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Posts Tagged ‘japanese history’

Samurai Archives Forum Gets Major Update

In Japanese History on March 18, 2015 at 6:13 am

サムライアーカイブスフォーラム
Samurai Ākaibusu Fōramu (the Samurai Archives Forum)

OpaqueBigLogo

Let your freak flag fly

A really cool thing just happened the other day.

So when I first tried to learn a little bit about Japanese history, one of the only credible online resources was a website called Samurai Archives. This was way back to 2002. I was brought there by Google, Yahoo, or whatever we used back then[i]. The site featured articles on famous samurai, convenient timelines of certain eras that were great for perspective, and a fairly dynamic forum. I checked the site from time to time over the years to come.

Years later, on a whim I searched for “Japanese History” in iTunes – pretty sure nothing would be there – when suddenly I saw an old familiar face: the Samurai Archives podcast[ii]. (OK, the podcast itself wasn’t a familiar face, but you know what I mean.) Anyhoo, the SA Podcast immediately became a staple of my core podcast routine.

Eventually, I would start JapanThis! and when the subject matter became more history-centric, I was again found myself drawn to the Samurai Archives site. In particular, I came to the forum. The forum is where people asked questions (sometimes very obscure questions). Ideas were hashed out, knowledge was shared, and epic nerd fights broke out. And while I wasn’t a contributor to that community, I was definitely lurking and learning; in time, our paths would cross and I am proud to call some of the movers and shakers at SA my friends.

A little SA humor.

A little SA humor.

This Is Touching and All, But You Said Something Cool Happened

Right. So, the SA forum was powered by an ancient version of phpBB. The last time I used phpBB was c. 2004 before the collision of chat clients with the rise of MySpace gave birth to “modern” social media. I don’t know the version history of phpBB, but the forum had become a dinosaur. You couldn’t even “like” or “favorite” something, for FFS[iii].

So the cool thing that happened was this: the Samurai Archives Forum was updated.

Actually, it hasn’t just been updated. It’s been reborn and this couldn’t have happened at a better time. Japan is already seeing record numbers of foreign tourists. Interest in Japanese history in the English speaking[iv] world is clearly increasing and the build up to the 2020 Olympics is going to guarantee a boom in the Edo Period. I also guarantee you that interest in the Sengoku Period and Kamakura Period will also grow due to their connection to Edo.

The new forum is starting completely from scratch here.

http://forums.samurai-archives.com/index/

I’m a little giddy because the new forum assigns various ranks[v]. One of those ranks is sign-up order. Old school peeps may remember Trillian. You had serious cred on Trillian if you had a number that showed you were an early adopter. I’m user #5 on the new SA forum and I’m pretty proud of that.

The old forum isn’t gone, though. It was active for about 10-15 years and had attracted 220,118 Japanese history fans. Now it’s archived here. It’s footprint on the web is so strong that you can generally search directly from Google, “samurai archives forum” plus whatever term you’re looking for and it will come up.

http://forumarchive.samurai-archives.com/

Anyways, this is great news both for the site and for Japanese history lovers everywhere. You can connect with like minded people, ask questions, help others by answering questions, and engage in all sorts of discussions about your favorite aspects of J-history. It’s also a fantastic place to share resources and book recommendations. And while the old forum is archived, this new forum let’s you make your own mark on the future of fandom, discussion, and research of Japanese History. I hope to be more active there myself since the new forum is so much more user friendly. So, see you there soon!

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[i] My web mail address at the time was definitely Yahoo. But if memory serves me well, MSN Messenger and AIM reigned supreme, but a dying framework called BBS was still the center of online communities. Daring, but ultimately “iffy” attempts at social networking services came and went. I’m looking at you, Friendster and MySpace. RIP, y’all.
[ii] Their 15 part series, Intro to Japanese History, is pretty much required listening. I myself go back from time to time and re-listen because they really pack a lot of interesting stuff from various angles. The art history, military history, and archaeology expertise that comes from some of the hosts is the sort of stuff that is often looked over. Another episode entitled Military History Lesson: Strategy Vs Tactics – A Sengoku Example, is also required listening. I’m not a big fan of samurai warfare and military affairs, but in a martial culture like old Japan, you have to have a certain amount of understanding of it. Before this episode, I thought strategy and tactics were synonyms. Boy, was I wrong! Some of the knowledge I took away from this episode helped me understand the nature of castles and castle towns a little better, too.
[iii] C’mon, I “like” and “favorite” shit left and right like a monkey with an iPhone.
[iv] And by “English speaking world” I don’t mean countries where English is the native language, I mean countries where people can read English language books or communicate via SNS in English.
[v] The old forum had ranks, too.

What does Tamachi mean?

In Japanese History on May 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm

田町
Tamachi (field town, rice paddy town)

Tamachi Station in the rain

Tamachi Station in the rain

Let’s Get the Kanji Out of the Way First


ta, da, den
field, rice paddy

machi, chō
town, neighborhood

Present day 田町 Tamachi is a stop on the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line snuggled between 品川 Shinagawa and 浜松町 Hamamatsu-chō[i]. It’s also home of 慶応大学 Keiō Daigaku Keiō University established by 福沢諭吉 Fukuzawa Yukichi whose countenance graces the ¥10,000 note[ii]. It’s also home to one of the best burger shops in Tōkyō, Munch’s Burger Shack[iii].

Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and innovator in Japan.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and innovator in Japan.

Today there is no official area called Tamachi. In its most limited sense, the name Tamachi refers to the area directly surrounding 田町駅 Tamachi Eki Tamachi Station (which is technically located in 芝 Shiba). In its broadest sense, it is used to refer to a vague area in Shiba and the edge of 三田 Mita). There was an area known as 芝田町 Shiba-Tamachi until 1947 when the 23 wards were restructured.

Today you can take a stroll down Keio Naka-dori Shoten-gai. It's a bunch of izakaya and drinking/eating places that retain some of the Edo aesthetic.

Today you can take a stroll down Keio Naka-dori Shoten-gai. It’s a bunch of izakaya and drinking/eating places that retain a tiny bit of the Edo aesthetic.

Theory #1
Tamachi – Field Town

The most commonly given etymology is that the area was more or less plots of land used by farmers (it’s unclear whether vegetables or rice). With the development of Edo Bay by the Tokugawa Shōgunate, a merchant town was established in the area and given the rustic name 田町 Tamachi, literally “town in the fields.” This explanation is bolstered by the fact that the name Tamachi first appears in the Edo Period and that the town was located near the sea and the 東海道 Tōkaidō Tōkai Highway, both factors that would have necessitated and encouraged the growth of new merchant towns as the shōgun’s capital grew.

For the non-samurai, non-merchant population of Old Japan, this was your reality. No wonder Hideyoshi locked the classes down. He more than anyone knew that if you wanted to end the

For the non-samurai, non-merchant population of Old Japan, this was your reality.
No wonder Hideyoshi locked the classes down. He more than anyone knew that if you wanted to end the “warring states” period, you HAD to tie people to this work.

Theory #2
Mita Machi – Honorable/Divine Rice Paddy Town

Another theory ties into the origin of the place name Mita, which is right next to former Shiba-Tamchi. This theory points at evidence that there was a special set of rice paddies here that were under direct control of the Emperor (in the late Heian Period) and later, the Kamakura Shōgunate. This kind of rice paddy was called a 御田 mita “honorable rice paddy.” A related theory states that the type of rice paddy here was actually a 神田 mita[iv] “divine rice paddy.” This rice would be sent as offerings to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture and nearby 御田八幡宮 Mita Hachiman-gū Mita Hachiman Shrine[v]. Whichever it was, an honorable rice paddy or divine rice paddy, it appears the name Mita is quite ancient and we do find 御田 Mita honorable rice paddy in the historical record and in the name of the shrine[vi].

rice tamachi

Rice paddies don’t change over the ages.

