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Posts Tagged ‘kondo isami’

What does Chōfu mean? (Part One)

In Japanese History on March 30, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Chōfu (mood cloth)

The banner says "Kondō Isami's Home Town, Chōfu."

The banner says “Kondō Isami’s Home Town, Chōfu.”

Just a heads up.
This article rambles a little. It’s actually 2 articles merged together. Basically, I had the general etymology, but I found more info later and tried to insert it as is into the middle of the original article. Then I tried to smooth things out, but the end result was a little sloppy and there is some repeating. Sorry about that.
All in all, it should make sense, though.

A banner for Tōkyō's soccer team, F.C.Tokyo. It bears the Shinsengumi motto 誠 makoto (sincerity) and reads "Kondō Isami's Hometown, Chōfu."

A banner for Tōkyō’s soccer team, F.C.Tokyo. It bears the Shinsengumi motto 誠 makoto (sincerity) and reads “Kondō Isami’s Hometown, Chōfu.”

The first story I heard about the etymology of Chōfu was this: 調布 Chōfu was a town that paid its taxes 調 chō with 布fu/nuno cloth. It seemed legit enough and I didn’t know much about the area or taxation in old Japan so this was good enough for me at the time.

However, this isn’t good enough anymore. After all, this is freaking JapanThis!. We have a certain level of skepticism to maintain around here.

Am I right?


Well as it turns out, the city of Chōfu didn’t exist until the Meiji Era. That said, the city cites one of the oldest and most loved poetry collections of Japanese poetry as the source of its namesake. That anthology is none other than the 万葉集 Man’yōshū Collection of 10,000 Leaves which was compiled in the 700’s[i]. One poem that refers to the beautiful young women of the area is cited as the source of the name.

The fact of the matter is that the etymology of “paying taxes with cloth” seems to be a conflation of an ancient taxation system and a little bit of poetry. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Tenjin Street is a shopping street that lines the sandō (approach) to Fuda Tenjin Shrine. The street is lined with characters from the anime "Gegege no Kitarō."

Tenjin Street is a shopping street that lines the sandō (approach) to Fuda Tenjin Shrine. The street is lined with characters from the anime “Gegege no Kitarō.”

Administrative Reforms in the Asuka and Nara Periods

In the late 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period[ii], starting with the 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin Taika Reforms[iii] in 645, the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court began enacting sweeping administrative reforms based on a Chinese model. One of the results of this was the establishment of the 律令制 ritsuryō-sei ritsuryō system. This resulted in the civil administrative units of 国 kuni provinces, 郡 gun districts, 郷 gō hamlets, and 里 ri/sato neighborhoods. There were many other changes regarding taxation, ranking, governance, and criminal justice[iv].

Reconstruction of a farmer's home in the Asuka Period.

Reconstruction of a farmer’s home in the Asuka Period.

I mentioned the establishment of civil administrative units, but some of this should look familiar to long time readers[v]. The recognition of traditional nomenclature like 国 kuni province and 郡 gun district persisted throughout the Edo Period. Districts can still be found throughout Japan. Place names all around Japan often retain references to old provincial names, district names, and more local divisions (hamlets, villages, or neighborhoods).

The etymology of 調布 Chōfu coming from taxes is dependent on a particular outcome of the ritsuryō system, a concept called 租庸調 soyōchō. Most dictionaries define this term as “corvee” which looks a little bit like Corvette but is totally different because taxes are boring as hell and Corvettes are cool.

A corvette, as opposed to a corvee.

A corvette, as opposed to a corvee.

Talking about modern taxation is boring as hell so trust me; I don’t want to get deep into the taxation practices of the Nara Period so here is the simplest explanation I can think of. Soyōchō didn’t require people to pay money; rather you were required to pay in goods and services. For example, if you were a fisherman, a certain percentage of fish of a certain quality might be expected from you. Essentially, you had to do a certain amount of work for free for the good of your local lord, who was presumably a representative of the imperial court. I’m assuming certain types of goods would have made their way all the way to the imperial court in 奈良 Nara or 平安京 Heian-kyō[vi].

The system is much more nuanced than my explanation, but this isn’t a medieval tax blog. It’s about place names for crying FFS.

The word soyōchō actually represents the 3 types of payments: rice, labor, and silk/cloth.

The word soyōchō actually represents the 3 types of payments: rice, labor, and silk/cloth.

Anyhoo, if you were paying attention to the kanji, you probably noticed the final character of soyōchō was 調 chō. This is the same chō in Chōfu. Under the soyōchō system there were two particular taxes put on textile workers. The two main categories were: 調絹 chōkinu paying with silk and 調布 chōfu paying with cloth. Please note that the latter has the same kanji as the present day place name. OK, seems legit.


Good luck with that, buddy.

Is Everyone Defined By Taxes?

But something bugs me about this etymology. Who would have been proud of how their ancestors paid taxes? Especially if you were a farmer?

I think no one would. And herein lays the biggest problem with this this etymology.


The Plot Thickens

Nobody likes to pay taxes. I reckon people of this day and age know more about how their tax dollars are spent more than Askuka/Nara period peasants did. I don’t know which group might hate tax more, but I can’t imagine that giving away your profits to rich lords of varying ability would be a source of pride…


Unless your village was famous for some trade and everyone had pride that they were the best. Everyone knew that your cloth was the finest in the area. People came from far and wide to procure your fine cloth. Your cloth was so fine that it captivated the imaginations of the imperial court in Kyōto. It was so fine, that the area was defined (get it?) by that industry.

Oh nuno, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind. Oh nuno! Oh nuno!

Oh nuno! You’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind. Oh nuno! Oh nuno!
(JapanThis! being the wonderous place it is means that this is a clickable link)

The problem is that there seem to be no records of this area being famous for textile production. Adding to the mystery is that the kanji 布 fu/nuno is rampant in the place names along the 玉川 Tamagawa Tama River. Surely at least one of these places was famous for cloth production?

Is it all Bullshit?

It could actually all be bullshit. But maybe not complete bullshit. More like some of that folk etymology bullshit that comes up from time to time.

