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Posts Tagged ‘honjo’

10 Famous People From Honjo

In Japanese History on September 12, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Jūnin no Yūmei na Honjokko
(10 famous people from Honjo)

Taishō Era postcard of the memorial for the more 100,000 lives lost in the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923.

Taishō Era postcard of the “Ireidō” memorial for the more 100,000 lives lost in the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. It is located in former Honjo Ward (today Sumida Ward). It was built on the mass grave of the victims. The more than 100,000 victims of the American firebombing in WWII are also enshrined here.
Today’s article isn’t talking about a neighborhood of Tokyo. Today we’re talking about a cross-section of people who lived in the same area over the centuries. Today’s article is celebrating the lives of some remarkable humans.

This is Part Two of an Article I Published the Other Day

If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you read it before this article. This piece should stand on its own, but the 2 articles were actually meant to be a single piece. I decided to split them at the last minute because it was just too long. Click here for the original article. The end of that article has a link that will bring you right back here.

Map of former Honjo Ward, later absorbed into present day Sumida Ward.

Map of former Honjo Ward, later absorbed into present day Sumida Ward.

We Left Off at “So, Why Should I be Interested in this Area?”

Thank you for asking that question. I had prepared 9 answers for you, but named the article 10 Famous People from Honjo because… who’s really counting? I know I’m not[i].

There are quite a few famous people from Honjo. I’ve put together a short list that I think typifies the wide range of people who at some point called Honjo their 地元 jimoto hometown or were at least associated with the place. Rather than using place names, I’ve decided to try something new. Let’s look at the people who lived here and explore the changing face of Honjo through them. Might work. Might not work. But you never know until you try, right?

Oh yeah, one more thing. During the Edo Period there many place names that broadly referred to large areas. The generalizations of Tokugawa controlled Edo don’t always reflect those of modern Tōkyō Metropolis today.

Prior to the Meiji Period, 本所 Honjo referred to a large area – much of which isn’t designated as Honjo today. In earlier articles we’ve talked about places like 向島 Mukōjima, some of which was considered Honjo in the Edo Period. Think of Honjo as a region without borders. People in Deerfield, Illinois will tell you that they are from Chicago – they’re not officially, but close enough. People from New Jersey who live close to NYC will say they’re from NYC – they’re not officially. In both cases, most people sort of go with the flow. A lot of areas in Edo-Tōkyō are like those places.

In the Meiji Period, there was a 本所区 Honjo-ku Honjo Ward. Later, this ward would be broken up and part was merged with 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward to form present day 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward.

Alright. Enough about all of that crap. Are you ready to strap in and feel the G’s, baby? This is going to be looooong.

Famous People Associated with Honjo

Keishō-in (Mother of the 5th Shōgun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi)



Keishō-in is the Buddhist name awarded to お玉の方 O-tama no Kata[ii] after she retired. Details on her early life are scarce, but it seems she was born in 京都 Kyōto to a commoner family – greengrocers, to be specific. At some point, she was adopted into the 本庄家 Honjō-ke Honjō family who were retainers of a 公家 kuge court noble family in Kyōto. The family established a residence in Edo because of their connections with the Tokugawa.  It’s said O-tama lived with the Honjō in a modest residence in Honjo. The location of the residence was next to the present day 旧安田庭園 Kyū-Yasuda Tei-en Former Yasuda Gardens – itself the former estate of 本庄 宗資 Honjō Munesuke. Don’t worry. I’m going to talk about both the gardens and Munesuke eventually.

Anyhoo, O-tama soon joined the 大奥 Ōoku shōgun’s harem[iii] in Edo Castle and became a 側室 sokushitsu concubine of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. She produced 2 sons, both of whom would later be elevated to shōgun: 4th shōgun 徳川家綱 Tokugawa Ietsuna and 5th shōgun 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

(L) Keishō-in's grave in the ruins of Zōjō-ji in the 1950's. (R) Keishō-in's grave today in Sayama Fudōson.

(L) Keishō-in’s grave in the ruins of Zōjō-ji in the 1950’s. (R) Keishō-in’s grave today in Sayama Fudōson.

An interesting side note related to my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns; although both brothers, Ietsuna & Tsunayoshi, were interred in adjacent mausolea at 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji in 上野 Ueno, their mother was interred at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in 芝 Shiba. When Zōjō-ji was burnt to the ground in WWII[iv], all the graves became overgrown with trees and weeds. In the 1950’s, Zōjō-ji had recovered financially by selling off much of its real estate. Then they reorganized the temple precincts. They consolidated the shōguns’ graves into a single graveyard and shipped off “superfluous” graves and structures. Keishō-in’s grave was moved to 狭山不動尊 Sayama Fudōson, a temple in 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture[v].

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Honjō Munesuke (first daimyō of Ashikaga Domain)

This is the location of Ashikaga Domain's Upper Residence

This is the location of Ashikaga Domain’s Upper Residence

OK, so I promised to explain this one. To be perfectly honest, I’d never heard of this dude before but as I said before, the Honjō family was originally from Kyōto and had close ties with both the imperial court and the Tokugawa. Their adopted daughter, O-tama (later Keishō-in), was not just the mother of one, but two shōguns – not to mention she was the concubine of Tokugawa Iemitsu who was considered a cultured shōgun with martial savoir-faire[vi]. As a result, the status of the Honjō family skyrocketed within the shōgunate. Munesuke was Keishō-in’s step-brother. He also served under Tsunayoshi when he was lord of 館林藩 Tatebayashi Han Tatebayashi Domain. Needless to say, he was a very influential guy and very well connected.

If you get fast tracked by Tsunayoshi, you're probably having sex with him... or so I've heard.

If you get fast tracked by Tsunayoshi, you’re probably having sex with him… or so I’ve heard.

After becoming shōgun in 1680, Tsunayoshi elevated Munesuke to hatamoto status[vii]. Not long after that, he elevated him to 譜代大名 fudai daimyō hereditary daimyō status and gave him control of newly created 下野国足利藩 Shimotsuke no Kuni Ashikaga Han Ashikaga Domain, Shimotsuke Province. This new status required an appropriate 屋敷 yashiki mansion and so the shōgunate granted him a large swath of land in Honjō adjacent to the residence where his mother had grown up. He also received the courtly title of 因幡守 Inaba no Suke Protector of Inaba Province[viii].

By the way, there is an alternative etymology of 本所 Honjo the place that says it derives from 本庄 Honjō the family having their residence here. It’s not true. The place pre-dates Honjō Munesuke’s elevation to daimyō and the construction of his upper residence here. Also, there were other daimyō in the region for years before the construction of the Honjō family palace. Any connection between Honjō and Honjo is pure folk etymology.

