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What does Nagata-chō mean?

In Japanese History on March 9, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Nagata-chō (town of the eternal fields, but more at “Nagata Town”)


The other day, I was riding the 南北線 Nanboku-sen Nanboku Line and looked at the list of stations. I realized that I’d written articles about almost every station on the line. In fact, I even covered the name of the train line itself! But there was one glaring exception. Today, I plan to remedy that situation.

nanboku line

Nanboku Line Stations – except for 4, I’ve more or less covered everything. Today the undone shall become 3.

Today, we’re talking about Nagata-chō. This place name is synonymous with the Japanese government. As an American, I want to say it’s the Japanese equivalent of Washington DC, but maybe Downing Street in London is a closer analogy[i]. In this area, near 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle (present day 皇居 Kōkyo the Imperial Palace), you can find the 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet, which is the Japanese Parliament. You can also find the 首相官邸 Shushō Kantei[ii] Prime Minister’s Official Residence. This concentration means the area is inextricably linked with the Japanese government – specifically the post-Edo Period government.

Related Articles:


nagata-cho kurosawa soba

Nagata-chō Kurosawa. The building is about 60 years old and was originally a ryōtei with geisha. Today the restaurant is a famous soba shop with a very traditional vibe.

First Let’s Look at the Kanji


a samurai family name that literally means “eternal fields”

machi, –chō

town, but in Edo has a nuance of “commoner neighborhood” (ie; non-samurai)

Before the Edo Period, not much is known about the area. However, it’s safe to assume that because of the area’s high elevation, this plateau was inhabited by local strongmen for centuries. Once 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo his capital, we really get a clear picture of the area from local maps commissioned by the shōgunate. The name is most definitely a product of the early Edo Period.

nagata no baba san'nō o-tabisho

Nagata no Baba San’nō O-tabisho – this shrine, usually called by its old Buddhist name. San’nō-gū. in the Edo Period, was the final destination of the o-mikoshi (portable shrine) of San’nō Hiei Shrine in Akasaka (or a nearby satellite shrine). This area has always been shitamachi and is located present day Kayaba-chō.

nagata no baba san'nō-gū.jpg

Nagata no Baba San’nō-gū by Andō Hiroshige, aka Hiroshige 2: Electric Boogaloo. Anyways, we’ll talk about what a “baba” is in a minute.

An Elite Area from the Edo Period to Present Day

Due to its proximity to not-yet-shōgun Ieyasu’s castle, the area was soon populated by 旗本 hatamoto his direct retainers. At the same time, daimyō who curried the would-be shōgun’s favor were granted sprawling plots of land in the area for residences that would later come to be called 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residences[iii]. I say they “would come to be called” because the system of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternative attendance[iv] hadn’t been formally implemented yet. But it’s important to keep this in mind because we will see this in the later narrative. Just don’t forget: in the Edo Period, the top of this hill was all elite samurai residences with very close connections to the shōgun and his court at Edo Castle.

takada no baba.jpg

This is Takada no Baba (not Nagata no Baba), but you’ll get the point in a second. Note the samurai riding horses in the upper left and the archery targets on the track below that.

On this hill, there was a field reserved for high ranking samurai to practice horse riding[v]. This kind of field was called a 馬場 baba which literally means “horse place.” One of the first families in the area was a hatamoto family who lived in a large residence across the street from the baba. Their name was the 永田家 Nagata-ke Nagata family. As a result, the riding grounds were commonly known as the 永田馬場 Nagata no Baba Nagata Horse Riding Grounds. In a very broad sense, the name Nagata no Baba/Nagata Baba came to be associated with the area in general.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a commoner district that came to be called 永田町 Nagata-chō Nagata Town taking its name from the prestigious samurai neighborhood at the top of the hill[vi].

kato kiyomasa.jpg

Fashion victim Katō Kiyomasa and his ridiculous hat.

Shitty Samurai

One of the first daimyō to move into the area was 加藤清正 Katō Kiyomasa who is most famous for supporting Tokugawa Ieyasu by also hating Ieyasu’s rival, 石田三成 Ishida Mitsunari, and just sitting around in Kyūshū with his dick in his hand when the 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara went down in 1600. As we all know, the Battle of Sekigahara was a decisive Tokugawa victory that pretty much landed Ieyasu the title of shōgun.

For his bravery in avoiding the battle and his loyal support in name only, Ieyasu ensured Kiyomasa’s control of 熊本城 Kumamoto-jō Kumamoto Castle and granted him a large swath of land (the present day National Diet Park) to build the upper residence of 熊本藩 Kumamoto Han Kumamoto Domain.

update: My friend Rekishi no Tabi correctly pointed out that I oversimplified Kiyomasa’s role in Sekigahara. I did this for the sake of the narrative (ie; I decided it wasn’t relevant to the story). If you want to see an excerpt of our conversation, check the very end of the footnotes.

tokugawa iemitsu.jpg

Tokugawa Iemitsu, the 3rd shōgun

Ieyasu died in 1616. The second shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, began cutting off ties with other nations and made it clear that the new Edo based shōgunate increasingly expected daimyō to come to Edo. He died in 1632.

徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shōgun, was elevated to the position in 1623 (while Hidetada held the role of 大御所 ōgosho retired shōgun). He was half-enlightened ruler/half-Prince Joffrey and 2 of his policies would define the Edo Period, sending ripples through the fabric of Japanese culture that are still felt today. The first policy was effectively closing off Japan from the rest of the world[vii]. The second was formally enacting sankin-kōtai in 1635.

In this transition from Hidetada to Iemitsu, the shōgunate started to do a lot of house cleaning to ensure Tokugawa hegemony. Old daimyō, former generals, and their kids who were old enough to remember the option of violent land grabs, overthrowing their superiors, or freely trading with foreigners and cozying up with Christians were fair game for an elite purge that usually doesn’t get discussed a lot.


Shittier Samurai

So anyways, as I said, Katō Kiyomasa set up an embassy in Edo to have close access to Ieyasu. His son, 加藤忠広 Katō Tadahiro, succeeded him and continued to serve the shōgun as his father had.

Then something went terribly wrong. Accusations flew around that Tadahiro was “mismanaging” both his retainers and Kumamoto Domain. Supposedly he didn’t like the increased pressure to attend the shōgun in Edo (which, by the way, is a fucking long way away from Kumamoto). It also didn’t help that he had supposedly become really chummy with 徳川 忠長 Tokugawa Tadanaga, younger brother of shōgun Iemitsu[viii]. “Supposedly” their mother, 江 Gō[ix], favored Tadanaga for the position of shōgun despite the precedent of the first born son becoming the family head; as a result Iemitsu despised him and eventually ordered him to commit 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide in 1634.

go hime

This is a rare actual photograph of Iemitsu’s mother, Gō. She ran everywhere and if she wasn’t running, she required a group of no less than 10 maidservants to sit in front of her waving folding fans to ensure her hair was constantly blowing in the breeze.

At any rate, before Tadanaga met his untimely demise, a document that is considered a forgery today was provided to the shōgunate as evidence of Katō Tadahiro’s complicity in a rebellion of some sort against Tokugawa Iemitsu. In light of his alleged opposition to recent policies, he was purged from the most elite level of the Tokugawa government in 1632. His family’s rank was reduced from daimyō to hatamoto, his stipend was drastically reduced, the Katō upper residence was confiscated, and to this day you’re actually legally allowed to kick anyone named Katō in the shin whenever you meet them because of his grave dishonor[x]. True story.

Control of Kumamoto Castle and Kumamoto Domain was then handed over to the 細川家 Hosokawa-ke Hosokawa clan who held the territory until the end of Edo Period.

kumamoto castle

Kumamoto Kastle™

So What Happened to the Katō Mansion in Edo?

The Katō mansion on the top of the hill near Nagata no Baba was assigned to the 井伊家 Ii-ke Ii clan who were long time Tokugawa supporters and controlled 彦根藩 Hikone Han Hikone Domain in modern day 滋賀県 Shiga-ken Shiga Prefecture. Just for a little added comparison to the Katō, please know that the Ii provided major support for Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara and this made them a very important family to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family and their hegemony. In terms of the historical narrative that the Tokugawa shōgunate was writing, the Katō were nothing – the Ii were legends.

Ii Residence recreation.jpg

Recreation of the main gate of the Ii upper residence for the 2012 Sakurada Gate Incident which spectacularly recreated the assassination of Ii Naosuke and yamanote urban planning and architecture and went on to spectacularly fail at story telling. But, yeah, the first 40 minutes of the movie are amazing.

1853, the Americans Try to Force the Country Open

So, more than 200 years of ice cream and puppy dogs (better known as the Edo Period) had gone by[xi]. Everything was awesome until a fat American named Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Edo Bay in 1853 with some of the most advanced warships of the day demanding that Japan open up to foreign trade. The shōgunate and the domains collectively freaked out. Xenophobic samurai opposed opening up the country and threw a culture rocking temper tantrum known as the Bakumatsu.


The Black Ships

Fast forward to 1858. The Ii family had always maintained very close relations with the Tokugawa Shōgun Family, but their shining moment was when 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke, the 15th lord of Hikone Domain, was elevated to a the rare rank of 大老 tairō shōgunal regent. He essentially ruled in the name of the 14th shōgun, 徳川家茂 Tokugawa Iemochi, who was too young to rule at a time of crisis.

Today, Naosuke is best known because of the 桜田門外の変 Sakuradamon-gai no Hen Sakuradamon Incident in 1860. That’s when he was assassinated by a goon squad of 芋侍 imo-zamurai country samurai from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[xii]. At the time, Naosuke and his entourage were en route from Hikone Domain’s upper residence near Nagata no Baba to Edo Castle’s 桜田御門 Sakurada Go-mon Sakurada Gate (called Sakuradamon today).


This well was located on the Hikone Domain’s upper residence, it was moved 10 meters in 1968 to the present location.

After the Edo Period

After the relatively peaceful surrender of Edo Castle and the shōgun’s capital in 1868, the daimyō were sent back to their respective domains. Although many daimyō residences were initially kept intact and repurposed for new government bureaus, the majority of them were torn down. This meant that much of the great 山手 yamanote high city real estate was ripe for rebuilding.

lost yamanote

Edo’s lost High City

In 1872 (Meiji 5), a place name 永田町 Nagata-chō was officially created. Because of its proximity to the emperor, who was currently squatting at former Edo Castle[xiii], the area became the center of the most powerful echelons of the military and government, mostly led by former samurai of 薩摩藩 Satsuma Han Satsuma Domain and 長州藩 Chōshū Han Chōshū Domain – the domains who led the Meiji Coup.