Until quite recently, the area was quite rural. Today it’s a suburban area. However, until the post-war period, the area was primarily agricultural.

Present day 調布市 Chōfu-shi Chōfu City is located outside of the 23 Special Wards (it’s still part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis). But when you read accounts of 近藤勇 Kondō Isami and 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō of 新撰組 Shinsengumi[vii], it’s often said that they were men of 多摩郡 Tama-gun Tama District. Isami’s hometown was the village of 武蔵国多摩郡上石原村 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Kami-Ishihara Mura Upper Ishihara Village, Tama District, Musashi Province. Today this particular location is part of Chōfu City. Whether Isami would have considered the area Chōfu[viii], I can’t say for sure but he must have been familiar with the term, for reasons I’ll explain later. But until the Meiji Period, Kondō Isami’s hometown was not Chōfu. It was Kami-Ishihara.

But both Isami and Toshizō would have identified themselves as men of the Tama District[ix].

This picture is purported to be the Kondō residence in Chōfu.

This picture is purported to be the Kondō residence in Chōfu. Even though this is clearly a samurai residence, it’s very rustic.

The Man’yōshū

OK. No cloth makers. Lots of farmers. Place names referring to cloth all over the river basin. So what’s going on then?

So earlier, I mentioned that the 万葉集 Man’yōshū Collection of 10,000 Leaves makes a reference to the beautiful young women who lived along the 玉川 Tamagawa Tama River. The Man’yōshū is one of the oldest collections of Japanese poetry. It’s a collection of poetry from various parts of Japan written in various dialects using a version of Japanese writing that was very much in its infancy. For people interested in place names, it’s both a boon and a bane. It often seems to be helpful and wildly confusing at the same time.

和歌 waka were a style of poem[x] that we first find evidence of in the Man’yōshū. It’s in this collection of poems that we find a particular 東歌 Tōka a kind of waka from ancient Kantō. Let’s look at the waka in question, shall we?


Tamagawa ni
sarasu tezukuri
sarasara ni
nanzo kono ko no

koko da kanashiki

Like the cloth
they bleach until its
silky and white,
I wonder why these girls
are so freaking cute

This old poem painted a picture of bleached cloth that was white and tender, just like the beautiful young girls who lived along the Tama River. It doesn’t say anything about a textile industry, but it does evoke a pretty image and it does point out the Tama River. Keep in mind that in the 600’s or whenever this was written, the Tama River was spider-like network of rivers. Whatever section of the river the author refers to as “the Tama River” is completely lost to us[xi], though it is presumably somewhere in Tama District.

But the keyword in the text is: tezukuri (or tatsukuri/tazukuri). The popular translation is cloth. Keep this in mind as we move forward with this crazy conflation.

A new image arises: beautiful young women bleaching cloth in the Tama River.

A new image arises: beautiful young women bleaching cloth in the Tama River.

Was a Town on the Tama River Famous for Cloth or Textiles?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. My sources say it was famous for farming and nothing more. And surely the Tama River provided ample water for irrigating rice paddies right up to the modern era. The beautiful poem in the Man’yōshū would tie in well with the old taxation system theory if we could locate a famous textile village. But if this industry existed in the area, outside of the Man’yōshū we don’t have much literary evidence or physical evidence. What’s more, the Man’yōshū is really vague[xii] and the Kantō region of the 600’s is mysterious place to us today.

A young girl bleaching cloth in the Tamagawa

A young girl bleaching cloth in the Tamagawa

So Why Is the Area Called Chōfu?

The word てづくり tezukuri (or たつくりたづくり tatsukuri/tazukuri) is used in the poem. Today, this is usually written 手作り tezukuri handmade/homemade but the term could be used for any kinds of goods. After all, in those days, there were no machines, so everything that wasn’t natural was handmade, right?

The fact is that the product in question is vague. The verb さらす sarasu means “to expose something” but has another meaning of “to bleach something.” Subsequent generations seem to have taken sarasu tezukuri as “bleaching cloth,” but I wonder if there might have been another meaning (perhaps dialectal?). I’m not qualified to say either way, but seems like a fair question to ask. But one thing is certain.  A famous image arose of beautiful, young maidens with fair skin, happily bleaching soft cloth in the clean, life giving waters of the Tamagawa River. This image was to persist right up to the Meiji Period.

tama river bleach bitch

Edo Period Poetry in Motion

In a 1000 years, a lot can change – especially if you have shoddy records. Because of the poem from the Man’yōshū, the local people – who were most definitely farmers in the Edo Period – had a certain sense of pride. FFS, 6th century nobles supposedly used to talk about how great their hometown was. Anyone who lived along the Tama River could take pride in their good produce/products and beautiful people. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?

But what actually seems to have happened is that a literary phrase, 調布の玉川 Tezukuri no Tamagawa, had entered the poetic language of the day. The interesting thing is the kanji 調布 which should normally be read as Chōfu had the irregular reading of Tatsukuri/Tezukuri. The phrase Tezukuri no Tamagawa had become a 枕詞 makura kotoba a so-called “pillow word.” This way of writing Tezukuri which reflected “paying taxes with cloth” would then be a special reading of the kanji[xiii]. I’m assuming that for reasons of poetic meter Tezukuri no Tamagawa (9 syllables) was alternatively read as Chōfu no Tamagawa (8 syllables) – Chōfu being preferred to Tezukuri because it was easier to read and because tezukuri is just so goddamn vague.

Bleaching cloth in a van down by the river.

Bleaching cloth in a van down by the river.
Wait! Don’t put the baby in the bleach bucket!!
And wait! Is that baby smoking a pipe? What the hell is wrong with you?


But Wait. Did You Say “Pillow Word?”

Yes, I did.

I'm exhausted from all this work. Let's take a break and smoke this joint I got from Kichiemon.

I’m exhausted from all this work. Let’s take a break and smoke this joint I got from Kichiemon, the village headman’s son. He always gets the best shit.

What the Fuck is a Pillow Word?

Good question!

