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What does Mamiana-cho mean?

In Japanese History on September 3, 2013 at 2:44 am

狸穴
Mamiana-chō
Raccoon-Hole Town

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.   BTW - Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.
BTW – Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.

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Sorry for my recent silence. I fell down the wormhole that is Game of Thrones and spent all my free time plowing through seasons 1, 2 , and 3[i]. To my delight I learned that season 4 is still in production, so I can finally get back writing Japan This!.

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Today’s Tōkyō place name is a doozy.

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Straddled between Azabu-Jūban, Higashi-Azabu, and Azabu-dai, is a small park called 狸穴町公園 which is freaking impossible to read unless you already know the place or you’re some kind of next level kanji master. Luckily, if you go to the area, many of the buildings don’t use the kanji (they use katakana or rōmaji) so if you stumble across this tiny area of Azabu, you’ll know how to read it. This residential area is home to about 250-260 people and is near the Russian Embassy and a non-descript S&M themed love hotel (apparently frequented regularly by Russians).

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out...

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out…

Actually the area was virtually transparent except to rich expats and diplomats 10-15 years ago. It became more accessible when Azabu-Jūban Station was built and became the convergence of the 南北線 Nanboku-sen North-South Line and 大江戸線 Ō-Edo-sen Greater Edo Area Line. It’s still a sleepy corner of the greater Azabu area, but it’s undergone massive development in the last ten years.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn't much better, to be honest).   If I'm not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn’t much better, to be honest).
If I’m not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

The reading of 狸穴町 is Mamiana-chō. The first kanji, , is usually read as tanuki. The second is 穴 ana hole. The final character, 町 chō, has come up often in this blog and it means town.

The kanji 狸 tanuki is where the fun lies. Anyone who has ever walked down a Japanese street is familiar with tanuki. They often stand outside of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.  A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.
A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The scientific name for tanuki is Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus (although this taxonomy is apparently in dispute by zoologists and evolutionary biologists). The common name is Japanese Raccoon Dog and if you look at a picture of one, you’ll see why it has the combined name raccoon and dog.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

As far as I know, tanuki are neither raccoons nor dogs[ii]. They merely resemble the two. In Japanese dialects, different words are used for this animal. But in 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, it’s called tanuki, so we’ll stick to that one. The kanji was used for a range of small furry mammals with a range of readings in various dialects referring to everything from tanuki to badgers to feral cats to large flying squirrels to wild boars, etc. Kanji use aside, the word まみ mami (which was sometimes assigned to the kanji ) appears to have been an Edo Dialect word that applied specifically to female tanuki, Japanese badgers[iii], and wild boar[iv]. An alternate kanji, 猯 mami was generally used for this grouping of animals. This word was eventually replaced by the word of the elite class, tanuki, which became the standard word we use today. So this reading is a vestige of the old Edo Dialect. Also it’s clear that in pre-modern Japan[v], there was a lot of flexibility in the naming and grouping of animals – or at least a different way of thinking that was at odds with the Linnæan system of taxonomy.

A "mami" is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological).   Before the 1860's there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren't classified according to evolutionary biolog. But that doesn't mean the Japanese didn't observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of there categories were rather broad by today's standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called.

A “mami” is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological). But here you can clearly see a “mami” living in a cave or hole as pre-modern Japanese people thought of it..Before the 1860’s there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren’t classified according to evolutionary biology. But that doesn’t mean the Japanese didn’t observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of their categories were rather broad by today’s standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called. 

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OK, we’ve heard a little kanji talk, a little linguistics, dialectology, and biology. Now let’s talk etymology!

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The Prevailing Theory

The prevailing theory is that at the bottom of the hill presently called 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill, a group of 猯 mami (could have been anything from wild boar to badgers or tanuki) were thought to have lived and burrowed in holes for shelter. People gave the area the name 狸穴 mami ana mami hole.

The fluidity of animal naming/grouping (or dialect influences[vi]) led to the current spelling with the tanuki kanji instead of the mami kanji.

The Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory

As I cover more and more Tōkyō place names, the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory plays a huge and ever-growing role in the etymology[vii]. This theory states that a really big cavern or hole was in the area and the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, ordered that the hole be explored.  Some brave samurai went in the hole, looked around and determined that まみ mami (local Edo word) female tanuki were living there. They named the place and the rest is history.

The Mine Shaft Theory

It’s important to keep in mind that because of the variation in kanji (ie; and ) and the importance of somewhat non-descript animal characters in Japanese folklore, the holes may have originally been attributed to mythological or composite creatures that may not have ever existed there.