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Kira Yoshihisa (the “bad guy” in the 47 Rōnin stories)

Kira Kozuke no Suke

Kira Kozuke no Suke

Kira Yoshihisa[ix], better known as 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke no Suke lived in the area. Long time readers should recognize him as both the so-called “bad guy” of the 47 Rōnin stories and as a descendent o f吉良頼康 Kira Yoriyasu[x]. Yoriyasu was a local strongman whose family held various swaths of the Kantō plain until the 後北条家 Go-Hōjō-ke Late Hōjō clan began taking control of the area by force[xi]. Kira Yoriyasu served the early Hōjō lords as a general helped them take Edo Castle from the 上杉家 Uesugi-ke Uesugi clan in 1524[xii]. As a thank you, he was granted a large fief centered at 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle. When Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo, all of the petty strongmen were required to submit to him. The Kira clan submitted, accepted hatamoto status, and the 本家 honke main branch of the family relocated to Honjo.

The story of the 47 Rōnin is so messed up that I don’t want to get into it here (my usual excuse), so if you want to read more about the event, I refer you to this excellent article at Samurai Archives (also my usual excuse).

That said, you can still visit the 吉良邸跡 Kira Yashiki-ato Ruins of the Kira Residence in nearby 両国 Ryōgoku. The remains of the estate are preserved as a park that roughly gives you the idea of how big a hatamoto estate was.

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Katsushika Hokusai (one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists)

春画 (shunga), literally

春画 (shunga), literally “spring pictures,” were the Chaturbate of the Edo Period.

In the art world, Hokusai is one of those guys who loom large[xiii]. Way large. Even if you don’t like his art, you’ve probably seen it at some point or another. And even if you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen art influenced by him. While Japanese art has had influences globally, few people are as iconic as Hokusai.

He was born around 1760 in 武蔵国葛飾郡本所 Musashi no Kuni Katsushika-gun Honjo Honjo, Katsushika District, Musashi Province, hence the name Katsushika. However, the specifics of his family name are not certain[xiv]. And although he was born into the artisan class, he claimed his mother had been the grand-daughter of a retainer of Kira Kōzuke no Suke which meant he had some good ol’ Honjo samurai blood running through his veins. Unfortunately, his mother and a lot of things regarding his early family life are unclear and filled with speculation.

What’s known for sure is that Hokusai was hailed as a 天才 tensai genius in his own day and art historians today clearly revere him as one of the greatest 浮世絵師 ukiyoeshi ukiyo-e painters of the Edo Period[xv]. He is perhaps best known for his series 富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūrokkei Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji which was born out of Hokusai’s obsession with 富士山 Fuji-san Mt. Fuji. Of the 36 woodblock prints, the most famous is probably 神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

If you don't know this painting... oh, who am I kidding? Everybody knows this one.

If you don’t know this painting… oh, who am I kidding? Everybody knows this one.

The golden ratio (golden mean) - one of the most boring controversies of the art world since 1509™

The golden ratio (golden mean) – one of the most boring controversies of the art world since 1509™

Fans of JapanThis! and the #TeamIenari esthetic probably have a particular print that they prefer. That print would be 蛸と海女 Tako to Ama which is usually translated as the Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, but literally means Octopus and Shell Diver[xvi]. This is the famous image of a woman having a threesome with 2 octopodes[xvii]; one is making out with her while the other licks her pussy. Tentacles are everywhere, because octopodes are really grabby like that.

If you had 8 arms, you'd be grabby too.

If you had 8 arms, you’d be grabby too.

The picture is quite controversial today as some uptight people associate it with modern tentacle porn. Tentacle porn was a thing in 漫画 manga and アニメ anime for a while, though to be honest I think it got played out 15 years ago or so[xviii]. But the modern incarnation of the genre was pretty fucking rapey. That said, the woman is clearly getting off judging by her position and facial expressions. The octopodes are harder to read visually because… they’re fucking octopodes. But fortunately for us, Hokusai’s print includes a lot of text which describes the scene[xix]. The daddy octopus, the son octopus, and the female shell diver are all waaaaaay into this threesome. So, by the artist’s own description it’s fully consensual. Awwwww yeah!

OK, maybe this is a good place to move on to the next topic...

OK, maybe this is a good time to move on to the next topic…


Katsu Kaishū (hatamoto, father of the Japanese navy, teacher, visionary)

Katsu Kaishū in San Francisco posing like a straight up pimp.

Katsu Kaishū in San Francisco posing like a straight up pimp.

In 1823, Katsu Kaishū was born in 江戸本所亀沢町 Edo Honjo Kamezawa-chō Kamezawa-chō, Honjo, Edo. To the best of my knowledge – and I could be totally wrong here – this part of Honjo was part of the shōgun’s capital which stands in contrast to the area where Hokusai lived, which was technically not part of Edo, but of the Katsushika District.

I’ve talked about Katsu Kaishū so many times on JapanThis! that I just recommend searching the site for him if you don’t know who he is. Samurai Archives has a concise biography if you just want something quick. Wikipedia has a decent article about him if you want to go deeper. There are plenty of books, including Samurai Revolution, that go into his life and times in great detail.

kaishu kakko ii

In short, he was born into an impoverished hatamoto family[xx], but he was obsessed with learning about the world. He supposedly taught himself Dutch in order to read foreign books – in particular military books and naval books. He came to the attention of the shōgunate by making the bold assertion that ability and motivation rather than birthright be used a basis for promoting men to important positions. This was when Japan was caught with her proverbial panties down by Commodore Perry and his 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships and a crisis ensued. He insisted that a Navy would be necessary to defend the country against foreign invaders who were taking advantage of and at times colonizing weaker Asian kingdoms.

Halloween is just around the corner. This is how you make the Katsu Kaishū hairdo.

Halloween is just around the corner. This is how you make the Katsu Kaishū hairdo.

He helped establish Japan’s first navy. He helped preserve the Tokugawa family. He helped save Edo from being burnt to the ground by the hostile Satsuma-Chōshū alliance that was hell bent on overthrowing the Tokugawa. He negotiated the peaceful transfer of the city during the Meiji Coup. And on top of all that, he had great hair.

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Enomoto Takeaki
(President of the Ezo Republic)

The fitted suit didn't come about for another 50-100 years. But still, that moustache. lololol.

The fitted suit didn’t come about for another 50-100 years. But still, that moustache. lololol.

Enomoto Takeaki is an interesting character during the Bakumatsu. He was born in 1836 to a low ranking hatamoto family in 江江戸下谷御徒町 Edo Shitaya Okachimachi Okachimachi, Shitaya in Edo.

Anyways, despite his low rank, he was a smart, forward thinking dude. He eventually earned himself the title of 海軍中将 kaigun chūjō Vice Admiral in the shōgunate’s navy. Like Katsu Kaishū, he learned Dutch and was fascinated by the world outside of Japan. Like Katsu Kaishū, he supported the shōgunate’s progressive efforts to modernize and take on foreign learning. Unlike Katsu Kaishū, he would actually tell the imperial army to go fuck itself by stealing a fleet of ships and starting a country of his own. Say what you will about him, but Takeaki had balls, yo.

Big balls. We're coming back to this topic in a minute.

Big balls. We’re coming back to this topic in a minute.

