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Posts Tagged ‘meguro river’

What does Mishuku mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on January 31, 2015 at 5:40 am

三宿
Mishuku (three post towns)

Mishuku Shrine

Mishuku Shrine

The other day we looked at 五本木 Gohongi and 2 years ago we looked at 池尻 Ikejiri. Next to Ikejiri, there lays a relatively obscure neighborhood called 三宿 Mishuku.  One would think there isn’t much to say about this place and to be honest, there isn’t a lot to say[i]. But I’m gonna try my best to show you that this area actually has some historical value. On the surface, the name seems to mean “3 post towns” because the first kanji means “3” and the second kanji means “lodging.”

A typical Edo Period post town.

A typical Edo Period post town.

Own the Moan!

In the past we’ve seen Shinjuku, Shinagawa, Narai-juku and Senju – all of which were post towns – and longtime readers will know that a whole lotta drinking and whoring went down in these kinds of places. All over Japan you’ll see place names with 宿 shuku/juku in the name and 9 times out of 10, these were post towns. But this time, it seems that this isn’t quite the case[ii].

Ready to get it on with some post town prostitutes...

Ready to get it on with some post town prostitutes…

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Let’s Look at the Kanji!


mi
three
宿
shuku
lodgings, dwellings

OK, so admittedly, there could have been 3 inns in the area at some point in history. That said, no Edo Period maps indicate anything of the sort[iii] and prior to the Edo Period, this area rarely appeared in maps because it was so country. And while the village did sit on an important road during the final years of the Kamakura Period, by the late 1300’s[iv] the area was more or less irrelevant. The road system soon became cut off from the “national[v]” road system and was just used by local peasants doing whatever boring shit it is that peasants do[vi].

mishuku map

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So What Do We Know About the Area?

If you recall from my article on Ikejiri, most of modern 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward originally consisted of marshes and swamps until the Edo Period. Fans of the blog will surely remember that the Meguro River flows through this area. Really hard core fans will remember that one of the rivers that feed into the Meguro River is the Kitazawa (where the name Shimo-Kitazawa comes from). Swamps, rivers, ravines, wetlands… I think you can see where this is going[vii].

estuary_image1

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A Land Rich with Water

This brings us to our etymology. The general consensus is that the original writing was 水宿 Mishuku – a uniquely classical rendering of these kanji. Usually when we see 宿 shuku inn used as a suffix we can use its 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading and we can also assume it means “post town.” But the first kanji is 水 mizu which means “water.” Its standard 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading is usually “mizu.” In place names, however, can sometimes be read as ミ mi instead of ミズ mizu. So does this mean “water post town” or does this mean “three post towns?”

waterworld samurai style

,

Let’s Look at the Kanji Again


mi, mizu
water
宿
yado
pregnant, replete with

This old way of writing gives us a completely new way of looking at this place name. This different way of writing suggests a terrain wherein 水が宿る mizu ga yodoru the water is teeming[viii]. This older writing seems legit according to what we know about the area prior to the Kamakura Period. The old kanji were difficult to read and were replaced with the current ones[ix].

The "castle" may have looked something like this...

The “castle” may have looked something like this…

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So Why Does This Place Name Survive At All?

There was a castle here. In its day it was called 三宿城 Mishuku-jō Mishuku Castle. There used to be a temple here called 多聞寺 Tamon-ji Tamon Temple and so sometimes the castle is called 多聞城 Tamon-jō Tamon Castle. It was a 支城 shi-jō satellite fort of 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle[x]. When and who built the first fortified residence here is unclear, but the fort sat on a plateau that is now home to 多聞小学校 Tamon Shōgakkō Tamon Elementary School.

Top of the plateau. The school is on the right.

Top of the plateau. The school is on the right.

In its day, the fort gave the lord of the manor a fantastic view of the area. To the west, you could observe the primary fortification of the fief, Setagaya Castle, but to the north you would see the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and to the south you would see the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. To the east, you would see the confluence of the two rivers merging into what we today call the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River[xi]. That is to say, you were looking at a flood plain dominated by 3 rivers – a land that was “teeming with water.” The fact that there were 3 waterways may also explain the change of change from 水 mizu water to 三 mi three.