At any rate, at some point in history, the town 御田町 Mita Machi came to be written with the more easily recognized kanji 三田町 Mita Machi. The area near present day Tamachi Station preserved the old writing but people were mistakenly reading the name as 御田町 O-tamachi honorable field town and eventually just dropped what they perceived as an honorific 御 o (because usually town names don’t get honorific prefixes) and the place name was reduced to 田町 Tamachi, literally “field town.”

Furthermore, in the Edo Period, there were many 藩邸 hantei daimyō residences in the area and so you would have had samurai from all over Japan speaking their own dialects and having some idiosyncratic rules about kanji use. As a new pair of Edo dialects came to emerge under Tokugawa rule, it’s not unreasonable to imagine 御田町 Mita Machi being read as O-tamachi, especially when compared to nearby 三田町 Mita Machi which is relatively unambiguous in this part of Japan[vii].

Living in the suburbs of Edo was nice. Rustic, but nice. Repeat to yourself, the Yamanote was forested like most of Japan was.

Living in the suburbs of Edo was nice. Rustic, but nice. Repeat to yourself, the Yamanote was forested like most of Japan was.

I’m gonna say right now that there’s not much of a chance of knowing the etymology for sure, but a mixture of those two stories is my pet theory. But wait, there’s something pretty hilarious that’s gonna happen.

One of the greatest idiots of the Meiji Coup: Saigo Takamori. Typical imo zamurai of the time.

One of the greatest idiots of the Meiji Coup: Saigo Takamori.

Theory #3
Edoites Were Making Fun of People From Satsuma

OK, this is going to require a little cultural background.

My favorite theory (but I don’t believe it for a minute) is based on the fact that one of the first daimyō residences built here was that of 薩摩藩 Satsuma-han Satsuma Domain. One of Satsuma’s 名物 meibutsu famous things was (and still is) the 薩摩芋 Satsuma Imo Satsuma potato, also known as sweet potato. The classic Edo Period put down for a country bumpkin was 芋 imo potato[viii]. The refined Edo samurai wouldn’t think twice about referring to country samurai as 芋侍 imo zamurai filthy, dirt grubbing potato samurai – an epithet that resonates with the same sort of disdain and contempt with which Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed former dirt grubbing farmer, Toyotomi Hideyoshi [ix]. It’s classism at its best[x].

Shimazu Yoshihiro, lord of Satsuma at the Battle of Sekigahara and the Osaka Campaigns when the Tokugawa eradicated the last real military resistance to their hegemony.

Shimazu Yoshihiro, lord of Satsuma at the Battle of Sekigahara when the Tokugawa eradicated the last real military resistance to their hegemony.
Spoiler Alert!
(He drops the ball).

The lords of Satsuma, the 島津氏 Shimazu-shi Shimazu clan, were 外様大名 tozama daimyō outer lords during the Edo Period because… well, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, when Tokugawa Ieyasu more or less won control of the majority of Japan. But the Shimazu clan was descended from the progenitor of the first of the three great shōgunates, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura shōgunate. They had pedigree, so Ieyasu didn’t make them relinquish their territory. As a result, they had control of trade routes and received tribute from the Ryūkyū Islands (modern Okinawa). They also had a vast, productive territory that often acted like an independent state. And while the 1st Tokugawa shōgun, Ieyasu, was lenient to them despite fucking up big time at the Battle of Sekigahara, the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, who worshiped Ieyasu, dealt with them quite coldly. One gets the impression that far off Satsuma held a grudge for being left on the outside.

3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.

3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
“Shimazu? Y’all was a bunch of treacherous bitches. Eat a bag of dicks!”
That’s a literal quote, by the way.

But back to this Edo Period put down thing. In short, they were from the farthest limits of Japan[xi], they were famous a simple, dirty tuber that grows in the dirt[xii]. This theory says that the local Edoites and Edo samurai mocked Satsuma by calling the area 田町 Tamachi field town. They were a domain subjugated by local hero Tokugawa Ieyasu, they were from the country and they were no better than filthy, stinky, sweaty, dirt eating farmers.

This is a colorful story and was no doubt made up by imaginative Edoites. But in my honest opinion, this is utterly ridiculous. As much as I hate Satsuma’s role in the 幕末 bakumatsu end of the shōgunate, and as much as I hate the role of Satsuma’s elite in the oligarchy that sent Japan on a collision course with WWII, I don’t think the shōgunate would have tolerated anyone mocking a clan as rich, powerful, and connected as the Shimazu unless the family had been shamed and abolished by Ieyasu – which they weren’t. They had strong negotiating power and as such had a unique relationship with the Tokugawa Shōgunate. They even married into the Tokugawa Shōgun Family in the final days of the Edo Period[xiii].

Anyways, as much as I would love this to be true, the Shimazu were not the laughing stock of the Edo Period that this theory makes them out to be. And now you know how to mock people from the countryside in Japan. Just add 芋 imo before any noun[xiv].

Tamachi Today

One of Tamachi's crowning jewel's is the NEC world headquarters. I used to work in this building. The top of the building is narrow, buts the base is built on a sprawling lot. I'll get back to that in a minute.

One of Tamachi’s crowning jewel’s is the NEC world headquarters. I used to work in this building. The top of the building is narrow, but the base is built on a sprawling lot.
I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Quite a few daimyō had residences in the area, but the most famous was 薩摩藩 Satsuma-han who had their massive 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence here. It was a sprawling suburban palace on the outskirts of Edo. Unfortunately, nothing remains of it today, but the entire lot is now the world headquarters of NEC[xv]. A few other major manufacturing companies are in the area: Mitsubishi Motors and Morinaga (a sweets company).

Tamachi Station has this super-70's dasai 3D mural (mosaic?) that no one notices. But if you look closely it's Saigo Takamori and Katstu Kaishu drinking sake together in a traditional meeting. There is also a

Tamachi Station has this super-70’s dasai 3D mural (mosaic?) that no one notices. But if you look closely it’s Saigo Takamori and Katstu Kaishu drinking sake together in a traditional meeting. There is also a “kurofune” (black ship) flying out to space.
It’s brutally ugly. And the only thing that is really interesting about it is the fact that they used Saigo Nanshu as a name instead of Saigo Takamori.
This was the name he used when writing Chinese poetry.

In closing, I’d like to say that Tamachi’s role in Japanese history is mostly defined by a meeting (or series of meetings) between 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū, a hatamoto of the Tokugawa, and 西郷隆盛 Saigō Takamori, an imo zamurai from Satsuma. One of the highest ranking women in Edo Castle was 篤姫 Atsu-hime Princess Atsu who was of the Satsuma Shimazu clan and was married to Tokugawa Iesada, the 13th shōgun (I alluded to this earlier). Katsu Kaishū, as a direct retainer of the Tokugawa was dependent on them for his income. During the collapse of the Tokugawa regime, he was a genius at working within the system to change the system. He knew Tokugawa hegemony had to end and helped various groups work to that end.

I love Katsu Kaishu!

Undoubtedly (IMHO) the biggest bad ass and biggest hero of the Bakumatsu, Katsu Kaishu. After Ii Naosuke was assassinated, he was the only Japanese guy who could communicate reality to imo zamurai.