From 1862 to 1867, he studied abroad in Europe and focused on learning western military strategies and technologies. In particular, Takeaki was interested in western naval warfare. It’s said he became fluent in both Dutch and English. He also developed a taste for western uniforms and fashion. He also realized the importance of the telegraph for long distance communication and he pushed for this technology to be used in Edo.

However, in his years abroad, Enomoto Takeaki had acquired a few tastes that were too progressive for some of the conservative ass hats from Satsuma and Chōshū who were trying to overthrow the Tokugawa.  He eschewed traditional Japanese clothes for western suits and military uniforms. He also began sporting a pretty awesome moustache. This moustache would take on a life of its own in his later years, but that’s a story for a blog about moustaches – not Japanese history.



When he returned to Japan, he was appointed vice admiral of the navy – which was a cool gig to have at the time. Who doesn’t want to be second in command of the navy? However, part of Katsu Kaishū’s deal for the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle and Edo itself to the imperial army was the handing over of all naval assets to the imperial army. Just for the record, Katsu Kaishū was 海軍奉行 kaigun bugyō – ie; first in command of the navy. Takeaki wasn’t having this surrender bullshit at all so he stole an entire naval fleet – the shōgunate’s 8 best warships – and took it northwards to an area called 蝦夷地 Ezo-chi the Ezo Lands[xxi] at the time.

So, WTF is Ezo-chi?

To the average Japanese at the time, Ezo-chi referred to “the barbarian islands” north of 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan – present day 北海道 Hokkaidō[xxii] and a few associated island chains. His liberal European views shone through when he declared the island a sovereign territory separate from the new “imperial state” being established by the Satsuma-Chōshū terrorists.

Up to this point, a Japanese fief had existed on the south west peninsulas of the island. It was called 松前藩 Matusmae Han Matsumae Domain. The rest of Hokkaidō was “undefined land” inhabited by the アイヌ Ainu whom the Japanese from Honshū held in little regard.

Matsumae Castle marked the limit of Tokugawa authority. They were the northernmost boundary of the shōgunate.

Matsumae Castle marked the limit of Tokugawa authority. They were the northernmost boundary of the shōgunate.

Takeaki established a headquarters at the port of 函館 Hakodate. Among his rag-tag team of pro-shōgunate samurai and foreign advisors was a certain 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō, the 旧副局長 kyū-fukukyokuchō former vice commander of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi[xxiii] and all an around bad ass. Since they were establishing a new, modern country, they needed a government and so developed a tentative organizational model and then did something that had never happened before in Japan. They held a general election. This is why the country was called the 蝦夷共和国 Ezo Kyōwakoku the Ezo Republic[xxiv].

The government hall of the Ezo Republic.

The government hall of the Ezo Republic.

The election is a pretty amazing political milestone in Japanese History. The results are also interesting: Enomoto Takeaki became the first and last 蝦夷島総裁 Ezoshima Sōsai President of the Ezo Islands. Hijikata Toshizō was elected the first and last 陸軍奉行 Rikugun Bugyō a term which literally means “Military Magistrate,” but in a republic that relied on military power out of necessity you can think of this as “Vice President.” Only men of samurai rank could vote – ie; the military[xxv].  It wasn’t an all free persons can vote thing, but for the first time in Japanese history, a general election happened!

The Ezo Republic was defeated by the imperial army in about 5 months. Takeaki had claimed the entire island of Hokkaidō as Ezo[xxvi] so after the victory, the Meiji Government annexed the Republic of Ezo. This was one of the first imperialist land grabs of the new imperial government. Modern Japan had acquired a whole new island – not a tiny island but a huge, beautiful island with untold agricultural potential. Oh, and Hijikata Toshizō  died at 函館戦争 Hakodate Sensō the Battle of Hakodate.

flag of the Ezo republic

flag of the Ezo republic

Meanwhile Back In Edo

Sorry about the Ezo tangent. Let’s get back to Honjo.

After the collapse of the shōgunate, Edoites held the uncouth and culturally unsophisticated ex-samurai[xxvii] from western Japan in contempt. Imagine if a bunch of rich people from Missouri and Kansas overthrew the government of New York City and made themselves the new leaders. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think you can figure out that the native New Yorkers would feel they were culturally superior to the outsiders who claimed dominion over them. After all, these outsiders didn’t know the nuances of the city, the etiquette, or the history. They had overthrown a nearly 250 year old system that put them at the center Epicenter of Japanese Culture for generations. Suddenly, they felt, their world had been turned upside down[xxviii].

If the stories are to be believed, the Edoites considered their new 田舎侍 inaka-zamurai country samurai masters as bad as – if not worse than – the tiny groups of foreigners (mostly business people, diplomats, teachers, and missionaries[xxix]) who had been making inroads into the country before the Meiji Coup.

Edoites Were Pissed Off, I Get It.
What about Enomoto Takeaki?

After the Meiji Coup, Takeaki was arrested and thrown in jail for high treason. His military prowess and charisma were well known and so as the Meiji Government made peace with the former Tokugawa supporters it became apparent that he should be released from prison. He was then given a new position in the Imperial Navy. At some point in his later years, Takeaki bought an estate in 向島 Mukōjima. People often said they saw him riding his horse along the banks of the Sumida River[xxx].


牛嶋学校 Ushima Gakkō Ushima School was established in 1873 (Meiji 6) and was one of the first public schools in the area. In 1881 (Meiji 14), the school was relocated to the location of the present day 本所高校 Honjo Kōkō Honjo High School. The school possesses a 扁額 hengaku a kind of sign that decorates an entrance. Traditionally, hengaku are copies of handwritten 書道 shodō calligraphy which is written by brush then made into a wooden plaque[xxxi]. Local legend insists that this sign was written by Enomoto Takeaki in 1873 (Meiji 6) to give endorsement to the school. The people of Honjo inferred that Takeaki hoped to instill the spirit of Edo in the new generation of children (who were now children of Tōkyō not children of Edo). He was a symbol of Edo and a symbol of modernity – and most of all, he wasn’t from Satsuma or Chōshū. This is a sentiment I can completely understand.

Takeaki's calligraphy

Takeaki’s calligraphy

He continued to serve in military and government rules for the rest of his life until he died at his home in Mukōjima in 1908 (Meiji 41).

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Yasuda Zenjirō (founder of the Yasuda Zaibatsu)

People in the 1800's found out some ways make beards creepy and the Japanese copied them.

People in the 1800’s found out some ways make beards creepy and the Japanese copied them.

Yasuda Zenjirō was born a low ranking samurai in 1838 越中国富山藩 Ecchū no Kuni Toyama Han Toyama Domain, Ecchū Province. As a teenager he moved to Edo and worked in money changing and later taxation consulting to rich farmers – something I never knew existed in the Edo Period.

He was 17 years old when he moved to Edo and began working in a money changing house. In 1863, became an outsourced tax collector of the shōgunate[xxxii]. This made him a rich man and gave him a network that included the richest commoners and poorest (but most powerful daimyō).