Prior to 1945, in Nagata-chō you could find the 大日本帝国陸軍省 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugunshō Department of the Army of the Empire of Japan, the 大日本帝国参謀本部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Sanbō Honbu General Staff Headquarters of the Empire of Japan, the 大日本帝国教育総監部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kyōiku Sōkanbu Inspectorate General of Military Training of the Empire of Japan, and the 大日本帝国陸軍航空総監部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun Kōkū Sōkanbu Inspectorate General of Aviation of the Empire of Japan.

Department of the Army

The military center of the Empire of Japan

department of war

The building is often referred to the Department of War since all the major branches were located here. The photo is taken from Sakuradamon, note the castle walls on the right.

general staff office

Same view from an ukiyo-e style post card that says it’s the General Staff Headquarters.

The Prime Minister’s Residence

Prior to 1929, the Prime Minister[xiv] lived in a modest western style, 2 story wooden house to the north of the current location called the 太政大臣官舎 Daijō Daijin Kansha Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Japan, usually just called the 官邸 Kantei today. This building was destroyed in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. Between 1923 and 1929, I’m not sure where they lived, but I suspect they just lived in their own homes. In 1929, a new 2 story, art deco building with ample office space for staff was built. Japanese prime ministers used this same building until the early 2000’s, when it was torn down to build the present 5 story structure. Interestingly, during the construction of the new residence, the stone foundations and some other remains of the upper residence of 村上藩 Murakami Han Murakami Domain were discovered[xv].

former prime minister's house

Main building of the 1929-2002 Kantei

kantei now.JPG

Main building of the current Kantei

japanese house.jpg

The property is extensive and the PM has a proper residence for his family. In the Meiji Period it was a Japanese style house (originally the residence of the Nabeshima clan of Saga Domain. This house wasn’t built by a daimyō, but by Marquis Nabeshima – as opposed to Marquis Star. See what I did there, eh?


In the 1930’s a mixed Japanese style and western style residence was built. The private family residence has taken on many forms over the years. Interestingly, current PM Abe Shinzō refused to bring his family to the present house. Many speculate it’s because of tales of ghosts of the Imperial Army said to haunt the property.

The Japanese Diet Building

The current 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet Building was completed in 1936 and this is when Nagata-chō truly came to be thought of the political heart of Japan[xvi]. However, the site of Japan’s main deliberative government body wasn’t always located at this spot and is it’s actually a bit of a complicated story.

1st diet.jpg

The 1st Diet Building

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why is Japan’s parliament called a “diet?” In short, when the Meiji Government was deciding on how to translate their new emperor-centric institutions, they found themselves drawn to the examples of Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleonic France because they were also emperor-centric states[xvii]. The word “diet” actually derives from the Medieval Latin word diæta which meant something like a “daily assembly.” Later in French, the word diete took on a meaning of “daily rations” which is where the modern English “to go on a diet” comes from. Anyhoo, the word diet was used to refer to Prussia et alii’s governing bodies and the Japanese thought words like “diet” and “prefecture” were the best ways to translate 2 of their new western-style administrative constructs[xviii].


The 2nd Diet Building (used from 1891-1925)

In 1890, a temporary 2 story, wooden, western style assembly building was built in 日比谷 Hibiya – also near the Imperial Palace. The building burned down and a slightly larger building of roughly the same design was erected in 1891. The building was called the 大日本帝国議会 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Gikai Diet of the Japanese Empire/Imperial Diet and remained in Hibiya until it was severely damaged in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake. However, since the beginning of the Meiji Period until 1945, Imperial Japan was constantly at war with her neighbors to the west, a provisional assembly building was built in Hiroshima. This was the広島臨時仮議事堂 Hiroshima Rinji Kari-Gijidō Hiroshima Provisional (temporary) Diet built to be closer to the action of the 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō First Sino-Japanese War which took place from 1894 to 1895 (Meiji 27-Meiji 28).


The Hiroshima Provisional Diet Building

After the Great Kantō Earfquake, the current site in Nagata-chō was chō chō chosen[xix]. But the project seems to have been badly managed. Between 1923 and 1936, the whole issue of getting parliament to meet while they built the current building was a total clusterfuck[xx]. Some workers even accidentally burned down the building while it was still under construction and they had to more or less start over again from scratch.


The 1936 current Diet Building

As I said earlier, the current diet building was finished in 1936 and looks like it. And by that, I mean it looks like dignified cement and stone state building of the Soviet Era[xxi], which is really a shame because they had been planning on using this location since the 1880’s. Some parts of the building, particularly certain sections of the interior feature some expertly crafted relief work, but… well, to each their own.

The one positive thing I can say about the Diet Building and its pyramid style middle arch is this: from the 1880’s, the Meiji Government set out to make an impressive urban landscape that displayed Tōkyō’s importance as the leading city in Asia. The notion of a 参道 sandō an approach to a shrine is very much present. Approaching a shrine, a samurai’s house, even a teahouse was seen as setting the stage for what would happen next – it creates a sense of ceremony, protocol, and respect that is inherently Japanese. The Diet Building actually achieved this. It sat at the top of a hill near the Imperial Palace and you had to approach formally using a long, uphill driveway. At the top of the hill was an impressive modern building whose center of focus was a pyramid shaped centerpiece that towered over the city.


The Diet Building about the time of the ’64 Olympics. Without other tall buildings or skyscrapers, it’s easy to recognize the classic yamanote characteristics: hills overlooking the city, spacious estates, and sprawling gardens/greenery. Until recently, the building must have been an impressive sight visible from all over the city on days that weren’t bogged down by Shōwa Smog™.

I’m sure it was really impressive until all the skyscrapers went up. Today, the Diet Building is eclipsed by high rise apartments and office buildings. Its location on a hill that used to be one of the most elite neighborhoods of the Edo Period is a nuance that has been lost to the history books… or in this case, relegated to the history blogs.

That said, everything we’ve learned about today is based on stuff I’ve read. I’ve actually never been to the Diet Building – despite working near it for ages. Because of this, I’ve added something new to my “to do” list: go to the Diet; take loads of pictures for the blog, and do a proper history walk of Nagata-chō. This one needs to be on my bucket list[xxii].

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[i] Neither are perfect analogies by a long shot, but c’mon.
[ii] It’s also called the 総理大臣官邸 Sōri Daijin Kantei Prime Minister’s Official Residence. 総理大臣 Sōri Daijin refers specifically to the Japanese Prime Minister. The prime minister of another country is called 首相 shushō. 官邸 kantei just means official residence.
[iii] The upper residence was essentially an “embassy” from the 藩 han domains that dealt directly with the affairs of the shōgunate and also the affairs of their own domain from afar. Read my article on sankin-kōtai here.
[iv] Here’s my article on sankin-kōtai.
[v] Low ranking samurai and non-samurai were forbidden to ride horses.
[vi] In Edo, non-samurai districts were generally suffixed with 町 chō/machi which just means town. The nuance is distinctly non-samurai, though. Perhaps this is why the Meiji Government, which abolished the samurai class, chose to go with this suffix rather than perpetuating baba in the place name. Just a conjecture on my part.
[vii] Except a limited set of trade partners.
[viii] This is a totally different story, but Wiki has an article about him. Keep in mind, there seems to be a bit of a mystery surrounding Tadanaga and his unfortunate demise.
[ix] The wife of the 2nd shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, is known by many names: 江 Gō, 小督 Ogō, 江与 Eyo. She’s usually referred to in English by the latter with an honorific prefix: お江与 O-eyo. In Japanese, she’s usually referred to by the name she took when she retired as a Buddhist priest, 崇源院 Sūgen-in. However, recently, in casual conversation most people called her 江姫 Gō-hime Princess Gō because of the 2011 NHK Taiga Drama, 江〜姫たちの戦国〜 Gō: Himetachi no Sengoku, which popularized her for a minute.
[x] I sincerely hope you know I’m joking. Please don’t kick anyone – Japanese or otherwise – in the shin.
[xi] Alright, it wasn’t all ice cream and puppy dogs, but it was the most stable period Japan had known for years.
[xii] The samurai of Mito were indoctrinated in a particular philosophy called 水戸学 Mito Gaku Mito Learning. The redux of this philosophy in the 1850’s-1860’s was that emperor was a living god and the shōgun’s rank was a gift of the emperor. The last shōgun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was actually from Mito and was very familiar with this mode of thought. Here’s a little background on Mito Gaku.
[xiii] When the city was renamed, the castle was also renamed: 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle. Later it came to be called the 皇城 Kōjō Emperor’s Castle and after that it became the 宮城 Kyūjō which literally means “emperor’s castle” but was translated as “the Imperial Palace.”
[xiv] The term Prime Minister is a much more recent term. Prior to the End of WWII, this position was often translated as Supreme Chancellor, Grand Minister, or something like this because of the peerage system. The Japanese was 太政大臣 Daijō Daijin Chancellor of the Realm, a term of the imperial court that dates back to the Heian Period.
[xv] Murakami Domain was located in modern day 新潟県 Niigata-ken Niigata Prefecture.
[xvi] Prior to this it was thought of as the military center of the Empire of Japan – at least in the post-Tokugawa eras.
[xvii] I touched on this in my article Why does Japan have Prefectures?
[xviii] Besides Germany, I think Japan is the only country that still uses the word “diet.” The German parliament is called the Bundestag which literally means “federal day” and echoes the Medieval Latin reference to “daily assembly” and is rendered in to English as “Federal Diet.”
[xix] For those of you who don’t know, this is a reference to The Simpsons.
[xx] Think about this timeline a little. When the original wooden structure burned down in 1890, they had a bigger and badder structure rebuilt by 1891 that lasted until the 1920’s. But it took them 16 years to build the modern cement structure.
[xxi] A style of architecture still alive and kicking in North Korea today.
[xxii] Because “having a threesome with Kashiyuka and Nocchi from Perfume” is becoming an increasingly impossible dream.

