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What does Tachikawa mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex, Tokyo Rivers on April 12, 2016 at 6:51 am

(standing river)



Today’s article is a reader request. So let’s start with that reader’s message!

I love your site so much! Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge about Tokyo and Japan. I was absolutely overjoyed to stumble on Japan This!. The articles are very well-researched.
By the way, have you published anything on Tachikawa? That would be nice! Arigato! Cheers!

I love the praise and I’d like to bask in that glory for a minute or two.

“Published” is quite a big word for what I do with my silly corner of the internet, but I’ll take it! Any praise people feel compelled to hurl at me, I’ll take that too, for sure! Also, if anyone wants to hurl money at me, please go to my Patreon page and help support the site.


Anyhoo, it’s taken a while since I got that message but I’ve kept my word and today, we’re finally gonna talk about 立川 Tachikawa.

That said, I have to start this with a very particular caveat. I’m making this number up, but I’m pretty sure it’s good. I generally write 85-95% of my articles deal about areas located within the 23特別区 Nijūsan Tokubetsu-ku 23 Special Wards.

changed color

Whoa, did that thing just change colors?

Occasionally, I’ve left so-called “Central Tōkyō” and covered some other place names, but that’s been the exception and not the rule. The reason for this is simple. I live in the center of Tōkyō and the records and maps are good for these areas, especially during the Edo Period to present. Areas like 調布 Chōfu and 八王子 Hachiōji were extremely rural and even if we have good maps, there’s not a lot of local history available online. Tachikawa is located about 50 minutes[i] west of the 23 Special Wards, north of Hachiōji and west of 三鷹 Mitaka. Despite living in Tōkyō for 11 years, I think I’ve only been to Tachikawa once. I’ll talk about that later, but for now let’s dig into the etymology. What does Tachikawa mean?

Related Articles:


kanto inaka

While the term Kantō is generally associated with Tōkyō, most of the Kantō area looks like this – whether it’s Tōkyō or not…

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji

It’s a pretty straight forward place name composed of simple kanji that a first grader could easily read and write[ii].

tachi, tate

(keep in mind these 2 distinct readings)



There are a few theories about the origin of the place name Tachikawa, so shall we look at them?


The Somewhat Unhelpful and Generic Theory

This theory assumes that former path of the 多摩川 Tama-gawa Tama River or an associated tributary passed through the area long ago. By long ago, we’re talking the Heian Period or earlier. The idea being that this was a place where 川が立っていた kawa ga tatte ita a river stood. Of course, rivers can’t stand in Japanese just as they can’t in English, but the meaning is more like “a river was noticeable.” While this etymology is plausible, it doesn’t really do enough to get at the real source of the name. It really raises more questions than it answers. Was there some distinct feature of the river that was so curious that it deserved its own place name? Who knows.


The Less Unhelpful and Less Generic Theory

In the Heian Period (imagine the 1000’s), the administrative government of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province was located in present-day 府中 Fuchū[iii]. It’s said that in those days, travelers passing through the area who stayed at 府中宿 Fuchū-shuku the post town of Fuchū could see the plateau that connects the east and west sides of present day 多摩市 Tamagawa-shi Tamagawa City. That hill happens to be called 横山 Yokoyama the mountain on the side of the river. Of course, the hill was noticeable, but more noticeable was the old course of the 多摩川 Tama-gawa Tama River flowing from north to south cutting across the landscape[iv]. In Japanese, the kanji 立 tachi/dachi can be used with other kanji to mean “visible” or “stand out.”[v]  Therefore it was the “notable river” or the “river that stood out.” Thus, the river was called the 立河 Tachikawa[vi]. Whether this was considered part of the Tama River or was just a branch isn’t completely understood. Long time readers who suffered through my brutal series on the Rivers of Edo should know that before the Meiji Coup, rivers often had different names in different locations. They were thought of as local entities with unique tributaries, branches, areas, and not singular waterways with a singular name.



Some Samurai Did It

From the late Heian Period until the late Sengoku Period, a clan of local strongmen operated from a military fortress in the area. Their name? The 立河氏 Tatekawa-shi Tatekawa clan. This theory states that the name is derived from the clan name.


We Japanese history nerds tend to be obsessed with 石垣 stone walls… well, here are some stone walls left over from the Tatekawa fort.

Reinforcing this claim is the fact that in the 1350’s, the lord of this fief, a certain 立河宗恒 Tatekawa Munetsune, founded the temple 普済寺 Fusai-ji which still exists today on the remains of their old fort.  The family was active in the area until they perished with the fall of Hachiōji Castle in 1590[vii].