After the Meiji Coup, he established a western style bank. This gave him the power to set up the Yasuda Bank (later known as the Fuji Bank) in the 1880’s. His clients formed a fully consolidated network focused on the emerging market of small and medium sized businesses. By the late 1800’s he had created a 財閥 zaibatsu[xxxiii] of his very own that he could love and cherish like a precious bunny rabbit.

That would be part of his group...

That would be part of his group…

Call Back. Say Whaaa?

Earlier, I wrote about Keishō-in (the 5th shōgun’s mother) and the Honjō clan (the samurai family that adopted her and brought her to the Honjo area). Time to bring these elements of the local history back to whatever kind of kind of fucked up narrative I’m telling.

Zenjirō was one of the richest men of his time. When the daimyō all moved out of Honjo, he moved in. He bought the former 本庄 Honjō estate which included a large garden. We’re lucky today because Zenjirō’s version of the garden is still preserved as a park[xxxiv] and is known by the name 旧安田庭園 Kyū-Yasuda Tei-en Former Yasuda Gardens[xxxv].

yasuda honjo nice

As Tōkyō pushed for industrialization, the Sumida River area became a filthy, polluted area. The emerging middle class got the fuck out of the area. Socially stigmatized people were trapped in the flood plains. Traditional families who couldn’t afford a move to leave were truly stuck there. Despite the exodus of – I dare say complete abandonment by – the wealthy, Yasuda Zenjirō stayed in the area. Despite being of samurai stock, he did have humble origins so maybe he felt a connection to these proud, hardworking people whom he employed. Their hard work and his leadership skill made him a very, very rich man. That all afforded him an amazing piece of real estate with a former daimyō garden and a history tied to the shōguns. Who would give that up?

He lived among the low city people and depended on them for the development of his financial empire. I don’t know much about his personality, but apparently he pissed off a lot of rich people. He also pissed off a lot of the rising militarists/imperialists born after the Meiji Coup. Sadly, this actually resulted in his final demise. In 1921, he was assassinated in Honjo by an 右翼 uyoku ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative terrorist[xxxvi].

The financial empire he created survived him until the end of WWII and though it’s fragmented now, huge companies that were spun off from his group survive to this day.

Floody It was really floody.

It was really floody.

The Family Has a UK/US Connection

Yasuda Zenjirō was the great-grandfather of Yoko Ono[xxxvii], widow of John Lennon. She’s an artist hated by baby boomer Beatles fans (they blame her for the band’s break up). Yoko Ono – no matter what your parents think of her – has been a powerful force in the world of art.


Anyways, she told a story once that upon seeing Zenjirō’s photograph for the first time, John Lennon said “That’s me in a former life.” They were hippies at the time and believed in re-incarnation and other stupid shit[xxxviii] so this comment bothered Yoko a lot. She told him “Don’t say that. He was assassinated.” Years later, John Lennon himself was assassinated in front of their home in the Upper West Side of New York City on December 8th, 1980.

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Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (Meiji Era author)


Just when you thought it was dark, it’s about to get a whole lot darker.

Ryūnosuke was born in 1890 (Meiji 23) and raised in Honjo[xxxix]. He was a writer – in particular, he was a novelist of a new sort that emerged after the Meiji Coup. He apparently loved English literature and even worked as an English teacher for a short time. However, he was an 江戸っ子 Edokko a child of Edo[xl] through and through. In his personal life, he surrounded himself with other Edokko. He was talented enough that he was taken under the wing of one of his idols, 夏目漱石 Natsume Sōseki, the guy who wrote 吾輩ハ猫デアル Wagahai Wa Neko De Aru I Am a Cat[xli]. In the west, Soseki’s cat book is very famous, but Ryūnosuke’s stories are a little more obscure.

In my first article, I mentioned that in the early 1900’s the abandoned samurai estates were overtaken by trees and weeds. Wild animals took refuge there. Men who had lost their savings, women who had been scorned by their families or lovers, and other despondent people used the overgrown plots of land as places to commit suicide by hanging. It was so frequent that it was said to be a daily occurrence.

That story actually comes to us from Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. His father and other Honjo locals told these stories to him. I have no reason to doubt them either. Other areas of Tōkyō[xlii] descended into the same chaos after the Meiji Coup.


“I totally should have combed my hair before this photoshoot.”

The saddest part of this whole story is that Akutagawa Ryūnosuke couldn’t endure his own life. His art was respected by his idols. It was respected by his peers. To this day, he is considered one of modern Japan’s greatest writers. However he suffered from serious depression.  The condition finally got the best of him and he killed himself in 1927 (Shōwa 2) at the age of 35.

For what it’s worth, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke lives on. He is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese Short Story” and Japan’s premier literary award is named after him. It’s called 芥川龍之介賞 Akutagawa Ryūnosuke Shō the Akutagawa Prize. The winner walks away with a new watch, a million yen[xliii], and instant national media attention.

A Meiji/Taishō Era watch

A Meiji/Taishō Era watch

Ō Sadaharu (record setting baseball player and manager)

As some of you may know, baseball was brought to Japan in 1872 (Meiji 5) and is one of the most popular sports in the country. Even high school baseball gets a lot of attention with the 夏の甲子園 Natsu no Kōshien Summer Kōshien[xliv], a high profile yearly summer high school tournament. This competition is where the Japanese get their first peak at the next generation of those who play with balls professionally.


The Japanese consistently perform within the top 5 teams of international baseball. At the time of writing, they’re ranked #1 by the International Baseball Federation, followed by the United States, Cuba, Chinese Taipei (Tawain), and the Netherlands. The Japanese professional leagues are highly competitive and in recent years have been providing top tier players for Major League Baseball in the US. Players like 田口壮 Taguchi Sō, 松井秀喜 Matsui Hideki, and 鈴木一朗 Suzuki Ichirō immediately come to mind.

The rivalry between the Yomiuri Giants in Tōkyō and the Hanshin Tigers in Ōsaka is legendary. Actually, the rivalry between the Giants and basically every other team in Japan is legendary. The Giants are an interesting phenomenon: you either love them or you hate them. There’s no gray area. It’s into this team’s epic 81 year history where most of Sadaharu’s story takes place. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Ō Sadaharu was born in Honjo to a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother. In foreign publications, his family name is generally transcribed as 王 Oh. This convention is a relic of the age where newspaper print setters and computer manufacturers couldn’t be bothered with differentiating Japanese /o/ and オー // with diacritics. So, in English this guy is usually called Sadaharu Oh (first name/last name reversed in the western style). But that’s just lazy, in my opinion. He’s Ō Sadaharu on JapanThis! because… screw that “H.” Nobody needs it. By the way, in Mandarin his name is read Wáng Zhēnzhì and I have no idea how to pronounce that correctly. And neither does he. Despite his Chinese citizenship, supposedly he doesn’t speak Chinese.



