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What does Yotsugi mean?

In Japanese History on November 12, 2015 at 5:08 am

Yotsugi (4 trees)

Yotsugi Station

So sorry for the long break. October, November, and December are my busiest times of the year at work. The good thing about this season is I actually economize my writing time and my articles. For most of the year it’s a free for all and I just go crazy. I thought this article would be really brief, but it turned into a monster. Better yet, I think I’ve found some more specific locations to explore as a result.

So What Slowed Me Down This Time

Honestly, I’m re-watching Twin Peaks since the first time it originally aired when I was in high school lol. Family stuff. Work stuff. Yada yada yada.

Culture Day also Slowed me Down

Hell, on October 4th it was 文化の日 Bunka no Hi Culture Day and I had a half day, so I went crazy. I couldn’t stand another minute in the office and the only way I could take in some Japanese Culture was to go see a movie by myself[i]. So I watched We Are Perfume. As a pretty dedicated fan for about 9-10 years, I think it was time and money well-spent. It wasn’t history, but it was nice to just have fun and got me thinking a lot about how Japanese culture has and hasn’t changed over the centuries. The film is a documentary about their 3rd so-called “world tour” and so it focuses on how Perfume is received abroad[ii] and how the group experienced their appreciation and fame abroad. As the only foreigner in the theater, I could sense how Japanese people were looking out at the world with fascination at fans from Taiwan, Singapore, Los Angeles, New York, and London. All of these fans were looking right back, trying to get a glimpse of some aspect of Japan.

Here on JapanThis!, I think a lot of the same thing happens. If web stats are anything to go by (and they are), there are a lot of people from Japan looking to see how foreigners view their history. There are also a lot of foreigners wanting to learn more about Japan. I find this mutual fascination very comforting – beautiful, really. If there’s ever any hope for world peace and understanding, it’s through mutual respect and understanding. Maybe Perfume is some aspect of disposable pop culture. But, hey, samurai were disposable, too. They gave it a good run, but you don’t see them around anymore, do you?

Anyhoo, I’m not gonna ramble on anymore about how I tried to justify my use of Culture Day by watching a documentary about Perfume that set me back $25[iii]. But I did do some reflection on the context of Japanese history and everything I know about Japanese Culture in its various fluctuations over time. And I’m pretty sure the first shōgun 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu would not only be totally WTFed by this movie – he would have totally been #TeamKashiyuka.

On the left, you can see the Sumida River. In the middle, the Arakawa and Ayase Rivers. On the right, the Nakagawa. Come back to this map later and you'll see more familiar faces.

On the left, you can see the Sumida River. In the middle, the Arakawa and Ayase Rivers. On the right, the Nakagawa. Come back to this map later and you’ll see more familiar faces.

Sorry For All That. Now, Let’s Get Down to Bidness.

Today, we’re talking about an area of Tōkyō that isn’t so famous. Tōkyōites know about it, but probably just as a train station. The area is called 四ツ木 Yotsugi and is located in 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward and it lies between 中川 Nakagawa (literally, the “Middle River”) and the parallel stretch of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and 綾瀬川 Ayase-gawa Ayase River. Long time readers may recognize the area due to its proximity to お花茶屋 Ohanajaya, 宝町 Takaramachi, and 曳舟 Hikifune. It’s also not very far from 向島 Mukōjima and 浅草 Asakusa.

Wanna read more?

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.

History of Yotsugi

The earliest mention of Yotsugi is an inscription[iv] on a statue of 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi at 西光寺 Saikō-ji. The statue has the presumably authentic date of 1341 written on it[v]. This is roughly 140 years after Minamoto no Yoritomo’s death so let’s put some things into perspective, namely why is Yoritomo even relevant to the story? He may or may not be, but when he became the first shōgun of the 3 great shōgunates[vi], his government put Kantō on the map – politically and economically speaking. Edo was just a fishing village at the time, but the proximity to the shōgunal capital of Kamakura was a massive boon to tiny villages in the area. By 1341, power had transferred back to Kyōto in western Japan with the establishment of the 室町幕府 Muromachi Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate. 140 years had passed and the prestige of Kantō was diminished.

The earliest surviving textual mention of Yotsugi comes to us from 1398 (Muromachi Period) in a document called 下総国葛西御厨注文  Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Chūmon Shimōsa Province’s Kasai Mikuri Annotation [vii]. It references a place called 四ツ木新田村 Yotsugi-Shinden Mura Yotsugi-Shinden Village.


In the Edo period, this area was primarily agricultural – fields and trees as far as the eye could see. It fell under the administration of 江戸葛飾郡 Edo Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, Edo area. Yotsugi was technically under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, but administration was handled by various organs of the shōgunate over the almost 250 years of Tokugawa control. These ranged from 町奉行 machi bugyō[viii] to 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun to 大名 daimyō lords controlling the bordering 藩 han domains – but more often than not, the administrators were high ranking hatamoto.

It lay along the 本所上水 Honjo Jōsui Honjo Clean Water Aqueduct, which was later known as the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsui Kasai Aqueduct[ix] or more popularly as the 曳舟川 Hikifune-gawa Hikifune River. The site where the Hikifune River and Ayase-gawa intersected offered a scenic riverside view that Edoites cherished. This spot was where the Hikifune Towpath began.



Because of its proximity to the shōgun’s capital and its scenic beauty, it was a popular destination for Edoites who wanted to get out of the city for a day or two. The most popular destinations were the religious institutions of 西光寺 Saikō-ji, 客人大権現Maroudo Daigongen (modern 渋江白髭神社 Shibue Shirahige Jinja Shibue Shriahige Shrine), 木下川薬師 Kinoshita-gawa Yakushi (modern 浄光寺 Senkō-ji), and 柴又帝釈天Shibamata Taishakuten. With the exception of Shibamata Taishakuten, these temples (and one shrine) are pretty minor, but in the Edo Period they were quite important. Each site is pretty interesting in its own right, so I may come back to them in a later article – especially if you guys are interested in that.

Shibamata Taishakuten

Shibamata Taishakuten

During the Meiji Period, the area remained rural and agricultural – it was more or less unchanged from the Edo Period. However, in 1912 (Taishō 1), 四ツ木駅 Yotsugi Eki Yotsugi Station was built. This made the area accessible and factories that wanted to take advantage of the space, cheap land, and access to rivers for distribution and “waste disposal[x]” were set up in the area. It’s around this time that the area became famous for the production of celluloid[xi].

Old Yotsugibashi

Old Yotsugibashi

In 1922, a wooden bridge called 四ツ木橋 Yotsugibashi Yotsugi Bridge was built across the Arakawa River linking 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward. In the chaos following the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake, the 旧四ツ木橋 Kyū-Yotsugibashi Former Yotsugi Bridge – as it’s known today – was the site of wanton racist attacks against Chinese and Koreans living on the Sumida Ward side of the bridge. Apparently, some Tōkyōites blamed them for the earfquake or just took advantage of the chaos to indulge their own fucked up racism.  At any rate, another wooden bridge was soon built and life went on as usual.

View of Sumida Ward/Tokyo Sky Tree and Yotsugibashi from Katsushika Ward.

View of Sumida Ward/Tokyo Sky Tree and Yotsugibashi from Katsushika Ward.

In the post-WWII years, the area rapidly urbanized. City historians cite the building of a new 四ツ木橋 Yotsugibashi Yotsugi Bridge in 1952 as making urbanization possible. Prior to the post-war era, cars were relatively rare in Tōkyō – trains and trolleys were the norm. The new bridge was a modern truss bridge made of steel that allowed automobile traffic to cross the Arakawa in this area. The area’s agricultural heritage began to fade quickly.

In 1964, the name was changed from 四ツ木 Yotsugi to 四つ木 Yotsugi and astute readers will note that the only change was orthographic:  katakana ツ tsu became hiragana つ tsu.

Hikifune Hydrophilic Park

Hikifune River Hydrophilic Park today

In 1989, during the Bubble Economy, the 曳舟川 Hikifune-gawa Hikifune River was filled in due to pollution and presumably to use it as a sewer. The remaining marshes that surrounded the river also became landfill. By 2000, the only left over bit of this once scenic Edo Period day trip spot was present-day 曳舟川親水公園 Hikifune-gawa Sunsui Kōen the Hikifune River Hydrophilic Park.