Note about Katō Kiyomori just standing around with his dick in his hand: Quoting directly from Rekishi no Tabi: “Sekigahara coincided with two other major planned campaigns, one in Tōhoku led by the Date (East side) vs Uesugi (West) and the other campaign was in Kyūshū where the Katō and Kuroda fought on the East side against Mitsunari’s pals. Katō’s most hated rival, Konishi Yukinaga, occupied the southern half of Higo. Kiyomasa, of course, invaded and unified the province. Most importantly, the fact [that] he was ready to pounce on Yukinaga’s fief tied up the bulk of his army, which otherwise would have gone off to Sekigahara. Also, the Shimazu were hesitant to commit forces to Mitsunari with Kiyomasa menacing so close by. Thus, the Shimazu contingent at Sekigahara was relatively small in comparison to their overall force size. Kiyomasa’s troops were without a doubt the most effective fighting force the Japanese landed in Korea. Kiyomasa was the one general who the Ming and Koreans feared the most. So, dick in hand in Kyūshū … Nah. Way off.”

He’s absolutely correct, but none of this relates to the story of Nagata-chō and would have been a huuuuuuuuuge tangent that I didn’t want to go down (the article was already 8 pages in MS Word). But for the history of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and, by extension, the history of Edo-Tōkyō, it’s important to know that Ieyasu didn’t quite trust Kiyomasa because of his connection with Toyotomi Hideyoshi – a point that Rekishi no Tabi also brought up:  “But there are plenty of stories that Ieyasu had him poisoned… It was all supposed to be a part of Ieyasu’s patient plan to destroy the Katō. Iemitsu finished what granddaddy started.”

My response: “Like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader.”

What does Umayabashi mean?

In Japanese History on December 22, 2015 at 1:29 am

厩橋 Umayabashi  (stable/barn bridge)

o-umayabashi now

This triple arched green bridge is Umayabashi. If I’ve got my bearing right, the left side is the west bank (ie; Asakusa/Taitō Ward) and the right side is the east bank (ie; Honjo, Sumida Ward).

I’m really, really sorry for the delay getting this article out. I had a problem with my internet connection at home for about 2 weeks and literally couldn’t do any work[i]. Man, 2 weeks without internet is a horrible experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Well, maybe on Donald Trump or those assholes in ISIS. I really don’t like them.


厩橋 Umayabashi is a bridge that crosses the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[ii]. It connects 台東区蔵前二丁目 Taitō-ku Kuramae 2-chōme 2nd block of Kuramae, Taitō Ward and 東区駒形二丁目 Taitō-ku Komagata 2-chōme 2nd block of Komagata, Taitō Ward on the west bank with 墨田区本所一丁目 Sumida-ku Honjo 1-chōme 1st block of Honjo, Sumida Ward on the east bank.

The word is made of 2 kanji.

umaya, maya
(baya in some dialects)
barn, stable
(this kanji is extremely rare today)


There’s one more kanji we will encounter.

o-, on-, go-
an honorific prefix used in polite speech, but historically also used to refer to possessions of the shōgunate and the imperial court.

On-mayagashi (O-umaya Coast) – note the ferry service. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

The Etymology

The name derives from 御厩 O-umaya. The kanji were read as おんまや On-maya and おうまや O-umaya in the Edo Period. Both readings are acceptable, but the former seems more imperial, while the latter appears more shōgunal – or at the very least, it appears more Edoesque. The name is a reference to a short lived stable owned by the Tokugawa Shōgunate. As mentioned earlier, 厩 umaya means stable. 御厩 o-umaya/on-maya are honorific forms of the same word. Any possessions of the shōgun were generally given the honorific prefix 御 go/o[iii]. The exact location of the shōgunate’s stables is unclear today, but they were most likely located on the west side of the river in Kuramae/Komagata[iv].

The horses stabled in this area were not magical samurai war horses[v]. In fact, because the shōgunate restricted horse use to only high ranking samurai, you couldn’t just ride a horse through the city. The horses at O-umaya were merely pack horses used by the granary at 御倉 O-kura the great rice warehouse from which 大名 daimyō feudal lords and 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun were paid their stipends. At that time, Asakusa was a bustling suburb – that is, on the outskirts of Edo – while the east side of the river was generally rural. However, this particular stretch of the river was urbanized[vi] on both sides. 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō palaces and a detached palace of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family were located in this area[vii]. Fruit markets and vegetables markets existed on the quays, shōgunal storehouses lined the river, and warehouses of various daimyō dominated the alleyways.

If you’re scratching your head, check out these related articles later:

Umaya Coast

O-umaya Coast during a rainstorm.

Not so much a Place Name as a few Place Names

You’d think that the landholdings of the shōgun would loom large in the historical record, but the O-umaya’s existence seems to have been so short lived or so mundane that little is known about it. However, the place name seems to have been commonplace by 1690, the 10th year of the reign of the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. That year of the “golden age” of the shōgunate, a ferry crossing was established in the area. It was named 御厩之渡し O-umaya no Watashi O-umaya Crossing. The quay on the west bank of the river was referred to as 御厩河岸 On-maya-gashi or O-umaya-kagan the O-umaya Riverbank[viii].

asakusa-gawa shubinomatsu onmayagashi

O-umaya and the Asakusa section of the Sumida River at night.

Meanwhile, on the East Bank of the River

While people occasionally traveled from the west bank to the east, most of the traffic consisted of country merchants or rich farmers from the east bank seeking the pleasures of Edo. A good deal of them took the ferry to make religious pilgrimages to 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple in 浅草 Asakusa, but that was largely an excuse to indulge in the exotic and erotic delights of the 吉原 Yoshiwara, Edo’s licensed red light district. And even though the country bumpkins loved a little drinking and whoring when they had the time, the reality was that the samurai on sankin-kōtai duty in the barracks located on the east bank were the biggest spenders. The ferry services were all for hire, but few ferry services charged samurai. This was out of the commoners respect for their social superiors as there was a legally sanctioned chance of being killed for insulting a samurai’s honor[ix]. In Star Wars terminology, this is called the “let the Wookie win” defense.

asakusa-gawa shubinomatsu onmayagashi

O-umaya and the Asakusa section of the Sumida River at night.

On the east bank of the river, there had also been a rural palace of the Tokugawa shōguns known as 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten the Sumida River Palace[x]. The elite, rural side of the river was lined with 桜の木 sakura no ki cherry blossom trees and by 1872 (Meiji 5), it seems to have become a hot spot for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing in the spring. That particular year experienced a rush of Edoites from the west bank who wanted to see the cherry blossoms of 向島 Mukōjima on the east bank. A ferry loaded beyond capacity departed from O-umaya and soon capsized. The cold and rapid currents of the Sumida swept the boat and its passengers downstream. Many of the revelers drowned as few could overcome the force of the river in their heavy, early spring 着物 kimono and 羽織 haori traditional jackets worn with kimono. The incidence prompted quick action from the government.


The O-umaya Ferry

These kinds of accidents had happened quite often since the Meiji Coup in 1868 because of the unprecedented ease of travel that the liberalism of the new imperial government afforded. But tragedies like this were excuses to further modernization[xi]. Ferry service was temporarily halted and construction of a bridge was begun slightly downstream. Finally, in 1874 (Meiji 7), a traditional Japanese-style wooden bridge was opened for service called 厩橋 Umayabashi Umaya Bridge[xii]. The paid ferry service soon ended as the bridge was free to cross on foot[xiii].


The Meiji Era wooden bridge


In 1893 (Meiji 26), a steel bridge was built to replace the traditional wooden bridge in order to accommodate trains and automobile traffic. It was finished in 1895 (Meiji 28). The current bridge is a much more stable construction that replaced the first steel bridge following the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. Interestingly, the modern bridge only allows automobile and pedestrian traffic. No trains cross it these days, though the 都営大江戸線 Toei Ōedo-sen Toei Ōedo Line, a subway, passes nearby. The bridge is nothing special today – just one of many bridges that cross Edo’s former 大川 Ōkawa Great River.


The Meiji Era steel bridge. Note it is divided into 3 segments like the modern bridge.

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[i] On the bright side, I was able to plow through a pretty epic book. I hope to have a review for you before New Year’s.
[ii] The river was known by different names at different locales throughout its windy path. Sumida River referred to a very specific stretch of the river. Prior to the Meiji Period, the bulk of the river was referred to as the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River or the Big River. This is a name not unlike that of the Mississippi, which derives from a Native American dialect word that means “Great River.” I don’t know anything about Native American languages or dialects, but this is what Wikipedia has to say about the language group.
[iii] Refer to my article on O-daiba and my article on Kuramae.
[iv] 駒形 Komagata literally means “horse shaped,” but apparently this place name is from the 800’s and is actually a reference to 馬頭観音 Batō Kannon/Mezu Kannon, the Japanese version of हयग्रीव Hayagrīva. I’m not an expert in Buddhism or Hinduism, but for whatever reason the first kanji means “horse.” At nearby 浅草寺 Sensō-ji, you can see a structure called the 駒形堂 Komagata-dō. This is mostly likely where the place name Komagata comes from. The presence of a stable belonging to the shōgunate is most likely a coincidence.
[v] The magical samurai warhorses, as everyone knows, were stabled at your mom’s house.
[vi] Or, more accurately, “suburbanized.” Is that a word?
[vii] More about that in a bit.
[viii] The former, Onmaya-gashi represented in 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting daily life in Edo-Tōkyō. The latter, seems more logical considering other place names, including 大森海岸 Ōmori Kaigan Ōmori Coast (see article on Ōmori here). Also, the most basic rules of reading kanji in modern Japanese tend to favor “kagan/gagan” over “kashi/gashi.” So, Onmaya-gashi may be an affectation.
[ix] Under the Tokugawa Shōgunate’s rules, a practice commonly called 切捨て御免 kirisute go-men, which means “an excuse for killing and discarding someone” existed. The idea was a samurai was more educated and at the top of the hierarchy so if you caused some affront to him, he could kill you on the spot and in the following investigation claim his social status as an excuse. Whether the courts of Edo bought it or not, the samurai would be freed or asked to perform 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide. The suicide option was considered more dignified than execution.
[x] I discussed the palace briefly in my article on Mukōjima.
[xi] I’m not using excuse in a light way here, either. The more lives saved, the better. But with western technology, we see the chipping away at Edo. The old city begins to disappear.
[xii] Note the honorific kanji 御 o was removed for the new bridge name. This was a deliberate move by the imperial government to eradicated traces of the shōgunate from the shōgun’s former capital.
[xiii] Surely, you could walk across the river faster than fight the downstream current on a small boat.