Sadaharu played first base 22 seasons from 1959-1980 for the Yomiuri Giants based out of the former 後楽園球場 Kōrakuen Kyūjō Kōrakuen Stadium, predecessor of 東京ドーム Tōkyō Dōmu Tōkyō Dome. In that time he set the lifetime homerun record by knocking out an incredible 868 homeruns and the team won 11 championships. He was voted MVP of セントラルリーグ Sentararu Rīgu the Central League’s 9 times. Then, from 1984-1988 he served as manager of the Giants. Under his leadership, the Giants clinched the Central League pennant in 1987.

korkakuen stadium

He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 and returned to the game in 1995 to manage the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks[xlv]. The Hawks took 3 Pacific League pennants under his management and they won the Japan Series twice. In 2008, he became the general manager of the Hawks.

In 2006, Sadaharu became the coach of Samurai Japan, the Japanese national team, during the first World Baseball Classic (WBC) where his team won the championship by defeating Cuba 10-6 in the final game.

The Dude Has 2 Other Claims to Fame

First, he was so famous all over the world[xlvi] that he was even memorialized in the lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ 1989 single Hey Ladies! The line goes “there’s more to me than you’ll ever know / and I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh” which occurs within the first 4 lines of the track.

The other claim is of a more dubious nature. His single-season home run record clocked in at #2 on ESPN’s Phoniest Records in Sports list. It’s not that he was on ‘rhoids or all out cheating to get his homerun record, it’s that when foreign challengers in the Nippon Professional Baseball popped up, so did a little controversy. It seems Manager Ō and Co. deliberately tried to protect his record by some fairly obvious and unsportsmanlike plays. This link explains the controversy in detail, but some American baseball commentators and an actual columnist from the Yomiuri Daily News (the company that owns the Giants) have stated that Sadaharu’s record should recognized but it needs an asterisk to show that fair play been thrown out the window. There are many indications that there was also a strong desire to keep the record from being broken by a stinky foreigner.

In the end, it doesn’t matter because in 2013 Sadaharu’s single season home run record was finally broken – by a stinky foreigner, no less. Wladimir Ramon Balentien, an outfielder for the Yakult Swallows[xlvii], hit 60 home runs beating Ō’s 55. Incidentally, this record wasn’t without controversy either. This time, rather than blocking foreigners from breaking the record, Nippon Professional Baseball had actually issued new balls that were “livelier.” The new balls resulted in increased home runs overall – presumably a tactic to increase interest and revenues overall in the sport. Oh well, at least his record breaking 56th and 57th homers were against the Hanshin Tigers.

Let’s Go Giants!!!

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[i] And the internet loves lists of 5, 10, 20, etc… apparently.
[ii] Her given name was お玉 O-tama or just 玉 Tama (to her superiors). The ending の方 (something) no kata was a title used in the 大奥 Ōoku shōgun’s harem at Edo Castle.
[iii] Bow chicka bow bow♪
[iv] Kan’ei-ji was also completely destroyed in WWII.
[v] A few beautiful treasures from the resplendent mausoleum of the 2nd shōgun 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada and his wife were also moved to this temple. Additionally, many people believe that Keishō-in’s grave is at 護国寺 Gokoku-ji, a temple located in 大塚 Ōtsuka. This isn’t true. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu built the original temple on the site to honor her, but her remains are in Saitama. Interestingly, her hair went back to Kyōto – presumably so her birth family could honor her. Incidentally, there is a grave for 38 Tokugawa women in the Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji. Keishō-in is also enshrined there.
[vi] Reputation only. Who knows how long he’d last on a Sengoku Period battlefield?
[vii] Given Tsunayoshi’s past, one wonders if they were fucking
[viii] The title is strictly ceremonial. No one controlled the provinces in the Edo Period. They were a just traditional way to refer to large areas of the country.
[ix] His name was read Yoshihisa in his time, but because his kanji are ambiguous the more common Yoshinaka has been used for years and years. This is why I tend to use his courtly title instead of his name. His courtly title is much more widely known than Yoshihisa or Yoshinaka.
[x] Yoriyasu’s story is mentioned in my article on Setagaya and its Freaky Horse Fetish.
[xi] Please see my friends at Samurai Archives for more info on the Late Hōjō.
[xii] Uesugi clan, holla!! Again, see my friends at Samurai Archives.
[xiii] By the way, if you haven’t studied Japanese, the closest way to say his name correctly is dropping the “u” and just calling him Hōk’sai. Close enough.
[xiv] His grave actually says 河村 Kawamura.
[xv] Of course, I love his work, but my personal favorite is 歌川広重 Utagawa Hiroshige. Unfortunately, he was born in another part of Edo, so there will be no epic ukiyo-e battle this time.
[xvi] This work was only done by women and the kanji for the word clearly reflect this: 海女 ama sea girl. Both English translations fail miserably. Keep in mind, the original never had a title.
[xvii] Just for the record, octopi is not the plural of octopus. It’s a Greek, not Latin word. Even octopuses, which sounds stupid, is more correct that octopi. #TheMoreYouKnow
[xviii] I really haven’t seen it since then. But, it’s not really my cup of tea anyways. I don’t really read manga or watch anime.
[xix] If you’re curious about the text of this iconic bestiality-centered threesome, read a translation of it here.
[xx] His father 勝子吉 Katsu Kokichi is probably one of the most hilarious samurai who ever lived. There’s an English transition of his autobiography. He’s basically the opposite of what a samurai was held up to be in his day. His autobiography is essentially this: “I’ve been a bad samurai. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But goddamn, it was so much fucking fun!!!!” Then he passes on headship of the family to his 15 year old son, Katsu Kaishū.
[xxi] The kanji  蝦夷 can be read as Emishi or Ezo and literally means “crustacean barbarians.” This was an unflattering term used by the early Yamato people to refer to indigenous peoples of Japan.
[xxii] Never mind that the area was already home to the アイヌ Ainu. Since the 1300’s the area of 函館 Hakodate was controlled by the 松前氏 Matsumae-shi Matsumae family. The domain was called 松前藩 Matsumae Han Matsumae Domain. During the Bakumatsu, Sakamoto Ryōma wanted to expand his business to Ezochi. His wife was even learning the Ainu language to help in this effort. Ryōma strongly advocated doing business with the Ainu and bringing them into the fold of a modern Japanese state. His thinking was that Hokkaidō, being a huge land mass, could help provide a buffer against the Russians. Imperial Japan agreed with this and annexed the territory and began colonizing in 1869.
[xxiii] Who are the Shinsengumi?
[xxiv] The imperial government, on the other hand, would call itself 大日本帝国 Dai-Nihon Teikoku the Empire of Greater Japan because they had no intention on given up Takeaki’s land grab in Hokkaidō or Satsuma’s tributary state, 沖縄 Okinawa.
[xxv] Again, this is a time of transition. The idea of a military (in the modern sense) and a warrior (as a social caste) were in a state of flux.
[xxvi] Pretty sure he didn’t ask the Ainu for their thoughts on the matter.
[xxvii] In their opinion.
[xxviii] In reality, for the average person on the street life went on as usual and slowly but surely things began to change. But initially there was definitely deep resentment among Edoites towards the Satsuma and Chōshū influx into Edo (which had become 東京 Tōkyō in 1868).
[xxix] Surely the missionaries were annoying as shit. lol.
[xxx] This is the same “western behavior” that is alleged to have prompted anti-shōgunate samurai assassinate Henry Heusken.
[xxxi] This is the same process used to make the signs that marked the entrance to the funerary temples of the Tokugawa shōguns. These were called 勅額門 chokugaku mon imperial scroll gates. An emperor wrote the posthumous name of the shōgun in calligraphy and it was transferred to a wooden plaque and decorated.
[xxxii] I’ll be completely honest, I don’t know what this means. But my gut instinct tells me that he was a glorified bill collector with a sword.
[xxxiii] Business and Finance are really boring for me. But if you want to learn more about zaibatsu, read this.
[xxxiv] The park is very different from the daimyō residence’s garden. Still, it’s a splendid Japanese garden.
[xxxv] Here’s more info about the park. They don’t appear to have an official English website.
[xxxvi] The assassin, 朝日平吾 Asahi Heigo, upon being learning he had been found out, sliced his own neck with a razor and died.
[xxxvii] I always keep Japanese as family name first and given name last. However Yoko Ono is mostly known by her westernized name. I’ve also chosen to not use diacritics for the same reason. But if you care, her name in Japanese is 小野洋子 Ono Yōko.
[xxxviii] Judging by Yoko Ono’s Twitter feed, she still believes in stupid shit. lol
[xxxix] He may have been born in 京橋 Kyōbashi, near 日本橋 Nihonbashi and modern 銀座 Ginza.
[xl] Today the term refers to people whose families have lived in Tōkyō for 2 or 3 generations but at the time – because mobility was still a bit restricted by economic factors – it basically referred to Tōkyōites who knew the city really well. And Ryūnosuke knew the city better than most.
[xli] I’ve never read the book, but here’s a summary.
[xlii] Marunouchi, I’m looking at you.
[xliii] At the time of writing, 1,000,000 yen is about $8,300 US.
[xliv] The series is named after the stadium.
[xlv] Today this team is the SoftBank Hawks.
[xlvi] Or ended up in a rhyming dictionary or something.
[xlvii] The name is a never ending source of pre-pubescent giggles and laughter to English speaking foreigners.