The existence of Fusai-ji and records confirming the existence of the Tatekawa clan make this the strongest theory, but it’s not without problems. The name of this clan is a source of confusion. Although it can be read as Tachikawa[viii], Tatekawa is the favored reading for this clan’s name. That said, from 1590-1868, without any active Tatekawa samurai in the area, it’s not inconceivable that the name could come to be read differently.



So Which is Correct?

This is a good question and it’s one that we’ve struggled with from time to time when dealing with ancient Kantō place names. In Japanese, most rural place names seem to derive from geographical characteristics[ix]. And indeed, some place names are clearly derived from what you could see from certain locations[x].

What confounds the issue sometimes is that when the Heian Period imperial court and the Kamakura Shōgunate granted fiefs to samurai, those clans started new branch families and took the name of their local fiefs. The famous example I always like to quote is the samurai of the Fujiwara clan who took the name Chichibu when given the fief called 秩父 Chichibu. Later, the samurai of the Chichibu clan took the name Edo when granted the fief called 江戸 Edo. Their ancestors were forced by Tokugawa Ieyasu to assume the name Kitami because they lived in 喜多見 Kitami when Ieyasu assumed control of Edo Castle[xi].



Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

Did the place name exist first, and the Tatekawa (or Tachikawa) clan adopted the name? This seems to have been the norm before the Edo Period[xii] and therefore the most likely theory.

Or, did the area earn its name from the presence of the Tatekawa (or Tachikawa) clan? This seems to have been rarer, but not entirely unheard of, particularly in the Edo Period[xiii].

Another option is that it’s purely a coincidence: a clan called Tatekawa could have operated near an area called Tachikawa.

And while we’re playing a magical game of “nobody fucking knows, so let’s just throw out some ideas,” how about this one? What if I told you the name could be a Japanization of a pre-existing アイヌ Ainu or 蝦夷 Emishi[xiv] place name the whole time and the Tatekawa (or Tachikawa) clan adopted that Japanized place name? If that’s the case, we may never know the origin of the name. Ouch!

To be fair, none of these etymologies are conclusive, but I will say that all of them are interesting. Not only can we explore a few possible diachronic paths Japanese place names often take, we touched on a few recurring themes that long time readers should be familiar with.


In Conclusion, What is Tachikawa Today?

I have no freaking idea to be perfectly honest. Like I said before, I’ve only come here once. But I have a friend or two from the area and I’ve visited a lot of the surrounding areas, so I can make a few short statements about Tachikawa today.

My image is that it’s a really suburban town, and while there is some train service, you pretty much need a car if you want to live out there. In short, despite being part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis, this is very, very different from “Central Tōkyō.” Anyone who has spent time here or lived here, feel free to leave descriptions of the town in the comments section below.


Tachikawa is home to 昭和記念公園 Shōwa Kinen Kōen Shōwa Memorial Park. The park was a former Air Force base for the US military, but since the early 80’s it’s been a public park. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard good things about it. They have the space and distance from the city to make a really good park. In the spring, Shōwa Memorial Park is a famous 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot and also holds a yearly 花祭 Hana Matsuri Flower Festival. In the summer, it’s famous for ヒマワリ himawari sunflowers… which brings me to the only time I ever visited Tachikawa; summer of 2005 – my first summer living in Japan!

I went with some friends to the レインボープール Reinbō Pūru  Rainbow Pool in Tachikawa which is located next to the Shōwa Memorial Park. Why would anyone in Tōkyō make a 50-60 minute trek by train to a distant suburb just to go swimming? Because it’s not just a pool, it’s a full on waterpark. There are no tall buildings in sight. The periphery is just greenery and blue skies. Oh, and it being a waterpark means bikini girls as far as the eye can see[xv]. This was like 10 years ago, but I have really fond memories of Rainbow Pool. One added bonus was that even though they had signs all over the place saying “tattoos prohibited,” I noticed that they let a lot of Japanese girls with small tattoos like hearts and flowers slip by. When I took off my shirt which exposed my back, which is completely covered in ink, no one batted an eye[xvi].

red oingt.jpg

Near 立川駅 Tachikawa Eki Tachikawa Station, there is supposedly a red light district that allows for all manner of drinking & whoring 24-7[xvii]. The English Wikipedia page on Tachikawa claims that it’s called Mini Kabukichō, but I can’t find anything else to back this up[xviii]. But again, I’ve only been to Tachikawa once and I did no drinking and/or whoring there, so… I’d love to hear more about this seedy side of the city. Again, feel free to leave comments below.