Let’s Take a Look at the Kanji




Not kanji, but a syllabary character used to indicate pronunciation.

ki, gi


In Pre-Modern Japan, there weren’t writing standards as we would recognize them today[xii], so the place name was written as 四木, 四つ木, or 四ツ木 – all read “Yotsugi” or “Yottsugi.” The final variant was the most common in the Edo Period because the first variant was ambiguous as to pronunciation[xiii].

Unfortunately, due to the seemingly mundane nature of the kanji, the origin of this place name is either a just mystery or could be one of the most boring place names ever. That said, we do know that the area appeared on Pre-Meiji maps as Yotsugi Shinden Mura, which literally means Yotsugi New Field Village.

lets etymology

Theory 1: The Trees Did It

There used to be 4 tall pine trees in the center of the village.

This is the simplest and most literal attempt at an etymology. It’s hard to disprove without corroborating evidence and it’s impossible to prove without corroborating evidence. That said, roads, trains, or routes in general can be counted with ~本hon/-bon/-pon. So, while the kanji looks like 4 trees, it could be 4 routes – which we’ll get to a little later.

We have no paintings or literary references to 4 huge trees in the area from any point in history, so I’m gonna have to say this is iffy. It’s not impossible, but there’s just no way to prove it one way or the other.

Founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate and Unlucky Guy With Horses, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate and Unlucky Guy With Horses, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Theory 2: Minamoto no Yoritomo Did It

This theory is actually 3 interpretations of the same story.

First, there’s a legend from the Edo Period that 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo passed through the area 4 times coming and going on various expeditions to put down resistance of the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan. According to this theory the name is derived from 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi the 4 passes through the village.

Second, in coincidence with the previous etymology, this theory often claims that as Yoritomo’s army was composed of various samurai warlords who supported him with their armies, this was the most convenient spot to meet. They came from various regions and converged upon this area, camped out, resupplied, and then moved on to battle. Therefore 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi actually means “4 armies passed through” or “4 armies passed through on 4 roads.” The idea of four roads leading to this area stands up to a point – after all, the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō Ancient Tōkaidō Highway passed through here[xiv]. However, no one seems to agree on which roads are referenced in the name.

Lastly, another interpretation of this theory is that Yoritomo and his army passed through the small village at 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi just past the 4th hour. Prior to the adoption of the western hour, the Japanese used temporal hours. That is to say, the “hours” were of unequal lengths that varied throughout the seasons[xv]. The 4th hour was more commonly called 巳 hebi the hour of the snake[xvi]. If my sources are to be trusted, the meaning of “just past the 4th hour” means “roughly after 10 AM.”

Passing through the village 4 times might be possible, but I don’t have access to records that record Yoritomo coming to Edo 4 times. I’ll have to defer to Yoritomo nerd out there. But even if he did, I just don’t think people would name a village after that unless he established a shrine or something one of those times – and I can’t find any evidence of that, either. Also the reference to 4 armies is ambiguous so again, I’ll defer to the Yoritomo nerds on this one.

And while the 4 routes theory seems reasonable, the lack of agreement on which roads these would have actually been makes that theory questionable at best. Naming a village after the approximate time a bad ass samurai warlord strolled through town in an era when the chances of a bad ass samurai warlord marching through any given place were reasonably high, seems tenuous at best.

Wanna read more about Yoritomo in Edo?

shotoku taishi

It may be made of 4 kinds of wood – hard to tell from the picture – but it’s also made of metal.

Theory 3: Shōtoku Taishi Did It

Long time readers will know about 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi Imperial Crown Prince Shōtoku or Shōtoku the Great Teacher. He was an imperial prince and one of first great propagators of Buddhism in Japan. He lived during the Asuka Period[xvii].

In 四つ木一丁目 Yotsugi Icchō-me 1st Block of Yotsugi, there is a temple called 西光寺 Saikō-ji Saikō Temple. The temple was established in 1225 at the beginning of the Kamakura Period and as far as written records go, it pre-dates the first record of the place name Yotsugi by about 100 years. Saikō-ji claims to have statue of Shōtoku Taishi that is made of a unique combination of four kinds of wood. In Japanese 木 ki means both “tree” and “wood,” thus they say the name is a reference to this revered Buddhist statue.

That’s all well and good, but time and time again we see temples claiming to be the namesake of an area when in fact, the place names pre-date the temples. Some objects in those temples match the place name by coincidence or have been deliberately manufactured to match the place name. In any case, I find this etymology highly dubious.

This is the Japanese word for "heir, successor" - yotsugi. It's one of the most generic words you can imagine.

This is the Japanese word for “heir, successor” – yotsugi. It’s one of the most generic words you can imagine.

Theory 4: A Truly Half-Assed Folk Etymology

A noble family’s 世継 yotsugi heir lived here. See what they did there? Yotsugi and yotsugi are homonyms.

I’ve come across a lot of stupid folk etymologies[xviii] over the years of doing this blog and this one falls into the top 5. This is like getting a place name like “Trust Fund Hill.” Sure, it’s possible, but it’s just too vague for me. Without a family name a reason for them to be here, this reeks of people just making up shit.

A 4-way intersection in West Tōkyō.

A 4-way intersection in West Tōkyō.

Theory 5: The 4 Roads Did It

This theory posits that the original reading was a 四辻 yotsu tsuji 4-way intersection – or possibly 4 intersections. This ties back into part of the theory about Minamoto no Yoritomo.

In ancient times, there was an intersection of 官道 kandō provincial highways in the area – or so the story goes. Kandō were established under the 律令制 ritsuryō-sei ritsuryō system in the 600’s based on the Chinese model and the word literally means “government road.” The kandō would later evolve into the 街道 kaidō highways that most people associate with Pre-Modern Japan – the Edo Period in particular. The term kaidō is even still used today when referring to old highways that survived into the Modern Period.

In the Yoritomo Did It Theory, the number 4 and the idea of 4 roads was a persistent theme. This theory asserts that certain aspects of those theories are true but suggests that the name may actually date back to at least the Heian Period or earlier. Having 4 kandō in the area (or a whopping 4 major intersections of 8 roads, depending on which interpretation you choose), would definitely be something special. Trade would be massive and travelers and armies passing through the area would be a constant source of income. You can see how a place might come to be called Yotsu Tsuji since that the area’s defining characteristic.

In Yoritomo’s time, there may not have been 4 great highways in the area anymore. It’s actually unclear if there ever were, but the one fact we do know is that in 1341 we find the first record the place name. It is written as 四木 with the character for “4” and “tree.”

There's a Yotsutsugi Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

There’s a Yotsutsugi Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

This is actually the best theory that I’ve come across. It’s pretty believable and there are place names all over Japan based on the kanji 辻 tsuji crossing. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Yotsutsuji getting contracted to Yotsuji in the local dialect since the /tsutsu/ in the middle is awkward. A phonetic change from YotsutsujiYottsujiYotsuji[xix] seems fairly consistent with Modern Japanese slang, dialects, and even the slurred speech drunk old men. I don’t see why a similar transformation couldn’t happen in older versions of the language.

The only problem? There’s no agreement on the exact routes that existed here from 600-1200 in the area. Furthermore, the just because the theory suggests kandō, any street or path can intersect with another one. This could be a reference to really minor routes. The area was always rural until quite recently[xx] and that’s probably the reason we never hear about the great trading village of Yotsugi. But again, if it’s a particularly ancient name, it might have just had its boom when no one was taking things seriously Kantō, the roads fell into disuse, and only the name remained with new kanji because there were no long 4 intersections to speak of.

Wanna check out another intersection place name?

Wanna read about the 5 Great Roads of Edo?