I don’t read classical Japanese poetry[xiv], so I could be butchering this explanation. But it’s my understanding that waka[xv] used “pillow words” to allude to established literary imagery or to instantly conjure up a traditional sentiment. Many of the references referred to poems in the Man’yōshū, but I don’t think they were restricted to that text alone.

Today, if a rapper (or anyone, for that matter) says “got my mind on my money,” clued in listeners will instantly have an image in their head because they know the reference. Wikipedia says that “Japanese poets use makura kotoba to refer to earlier poems and show their knowledge of poetry and the imperial poetry collections.” So I think that supports my explanation[xvi]. Fingers crossed.

Anyhoo, the local people knew the poem quite well. By the Edo Period, artists who painted the Tama area would have known the expression or would have been told by the local villagers. Edo Era locals clearly interpreted tezukuri and tazukuri (handmade) as nuno (cloth). This is when the ancient “cloth tax” story came back into play.

The idea of a 武蔵国調布 Musashi no Kuni Chōfu Chōfu, Musashi Province had entered the imagination. With it came the image of beautiful young girls of the area. This is a concept with a long history in Japan, the local 美女 bijo beautiful women. Some areas are famous for beautiful women[xvii] more than others. Artists from Edo who often wouldn’t bother to make the trip to the Tama District had an image in their head of beautiful, young girls with pure white skin happily bleaching cloth in the Tama River.

I may be reading this picture all wrong, but the woman in the foreground strikes me as a prostitute. The towns along the Tama River were post towns. If I'm right, is this a clue?

A beautiful woman holding a white cloth in Chōfu. You can see the river in the bottom lefthand corner. At first I thought the woman might have been a prostitute because of the flashy clothes, but it was pointed out to me that she has a walking stick and a hat for traveling. Maybe she’s just a traveler and not a local woman.

Meiji Villagers Name a New Town and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next…

Somehow the local legends and the poem from the Man’yōshū had merged so perfectly that something amazing happened in the Meiji Period.



After the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken abolition of the domains and creation of prefectures in 1871 (Meiji 4), a whole lot of rural areas were overlooked in the grand changes of the Meiji government. That is to say, day to day life didn’t change very much[xviii]. But new, Western style civil administration was applied to the countryside as well as the cities. This meant that previously autonomous 村 mura villages were combined to create to create 町 machi towns. Now, for the first time, independent villages were asked to re-consider their place in this new system. Sometimes the largest village name was used for the new combination, but other times, completely new names were chose.

So it seems that when forced to look at themselves as a group and not as independent villages, the local people took pride in the pillow word that united them all, 調布の玉川 chōfu no Tamagawa[xix]. Actually a number of villages along the Tama River basin used some variant of the chōfu name and to the best of my knowledge, these efforts weren’t coordinated. It was just ingrained into the spirit of the people who lived along the river.

It all just disintegrated into river monkeys. The people of Tama District just goofed off in the river. How quaint.  This is why Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, despite having skills, were dismissed outright by higher ranking Edoites. The curse of the country samurai.

It all just disintegrated into river monkeys. The people of Tama District just goofing off in the river. How quaint. This is why Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, despite having skills, were often looked down upon by their social superiors. The curse of the country samurai.

The first time we see Chōfu on a map is in 1889 (Meiji 22) when a new place name was created; 北多摩郡調布町 Kita Tama-gun Chōfu Machi Chōfu Town, North Tama District. The town deliberately chose to reference the pillow word. The new town incorporated the former villages of 布田小島分村 Fuda-Kojima Wakemura[xx] Divided Village of Fuda-Kojima, 上石原村 Kami^Ishihara Mura Upper Ishihara Village and 下石原村 Shimo-Ishihara Mura Lower Ishihara Village, 上布田村 Kami-Fuda Mura Upper Fuda Village and 下布田村 Shimo-Fuda Mura Lower Fuda Village, 国領宿 Kokuryō-juku Kokuryō Post Town, 上ヶ給村 Agekyū Mura Agekyū Village, and 飛田給村 Tobitakyū Mura Tobitakyū Village.

Chofu Station used to have elevated platforms, now it's a subway.

Chofu Station used to have elevated platforms, now it’s a subway.

Chōfu is Actually a Pretty Cool Place

Chōfu is located outside of the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō. That can mean BOOOOOORING to many people. Even if you take a train from 新宿駅 Shinjuku Eki Shinjuku Station[xxi], you need to take an express train to get to Chōfu in a reasonable amount of time. It’s out there. Many people who live in the center of Tōkyō probably wouldn’t see much use in going there. It’s the suburbs. Outside of the station area, you need a car – or at least a bike.

That said, I think Chōfu is a pretty cool place. If I’m not mistaken, many of its charms are accessible on foot, most of them by bus, and all of them by bicycle[xxii]. Modern 調布市 Chōfu-shi Chōfu City is essentially a collection of Edo Period 宿場町 shukuba machi post towns on the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō Kōshū Highway. There are some Edo Period structures extant here and there along the old postal road, most notably the 赤門 akamon, a temple gate that has survived since 1649. There’s also a 七福神巡り shichi fukujin meguri 7 gods of good luck pilgrimage if you’re a walker[xxiii].

Statue of Kondō Isami at Ryūgen-ji.

Statue of Kondō Isami at Ryūgen-ji.

As I mentioned earlier, Kondō Isami was born and raised here[xxiv]. The home where the Kondō residence once stood is no longer there, but there is a plaque and a picture of a house purported to be his 実家 jikka parents’ home. At nearby 龍源寺 Ryūgen-ji Ryūgen Temple is one of Kondō Isami’s many graves[xxv]. There’s another shrine, 上石原若宮八幡神社  Kami-Ishihara Wakanomiya Hachiman-gū, where Kondō Isami allegedly went to pray for victory of the 甲陽鎮撫隊 Kōyoū Chinbutai – essentially a new name given to the Shinsengumi[xxvi].  A short walk from the station will bring you to 布多天神社 Fudatenjin-ja known by locals as simply Fudatenjin. One of the shrine’s little known secrets – even to locals and Shinsengumi enthusiasts – is that on the precincts there is a large stone monument erected by Isami’s father, 近藤周助 Kondō Shūsuke. The shrine is famous for its 梅 ume plum blossoms in the late winter.

