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Posts Tagged ‘kamakura’

Ōedo Line: Ochiai-Minami-Nagasaki

In Japanese History on July 15, 2015 at 6:25 am

落合南長崎
Ochiai Minami-Nagasaki (combination of two names)

i-terrace is a shopping center located in the area. Meh.

i-terrace is a shopping center located in the area. Meh.

This station sits at the border of Shinjuku Ward and Toshima Ward. On the Shinjuku side, the area is called 西落合 Nishi-Ochiai West Ochiai. On the Toshima side, it’s called 南長崎 Minami Nagasaki South Nagasaki. When the station name was chosen, both place names were combined to protect the delicate sensibilities of the inhabitants of both wards.

Ochiai is an easy name to explain. It comes from the Japanese compound verb 落ち合う ochiau which describes when roads or river meet up. In this case, it refers to the confluence of the 妙正寺川 Myōshōji-gawa Myōshōji River and the 神田川 Kanda-gawa Kanda River. Nagasaki is not a reference to the famous city of Nagasaki in Kyūshū. In the Kamakura Period, this area was the fief of the 長崎氏 Nagasaki-shi Nagasaki clan who were retainers of the 北条氏 Hōjō-shi Hōjō clan, the shōgunal regents in Kamakura.

This decommissioned Keikyū carriage sits in front of the Katō Hobby Center Showroom, a model train shop.

This decommissioned Keikyū carriage sits in front of the Katō Hobby Center Showroom, a model train shop.

I’ve never used this station, but from the looks of things on Google Maps, it’s just a residential area. There are some university campuses and a park and not much else of note.

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This is part of an ongoing series that begins here

Setagaya and its Freaky Horse Fetish

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

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

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Horse girl

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

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

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

Name

Meaning

Current Status

馬引沢
Umahikizawa

horse pulling ravine

This place name survives in abbreviated forms
駒繋
Komatsunagi

horse hitching

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

駒留
Komadome

horse stopping

The name survives as Komadome Hachiman Shrine

駒沢
Komazawa

horse ravine

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

葦毛塚
Ashige-zuka

gray haired horse burial mound

The name survives as a landmark

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

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

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

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OK, Let’s Get Started

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

上馬引沢村
Kami-Umahikizawa Mura

Upper Umahikizawa Village

中馬引沢村
Naka-Umahikizawa Mura

Middle Umahikizawa Village

下馬引沢村
Shimo- Umahikizawa Mura

Lower Umahikizawa Village

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

上屋敷
kami-yashiki

upper residence

中屋敷
naka-yashiki

middle residence

下屋敷
shimo-yashiki

lower residence

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

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

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

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

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What does Umahikizawa mean?

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

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

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

How Does This Place Name Survive?

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

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).

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What Does Ashige-zuka Mean?

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

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

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

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What does Komatsunagi mean?

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

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

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

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

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

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

I want some plot resolution, dammit.

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

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

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What does Komadome mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

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

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

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.

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What does Komazawa mean?

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

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.

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

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Are These Etymologies True?

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

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

What does Asakusa mean?

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

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

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

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

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

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

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

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

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

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

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

The Story So Far…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

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

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

This

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

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

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

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

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

Kabuki

Kabuki

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

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

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

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

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

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

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

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

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

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

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

Look at the Kanji

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

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

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

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

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

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


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

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

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

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

Tibetan

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

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

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

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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

What does Yoga mean?

In Japanese History on October 23, 2013 at 8:55 am


Yōga (Yoga)

cool subway entrance

Pretty cool amphitheater-esque subway entrance!

In Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward there is an area and a train station called 用賀 Yōga. I don’t know what native Japanese speakers think of this name, but it doesn’t really look like a place to me. The first kanji means “task” or “use.” The second kanji means “congratulations.”

If the popular etymology is true, then this place has its origins in Sanskrit and not Japanesei.

However, I’m just gonna say this right now – I have some major gripes with the popular story. This name is obviously ateji, ie; kanji used for phonetic reasons. Because it is ateji, it marks this as a very ancient place name. That said, let’s keep an open mind and listen to the story in its entirety before we jump to any conclusions.

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

The common narrative goes a little something like this. From the Heian Period to the beginning of the Kamakura Period, a ヨガ道場 yoga dōjō yoga school operated here. The name 用賀村 Yōga Village ultimately derived from this yoga schoolii.

