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What does Meoto-bashi mean?

In Japanese History on October 26, 2019 at 3:20 pm

夫婦橋
Meoto-bashi (“lovers’ bridge,” more at “wedded couple’s bridge”)

meotobashi.jpg
I often get asked, “Marky, how do you find new place names?” Believe it or not, it’s just random. However, I’d say 80% of the time, I’m just riding a bus or train, and something jumps out and I wonder “why is this place called what it’s called?” That other 20% comes from just looking at random places on maps and wondering the same thing, “why is this place called what it’s called?” In today’s case, something really strange happened.

I’m an avid Pokemon GO player. As a result, the app discovers weird place names all the time. I was on the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line coming back to 東京 Tōkyō from 韓国 Kankoku Korea and I had the app open. En route, it found 夫婦橋 Meoto-bashi which I read as Fūfu-bashi. There must be a good story here, I thought.

musume

We’ll talk more about this grave later…

Let’s look at the Kanji


fu, , bu; otto, oto; sore
husband; man


fu; yome

wife, bride; woman


hashi, -bashi; kyō

bridge

夫婦 fūfu is the standard word for a married couple. Sometimes, you might be invited to a party with the phrase ご夫婦で来てください go-fūfu de kite kudasai please come with your spouse. Another common expression is 夫婦生活 fūfu seikatsu married life and 夫婦墓 fūfubaka[i] husband and wife shared grave[ii]. That last term can also be read as meotobaka. While meoto is a proper reading of the kanji, fūfu is far and away the more common pronunciation. In the case of this bridge, the correct reading is Meoto-bashi. That said, the meaning is exactly the same: married couple’s bridge.

open marriage
Where is Meoto-bashi?

That’s a good question, because I’d never heard of this bridge. But, as I said before, Pokemon GO found the location for me and I was just sitting on the train. A quick internet search sorted things out nicely. I soon learned that Meoto-bashi is located in 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward and spans the 平作川 Hirasaku-gawa Hirasaku River[iii] — essentially a three-minute walk from 京急蒲田駅 Keikyū Kamata Eki Keikyū Kamata Station. Nearby the bridge is 夫婦橋親水公園 Meoto-bashi Shinsui Kōen Meotobashi Riverside Park[iv]. Anyhoo, the bridge and the park are a 15-minute train ride from 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station.

Further Reading

sunamura-san

Grave of Sunamura Shinzaemon

Construction of Meoto-bashi

According to records, the first bridge to span the Hirasaku River in this area was built in 1667 by a local farmer named 砂村新左衛門 Sunamura Shinzaemon. When people hear the term farmer, they might think of some kind of country bumpkin peasant, but make no mistake about it, Shinzaemon was a very wealthy landholder and extremely well educated. Despite being a farmer according the class system of the day, it’s probably better to think of him as a pre-modern civil engineer[v].

edo period bridge

Typical, old Japanese bridge minus the mud surface.

The point of creating the bridge wasn’t only to get people from Point A to Point B, but also to create a 水門 suimon floodgate to prevent back current from 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay flowing against the river and flooding the riverside villages. An unexpected side effect of the floodgate was a buildup of silt that created a sand bar upon which another bridge was eventually built. Having two bridges so close together in what was literally the boonies was extremely rare and the people came to think of them as a pair, a married couple, if you will. The bridges seem very rustic when compared to the flashy wooden bridges of Edo that we all know and love from 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints of daily life in the Edo Period. In fact, an 1825 description of Meoto-bashi describes it as a rough, log bridge covered in dirt and mud[vi].

The current concrete bridge was built in 1954, and other than a major update in 1988, it remains unchanged.

meato bridge.jpg

Two Bridges.

A Married Couple. End of Story?

Nope. Not a chance.

Prior to Shinzaemon’s bridge/floodgate, apparently there had been bridges here before. We don’t have specific dates about their construction (remember, this was the boonies), but it’s fair to say there were bridges crossing the Hirasaku River in this area as far back as the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate – roughly 800 years ago, which is when Eastern Japan really began to take off. Because of the counter currents from the bay during typhoons and tropical storms[vii], these ancient bridges were often destroyed and washed away by nature’s temper tantrums.