Map of Jindai-ji.

Map of the Jindai-ji temple complex

I’m sure there are more charms than these[xxvii], but the real show stopper in Chōfu is a sprawling temple complex called深大寺 Jindai-ji Jindai Temple[xxviii]. I’m sure it’s beautiful any time of the year, but the time I went was in the autumn – just as the leaves were changing – and it was pretty amazing. I felt like I had stepped back in time. It was years ago when I went, but the beauty of the atmosphere and nature made a big impression on me. It’s said to be the second oldest temple in 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The area is famous for soba, so it’s a good place to relax and have something to eat. The distance of this place from Chōfu Station is why I think that if you want to “do Chōfu,” you should probably rent some e-チャリ ii-chari electric bicycles to hit all of the spots. And believe me, I haven’t mentioned all the spots in this area.

OK, we’ve wandered way outside of the 23 Wards but we’re still in Tōkyō Metropolis. I think long time readers can guess what the next few articles will be about. Feel free to take a stab at it in the comments section below.

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That’s the Nara Period to you and me.
[ii] Wanna know about the Asuka Period, here ya go!
[iii] What the hell are the Taika Reforms?
[iv] Much of the system was superseded by new innovations in the 10th century (Heian Period), but some of these administrative units stayed in place until the Meiji Period.
[v] When you talk about place names, you have to talk about civil administrative crap all the time.
[vi] Modern day 京都 Kyōto.
[vii] What’s the hell is the Shinsengumi, you ask? This is the Shinesengumi.
[viii] Today Chōfu City bills itself as 近藤勇のふるさと Kondō Isami no Furusato Kondō Isami’s Hometown.
[ix] Hijikata’s hometown, by the way, was in nearby 武蔵国多摩郡日野 村 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Hino Mura Hino Village, Tama District, Musashi Province.
[x] Waka come in all shapes and sized, so I’m not going into detail. I don’t want to discuss waka any more than I want to discuss taxes. lol. But here’s the Wikipedia article. Knock yourself out.
[xi] Wanna learn more about the Tama River?
[xii] Japanese poetry tends to be pretty fucking vague.
[xiii] And fair enough. Kanji are fairly flexible in how you want to use them in Japanese.
[xiv] I rarely read any poetry anymore, for that matter.
[xv] Read more about waka here.
[xvi] If I’m wrong, say something in the comments.
[xvii] Some areas are famous for handsome men too.
[xviii] In much of rural Japan, daily life didn’t change much until WWII.
[xix] Long time readers who actually read my unbearable river series should know well that in the Edo Period the ancient kanji 多磨 Tama were used for the geographical area and the kanji 玉川 Tamagawa were used for the river and aqueducts.
[xx] I’m rendering 分村 as wakemura. It’s an obsolete word meaning “separated village” – this I’m sure of – but I’m not sure of the reading. It could be bunson (doesn’t look like a place name, though) or wamura or bunmura. I can’t find any information except on Weblio. So, until I hear otherwise, I’m sticking with that reading. But if anyone can confirm or correct this, I’d really appreciate it.
[xxi] You can get to anywhere in the world from Shinjuku Station…
[xxii] I recommend an electric bike because… dude, they’re freaking amazing.
[xxiii] The course is here.
[xxiv] Just for clarification, his 道場 dōjō, the 試衛館 Shieikan was located in 市ヶ谷 Ichigaya, near Shinjuku. I think I wrote an article about Ichigaya, but I don’t remember… Oh well.
[xxv] The temple is technically in 三鷹 Mitaka, not Chōfu. #BorderProblemz.
Also, I’m not joking when I say Kondō Isami has many graves. I wonder if someone has compiled a list of all of them. This might be a good start. #CmonInternetDontFailMeNow
[xxvi] Read more about the Kōyoū Chinbutai here. If memory serves me well, the new name was given by 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū. The 2004 Taiga Drama, 新撰組! Shinsengumi! made the re-naming of the group look terribly insulting and implied that Katsu Kaishū was just trying to get rid of them by either breaking their morale or getting them killed. That’s just a TV show, but it’s an intriguing theory.
[xxvii] Microsoft has an office here, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing.
[xxviii] For the record, Jindai-ji is technically in Mitaka, not Chōfu.

The Tama River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on August 6, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Tama-gawa (“super scratchy river,” more at unknown)

A typical river crossing in the Edo Period

A typical river crossing in the Edo Period

Hello and welcome back to the clusterfuck of river-related bullshit that JapanThis! has recently become. For my own sanity, the river posts require time off. Also, my day job has become busier recently. To make matters more complicated, I just took a trip to Kyōto and had to edit the photos and I’m in the middle of reading Romulus Hillsborough’s latest book, which I will be reviewing shortly. Needless to say, I’m fucking busy right now. But anyways, we’ve got another river to check off the list 7 rivers that I promised[i].

So, please forgive my lateness and please bear with me. I thought this one would be one of the easy ones. Clearly, I was totally mistaken. But I found a way to rejuvenate my love for writing the blog again.

Let’s get it on, my brother/sister. It’s time to go deeeeeeeeeeep.


OK, so let’s get down and dirty. 

 shinsengumi teams

Tama’s Image in my Mind

When I hear the name “Tama,” I think of the phrase 多摩の誇り Tama no Hokori the Pride of Tama which was used repeatedly in the 2004 NHK 大河ドラマ Taiga Dorama Taiga Drama, 新撰組!  Shinsengumi![ii] The upper echelons of the group were natives of 武蔵国多摩郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District, Musashi Province. The Shinsengumi’s 局長 kyokuchō commander, 近藤勇 Kondō  Isami was originally from present day 調布 Chōfu which is located in the Tōkyō Metropolis today[iii]. The 副局長 fuku-kyokuchō vice-commander, 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō[iv] was from present day 日野 Hino which is located near present day 立川 Tachikawa. In my article on Musashi, I mentioned that the name “Musashi” has a very country image these days. In the Edo Period, this image was even stronger because the area was so outside the city limits of the shōgun’s capital. It’s important to understand that Edo and Tōkyō are not – and never have been – mutually interchangeable terms, especially in regards to territory. Anyways, as a region, Tama conjurors up an image of Chōfu and Hino, and as such, to me that means “Shinsengumi.”