Tachikawa is also home to 1 of 10 remaining North Korean schools in Tōkyō Metropolis. The school is called 西東京朝鮮第一初中級学校 Nishi Tōkyō Chōsen Dai-Ichi Sho-Chūkyū Gakkō West Tōkyō North Korean Elementary & Junior High School #1[xix].


insert record scratch sound here

Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Whaaaaat?

Yes, North Korea and Japan are sworn enemies. But the 朝鮮学校 Chōsen gakkō Korean schools have operated as international schools in Japan since before WWII. In 1910, Japan made Korea part of the 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Empire of Japan and many Koreans began immigrating to the Japanese islands[xx]. Many of these Korean 在日 zainichi residents of Japan sought to preserve their Korean identity and values and one way they could do that was through education. Everyone knows Japan and Korea haven’t been on the best of terms since the late 1500’s, but things got really bad in the mid-20th Century. These days, South Korea and Japan have a love-hate relationship, but things aren’t so bad. They’re actually military allies, sort of.

But North Korean schools in Japan? That’s fucked up, right?

Rather than explain it myself, here’s a brief excerpt from a 2013 article in the Economist:

Between 1905 and 1945, when Japan occupied Korea, ethnic Koreans were considered Japanese nationals. After Japan lost control of the peninsula in WWII, Koreans wishing to stay in Japan (known as Zainichi Koreans) were provisionally registered as nationals of Joseon, the name of undivided Korea between the 14th and 19th centuries. But when the North and South declared independence in 1948, the term Joseon no longer corresponded to a specific country. From 1965 Zainichi Koreans could register as South Koreans. Those who retained their Joseon nationality (rather than register as either South Korean or Japanese) became de factō North Korean citizens.

A hiccup in history produced a generation or so of people living in a political and national limbo. The question that most Japanese people (and probably most readers of this blog) are asking is, “well, if you live in Japan, speak Japanese, pay Japanese taxes, and are most likely culturally more Japanese than Korean, why not register as a Japanese citizen? Or if you really want to maintain your Korean-ness, why not just register as a South Korean?” Good questions, but…


This is a question we should probably all ask ourselves every morning…OK, probably not in the morning, but maybe during lunch.

As an American, I grew up in a multicultural, multi-racial society that encouraged integration while celebrating diversity[xxi], so I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s a very messy issue and we’re not going to save the world here today, but some of you may not have heard about these North Korean schools in Japan. I don’t want to rabble rouse, but I definitely think that this phenomenon might be an interesting note to leave on.

And you thought the etymology was complicated!

As always, feel free to leave a comment on this article, like it, or share on Facebook or Twitter or wherever. I hope you enjoyed it.


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[i] By train
[ii] I’m not saying this to be a jerk to my non-kanji reading readers, Mrs. JapanThis! is actually an elementary teacher and told me this. But that’s OK, if you learn Japanese, these kanji will be among the first you learn too.
[iii] A name which seems to mean “government center.”
[iv] Or that unnamed tributary alluded to earlier.
[v] Maybe the best example is 目立つ medatsu to stand out, literally “stand before your very eyes.”
[vi] 立河 and 立川 are variations of the same word. In many old sources, was preferred over 川. I haven’t heard any convincing arguments in terms of usage.
[vii] See my article about Hachiōji here.
[viii] Tachigawa and Tategawa are also possible readings, but are rare in the Kantō area. In Kamakura and Sengoku Period records, the name is generally recorded as 立河 which is just a variant of 立川, and so can be read as Tatekawa or Tachikawa (or any of the other variants mentioned above).
[ix]さかsaka hill, ~ –hara field, ~田 ta rice paddy are among the countless examples long term readers will be familiar with.
[x] Granted, these are quite rare, but they’re not unrepresented. The best example is ~富士見 fujimi can see Mt. Fuji which has countless examples in Tōkyō alone.
[xi] For this whole convoluted story, you need to read 2 articles: What does Edo mean? and What does Kitami mean?
[xii] But it definitely wasn’t a rule.
[xiii] But this name is clearly much older. Most indications put it at the Heian Period which means it could be even more ancient.
[xiv] The Ainu and the Emishi were essentially the same people, at least genetically, though culturally they may have been distinct. They are both descendants of the 縄文 Jōmon people – the Paleolithic first people of Japan. You can read more about them here.
[xv] And to be fair, if you’re into dudes, I suppose there’s even better “people watching” lolol.
[xvi] When my girlfriend at the time asked a lifeguard about the park’s tattoo policy, he told her that tattoos were not allowed, but the staff rarely enforced the rule and they were only on the lookout for yakuza tattoos. That’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart, and basically I have never cared about entering public baths in Japan since. But if someone says something, you have to be able to be confident and polite and explain your position in Japanese. Then it’s no problem. The whole “no tattoos” thing in hot springs and pools is somewhat negotiable in my experience.
[xvii] Because if you’re not drinking & whoring 24-7, you’re not really drinking & whoring properly, are you?
[xviii] English Wikipedia pages on Japan tend to be shit anyways.
[xix] And yes. As the name implies, there is a #2.
[xx] Some came by choice seeking economic opportunities; others were forced by military or labor conscription. It’s a really complicated issue that I’ll admit I don’t fully understand and have no intention of getting into here because it’s way outside of the scope of this article (and my blog in general).
[xxi] And America isn’t perfect, but it is diverse and most of the time it works.