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[i] It was my first time to see a movie by myself. But Japanese people travel abroad and watch movies and karaoke by themselves a lot recently, so I was OK with it. But still, that first time is a little scary or embarrassing.
[ii] Japanese people tend to be shocked that anyone understands them. That said, god damn, foreign Perfume fans are a bunch of fucking weeaboos. Ewwww.
[iii] Yes, it fucking costs 2000円 ($20 USD) to see a freakin’ movie in Tōkyō.
[iv] This is called epigraphic evidence in diachronic linguistics as compared to textual or manuscript evidence.
[v] The actual date in Japanese is 暦応4念7月5日 Ryakuō yon nen shigatsu no itsuka 5th day of the 7th month of the 7th year of Ryakuō.
[vi] The Kamakura Shōgunate (headed by the Minamoto and Hōjō clans), the Muromachi Shōgunate/Ashikaga Shōgunate (headed by the Ashikaga clan), and the Tokugawa Shōgunate/Edo Shōgunate (headed by the Tokugawa clan).
[vii] The name 下総国葛西御厨 Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Kasai Mikuri, Shimōsa Province refers to an area of Kasai. The last word 注文 chūmon usually means “order” as in “order at a restaurant,” but it has a secondary meaning of “explanatory text.” Not sure what chūmon means in this context. This document came up in 2014, in my article on Kameari.
[viii] Here’s a quick explanation about machi bugyō.
[ix] 上水 jōsui, literally “high grade water,” refers to aqueducts that supplied drinking water. 用水 yōsui, literally “usable water,” refers to aqueducts that supplied water for irrigation, washing, firefighting, and general use.
[x] Read: “pollution.”
[xi] Celluloid is a tough, highly flammable substance consisting essentially of cellulose nitrate and camphor. It’s used in the manufacture of motion-picture film, x-ray film, and other products.
[xii] And to be honest, even in modern Japanese, there is so much flexibility that people exploit the looseness of spelling for humor or slang all the time.
[xiii] Without the kana ツ tsu, the name could be read: Shiki, Shigi, Shimoku, Yonhon, Yotsuki, Yotsugi, or possibly by some other regional variants. And why the katakana character was more prevalent than the hiragana character is a mystery. I can only speculate that the katakana was easier to write because the brush strokes were more similar to the cursive style of kanji and therefore more quickly written.
[xiv] On JapanThis!, I often reference the 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route of the Edo Period. In Modern Japanese, this Edo Period highway is referred to as the 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō the Old Tōkaidō or Former Tōkaidō. The 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō Ancient Tōkaidō is a slightly different route. Vast stretches were abandoned over the years as the Tōkaidō was made more efficient by centuries of successive logistical demands.
[xv] ie; western hours were equally 60 minutes each and did not change with the seasons.
[xvi] This kanji is from the Chinese zodiac. The usual kanji for snake in Japanese is 蛇 hebi. People often translate this as “the hour of the serpent” because it sounds more classical, I guess. But same difference.
[xvii] I’m not going to get into his story because I have many times before. Here’s my break down of Japanese Eras. And here’s Shōtoku Taishi’s story. If you want to know more, I suggest you check those out.
[xviii] Folk etymology is when people just take a guess at the history of the word without paleographic or scientific inquiry.
[xix] Bear in mind, this is completely hypothetical on my part.
[xx] And by recently, I mean the last 100 years.

Ōedo Line: Tsukiji Shijō

In Japanese History on June 25, 2015 at 2:28 am

Tsukiji Shijō (Tsukiji Market)

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market

So at the beginning of this series, I told you that the Ōedo Line is kinda loop line. It’s not a perfect non-stop loop like the Yamanote Line, though. It has definite starting and stopping points[i]. So far, we’ve made the journey from the outskirts of Edo in Shinjuku all the way to Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay). For the last couple of stations we’ve been riding off the original coastline and this will be our last stop in Tōkyō Bay. At Tuskiji Shijō Station, we will be turning around and our next station will be on the coastline. Then we will be heading back towards Shinjuku. But the ride won’t stop there. No, we’re gonna head out of Edo – Voyager style[ii]. But don’t worry. We’re still in Edo for a while.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

If you know anything about Tōkyō, you know probably know about the Tsukiji Fish Market[iii]. This is one of the stations that will take you the largest fish market in the world. You have to go early in the morning, though – like 5 or 6 AM early – if you want to see crazy fish auctions. Why anyone would wake up that early in the morning to look at a bunch of dead, stinky fish is beyond me, but the fish market is a perennial destination for tourists. Oh yeah, people who have to go there to buy fish for their restaurants also go there.

Tuskiji Fish Market was established in 1923, but the current structure was built in the 1930's. The old fish market had stood in Nihonbashi since the 1600's. It was one of the liveliest -- and apparently stinkiest -- places in the old city.

Tuskiji Fish Market was established in 1923, but the current structure was built in the 1930’s. The old fish market had stood in Nihonbashi since the 1600’s. It was one of the liveliest — and apparently stinkiest — places in the old city.

That said, if you walk through the sushi shops in the area at any time of day, you’ll be able to find a restaurants that offer some of the freshest sushi in Tōkyō. A bit of advice: choose a small shop, one with no English signs, and one with only counter service so you can talk to the guys making your sushi. Also, ask them what they recommend for the day. In my experience, they never fail to recommend the most delicious fish they have.

Say hello to Tsukiji Hongan-ji, one of the greatest affronts to the architectural tradition of Japanese Buddhism.

Say hello to Tsukiji Hongan-ji, one of the greatest affronts to the architectural tradition of Japanese Buddhism.

Also in Tsukiji, you can find one of the ugliest temples ever built. It’s pretty unusually so if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth seeing and maybe taking a picture or two. In a previous article, I touched on the history of this temple – as I said in the last article, the history of this area is all linked and it’s better to know the entire history of the area to really have a good understanding of what you’re looking at. The links below will give you the full story.

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

[i] The Yamanote Line has official start/stop points, but that will only affect you if you fall asleep on the last train and find yourself being escorted off the train at one of them.
[ii] Givin’ a shout out to all my Star Trek fans.
[iii] And if you don’t know the Tsukiji Fish Market, you are fucked.

The Edo River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on August 16, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Edo River (“River that flows to Edo”)

Fireworks on the Edo River in Edogawa Ward.

Fireworks on the Edo River in Edogawa Ward.


Hello all! Here in Tōkyō, 御盆休み O-bon Yasumi the O-bon Vacation is in full effect. I only get 4 days off. Most people get about 5 days off, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who get nothing at all, so I’m not going to complain. 3 days will be spent sleeping late like the 怠け者 namakemono lazy good-for-nothing that I am. I’ll have to wake up super early one day to do 茶道 sadō tea ceremony in former 館林藩 Tatebayashi-han Tatebayashi Domain[i]. The area is just a rural backwater now, but if the weather isn’t too bad and I have enough time, I hope to snap a few pictures for my Flickr account. Be sure to check my Twitter account for the updates. I’m not sure how things will go, but the Tone River and Arakawa River flow through the area, so maybe I’ll be able to get some pix!

Speaking of rivers, this series is finally winding down. I started with the big rivers. Those rivers have incredibly complicated pasts and were hell to research and write about. I seriously considered just quitting mid-series to move on to something more fun, but I pushed on. I knew that if I could cover the major rivers, the rest of the series would be easy. I’m happy to say the last too posts will be the easiest. They’re also the shortest, hence the fast turn-around on the article you’re reading right now.

But the other River Articles were so long…

Indeed they were. But the other rivers were major water systems that were constantly modified over the centuries. Their names were ancient, possibly pre-dating the Yamato State – possibly older, there’s no know way to in some cases. Today’s river is essentially a product of the Edo Period. We know where the name comes from without a shadow of doubt.


This is a map of modern Edogawa Ward. Notice the Edo River clearly marking the boundary of Tokyo Metropolis and Chiba Prefecture. You may want to refer back to this map throughout the article (it also ties into other parts of the series). Click to enlarge.

This is a map of modern Edogawa Ward. Notice the Edo River clearly marking the boundary of Tokyo Metropolis and Chiba Prefecture. You may want to refer back to this map throughout the article (it also ties into other parts of the series).
Click to enlarge.




the city of Edo


river (suffix)

ie; “the river that goes to Edo”

That’s it.

Edo – once a fishing hamlet, then former village turned sprawling metropolis – was the shōgun’s capital when the river got this name. It was a densely populated, affluent city that required goods and services from all over Japan. Certain perishable goods produced in the surrounding areas was in particular demand. A little more about that later, but in short, the Edo River was a river bringing goods from a variety of places. Most notably, goods came from 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province, the bulk of which lie in modern 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture. In fact, those goods came from the part of Chiba that lies directly on the border of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis.


Cherry blossoms on the Edo River in the early Meiji Period.

Cherry blossoms on the Edo River in the early Meiji Period.


But Wait! What does the “Edo” part of the Edo River mean?

I’m glad you asked because I covered the etymology of Edo in a post last year. The article starts with the short version, then gives a more detailed explanation. So depending on how much time you have, feel free to read about Why was Edo called Edo? here.

OK… So WTF is the Edo River?

OK, this is important.

The modern, legal definition of the Edo River is the river that branches off from the 利根川 Tone-gawa Tone River[ii]. This bifurcation occurs at present day 野田市 Noda-shi Noda City in Chiba. The river empties into Tōkyō Bay at 市川市 Ichikawa-shi Ichikawa City, also in Chiba Prefecture. A portion of the river marks the border of the Tōkyō Metropolis, Chiba Prefecture, and Saitama Prefecture.