This is a little creepy idol worship, but… the Shinsengumi got the short end of the stick by the Meiji Coup.

The other thing that comes to mind is BBQ.

As an American, I assume you can barbecue anywhere – usually your own backyard. But in Japan’s crowded cities, towns, and villages, you can’t just put a BBQ pit in your backyard and have a party. Because of that, rivers are the de factō place to grill food and hang with your friends. The Tama River runs through the border of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture. As you can imagine, the metropolis starts to melt away into countryside here. So it’s along this river that Tōkyōites and neighboring denizens have found common ground for barbecuing and all the debauchery ensues. All kinds of parties go down along the river. I’ve been to a range of events for the whole family to events that would even make Tokugawa Ienari blush[v].

The river isn't really the focus of the BBQ...

The river isn’t really the focus of the BBQ…

But the reality is, the 多摩地方 Tama chihō Tama region is essentially the bulk of 西東京 Nishi-Tōkyō Western Tōkyō, ie; the area outside of the 23 Wards. It’s countryside[vi], but it’s not complete flyover territory. 青梅 Ōme is famous for its mountains and autumn colors. 八王子 Hachiōji is famous for a Late Hōjō clan castle that was built to last for generations only to be burnt to the ground by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590 in one of his last moves to unify the country under his rule as regent of the emperor. Oh, and 吉祥寺 Kichijōji is in the Tama region. Kichijōji is one of the most desirable places to live in Tōkyō, despite not being in the 23 Wards[vii].

West Tokyo. That's right. This is Tokyo.

West Tokyo.
That’s right. This is Tokyo.

Tama River Trivia

Despite the association with the Shinsengumi, who were eventually 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Edo Shōgunate, the river never flowed through Edo. Even today, the river doesn’t flow through central Tōkyō, though it does mark a boundary between Tōkyō Metropolis and Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Tama River course.

The Tama River course.

At first site, the river looks quite shallow and unimpressive, though much of the river’s course is accompanied by tall, ugly, concrete levees. But, don’t let the river’s shallowness fool you! The river actually floods often; those ugly levees have saved countless lives and provided safe and secure areas for barbecues.

stone levees....

stone levees….

Because it never ran through a major urban center or capital, the river’s course hasn’t changed dramatically over the years.  Archaeology seems to show that people lived along the river since Paleolithic times. There are many 古墳  kofun burial mounds located along the river. The river may have played a role in spreading the culture of 邪馬台国 Yamatai Koku the Yamato State and burial mound culture.

This doesn't look like much, but it's a kofun (burial mound) in Tamagawa burial mound park.

This doesn’t look like much, but it’s a kofun (burial mound) in Tamagawa burial mound park.

Some people claim there are piranha in the Tama River. There were reports of 4 piranha pulled out of the in river in 2010. The English language media dubbed the river the “Tamazon.” While alien fauna are popping up in rivers all over the world, I find it hard to believe that piranha are flourishing in the Tama River. But who knows… maybe you next BBQ by the river may include an uninvited meat-eater.

Google "piranha attack victim" at your own risk.

Google “piranha attack victim” at your own risk.

The Legal Definition of the River

Today the river is defined as the stretch of flowing water from 笠取山 Kasadori Yama Mt. Kasadori to 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay at 羽田 Haneda[viii]. Mt Kasadori, by the way, lies at the border of 甲州市 Kōshū-shi Kōshū City (former 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province and modern 山梨県 Yamanashi-ken Yamanashi Prefecture) and 秩父市 Chichibu-shi Chichibu City (former 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province and modern 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Dasaitama Prefecture).

From Mt. Kasadori, it flows eastward to the hilly and rural part of Western Tokyo. At Hamura, an otherwise unremarkable backwater of rural Tōkyō, is the source of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tama River Aqueduct – which we will talk about in a minute.


Etymology, Part One (Kanji)

I hate to say this, but this is gonna be messy. Time and time again, we’ve seen 当て字 ateji, that is to say, easily understood kanji that have no meaning, but can be easily read. The kanji used for the Tama River are ateji… or possibly not. It’s a really convoluted story and I’m not exactly how to present the facts in the best way.

First let me say, we don’t know – and probably can’t know – the exact origin of the name of this river. Throughout the regions where the river flows there are a few place names that seem to be related – nothing that really ties everything together etymologically speaking, but you’ll see. From time immemorial, the name タマ Tama has been used in the area, but different areas used different kanji. In the Pre-Modern Era, people weren’t such sticklers for standards – as we’ve seen time and time here at JapanThis!, and as such it wasn’t until the Meiji Era that we started seeing efforts to standardizing the Japanese Language. Even in the Post-War years, which saw sweeping reforms to 標準語  Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, allowances have always been made for regional cultural differences and traditions – or sometimes a train station just needs to differentiate itself from another train station. Shit happens.

Since the name goes back to some of the earliest extant documents of Japan, there is reason to suspect that the name predates literacy in Japan. If that’s the case, the name could not even be Japonic in origin. But just like all the etymologies I’m gonna throw out there, it’s all speculation.

Ferry service across the Tama River

Ferry service across the Tama River

Kanji Chaos!

So let’s look at all that kanji, then, shall we? Keep in mind, this list is by no means exhaustive, but these are words said to be related to the river and/or region.

Kanji/Rōma-ji Meaning[ix]
many, multi-;
chafe, polish, scrape;
jewel, ball, pebble;river
Tamagawa Jōsui
jewel, ball, pebble;river;
Tama Reien
many, multi-;
polish, brush, improve;
usually written without kanji, but the meaning is 二子玉川 “Twin Tamagawa Villages”
interior, deep;
many, multi-;polish, brush, improve
interior, deep;many, multi-;chafe, polish, scrape
many, multi-;chafe, polish, scrape
cape, promontory;
jewel, ball

Recently, I’ve been told that hating on Saitama by calling it “Dasaitama” has become unclassy…
or has it?