The lord of the manor would have had a view similar to this.

The lord of the manor would have had a view similar to this… or not.

The existence of Mishuku Castle was well-known for centuries, but the place name 三宿村 Mishuku Mura Mishuku Village wasn’t recorded until 1625, during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. In 1889 (Meiji 22), 7 villages were combined to make up a larger administrative unit called 世田ヶ谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village which included an area called Mishuku. The current postal code designating Mishuku 1丁目 icchōme block 1 and 2丁目 nichōme block 2 dates from 1965 when the current postal code system was established.

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_____________________
[i] I’ve never even been there myself.
[ii] Guess dis ‘hood ain’t ownin’ the moanin’ til 6 in the mornin’. Too bad. Woulda made a much more interesting story.
[iii] Even in the Edo Period, the area doesn’t appear on some maps because it was so minor.
[iv] The Muromachi Period saw the power base move away from the east (Kamakura) and back to the west (Kyōto).
[v] And, yeah, I use the word “national” loosely.
[vi] Because fuck the peasants. Am I right?
[vii] And I promise you that it’s not going to another river series.
[viii] Literally, an area that is “pregnant with water.” Also, just as 荒川 Arakawa’s 川 kawa is not a suffix, 水宿三宿 Mishuku’s 宿 shuku is not a suffix either.
[ix] The current kanji are 読みやすい, right??? (If you can’t read that, then study a little more Japanese, OK?)
[x] As you should know from my article about Setagaya’s Freaky Horse Fetish, you’ll know that the 吉良氏 Kira-shi Kira clan controlled this area in the 1300’s and we can be sure that the Kira clan controlled this fort at some point.
[xi] See my article on the Meguro River.

The Meguro River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on September 1, 2014 at 4:56 am

目黒川
Meguro-gawa (literally, “black eye river,” more at “the Meguro River”)[i]

 

The Meguro River.

The Meguro River.

Finally.

Finally… my 7 part series on the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō is finished. The task seemed a little daunting, but worthy of doing.

“A little daunting,” I thought!

It was soul draining to say the very least. I had to take long breaks during the research phases even in the writing phases just to keep my own sanity. Any of you also follow me on Twitter know I’ve been busy with other stuff as well.

But this entire experiment has been eye opening for me. What started this series was a curiosity about the rivers that breathed life into this sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s ever seen any 浮世絵 ukiyo-e scenes of day to day life in the shōgun’s capital surely have noticed the abundance of river scenes. This is no mere coincidence. Readers of the blog should also know that I’m a big fan of Jin’nai Hidenobu’s phrase “the Venice of Asia” when referring to Edo.

In Japan’s post WWII years, as the economy grew, the rivers got more and more polluted and some of them smelled awful (the Meguro River was no exception). Major building projects began to take place in Tōkyō Bay and rivers that were used as drainage and open air sewers were paved over or diverted and drained completely. I don’t know if this is 100% accurate or not, but the first time I visited Shibuya in 2001 or 2002[ii], I noticed an odd smell and asked my friend about it. He said, “There are dirty rivers under Tōkyō. Sometimes their smell just comes up through the cracks.”

Sometimes their smell comes up through the cracks, indeed.

Cruising on the Meguro RIver.

Cruising on the Meguro River.

 

 

Are You Going to Talk About the Meguro River??  

Yes, of course. Sorry about the digression.

 

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

 

What is the Meguro River?

In reality, the Meguro River is a nothing more than a glorified storm drain today. Its official length is 7.82 km. It begins at the confluence of the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. It passes through 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[iii], 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward[iv], and 新川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward[v] and empties into Tōkyō Bay at 天王洲 Ten’ōzu in Shinagawa.

 

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay!

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay! This structure is called the 目黒川水門 Meguro-gawa Suimon “Meguro River Floodgate.”