What does Honjo mean?

In Japanese History on September 10, 2015 at 6:16 am

Honjo (main place)

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

The etymology of this area is pretty straight forward and actually does little justice to the neighborhood’s actual value. The name seems to be derived from the 荘園制度 shōen seido shōen system[i]. Shōen were administrative units that were originally more or less autonomous from the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court, though they owed their legitimacy to their connections to the court. In English, this is often rendered as manor or estate[ii].

Under the shōen system, the 本所 honjo main place (main estate) designated the place where the 荘園領主 shōen ryōshu lord of the shōen lived[iii]. This would include the lord’s 本家 honke main family line and their direct retainers. Branch families would live elsewhere. As such, a honjo is actually a designation of an area that is not unlike the capital of the shōen (the lord’s territory). This use was common throughout Japan and as such there are many places in the country called Honjo. The most popular story ties the area to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, but whether the name dates from Ieyasu’s time or reflects an ancient honjo is unclear. Some have even suggested it’s a reference to the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan or 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area - also possible non-namer of the area. Nobody knows.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area – also possible non-namer of the area.
Nobody knows.

When 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu was granted control of Edo in the 1580’s by 太閤豊臣秀吉 taikō Toyotomi Hideyoshi imperial regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the term 荘園 shōen was all but obsolete, but some associated place names persisted. If this line of thinking is to be trusted, by the time Ieyasu assumed control of Edo and 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces, the term was just an archaism that gave the area a touch of class. The area set one of the early models for the 山手 yamanote high city. Ieyasu required the old Edo samurai families to move to the area to be closer to Edo Castle where he could keep his eyes on them[iv]. To keep them in check, those samurai families were granted 旗本 hatamoto status (ie; they became direct retainers of the Tokugawa). He later ordered 3 譜代大名 fudai daimyō daimyō loyal to the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara to build their 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residences there to keep the old Edo elite in check. I suppose the granting hatamoto status and naming the area Honjo was essentially the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down. But because of its elite beginnings, the area was replete with nature. It was famous for its greenery and suburban feel even in the late Edo Period despite the changes that would come with time.

The main gate of Tsugaru Domain's upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote. Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the drum tower inside the compound. It was a drum tower and used a huge taiko (Japanese drum) to sound the alarm.

The main gate of Tsugaru Domain’s upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote. Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the drum tower inside the compound. It was a drum tower and used a huge taiko (Japanese drum) to sound the alarm.

In the very early Edo Period, people used local terms to identify themselves. Perhaps you were 向島っ子 Mukōjimakko a child of Mukōjima.  Perhaps you were 吾妻っ子 Azumakko a child of Azuma. But for the first half of the Edo Period, if you were 本所っ子 Honjokko a child of Honjo that meant you were a real 江戸っ子 Edokko child of Edo. Your family may have even preceded the Tokugawa – or at least that was the image[v].

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might've heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might’ve heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant “Fire! Get to the other side of the river now!!!!”

In 1657, the area was still quite rustic. After the 明暦之大火 Meireki no Taika Meireki Fire[vi], the site was chosen for the burial of those who perished in the conflagration. The fire burned for 3 days in some parts of the city and destroyed 60-70% of Edo – including sections of Edo Castle itself. Some accounts say 100,000 Edoites burned to death in the disaster. To appease the souls of the dead, a temple was built to tend to the mass grave of the victims. The temple is called 回向院 Ekō-in Ekō Temple which is still located in Honjo. By the way, an 回向 ekō is a Buddhist prayer for the repose of the dead[vii].

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi declared the burial mound where bodies were dumped a 万人塚

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi declared the burial mound where bodies were dumped a 万人塚 manninzuka “mound of a thousands of souls.”
Since that time, the temple has been tending to the souls of the poor, those rejected by their families, the unclaimed dead, the executed, and animals. The temple has connections with sumō wrestling, too.

If the Area was so Elite, Why is it Shitamachi Today?

In 1719, the area was officially incorporated into Edo and fell under direct control of the shōgunate. This happened after the construction of 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge. The building of the bridge saw an influx of craftsmen and laborers who worked on the project. Many remained in the area as 町人 chōnin townspeople of the commoner areas. The completion of the bridge created more demand for jobs that only commoners could do under the rigid social hierarchy of the Tokugawa.

The daimyō residences alone must have been big business. They needed maintenance of their villas, but they also needed landscaping work, they needed fish and other foodstuffs brought to their estates. They needed rain coats and new underwear. The other samurai families required the same conveniences of the day. As more businesses arose in the area, the commoner population exploded. Woodworkers and other craftsmen had quick access to the lumberyards of Kiba which made the area famous for woodwork. A unique culture emerged in the area. It was a culture of means – but one that depended on the working class.