Trends in the Spelling

Although none of this was standardized until recent years, there are some trends in the spelling that take us back to the first documentation of the river in written Japanese. None of this really helps out with the true derivation, but it does give us a fantastic lesson in how kanji was used and how it really muddles up efforts to study diachronic changes in Japanese.

In the Nara Period, there is a vague reference to the river, though we do know if this is upstream or downstream. The reference occurs in the 万葉集 Man’yōsha The Compilation of a 1000 Leaves, and the spelling is 多麻河 Tama-gawa. This book was written at a time when kanji use in Japanese hadn’t been standardized, so the kanji are more or less phonetic – though not 100% so.  The literal meaning of the kanji are “much,” “hemp,” and “river.” We’ll come back to this later.

In the Heian Period, we find a few references to the midsection of the river as 武蔵国石瀬河 Musashi no Kuni Iwasegawa Iwase River of Musashi Province. The literal meaning of the kanji are “pebble/jewel,” “shallow,” and “river. We’ll come back to this later.

From the Kamakura Period, when we finally get more consistent documents from Eastern Japan, until the Edo Period, the upper portion of the river seems to have been known as the 丹波川 Tabagawa. The kanji literally mean “red,” “waves,” and “river.”[x] Pretty sure we’re coming back to this later, too.

In the Edo Period, the spelling 玉川 Tama-gawa “pebble river” seems to have become a standard in many documents; areas surrounding the river in particular came to be spelled this way. A few variations that I mentioned earlier persisted, but for whatever reason, a trend towards this new spelling – admittedly easier to read – had begun. The old kanji 多摩 Tama didn’t fade into oblivion, but two contenders for the correct writing became dominant in the Edo Period. A third spelling, 多磨 tama would exist until the 1920’s, when it got a cemetery and train station named after it – and it persists today. The reason for this was to honor the name of 多磨村 Tama Mura Tama Village, the original village in that area.

This sign shows both spellings 多摩川 and 玉川 side by side.

This sign shows both spellings 多摩川 and 玉川 side by side.

Etymology, Part Two (Folklore)

There are a few theories floating around… None of them are very satisfying.

➊ As I mentioned, at one point, the upper portion of the river was called 丹波川 Taba-gawa; this is ateji used to represent タバガワ出 Taba-gawa no de. This name literally means “outflowing of the Taba River” and referred to a 手離れる出 which looks like te hanareru de in modern Standard Japanese, but in the ancient local dialect was ta banareru de. The meaning is that the river that separates from 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province (modern Yamanashi Prefecture) at this place[xi]. The name was either corrupted or underwent a natural sound change from Taba-gawa to Tama-gawa[xii]. There is a village near the headwaters called 山梨県丹波山村 Yamanashi-ken Tabayama Mura, Tabayama Village, Yamanashi Prefecture which preserves the first 2 kanji. In that area, the river is locally called 丹波川 with 2 variant readings: Taba-gawa and Tanba-gawa.

I don’t know enough about Old Japanese or the dialects of the region, so let’s take this one with a grain of salt, but preservation of these ancient kanji is impressive.

The Tabagawa (ie; Tamagawa) in Tabayama Village.

The Tabagawa (ie; Tamagawa) in Tabayama Village.

 多摩 tama is ateji for /霊 tama (soul, spirit). This is a reference to the ancient kami 大国魂命 Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto[xiii]. This kami was the deification of the very province itself, in this case 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni or whatever territory the area was known as prior to the Taika Reforms (some argue that it may have been called 魂国 Tama no Kuni Tama Province). By this thinking, the river was sacred to or controlled by Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto, or was a physical manifestation of the kami itself. As this was either Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto’s river or Tama Province’s river it was called 魂川 Tamagawa (the kami’s river), the kanji was changed to 多摩川  Tamagawa because the ateji were presumably easier to read phonetically.

This is interesting. The only part of it that jumps out at me is that 魂川 isn’t difficult to read. In fact, I can’t think of another way to read the name in Modern Japanese. While the name is clearly of the Yamatai culture, this could also be syncretism at work, merging a pre-Yamatai deity or state with a Yamatai one.

Ōkuni Shrine in Fuchū in the Tama Region. Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto isn't enshrined here per se, but this is most definitely a Kuni Tama, a Shintō tutelary deity of a Province.

Ōkuni Shrine in Fuchū in the Tama Region. Ōkuni Tama no Mikoto isn’t enshrined here per se, but this is most definitely a Kuni Tama, a Shintō tutelary deity of a Province.

➌ The name comes from the ateji  多麻 tama which means “an abundance of hemp.” The idea is that a buttload of hemp naturally grew along the banks of the river and came to be farmed by the local people. Supporters of this theory point at 麻布 Azabu, 麻生 Asaoku, 調布 Chōfu, and 砧 Kinuta as place names that may have similar origins.

Nearby Chōfu, Asaoku, and Kinuta absolutely give a level of plausibility to this particular theory. Azabu may have a similar origin, but has no connection to the Tama River.

Whatever the origin of the name, in 712, the name was first recorded as 多麻 “abundance of hemp,” but over time came to be 多摩 “a lot of chafing.” Hemp was a common material for making clothes. But “a lot of chafing” is just bad. So it’s no wonder why the shōgunate preferred 玉川 “pebble river” over a “hurtful river.” But just as the shōgunate didn’t survive the Meiji Coup of 1868, their terminology scattered like their retainers and so we’re left with an etymological mess.

Japanese hemp.

Japanese hemp.

 Oh, I forgot to mention this one. It’s often repeated that he name is derived from the 玉川兄弟  Tama Kyōdai the Tamagawa brothers, 玉川庄右衛門  Tamagawa Shōemon and 玉川清右衛門 Tamagawa Seiemon. This fraternal team managed the excavation of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tamagawa Aqueduct in 1653. Early in the Edo Period, the shōgunate realized that the main aqueduct, the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui was insufficient for the city, whose size and population had skyrocketed due to the policy of sankin-kōtai.

This etymology is demonstrably false.