During the Sengoku Period, Yōga Village was a 門前町 monzenchō centered around 眞福寺 Shinpuku-ji, a temple for which I can find no further informationiii. In case you forgot, a monzenchō was a small town that developed around the mon front gate of a temple or shrineiv.

By the Edo Period, the village was an established 宿場 shukuba post town on the 大山街道 Ōyama Kaidōv. It was a small town, but it managed to flourish during the stability brought by the Tokugawa in the 1600’s.

But wait, there's more!

But wait, there’s more!

A Bizarre Plot Twist

Translating from the original Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese monks used the kanji 瑜伽 for yoga. The kanji can be read in Japanese as either yuga or yogavi.

In 1578, a temple was founded in the area. This temple was associated with the 真言宗 Shingon-shū True Word Buddhismvii. The temple, which still exists today, is called 真福寺 Shinpuku-ji. The temple’s honorary mountain name (sangō) is 瑜伽山 Yuga-zan which uses the classical characters for “yoga.viii

Japanese Yoga

This is the kinda yoga I could get into.
Titty yoga.

Some More Weirdness

That’s the official narrative. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that there are more discrepancies; there was another temple in the area before the 1578 temple.

I don’t know if the original temple, 実相眞福Jissō-san Shinpuku-ji, was re-established as 瑜伽山真福寺 Yuga-zan Shinpuku-ji or if the new temple borrowed and modified the name of the old temple but… the mountain names definitely changed. And while the pronunciation of the temple name was the same, the first kanji changed.

実相瑜伽山 Jissō-sanYuga-zan True Image Mountain → Yoga Mountain
眞福真福寺 Shinpuku-jiShinpuku-ji True Fortune Temple → True Fortune Temple

shinpukuji-0

The main hall (honden) of the modern Shinpukuji.

We have a very messy story hereix. Let’s re-cap:

・In the old days there was a yoga school in Yōga and the town got a name.
・The yoga school was apparently dead and gone by the Kamakura Period.
・There’s always been a connection with Shingon Buddhism.
・The town grew up around a non-extant temple.
・That temple either declined and/or a new temple showed up and assumed the same name – and yet, a different name and included the Chinese characters for “yoga” in their name.

.

It’s possible, man.
All of this is totally possible.
But….
Maybe some of the inconsistencies are just byproducts of how the story has been preserved – one record remembers it this way, one temple tradition remembers it that way. But also remember how off the beaten path this place was until the Kamakura Period.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

My opinion is that most of this is not trustworthy information. There are probably kernels of truth in there, but most of this too inconsistent to be taken seriously. By the time we have temple records (1578), the Edo Period is right around the corner. Record keeping in the area got better after 1600, but come on, hundreds of years of passing down stories had been going on. Successive religious institutions are great at keeping records, but religious institutions are also notorious for passing down myths and stories that sometimes seem plausible but never completely match up to the facts.

Finally, I’d like to say that there is also a real possibility that this name, clearly written in ateji, has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga, but actually has a more ancient originx.

Let’s say the jury is out on this one.



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i Let me clarify; Sanskrit – as filtered through Classical Chinese and later, Middle Japanese.

ii Yet no evidence of the school exists. Furthermore, the kanji is (not yo) in Modern Japanese. (But historical linguistics think there may have been up to 4 distinct sounds in Old Japanese that merged into the present /yo dichotomy. This may suggest an older origin, or it may evidence of a dialect, or both.)

iii The only other info I have is that its honorary mountain name was 実相Jissō-san. More about “mountain names” in a minute.

iv You can read more about this in my article on Monzen-nakachō.

v From my understanding, the Ōyama Kaidō was originally a pilgrimage route that ran from Mt. Ōyama (in Kanagawa Prefecture) and terminated near Akasaka in Edo.

vi In the Heian Period, the use of highfalutin kanji would have been the domain of highly educated monks and court elite. Ateji would have been par for the course in this rural coastal area of the Kantō. By the 1500’s, highfalutin kanji would par for the course.

vii Also called 真言秘密 Shingon Himitsu the True Word Secret. This is a type of esoteric Buddhism that I don’t know much about other than it sounds like utter horse shit. They have secret rites that teach the initiated how to summon demons, change the weather, and heal the sick by chanting or meditating or touching things. In other words, it makes claims about the nature of the universe and reality that are just as spurious as those of every other religion out there.

viii All Japanese temples have 3 names, 山号 sangō mountain name (a metaphorical mountain name), and 院号 ingō (cloister name – like a branch name), 寺号 jigō temple name (official temple name). The first two are honorary names that are generally not used in common parlance. The last name, the jigō, is the usual way to refer to a temple.

ix One which yoga schools and amateur place name websites cherry pick the fuck out of to no good end…

x I could be wrong. Or could I…?