What does Baji Kōen mean?

In Japanese History on February 17, 2015 at 6:40 am

Baji Kōen (Equestrian Park – but literally, “horse thing park”)

Enough with the horses already!

Enough with the horses already!

Just when you thought I was finished with Setagaya and its inexplicable horse fetish… Just when I promised you, dear reader, that I wouldn’t come back to this part of Tōkyō for a long time… I’m back.

Sorry. Apparently I lied.

Make it stop!

Make it stop!

The other day I was talking to a lifelong resident of 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward and told her about my research into all of those horse-related place names. She only knew 下馬 Shimouma and 上馬 Kamiuma, but then quickly pointed out that I’d missed a place near her home. Half disheartened and half intrigued I decided I needed to add this one last place just for consistency. Luckily, it wasn’t a difficult one.

She was referring to a park called 馬事公苑 Baji Kōen which is easy to understand from the kanji, but a little difficult to translate into English[i]. First let’s look at the kanji and then talk about how weird the name is, shall we?

uma, ma, ba

koto, ji
things, matters, business, affairs, events

, ku

en, sono

As I said, reading the kanji isn’t particularly difficult and guessing the meaning isn’t either. This would seem to be a “public park” where “horse things” went down. The interesting this is that 馬事 baji “horse things” isn’t a Japanese word in so far as I can find. The usual word used to refer to equestrian skills is 馬術 bajutsu, literally “horse techniques.” The second thing is that the usual word for “park” is 公園 kōen, but in this name the second kanji is replaced with the rarer 苑 en. The most famous area in Tōkyō that uses this kanji is the park, 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen. A gyoen is an imperial park[ii]. The writing used for this park, 公苑 kōen, seems pretty rare. It doesn’t appear in any dictionary I have access to and just to put things into perspective, if you google the usual writing, 公園 kōen, you’ll get 179 million hits. If you google this weird writing, you’ll only get 3 million.

Where's my flogging stick?

Where’s my flogging stick?

So Is This Poetic License or Something?

Not quite. And while I can’t explain the 馬事 baji part, I think I can explain the 公苑 kōen part. In 1934, this rural area was purchased by the 帝国競馬協会 Teikoku Keiba Kyōkai Imperial Horse Racing Society[iii]. The land lay fallow until 1939 when a race track and then an equestrian training and practice ground were built. The park was opened in 1940. The original name of the site was the 修練場 Shūrenba which just means practice grounds. After the war, in 1954, the park received its modern name.

The distinction isn’t really acknowledged in contemporary Japanese, but in the olden days the kanji used for parks, 園 en and 苑 en, referred to slightly different kinds of spaces. 園 en was used for spaces dedicated strictly to vegetation (let’s say flōra), whereas 苑 en was a space that also included animal life (let’s say flōra and fauna)[iv]. The old park had – of course – horses and stables, but also peacocks[v] and guinea fowl. The original space had been associated with the Japanese Empire, and so even though it wasn’t a 御苑 gyoen imperial park, it had some imperial stink in its pink – at least enough that the park administration thought that the using the kanji 苑 en was justified.

2 guys dressed like samurai racing Sarah Jessica Parkers in Baji Kōen.

2 guys dressed like samurai racing Sarah Jessica Parkers in Baji Kōen.

OK, So What Is This Place Today?

As I mentioned before, it was originally for training horses, racing horses, and other equestrian activities. In 1954, it was renamed 馬事公苑 Baji Kōen – the park’s current name, but the site was chosen by the 1964 Tōkyō Metropolitan Olympic Committee to serve as the 馬術競技開催 bajutsu kyōgikaisai equestrian exhibition site. The park was home to all of the equestrian events of the ’64 Olympics including the ridiculous “sport” of dressage, where humans force horses to do stupid things like tap dance in rhythm. Sadly, the seriously difficult martial art of riding on a running horse while shooting targets with a bow and arrow called 流鏑馬 yabusame is not an Olympic sport. Yes, you read that correctly, making a horse “tap dance” and do all the work is an Olympic sport. Horseback archery is not. Go figure[vi].

The 1964 Olympic Equestrian Exhibition

The 1964 Olympic Equestrian Exhibition

Today the park is actually a group of parks. The premises include a 庭園 teien – what you probably imagine when you hear the words “Japanese garden.” So if you want to take in some traditional Japanese beauty, you apparently can do that here. And while the park seems to be most famous for horses, actually the place is mostly frequented by locals who want to relax in nature or have quiet lunch among the flowers and trees. I spoke with a co-worker today who said he lives 10 minutes from the Baji Kōen and he said it’s a great place to take his kid.

Map of the park.

Map of the park.

A large amount of the park grounds are dedicated to horse riding activities. In the warmer months, there are special equestrian performances. Some areas are open to both pedestrians and horses, so there are signs warning that you might “meet a horse,” so be careful not to get run over.

See? I wasn't kidding about the horse meet and greet.

See? I wasn’t kidding about the horse meet and greet.

There are purportedly many 桜 sakura cherry blossom trees in the park, so it’s a favorite spot for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing for residents of Setagaya. I’ve been in Tōkyō for 10 years and I love hanami like a motherfucker but this park has never come under my radar until now. I may have to check it out.

Get drunk and ride horses! Now that's what I call hanami!

Get drunk and ride horses! Now that’s what I call hanami!

Oh, and get this. Next to the park there is a small museum dedicated to 進化生物学 shinka seibutsugaku evolutionary biology[vii]. Longtime readers will know that I looooooooooove watching changes over time. In linguistics, we use the word 通時的 tsūjiteki diachronic. Other disciplines use 進化的 shinkateki evolutionary. Whichever word you use, be it linguistic or biological, the idea of evolution is an idea is at the heart of JapanThis!. Looking at changes over time is fascinating.

Pony lovers!!!!

Pony lovers!!!!

And lastly, for those of you who can’t cram enough hot pony action into your life[viii], the park supposedly offers free pony rides once a month.


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[i] The JRA, who administer the park, render the name into English as Equestrian Park.
[ii] Shinjuku Gyoen was controlled by the imperial from the Meiji Period to the early post war period. It’s not an imperial garden anymore, but it still bears the name.
[iii] Forerunner of the modern 日本競馬会 Nihon Keiba-kai Japan Racing Asssociation (JRA).
[iv] If you don’t know what flōra and fauna are, um… shall I google that for you? (But please tell me you know the phrase or I’ll be really sad).
[v] By the way, what do you call a female peacock? That’s right, a peacunt.
[vi] Then again, the Olympics are fucking retarded. I’ve never been a fan of the over dramatic flair of the whole thing. The opening and closing ceremonies over-pander to the lowest common denominator and there’s not enough outright fucking. Yes, you heard that right. Put more porn into the Olympics and I’m totally onboard.
[vii] I’m a big fan of Richard Dawkins, another person who is so passionate about showing how life and the world changes and adapts.
[viii] There’s always one.

Setagaya and its Freaky Horse Fetish

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 19, 2015 at 2:34 am

What’s Up with Setagaya and Horses?
No, seriously? What’s up wit dat?


Horse girl

So while I was researching my last article on 三軒茶屋 Sangen-jaya, I came across a few interesting place names that I’d never heard of – granted I rarely go to 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[i] — but nonetheless I was obviously intrigued.

I saw a lot of references to horses on the map. “I’ll do all the horse names!” I thought. “Surely they’re all related,” I thought. “I can hit all these place names in one article,” I thought. Then the stories started getting longer and longer. “Did I get myself into another River Article Debacle?” I wondered. I really may have, so I’ve decided to go with the local legends over the hardcore etymology this time just to spare everyone the headache and hopefully to get some good folklore out this.

As I said, the one unifying factor is that all of these place names are horse-related. So let’s take a look at what names we will cover today.



Current Status


horse pulling ravine

This place name survives in abbreviated forms

horse hitching

This place name survives as Komatsunagi Shrine and as an elementary school name


horse stopping

The name survives as Komadome Hachiman Shrine


horse ravine

Survives as a postal code and a university name, etc…


gray haired horse burial mound

The name survives as a landmark

So just let that sink in a little bit before we continue. Take a few seconds to imagine what you think the etymologies might be. Do you think there is any connection? Do you think it’s all a coincidence? If you’re a long time reader and you remember other horse and animal related etymologies, do you think there will be any similarities to those?

These horses are decked out in the latest spring line up from Prada.

These horses are decked out in the latest spring line up from Prada.


OK, Let’s Get Started

I mentioned in the last article, that present day Sangen-jaya is comprised of several former villages. Two of those villages were parts of the 3 areas of a Kamakura Period region called 馬引沢 Umahikizawa.

Kami-Umahikizawa Mura

Upper Umahikizawa Village

Naka-Umahikizawa Mura

Middle Umahikizawa Village

Shimo- Umahikizawa Mura

Lower Umahikizawa Village

This is a similar pattern that we see with the classification of daimyō residences in Edo.


upper residence


middle residence


lower residence

With daimyō residences the designation of upper, middle, and lower seems to refer to their importance in relation to the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The upper residence would be nearer to Edo Castle and is where most of the administrative affairs would be carried out. The lower residence was more like a villa. I give a little more detail in my article on sankin-kōtai.

With place names, things are a little different – these are references to the areas of a village’s location on a river. 上 kami (up) refers an upstream location, 中 naka (middle) refers to a midstream location, 下 shimo (down) refers to a downstream location. In this case, what river might we be speaking of? It’s a river that was called the 蛇崩川 Jakuzure-gawa Jakuzure River. This is a wild name, in my opinion. The kanji mean something like “snake death river.” I dunno. But my guess is the kanji aren’t important to this story, and maybe I’ll tackle them later – but if you’ve got an image of a dangerous river, then great. Let’s take it from there.

Great strategist and general -- but worst horse rider EVER.

Minamoto no Yoritomo. Great strategist and general — but worst horse rider EVER.


What does Umahikizawa mean?