The Kanda River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers, Travel in Japan on July 15, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Kanda-gawa (literally, “divine fields river,” but actually “river in Kanda”)[i]

Hajiribashi, a concrete arched bridge crossing the Kanda River near Ochanomizu Station.  If you eliminate the train station and modern buildings, this a typical Edo Period river setting.  The bridge itself is not much to look at now, but it was built after the Great Kanto Earthquake which river travel was still common. Such bridges were designed to be viewed from below by boats passing underneath them.

Hajiribashi, a concrete arched bridge crossing the Kanda River near Ochanomizu Station.
If you eliminate the train station and modern buildings, this a typical Edo Period river setting.


The name 神田 Kanda is one of the oldest place names in Edo-Tōkyō and believe it or not, 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River is not that old at all. Well, most of the river isn’t. Well, part of it might be.

Well, it’s complicated.

In short, after doing this research, I’ve realized I have to make a separate article about the area called 神田 Kanda – and by that, I mean just etymology. So I will write about that in the future – and I promise not to put it off too long. But let’s just deal with the river for the time being, mkay?


Let’s Look at the Kanji



ta, -da

rice paddies

kawa, -gawa



This river is manmade. So the etymology seems to be clear. At the beginning of the Edo Period, in the 神保町 Jinbō-chō area there was a small waterway that cut through a hilly are called 神田山 Kandayama Mt. Kanda. It’s said that since this area in general was called 神田 Kanda[ii] the original waterway was then called 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River.

If you only wanted to know the etymology of the river, you can stop reading here. From this point on it’s going to turn into a crazy – possibly boring – river mess. If you’re a JapanThis! masochist, then by all means, read on. You may actually enjoy this.




A view of Hajiribashi when it was new. The bridge itself is not much to look at now, but in the 1920’s it was new and river travel was still common. Such bridges were designed to be viewed from below by boats passing underneath them (or without tall buildings in the background).


Where to Start??

Up until now, every river we have looked at was at some point a naturally occurring river. The Kanda River is quite different from those rivers. There was a time within recorded history that the Kanda River never existed. Though, a portion of it was once a natural tributary of a long vanished inlet of Edo Bay, it is, in fact, a man-made river. All though it may not be on the lips of every Tōkyōite, today the river is a well-recognized part of the well-manicured urban landscape of the modern city.

I actually first mentioned the Kanda River back in June, 2011 in an article about Yodobashi[iii], a small bridge that crosses the Kanda River at the border of 中野区 Nakano-ku Nakano Ward and 新宿区 Shinjuku-ku Shinjuku Ward. So this is something of a little homecoming for me. I started this blog when I still lived in Nakano (lived there for about 6 years).



Yodobashi in the Taisho Era, before the Great Kanto Earfquake. The area is rustic and a in sharp contrast to the present area. Today it marks the border of Nakano and crazy-ass Shinjuku.


What is the Kanda River Today?

The modern river’s official designation is the channel of water that flows from 井之頭池 Inokashira Ike Inokashira Pond to 飯田橋 Iidabashi (literally, Iida Bridge) where it empties into the 外堀 sotobori outer moat of Edo Castle. But it’s at this junction where the river flows into a disparate network of waterways. So you could say, unofficially, that the Kanda River flows into the 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa Nihonbashi River and the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River at 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge, essentially taking the water to the Tōkyō Bay.


Wellspring of the present-day Kanda River at Inokashira Park.

Wellspring of the present-day Kanda River at Inokashira Park.


Now Let’s Talk History

As mentioned in my article on the etymology of Edo, the original 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle or 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle was not built by 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan as is often cited[iv]. In reality, a minor branch of 平家 Hei-ke the Taira clan[v] moved to the area at the end of the 11th century and built a fortified residence[vi] on a hill overlooking the sea. As was common practice for new branch families with new fiefs, they took the name of the village 江戸郷 Edo-gō as their own and they became the 平江戸氏 Taira Edo-shi Edo branch of the Taira clan[vii]. In the 12th century, the area prospered due to its proximity to the capital of the Minamoto shōguns in Kamakura. However, it seems the Edo clan didn’t do much to develop the area’s rivers[viii].