This shows the entire area covered by the Edo River and the modern portion of the Tone River that relates to it. The Edo River diverts from the Tone River at Noda and flows south to Ichikawa. At Ichikawa, it bifurcates in the Old Edo River that goes to Tokyo Bay at Urayasu. A secondary drainage canal take the river to Tokyo Bay in Ichikawa.

This shows the entire area covered by the Edo River and the modern portion of the Tone River that relates to it. The Edo River diverts from the Tone River at Noda and flows south to Ichikawa. At Ichikawa, it bifurcates in the Old Edo River that goes to Tokyo Bay at Urayasu. A secondary drainage canal take the river to Tokyo Bay in Ichikawa.


What about the History of the River?

The river that became the Edo River was originally a part of the lower course of the 利根川 Tone-gawa Tone River – a very different river from the Tone River of today. The specific branch of the Tone River Basin was called the 渡良瀬川 Watarase-gawa Watarase River. It separated from the Tone River, then flowed south to the middle of former 葛飾郡 Katsushika-gun Katsushika District[iii] and then emptied into 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay. The downstream portion of the Watarase was locally named the 太日河, which can be read as either Ōi-gawa Ōi River or Futoi-gawa Futui River. This is the stretch of river that would ultimately become the Edo River. Since time immemorial and indeed until the Taishō Era, certain stretches of riverbank were famous for the cultivation of 蓮根 renkon lotus root, a valuable food source.

The Edo Period

In 1641, the 利根川東遷事業 Tone-gawa Tōsenjigyō began. This was the building project that began diverting the river eastward towards the shōgun’s capital. At this time, a channel was built to divert water from the Tone River to the present day upstream portion of the Edo River.  Part of the downstream area was also modified. Since the shōgunate had essentially created a new river, this new waterway needed a name. It’s about this time that the name 江戸川 Edo-gawa Edo River came to be used – the name meaning something like “the river that goes to Edo.”

The Tone River was again diverted in 1654 as an anti-flooding measure. The Edo River now connected the north and east Kantō Regions to the capital at Edo, specifically to transport large amounts of cargo from Shimōsa Domain and other cities along the Pacific coast.

Many villages and towns among the river prospered in the Edo Period. Some of those cities continue to prosper today. Once the redirection efforts of the Tone River were established, merchants would travel up the Tone River from the outlet at modern-day 銚子市 Chōshi-shi Chōshi City (former Shimōsa Province). The area was famous for 枝豆 edamame soy beans and 醤油 shōyu soy sauce. We’ll talk about this again in a bit…

Cherry blossoms at sunset or sunrise along the Edo River in the Meiji Period.

Cherry blossoms at sunset or sunrise along the Edo River in the Meiji Period.


The Edo River Created Lasting Commerce

The Edo River pretty much put the town of 流山 Nagareyama on the map[iv]. In the Edo Period the town was, like much of rural Japan, steeped in a rice production economy. The Edo River gave the original village a direct link to the shōgun’s capital. One quirk of the village was that they produced 味醂 mirin rice vinegar[v]. To this day, Nagareyama is still famous for mirin production. For hundreds of years 流山之味醂 Nagareyama no Mirin Nagareyama Rice Vinegar has been a staple of Kantō cuisine.

An exhibit on mirin production in the Nagareyama Municipal Museum. Notice the uniform of the guidepost character. It's Shinsengumi uniform. While mirin may be the economic claim to fame of the city, most people only know it for its BRIEF connection with the Shinsengumi.

An exhibit on mirin production in the Nagareyama Municipal Museum. Notice the uniform of the guidepost character. It’s Shinsengumi uniform. While mirin may be the economic claim to fame of the city, most people only know it for its BRIEF connection with the Shinsengumi.

Nagareyama is also famous as the last official base camp of the 新撰組 Shinengumi at the beginning of the 戊辰戦争 Boshin Sensō Boshin War, the final war between the collapsing Tokugawa Shōgunate and the rising Meiji Army. The commander of the Shinsengumi, 近藤勇 Kondō Isami, was arrested here, marched to and imprisoned at 板橋宿 Itabashi-juku Itabashi Post Town. He was subsequently tried and executed there on false charges of having assassinated (or ordered the assassination of) 坂本竜馬 Sakamoto Ryōma.

On a more tasteful note, 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province was generally was famous for soy sauce. In addition to mirin, the other main product transported to Edo was 野田之醤油  Noda no shōyu Noda Soy Sauce.

Do you know this logo?

Do you know this logo?


The Edo River won the Soy Sauce Wars

All countries have regional differences – granted, in stable countries, these are getting smaller and smaller. And in Japan, there are also regional variations of soy sauce. Soy sauce is one of the traditional 5 ingredients of Japan[vi], so it’s not a surprising thing. But worldwide, the most recognized variety is the strong taste of the Kantō area. This is due to the global commercial success of 亀甲萬 Kikkōman, a name synonymous with soy sauce and Japanese cuisine.

The Kikkōman Corporation is based in Noda City, at the head of the Edo River. The company was an amalgamation of about 8 soy sauce producing families in 1603 in a post-Sengoku Period version of a corporate merger. A member of one of the original families, 茂木友三郎 Mogi Yūzaburō, still sits on the board of directors. He is largely credited with popularizing soy sauce in the US by encouraging chefs to create non-Japanese or “internationally-minded” dishes that use soy sauce. Today Kikkōman is holds the largest market share in the US and Japan and is the main employer in Noda.

Do you recognize the logo now?

Do you recognize the logo now?

If you live outside of Japan, you’ve probably only seen the name written “Kikkoman.” If you live in Japan, you’ve probably only seen the name written in katakana as キッコウマン. But pretty much anywhere in the world you may have noticed a single, stylized kanji: 萬 man (myriad, thousands, lucky) inside a circle. This is an interesting character. It’s the ancient variant of a high frequency modern kanji man 10,000. Supposedly, it’s rarely used except in some legal documents. These days, many Japanese may admit they can’t read this character these days.

The kanji I used above, 亀甲萬 Kikkōman are not used officially by the modern corporation; they officially use the katakana or rōma-ji spelling. This is probably because the name isn’t instantly legible to your average native Japanese speaker, so it makes for poor brand recognition. Also, it doesn’t really say anything about the company or its products. Of the original kanji, all that survived was this curious 萬 man – and it survived as a logo, not a word.

Yuzaburo Mogi earned his M.B.A. at Columbia University and is said to be totally down with US business practices.

Yuzaburo Mogi earned his M.B.A. at Columbia University and is said to be totally down with US business practices.

The name of the company, whose early success was intrinsically tied to its location on the Edo River, ultimately derives from a reference to a shrine that had great influence in Shimōsa Province, roughly modern Chiba Prefecture. 亀甲山 Kikkō-zan is the “mountain name” of 香取神宮 Katori Jingū Katori Grand Shrine (all temples have 3 names, one of those names is a 山号 sangō mountain name)[vii]. There is also a mountain in Chiba called 亀甲山 Kamegase-yama (same kanji). They dropped the 山 yama/san kanji and added 萬 man myriad/10,000 to 亀甲 kikkō as a suffix and established the name as a trademark. The shrine apparently wielded great influence in the region, and you can find Katori Shrines of various sizes throughout the area (and indeed, throughout the country).

Katori Grand Shrine in Chiba. This is the main shrine, but it has many branch shrines throughout the area.

Katori Grand Shrine in Chiba. This is the main shrine, but it has many branch shrines throughout the area. I haven’t been there myself yet, but from a map I looked, the shrine precinct is quite expansive.

Not to keep harping on the Katori Shrine thing, but this map shows the location of Katori Grand Shrine and several other major branches. All of the red dots are minor Katori Shrines.  Please note the relationship between the Tone River and Edo River and the cities of Choshi, Noda, Nagareyama, Ichikawa, and most importantly, Edo.

Not to keep harping on the Katori Shrine thing, but this map shows the location of Katori Grand Shrine and several other major branches. All of the red dots are minor Katori Shrines.
Please note the relationship between the Tone River and Edo River and the cities of Choshi, Noda, Nagareyama, Ichikawa, and most importantly, Edo.
Click to enlarge.