However, he never sold out the Tokugawa. When the newly formed Meiji Army marched on Edo it was led by that imo-zamurai, Saigō Takamori. He threatened to march on the city (which would probably have burned the city) or burn Edo Castle (which in turn would probably have burned the city). Katsu Kaishū negotiated a peaceful surrender of the Edo Castle – I’ve heard Atsu had a hand in this, too. The Tokugawa left the castle and 1,000,000 lives were spared a horrific holocaust at the hands of Satsuma and Chōshū. This meant Edo lived to see another day… albeit with a new name, Tōkyō.

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[i] Although, a new station is being built between Shinagawa and Tamachi, so this dynamic will change in the future.
[ii] And was one of the first Japanese dignitaries to travel abroad at the end of the Edo Period.
[iii] If you go, always remember that Japanese “rare” means “still twitching,” “medium” is “rare,” “well-done” is “medium,” and “very well done” is probably still a little pink. While some chefs have mastered the art of the hamburger, most of them fail on the cooking front because who the fuck eats a rare hamburger?? Welcome to sushi-land. The Japanese love that shit.
[iv] 神田 has multiple readings, shinden and kanda being the most common. The latter being a topic I will discuss at some point in the near future. Wink wink. That said, the reading of and as /mi/ is quite ancient and really sounds like it’s associated with the imperial courts at Heian Kyō or Nara. I feel like there’s a close connection to Shintō in that reading. But that’s just my impression.
[v] The shrine is not in its original location, though it is near Tamachi Station even today. The shrine still uses the original spelling 御田 and not the modern 三田. The shrine was founded in 709.
[vi] There’s nothing saying both weren’t true – or that the similarities are related, ie; it’s a kind of Heian Period or Kamakura Period kanji joke.
[vii] It was a long time ago, so I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but I tried to tackle this problem last year in my article on Mita. (edit: Just had a look and the article is pretty short, but wouldn’t be a waste of your time).
[viii] This pejorative use of 芋 imo potato is still around, actually.
[ix] While Ieyasu never called Hideyoshi a hick (they grew up in roughly the same part of Japan), he detested Hideyoshi because of his low birth (he was a dirty, dirt grubbing farmer) and the high rank he had achieved (he united Japan under his control, made all the daimyō pledge allegiance to him, and became the regent of the emperor). Ieyasu didn’t like that shit one bit. Just as the shōgunate vilified Hideyoshi in the histories, the tozama daimyō (outer lords) were branded as “outer” for all of the Edo Period. Add to that the fact that city people always look down on the dirty, uneducated, uncouth, and unsophisticated people from outside of the city. Edoites were no different. The elite samurai of Edo definitely viewed themselves as the cultural and moral superiors of those country samurai.
[x] Worst?
[xi] Literally, the southernmost region of Kyūshū and – at the time – the southernmost region of Japan.
[xii] Satsuma imo was not well known in Kantō before the Edo Period. The system of alternate attendance brought goods from all over Japan to Edo. That said, Satsuma imo was popular with women, not men. It was thought to be good for beautiful skin.
[xiii] More about this in a minute.
[xiv] JapanThis does not endorse mocking or discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status.
[xv] To the best of my knowledge NEC has no connection to Satsuma.

What does Hamamatsu-cho mean?

In Japanese History on April 23, 2014 at 5:09 pm

浜松町
Hamamatsu-chō (seaside pine town, more at Hamamatsu town)

View towards Shiba-Daimon from Hamamatsu-cho.

View towards Shiba-Daimon from Hamamatsu-cho. The hills in the far background are Shiba and Zojo-ji.

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There’s not a lot to go on with this place name. A lot of it adds up, but a lot of it doesn’t. As such, we’ll probably have to do a little more filling in the gaps than I like to do. But anyways, let’s see where this takes us.

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On the record, here’s what we’ve got.

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At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 増上寺代官 Zōjō-ji daikan magistrate of Zōjō-ji[i] 奥住久右衛門 Ozumi Kyūemon[ii] lived here. Because of that, the area was called affectionately called 久右衛門町 Kyūemon-chō Kyūemon Town.

However, in 1696 there was an official name change attributed to the assignment of a certain 権兵衛 Gonbei as successor to the magistracy. The area was renamed 浜松町 Hamamatsu-chō Hamamatsu Town because Gonbei happened to be from 遠江国浜松藩 Tōtōmi no Kuni Hamamatsu-han Hamamatsu Domain, Tōtōmi Province.

If you walk up the street from the above photo, you'll end up at what is called Shiba Daimon today. This street led directly to the Tokugawa Funerary Temple, Zojo-ji. The gate is called Daimon "the Big Gate" and once you crossed it, you entered the outskirts of the temple precinct.

If you walk up the street from the above photo, you’ll end up at what is called Shiba Daimon today. This street led directly to the Tokugawa Funerary Temple, Zojo-ji. The gate is called Daimon “the Big Gate” and once you crossed it, you entered the outskirts of the temple precinct.

Or so they say…

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That is the “official story” endorsed by 東京都港区 Tōkyō-to Minato-ku Minato Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis.

There are a few red flags here. And there are some quick fixes for those. Let’s look at them, and I’ll let you decide on your own what you think is actually going on here.

The original village headman, Kyūemon, had a family name. This meant he would have been a descendant of the imperial court or a samurai. Judging by his given name and his location, one can easily assume he was a samurai. Only noble families were granted inheritable surnames (officially, at least).

At first glance, this Gonbei guy from Hamamatsu Domain had no family name… at least not on record. This is extremely suspicious on some levels. One would think the village headman should be a person of some distinction. So, where’s the family name?

On top of all that, because it was such a common name among commoners after the Meiji Coup, sometimes “Gonbei” can be used to refer to any idiot from the country. And to make matters even worse, “Gonbei” can also be used to refer to a person whose name we don’t know at all[iii]. All of these would normally be red flags for me. But poor Gonbei might have some circumstantial evidence (supported by some speculation) working in his favor.

 

I have no picture of Gonbei so instead I give you a woman washing her drying her pussy in an alcove.

I have no picture of Gonbei so instead I give you a woman drying her pussy in an alcove.

 

After the defeat of the Late Hōjō in 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu took a deal which Toyotomi Hideyoshi thought would resign Ieyasu to a backwater[iv]. But Ieyasu modernized the castle town that Ōta Dōkan, um, in his own day started on a path towards urbanization[v]. All of this risky modernization was justified when Ieyasu’s forces won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. In 1603, he was granted the title of  征夷大将軍 sei’i tai-shōgun official-fucker-up-of-the-barbarians.

When Ieyasu moved his clan to Edo, one would think that only his chief retainers came with him. But merchants and artisans viewed as critical were encouraged to come and jump start the building of his new capital. Merchants from his former holdings came to Edo in droves after 1603. Japanese history books often talk about Mikawa samurai and the influence they had in Edo as they came from the same province Ieyasu was born in, 三河国岡崎藩 Mikawa no Kuni Okazaki-han Okazaki Domain, Mikawa Province. However, during his rise to power, Ieyasu was lord of 岡崎城 Okazaki-jō Okazaki Castle, then 駿府城 Sunpu-jō Sunpu Castle, and finally 浜松城 Hamamatsu-jō Hamamatsu Castle[vi].

Super digital Hamamatsu Castle with cherry blossoms.

Super creepy digital Hamamatsu Castle with cherry blossoms.

 

Given the amount of artist and merchant relocation from Ieyasu’s previous holdings to Edo, it’s not unreasonable to assume some guy named Gonbei from Hamamatsu ended up in this area. If he were clever and resourceful enough, could he become a 名主 nanushi village headman?

Well, it turns out there’s a possible explanation for this. It seems that the Tokugawa Shōgunate gave a fair degree of autonomy to each village and that the villages could actually elect their headmen. If we assume that Gonbei was elected, we might also be able to assume that Kyūemon had been appointed in the beginning to ensure the shōgunate’s master plan was being implemented correctly. After he died or retired, the village would be left to their own devices and the “democratic” system of self-governance would take effect.