Originally, the brothers were farmers who lived along the river. They took the job and finished in roughly 18 months. For the efficiency and diligence in building a superior aqueduct to the existing Kanda Aqueduct, the shōgunate rewarded them with hereditary management of the aqueduct, samurai status, and a family name, 玉川 Tamagawa. As mentioned before, this was the preferred spelling of the shōgunate. But more importantly, this was a great gift that could be passed down through the family forever.However, that was not to be. The Tamagawa surname was abolished when it was discovered that the 3rd generation head of the family – for his own financial gain – was pimping out Tamagawa Aqueduct water to the locals. Not only was he stealing from the shōgun, he proved himself to be an ingrate to the very system that had raised his family’s fortunes from peasant to samurai.

What a dick.

Not to understand what the Tamagawa Brothers accomplished, here's the entire stretch of the aqueduct. Click to enlarge.

Not to understand what the Tamagawa Brothers accomplished, here’s the entire stretch of the aqueduct.
Click to enlarge.

The Tamagawa Brothers, (It's just a statue, not the real guys...)

The Tamagawa Brothers,
(It’s just a statue, not the real guys…)

Today How Are the Kanji Used?

The kanji 玉川 Tamagawa (the Edo Period kanji preferred by the shōgunate) is now generally applied to place names associated with the river basin, while the older 多摩川 Tamagawa refers to the river itself and the 多摩川水系 Tamagawa Suikei Tamagawa river system, ie; actual waterways that diverge from the river itself, man-made or otherwise. That said, it seems this usage is not entirely uniform. For example, 多摩市 Tama-shi Tama City uses the name of the river.

The famous hanami spot, 多磨霊園 Tama Reien Tama Cemetery, uses a variant for /ma/, but it’s clearly based on the pre-Edo Period version. The reason for this difference is based solely local tradition. By the way, if you’re a fan of the psychopathic, right wing author, 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, after he committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment in 1970, he was interred at Tama Cemetery. If you want to take a selfie with a douchebag’s grave, you can do it here.

Tama Cemetery.

Tama Cemetery. Mishima would love the pink.

二子玉川 Futako-Tamagawa (often misread as Futago-Tamagawa) is not an official place name. It’s just a train station name, but as is often the case in Tōkyō, areas tend to be referred to by their station names.  Many stations and business names in the “Futako-Tamagawa area” bear the name 玉川, but the name 玉川 rarely appears as a postal address. 二子村 Futako Mura Futako Village was a village located on the Kanagawa side of the river in present day 川崎市 Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City. On the present day Tōkyō-side of the river in present day Setagaya-ku, was 玉川村 Tamagawa Mura Tamagawa Village. This part of the river was part of an important ferry that took passengers back and forth between Tamagawa Village and Futako Village which was called the 二子之渡し Futako no Watashi, meaning something like “the twin village crossing.”[xv]

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[i] Note to self: never promise more than 3 articles on a subject you know nothing about yet.
[ii] If you don’t know who the Shinsengumi were… I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog. But that said, you can find a quick description here at Samurai Archives.
[iii] Though his family’s dōjō was located in Edo in the 柳町 Yanagi-chō neighborhood. I have an article about that are here.
[iv] The Hijikata family still owns property in the area, promotes Shinsengumi-related tourism, and still teaches 天然理心流 ten’nen rishin’ryū – the style of sword play taught at the Kondō dōjō.
[v] The Great Grilled Tama River Orgy of 2012 is a post for another day.
[vi] Here’s what Wikipedia says about former Tama District.
[vii] I’ve talked about Kichijōji many times before. Check out some of my articles here.
[viii] See my article about Haneda here.
[ix] I use the term “meaning” in the loosest of possible senses.
[x] We’ve seen references to “red rivers” many times before, but this one comes to mind first.
[xi] 手離れる出 ta banareru de seems pretty cryptic to me, but it seems to mean “the outflowing [where the river] lets hands go.” In Modern Japanese 手離れ tebanare means a child who doesn’t always need to hold mommy’s hand (it can also mean “completing a project”).
[xii] We’ve seen this sound change many times here at JapanThis!. The examples I like to give are modern Japanese variants さむい samui vs さぶい sabui (cold) and さみしい samishii vs さびしい sabishii (lonely).
[xiii] This kami’s name means something like the “His Majesty, Spirit of the Great Country.”
[xv] Today, the Tōkyō-side of the river, in Setagaya, there is a postal code 玉川. The Kanagawa-side does not have any postal codes with this name that I know of but buildings and businesses absolutely use it. That said, Kanagawa isn’t Tōkyō so I’m not covering it for this blog.

What does Ushigome-Yanagicho mean?

In Japan, Japanese History on September 27, 2013 at 6:28 am

Ushigome-Yanagichō (Crowd of Cows Willow Tree Town)

Some of Yanagicho's shitamachi vibe (low town)  still exists.

Some of Yanagicho’s shitamachi vibe (low town) still exists.

Will someone please stop the Ushigome insanity??? I wanna get off. I’m starting to feel dizzy.

牛込 ushigome a crowd of cows
柳町 yanagi-chō willow tree town

Every explanation seems to be “there used to be a bunch of willow trees here.”

Well… duh… yeah… that’s what the name means. Willow Tree Town all night long, baby.

Willow trees. Yanagi.

Willow trees.
Perhaps Yanagicho once looked like this in the greener, more river-y Edo Period.
(btw – this is not Yanagicho)

So, there are places called 柳町 yanagi machi or yanagi-chō all over Japan[i] because there are lots of willow trees in Japan. But generally, we can associate willow trees with riversides and low water-rich environs. This area fits that profile. So at one time, there may have been an abundance of willow trees.

This particular place name is a merging of a few elements.

Before the reshuffling of special wards in Tōkyō, the name of the town was 市谷柳町 Ichigaya Yanagichō[ii]. After the reshuffling[iii], parts of Ushigome Ward and Ichigaya Ward were merged into the newly created Shinjuku Ward. When a station was built here the station name became Ushigome Yanagi-chō.

Ushigome-yanagicho is just another train station. You might not even notice it.

Ushigome-yanagicho is just another train station. You might not even notice it.