In the Modern Era

Fast forward to 1932. A new administrative district, 江戸川区 Edogawa-ku Edogawa Ward, was created out of seven areas: 小松川町 Komatsugawa Machi, 瑞江町 Mizue Machi, 小岩町 Koiwa Machi, 松江村 Matsue Mura, 葛西村 Kasai Mura, 篠崎村 Shinozaki Mura, 鹿本村 Shikamoto Mura[viii]. The Edo River marked the boarder of Tōkyō Metropolis and Chiba Prefecture, and so the name of the ward (which also lies on that border) derives from the river, of course[ix]. Keep in mind no part of Edogawa Ward was located within the city named Edo.

The Edo River with cherry blossoms in full bloom (late Meiji Era). Check out the driver of the boat with no passengers, but he's still straight stuntin' like a playa.

The Edo River with cherry blossoms in full bloom (late Meiji Era). Check out the driver of the boat with no passengers, but he’s still straight stuntin’ like a playa.


In 1979, a plan was hatched to open a Disneyland in Japan. A little known landfill in Chiba Prefecture called 浦安 Urayasu that lie adjacent to a diverted branch of the Edo River was chosen. This branch is now known as the 旧江戸川 Kyū-Edogawa Old Edo River. The theme park and many of its nearby hotels opened in 1983. Today, Tōkyō Disneyland is the most profitable Disney theme park in the world. The site is built on landfill, and while much of the 新浦安 Shin-Urayasu (new Urayasu) residential area suffered serious damage in the March 11th, 2011 東日本大震災 Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Great East Japan Earthquake, Disneyland was located on the apparently more stable Urayasu. As such, it suffered minimal damage, closing for only a week or two to make cosmetic repairs.


Damage typical of Shin-Urayasu. While this may not have been as horrific as what happened in Tohoku, it was most definitely devastating financially to the inhabitants and the local economy.

Damage typical of Shin-Urayasu. While this may not have been as horrific as what happened in Tohoku, it was most definitely devastating financially to the inhabitants and the local economy.


Let's change the topic!!!

Let’s change the topic!!!

Edogawa Ward’s biggest claim to fame is the 江戸川花火大会 Edogawa Hanabi Taikai Edogawa Fireworks Display. The display takes place along the Edo River and the levees are used as first-come/first serve seating. The event was established in 1976 and next year (2015) will be the event’s 40th iteration. I’m rather fond of this particular fireworks display. And now that I know that next year will be a special, I’m considering making a small JapanThis! meet up where we can all nerd out on Japanese history and enjoy fireworks on the Edo River together. If you’re interested, leave a comment so I know that I’m not the only one who thinks this might be fun.


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[i] Tatebayashi Domain got a brief mention in my article on the Tone River.
[ii] Wanna know about the Tone River? I’ve got an article about that!
[iii] I’ve written about the etymology of Katsushika here.
[iv] Actually, it put 下総国葛飾郡加村 Shimōsa no Kuni Katsushika-gun Ka Mura Ka Village, Katsushika District, Shimōsa Province on the map, as that was the name of the area in the Edo Period. In 1889, the Meiji Government put 流山町 Nagareyama Machi Nagareyama City on the map.
[v] Why is this product so important? The basics of traditional home cooking in Japan boil down to 5 seasonings: soy sauce, sake, mirinvinegar, and sugar.
[vi] As mentioned earlier, the 5 basic seasonings of Japanese cuisine are: soy sauce, sake, mirinvinegar, and sugar.
[vii] Keen observers will have noticed that this is a shrine, and yet it has a mountain name of a temple. That shows that the institution pre-dates the 神仏分離 Shinbutsu Bunri Separation of Shintō and Buddhism in 1868. And indeed, the Katori Shrines of Shimōsa Province are quite ancient. It also shows that the name of the company pre-dates the separation of Buddhism and Shintō, but both of these are part of the historical record, even though many people casually forget the Buddhist/Shintō syncretism of the Pre-Modern Period. I hope you all caught that.
[viii] There are 2 types areas that were incorporated, 町 machi town/city and 村 mura village.
[ix] Place name conventions make this obvious. Even if we didn’t have the paperwork for the creation of the ward (which we do), if it wasn’t named for the river, it would be Edo-ku not Edogawa-ku.

What does Kameari mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex on April 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Kameari (we’ve got turtles, yo!) l_01 It’s been a few weeks since my last update and so I sincerely apologize for the delay, but I have a good excuse. My 7 or 8 year old PC, ピノコちゃん Pinoko-chan Pinoko, finally died. Loads of data, including several works-in-progress went missing. I had to buy a new computer and my new machine is Windows 8. It’s a total departure from previous incarnations of Windows, so not only am I setting up a new computer, I’m actually learning how to deal with the new OS[i]. So anyways, so much has happened since my last update. If you only read the blog, I just want to make sure that you know you can get different updates from me via Facebook and via Twitter. I treat Facebook like the Japan This Plus. I treat Twitter like Japan This On Crack. Either way, you can customize how much you want to deal with me based on those criteria. If you can’t get enough of me, then by all means subscribe to all. If prefer me in small doses, then just keep doing what you’re doing. Also, leave comments whenever you want to! I really love those.

Kameari Station

Kameari Station

OK, so let’s get into today’s Tōkyō place name. Today we’re talking about 亀有 Kameari in 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward. It’s an interesting place name because it’s easy to speculate about the etymology because of the kanji. .




existence, possession

Judging by the kanji, one would think this is a place where there were many turtles. But you’d be wrong. First of all, it’s 亀有 kameari not 亀居 kamei. Anyone who’s studied even a little basic Japanese knows that the language makes a distinction between the existence of things that move 居る iru be and things that don’t move ある aru be so this rules out turtles being in the area. Aru can be used for possession, though. So if you guessed “having turtles” people wouldn’t fault you and you might be in line with what people generally think when confronted with the name. However, it seems that this is not actually the case. There’s a bit of mystery here.

cute turtles    .

What We Do Know?

The place was originally written 亀無 Kamenashi “turtle” “without/not having” and 亀梨 Kamenashi “turtle” “Japanese pear.”
The name was mysteriously changed in 1644 to 亀有 Kameari turtle having.


The first theory that I came across, seems plausible. The story goes that there were no turtles here (or even if there were, they weren’t the source of the name). The name is actually a reference to the shape of the terrain. This is something we see time and time again in place names (valleys, mountains, plateaux, hills, slopes, etc.). We don’t just see this in Japanese place names, but all over the world[ii].

Anyhoo, this theory suggests that at the confluence of the 古隅田川 Ko-Sumida-gawa Old Sumida River[iii] and the 葛西川 Kasai-gawa Kasai River there was a mound – built up over time by the accumulation of detritus from the rivers. The shape and the colors of the foliage on the hill made it look like a turtle’s shell. This theory purports that the origin of the name was 亀を成し kame wo nashi making a turtle/turning into a turtle. By scribal error (or a later adjustment) 亀成 became 亀無 Kamenashi having no turtles – perhaps it was easier to read. Reality check. Just for the record, 亀成 Kamenashi “making a turtle” isn’t an attested form.



The deus ex machina for this legend is that the local villagers thought the spelling was inauspicious. Well, everyone knows that having a bunch of turtles is so much better than not having any turtles at all. Nobody wants to look like a bunch of losers with no turtles. Rather, they were the people who had turtles. Lots and lots of turtles. All of the turtles because… who the fuck knows? So they asked the shōgnate to change the name from 亀無 Kamenashi (no turtles) to 亀有 Kameari (we got fuckloads of turtles up in this biatch).

This sounded fishy, so I had to go digging around a little more. My first stop was 亀有香取神社 Kameari Katori Jinja Kameari Katori Shrine[iv]. They claim that the name first appeared in the Kamakura Period.




This was easy to verify, as the words 亀梨 and 亀無 Kamenashi are first mentioned in 2 documents. The area is referred to as 下総国葛西御厨亀無村 Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Kamenashi Mura Kamenashi Village, Kasai Mikuri, Shimōsa Province in 1398 in the 下総国葛西御厨注文  Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Chūmon Shimōsa Province’s Kasai Mikuri Annotation[v], a document of the Kamakura Shōgnate. It was mentioned again in 1559 in the 小田原衆所領役帳 Odawara Shū-Shoryō Yakuchō Register of the Territories and Peoples of Odawara, a document of the 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi Late Hōjō Clan who controlled this area until Toyotomi Hideyoshi annihilated them in 1590/91[vi].