Gonbei, clearly a commoner, may have borne the epithet 浜松権兵衛 Hamamatsu Gonbei to distinguish himself from other Gonbeis in the village (it was a high frequency name, after all).

Is this etymology a hard, historical fact? No, it isn’t. With a little background and a little guess work can we make it work? Clearly so. And as skeptical as I was when I first heard the theory, I have to say this one can be wrapped up fairly tidily. But even if it weren’t true, we still gain a little insight into the building up of Edo, and – I don’t know about you, but – I didn’t know the villages were given that kind of autonomy.

勉強になりました benkyō ni narimashita I learned some shit.

Hamamatsu-cho Station in 1909, 1941, and 1996.

Hamamatsu-cho Station in 1909, 1941, and 1996.

 

The area was (is) located on Edo (Tōkyō) Bay. The kanji 浜 hama means seaside[vii]. 松 matsu means pine trees. A literal reading of the kanji would lead one to believe there were pine trees by the sea. I thought for sure I’d come across this theory, but I haven’t found anything yet[viii].

Next to Hamamatsu-chō Station, you’ll find a stunning daimyō garden called 旧芝離宮庭園 Kyū-Shiba Rikyū Teien Former Shiba Detached Palace. This is an interesting spot because it was originally the site of a senior councilor of the shōgun, 大久保忠朝 Ōkubo Tadatomo. He brought some stone gateposts from the former fortress of a retainer of the 後北条 Go-Hōjō the Late Hōjō[ix], and used them as the foundation of a 茶室 chashitsu teahouse. The teahouse is gone, but the stone posts remain on a hill on the site. If you erase the skyscrapers and put yourself into the dawn of the Edo Period, you can totally imagine enjoying tea in a small house, then exiting the building to enjoy a view of the ocean.

 

The foundations of the teahouse built from the gateposts of Matsuda Norihide’s fortress. Edo Period recycling at it’s best… I suppose. Looks a little cramped.

 

The Edo Period buildings have not lasted — for a number of reasons, least of which is the legacy of its name 離宮 rikyū which is term applied to secondary homes of the imperial family. It was an imperial “detached palace” until the end of WWII. As luck would have it, the imperial family didn’t fuck with the garden too much and as such we have 1 of 2 preserved daimyō gardens in Tōkyō. (Keep in mind there were hundreds of gardens spread across Edo.)

 

Perfect place to end the article. A true blend of Edo-Tokyo.

Perfect place to end the article.
A true blend of Edo-Tokyo.

 

 

 

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[i] I didn’t know that temples had magistrates, which raises more questions about pre-Tokugawa and early Tokugawa organizations of civil administration. Grad students, there are a few theses in there.
Also, remember, Zōjō-ji became the first Tokugawa Funerary temple in Edo when the 2nd shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada asked that he and his wife be interred there. The connection between this area and the Tokugawa is profoundly felt, even today.
[ii] This family name can also be read Okuzumi or Okusumi. I don’t know which is correct for this dude.
[iii] By the way, both of these are modern uses of the name, not pre-modern.
[iv] Edo Bay is a ridiculously defensible bay. Ieyasu probably couldn’t have gotten luckier in this deal – albeit he had to refashion his castle in the grand new style ushered in by Oda Nobunaga.
[v] Long time readers will know well my position on the myth that Edo was just “an obscure fishing village.” If you don’t know, read my article on What does Edo mean?
[vi] Located in 三河国 Mikawa no Kuni Mikawa Province, 駿河国 Suruga no Kuni Suruga Province, and 遠江国 Tōtōmi no Kuni Tōtōmi Province, respectively.
[vii] This is the same hama in Yokohama, also on the sea.
[viii] In Tokugawa Ienobu’s time, many pine trees were planted in the Tokugawa Seaside Palace here, which adds further confusion. That palace, also very nearby was, coincidentally, called 浜御殿 Hama Goten the Seaside Palace and today is called 旧浜離宮 Kyū-Hama Rikyū the Former Hama Detached Palace. This “hama” is actually a reference to the seaside and supposedly has no connection to the name Hamamatsu-chō.
[ix] Based in Odawara, they were the rulers of much of Kantō prior to Ieyasu.

What does Hikifune mean?

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

曳舟
Hikifune (pulling boats)

The Hikifune River

The Hikifune River

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

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

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

Let’s start with the kanji.

曳き
hiki

pull, tow, drag, haul


fune

boat

There are variants of both of these kanji.

pull, tow, drag, haul

[iii]

boat

[iv]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just walking along the river, one would think….

So What Is A Towpath?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the River Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[viii] What’s a “water park?” This.

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

Questions from Readers

In Japan on February 21, 2014 at 8:32 am
Wanna know who this is? So did other readers. Today I'll tell you!

Wanna know who this dude is?
So did other readers.
Today I’ll tell you!

I don’t get a lot of e-mails, but I’ve gotten a few over the past few months asking about my personal opinions or musings on certain topics. I don’t think Japan This! is really the place for my personal opinions on things like the “Do you think Korea has a good argument for renaming the Sea of Japan “the East Sea?” That said, I’m a human being and of course I have opinions on such topics.

So I wrote a 5 page article answering reader questions about my personal opinions on a few topics related to Japan and Tokyo. I included a little hate mail, too. (Believe it or not, I do get hate mail from time to time.)

I’ve posted the article on my Patreon page. For those who don’t know, Patreon is a crowd sourcing network that let’s you support artists, bloggers, and other creative people. Basically, if you like all this free content and you want to make a donation to support the blog, it’s a safe and trustworthy way to do so.

Some topics that get discussed are:

What does “Japan This” mean?
The Senkaku Islands.
Eating dolphins.
Hate mail. (My favorite part!)
 Much, much more…

The article is here:

http://www.patreon.com/creation?hid=240821

Begging for donations or charging for content makes me feel like shit, so even if you don’t donate, I’ve decided to include a free post here. I really appreciate everyone who reads Japan This! If no one read this, I wouldn’t do it.

Well, that’s not true. It’s a labor of love. I’d still do it. But it just wouldn’t be as much fun. So thank you to each and every one of my readers (even the ones who send me hate mail). I have lots of love for you. And don’t worry, this blog is always going to be free!

OK, so as for today’s post, I just went to the Regional Immigration Office (every expat’s favorite place in the world), and I had to change trains at Daimon Station. I love this station because inside they have a few old pictures up on the wall. I decided to make a video of one huge photograph they have on display. This panoramic photograph shows a view from Tokyo Station/Marunouchi to Tōkyō Castle (Edo Castle) to Yurakucho/Hibiya Park and Shiodome (which at the time was called Shinbashi). Tameike Sannō was still an 池 ike lake. Sotobori Road was still a moat. You can see the Shiba area is still more or less Zōjō-ji’s massive, wooded precincts and that the bay is lacking the sprawling man-made islands that protect central Tōkyō from the sea. It’s really a spectacular photo.

Why is Roppongi called Roppongi

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

六本木
Roppongi (the 6 trees)

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Just a quick heads up, this was written in Open Office, which is one of the shittiest pieces of software ever. It’s free, so I don’t expect much, but every time I use this program, the text formatting is all funky. So please forgive all the weird font changes and font size changes. It wasn’t written that way.
Word Press and Open Office don’t play well together.

ropponig croossing

I actually wrote about this topic once beforei.