The Tsugaru residence is great example of the Edo- Tokyo dichotomy. The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote. I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The Tsugaru residence is great example of the Edo-Tokyo dichotomy.
The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote.
I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The daimyō residences were essentially palaces. The original 3 daimyō were joined by a few other daimyō families that built 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residences in the area. These were fairly large estates with sprawling gardens and safe, wide streets. They weren’t very populated, though. The truth is, by the middle of the Edo Period, the commoner population of Honjo far outweighed the nobility, much like some parts of 麻布 Azabu[viii].

As such, wealthy artists, writers, farmers, and actors came to this area to hang out. Many 茶屋 chaya tea houses existed in the area that catered specifically to the non-samurai, moneyed bourgeoisie. Commoners of substantial means could come to Honjo and go drinking and whoring in a town that looked and felt like the yamanote. The commoners who grew up in this area were Edokko heart and soul, but they typified the next generation of sophisticates of the Meiji Era. In Honjo, commoners were gentrified, knew the arts and culture, and hobnobbed with the samurai elite[ix].

Tea houses in Honjo

Tea houses in Honjo

Rise of the Shitamachi

By the early Meiji Period, the look of the area changed dramatically. The daimyō and largest samurai residences disappeared and were either reclaimed by nature or became new homes for the working class. The lots that became overgrown with unkempt trees and tall grasses became inhabited by stray animals. Those spots became popular with people who wanted to commit suicide. It was said that in Honjo at least one person a day would hang themselves in the night and be discovered the next morning. Of course, this changed over the 44 years of Meiji. By 1912, most of the abandoned lots had become factories that relied on the river for distribution, bringing in raw material, and dumping of whatever waste byproduct they produced. The Sumida River became extremely polluted and whenever the river flooded it caused outbreaks of disease because of all the waste that was left in the streets and in people’s homes after the waters receded. It was fucking nasty.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

By the middle of the Meiji Period, the area was famous for cheap housing. Notably, day laborers could find daily or weekly lodging for a pittance as they hopped around from menial job to menial job. Whatever entertainment existed there in the Edo Period had long since disappeared[x]. Honjo, in contrast to nearby 向島 Mukōjima, was a place to work and live and nothing more. It also failed to hold on to its vigor in contrast to 浅草 Asakusa, which lay on the other side of the river and was still a bustling hub of 下町 shitamachi low town excitement, art, and culture. Honjo died in the late Meiji Period. And talk about kicking someone when they’re down, the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923 laid another epic smack down on the area. It wouldn’t start to recover until after WWII.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can't rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick. It's pretty sad.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can’t rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick. It’s pretty sad.

So Why Should I be Interested in this Area?

Thank you for asking that question. And rest assured, I will answer in the form of biographies that show the diversity of people who have lived in the area. Unfortunately, I ended up with an article that was 18 pages in MS Word with more than 50 freaking footnotes. The footnotes alone were like… 3 or 4 pages. So I’ve decided to cut the article in half, using the first 4 pages and more than 2,000 words to talk about the area. Part 2 will be a beast, clocking in at 13 pages and more than 6,000 words. Trust me, you don’t want the original, unsplit version.


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[i] The fine folks at Samurai Archives have a good definition of this term: Shōen – Private estate exempted from central government control and often subject to a multi-layered proprietorship. Established in the Nara Period, the shōen system lasted until the late 16th Century, when it was finally eliminated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s sweeping land surveys.
[ii] I don’t like this translation, but I don’t know a better one. It’s similar in some ways to European feudalism… but in other ways it’s really different. Let’s save this discussion for another day.
[iii] Sometimes translated as “lord of the manor/estate.” I don’t like this translation either.
[iv] We’ll be coming back to this later.
[v] However, by the end of the Edo Period 江戸っ子 Edokko was the only word used to describe natives of Edo and Edoites in general.
[vi] Also called the 振袖之大火 Furisode no Taika Unmarried Woman’s Kimono Fire because legend says the fire began when a Buddhist priest burned a cursed kimono. The kimono was said to be cursed because it was owned by 3 young girls who died when it came into their possession. They never even had a chance to wear it. After the kimono had been passed to the 3rd girl and she died, the family asked the priest to destroy it.
[vii] This name should be familiar to long time readers. There is a temple of the same name near 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground. You can see my article here.
[viii] See my article on Azabu here. It’s old and not so good, but whatevs.
[ix] Not entirely true. The area was prestigious, even as a commoner area. Even to this day, samurai heredity pulls some weight. But in the late Edo Period and early Meiji Period, Honjo was prime real estate and if you lived there or hung out there, that carried a lot of social power. That said, the shōgunate didn’t want samurai and commoners hanging out with each other too much. They either turned a blind eye to it or it was done on the down low. Of course, in the Meiji Period, there was no problem with mixing if you were “a person of talent.”
[x] The only exception was Mukōjima, where a unique geisha culture emerged.

What does Ushima mean?

In Japanese History on August 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

Ushima (cow/ox island)


Today’s article is a bit of whimsy. I want to investigate some really obscure and unknown aspects of Japanese religion that tangentially hit on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. In my article on 向島 Mukōjima, I mentioned that one of the theories is that there were a collection of islands (or more likely sandbars in a flood plain) dotting the east bank of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. According to this story, these were collectively called mukōjima “the islands on the other side of the river” by the people of the west bank who lived in 浅草 Asakusa. Today I want to talk about the name 牛島 Ushima Cow Island[i]. It’s not preserved as an official place name today, but there is shrine in Mukōjima that bears the name. It’s a quite ancient name – possibly as ancient as Asakusa[ii].

Eat more chikin, bitches

Eat mor chikin, bitches

As I’ve said many times before, the west bank of the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (as this stretch of the river was known as in the Edo Period) had been fairly developed since the Heian Period. It got a major boost with the rise of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate in the 1200’s and was one of the few shining centers of art and commerce in the Edo area in those early days. The area really rose to prominence with the establishment of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate in the early 1600’s by the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa family.

As I said earlier, today there isn’t any area officially called Ushima, but prior to the Meiji Period, there was an area of present day 墨田区本所 Sumida-ku Honjo Honjo, Sumida Ward that was referred to by that name. The east bank of the river was essentially grassland, even during most of the Edo Period this side of the river was relatively rustic[iii]. During the Asuka Period and Nara Period[iv], the grounds on the flood plains of the eastern bank of the Sumida River were used for grazing cattle. Thus the area came to be called 牛島 Ushijima Cow Island – a name that was eventually contracted to Ushima[v].

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Asakusa is the Rockstar of the Area, but…

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Sumida River, in 628 or 645[vi] (the Asuka Period) Sensō-ji was founded in Asakusa Village. Sensō-ji was a key temple in the area and it was pivotal in the spreading of Buddhism in the Kantō area. In the 850’s (Heian Period), a famous itinerant monk who had recently studied Buddhism in China visited Sensō-ji to view the secret image of Buddha that was alleged fished out of a stretch of the river and is the alleged raison d’être of the great temple. That monk was a certain 慈覚大師 Jikaku Daishi[vii] and he is about to play the biggest part of the Ushima story.