 

The Meguro River Midori Michi

The confluence of the Kitazawa and Karasuyama Rivers is located in Karasuyama (in Setagaya). The rivers are actually underground, so you won’t see much there, though there is a monument. The emergent Meguro River is also underground.  A little water is diverted to ground level and manifests as a small, decorative creek. This area is called the 目黒川緑道 Meguro-gawa Midori Michi Meguro River Green Path. The man-made stream and its accompanying vegetation attract a variety of wildlife whose populations and health are closely monitored to maintain a healthy “green space.” A short distance away, at 大橋 Ōhashi, literally “the big bridge,” where 国道 246号 Kokudō 246-gō National Highway #246 passes, the underground river and the creek are re-united at the mouth of the visible portion of the river.

 

Water breathes life into the city. It's so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

Water breathes life into the city. It’s so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

 

Much of the modern course of the Meguro River is supposedly the old Shinagawa River. However, there hasn’t been a river called “Shinagawa” for hundreds of years. In casual conversations, I’ve heard a lot of confused explanations for the existence of the place name “Shinagawa” despite the lack of a river bearing the same name[vi]. The most repeated stories usually reference a 川 kawa river used to bring 品 shina/hin products in and out of the bay. Whether that derivation is true or false is a discussion for another article.

 

Are the Meguro River and Shinagawa River the Same Thing?

Short answer, yes.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

 

But I Think the Long Answer is More Interesting.

It’s not much of a long answer and more of a series of tangents. Wanna go there?

If you’re a long time reader, you probably already know the story of Meguro and the story of Mejiro, so you know that folk etymology is most likely involved. But I’m gonna take a short detour to talk about Shinagawa a little bit.

I’ll preface this digression with 2 facts: modern day Shinagawa is spread across both 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward and 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward, modern Meguro lies in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward. However in the Pre-Modern Era, both villages lay in 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

 

In 1184, Minamoto no Yoritomo sent an edict exempting his distant clansmen in the Ebara District from imposing superfluous taxes – other than annual land/rice taxes – on the peasants of the area[vii]. These relatives were the 品川氏 Shinagawa-shi Shinagawa clan. Apparently, this is the oldest document referencing Shinagawa. But as we’ve seen time and time again here at JapanThis!, when a new branch family was established, they would take a new family name based on the fief that they controlled. In the case of Shinagawa, this shows the place name Shinagawa clearly predates this remote noble family.

 

The Ōi Clan – River Makers

Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it will happen.

The Shinagawa clan was branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan[viii]. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other[ix].  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).

 

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it's the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final "bye bye" place for families and the soon to be executed.

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it’s the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final “bye bye” place for families and the soon to be executed.

 

Interestingly, the Ōi were a branch of the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan (and as such, so were the Shinagawa). The Shinagawa and Ōi retainers made up an auxiliary force of samurai called 随兵 zuihyō or zuibyō[x]. In the Kamakura and to a certain degree in the Muromachi Periods, these were low ranking, sometimes mounted, warriors who were called in for important jobs such as making the shōgun’s procession longer when he didn’t have enough people; making high ranking shōgunate officials’ processions look longer, you know, when they didn’t have enough people; and protecting 神輿 mikoshi portable Shintō shrines when they were transported from a main shrine to a newly established branch shrine… in a procession, of course.

 

The Meguro Clan – They Didn’t Do Shit

In neighboring 江原郡目黒郷 Ebara-gun Meguro-gō Meguro Hamlet, Ebara District, another noble family supplying 随兵 zuihyō to the Kamakura shōgunate had also taken the name of the local area and were known as the 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan. Supposedly their residence was the site of the present day Meguro Junior High School. No extant remains are visible today.

 

meguro clan residence

 

But back to the river. As we’ve seen throughout this series, before the so-called Modern Era, there was no standardized, official naming system as we have today. River names were generalizations and local areas had local names for their little slice of the river. Hence the river was called the Shinagawa River in Shinagawa and the Meguro River in Meguro.

It’s interesting to note that Edo Period maps and illustrations don’t use the word 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to describe the river that passes by Ryūsen-ji. The river in Shimo-Meguro is called the こりとり川 Koritori-gawa. The word こりとり koritori comes from syncretic Buddhism and Shintō. In kanji, it’s written 垢離取り kori tori. This refers to the act of ritually purifying oneself in water before visiting a temple or shrine[xi]. The kanji for kori literally mean 垢を離す aka wo hanasu getting rid of filth[xii].

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was "kori."

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was “kori.”