On February 10th of last year, I was still trying to figure out how to breathe life back into a stagnant blog. I was determined to commit to it and was keeping up with my idea of “if I don’t have a big topic to write about, I’ll cover one Tōkyō place name a week.” In the beginning there was minimal research put in because I just covered a few topics that I was familiar with. Now one year later, JapanThis has transformed into something beautiful – something I’m fiercely proud of.

So Roppongi wasn’t the first place name I covered, but it was one of the really early ones. The reason I chose it was because it was relatively easy. Looking back at this 2 paragraph monstrosity, I feel a deep and dark shame. It’s nowhere near the level of quality I demand of myself now. It’s embarrassing and makes me want to vomit out of my ass and/or commit seppuku.

But today I’m going to set the record straight.

Today, Roppongi is a party town. For years it’s been popular with foreigners due to its proximity to so many foreign embassies. Because of this proximity, the area is relatively English-friendly which makes it a destination for foreigners visiting Japan and the seedy businesses that often cater to (or try to take advantage of) foreigners.

Roppongi has a bad reputation among Tōkyōites and among foreigners who try learn the so-called “Japanese Way.” I’m not really into Roppongi. But I’ve learned to not hate on it so much over the years and as it turns out, the area has a very interesting history if you leave the so-called Roppongi Crossing area, which is pretty much one of the most irritating places in the world.

Alright, so let’s get into this…

b0061717_0321615

So, Roppongi. What does it mean?


If we look at the kanji:

六本
roppon

6 tall, cylindrical things


ki

trees
(generally, tall and cylindrical)

There are a few opinions about this etymology. As any seasoned reader of JapanThis knows, the kanji can’t always be trusted to accurately reflect ancient place names. I mentioned as an aside in my article on Why was Edo called Edo? That this area, now called Minato-ku had been inhabited by humans for a very long time. From the get go, I want to say that there is a chance that this is name that may or may not be Japanese. It may or may not have anything to do with the kanji we have have today. To be blunt, there is no way of knowing.

The one thing we do know for sure is that the first recorded reference to “Roppongi” came in 1828 (late Edo Period) in a correspondence with the shōgunate. However, we don’t know exactly what area was being referred to. In fact, Roppongi didn’t appear on a map until 1878 with the creation of 麻布区 Azabu-ku Azabu Wardii.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the "shoten-gai." The botom two pitctures are of Roppongi Crossing.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the “shoten-gai.” The bottom two pictures are of Roppongi Crossing.

 

THEORY 1
Literal: There were 6 tall trees used as landmarks

Roppongi is one of the highest plateaux in Tōkyō. This theory says that waaaaaaaay back – most likely some time between the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period – there was a place here called 六方庵 Roppō-an Hermitage of the 6 Directions. In the garden of this residence, there were 6 tall trees.

The kanji iori/an is puzzling. It usually refers to a rustic home or tea house. However, in the Heian Period it could refer to a military encampment, headquarters, barracks, or even a fortress. More about this later.

Anyhoo, because of it’s elevation and high visibility, the 6 tall trees were landmarks. People disagree about whether these were matsu pine trees or keyaki zelkova trees. This theory refers to a time so long ago that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. The presence of keyaki trees is intriguing, though, because today there is a street called 欅坂 Keyakizaka between Azabu and Roppongi.

If you dropped the word iori/an hermitage, and added the kanji ki trees, in the local dialect it became Roppon-gi. A variation of this etymology is that it comes from 六方の木 Roppō no ki which got reduced to Roppo’ n’ gi. More about this later.

Obviously, we don’t know if this place actually existed, but linguistically speaking, it’s plausible. These kind of sound changes are observable in Modern Japanese. Anyone with exposure to day-to-day Japanese of our era will certainly have seen and heard this kind of vernaculariii.

6 trees

THEORY 2
Literal: It’s derived from a family name

This is actually two theories, but they’re based on the premise that that there was a noble family called 六方 Roppō that lived here before the Edo Periodiv.
1) In the local dialect,
六方家 Roppō-ke the Roppō Family was pronounced Roppo-ngi.
2) The area was considered
六方気 Roppō-ki Roppō-ish or Roppō style, which in the local dialect was pronounced Roppo-ngi.

The interesting thing about this theory is that it also refers to Roppō and reinforces the Roppō-an theoryv. Whether it was a rustic hermitage or noble’s fortress, the high ground would be very suitable.

Linguistically, the sound changes are absolutely plausible.

There just isn’t any other evidence besides these etymology stories. No deeds of the Edo Roppō family. No tales of legendary tea ceremonies at Roppō Hermitage. No references to this place at all. And to top it all off, Roppō isn’t a family name today (as far as I can tell)vi.

when i hear the word "庵,”  I imagine this kind of building.

when i hear the word “庵,” I imagine this kind of building.



THEORY 3
Figurative: A legendary 6 man sep
puku party went down here

During the 源平合戦 Genpei Gassen Genpei Warvii, the Genji forces pursued 6 Taira samurai and fought until 5 died here. A single Taira samurai managed to escape and rather than being cut down, slit his own belly to resist capture or execution. He died under a solitary pine tree. They group was remembered by the local people as “the 6 pines trees.” A variation of this story says that they all committed seppuku.

This isn’t a very likely etymology because, of course, there are no suriving shrines, graves, or much of anything to back up this theory. What’s more, there is another twist on this story that says these samurai were actually deserters, and traditionally Japanese people don’t take kindly to stories of deserters.

Either way you look at it, deserters or heros, this is a cool story because any story that ends in seppuku is – by definition – cool. But there’s not a single piece of evidence to back up.

There is such a thing as "seppuku fetish." And yes, is sexualized.

There is such a thing as “seppuku fetish.”And yes, it goes something like this… 

Theory 4
Creative: It’s a reference to 6 daimyō who lived here during the Edo Period

In English, this theory is usually stated as: “In the Edo Period, there were 6 major daimyō residences located here and so the area was named Roppongi.” But this is a great over-simplification, as you will soon see. There were MANY daimyō living in this area. Many city blocks of present Minato Ward still conform to the shape of the vast estates that once stood here. The crux of this theory is not that there were just 6 daimyō here, but that there were 6 daimyō who had family names that referenced trees in their family namesviii.

Let’s take a look at the daimyō who are generally cited:

 

上杉
Uesugi
米沢藩
Yonezawa Han

above the cedar trees The Minsitry of Foreign Affairs and Azabu Post Office sit on the former upper and middle residences of Yonezawa Domain.

朽木
Kutsuki
朽木藩
Kustuki Han

decaying trees I can’t find the location of their Edo residences (one source says the upper residence was in Akasaka), but the family used Sengaku-ji as their funerary temple.

青木
Aoki
新見藩
Niimi Han

green trees I can’t find their Edo residences, but the funerary temple of the Aoki clan of Niimi Domain is located at Zuishō-ji in Shirokane-dai.

片桐
Katagiri
竜田藩
Tatsuta Han

off-kilter pauwlonia tree Allegedly, this family’s lower residence was located on Toriizaka. This is hard for me to confirm because, well, I’ll get into it later.

高木
Takagi
丹南藩

Tan’nan Han

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

一柳
Hitotsuyanagi
(Ichiyanagi)
小野藩
Ono Han
小松藩

Komatsu Han

a single weeping willow The family funerary temple was Zōjō-ji! If I’m not mistaken, their cemetary is now located across from Tōkyō tower where Kondō Isami’s father is buried. The upper residence was once located in west Shinbashi. (There were two daimyō families located in this area with same name; I don’t know anything else about them).

This is the most popular theory by a long shot. Even Wikipedia likes it.

But it has a few problems. No Edo Period maps listed anything as Roppongi. This isn’t unusual, as time and time again we say common nicknames get applied to areas in the administrative re-shuffling that happened in the Meiji Era. But it also means, we don’t really know where the area originally referred to was nor do we know its size. Besides, if I had a penny for every Japanese family name with a reference to a tree in it, I’d be able to buy your mom – several times over.