The final theory, which isn’t particularly unbelievable, states that the area at the bottom of the hill was an ancient quarry or mine. Later generations saw the remains of the facility and produced some local folklore stating the tanuki had dug the holes – or that actual tanuki or some other animals[viii] did actually live in those ruins.

As for the historicity of any of the claims, nothing can be said except that at the beginning of the Edo Period the place name was first recorded as 飯倉狸穴町 Īgura Mamiana-chō, named after a prosperous merchant family named Īgura who lived on 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill. Actually, if you walk up the hill towards Roppongi from Mamiana Park, you’ll come to an area that preserves the Īgura family name. That area is called 飯倉片町 Īgura Katamachi[ix].

Iigura Katamachi

Iigura Katamachi

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[i] All I have to say is those characters are straight up gangsta. Can’t wait for season 4!

[ii] Though they are currently grouped in the family Canidæ, they are not in the genus Canis which are actual dogs. Raccoons in the US are currently classified in the family Procyonidæ.

[iii] Meles anakuma is 穴熊 anaguma “hole bear” – Japanese Badger.

[iv] Sus scrofa leucomystax is 猪 inoshishi wild boar.

[v] ie; pre-scientific Japan.

[vi] Or both!

[vii] Many of which, but not all, should be taken with a grain of salt.

[viii] Badgers, wild boars, tanuki, your mom…

[ix] The Īgura family name is also suspect in that it could just refer to the presence of food warehouses in the area. It is a family name, but it literally means rice/food warehouse. In cases like this, without further evidence it’s a game of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Christmas In Japan!

In Japanese Holidays on December 26, 2009 at 11:18 am
So a lot of people have asked me about Christmas in Japan. Well, the Japanese are masters at appropriating elements or foreign cultures and then thoroughly Japanizing them to fit the the needs of their own culture.

Christmas is no exception.

The Basics

How do you say “Merry Christmas” in Japanese?

メリークリスマス!
merii kurisumasu

it’s the Japanized version of the English phrase.

Young people shorten it to メリクリ (meri kuri).

Christmas Eve is called:

クリスマスイブ kurisumasu ibu
or just イブ ibu for short.

The Religious Stuff

One of the most notable differences is the apparent lack of the Jesus-related trappings of Christmas. It seems ol’ JC got lost in translation. Japan is a very secular society. In fact, only about 1% of the country claims Christianity as their faith. Although roughly 80% of the population claims to adhere to Shintoism or Buddhism (or both), the reality is most Japanese just aren’t very religious or downright atheist, occasionally practicing certain religious rites to keep in touch with the old traditions. So, it’s not surprising that the particularly uninteresting story of a poor baby born in a desert in bronze age Palestine wouldn’t appeal to the sensibilities of modern Japanese. Occasionally, you will see angels or some other religious trappings, particularly on imported goods. But for the most part, all the boring religious stuff gets skipped over in favor of the flashy pagan stuff that even most westerners will agree makes it most fun.

an actual Christmas Card from about 20 years ago


Santa-san is Coming to Town

Of course, Santa is big here. While everybody knows his name is Santa Claus, he is affectionately referred to with the honorific suffix “-san” (this suffix is fairly well known outside of Japan and somewhat similar to “Mr./Mrs” in English). So Santa Claus becomes Santa-san.

Japanese houses don’t have chimneys, so I’ve always wondered how he delivers toys to the little boys and girls here. I don’t know if this is a widespread story or not, but my girlfriend’s father told her that Santa-san is like a ghost and can walk through walls. Pretty spooky.

Japanese friends who don’t know all the Christmas traditions, have asked me what the elves are all about. I tried to explain that they build toys for Santa. But I usually get a stunned look and サンタさんの奴隷??マジで? (Santa-san no dorei?? maji de? They’re Santa’s slaves??? Seriously??)
santa-san can be a girl too…


Christmas Cake and KFC

“Christmas Cake” just refers to any kind of cake decorated in some wintery, semi-Christmassy style. I don’t think there is a particular flavor. The ones I have had are quite delicious and beautifully decorated (the Japanese are masters of cakes and sweets, particularly in the European traditions). Often the convenience stores put makeshift stands on the streets and peddle cakes to pedestrians heading home after work. While I don’t recall ever seeing a “Christmas Cake” in any of the Christmas celebrations of my home town, it doesn’t seem like a particularly strange practice.