 

Which Brings me to my Final Point

Why where people jumping in the river to get rid of spiritual impurities? If you noticed, earlier I dropped a reference to Ryūsen-ji. This is a temple in 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Lower Meguro. There are many claims that the name of this area comes from this temple. In the Edo Period this temple was one of a cluster of temples called 江戸五色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō the 5-Colored Immovable Buddhas of Edo. However, most linguistic evidence indicates that the name is quite ancient and has nothing to do with the temple. That said, if you’re interested, I think I wrote an article about this somewhere…

 

Pilgrimage map.

Pilgrimage map.

 

Coincidentally, people jumped into the river during the firebombing during WWII. The river was said to be littered with corpses for weeks. There’s an ancient superstition that says cherry blossom trees require human blood to grow and that underneath every cherry blossom is a grave. The events of WWII and this superstition are sometimes invoked by old people who have lived in Meguro since the war days. They say the cherry blossoms are so beautiful because they’re fed by all of those who died in the river during the firebombing. It’s a kind of ghoulish thought, but I can guarantee you, plants and trees can grow just fine without human blood.

 

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

 

But as I said earlier, the Meguro River is basically a drainage ditch. But there are many 桜 sakura cherry blossoms planted along its route in Naka-Meguro. As a result the area has become popular for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. Food stands are set up and cafes and restaurants that line the river do a lot of business catering to the crowds admiring the pink and white leaves. Normally, living next to a drainage ditch doesn’t give you bragging rights but Naka-Meguro has become one of the most desirable areas in Tōkyō. But this wasn’t all the case. The area was one of the least desirable areas until the late 1980’s. The river was seriously polluted until a major clean up and attempt to revitalize the area was begun. The cherry blossoms were planted at that time.

 

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

 

Alright. So that’s it. No more river articles. Woo-hoo!

 

 

 

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[i] See my article What does Meguro mean?
[ii] I don’t remember and don’t have my old passport to confirm.
[iii] Here’s my article on Setagaya.
[iv] Here’s my article on Meguro.
[v] Here’s my article on Shinagawa.
[vi] I wrote article about Shinagawa and Takanawa, but it’s so old that I don’t want to include a link. Embarrassing. I promise to revisited the topic again some time.
[vii] The surviving document is the 品河三郎清実に品川郷の公事免除 Shinagawa Saburō to Kiyzane/Kiyomi ni Shinagawa-gō Kōji Menjo Exemption from Official Service for Shinagawa Saburō and Shinagawa Kiyomi of Shinagawa Hamlet. (The name 清実 has many possible readings, so I’m not sure which is correct. I provided 2 possibilities and have chosen Kiyomi from here on out).
[viii] Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it’s in the works.
[ix] I’m not sure if this was one branch irrigation ditch or a many….
[x] A kind of rear guard.
[xi] The act of visiting a temple or shrine is called 詣で mōde or 参り mairi.
[xii] Buddhist monks would read this as ku wo hanasu getting rid of ku. Ku is filth that causes suffering. Here’s what wiki says about it.

The Rivers of Edo-Tokyo

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on May 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm

江戸東京の大河川
Edo-Tōkyō no Taikasen (Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō)

Paleolithic inlets and outlets during the Jomon Period. This is essentially Edo and its suburbs.  Understanding the topography of Tokyo is critical to understanding the history of Edo and her earlier, less famous history.

Paleolithic inlets and outlets during the Jomon Period.
This is essentially Edo and its suburbs.
Understanding the topography of Tokyo is critical to understanding the history of Edo and her earlier, less famous history.
By the way, click to enlarge.

We’ve Reached a Milestone!

This is the 200th article of JapanThis! I never thought I’d make it this far. I feel like the blog is actually “a thing” now – like it’s finally official or something. Stylistically and content-wise it’s evolved and between Twitter, Facebook, and the blog itself there are about 1,260 subscribers. Not bad considering the topics are super nerdy and I’m really just sort of fumbling my way through this.

So I’m celebrating!

How?

With a short series on the etymology of 7 famous rivers in Edo-Tōkyō. This is the inaugural post. The first river will be covered in the next article. I don’t know if rivers are as interesting as the Tokugawa Funerary Temples or 3 Execution Grounds of Edo, which I did series on before, so bear with me. Hopefully this will be a fun ride through the city. I’ll definitely try my best.