But looking at the table above, you can see these daimyō mansions were in Shinbashi, Akasaka, Azabu, and Shirokane. This is all in present day Minato Ward – which doesn’t mean anything when trying to pinpoint a specific place. But it does mean something when you are walking somewhere, as people did before cars and trains. There is a certain centrality about the location of these daimyō.

But today Roppongi is a specific area and postal address. None of these daimyō had mansions in the area we would consider Roppongi today. In all fairness, the Takagi and Katagiri were literally right on the border, though. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the exact locations of some residences isn’t completely known – and in some cases, the daimyō family moved (or were re-shuffled).

That said, the location of funerary temples of some of the lesser daimyō in the vicinity does lend a bit of credence to the story. The other interesting thing is that some of the “mystery residences” are those of the Aoki, the Kutsuki, the Takagi, and the Katagiri. The first three just barely met the minimum kokudaka for daimyō status. If their domains’ value slipped below 10,000 koku, they could have had their domains confiscated. In 1650, Katagiri Tametsugu was demoted to hatamoto status for 無嗣断絶 mushi danzetsu the crime of dying without an appointed heirix. Tatsuta Domain was confiscated, subsequently abolished, and the family was reshuffled. Dying without an heir was considered an act of such abject stupidity by the shōgunate, that it always required immediate action. I would tend to agree. In a “feudal” society, if you don’t have a designated successor, you probably shouldn’t be governing anything. But then again, the boy was only 15.

Anyhoo, this seems to be the strongest theory simply because it’s the only with any evidence. It’s not air tight by any stretch of the imagination; much of its appeal coming from the fact that most people don’t know (or care) exactly where daimyō Edo residences were. True or not, in my opinion, this is the most interesting theory.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion. This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were. They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion.
This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were.
They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.
And yes, this is their upper residence. and as such it’s located at Edo Castle.

THEORY 5
Figurative: 6 hitching poles…


There’s another theory about 6 poles (by extension, places) where you could tie up your horse. This is mostly a reference to (by Edo Period standards) nearby
Nihonbashi and not this area. Perhaps the idea being, samurai traveling long distances, could swap out a horse there, and then proceed to their 藩邸 hantei domain residence (essentially an embassay) on a horse that didn’t look worn out.

So, yup! Someone thought hitching poles near Nihonbashi would make a great place name over in Roppongi. The one thing I can say in defense of this theory is that, as I said before, until the name Roppongi was made official in the early Meiji Era under a western administrative system we have no idea where the name Roppongi referred to.

In conclusion, we have no idea where the name comes from. If you love historical linguistics or dialects, you might favor theories 1 & 2. If you’re a big fan of the Edo-Tōkyō, you probably like theory 4. Admittedly, they are appealing. The others have some charm, but ostensibly lack credibility.

But if you know them all, you can really see the hidden beauty of Edo-Tōkyō. Hopefully you can see why I’m so passionate about this city’s history. This is something I would never have said about Roppongi a few years ago. Foreigners who become “lifers” in Tōkyō generally shun Roppongi because Roppongi is for the newbies. Roppongi is for the idiots, Roppongi is for rich foreigners who can’t speak Japanese, Roppongi is where every sort of shadiness goes down. But for those of us who love Japanese History, especially Edo-Tōkyō, there is sooooooooooo much good shit in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for us, most of the best parts of Tōkyō are hidden. You really have to know where to look.

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

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___________________________
i OMG, OMG, OMG, don’t get me started on how bad this blog started out.
ii Pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Azabu Ward no longer exists.
iii Some well known examples are 本当 hontō true reduced to honto and no is regularly reduced to /n/. And /g/ is often pronounced with a /n/ sound before it; すごい sugoiすんごい sungoi.
iv Allegedly.
v I haven’t come across this etymology, but one wonders if a mix of the Roppōan and Roppō family is possible. If there were 6 trees located on the property of the Roppō family, you could get a pun based on 六方の木 Roppō no ki (Roppo’ n’ gi) the Roppō’s trees and 六本木 Roppongi 6 trees. Call me crazy, but that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
vi A Google search just pulls up restaurants and geometry references (roppō literally means hexagon).
vii What exactly was the Genpei War? In short, it was a war between the Minamoto and Taira. More details here!
viii If you’re wondering what the hell a daimyō is and why there residences are CRUCIAL to understanding the history of Tōkyō, please read my short summary of sankin-kōtai here.
ix The family continued and committed mushi danzetsu a couple more times. After been so heavily punished by the shōgunate, you’d think the family would have set up some policy. I guess they weren’t the brightest bunch.

What does Asakusa mean?

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

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

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

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

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

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

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

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

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

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

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

The Story So Far…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

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

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

This

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

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

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

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

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

Kabuki

Kabuki

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

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

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

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

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

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

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

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

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

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

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

Look at the Kanji

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

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

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

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

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

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


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

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

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

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

Tibetan

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

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

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

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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

10 Ways to Learn Japanese History

In Japanese History on October 8, 2013 at 5:17 pm

日本史やばくねぇ?
What is a good book about Japanese History?

japan_history

I get a lot of private messages about the blog, and in the last month or two I’ve gotten a few that were asking more or less the same thing. Here’s one reader’s e-mail:[i]

I’m a JET living in Saitama and working in Tokyo. Sometimes I get lost reading your blogs because I don’t know the basics of Japanese history. Your Japanese Eras page is great, but sometimes I see other era names come up that I don’t recognize. I want to educate myself on Japanese History as a whole but I don’t know where to begin so can you recommend some books or websites for me to come to grips with Japan’s long history? I haven’t really studied Japanese either so I’m looking for English books.

This is a great question. And to everyone else who asked similar questions and I told to wait[ii], I’m going to answer all of your questions today.

When I started this blog, I wanted to explain Japan to foreigners in basic terms. If you go back and look at the earliest blogs, they were pretty simple and assumed the reader didn’t know anything. But as the focus has become more and more specialized, I’ve found it harder and harder to be general and beginner-friendly. I think I’ve gone past the point of no return on that one. But for those of you who are trying to keep up, this page will arm you with all the goodies you need to come up to speed in some ways.

japan a cultural history (book)

Japan: A Short Cultural History
George Bailey Samson

I picked this book up about 12 years ago while killing time at Penn Station in NYC. I had never read anything about Japan or Japanese history at the time. It was a cheap paperback that I could read on the train while commuting. I read it once during some summer commutes in NYC. A few years later, after learning a little more about Japan history and having visited Japan twice, I re-read it. It was even better the second time[iii]. I don’t have the book here with me in Japan, but I have fond memories of this book.

It was written in the 1930’s and I had no idea at the time that it was a classic survey of Japanese history; I was just looking for some light reading. So this is great, broad overview of the history of Japan. Because of its age, modern academics may level some criticism at this book, but for the beginner, it’s accessible, clear, and is a great launch pad into other areas of Japanese history and culture. I recommend you start here.

the life of tokugawa ieyasu (book)

The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu
A.L. Sadler

This is another book I just picked up randomly. By this time, I could shop on the internet easily and I found a used copy and was delighted to find the locations of the Tokugawa shōguns’ graves in one of the indexes. No matter what long term fans of Japanese history think of this book, it pointed me in the right direction towards my goal of surveying all the Tokugawa shōguns’ graves; a goal I still haven’t attained (10 years later).