Legend states that in 1189, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo[ii] traveled back and forth on his favorite horse through this area on his military expedition from his capital in 鎌倉 Kamakura to 大州平泉 Ōshū Hiraizumi[iii]. The purpose of the expedition was to destroy 藤原泰衡 Fujiwara no Yasuhira and put an end to the Northern Fujiwara Clan once and for all[iv]. As he approached a deep stream with an extremely fast current[v], his horse became unsure of its footing and hesitated. Yoritomo, who was plagued by a lifelong battle with bad luck in horses[vi], pressed the horse to cross the ravine. The horse tried to proceed but the ground gave out from underneath it and the horse fell into the stream, either breaking its legs or suffering some other fatal injury, despite Yoritomo’s efforts to save his beloved horse. Heartbroken and teary-eyed, the general ordered his men to pull (引く hiku) the horse (馬 uma) out of the ravine (沢 sawa) and bury it on the other side. A variation of this legend states that after the tragic death of his favorite horse, Yoritomo ordered his men to lead (引いて渡る hiite wataru) their horses (馬 uma) across the ravine (沢 sawa) lest they lose their war horses as well. And so the place came to be known as 馬引沢 Umahikizawa horse pulling river.

This is a "sawa" and I bet you wouldn't want to ride a horse across it...

This is a “sawa” and I bet you wouldn’t want to ride a horse across it…

How Does This Place Name Survive?

As the village grew, it came to have 3 distinct quarters. One was upstream, one was midstream, and one was downstream. I showed you these place name earlier. 上馬引沢 Kami-Umahikizawa survives today in abbreviated form as 上馬 Kamiuma “up horse.” 下馬引沢 Shimo-Umahikizawa survives as 下馬 Shimouma “down horse.” These are both official postal addresses, but to the best of my knowledge, 中馬引沢 Naka-Umahikizawa hasn’t survived. But an interesting tidbit, in nearby 多摩市 Tama-shi Tama City, there is an area called 馬引沢 Umahikizawa, but it’s completely unrelated.

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).


What Does Ashige-zuka Mean?

A mere 4 minute walk from Shimouma, there is an oval shaped, earthen mound in the middle of the street called 葦毛塚 Ashige-zuka. This is a compound word composed of two elements: 葦毛 ashige a gray haired horse and 塚 tsuka a mound. Legend claims that this is the spot where Minamoto no Yoritomo’s horse was buried. We’ve talked about burial mounds quite a few times at JapanThis!, but I think this is the first time we’ve had one allegedly built for a horse.

I wasn't kidding. It's literally in the middle of the road!

I wasn’t kidding. It’s literally in the middle of the road!


What does Komatsunagi mean?

If you take an 8 minute walk back to Shimouma and you’ll find a place called 駒繋神社 Komatsunagi Jinja Komatsunagi Shrine. Let’s continue our story there.

As I mentioned before, Minamoto no Yoritomo was cursed with all manner of bad horse luck. Being a typical superstitious 12th century samurai, he took the death of his favorite horse before an important battle[vii] as a terrible omen. After the burial mound was finished, a mysterious woman appeared. She told the general about the local 氏神 ujigami tutelary deity named 子之神 Nenokami[viii]. According to the woman, Nenokami wielded great power in the area and had the ability to exorcise any evil influence from the accident. She led him to a nearby humble, unnamed shrine[ix] dedicated to Nenokami and then disappeared. Yoritomo prayed to the kami and then continued his march north to Ōshū Hiraizumi.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

At Ōshū, Yoritomo’s army crushed the Fujiwara army, thus annihilating his last major obstacle to power. This particular battle paved the way for him to become shōgun[x]. Marching back to Kamakura victorious, he stopped by the Nenokami shrine to give thanks. After all, being a superstitious 12th century samurai, that’s just what you do. Before approaching the shrine, he tied (繋ぐ tsunagu) his horse (駒 koma) to a pine tree (松 matsu)[xi]. He then threw some cash at the local people to build a proper shrine to Nenokami. After that, he proceeded to his capital in Kamakura.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

The tree where he tied his horse came to be known as the 駒繋之松 Komatsunagi no Matsu Horse Hitching Pine and the new improved shrine came to be called Komatsunagi Shrine. If you visit the shrine today, they have a tree that they claim is the 3rd generation of the tree Yoritomo tied his horse to[xii]. Sadly, they never say what happened to the mysterious, disappearing woman.

I want some plot resolution, dammit.

The shrine claims that this is the original pine tree that Yoritomo used.

The shrine claims that this is the original pine tree that Yoritomo used.


What does Komadome mean?

Let’s take a 25 minute walk back to Sangen-jaya[xiii]the article that started all of this – and a 250 year or so jump into the future. Now we’re in the throes of the Sengoku Period – way before the rise of 3 Great Unifiers[xiv]. Edo has been in what you could call a “dark age” ever since the transfer of power from Kamakura back to Kyōto[xv]. Local militarized noble families rise and fall here and there. And among these local nobles, warlords have begun making land grabs and power grabs. Many of these clans come and go, too. One of the ascending powers in Kantō at this time were the 後北条 Go-Hōjō the Late Hōjō[xvi].

So our story is of a somewhat obscure noble who was in the service of the Hōjō, a certain 吉良頼康 Kira Yoriyasu. Much about him is unknown[xvii], but we do know that he served both the 2nd and 3rd successive Hōjō lords, 北条氏綱 Hōjō Ujitsuna and 北条氏康 Hōjō Ujiyasu[xviii]. So while he wasn’t a major player, he was playing with some big time ballers. You can think of him as Jay-Z’s longtime friend who gets invited to parties, but isn’t allowed on the red carpet.

This picture was long said to be Kira Yoriyasu, but recent research suggests that it's actually Takeda Shingen.

This picture was long said to be Kira Yoriyasu, but recent research suggests that it’s actually Takeda Shingen.

If you recall from my article on the etymology of Edo, from the Heian Period to the Kamakura Period this area was controlled by the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo clan太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan took over the Edo clan’s fort in 1457[xix]. Dōkan was a retainer of the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan[xx] and so after his assassination in 1486, the Uesugi assumed direct control of the castle[xxi]. However the castle was of little importance to their clan and so it seems to have been lightly defended – if defended at all. And so, when the Hōjō came into the region, Edo Castle[xxii] fell easily in 1524[xxiii] and one of the generals who followed the Hōjō into Edo was our new friend, Kira Yoriyasu.

The Kira clan had controlled various fiefs in the area since 1366, and Yoriyasu was given control of Setagaya Village sometime around the attack on Edo Castle. He ruled from 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle[xxiv]. Yoriyasu’s appointment didn’t last long because the Uesugi eventually struck back and burned the castle to the ground in 1530 and Yoriyasu was transferred elsewhere[xxv]. However, in his time as the lord of Setagaya, he managed to leave behind a bit of a local legend.

The fringed orchid is often associated with Setagaya Ward because of a version of Yoriyasu's legend. Unfortunately, we're not going to go into that part of the story today.

The fringed orchid is often associated with Setagaya Ward because of a version of Yoriyasu’s legend. Unfortunately, we’re not going to go into that part of the story today.

The legend states that in the women’s quarters of Setagaya Castle, there was a lot of jealous infighting between his 正室 seishitsu legal wife and his 12 側室 sokushitsu concubines[xxvi]. On the day of birth of Yoriyasu’s first son something went terribly wrong.

As was normal for the day, the lord of the estate was out doing his do (hunting, by some accounts) when suddenly his wife went into labor alone[xxvii] – also normal for the day. Tragically, however, the boy was stillborn – meaning the Kira family line could have ended there. To avoid bad luck, the boy was enshrined at nearby 駒留八幡神社 Komadome Hachiman Jinja Komadome Hachiman Shrine. Because of this, the enshrined kami is sometimes referred to as 若宮八幡 Waka-no-miya Hachiman Young Prince Hachiman which could be interpreted as “little warrior.” At any rate, the rumor mill went into full swing that the boy had actually been smothered to death by a jealous concubine[xxviii].

The enshrinement of the stillborn son seems to have benefitted the family, as they continued to hold extensive lands until the 1590’s and the clan continued until the 元禄時代 Genroku Jidai Genroku Period, which coincided with the reign of 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi[xxix]. In the beginning of the Edo Period, the Kira clan was given 旗本 hatamoto status, ie; they became direct retainers of the shōgun family – not bad at all, but they weren’t a daimyō family as is sometimes thought. One of Yoriyasu’s descendant’s was 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke-no-suke[xxx] – the guy usually portrayed as the bad guy in the story of the 47 Rōnin[xxxi]. The family was disgraced and more or less dropped out of history at that point.

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

That’s A Neat Story, But WTF Does It Have To Do With Komadome?

Oh sorry, right. I sorta went off on a tangent there, didn’t I? Actually, the etymology of this shrine doesn’t really have much of a story behind it. It involves a certain samurai courtier of the Kamakura Shōgunate named 北条左近太郎 Hōjō Sakotarō[xxxii]. In 1308, he became a priest and wanted to establish a temple to 八幡 Hachiman the Japanese god of war[xxxiii]. This particular kami was favored by Minamoto no Yoritomo and his shōgunate and so shrines to Hachiman were very popular at this time. According to legend, Hachiman came to Sakotarō in a dream and said, “Dude, listen to your favorite horse and it will totally tell you where to enshrine me.” So he rode east from Kamakura until his exhausted horse (駒 koma) stopped (留まった tomatta) near Setagaya Village and refused to go any further. He totally realized that this was totally the spot. He immediately dismounted his unsurprisingly fatigued horse and decided to build a shrine at that spot and so the shrine is now called 駒留八幡神社 Komadome Hachiman Jinja Komadome Hachiman Shrine – the Hachiman Shrine where the horse totally stopped.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.


What does Komazawa mean?

This is the most boring place name ever – not unlike 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward[xxxiv]. 駒沢 Komazawa is an amalgamation of the surrounding places with 駒 koma horse and 沢 sawa ravine that was created in 1889 (Meiji 22) with the formation of Meguro Ward. There is another nearby but non-equine place name, 野沢 Nozawa, which features the kanji 沢 sawa. Easiest place name ever.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.c


Are These Etymologies True?