The next time the place is mentioned is in 1644 during the reign of the 3rd shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu on a map drafted by the Tokugawa Shōgnate called 正保改定図 Shōho Kattei Zu Map of the Shōho Reforms. This map inexplicably has the area formerly referred to as 亀無 Kamenashi “no turtles” labeled as 亀有 Kameari “we’ve got turtles, yo.”



OK, also I’ve been burying the lead about this whole turtle thing. Why were Japanese people so concerned about turtles? I can’t say if they really were or not, any more than I can say the average Roman was really concerned about Vesta or the average Christian is concerned about Little Baby Jesus, but what I can say is that the reference would have been universally recognized across Japan.  Within the syncretic Shintō world view, a turtle was a symbol of 長寿 chōju longevity[vii]. It was an auspicious creature and the kanji was equally auspicious. This is at the heart of why people say the “no turtles” name was changed to “yes, turtles!”[viii]


Why Are You Talking About Maps and Documents That I’ll Never Bother Looking At?

Basically, so you don’t have to. And, also because the name change is very strange, IMO. As I mentioned earlier, we have a clear change in 1644 from 無 nashi having none to 有 ari having some. But there appears to be no official account of this change[ix]. That said all the sources I’ve checked seem to repeat the story that the local villagers petitioned the shōgnate for this change or that the shōgnate itself saw 無 nashi as in auspicious and opted for something more positive. From this point on, the area is consistently referred to as 亀有 Kameari and not 亀無 Kamenashi. In the late Edo Period, Kameari Shrine began decorating the shrine precinct with turtles. Many shrines are guarded by a pair of 狛犬 koma inu guardian dogs, but Kameari Shrine is protected by 狛亀 koma-kame guardian turtles. The earliest extant set of guardian turtles dates from about 1860 – literally the closing years of the Tokugawa Shōgnate.


Koma kame


Alternate Theories

So, is the story above true? Long time readers’ bullshit detectors should be going off by now, but 4 things are definitely true in regards to the historical record.

    The kanji 亀 kame turtle has always been present
    In the Edo Period, a seemingly clear phonetic change in the kanji occurred
③    In the Edo Period, Kameari Katori Shrine began promoting “having turtles” with statuary
    Your mom

There are some other theories out there that… well… should at least be looked at. The biggest mystery for most people is the kanji change in 1644 under the Tokugawa Shōgnate. In short, if I may repeat myself, the standard theory claims that the change is based on the fact that Kamenashi was an inauspicious name because 長寿の亀がない chōju no kame ga nai there is/are no avatar of long life. Turtles were seen to be symbols of long life.  From the 1300’s-1600’s no one gave a crap about changing name phonetically, despite this being such an inauspicious name. The closest thing to a name change is the writing 亀梨 Kamenashi turtle pear, which doesn’t make much sense, but is clearly not talking about a lack of something.



The Mito Kōmon Did It Theory

Mito Kōmon visited the area and changed the name because if you don’t have turtles of long life, you suck. So more turtles of long life for everyone! Everyone loves Mito Kōmon, right?[x] This theory is based on the fact that the lords of Mito and their entourage would pass through the area to do falconry in Kasai. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m tired of stories of shōguns and famous daimyō passing through areas and just renaming shit willy nilly[xi].


The Ainu (or Somebody Else) Did It Theory

OK, and here’s the least popular theory, but for me it might be the most likely. The area was known since time immemorial as カメナシ Kamenashi and the kanji were originally ateji[xii]. If this theory is correct, it would suggest that the all of the kanji are useless in determining this place name. It may also allude to a non-Yamato people living in the area. It also throws us into absolute conjecture mode – which means we’ve exhausted our discussion of the etymology of this place name.



Who Gives a fuck about Kameari?

A lot of people, actually. I don’t read manga or watch anime[xiii], but the average Japanese person probably knows about this area because of manga and anime.

But it’s the setting for こちら葛飾区亀有公園前派出所 Kochira, Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo This is the Local Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward.[xiv]. This manga has been running for more than 30 years[xv].  Statistically, I think it’s the 4th best-selling manga of all time, but don’t quote me on that. It’s affectionately referred to as  こち亀 Kochi-Kame (you can quote me on that) and statues of major characters from the story can be found on the streets near the station.

The area used to be known as the site of the factories of the Japanese pharmaceutical company 三共 Sankyō[xvi] and the famous Japanese electronics company日立 Hitachi, the people who bring much joy to women all over the world due to misuse[xvii] of their best-selling Hitachi Magic Wand. Today, the area is a shitamachi shopping district surrounded by a quiet residential area. Today the name survives as a station name, 亀有駅 Kameari Eki Kameari Station and as 2 postal addresses, 亀有 Kameari Kameari (5 blocks) and 西亀有 Nishi Kameari Kameari West (4 blocks).

The Hitachi Magic Wand

The Hitachi Magic Wand



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[i] I’m not even shitting you when I say I had to google how to shutdown my computer.
[ii] Not to say humans are fucking unoriginal at naming places, but there are common themes around the world. [iii] The river’s course is different today.
[iv] Shrines and temples tend to pass down great stories and for the same reason they keep awesome collections of maps and documents.
[v] To be honest, I don’t know how to translate this text’s name because 注文 chūmon usually means “order” as in “order at a restaurant,” but it has a secondary meaning of “explanatory text.” Sorry, I don’t know more about it.
[vi] Famously, this power vacuum was filled by Tokugawa Ieyasu – ever the hero of any story told from a Tōkyōite’s perspective.
[vii] ie; long life, yo.
[viii] Coming back to this later. So keep this in mind, OK?
[ix] Even if we accept the pre-Edo Period kanji of ~成 nashi making, ~梨 nashi pear, and 無 nashi nothing at face value, at least the pronunciations are the same. The 1644 change is truly remarkable.
[x] I don’t. I hate him, and in a small way blame the theocratic oligarchy of post-Meiji Japan on him.
[xi] Please bear in mind I own copyrights for the “Captain Japan Did It Theory,” the “Mito Kōmon Did It Theory,” the “Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” and the “Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It Theory.”
[xii] Phonetic use of kanji.
[xiii] This isn’t entirely true. I read some manga and watch some anime.
[xiv] I don’t know if that’s a good translation of the title. If there’s an official translation, please let me know.
[xv] Apparently, it’s also an anime series and has been re-done as movies, tv series, and it’s even been reimagined in live action as a tv show and on stage!
[xvi] Today the company is known as 第一三共 Daiichi-Sankyō.
[xvii] Or Miss Use, as I like to say.

What does Hikifune mean?

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

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.


pull, tow, drag, haul



There are variants of both of these kanji.

pull, tow, drag, haul




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.

What does Ohanajaya mean?

In Japanese History on February 27, 2014 at 4:59 am

Ohanajaya (Tea Shop O-Hana)

map of ohanajaya


Today’s topic isn’t very complicated, so let’s get right down to business. It’s essentially made of 2 words.



A girl’s name, this is the precursor of the Shōwa era modern Japanese name, 花子 Hanako, literally “Flower Child/Flower Girl.”


A teahouse
A place where you could get some relaxation and most likely do a little drinking and whoring. Yes, you could also get a cup of tea.


“But wait,” you say, “that spells O-hana Chaya.”

Well, under a normal (and somewhat irregular) linguistic process known as 連濁 rendaku sequential voicing[i], the mora ちゃ cha /tɕa / changes to じゃ ja /dʑa/ and voilà! You have O-hana Jaya[ii].

Today, the area called Ohanajaya refers to three 丁目 chōme “blocks” located within 葛飾区 Katsushika Ward. There is a small train station called お花茶屋駅 Ohanajaya Eki Ohanajaya Station that services the 形成本線 Keisei Honsen Keisei Main Line. The station has two exits. The south exit is 宝町 Takaramachi[iii] and the north exit is お花茶屋 Ohanajaya[iv]. Ironically, Ohanajaya Station is actually located in Takaramachi.
Go figure.

Ohanajaya Station

Ohanajaya Station


In the Edo Period this was the straight up boonies – literally, the outskirts of Edo. The area was located on the 曳舟川 Hikifunegawa Hikifune River which was also known as the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsui the Kasai Waterway or Kasai Kanal[v] which flowed from present day Katsushika Ward to present day Sumida Ward. In fact, its terminus in Sumida is where present day Hikufune is located[vi]. In the early years of the Edo Period, it was a 上水 jōsui a drinking water supply; however it soon was demoted to a common waterway for small boats. Apparently it was a quite scenic spot, as it is depicted in many surviving works of art.