This book was first published in the 1930’s, so while scholars of today may have some bones to pick with it, it is a classic. Understanding Tokugawa Ieyasu is one of the keys to understanding the Edo Period, but the man himself barely lived in the Edo Period. He was very much a product of the late Sengoku Period and as such the door that he helped close very much affected the door he helped open. People who love Japanese history tend to get burned out on Ieyasu over time, so it’s best to learn as much as much about the dude as you can in the beginning. This book is a great place to start.

edo the city that become tokyo (book)

Edo, the City that Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History
Akira Naito

I’m recommending this book without having actually read it cover to cover. I don’t even own it. But I have seen it from time to time and what I saw looked like Coffee Table Book PLUS. And the PLUS would be “plus awesome.” It’s not a survey of Japanese history, but it is a survey of Edo-Tōkyō history, and as such, it’s relevant to JapanThis!.

I like pictures and maps and drawings to accompany historical writings (something most historians suck balls at doing – the pictures are always a lazy afterthought). That’s one of the reasons I try to include so many picture here. If you want pictures to enhance your history reading, you’re probably gonna dig this book.

the tea ceremony (book)

The Tea Ceremony
Sen’o Tanaka & Sendo Tanaka

My grandmother-in-law gave me this book. She’s a tea master to some elite families and I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying tea with her, but I haven’t undergone any training yet. That said, this book has helped me understand tea culture in Japan a lot. It especially helped me with my recent article on Yūrakuchō. It’s also helping me bond with my grandmother-in-law, which is fascinating.

This book really emphasizes the history and architectural and design elements of tea ceremony as a Japanese cultural phenomenon. It won’t really teach you how to do tea ceremony. But, of course, that’s the point. It’s an aesthetic. You’ll have to learn the art from an accomplished tea master. But this book will definitely prime you for the world you’re stepping into.

musui's story (book)

Musui’s Story
Katsu Kokichi

OK, I’m not even exaggerating when I say that this may be one of the best books in the world. Hands down. A middle class hatamoto (direct retainer of the shōgun) writes a book to his son about how to grow up and be a good samurai – a noble example of leading by example, which was the samurai’s role in the Edo Period – but in teaching said lesson he just tells crazy stories bragging about what a fuck up he was. Imagine a book written by your craziest friend that was just a bunch of “This one time, I was sooooo wasted that…” stories. Imagine those stories being in the late Edo Period – all with the premise of “Son, one day you’ll grow up and be a man. And I want you to learn from my mistakes. But, OMG, this other time, I went drinking and whoring in Yoshiwara and…”

Needless to say, Kokichi’s son grew up to be the legendary Katsu Kaishū who saved the Tokugawa, saved the city of Edo from destruction, saved Edo Castle, and assisted in a reasonably bloodless transition of power from shōgunate to imperial court.

The awesome thing about this book is it will shatter any romanticized ideals you may have about samurai. It humanizes them by showing you what daily life was like for middle class samurai families at the time right before Commodore Perry came and Japan fell into chaos. This is, quite literally, the calm before the storm. It’s fascinating and you won’t be able to put it down.

___________________________________________________

You wanna podcast? We gotta podcast!

You’d think there’d be a lot of podcasts about Japanese history, but there aren’t. But there are a few very unique and very awesome people who have pioneered the Japanese History podcast world. There are thousands of books on Japanese History but in this day and age some people don’t want to read or just don’t have the time. In that case, get your podcast on. I’m also going to talk about a few other online resources.

 

a short history of japan (podcast)

A Short History of Japan
Cameron Foster

First, I’d like to introduce A Short History of Japan which made for an awesome and fun survey of Japanese history from the obscure mythological beginnings of the Yamato Court up to an abrupt ending at the beginning of the Edo Period. I know that I’m not the only one who has been kept hanging since the podcast stopped.

This podcast is great for the beginner because the host, Cameron, doesn’t assume any previous knowledge of Japan or Japanese History. Nevertheless, he goes into detail on a number of issues[iv] that were awesome for me because if this were a book, my eyes would have glazed over. But in this format, it’s fantastic.

samurai-archives

Samurai Archives

I’ve been referring to these guys for solid information on Japanese History since the first time I got interested in Japanese history. I kiss their collective asses regularly on JapanThis! – as anyone who actually clicks the embedded links I painstakingly add to every articles knows.

Originally a website featuring a wiki, original articles, reference materials, interviews and one of the nerdiest community forums I’ve ever seen, in recent years they started podcasting. Episodes 10-24 are a panel discussion-style survey of Japanese history from pre-historic times up to the unification of the realm under Toyotomi Hideyoshi[v]. This is an excellent place to start your path into Japanese History. The best thing is that these guys cite their sources, so if you find something you like, they’ll tell you where to get more material[vi].

If you’re looking for an awesome podcast that is still going, then this is the one for you. Since that initial survey they did, the podcast has covered a broad range of topics – often with a skeptical and un-romanticized view of old Japan[vii]. Many, but not all, episodes require a certain familiarity with the chronology and major events. But just by listening, you’ll start to get a feel for the world you’re stepping into. They have a decidedly academic but off the cuff approach. They’re undeniably the rock stars of Japanese History on the internet. I can’t recommend them enough.

japan world

Japan World
Chris Glenn

Recently, I’ve really been digging this guy’s site. Although it’s a bilingual site, for beginners, it’s probably a bit intimidating because the content is mostly Japanese. But if you’re interested in Japanese History, consider subbing to this RSS feed and think of that as a chance to improve your Japanese reading skills while still getting some quality interviews and articles in English, too.

This website is one to watch. I don’t think there’s been a website like this for Japan History yet. It’s run by one Chris Glenn who has a host of media credits and is involved in many efforts to spread Japanese culture far and wide.

wiki - history of japan

Wikipedia

Duh.

If you haven’t looked here yet, then maybe you should. In terms of a general chronology, Wikipedia isn’t half bad[viii]. All of the resources I mentioned above have much more interesting angles, but if you just need a quick crash course, then this is good.


Crash Course

Speaking of crash courses - here’s how Japanese history is generally viewed from a western, narrative view. The mispronunciations “eedo,” “bukoofoo,” and “tiyotomi hiday yoshi” plus the bizarre claim that the emperor abolished the bukoofoo and restored imperial power to himself make this well worth the watch[ix].

UPDATE: I knew the Samson and Sadler books would catch me some flak. These are both books I bought blindly years ago (and have fond memories of). They were some of the first books I ever bought on Japanese History… about 10 years ago, if my memory serves me well. I included disclaimers along the lines of “some modern academics may have problems with these books.” Well, sure enough, some did.

One of said academics who teaches a survey course of Japanese History is Mindy Landek. She has a great blog and a Twitter feed that I highly recommend.  Her substitutions were these:

These books could be replacements for the Samson book that I recommended.

As for a biography of Ieyasu, yes, I know Sadler’s 1930’s book must be outdated, but I haven’t read any more recent book on the topic. So if anyone else wants to recommend a bio of Ieyasu for beginners, please leave it in the comments below to share with us all.

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[i] They wouldn’t let me use their name, so I didn’t. If you send private messages, please let me know your preference, too.

[ii] Or I didn’t reply to (just because I’m busy, nothing personal, ok?)

[iii] Because I had more context.

[iv] The spread of Buddhism and the arrival of guns and gun powder come to mind.

[v] With a brief mention of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the end; the implied joke being that there were no real samurai in the Edo Period… an idea no doubt put forward by the inimitable Nate Ledbetter.

[vi] Something I should start doing… but can you imagine the amount of footnotes I have then?

[vii] While it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, there is a serious military perspective as well. One member, Nate, is a career military dude who brings the martial reality of the Sengoku Period through rational and skeptical analysis – something that is generally overlooked in Japanese History.