Of course this isn't Edo or Tokyo, but this does give you a close version of what many of the small rivers or channels of Edo may have looked liked.

Of course this isn’t Edo or Tokyo, but this does give you a close version of what many of the small rivers or channels of Edo may have looked liked.

Have you Ever Said “Thank You” to a River?

It sounds like something someone on acid might do. It also sounds like something someone who is really thankful that the river is there might do. Well, I did exactly that a month or two ago.

When I started writing about Tōkyō place names, I bought a few books to brush up on the general history of the city and the layout of the Edo as compared to modern Tōkyō. One book that drastically changed the way I view the city – and we’re talking red pill/blue pill shit here, people – was 東京の空間人類学 Tōkyō no Kūkan Jinruigaku Tōkyō: A Spatial Anthropology by 陣内秀信 Jin’nai Hidenobu. He often talks about how the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō united the city, fed the city, clothed the city, moved the city, and grew the city. Soon I realized some of these rivers actually breathed life into the city. Tōkyō wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t been for the rivers and the bay. So after a day of intentionally getting lost in Tōkyō with a friend on eチャリ īchari electric powered bicycles, I found myself on the middle of 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge looking out as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa flowed out towards the bay. I imagined wooden barges transporting goods up and down the river. I saw small ferries carrying men to Yoshiwara for a night or two of indulgence. There were pleasure boats with rich merchants and samurai just enjoying the river on cruises with their friends and in the company of beautiful, young women. I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe and respect for the river and what it represented and what its presence contributed to the life of the city. Instinctively I just blurted out, “thank you.”[i]

Azumabashi If you've been to Asakusa, you've probably crossed or at least seen this bridge.

Azumabashi If you’ve been to Asakusa, you’ve probably crossed or at least seen this bridge.

So, anyways, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis is a river town, nestled between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. I’ve played in rivers[ii], camped in rivers, and fished on rivers. I’ve also seen the rivers flood and cause serious destruction. Since I was an elementary school kid, I’ve had a respect for the river and its strength and ferocity. I’ve also been familiar with how rivers connected people. I saw commercial barges on the Mississippi, steamboat cruises, casino boats, and hotel boats. Warehouses and factories were on the rivers. The centerpiece of downtown St. Louis is a riverside park with a monument commemorating the fact the city was once the only point at which you could cross the deep and dangerous Mississippi with her impassable currents. But once bridges were built over this bridge, St. Louis became the gateway to the west and a whole new epoch of American history began.

We call it the

We call it the “Muddy Mississippi” for a reason. It’s not polluted, that’s the natural state of the river.
This is when the river flooded (which happens a lot).

But to be honest, even having grown up around rivers and known about rivers and how important they are, it really didn’t dawn on me how important they in understanding the development of other cities. But the more I research Tōkyō place names, the more I keep seeing how rivers impacted local areas in Edo-Tōkyō. I’ve said this many times, and admittedly this is borrowed from Jin’nai Hidenobu, but you can think of Edo as the Venice of the East. Sure, it was a wooden city and sometimes a dusty city, but the “highways” within the shōgun’s capital were mainly waterways.

The natural rivers were one side of this story. But there were many manmade canals and moats and even aqueducts that weaved throughout the city affecting all aspects of life in Edo – including the shape of the city. If you love 浮世絵 ukiyo-e[iii], you may have noticed that I sometimes have ukiyo-e pictures on the blog showing how an area looked in the Edo Period. You may have also noticed that rivers and bridges are a major theme in much those works. That’s not an accident or coincidence. It was the financial/commercial lifeline to the area – its raison d’être – and often times a place where the locals could go to relax, have a stroll, and enjoy the beauty and majesty of the river.

So, I’ve chosen seven rivers to look at over the next seven posts. If your favorite river isn’t here, sorry. I don’t deal with low-grade, crap rivers[iv]. Learn to like a better river. And if you one of your favorite rivers is listed here, be sure to make a donation via the links below. We river-folk hafta stick together.

On a final note, I may get some flack for my final river as it wasn’t nearly as important as the other rivers I chose. But it’s an important river today, so give me a little slack, mkay?