Your guess is as good as mine, but these all date back to the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period which is when we first start getting reliable information from the Kantō area. This is also a time when previously existing place names get written down for the first time and transcribed into kanji. Maybe these events transpired. Maybe they didn’t. But what we can say for sure is that in this area, local legends popped up and many of them were affiliated with horses and the rising prestige of the samurai class in Kantō. In these place names we can see the areas surrounding Edo begin to blossom.


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[i] Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, once again, longtime readers know that I’ve already written about Setagaya here.
[ii] Please tell me you know who Minamoto no Yoritomo is. I’m assuming you do. But if not, check out this fine article about him at Samurai Archives.
[iii] An area in present day 岩手県 Iwate-ken Iwate Prefecture.
[iv] Fans of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune, will recognize this name. He’s the son of 藤原秀衡 Fujiwara no Hidehira who helped hide Yoshitsune when Yoritomo was trying to kill him. The Fujiwara betrayed Yoshitsune – as Fujiwara do – and it was Yasuhira who attacked Yoshitsune forcing him to kill his wife and daughter and then commit seppuku. The less dramatic version of his demise is that Yoshitsune may have just straight up been overwhelmed and was just cut down in battle by Fujiwara forces. The details of his death are disputed – and in my opinion, irrelevant.
And for those of you scratching your heads at all these names, check out this article at Samurai Archives.
[v] Presumably the Jakuzure River, or an earlier incarnation thereof.
[vi] Shōgun Yoritomo died in 1199 when he was thrown off his horse lol.
[vii] A “baddle,” if you will. (sorry, bad joke)
[viii] This kanji looks like the kanji for “child” but is actually the Chinese Zodiac sign of the rat (or mouse, whichever you prefer). That’s why the reading is ネ ne and not コ ko. Another reading is Nenogami.
[ix] Since this was a local deity in the countryside, we can assume there were tiny, almost impromptu shrines of this scattered all over the area.
[x] Another detail that seems to be in dispute: some claim Yoritomo was made shōgun by the emperor, others claim he just took the title for himself.
[xi] Obviously, this is a different horse than the one that died before the battle because… well, ghost horses hadn’t been invented yet.
[xii] There is some evidence for local worship of Nenokami. If you walk 40 minutes into nearby 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward, there is minor shrine called 高木神社 Takagi Jinja Takagi Shrine which also houses Nenokami. In fact, the area surround Takagi Shrine was more or less “officially” called 子ノ神 Ne no Kami up until 1889 (Meiji 22). The name was abolished with the creation of Meguro Ward in 1932. I’ve also found a shrine in 川崎市 Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City that enshrines Nenokami.
[xiii] And Kamiuma.
[xiv] 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and of course 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. If you don’t know who these people are, get the fuck off my blog.
[xv] And Kamakura’s power doesn’t seem to have been very long lasting anyways.
[xvi] Why were they called “late?” Let me google that for you, bitch.
[xvii] For example, we don’t know when or where he was born. We know his legal wife was the daughter of Hōjō Ujitsuna but we don’t know his name. We know he had legitimate male heirs, but he adopted a son and made him head of the Kira Family… but we don’t know why. These early years of the Sengoku Period are very messy.
[xviii] Actually Kira Yoriyasu’s original name was 吉良頼貞 Kira Yorisada. He received the kanji 康 yasu from Hōjō Ujiyasu.
[xix] The Tokugawa Shōgunate considered the massive fortification and new moat system the birth of Edo Castle.
[xx] This particular branch of the Uesugi were the 扇谷上杉家 Ōgigayatsu Uesugi, if you’re into that sort of thing.
[xxi] Technically speaking, the castle was Uesugi property and Dōkan was merely supervising it for them.
[xxii] Also called 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle back in those days.
[xxiii] Please read more about the Late Hōjō here at Samurai Archives.
[xxiv] Let’s use the term “castle” loosely here and think of it more as a fortified noble residence on a hill. The estate (or castle) didn’t survive the fall of the Hōjō and the coming of the Tokugawa. And if you’re in Tōkyō now and saying to yourself, “Whaaaaaa?? There’s a Japanese castle in Setagaya?” then by all means, go and  read this page about it at – your one stop shop for all your Japanese castle needs.
[xxv] Even if he held the “castle” for 5 years, I’m guessing that’s a pretty good run at that time.
[xxvi] The name 常盤 Tokiwa is often cited as both wife and concubine but the historical record is ambiguous. Also, there are several variations of this story. If you’d like to read more about it, I actually tracked down a guy who translated 3 variations into English here.
[xxvii] ie; not really alone, but not with Yoriyasu. She would have been in the women’s quarters of the fort – most definitely surrounded by the other women. The “joy of birth” wasn’t something often enjoyed together in feudal Japan.
[xxviii] Or by some accounts, a concubine bore the child and the jealous wife murdered it.
[xxix] The 5th Tokugawa shōgun.
[xxx] Kōsuke-no-suke is actually his court title; his real name was 吉良義央 Kira Yoshihisa.
[xxxi] Longtime readers know my opinion of this story.
[xxxii] I’m not sure about the reading of his given name. Also this dude is a “real Hōjō,” not a “Late Hōjō” of the Sengoku Period who adopted the name.
[xxxiii] Calling him “the Japanese god of war” is a bit of simplification, but you can read more about Hachiman here.
[xxxiv] Which, of course, you know I’ve already written about here.

What does Ushigome mean?

In Japan, Japanese Castles, Travel in Japan on September 24, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Ushigome (Crowd of Cows)

View of Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke and Ushigome Go-mon. Judging from the high walls and design of the building on the left, I would say that was a daimyo residence.

View of Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke and Ushigome Go-mon.
Judging from the high walls and design of the building on the left, I would say that was a daimyo residence.
But nary a cow in sight… lol




swarming, huddling, amassed, crowded,
“in bulk”

According to Japanese Wikipedia[ii], in 701, in accordance to the Taihō Code, a livestock ranch was established in this area. In fact, two were established which were sometimes referred to as 牛牧 gyūmaki a cow ranch and 馬牧 umamaki a horse ranch. These two locations came to be referred to as 牛込 Ushigome and 駒込 Komagome.

The fact that there was a cattle/dairy ranch here in the Asuka Period is a known fact (it’s documented). The horse ranch is a different story. In all of my research about Komagome, I didn’t find a single mention of this. When you look up Ushigome, many articles tend to mention Komagome, and I think that because of the strength of the evidence in support of the Ushigome being a literal etymology, the writers try to associate Komagome with it. But this would be a false etymology. Their logic: two places have similar names, they must be related, right?[iii]

Well, anyways, it’s possible that there is a connection between the two (one of the theories about Komagome is that it was a place where horses were herded into a confined space). There just isn’t any record of this being so. When we don’t have the evidence we should always take that theory with a grain of salt.

But with Ushigome, rest assured, this is most likely the case.

Cattle ranches aren't really a common theme in Japanese art, so I can't really imagine what one would have looked like. However, I found this 1950's aerial shot from Oregon in the 1950's and I wonder if an ancient Japanese cattle ranch would have looked a little like this....

Cattle ranches aren’t really a common theme in Japanese art, so I can’t really imagine what one would have looked like.
However, I found this 1950’s aerial shot from Oregon in the 1950’s and I wonder if an ancient Japanese cattle ranch would have looked a little like this….

In an edict during the reign of 文武天皇 Monmu Tennō Emperor Monmu (701-704) a place variously referred to as 神崎牛牧 Kanzaki no Gyūmaki Kanzaki Cattle Ranch and 乳牛院 Gyūnyūin “The Milk Institute” was established in the area in the vicinity of 元赤城神社 Moto-Akasaka Jinja Old Akasaka Shrine[iv].

Asakusa Shrine

Today Old Asakusa Shrine is just an afterthought to this building.

Located in the heart of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's busiest and craziest areas, Akasaka Hikawa Shrine is a welcome way to jump back to Edo while in the craziness that is Tokyo.

Located in the heart of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s busiest and craziest areas, present day Akasaka Hikawa Shrine is a welcome way to jump back to Edo while in the craziness that is Tokyo.

A branch of the 大胡氏 Ōgo-shi Ōgo clan from 上野国 Kōzuke no Kuni Kōzuke Province had been living in the Ushigome area since the 1300’s and, if I’m not mistaken, originally held dominion over the area from present day Shinjuku to Ushigome.

In 1553 a member of said clan switched allegiance from the Uesugi to the Hōjō and in return was granted dominion over the area stretching from present day Ushigome to Hibiya (ie; Edo Bay)[v]. The lord built a castle (fortified residence) somewhere in that area and took the place name to establish his own branch of the family and thus the Ushigome clan was born, 牛込氏 Ushigome-shi. The area is elevated so it would have been defensible. It also had a view of Edo Bay and so they could keep an eye on who was coming in and out of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay[vi].

In 1590, the Hōjō were defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu was famously granted the 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces, which included Edo. Ieyasu evicted the residents of the castle and confiscated the property.

It’s not clear where the castle was located, but there is a tradition at 光照寺 Kōshō-ji Kōshō Temple that says the temple was built on the site of 牛込城 Ushigome Castle. I’ve never looked for myself, but it seems like there are no ruins that confirm this story[vii]. There is a nice sign, though.

Being a large plateau, in the Edo Period, this area was clearly 山手 yamanote the high city and was populated by massive daimyō residences and the homes of high ranking 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun.

Fans of Edo Castle or just any history-minded resident of Tōkyō will recognize the name 牛込橋 Ushigomebashi Ushigome Bridge. This bridge led from Kagurazaka to Edo Castle. If you crossed the bridge you would arrive at  牛込見附 Ushigome-mitsuke Ushigome Approach[viii] and there you would see the 牛込御門 Ushigome go-mon Ushigome Gate. The bridge spanned 牛込濠 Ushigomebori Ushigome Moat. Today the moat is dammed up under the bridge and the Chūō Line runs under it. On one side you can see the moat, on the other side – if I remember correctly – are just trees, a small skyscraper, and a train station; another fine example of Japan bulldozing over and building over its past. That said, there’s plenty to see and do in the area if you feel like having a history walk in the area.

Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke

Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke. The area under the bridge is already partially dammed up.

This is what a Mitsuke is. It's a place to trap intruders as they come in (or perhaps exit). Like a lock and damn system on a river, you're trapped while you approach the castle. The actual Ushigome Gate is the large structure on the right.