A local legend persists among the old timers in the area. According to them, after a particularly brutal storm that ruined the bridge and devastated the villages along the Hirasaku River, the village headman called an assembly. In order to appease whatever kami deity was allowing these horrible things to happen to the people, it was decided that a sacrifice must be made. The most beautiful, unmarried girl of the village was chosen by the people. She was dressed in white garments[viii] and marched down to the riverbank where they had begun construction of a new bridge. The young girl was placed into the hole where the first pillar was to be inserted. Her family and the villagers said their farewells – presumably much crying ensued. And then they lowered the pillar into the slot, believing her sacrifice would preserve the safety and prosperity of the village and the bridge which was vital to their survival. This practice is called 人柱 hitobashira. It literally means “human pillar.”

emma ai

Whoa. Human Sacrifice?! Was That Really a Thing???!

Without archaeological evidence to back up certain famous claims of hitobashira, it’s hard to say definitively. However, records going back as far as the 700’s, including 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki The Chronicles of Japan, claim this sort of human sacrifice existed in 神道 Shintō the native religion. From time to time, you’ll hear ghost stories in Japan that say things like “underneath every beautiful cherry blossom tree lies a dead body” – often a samurai who fell in battle or committed 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide or a fair maiden who was sacrificed for the good of the village. In 地獄少女 Jigoku Shōjo Hell Girl, the only anime you need to watch[ix], the main character 閻魔愛 Enma Ai is condemned to her role of, um, condemning other people to “hell” after being selected by local villagers to be hitobashira to protect the village. Many Japanese castles have stories about retainers or local beauties being buried alive for the protection of the lord’s keep and therefore, the domain’s security. I sincerely hope these are just spooky stories, but there are a lot of them in the folklore and mythology in Japan, so I wipe a little tear from my eye while I say, this practice most definitely happened in some form or another.

hitobashira grave

Edo Period grave erected to commemorate the life of the young girl sacrificed for the sake of the village.

Happy Halloween

On that note, get your costumes ready. Go be spooky and sexxxy! Also, if you’re trying to get laid, you might want to leave this dark story out of your repertoire. That said, I have a few other Halloween-related articles you might like to share with a friend[x].

Further Reading

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[i] This word can get giggles because it also sounds like 夫婦馬鹿 fūfu, baka couples are stupid.
[ii] As uncomfortable as this may be for some, 夫婦ぶっかけ fūfu bukkake refers to couples who, um, get the bukkake treatment together or engage in cockhold bukkake play. Just trying to be thorough here, folks. This is research.
[iii] I’d never heard of this river before, but for those curious, it flows from 横須賀 Yokosuka in 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture to 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.
[iv] The official English name of the park is “riverside park.” However, the word 親水 shinsui parent water is sometimes translated as “hydrophilic” which means “water loving.” I don’t think there’s an equivalent English word, but the nuance is something like “next to the water” or “intimate with the water” and can be found in other Tōkyō parks that are located on rivers or sometimes have fountains powered by the nearby river.
[v] Also, just for reference, this part of Tōkyō was not part of Edo. It was just rice paddies and forests as far as the eye could see in 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.
[vi] I’m going out on a limb an guessing that the dirt and mud was to make pulling carts across the bridge smoother, as logs would have been bumpy and could probably damage axels and goods.
[vii] And the lack of technological know how to combat back currents.
[viii] In Japan, white is a symbol of death. Corpses are dressed in white at funerals and samurai who performed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment wore white.
[ix] My opinion. I don’t watch other anime.
[x] PS: Any English article you read on these topics was done after I did the research, so please don’t support those lazy “journalists.” You heard it hear first, my friends.

What does Ōta mean?

In Japanese History on March 20, 2013 at 2:45 am

大田
Ōta
(Big Field, Big Rice Paddy)

Today’s post was another reader suggestion. Keep them coming!

The reader is living in Ōta-ku and asked if Ōta Ward has anything to do with Ōta Dōkan, the guy who built Edo Castle before the Tokugawa moved in.

It’s a good guess, but if you take a look at the kanji, you’ll notice they are actually different.

大田 (big rice field; a place name)
太田 (fat/magnificent rice field; a surname)

So, unfortunately there is no connection to Ōta Dōkan, even though he probably held power over this region.

So here’s the real deal.

The fact of the matter is that before WWII, there were two wards in this area: 大森区 Ōmori-ku (Ōmori Ward – which means “Big Forest”) and 蒲田区 Kamata-ku (Kamata Ward – which means “Cattail Field”). In 1947, the 35 wards of Tōkyō were restructured as the 23 Special Wards of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. Ōmori and Kamata were merged into a single ward. The from Ōmori and the from Kamata were combine to make a new name: 大田. I see what you did there!

the grave of katsu kaishu and his wife

Katsu Kaishu, hero of the Bakumatsu and early Meiji Period is buried in Ōta.

 

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