The river was filled in during the preparations for the Tōkyō Olympics in 1964 and subsequent development has completely obscured the river’s original path.

The Hikifune River.

The Hikifune River.

So… About the Etymology

From the name, we can tell that it was clearly named after a teahouse. There’s no reason to doubt the kanji in this case because it seems to be a very straight forward Edo Period name. There is a bit of a problem in that there are multiple explanations for the name, all of which are closely related, but with one simple problem: Most of these explanations invoke a shōgun. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

Why would a shōgun be invoked here? Well, the fact that the Tokugawa family came to this area for falconry is well known[vii]. But the frequency with which these stories come up (always involving a “cool shōgun,” it just seems like they were just moseying around Edo pointing at things and renaming them at will. Sure, they had that power. Do I think they spent their time that way? Not really.


I just re-named that rock over there. And that teahouse. I saw a small fish I liked and I renamed that.  A shogun's work is never done.

I just re-named this rock.
And that teahouse over there.
I saw a small fish I liked and I renamed that too!
A shogun’s work is never done.

The “Yoshimune Did It” Theory

It is said that the 8th shōgun, wise and good Tokugawa Yoshimune[viii], often came here for falconry. On one occasion, he had a severe stomach ache. For some reason, there were no nobles living in the area and his entourage brought him to a local teahouse[ix] and he was nursed back to health by the daughter of the proprietor. Her name was O-hana. And in celebration of his recovery, he ordered the area be named O-Hana Chaya.


Yoshimune came out for falconry. He had a stomach ache. He was nursed back to health by O-hana. He performed tea ceremony with her and gave her a 茶釜 chagama tea kettle. The shop became famous for this visit and they displayed the chagama in the shop[x]. Because this was O-hana’s tea kettle the shop became known as O-hana Chaya.




The “Yoshimune Had Nothing to Do with It” Theory

The oldest, the most frequented, or the only teahouse in the area was named O-hana. Shops all over the world have all kinds of names and Edo Period Japan was no different. In fact, using a person’s given name for a teahouse was quite common. Anyhoo, this theory suggests that this shop was the most famous, most frequented, or (possibly) oldest teahouse in the area. It being such a rustic place there’s no reason to doubt that the area was famous for a certain shop. We’ve seen this before.

This is my theory because it seems the most plausible.  Of course, there is no remaining shop. But this is simple and clean and just plain common sense.

Also, given the manners of the day, I don’t think there was much obligation on the part of a shōgun to do tea ceremony with commoners. While there is an image of Yoshimune loving the common people, I just don’t imagine the real guy hanging out with a bunch of dirty townspeople in the countryside drinking tea. Yes, it would happen in 暴れん坊将軍 Abarenbō Shōgun, but that was a TV show for senile people.


"You go, girl!"

“You go, girl!”

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[i] What the hell does sequential voicing mean? In short, it’s a sound change and that’s good enough for most people. If you really want to more, check out the Wikipedia article.

[ii] Wait, what the hell’s a mora? Mora (plural: morae) is a Latin word that is used to describe syllables. It’s not exactly the same as a syllable in English. Unless you’re going deep into Japanese Linguistics (or linguistics in general), that’s all you need to know. However, if you really want to know more (and you probably don’t), here’s the Wikipedia article.

[v] It looks cooler with the K.

[vi] And if you think this is an upcoming topic, you’d be right. And you’ve probably been reading this blog too long. Nerd!

[viii] Wise Yoshimune, as Rekishi no Tabi jcalls him. Wise, indeed, but apparently not wise enough to waste a fuck ton of money on the opulent tomb of 6 year old Tokugawa Ietsugu who literally did nothing as shōgun.

[ix] The term chaya (teahouse) is a little ambiguous, but this very well could have been a house of “ill repute.” The legend says nothing of the place other than “teahouse.”

[x] This undoubtedly caused all the towns people who saw it to say すごーい!sugoi! great!

What does Takaramachi mean?

In Japanese History on February 14, 2014 at 8:04 am

Takaramachi (treasure town)


First a quick note.

There are 2 places in Tōkyō with the same kanji: One is Takarachō in the Chūō Ward; the other is Takaramachi in Katsushika Ward. Today, I’m talking about the one in Katsushika.

The history of this place name is actually a mystery but it is usually explained by a legend. The interesting thing is that this place name may be based on the ultimate oyaji gag. Oyaji gag refers plays on words and puns[i].

The Japanese generally look down on puns and will soon dismiss them as oyaji gags, but truth be told Japanese history is rife with these sort of things and so is Japanese advertising and… well… I think most people secretly like them, but are just afraid to admit it.

Map of Takaramachi

Map of Takaramachi

Let’s start with the present day kanji for this place.





For my readers who don’t read Japanese, let me refresh an important concept in Japanese writing:


Chinese readings of kanji


Japanese readings of kanji

Of course, this is a simplified explanation, but for our purposes today, that’s all you need to know.

One more concept that is important is tsuka mounds. There are mounds all over Japan. Mounds in Japan are often associated with graves. This goes waaaaay back in history to the 3rd century 古墳 kofun burial mounds[ii]. I mentioned typical Shintō burials in my article on Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s grave. I said that they’re associated with graves because just because a mound was built doesn’t mean there necessarily must be a body inside. Some mounds were purely symbolic. An interesting thing is that even in the Edo Period the graves of elite were often elevated – or in the case of the Tokugawa, always built on the highest ground. On the other hand, a tsuka can just refer to a small hill. As “just a hill” it may be valued for its high ground or it may be imbued with some symbolic meaning. It might just be a land mark.

This doesn't even encompass all of the meaning of "tsuka," but it should give you a general idea.

This doesn’t even encompass all of the meaning of “tsuka,” but it should give you a general idea.

OK, now that you know the basics, let’s get this party started.

This area was once controlled by the Kasai family, an offshoot of the Edo clan and vassals of the Toshima clan[iii]. On (or near) the premises of西光寺 Saikō-ji Saikō Temple there was a 塚 tsuka mound dedicated to one of the heads of the clan named 葛西清親 Kasai Kiyochika. His title was 伯耆守 Hōki no Kami Lord of Hōki Province, which is located in modern 鳥取県 Tottori-ken Tottori Prefecture[iv]. We don’t know much about Kiyochika Lord of Hōki as records are scant, but his name graced the mound which came to be known as 伯耆塚 Hōki-zuka Hōki Mound[v].

In 1227, a rock star monk from Kyōto allegedly visited Saikō-ji. The name of said rock star monk is 親鸞 Shin’ran and at the time his sect of Japanese Buddhists had prohibitions against sexual relations and using animals for food. In fact, taking part in these kinds of activities could actually get you killed. But Shin’ran wasn’t about to give in to the man. He was all about barbecuing and fucking and he didn’t give a fuck what you thought[vi]. I’m usually not down with holy rollers, but I’d throw back a few bottles of sake with this guy.

Fuck with my meat and ho's and you gunna get fucked back, son. Simple as that.

Fuck with my meat and ho’s and you gunna get fucked back, son. Simple as that.

So the legend goes, as Shin’ran was hanging out at Saikō-ji – perhaps lodging – he hung his vestments on a tree[vii]. And as the area was nicknamed 伯耆塚 Hōkizuka, he looked around to see if anyone was watching and slyly said, “Hey man, this is 法喜塚 Hōkizuka! Get it? Get it? 法喜塚 Hōkizuka!!!” The surrounding people cringed and slowly backed away and disappeared into their huts and never spoke to him again.

OK, it probably didn’t go down exactly like that, but according to legend, Shin’ran called the place 法喜塚 Hōkizuka. So what’s the difference in the kanji? Well, at first glance, 法喜塚 looks like Buddhist religious gibberish; like a temple name. Auspicious or “holy” kanji are juxtaposed to create a new word – an alien non-Japanese word that leads to the mystery of the religion[viii].


Today Saikoji is... well.. apparently, a little diminished in stature...