[viii] I wouldn’t trust them on specializations, including etymology.

[ix] If I were recommending a fun survey course of world history for high school kids, I would recommend this series because it’s fast paced, witty, and makes history look cool

What does Ushigome Tansu Machi mean?

In Japanese History on September 26, 2013 at 2:31 am

牛込箪笥町
Ushigome Tansu Machi (Crowd of Cows Dresser Town)

Welcome to a part of Tokyo that in 8 years I have never been to. Need to rectify that situation somebody.

Welcome to a part of Tokyo that in 8 years I have never been to.
Need to rectify that situation some day.

Yesterday I talked about Ushigome.

When normal Japanese people think of the word 箪笥 tansu traditional dresser, they will think of this:

Tansu - a traditional Japanese chest of drawers (dresser).

Tansu – a traditional Japanese chest of drawers (dresser).

And indeed, that is what the word (kanji and all) means. But why would this end up in a place name?

Good question.

Well, it turns out that in this case, tansu doesn’t refer to furniture. It refers to weapons.

Wait. Whaaaa?

Well, it turns out that in the Edo Period the general term for the arms, armor, and ordnance of the shōgunate was 箪笥 tansu.

In 1713, this area was entrusted to a local magistracy and a 町 machi town was developed. The original name of the town was 牛込御箪笥町 Ushigome go-tansu machi. By the way, 御箪笥 go-tansu is the honorific term for 箪笥 tansu.

The title of the magistrate who oversaw the private arsenals of the shōgunate was 簞笥奉行 tansu bugyō[i]. His office managed the full sets of armor, bows and arrows, and lances of the shōgunate. The people who worked under this office weren’t only in charge of weapons, though. The broad office title of 御納戸役 o-nandoyaku store room service referred to the mid-level samurai[ii] who would fetch and file and take inventory and maintain the clothes, supplies and furniture of the shōgunal family. They might also do the day to day work of managing the transactions of the shōgunal coffers. When gifts had to be given to lords or (god forbid) foreign emissaries, these were the samurai clerks who made it happen. Whether the magistrate or the warehouses themselves were in this area isn’t really important. The name derives from the fact that dormitories, 武家屋敷長屋 buke yashiki nagaya long houses, and the homes of other officials associated with this type of work were based here. So while this name is confusing to us now, in the Edo Period it was a way of designating what work and what class of samurai were living in the area[iii]. A samurai clerk of this level would make a stipend of 100-200 koku[iv].

Typical samurai residences.

Typical samurai long houses of the type we might expect to see in Ushigome. As hatamoto, Notice the greenery in front of the houses to make the homes more private. As residents of the yamanote (the high city) I reckon this would have been the norm for hatamoto of this status. Some larger detached domiciles must have been located there too.
All in all, not a bad place to raise a family in the Edo Period.
(this picture isn’t from Tokyo, by the way… in Tokyo nothing like this exists anymore)

In Tōkyō, there are a few areas that still exist with this unique place name:

Azabu Tansu Machi
・ Shitaya Tansu Machi
・ Ushigome Tansu Machi
・ Yotsuya Tansu Machi

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[i] Edo period → modern Japanese .

[ii] Mostly hatamoto, but not always. I think in modern Japan, this would be the equivalent of a “normal” salaryman in middle or upper-middle management. It would have been a lot of “yes man” work and kowtowing, but it would afford you a very decent lifestyle.
The word 納戸 nando has a few meanings: back room, closet, storage room. Once we understand the meaning of the word nando the nuance of the word tansu starts become apparent.

[iv] Someone has calculated what they think is a conversion rate for koku, arriving at the conclusion that 1 koku = about $750. If that’s the case these samurai were at an income level of $75,000-$150,000 a year. Plenty of spare cash for gallivanting about[v] in Yoshiwara.
[v] Footnote of a footnote says: “gallivanting about” is a polite way to say “drinking and whoring.”

What does Ryogoku mean?

In Japanese History on June 25, 2013 at 3:30 am

両国
Ryōgoku (Both Provinces)

Fireworks from Ryogoku Bridge and the Sumida River.

Fireworks from Ryogoku Bridge and the Sumida River.

Love sumō?

Love the 47 Rōnin?

Love chanko nabe?

Love Japanese History?

Love Japanese girls with glasses?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then Ryōgoku is the place for you!

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Ryogoku Sumo Hall - It's What's For Dinner

Ryogoku Sumo Hall

Ryōgoku is home to the 両国国技館 Ryōgoku Kokugikan Ryōgoku Sumo Hall. Order yourself a little 日本酒 nihonshu sake and enjoy watching fat men hugging and then throwing each other out of a circle.

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The gate to that little bitch Kira Kozunosuke's residence.

The gate to that little bitch Kira Kozunosuke’s residence.

If you’re into the 赤穂浪士 Akō Rōshi the 47 Rōnin, the bitch that they stalked and hunted down and killed like a fucking sick dog had a residence here. Some of the walls and gate of that residence are preserved and are a stone’s throw from the Edo-Tōkyō Museum.

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Chanko Nabe. The Meal of Champions.

Chanko Nabe.
The Meal of Champions.

お相撲さんo-sumō-san sumō wrestlers have traditionally eaten ちゃんこ鍋  chanko nabe[i] in order to fatten up. Ironically, it’s super healthy. There are tons of chanko nabe restaurants in Ryōgoku because there are many 相撲部屋  sumōbeya sumō training schools located there.

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All Your Bass Are Belong to Us

Japanese History Has Landed

If you love Japanese history, you can find the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum in Ryōgoku. It’s easily one of the best museums in all of Japan and a must-see tourist destination for anyone who wants to visit Tōkyō[ii]. Also, it looks like a giant space craft which just adds to its badassness[iii]. Also, they have volunteer English guides who will give you a tour for free!![iv]

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けいおん!

Japanese Girls with Glasses
けいおん!

And finally, if you love Japanese girls who wear glasses, Ryōgoku is the place for you. Because Ryōgoku is in Japan, and there are a lot of Japanese people there. Statistically speaking, about half of them are female. And statistically speaking, about half of those females are wearing glasses!!![v]

How much better can it get???

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but-wait.....


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Let’s talk about the etymology of Ryōgoku. After all, that’s my shtick, baby.

In the past I’ve talked about 藩 han domains and 国 kuni provinces. Well, in the old days, as they say, there were two 国 kuni provinces divided by the 隅田川  Sumidagawa Sumida River. Those provinces were 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province. The Tokugawa Shōguns’ direct authority ruled over the city of Edo, and the greater Edo area sprawled across these two provinces. In 1659, The shōgunate built a bridge spanning the Sumida River and, voilà!, linked the 2 provinces. Hence the area is called Ryōgoku, or the place where both provinces met in Edo. Oh, how the shōgunate was magical like that!

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More Sumida River Fireworks at Ryogoku

More Sumida River Fireworks at Ryogoku

So, anyways, if you visit Tōkyō, you have to come to this place. The museum alone is worth your time. I’m a long term resident of Tōkyō and I regularly return to this museum for the special exhibits. If you go there, or have gone there, I’d like to hear about your experience!!! There’s a comments section just for that!

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[i] Not to be confused with チンコ鍋 which is something entirely different.

[ii] Pro Tip #1: Read my blog before you go. Bring my blog with you as you go.

[iii] Pro Tip #2: Don’t eat at the restaurants in the museum.

[iv] Pro Tip #3: I’ve never used a free English guide, but if you can read Japanese, they have a study room with access to thousands of maps and documents about the history of Edo-Tōkyō. It’s free to use and I can’t recommend it enough.

[v] DISCLAIMER: I have no idea about the statistics of glasses wearers in Japan.

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