In those days, the now long gone 日比谷入江 Hibiya Irie Hibiya Inlet was a saltwater inlet used for 海苔 nori seaweed farming[ix]. There was a certain freshwater river known as 平川 Hirakawa “the wide river” which emptied into the inlet. This fresh water river originally made up part of the natural boundary between 武蔵国豊島郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province and 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara Province, Musashi Province. This fresh water tributary seems to be where the story of the Kanda River begins.


Edo Hamlet


Fast Forward a Few Centuries

By the 15th century, Japan was balls deep in the bloody, sweaty mess that was the Sengoku Period[x] and Ōta Dōkan found himself re-fortifying the Edo family’s fort in Chiyoda using water from the coastline and other small rivers with the latest moat-building technology of his day. The new and improved “Edo Fort” he built for the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan brought new channels and waterways into the village. This manipulation of water provided tactical advantages to the new fort in that food and goods could come in and there were more escape routes. There were now logical, defensible waterways. Lucky side effect, certain areas of the village were less exposed than before and local merchants and fishermen had new distribution routes and… BOOM!  Ladies and gentleman, we have a budding 城下町 jōka machi castle town[xi].

Although all of Dōkan’s efforts were pioneering and crucial in the taming of the rivers and sea and urban planning of Edo-Tōkyō, one of the most important changes to Edo’s waterways was diverting the 平川 Hirakawa the ancient “wide river” eastward into what is today called the 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa Nihonbashi River. This is critical to our story today. And the place where this new confluence occurred is actually marked by a bridge called the 神田橋 Kandabashi Kanda Bridge. The Hirakawa River doesn’t exist anymore, but a quick look at a map of Edo Castle will show you a 平川門 Hirakawa Mon Hirakawa Gate and 平川濠 Hirakawa-bori Harakawa Moat[xii]; the former, the gate that stood guard on the moat[xiii]; the latter, a vestige of the old river itself. Today, 平川見附 Hirakawa Mitsuke the bridge and fortified gate installation on the moat is a popular sightseeing spot.


Part of Edo Castle today. At the top, notice Hirakawa Gate and at the bottom right, notice the Ote Mon (main gate). They are on the same moat. That is the former Hirakawa.

Part of Edo Castle today. At the top, notice Hirakawa Gate and at the bottom right, notice the Ote Mon (main gate).
They are on the same moat. That is the former Hirakawa.
I used to generate this map. Click on the picture to find THE premiere website on Japanese Castles in English.


So, as I’ve said before – and will say again – Tokugawa Ieyasu moved into an Edo that was well fortified, strategically sound, and extremely defensible by sea and by land. Oh, and did I mention, there was a burgeoning village life, supported by fishermen, farmers, and artisans[xiv]. Between Ōta Dōkan’s time and the time Ieyasu entered Edo, a technological revolution had occurred in Japan. From Nobunaga’s rise to power on, Japanese castles began to take on the look of what we think of today when someone says “Japanese Castle.[xv]” The castles of the Tokugawa Period are based on these new advances in castle building technology and reflected the amount of luxury the ruling class could not just afford, but were expected to maintain to project their image of superiority.





OK, OK! Castles, Can We Please Get Back to the River?

Yes, of course. Sorry for getting distracted.

(But we’re probably coming back to castles)

The Tokugawa Shōgunate kept meticulous records of the changes they made to the area. The great waterworks projects were no exception. But I’m not going to get into every change they made. It’s so boring it’s unreal. So let’s just look at some of the major changes and what I think are the takeaways of what created the Kanda River.

Since I got distracted, let’s go back to the beginning.The beginning of the story is 1456-1457, when Ōta Dōkan began manipulating waterways to build moats for his pre-cursor to Edo Castle – though work on the moats most likely preceded construction of the fortress, so we might say 1455-1457. In 1486, Dōkan was assassinated and in 1524 the 江戸合戦 Edo Gassen Battle of Edo saw the rise of influence of the 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi and the decline of the Ōta and Uesugi. This meant that the fortifications in 千代田 Chiyoda[xvi] (the area where the Sengoku forts where built and the fields around them) were abandoned and lay fallow for almost 70 years[xvii].