Today Saikoji is… well.. apparently, a little diminished in stature…


In its actual recorded history – outside of the etymology legend – the area was written with a few kanji variations. The writing was standardized in the Edo Period[ix].


religious gibberish


secular gibberish


simplified secular gibberish

So, if all of this is true, the name Takaramachi is one big oyaji gag that snowballed out of control. Let’s go back to the kanji so we can see exactly what Shin’ran did and how the name changed later.


the alleged oyaji gag


name of a province and Kasai Kiyochika’s title


the vestments of a Buddhist monk

dharma/principals/rule (and a reference to the vestments)



joy, happiness, delight, religious ecstasy

later generations added these


tree (perhaps a reference to the tree he hung his vestments on)


tree (perhaps a reference to the tree he hung his vestments on)

So by the end of the Edo Period, the name was standardized as 宝木塚村 Hōkizuka Mura Hōkizuka Village (the kanji being “treasure” + “tree” + “hill”). 法 hō sounds like law or religion or method and is a quite serious word. 宝 hō treasure, on the other hand, is auspicious and, c’mon, who doesn’t like treasure? This name survived the reforms of the Meiji Era until 1932 when part of Hōkizuka Village became 宝木塚町 Hōkizuka Machi Hōkizuka Town. In 1961, when Tōkyō introduced the current postal code system[x], the 木 ki tree kanji was dropped and the area was renamed 宝町 Takaramachi.



If we jump back in time to 1955, we will find the founding of a vinyl and plastics manufacturer called タカラ Takara.  This company would later become famous as a toy company and would eventually unleash the Transformers upon the world. The reason I mention this, is that the company, which was established in Hōkizuka Machi, used the Japanese reading of the kanji 宝 hō (Chinese) takara (Japanese) treasure. As I mentioned earlier, there are usually at least two possible readings for a kanji, the ancient Chinese and the Japanese. The company choosing this native Japanese reflects a trend whereby local people were abbreviating the odd reading which was a mix of Chinese and Japanese readings and creating a new nickname that was purely Japanese. While this nickname may be much older, it definitely is understandable that in the nationalism of the years leading up to WWII, we would see a preference for a native Japanese reading of the kanji. Also, Japanese place names rarely have Chinese readings, unless they are named after Buddhist temples or are some kind of anomaly. Mixed readings are frowned upon in Modern Japanese because they’re unpredictable.


This legend is great. It makes a good narrative, but it also raises a few questions. If we assume the Shin’ran legend is true, then why did 法 hō dharma change to 宝 hō treasure? Well, as I mentioned before, maybe treasure seems softer than dharma/regulation. Maybe.

Also, why did 喜 ki happiness change to boring 木 ki trees? Again I can’t say for sure, but it might have something to do with a trend to nativize the kanji readings. is ki in the Chinese reading, but usually yoshi in the Japanese reading. It’s also a kanji that rarely shows up in place names. 木 ki tree, on the other shows up all the time.

And back to the 宝 hōtakara thing. By the Edo Period, there was a lot of communication between domains and a trend towards standardization of language had begun organically. There are places called 宝町 all over Japan (two still exist in Tōkyō alone), so there must have been an overall trend to shift towards the native Japanese readings of the kanji.

Another issue is with the first part of the story. As I mentioned before, 塚 tsuka mounds are associated with graves. They don’t have to be graves. But there’s a link there. They can also just be hills. If it’s a reference to a grave, it’s not Kasai Kiyochika’s. The first reference to him is 1228 and he died around 1270. But Saikō-ji was established in 1225, before he was even born. Shin’ran’s alleged oyaji gag took place in 1227, two years after the temple was founded and quite a while before Kiyochika died. But again, a mound isn’t necessarily a funerary mound, and in this case it could just refer to an elevation on Kasai lands or residence, but there seems to be a strong connection to Kiyochika in particular.

possible tsuka

Before I finish, I have to say that there is a very real chance that all of this is bullshit. The name could have changed over centuries as kanji competency improved in the Kantō area. The one thing that makes me lean towards this theory is that the Chinese reading VS the Japanese reading and the fact that it’s associated with a temple. Buddhism was a foreign religion. It had everything to gain by using foreign words and foreign uses of kanji to exert its prestige and influence and elite image. Whether Shin’ran – who for all I know lived and died in Kyōto – had anything to do with this name or not is almost irrelevant[xi]. It illustrates the influence of Buddhism in this particular village and the unstable nature of kanji use before the Edo Period.

All in all, this has been one hell of a ride for me. Go Takaramachi!

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[i] Literally translates as “old man joke” or “dad joke.”

[ii] The so-called Kofun Period saw the rise of Shintō and the Yamato state.

[iii] For a little refresher on the Edo Clan, please read here. For a little refresher on the Toshima, please read here. The Kasai were pretty minor, but they came up in this article.

[iv] It’s just a title; surely he didn’t exert any influence over an area on the other side of the country.

[v] The temple, Saikō-ji, still exists and claims to be on the grounds of a former Kasai family residence. The graves of some Kasai lords are preserved. Unfortunately, I don’t know if the Hōkizuka remains on its property – or if anyone knows where it is today.

[vi] Do you think I’m kidding? Read a little more about Shin’ran here.

[vii] According to one source, Saikō-ji still preserves a pine tree at the spot where this allegedly happened.

[viii] The Catholic Church has been notorious for coming up with neologisms since the 2nd century, and I’m willing to bet every other religion has too. If there’s no mystery or exotic terminology, people won’t look to the religious leaders for help in understanding them. It’s a common tactic that goes across cultures.

[ix] The final change was in the modern era, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

[x] Like an American Zip Code.

[xi] However, if Shin’ran really DID come to Kasai, it adds more evidence to my assertion that Edo wasn’t the “backwater fishing village” that the standard narrative says it was. Of course, in the 1200’s, Kasai wasn’t Edo, it was just a small fief in 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province . But from this time on, you can see the area start to bubble up until it was ripe for the picking by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 1590’s.

What does Katsushika mean?

In Japanese History on November 4, 2013 at 2:50 am

Katsushika (Adorned with Kuzu)

What does Katsushika mean?

This is kuzu, sometimes incorrectly spelled kudzu.

kuzu Japanese Arrowroot,
a reed-like grass that grows in wetlands
shika decoration, ornament, embellishment

This is a very ancient name.

The former 下総国葛飾郡 Shimōsa no kuni Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, Shimōsa Province consisted of areas that are today Tōkyō, Chiba, Ibaraki, and Saitama. This wide area comprised the modern areas of: to the north, Katsushika District, Saitama Prefecture; to the west, Sumida Ward and the eastern half of Kōtō Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis; to the east, Koga City, Ibaraki Prefecture; and to the south, Edogawa Ward, Tōkyō and Urayasu City, Chiba Prefecture.

Shimosa Province

This is Shimosa Province. The area marked #1 was the Katsushika District.

The name is attested in the 万葉集 Man’yōshū so we know this is an ancient name[i]. The probability of it not being Japanese in origin is high. As mentioned in previous articles, the kanji used in pre-Edo Period Tōkyō place names should always be taken with a grain of salt[ii].

There are various theories, but none of them are certain.

1 – Katsushika’s かつ katsu comes from an older word カテ kate or ト kato which meant cliff, hill, or knoll. しか comes from an older スカ which meant “sandbar.” The general idea being that this name referred to the lowlands on the right bank and the elevated ridge on the left bank of the 利根川 Tonegawa Tone River (present day 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River[iii]).

2 – The name was given to the area by the “people of the south sea”[iv]. According to this theory, in whatever dialect or language these people spoke it referred to a hunting ground.

3 – The kanji is literal. katsu is an on’yomi[v] and nanori[vi] of kuzu arrowroot. shika is the nanori of kazaru to decorate. Arrowroot is a kind of vine that grows near rivers. It’s an invasive plant that quickly spreads and takes over an area. It is used to make some kinds of jellies for Japanese sweets. If this etymology is accepted, the meaning is then literally “a field or area decorated (overgrown with) Japanese Arrowroot.”

Here is a lowland area overtaken by kuzu.

Here is a lowland area overtaken by kuzu.

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[i] The Man’yōshū is an ancient text written in a kind of ateji. Here is an article on the text. Here is an article on ateji.

[ii] The kanji used in the Man’yōshū – which are all ateji – are 勝鹿 win + deer and 勝牡鹿 win + male deer and 可豆思賀 nice + bean + think + auspicious. These kanji are meaningless and don’t give any indication of etymology.

[iii] This river was famous for changing course after major floods and tsunamis until the area was wealthy enough to implement proper urban planning. The present Edogawa flows through the ancient course, emptying into Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay).

[iv] 南洋系の民族 nan’yō-kei no minzoku people from the south sea is a mysterious term that may refer to other immigrant groups coming from the south, or may be a direct reference to the spread of Yamato culture, or may refer to older Yayoi or even Ainu people who just moved into the area at some point. I find this explanation ridiculously unclear – it’s obviously over my head.

[v] The Chinese reading of the kanji.

[vi] A set of common readings of a kanji used in names.

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