This is what a Mitsuke is. It’s a place to trap intruders as they come in (or perhaps exit). Like a lock and damn system on a river, you’re trapped while you approach the castle. The actual Ushigome Gate is the large structure on the right.

That awkward Meiji Period that started the destruction of the area.

That awkward Meiji Period that started the destruction of the area.

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[i] For an explanation of this sound change from /komi/ to /gome/, please see my article on Komagome.
[ii] By the way, I didn’t get all my info from Wikipedia. Duh!
I just quoted it to show you how commonplace this Komagome/Ushigome thing is.
[iii] Wrong.
[iv] I’m pretty sure the name Akasaka Shrine and the name of Akasaka are a coincidence… but I may need to look further into this (because OMG my original article says nothing about this). The Ōgo clan was originally based at a mountain in present day Gunma Prefecture called 赤城山 Akagi-san Red Castle Mountain, when they came to this area, they established a shrine called Akasaka Shrine (Red Hill). The original shrine is in Waseda, Shinjuku. Originally in 牛込台 Ushigomedai Ushigome Plateau, it was moved twice – once in 1460 by Ōta Dōkan and again in 1555 by the Ōgo themselves. The shrine still exists in Shinjuku.
[v] Their holdings included 桜田 Sakurada (yes, the same Sakurada of 桜田門 Sakuradamon fame), 赤坂 Akasaka, and 日比谷 Hibiya. Anyone familiar with Edo Castle will immediately recognize their names and their connection to the castle.
[vi] The presence of another lord so close to where the Edo Clan and Ōta Dōkan had their fortified residences adds more to my assertion that Edo wasn’t just “an obscure fishing village” when the Tokugawa arrived.
[vii] UPDATE: There may be some evidence. If you’re interested, check out this blog! (Japanese only)
[viii] Essentially a look out and security check point leading into the castle grounds. For more on what a mitsuke is, check my article on Akasaka-mitsuke.

What does Komagome mean?

In Japanese History on September 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Komagome (Crowd of Horses)

Komagome Station

Komagome Station

There are a few place names around Tōkyō that reference horses. I covered one, 高田馬場 Takada no Baba, in an article in March.[i] Today we have a rather odd one. It’s also a bit of a mystery.

The name, first documented in the Sengoku Period, consists of two kanji:




swarming, huddling, amassed, crowded,
“in bulk”[ii]

If you know a little Japanese, two things will stick out immediately.

One, the Japanese word for horse is 馬 uma.
Two, is read as komi, not gome.

Let me address the horse thing first. In modern Japanese, the kanji 駒 koma is classified as a variant of horse. It’s a rare variant that usually only shows up in a few places, ie; names of animals or plants (which are usually written in katakana anyways) and in shōgi idioms. 将棋 shōgi is Japanese chess. The original meaning of the kanji in Chinese was 仔馬 ko-uma a small horse, a colt, or a pony. However, in Japan it has always been just another word for horse[iii].

As for the komi/gome discrepancy, long time readers of Japan This! should already be familiar with the two phenomena going on here. The first is a very regular morphological change in Japanese compound words called 連濁 rendaku (see the Wiki article). Long story short, often in compound words you get a euphonic change to make a difficult word easier to pronounce. In this case, when you combine koma + komi it will become komagomi[iv]. The second thing that is happening is confusion between the phonemes /i/ and /e/, something that is very common in Japanese dialects, particularly in the old dialects of the Kantō area[v]. We’ve seen this vowel confusion before, most notably in my article on Akabane.

OK, now with the kanji and the linguistics out of the way, let’s get down to the etymology. There are basically 6 theories as to the origin of this place name, a few of which overlap. And let’s get this out in the open before going any further; there is not a shred of evidence to support any of these claims. Except for one, all of them are based on the kanji, which we’re starting to see are less than reliable in pre-Edo Period Kantō.

The Traditional Explanations

The “Seems Reasonable” Theory
This theory has for a long time played it safe and went with the 駒 koma means horse and 込 komi means crowded literal reading. This was an area of the Musashi Plain where a lot of wild horses flocked together.
(horses flock??)

Horses flock?

Horses flock?


The “Captain Japan Did It!” Theory
Two emergent patterns I keep seeing here at Japan This! are Iemitsu Did It™  and Captain Japan Did It™. The story goes that when 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto aka Captain Japan made his 東征 tōsei Eastern Expedition[vi] he saw his local ally’s troops with a shit ton of horses. He was all like, “Whoa, it’s full of horses!” and so the name stuck[vii].

Captain Japan!!

Captain Japan!!

The “Somebody Just Totally Made This Up” Theory
This theory states that a ko or ko (little) + mago grandchild + め me (an untranslatable pejorative suffix) = a komago-me once lived here, that is to say, a worthless little grandchild[viii].

Bad grandchild!

Bad grandchild!

The Modern Explanations

The “No Frills” Theory
If we take the kanji at face value, they seem to refer to a place where horses were herded into a confined space, perhaps a large stable of a local noble. If this is to be accepted, then it’s not a far leap given the fluidity of the Kantō dialects from こまごみ komagomiこまごめ komagome. This theory relies on the use of in some of the uses mentioned in the footnotes which have associations with “barging in” or “going into crowded spaces.”

That's a lot of horses...

That’s a lot of horses…

The “Sorry, We Don’t Have a Fucking Clue” Theory
In Hon-komagome, Jōmon Period artifacts were found which have lead a few people to speculate that the place name may be a borrowing from a pre-Japonic language (Ainu or whatever language Jōmon people of this region spoke) and that would make the kanji ateji and the original meaning of the word would then be lost to time.

I don't know.

I don’t know.

Additional Information

In the past,  豊嶋郡駒込村 Toshima-gun Komagome-mura Komagome Village, Toshima District was located where present  本駒込  now stands (they’re neighboring areas even though today Komagome is in Toshima Ward and Hon-komagome is in Bunykō Ward).

Is Hon-Komagome the Original Komagome?

No, it isn’t.

When the same place name has variations, the kanji is sometimes read as moto “source” (in place names, often “old, original.”[ix] But Hon-komagome is different. In the former Tōkyō City, there was an ward called 本郷区 Hongō-ku Hongō Ward but in 1966 administrative units were re-assigned when the city became the Tōkyō Metropolis. At that time, Bunkyō Ward and Toshima Ward found themselves both in possession of areas called Komagome. The area in Toshima (the former Toshima District) kept the original name Komagome. The new Bunkyō Ward merged the former Hongō Ward name with the old name and so it became Hon(gō) + Komagome = Hon-komagome. So the meaning is not “Original Komagome” as some might think, the original Komagome is the area still called Komagome.

In conclusion, I think all I can say is that I don’t know. The kanji evidence all points to horses, but my gut instinct is to side with a possible non-Japonic source (which basically commits to very little in this case). If someone finds a mass grave of horses or post holes in a pattern of stables or anything like that, I may be persuaded to the horse story side.

Well, alright… I’m going to bed now.
Love you all, leave a comment below so I know anyone is actually reading!

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[ii] This kanji appears in a lot of compound words, for example; 詰め込み tsumekomi cram into, 押し込み oshikomi push into, crowd into, 入り込み irikomi barge into, break into, 申し込み mōshikomi application, 吹き込み fukikomi blow into, 追い込み oikomi herd into, 売り込み urikomi to sell, 立て込み tatekomi tied up, busy, crowded, バンパイヤの心臓に杭を打ち込み banpaiya no shinzō ni kui wo uchikomi drive a wooden stake through a vampire’s heart… just to name a few.
[iii] Just think about how many words there are in English for horse. Off the top of my head I can think of horse, stallion, steed, mare, nag, sarah jessica parker, mustang, colt, foal, filly, pony, bronco. And I’m sure there are more. I’m not sure what the nuance of  was throughout the evolution of pre-modern Japanese, but today the kanji is hardly used even though it’s only a level 8 kanji for native Japanese.
[iv] The Wikipedia article is actually quite good at explaining the phenomenon. If you really want to get nerdy about what’s going on underneath the hood of the Japanese Language, here’s a fascinating treatment on the subject from a linguistics perspective.
[v] The same phenomenon happened with Latin dialects. Compare the Latin cominitiare and the French commencer (commence), and the Latin oleum with the Italian olio (olive oil)
[vi] 東征 tōsei, the so-called Eastern Expeditions, appear in various myths about the founding of Japan. Yamato Takeru is not the only one said to have subjugated the east, the most well-known tōsei is the 神武東征 Jinmu Tōsei Emperor Jimmu’s Eastern Expedition. Jimmu is the legendary first emperor of Japan.
[vii] The story specifically uses an Old Japanese phrase 駒込たり koma komitari “horses be all up in this bitch, yo.”
[viii] I totally just made this up by the way. Blame it on the booze.
[ix] For example 元麻布 Moto-Azabu “Old Azabu.”

What does Mejiro mean?

In Japanese History on August 17, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Mejiro (White Eyes)

Little known fact. Mejiro Station is haunted by the ghosts of two high school girls.

Little known fact. Mejiro Station is haunted by the ghosts of two high school girls.

Last time, I wrote about 目黒 Meguro. The kanji mean “black eyes.” Far across town there is an area called 目白 Mejiro. The kanji mean “white eyes.” A couple of readers brought up the name Mejiro and asked if it was related. Some actually knew the story of the 五色不動 Goshiki Fudō the 5 Colored Fudō.  If you don’t know about these 5 temples, you can read about them here. If you didn’t catch my article about Meguro, you can see it here. As seems too often to be the case, there is a little fiction and a little reality served with a healthy dash of mystery – and in this case, an incredibly frustrating mystery.

First, Let’s Start with the Most Commonly Kicked Around Etymologies

Hi yo, Silver! Away!

Did someone say famous white horse?

The Famous White Horse Theory

This theory says, without stating much else, that a famous white horse was born here, a 白い名馬 shiroi meiba, if you will. This theory is plausible because, well… ok, anything’s possible. But naming a place after a single white horse seems a little silly. Anyways, the etymological basis for this derivation is that the original place name was 馬白 Mejiro “white horse” – representing a dialectal variant of ma (horse), me.  If you’re familiar with my article on Meguro, then you’ll likely find the similarity of 馬白目白 to the proposed change of 馬黒目黒 intriguing.