In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu transferred his clan and top retainers to Edo and began modernizing the old Sengoku Period fortifications of the Edo and Ōta. He cautiously applied some of the latest castle building technology following the examples of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It’s said that the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate was one of the first construction project undertaken and this required crossing an existing moat – one affiliated with the later Kanda Aqueduct/Hirakawa.

The Ote-mon (main gate) at the time of the collapse of the shogunate.

The Ote-mon (main gate) after the Meiji Coup.


1603 is the watershed moment. Ieyasu is named 征夷大将軍 seii tai-shōgun shōgun and is the effective military ruler of Japan. From this point, the real history of the Kanda River begins. In 1604, Nihonbashi is built and the 5 Great Highways of Edo are defined. Strict entry & exit points by land and by river are laid out in order to preserve the new Tokugawa hegemony. Edo’s waterways are no longer “just Edo waterways;” they are tactical routes, trade routes, and a means of regulating nature for the protection of the commoners who lived along the rivers and were, essentially, part of the city’s infrastructure. In short, the rivers of Edo became a stabilizing mechanism for the shōgun’s capital.


Hirakawa Gate when Edo Castle still had a tenshukaku (that tower thingy).

The Ote-mon (main gate) when Edo Castle still had a tenshukaku (that tower thingy). Tokugawa Power! Activate! This is where the name Otemachi comes from.


From 1616 to 1620, during the reign of 2nd shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada, something really resembling a “Kanda River” in a modern sense came in to existence. This is when the 神田山 Kandayama “Kanda Mountain”[xviii] was cut through and the Kanda River and Nihonbashi River became 2 discrete waterways. Kanda and Ryōgoku began to take on unique personalities at this time.

Colorized photo of the Hirakawa Gate. Check out how bad ass the castle was. Truly something to behold.

Colorized photo of the Hirakawa Gate.
Check out how bad ass the castle was. Truly something to behold.


In 1657, disaster struck on a colossal scale. The 明暦大家 Meireki Fire[xix] ripped through the city destroying well over half of the metropolis[xx]. Although city planning was essential from the beginning, the shōgunate hadn’t anticipated the rapid growth that accompanied their sankin-kōtai policy and just the economic stability brought on by… um, stability in general.



Edo Castle was a city within a city, When the main keep burned down, budgets and policies were reconsidered.


In part of the rebuilding efforts after the Meireki Fire, from 1659-1661 various waterways in Edo were widened and more open space along the rivers was added. Edo grew so rapidly after the arrival of the Tokugawa, that the city had become a firetrap[xxi].



Ryogoku Bridge today


By some accounts, 60%-70% may have be burnt to the ground. Given the relative clean slate available to the shōgunate after this particular conflagration, certain rivers were designated as firebreaks and widened to keep fires localized[xxii]. It’s at this time that the Kanda River was dramatically widened – most notably, at the confluence of the Kanda River and Ryōgoku River, the 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge was built. Even today, the expanse of the river here is something to see, but in the Edo Period, with no buildings over 2 stories, it was clearly a sight to behold. Soon the area became famous for a dazzling annual fireworks display in the summer[xxiii]. Some of the most iconic 浮世絵 ukiyo-e “scenes of the transient world” come from this area. The 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum is located in this area… for obvious reasons.


From its spring in Inokashira Park, the Kanda river begins its exit from the well.  Ganbare, Kanda-chan!

From its spring in Inokashira Park, the Kanda river begins its exit from the well.
Ganbare, Kanda-chan!


As I mentioned before, the official headwaters are 井之頭池 Inokashira Ike Inokashira Lake, but the river has no officially designated end point but it’s fairly certain that it ultimately empties into Tōkyō Bay. Traditionally it ends at 飯田橋 Iidabashi. The reason there’s no official ending point is because the Kanda River empties into a few rivers and drainage channels along the way before it ultimately fizzles out into the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River at 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge. If you’ve been following this series, you’ll probably be aware that the names and courses of these rivers have been changing over time and that some stretches of one river may have had multiple names depending on the area. So yeah… welcome back to the Confus-o-dome.

Thanks to the Showa Era, this is the Iidamachi Bridge (Iidabashi).  Gross.

Thanks to the Showa Era, this is the Iidamachi Bridge (Iidabashi).

The Kanda River’s Legacy

The man-made Edo Era waterway that flowed from Inokashira Pond was called the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui. Longtime readers should know what a 上水 jōsui is. But just a refresher, a jōsui is a conduit of “imported” water. This water flowed from 三鷹 Mitaka[xxiv] to Edo Castle; it also supplied drinking water to the daimyō mansions that lined its course.


The creation of the Kanda River. (by the way, this is the worst info-graphic ever)

The creation of the Kanda River in Chiyoda from the Hibiya Inlet.