The 7 Rivers I Will be Covering
(drumroll, please)

隅田川
Sumidagawa
Sumida River
利根川
Tonegawa
Tone River
荒川
Arakawa
Arakawa River
神田川
Kandagawa
Kanda River
多摩川
Tamagawa
Tama River
江戸川
Edogawa
Edo River
目黒川
Megurogawa
Meguro River

By the way, I’m not an expert on rivers so I don’t know how this is going to play out. I’ve been consistent on the etymology theme on this blog, so expect etymology to be the focus. I hope to expand on that a little bit, but since I’ve decided to choose a subject that I don’t know much about but I want to learn about, there may be some mayhem. If you see mistakes, let me know in the comments section and I will revise the main text. And of course, questions are always appreciated. Also, if you know any river stories about these rivers and want to share, I think that would be really cool! The first article will be out in about a week. See you then!

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[i] And immediately afterwards felt like an idiot….
[ii] Not the Mississippi or Missouri, they’re way to fast and dangerous to swim in. But there are rivers all over the state that people use for pleasure.
[iii] A genre of Edo period art sometimes translated as “scenes from the floating world” or “pictures of the fleeting world.” The term “floating” had a nuance of “fleeting,” “coming and going,” or “momentary.” Don’t confuse it with rivers and floating, because there’s no connection.
[iv] Just kidding. But actually, there were a lot of other rivers I wanted to cover – including rivers that are no more – but I thought it best to limit the scope. If people think this is a cool topic, I’ll come back to it.

What does Meguro mean?

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

目黒
Meguro
(Black Eyes)

Meguro Hanami Etymology

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

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

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

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

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Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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

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First thing you should know.

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

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

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

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

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OK, It’s Etymology Time, Y’all.

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

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

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

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

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Meguro - A Horse Embankment?

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

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

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

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

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

Why are Shinagawa and Takanawa called Shinagawa and Takanawa?

In Japanese History on February 28, 2013 at 3:03 am

品川
Shinagawa (Product River)
Takanawa (Tall Dock)

Here’s a 2 for 1:

OK, here’s the story that I was told by a docent at the Edo-Tokyo Museum while pointing to a floor map of Edo with the kanji written that supported his argument. There were two place names, side by side, one was 高輪 Takanawa, the other was 品輪 Shinagawa. The kanji refers tying up ships on a dock. (Edo Bay came right up to about where the Yamanote Line tracks are at Shinagawa Station and even today, Shinagawa Station has 2 exits, the 港南 Kōnan ”South Port” and 高輪 Takanawa “High Dock”).  Anyways, he said the name 品輪 referred to where goods were loaded and unloaded from the bay and 高輪 referred to where goods would be stored on high ground to protect from tsunamis or thieves. Sounded reasonable.

takanawa today

takanawa today

But now I just read something that referred to a similar etymology. Some people claim that 高輪 sounds like the expensive or high quality and 品ヶ輪 refers to the refined (品の良い). But then he says this isn’t very credible since the modern writing 品川 has been in use since the 1200’s.

So what’s up, Mr. Docent at the Edo-Tokyo Museum? Did you lie? And if so, why the hell was the suspect kanji written on your floor map? Is this a conspiracy??

shinagawa station today

shinagawa station today

Not entirely, it seems that in the Kamakura Period 高縄原 Takanawabara “Source of the High Rope” was the way the place name for 高輪 Takanawa was originally written. The 高縄 taka nawa refers to the 高縄手道 Takanawa-tedō, a major street which started in this area. The street was on high ground and appeared clearly on maps so that it seems as if a rope was pulled taut across the highest and safest areas to travel. This name truly did change from 高縄 to 高輪, most likely as a result of the docks gaining importance over the road.

But Takanawa has always only referred to a small area, be it village, neighborhood or town. Shinagawa on the other hand has always referred to a much greater area. In fact, in the Meiji Era, there was a Shinagawa Prefecture!

The most likely explanation about Shinagawa is the simplest one. The Meguro river entered Edo and flowed downstream through Shinagawa (and of course, Takanawa), and the entire area thrived because of the “products” and the “river” – the “product river,” if you will.

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