What does Meguro mean?

In Japanese History on August 12, 2013 at 2:58 am

目黒
Meguro
(Black Eyes)

Meguro Hanami Etymology

The Meguro River, as it passes through Naka-Meguro.
A famous spot for hanami in Tokyo.

Sorry for my lateness in updating. The O-bon holiday is about to kick off now in Tōkyō and I’m juggling three projects in addition to my regular responsibilities. A doctor actually told me to give the blog a rest for a while. It’s not so much his advice as much as it’s my own lack of time that has created an unusual silence over here at Japan This. But don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. The blog will continue. And I apologize for the slow pace as of late.

But I feel like that last series on Edo’s Three Execution Grounds was a great place to take a break. And I uploaded a few filler pieces since then which actually got a lot of hits and brought a lot of new readers to Japan This. That’s always fantastic, in my opinion! The more the merrier.

I shouldn’t be wasting my time (or yours, dear reader) with mindless pleasantries, so without further ado, let’s take a look at why Meguro is called Meguro.

.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

While Naka-Meguro is great, there probably isn’t much of a reason to get off at Meguro Station on the Yamanote Line.
and OMG, this is the most annoying graphic ever….

.

First thing you should know.

There is no consensus on the etymology of this place name. It appears to be fairly ancient; possibly dating back to the 800’s when the culture of the Yamato hegemony was more or less finalized in Honshū. In the early Kamakura Period (circa 1190), the name 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan first appeared in shōgunate records. We can assume this was a noble family from the Kantō area, either originating in the Meguro area of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni’s Musashi Province 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District or a noble family who controlled the area (or both). Either way, the place name does not derive from the Meguro clan. The Meguro clan’s name derived from the place name. BTW, the family claimed descent from the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan.

Following the old Japanese tradition of naming of villages based on their locations along rivers and roads, there were (and still are) a 上目黒 Kami-Meguro Upper Meguro (upstream), a 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Low Meguro (downstream), and a 中目黒 Naka-Meguro (goldilocks, baby, goldilocks)[i].

.

Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros. This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.

Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros.
This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.

,

OK, It’s Etymology Time, Y’all.

One common story is that the name derives from a temple called 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji in Shimo-Meguro. In the Edo Period this temple was part of series of temples dedicated to a Buddha known as Acala, who is called 不動 Fudō, “the unmovable one” in Japanese.  The temples, as a group were known as the 江戸色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō The 5 Colored Immovable Buddhas[ii]. The problem with this theory is that these temples and this grouping are products of the Edo Period. So it’s unlikely the name has anything to do with this[iii].

.

If you've seen one Buddha, you've seen them all. Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.

If you’ve seen one Buddha, you’ve seen them all.
Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.

.

.

The oldest secular etymology has an agricultural origin and strikes me as more believable[iv]. This theory suggests that the area was originally used as a pasture for grazing animals – horses in particular. The word 馬 uma horse had a dialectal variant me that when combined with 畦 kuro embankment between fields became mekuromeguro[v]. These “meguro” referred to dirt embankments and barriers that prevented horses and other grazing animals from running away.

.

Meguro - A Horse Embankment?

It’s not very exciting, but this is what the theory suggests.

.

As this was an era when literacy wasn’t high and ateji was the norm, the place name came to written as 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes which could be easily read – rather than 馬畦 Meguro Horse Embankment which is almost unreadable without an explanation.

The problem with this etymology is that it suggests a small area.  However, the areas that contain Meguro names in modern Tōkyō and in the Edo Period hint at a massive area – much larger than a grazing field.

So if we are to go with this theory, I might suggest that the Meguro clan was not actually descended from the Fujiwara clan, but was merely a local strong arm in the area that managed to pull sway over a larger area. They connected with the Imperial court or possibly later with the Kamakura shōgunate and they assumed the name of their place of origin. After establishing control over their little part of the Ebara District, their name was the only legacy to survive the Sengoku Period.