The Kanda Jōsui is considered the first real aqueduct system in Japan. Before I mentioned the technological revolution in castle construction, right? Well, the Sengoku Period began stabilizing and yes, castle building was a status thing. But the distribution of water and water management showed one of the greatest advances in urban planning and administration that Japan had seen in centuries. This is why shōgunate’s founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was such a bad ass. The dude could lead an army here or there, but he had ideas about civil administration and surrounded himself with people who could advise him on these things. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were essentially one-trick-ponies who couldn’t really get out of the 戦国病気 Sengoku Byōki “Sengoku Rut.”[xxv] Ieyasu, also a product of that generation, realized that infrastructure reinforced military supremacy and brought economic stability[xxvi].


The Kanda Aqueduct

The Kanda Aqueduct

Admittedly, it’s not that exciting or cool, but the availability of clean drinking water and disposal of dirty water should never be underestimated in the study of any ancient or pre-modern city[xxvii].

The capital of the Tokugawa shōguns quickly became the biggest city in Japan and eventually the most populous city in the world. Clean water and sewerage undeniably played a part in this. But soon the Kanda Jōsui wasn’t enough. That said, it was the main source of drinking water for Edo Castle during the Edo Period.

Even if it was inadequate to supply the entire sprawling capital, Kanda Jōsui was such a successful project that it begot 6 more major waterworks in Edo, all of which benefited daimyō, samurai, and the commoner population. Of course, this technology spread throughout the realm, but for short while Edo boasted one of the most unique water infrastructures in Japan.




A Final Note

If you’re up for an interesting bike ride, a 2010 blog post at Metropolis suggests starting at the mouth of the river and riding upstream to Inokashira Pond. When the temperature starts to come down, I may give this a go myself. There are loads of spots, many covered in JapanThis!, along the course of the river, so it should be fascinating.




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[i] I know that’s not the kind of helpful explanation that will bring closure to any of the etymology fans out there.
[ii] As I said, I’m gonna revisit this topic again.
[iii] Any relation to ヨドバシカメラ Yodobashi Camera? Why, yes there is. Thank you for asking.
[iv] And calling Dōkan’s fortifications a “castle” is also a debatable point. I’ve come to prefer the term “well-moated fort.” I came up with that term all on my own… right now. Thank you very much.
[v] If you don’t know who the Taira clan is… wow. OK, here you go.
[vi] Also, as mentioned in my article on What does Edo mean?, the coastal area is littered with 古墳 kofun burial mounds and it’s clear from the archaeology that the area has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. It’s highly doubtful the Edo clan was the first strongmen to seize upon this highly defensible, coastal plateau – they are the noblest recorded family, though.
[vii] Even though other temples and villages in the area are mentioned as far back as the Heian Period, it’s seems like the name Edo itself doesn’t actually appear in any records until the Kamakura Period.
[viii] In fact the original Edo “Castle” was probably just a 出城 dejiro satellite fort, since the Edo clan seemed to have their main residence in 喜多見 Kitami in present 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward.
[ix] I have an article about Hibiya.
[x] And while this may sound like a gratuitous reference to sex on the rag, this is actually a legitimate, historical term. Ask any historian of Pre-Modern Japan. They’ll tell you. Just ask. Seriously.
[xi] Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I said “budding.” When we say “castle” and “castle town” today we are usually referring to a construct of the far more stable Azuchi-Momoyama Period (ie; essentially the end of the Sengoku Period).
[xii] On Edo Era maps these may be listed with honorifics as 平川御門 Hirakawa Go-Mon Hirakawa Gate and 平川御堀 Hirakawa O-Hori Hirakawa Moat, respectively.
[xiii] Interestingly, some people think the radius and extent of Ōta Dōkan’s moats was the result of him not having a fucking clue what he was doing. His initial “improvements” lead to more flooding and so he continually modified his plans, diverting rivers away from the castle and the villages by extending them further and further out. Thus part of the sprawling nature of Edo Castle may have been due to stop-gap measures employed by Dōkan.
[xiv] Yes, I did.
[xv] This is as different as when we use the Latin words castrum to describe a Roman military camp/walled town and a castellum a walled fortification of Late Antiquity. The transformation is truly dramatic.
[xvi] You can see my article on Chiyoda here.
[xvii] The castle itself was pretty minor and was most likely not affected by the Late Hōjō efforts to refortify the Edo area from 1583 on.
[xviii] Kandayama was located in present day 駿河台 Surugadai.
[xix] “What’s the Meireki Fire?” you ask. There’s an article for that.
[xx] By some accounts, 70% of the city may have been destroyed.
[xxi] This didn’t change until the reconstruction of the city after WWII (or, some may argue that it didn’t change until the 1960’s and that the city just got lucky with no major conflagrations in the interim).
[xxii] In theory…
[xxiii] People today love fireworks. Just imagine what people with no video, no cameras, and no Perfume must have thought of these theatrical celebrations of summer.
[xxiv] Essentially, present-day Kichijōji.
[xxv] Again, my word. I just made it up now. And yes, I’m just baiting Sengoku lovers. Actually, I like Nobunaga, too.
[xxvi] And far more importantly, put his family in a seemingly endless position as hereditary top of the food chain. Hmmmmmmmmmm…
[xxvii] And you probably never think about where your water comes from or how it gets to your house and where it all goes afterwards, but it works, right? That’s why you can live there.