Tokugawa Iemitsu

When in doubt, Iemitsu did it!

★ The “Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It” Theory

Having researched a ton of Tōkyō place names this year, I’m starting to see patterns emerge that set off my BS detectors. Theories that say the third shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, came into some place and renamed it are a dime a dozen. I’m willing to entertain some of them, but some are just retarded. This is one of them.

The story states that one day Tokugawa Iemitsu came to Meguro for falconry and thought the name 目黒 Black Eyes was inauspicious and ordered the area to be called 目白 White Eyes. The stupidest thing about this theory is that anyone who looks at a map will see that the modern Meguro and Mejiro are nowhere near each other. And while – yes, anything is possible – there could have been another village called Meguro here at one point, it’s pretty fucking unlikely. Even if it was true, why didn’t Iemitsu care about the other Meguro? And he was the shōgun for fuck’s sake – the samurai dictator of the realm. I doubt he was such a pussy as to change the names of villages simply because the name scared him.


There it is! The statue that named a village.  Or is it?

There it is! The statue that named a village.
Or is it?

★ The “Buddha Did It” Theory

This is by far the most elaborate – and widely told – theory.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the super monk[i], 天海 Tenkai, was placed in charge of developing Buddhist temples in the area. His pet project was to build a cluster of 5 temples dedicated to Acala, called 不動 Fudō The Unmovable One in Japanese.  Each temple’s statue of Fudō had a different colored pair of eyes. The one in 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes had black eyes[ii]. The statue in 目白 Mejiro White Eyes had, you guessed it, white eyes.  The presence of a temple established by Tenkai, which was part of a grouping of 4 other temples was prestigious for the area and probably brought many pilgrims to the town’s 門前町 monzen-chō (town built at the front of a temple)[iii]. The area then derived its name from this temple’s claim to fame, the white eyed statue.

This theory sounds plausible on the surface, but the fact is that the name Mejiro pre-dates the Edo Era, so sorry to say, the statue’s eye color might originate from the place name, but the place name does not originate from the statue. The name Mejiro allegedly first appeared in one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s original surveys of Edo when he moved into the area and was sizing up his new holdings.

Now it's time to some useless trivia.

Now it’s time to some useless trivia.


By The Way, Why Did The Statues Each Have Different Colored Eyes?

Well, I’m glad you asked. The cluster of temples is called the 五色不動  Goshiki Fudō The Five Colored Fudō. The 5 colors are a reference to something called  五行思想  Gogyō Shisō the Theory of the Five Elements, which is some ancient Chinese woo that views the cosmos through a delicate balance of, you guessed it, 5 “elements;” wood, fire, earth, metal, and water[iv].

Gogyo - the Theory of the 5 Elements

Gogyo – the Theory of the 5 Elements

As you can see in the image above, there are 5 colors associated with these “elements;” blue, red, yellow, white, black. Which temples actually make up the Goshiki Fudō is a point of contention these days, as the grouping during the Edo Period is different than the grouping now. In fact today’s grouping has 6 statues (a second yellow eyed statue has been added). The truth is the whole story of the naming of these towns and their connections to the temple statues is an invention of the Bakumatsu Era which only gained popularity in the Meiji Era. In other words, there is zero connection between the temples and the place names.


OK, so where does the place name Mejiro really come from?

No one knows.


After reading all that, I hope you feel as let down and disappointed as I was researching this topic. When looking into the origins of Tōkyō place names, there are some that have fascinating stories and some that are just dead ends. At least this story has some interesting tangents that have made it worth your time. I had fun doing the research, but… yeah. I’m disappointed too.

See that large section of green?

See that large section of green labeled “Tokugawa Village?”
Let’s talk about that a little bit…

But the story isn’t finished quite yet. Have you ever been to Mejiro? There’s not much to do there so there may be no reason for you to go. But in 1932[v], the head of the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke Owari branch of the Tokugawa Family built a residence here[vi]. Since then, his property has been turned into an exclusive planned community called the Tokugawa Village. It’s home to high ranking diplomats and über-rich douche bags of every stripe[vii] and it’s home to the 徳川黎明会 Tokugawa Reimeikai Tokugawa Dawn Society which sounds like an evil cult, and may in fact be one, but on the surface it seems to be a group dedicated to historical research related to the Tokugawa. It’s affiliated with the prestigious 徳川美術館 Tokugawa Bijutsukan Tokugawa Fine Art Museum in Nagoya which preserves the largest collection of art and property of the Tokugawa family and has a hell of a gift shop if you want goods with the Tokugawa family crest printed on them[viii].


OK, so, to re-cap: famous horse, Iemitsu, 5 Buddhas, eyeballs, über-rich douche bags, Tokugawa cult, nobody knows.

The end.


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I say supermonk because it seems like every other temple in Kantō claims to have been established by or have some connection to him. Dude got around. Or who knows? I’m not into monks so don’t hold me to it. (And “supermonk” sounds hilarious.)
[ii] But as mentioned in my article on Meguro, the name of the town predates the Edo Period. So Meguro’s name does not derive from the statue. There is a chance that Tenkai chose the town Meguro for the black eyed statue or it may be a happy little coincidence. But Edo Period people probably dug that kind of shit, so I wouldn’t put it past the supermonk.
[iii] See my article on Monzen-nakachō for more about this kind of town.
[iv] None of which is actually an element.
[v] Shōwa 7
[vi] In the Edo Period he would have been a successive daimyō, but after the reforms of the Meiji Era he was a Marquis – just as I am a Marquis Star (cue cheeseball drumfill).
[vii] That’s totally uncalled for. I don’t know if the people there are douches or not. I’m not rich, so that’s just my jealous oozing out as totally unjustified contempt.
[viii] Yes, I want. Thank you very much.

What does Takadanobaba mean?

In Japanese History on March 22, 2013 at 12:17 am

Takada no Baba (Takada Horse Grounds)

view from takadanobaba station

I don’t see any horses… but that sky looks purdy….

Today’s 地名 chimei  (place name) is long as shit. It’s 高田馬場 Takada no Baba. It’s a college town,  and is affectionately referred to as ババ baba because… well, who the fuck wants to say Takada no Baba every time you refer to the area.

All Night Crazy Party!! Waseda Style!!!

Waseda University is known as Japan’s Party School.

The etymology of this name is quite straight forward. 高田 Takada is a surname – and a pretty common one at that. 馬場 baba means “horse place,” which is better translated as “horse grounds” because “horse place” sounds retarded.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s talk some history.

Majime Neko

Majime Neko sez “Let’s Get Serious Now.”

What Are Horse Grounds?

In the old days, the highest ranking samurai elite had horses and they needed large, open spaces to do horse stuff. Remember that Edo was a castle town. The main parts of the city radiated out from the castle. The city proper would have been too crowded for horses, so the suburbs and rural areas were better suited for that sort of thing.

Takada no Baba in the Edo Period

Hiroshige painted this picture of Takadanobaba in the Edo Period. (But then again, everything he painted looked like this…)

What Went Down at the Horse Grounds?

馬術 went down. Lots and lots of 馬術.
“Oh, what’s 馬術?” you ask.


Bad ass shit went down at Takadanobaba. Check out this bitch. She’s a bad ass bitch doing some bad ass horsemanship and archery at the same time. Can you do that? I can’t do that. That’s a bad ass bitch. Takadanobaba style.

馬術 bajutsu is horsemanship. And in samurai society, horsemanship meant all kinds of cool shit. In the Olympics, you see the equestrian events… think of that, but without pussies doing it. And these non-pussies are wearing samurai armor and carrying swords and arrows and are just fucking shit up left and right.

OK, they probably weren’t fucking shit up left and right, but they did have swords and armor and they were practicing martial arts on horseback. They would have practiced basic riding skills, but the main art would have been 流鏑馬 yabusame (horseback archery) – which is fucking cool as shit.

samurai takadanobaba

I typed “samurai fucking shit up left and right” into google and this is what i got…

So Who is this Takada Guy?

Well, according to one theory, it’s not a guy. It’s a girl.

As I said, the name means Takada Horse Grounds – and we’ve established that Takada is a name.

This one is a little complicated if you’re not familiar with Japanese “feudalism” during the early Edo Period. But I’ll try my best to explain.

Much of the area that is now Niigata Prefecture was called 越後国 Echigo no Kuni (Echigo Province). Inside that area was a fiefdom called 高田藩 Takada-han (Takada Domain). The mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 6th son was from Takada-han. Her name was 茶阿局 Chā no Tsubone, but according to Japanese naming taboo and manners, she was referred to by most people as 高田殿 Takada-dono (Her Highness Takada). She apparently loved the area for sightseeing because it wasn’t too far from the castle and she could watch strapping young samurai ride horses while fucking shit up left and right.

Takada no Baba

This is Her Highness Takada (Châ no Tsubone) (もしかして高田ノ婆?)

Because she loved the area, her son, Matsudaira Tadateru, built a park here to enjoy 遊覧地遠望 yūranchi enbō (something like “a scenic pleasure resort”).

So the country bumpkins living here nicknamed the spot Takada no Baba because they were so happy to be favored by a court lady who had had sex with the first Tokugawa shōgun – or the park was really named Takada no Baba by the son. Either way, name would mean something like “Her Highness Takada’s Horse Grounds.”


The horsegrounds in the Edo Period… they do look pretty nice.

The area was called 戸塚 Totsuka for a long time. But when the Yamanote Line opened in 1910, the original station got the name Takada no Baba. (The local people rejected the official suggestion of 上戸塚 Kami-totsuka (Upper Totsuka) in favor of Takada no Baba. Until 1975, this was just a station name, but the area was still called Totsuka. But in 1975, Shinjuku Ward did a revamping of their displayed addresses and the region that is now Takada no Baba became Takada no Baba officially.


Original Takada no Baba Station, this picture is Post War.

If you’re interested in visiting the site of the old horse grounds, you’ll probably be sadly disappointed. However, there is a monument there to commemorate the site.

Takada no Baba Plaque

A plaque commemorating the original site of the Horse Grounds.

I’ve heard there are more than one commemorative plaque for the ruins/spot of the original horse grounds, so if you have links or want to share pictures, contact me. I’m very curious about this.


Yabusame… go see it because it’s bad ass.

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