The thing that sort of caught me by surprise during my first celebration in Tokyo, was how everyone was looking forward to chicken from KFC. This year was the first year I actually indulged in the Colonel’s fine victuals. There was a loooooooong line outside of the shop (seemed longer on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day).

If you order in advance, you can procure a whole roasted chicken and some very large family sized buckets of roasted chicken legs and breasts and thighs. At the shop I visited in Nakano, the fried menu had been limited to original recipe. Crispy strips (my fave) and chicken sandwiches, wraps and the like were unavailable until the 26th.

One more thing about Christmas Cake.

On Dec. 26, nobody wants to buy Christmas Cake anymore. So a Japanese girl who turns 26 before getting married is derogatorily referred to as “Christmas Cake” – because obviously nobody will want her anymore. Ouch!
KFC Christmas Menu


Short & Sweet

Christmas is not a national holiday so if you’re not a foreigner working for a foreign company, chances are you’ll be working on Christmas. You won’t be meeting up with all of your family from all over the country and sitting around a traditional feast with wine and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Although these days a lot of families with small children will set up a small tree and some decorations and may even go through the whole Santa-san charade, the kids just get one present or two. They may receive it on イブ (“ibu”, Christmas Eve) or first thing in the morning before going to school. Family celebrations are short and sweet. There are still a lot of families who don’t celebrate at all – in fact, they might not even know which day is Christmas, though they know it’s Christmas season because you can’t get away from the ubiquitous Christmas music and lights.

Merry XXXmas!!!
So who is Christmas mainly celebrated by? The truth is Japanese Christmas is basically a holiday for couples, and young couples at that. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a romantic dinner (chicken, of course) washed down with some expensive wine or champagne. イブ (“ibu” – “eve,” as in Christmas Eve) is a pretty big business day for intimate restaurants. If they can get the day off, many couples like to make a quick getaway to an elegant hotel. Some hotels offer a Christmas package which would include a dinner and Christmas Cake. From my own experience, I’ve gone to 旅館 (“ryokan,” traditional japanese style inn). The room is a classic Japanese room with tatami floors and a futon. A yukata (a kind of kimono) is also provided. We like to choose rooms with a private hot spring bath attached to the veranda, so you can kick it in the steaming hot bath and look at the mountains and sea and snow. It’s a pretty awesome way to spend Christmas! The food at a ryokan will be traditional Japanese fare. Sashimi, rice, miso soup and whatever local vegetables and meats are in season. Of course, they provide you with a complimentary Christmas Cake.
A lot of couples opt for a cheaper and more practical kind of hotel. Japan is famous for love hotels, gaudy erotic playgrounds with massive beds and a jacuzzi (sometimes karaoke and video games, too) that can be rented overnight or by the hour for the sole purpose of sex. In Uguisudani, an area of Tokyo famous for its many love hotels, a lot of the hotels get so much business on XXXmas that they put a 3 hour max time limit on each room and a line of couples will be wrapped around the building waiting in the cold for their turn to get a room.

one love hotel’s special christmas rates!

Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am!
The shops start playing Christmas music and putting up decorations 2 months or so before the actual day. Some of the most extravagant and high-tech illuminations in the world are right here in Tokyo. I don’t want to think about how expensive the electricity bill is for these projects or who’s paying for them… but they are really beautiful. In the US, it seems like Christmas decorations stay up until at least New Years, and some people keep them up until January 6th (The Epiphany still being part of the religious observance of the Christmas Season).But in Japan it’s all over on the 26th.

Literally erased from view.

You’ll wake up the next day and won’t see a single light, wreath, or Santa-san. The clean up is so efficient and thorough that if you hadn’t actually seen the stuff up, you’d think there was no such thing as Christmas in Japan at all.I used to think that this was just the silliest thing ever – an example of Japanese over-efficiency. But recently, I have another theory. The biggest holiday in Japan – the big family holiday which brings everyone from all over the country back to their home towns – is お正月 (o-shōgatsu, New Year’s Day). It’s not a very consumer driven holiday, but it is a rather solemn holiday and it IS a real Japanese holiday, deeply connected to the culture and history and language. I’ve come to think now, that while Christmas is all fun and all, they clean it all up quickly to get people into the mind set of o-shōgatsu and remove all the distractions of this foreign practice. And if that’s the case, fair enough. It’s their damn culture, they can do what they want with it.

the trappings of o-shogatsu are much more formal

Since this is my first blog post, I’m in need of feed back. If I’ve left anything out or been unclear, point it out and I’ll add it to this when I expand it for next year’s Christmas post!!

awwwwwwww yeah!
mαrky( -_-)凸 Read the rest of this entry »

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