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[i] Although, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these 3 divisions, please see my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for a related explanation of this type of naming.
[ii] 5 colors is a cute Edo Period way of saying “various.” Religions are gimmicky wherever you go, aren’t they?
[iii] Remember the name was documented in the 1190’s, a good 400 years before the Edo Period.
[iiii] As always, keep a grain of salt handy, please.
[v] The kanji 畦 kuro, with its alternate reading, aze, survives in the modern word 畦道 azemichi a walking path (possibly also functioning as a property line) the divides rice paddies.

What does Akabane mean?

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

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

Pre-Saitama

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What does Nerima mean?

In Japanese History on May 10, 2013 at 12:34 am

練馬
Nerima (original meaning unclear)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. What a wuss.)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune in Shakujii Park. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. Either way, dude was a wuss.)

Today’s place name is another request. It was on my TO DO list but I sorta put it off because… well, let’s just say “can of worms.”

The history of Tōkyō generally starts with the Edo Period. But it wasn’t like this city just popped into existence in 1600. Before Tokugawa Ieyasu, there was Ōta Dōkan. Before him there was the 豊島氏 Toshima-shi Toshima Clan* and (spoiler alert) the Edo Clan. In terms of written records and political relevance, this area’s history actually begins in the Kamakura Period and only accelerates from there.

Toshima family crest

Toshima family crest

The necessary background is this:

The Toshima clan controlled large areas of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province. Most of their dominion fell within the present Tōkyō/Chiba area. The 郡 gun district was called 豊島郡 Toshima-gun. Their seat of governance was in at 平塚城 Hiratsuka-jō (also known as 豊島城 Toshima-jō), but the family was firmly established in their residential estate in Shakujii Castle and had another fortification at Nerima Castle).** Today in Kita Ward, there is still a shrine called 平塚神社 Hiratsuka Jinja Hiratsuka Shrine. So the Toshima influence was strongest in the north region of Tōkyō. Place names that will definitely come up later will be Itabashi and Edo. The only reason I mention this is because these names will come up again later, for sure.

But OK, back to the subject at hand…

What does Nerima mean?

At first glance the kanji are confusing.

練 neri training, kneading
 (u)ma horse

First, let’s look at the etymologies that make use of the 練り neri “training” and ma “horse” theories

★ One of the oldest stories, documented from the Kamakura Period says that sometime between 700 and 800, there was a road connecting 武蔵国 Mushashi no Kuni Musashi Provice and 下総国 Shimōsa no kuni Shimōsa Province. On that road the Toshima clan had a 宿駅 shukueki a horse relay station. The name of the relay town was 乗沼 Norinuma, “ride-swamp”. This etymology claims that because the area was a wetland it had many lakes and, well, you could refresh your horses there, too. The local accent changed “Norinuma” to “Nerima” and eventually the kanji was changed to ateji.

a horse relay station

a horse relay station

★ Another theory says vassals of the Toshima family were training horses here. This is the most believable story, though it isn’t attested as early as the previous theory. So the name “training horses” is literal.
Compare this to Takadanobaba.

horse training place

horse training place

★ Another literal theory says some dude was stealing horses and keeping them here and then training them for resale. This kind of etymology, while entertaining, is unlikely IMO. But who knows…

dumb theory

Now let’s look at the clay theories

★ Another theory uses an alternate meaning of the kanji 練 neri. The kanji can also mean “knead” as in “knead bread” or “knead clay.” Supposedly there was an abundance of great clay for pottery making and the place was famous for kneading clay. This etymology says the name was originally 練場 Neriba Kneading Place. There are many examples of diachronic changes and dialect variants where ば ba becomes ま ma (and vice-versa). So linguistically speaking, it’s not impossible. On the site of the former Nerima Village (present day 貫井 Nukui), archaeologists discovered a type of kiln which was rare in the Edo-Tōkyō area.

kiln excavation

kiln excavation (this isn’t the one from Nukui, I couldn’t find a picture of that one)

★ Another clay theory claims that the dirt and clay in the area was sticky as if it had been kneaded professionally. Thus the area was called 練場 Neriba, just as in the theory I just mentioned. Over time the pronunciation changed from Neriba to Nerima. The clay hypotheses are intriguing.

wet clay! yummy!

wet clay. yay!