Jikaku Daishi

Jikaku Daishi

The story goes that Jikaku Daishi, who had been studying Buddhism in China, was ejected from the country during the Great Buddhism Purge of 845 and forced to return to Japan. Upon his return he visited various centers of Buddhism in the country to share his knowledge and engage in philosophical discussions with other monks. While visiting a hermitage called 一草庵 Issōan, Jikaku Daishi took a walk and happened upon an old man. The old man told him that he should build a shrine to protect the local people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The old man then revealed that he was an incarnation of the Shintō 神 kami deity named 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.

Susano’o no Mikoto

Susano’o no Mikoto

Wait. Whaaaa?!!

You may be scratching your head now. Buddhism builds temples to reflect upon enlightened souls… or something like that. Shintō builds shrines to house 神 kami deities[viii]… or something like that. At the very least, these are just 2 distinct belief systems!

Long time readers should be well aware that Japanese religions – and polytheistic religions in general – tend to be syncretic. This means they are open to blending, mixing and matching, and picking and choosing. Roman religion was like this prior to Christianity and is probably the best example I can think of in terms of western syncretism. In short, while for some people Buddhism and Shintō may have been diametrically opposed to one another in many ways; for the most part both can accommodate each other. Indeed, until a Meiji Era imperial decree separating Buddhism and Shintō[ix], the two faiths were essentially in bed together. Other faiths like 庚申 Kōshin[x] flourished in conjunction with Buddhism and Shintō. It was all one spiritual tapestry. A Buddhist founding a Shintō shrine was nothing out of the ordinary.

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues. The Kōshin faith is neither Shintō nor Buddhist, but rather Taoist.

But Back To Ushima

Jikaku Daishi set about founding a shrine on the east bank of the Sumida River in the Ushima area. The name of the original shrine was 牛御前社 Ushi Gozen-sha[xi]. It was built sometime between 859 and 879[xii]. Keep in mind, this all went down in the 800’s. If the Tokugawa Shōgunate hadn’t been established in the 1600’s, Sensō-ji may have remained the temple with the largest influence in the area until today.

The wishes of the old man that Jikaku Daishi encountered were that the shrine would protect the people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The shrine would become home to the 本所総鎮守 Honjo sō-chinju the tutelary kami of the entire Honjo area. The west bankers had their Sensō-ji but the people on the east bank needed a tutelary kami[xiii], too. The Sumida River even had its own deity[xiv]. So the people who lived in the eastern flood plain needed equal protection from the powerful river god.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

The Gods of Ushi Gozen-sha

Ushi Gozen-sha didn’t only enshrine one deity. It enshrined 3 specific kami to protect the people of Honjo (present Mukōjima). Let’s take a quick look at these 3 kami.

Susano’o no Mikoto

a major kami associated with rough seas and summer storms (typhoons)[xv]

Ame no Hohi no Mikoto[xvi]

a minor kami with close ties to Susano’o no Mikoto[xvii]

Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto

my understanding is that this is the kami of an imperial prince whose death coincided with the construction of the shrine[xviii]

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu began to patronize the shrine as the Tokugawa family came down to their beautiful palace where the river met the bay. In its time, it must have been a gorgeous villa with a spectacular view of the sea.

Iemitsu called for a secondary shrine to be created. That shrine was called 若宮牛嶋神社 Wakamiya Ushima Jinja Wakamiya Ushima Shrine[xix]. It is a 20 minute walk from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine. During the shrines’ festival on 9/15, the kami is carried in a 神輿 mikoshi portable shrine from Ushima Shrine in Mukōjima to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine in Honjo.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

Sadly, both shrines were completely destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. For some reason, the main shrine was relocated and rebuilt a little bit south at its present location[xx]. In the Meiji Period, the rank of the shrine was officially demoted by the government to the status of 郷社 gōsha village shrine[xxi]. Like many shrines and temples that didn’t fully recover after the earfquake and/or WWII, Ushijima Shrine is clearly a shadow of its former glory. But it’s not as dismal as, say, Shiogama Shrine, and its summer festival still draws substantial crowds.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

As for the place name, Ushima has all but vanished from Tōkyō’s civil administration and postal code system. Mukōjima and Honjo have superseded officially. But today the shrine sits in the shade enjoying its quiet solitude. It eschews the modern writing, 牛島 Ushima, for the pre-Modern writing, 牛嶋 Ushima. While the city has moved on and Sensō-ji has grown in fame and Tōkyō Skytree has become yet another symbol of a city replete with symbols, Ushima Shrine proudly holds on to its former glory as the protector of the people on the east bank of the Sumida River.If you’re interested further reading, I have related articles:

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[i] Could be “ox” island, too. The Japanese is ambiguous.
[ii] The name 浅草 Asakusa is without a doubt much older than 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple (literally, Asakusa Temple). See my article on Asakusa.
[iii] This is why the 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace was built by the shōguns here – they had plenty of space for private villa.
[iv] And presumably later, too.
[v] Because syllables are hard.
[vi] Depending on what you consider the foundational act. See my article on Asakusa.
[vii] He is best known in Japan by his 諡号 shigō (okurigō) posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. His name as a monk was 円仁 Ennin.  He was born into the 壬生氏 Mibu-shi Mibu clan of 下野国 Shimozuke no Kuni Shimozuke Province which is modern day 栃木県 Tochigi-ken Tochigi Prefecture. Jikaku Daishi means Great Teacher of Merciful Enlightenment (satori).
[viii] Kami isn’t a word that translates easily into English. The English language has spent most of its life with a Judeo-Christian backdrop, ie; Abrahamic monotheism. If you want to understand more about the concept of kami, here is a good place to start.
[ix] Read more about the policy here.
[x] This is a totally unrelated article, but I talk about the Kōshin faith in my article on Gohongi.
[xi] Another reading is Ushi Gozen-ja. The name means something like “revered shrine in front of the cows.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the etymology of the original shrine name, but the area’s name of Ushima seems to have had much more influence than the name of the shrine.
[xii] The few surviving documents only list the 年号 nengō era name 貞観年間 Jōgan nenkan (859-879). I rarely use nengō on this site, but here’s Wiki’s explanation of them.
[xiii] Tutelary deity/tutelary kami means a deity who looks out for your best interests and protects you.
[xiv] See my article on Suijin.
[xv] Here’s the Wiki on him.
[xvi] Sometimes rendered as Ama no Hohi no Mikoto.
[xvii] Check out the story here.
[xviii] In Japanese they say 胡麻刷り goma suri brown nosing. In this case, the shōgunate was placating the increasingly irrelevant 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto.
[xix] 若宮 wakamiya mean “young prince” and often indicates an auxiliary shrine.
[xx] If you walk a bit north, there is a commemorative sign that marks the original location of the shrine.
[xxi] That means, it wasn’t the tutelary kami of the Honjo area – presumably because it was absorbed into the Mukōjima area.

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