A Little Bit About the Area

After the 明暦大火 Meireki Taika the Great Meireki Fire, many victims were relocated to this area. This area is located in the 下町 shitamachi the low town. In the Edo Period it was an area for commoners and merchants. It was also famous for candle shops. Woo-hoo.

While we have said that Ushigome is a traditionally 山手 yamanote high city area, there was a 下町 shitamachi low city element too. Yanagichō was that element.

Because it was shitamachi, the main intersection is located in a deep depression. By the 1970’s people started noticing that exhaust fumes from cars was supposedly getting trapped here. Residents were turning up with symptoms of lead poisoning and there was a brief media scare about a lead poisoning problem. The government banned trucks over a certain size and took a few other measures to reduce traffic in order to remedy the problem. Supposedly the area is cleaned up now. (I hope TEPCO wasn’t involved in this project or it’s probably worse…)

Yanagicho intersection in the 1970's.

Yanagicho intersection in the 1970’s.

Yanagicho intersection these days.

Yanagicho intersection these days.

The Shinsengumi Connection

A train geek stamp for the Oedo Line's Ushigome-Yanagichou Station.Note Kondo Isami on the left and the Shieikan marker in the middle.

A train geek stamp for the Oedo Line’s Ushigome-Yanagichou Station.
Note Kondo Isami on the left and the Shieikan marker in the middle.

But the area’s real claim to fame, in terms of Edo-Tōkyō History, is that Yanagichō is where 試衛館 the Shieikan was located. Bakumatsu and seppuku lovers alike will recognize this name as the dōjō of 近藤勇 Kondō Isami, leader of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi[iv] – some of the biggest bad asses of the final days of the Tokugawa shōgunate.

Today the dōjō is gone; it disappeared from the historical record[v] in 1867. This is no doubt due to the shame the Meiji Government tried to cast on the samurai who supported the shōgunate – in particular, the Shinsengumi – and especially Kondō Isami, who was essentially rounded up and tried in a kangaroo court of imperial loyalists to be disgraced and put down like a sick dog.


Recently some have suggested that the location where the historical marker is today may not be in the correct location.

Marker of the place where the Shieikan once stood.

Marker of the place where the Shieikan once stood.

If you go past the marker and down the hill, there is a small shrine.

If you go past the marker and down the hill, there is a small shrine.

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[i] If you don’t believe me, here’s a small list.
[ii] Let it be noted, I haven’t covered Ichigaya yet.
[iii] In short, old Ushigome Ward + old Ichigaya Yanagi Town → Ushigome-Yanagi Town.
[iv] The Shinsengumi were an elite force of swordsmen who were in charge of taking down any anti-shōgunate terrorists in Kyōto. They had an extraordinary will to power and an unsurpassed propensity to kill according to a certain book on the topic that just repeats those phrases until the reader wants to slit their own belly just to make it stop.
[v] At least the records that I have access to.

Why is Itabashi called Itabashi?

In Japanese History on May 22, 2013 at 1:16 am

Itabashi (Plank Bridge)

Itabashi Bridge

The Itabashi (plank bridge) as it looks today. (Hey old man, get out of the shot!)

In 1180 Minamoto Yoritomo is recorded having temporarily stationed his army near a bridge called 板橋 Itabashi “the plank bridge” on the upper 滝野川 Takinogawa Takino River* in the 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District of 武蔵国 Musashino no Kuni Musashi Province. There was no road by the name at the time, but it is believed that this bridge is where the 中仙道 Nakasendō crossed the Takino River.

Today there is still a bridge called Itabashi where the 仲宿商店街 Nakajuku Shōtengai Nakajuku Arcade crosses the 石神井川 Shakujii River**. And it’s generally agreed that this is the same bridge. The arcade street is actually the Old Nakasendo highway and the name refers to the fact that it cuts through () the post town (宿).

By the Edo Period, a major 宿場 shukuba post town had grown up around the bridge and the area was well known as 板橋宿 Itabashi-shuku. The town was a major stopping point for daimyō processions after the 1630’s. The town prospered under the sankin-kōtai edict until 1862 when the requirement was suspended in the crisis of the bakumatsu. Itabashi-shuku was a 3-4 hour walk from Nagareyama*** and it was also the starting point of the 川越街道 Kawagoe kaidō Kawagoe Highway.

Shukuba me all night!

Did someone say post town? Shukuba all night long, baby. Awwwwwwww yeah!

So Why “Plank Bridge?”

The prevailing theory seems to be that in the late Heian Period in a backwater area far from Kyōto, the presence of an elegant and smooth plank bridge would have been something unique — as opposed to a bridge sorta thrown together with a bunch of crappy logs of various shapes and sizes. The fact that a bridge was even mentioned in the same sentence as Minamoto Yoritomo is held up as corroborating evidence… or that’s what people say.

Itabashi-shuku’s big claim to fame is a bit more nefarious than just being a convenient post town with a smooth-ass bridge. As the area was well outside of central Edo and on a major road, it was also the site of a prison and execution ground during the Edo Period. In 1868 as the Imperial Army was taking possession of the city and its infrastructure, they used the prison and execution grounds to detain and eventually execute Kondō Isami. Nothing remains of the execution grounds or the prison except for a quiet plot of land purchased by Nagakura Shinpachi to build graves for Kondo and Hijikata Toshizō and all the other dead members of Shinsengumi. Definitely a must-see spot if you’re a Shinsengumi fan like me.

Modern Itabashi is a sleepy area – boring one might say. But there are a few Shinsengumi related spots (mostly just plaques now) and of course the “Shinsengumi Graveyard.” But the bridge itself, while made of concrete now, is still there and the temples and shrines along the Old Nakasendō still remain****.

A younger me chilling at Kondo Isami's grave in the Shinsengumi graveyard.

A younger me chilling at Kondo Isami’s grave in the Shinsengumi graveyard.




* Today the Takino River is called the 石神井川 Shakujii River.
** Remember, the Shakujii River was the Takino River back in the day.
*** Shinsengumi fans will know why I mentioned that.
**** Itabashi sightseeing spots. Knock yourself out.

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