★ I’ve saved the weirdest theory for last. The Shakujii Basin lowlands were an expanse of lakes and swamps and so if you looked at water filled rice-paddies they looked really deep, as in “deep to the roots.” 根 ne root + 沼 numa swamp, marsh = 根の沼 Ne no numa root deep swamp, which changed to 根沼 Nenuma root swamp. Eventually Nenuma changed to Nerima and the kanji was changed to ateji (just like Hibiya).

BTW – The place name 丹根沼 Tannenuma exists in Hokkaidō.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do (丹根沼、北海道)

So it looks like the jury is out on this one. And while every theory, except the last one, has an argument based on kanji, the possibility of the name being just ateji is very possible. It’s particularly possible with old names that pre-date the Edo Period. At any point in history ateji could have been used – and changed later again to support other folk etymologies. So this one will just be a mystery.

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* Toshima can be written 豊島 or 豊嶋.
** Toshima Amusement Park (called としまえん Toshima-en in Japanese) is built on the castle ruins of Nerima-jō.

What does Shakujii mean?

In Japanese History on May 9, 2013 at 12:46 am

石神井
Shakujii (Spirit-Stone Well)

Shakujii Park

Shakujii Park

Today’s place name is another reader request. The kanji are pretty interesting and the history of the area ties into a theme that will come up often later. I wanted to hold off on opening this can of worms, but it’s a reader request. I can’t say no.

The word is made of three kanji:

石 ishi stone
神 kami god/spirit
井 i well

In Shintō, there are an infinite number of 神 kami (some people translate as “gods” some as “spirits”). You can find kami in lakes and trees and forests and waterfalls. Some kami – apparently – love stones.  石神 ishigami spirit stones are curiously shaped stones that people said were homes of (or just related items of) particular kami.

Back in the day some villagers were digging a hole to make a well. While they were digging they found an interesting looking stone rod in the ground. Since no one had ever seen a rod shaped rock before, they decided it might be a good idea to start worshiping it. Cuz, you know… it’s a weird shaped stone.

Anyhoo, they named the well 石神井戸 Shakujin’i Spirit-Stone Well.

But, wait, you say, “shakujin” doesn’t sound anything like “ishigami.” Ishigami is the native Japanese reading of the kanji (kun’yomi), shakujin is the Classical Chinese reading (on’yomi). And how about that missing “n” sound? Well, the final /-n/ sound is weaker than our English /n/ – in fact, in some ways it’s closer to a vowel than a consonant, so it’s easily dropped in situations where it’s difficult to pronounce. There are also cases where the sound is missing in dialectal variations of some words.

I don’t know if the ishigami is still there or not, but it was enshrined at 石神井神社 Shakujii Jinja Shakujii Shrine located in 石神井公園 Shakujii Kōen Shakujii Park in Nerima Ward. If you go there, maybe you can ask where the stone is. In the park there is a lake called 三宝寺池 Sanpō-dera Ike Sanpō Temple Lake. The local people of the area believed that the Shakuji Well eventually became that lake.

Shakujii Castle, Nerima

You call that a castle??!

Another interesting fact is that the Toshima clan had a castle here. The Park grounds are actually the remains of 石神井城 Shakujii-jō Shakujii Castle. None of the castle structures exist, but some of the defensive walls and moats can still be seen. The castle was abandoned in 1477, after Ōta Dōkan defeated the shit out of Toshima Yasutsune and the Toshima clan fell. Remember this clan name because we’re going to talk about this family again tomorrow.

Oh, I almost forgot. Just to put things into chronological perspective. The name of the area was first recorded in the Heian Period. This means that the story of the ishigami and building of the well and the shrine was probably a well-established legend in the area. So this place name is old. The etymology seems legit and we’re lucky to have such an old pre-Edo Period place name with such a well preserved history. The Toshima Clan who ruled much of the area that is now Tōkyō and Chiba managed their holdings from Hiratsuka Castle in the Kita Ward, but main castle of the clan was Shakujii Castle. As a clan, they were active from the Kamakura Period until the Muromachi Period when Ōta Dōkan smote them like little bitches. Place names all over Tōkyō derive from the clan and their retainers. Even the name Edo derives from a vassal of the Toshima… but more about that later.

Oh, and one more thing.

This dude has a photo blog of the Shakujii Castle ruins and some models and maps.
This other dude has some CGI reconstructions of Shakujii Castle on his blog.

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