Period. It's not really in very good condition. Grass is starting to grow and it's getting rutted from rickshaw traffic.

A typical Japanese road in the Meiji Period. It’s not really in very good condition. Grass is starting to grow and it’s getting rutted from rickshaw traffic.

But I digress.

Since the point of my series on Tōkyō places names is talking about place names, let’s go back to the etymology and then wrap things up.

東海道 Tōkaidō東海 tōkai means eastern sea.  Add 道 dō and the whole thing means “the eastern sea route.” It connected Edo and Kyōto by a coastal route that still exists today by high speed train. This route is still walked by people who like… walking. Its Tōkyō post stations (shuku) are Nihonbashi and Shinagawa. The old Shinagawa Tōkaidō route is a famous place in Tōkyō and home to something like 30 festivals year round. I go there often. You should too.

中山道 Nakasendō – literally means “the central mountain route.” It connected Edo and Kyōto through an alternate route. Its Tōkyō stations were Nihonbashi and Itabashi, where Kondō Isami was executed and his grave still exists. (Also, don’t confuse the word 中山道  Nakasendō with 中出し nakadashi in polite company).

甲州街道 Kōshū-kaidō甲州 refers to the capital of 甲斐国 Kai no kuni. My apartment is built on the remains of the upper residence of this province. Imagine that this is the road that connects Tōkyō to Mt. Fuji.  In Tōkyō, it passed through such towns as Nihonbashi, Shinjuku, Suginami, and Chōfu (birthplace of Kondō Isami).

奥州街道 Ōshū-kaidō – Basically, this connected Edo with the Tōhoku region (Ōshū is an area in Iwate, if I’m not mistaken). Its Tōkyō stations are Nihonbashi and Senju-shuku. Today there are neighborhoods called 北千住 Kita Senju North Senju and 南千住 Minami Senju South Senju. Minami Senju hosted one of the shōgunate’s 3 main execution grounds (another story in and of itself). This area also was post station for the Nikkō highway.

日光街道 Nikkō-kaidō – This was a direct route from Edo to Nikkō, the final resting spot of Ieyasu and Iemitsu (the first and third shōguns). Just as serving the shōgun in Edo was a duty expected of daimyō, service at Ieyasu’s funerary temple was also expected. There are local 東照宮 Tōshō-gū “Temples of the Eastern Prince” (ie; Ieyasu) all over the place, including several in Edo itself. This was designed to reduce the cost of an official visit to the main temple.  Its stations within modern Tōkyō are Nihonbashi and Senju.

A map of the Go-kaido.

A map of the Go-kaido. Sorry, Japanese only.

 

 

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* By the way, 入鉄砲出女 t-shirts coming soon!
UPDATE: t-shirts are here!!!!

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