What does Edo mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on September 6, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Edo (literally “Inlet Door,” but more at “Estuary”)

Edo - the shogun's personal domain.

Edo – the shogun’s personal domain.

Today’s post is a monster!
There are a lot of footnotes trying to clarify things in the text.
Please check those.
There are good links and some additional info there.

A few days ago was, if my math is correct, the 145th anniversary of day Edo was renamed Tōkyō. This happened on September 3rd, 1868 by an imperial decree called 江戸を称して東京と為すの詔書 Edo wo shōshite Tōkyō to nasu shōsho Imperial Edict Renaming Edo Tōkyō. The document was written in the ancient and pretentious language of the imperial court which is above my Japanese level so I’m not going to translate it for you. But we all know what happened. Edo ceased to exist and Tōkyō was born.

I tried to find a picture of the actual document, but I couldn’t. But if you do want to see the section of the text that laid out the command in all its highfalutin imperial court language glory, here it is:


UPDATE: I found a translation of this line at Here’s the translation:

But enough about Tōkyō.

Today’s topic is Edo.

Every guidebook and general book on Japanese history says something like:

“Before the coming of the Tokugawa, Edo was a sleepy fishing village.”

“Though it was once an insignificant village in the marshy wetlands, Tokugawa Ieyasu transformed Edo into a glorious capital befitting of the shōguns.”

And while those sorts of statements hold varying degrees of truth, just blowing off everything before the  arrival of Tokugawa Ieyasu, raises more questions because why the hell would Ieyasu just pick some crappy fishing village in a marsh and say “Build me a castle from which I can rule Japan!” Ieyasu wasn’t that impulsive and he definitely wasn’t stupid. He was made an offer by Hideyoshi and he took it. He deliberately chose Edo which means the area was strategically important and not a shithole fishing village in East Bumfuck.

One other thing we often hear is:

“A feudal warlord named Ōta Dōkan came into the small fishing village of Edo and built his castle there.”

Again, this seems strategically silly and as you will see, it’s simply not true[i]. Sure, fishing was a big deal in the area – it was for all of Edo’s existence, but things are more nuanced than that.

How do you say East Bumfuck in Japanese?


for people with short attention spans

In the 12th century, an influential branch of the Taira clan moved their base from present day Saitama to 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo Hamlet in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District in 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni  Musashi Province[ii].  Following standard practice of the time, if a powerful lord wanted to distinguish his line as a new clan, he would take the name of his territory as a surname. Thus this new clan was 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan. Edo’s place name seems to have been quite literal. It meant “estuary.”


for people with too much time on their hands

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a scholar. A lot of this backstory is not well documented.
There may be some omissions or timeline mistakes in here because my eyes glaze over at Japanese genealogy, etc.If you know something that I don’t or see a mistake, let me know, and I’ll fix it.

OK, so let’s go waaaaaaaaaay back before the Tokugawa.

The Kantō Plain appears to have first been populated in the Late Jōmon Period sometime after 3100 BC. This is well before rice culture found its way to Japan[iii]. It’s fair to say these people were hunter gatherers and don’t really figure into the history of Edo-Tōkyō as an urban space. But still, their presence here gives us some perspective of how long humans have lived here.

Happy little Jomon people having a picnic or something.

Happy little Jomon people having a picnic or something.

The Kofun Period 

Fast forward more than 2000 years and…

During the Kofun Period (200-500 AD), the influence of the Yamato State[iv] finally reached the Kantō area. It seems that around the 300’s, Kantō became a vassal state of the Yamato Court. It’s from this period forward that we can see the arrival of the people who are to become what we will later see as Japanese, physically and culturally. They were a literate people who had ideas of governance, philosophy and technology that they learned[v] from the Korean peninsula and China. The spread of Shintō accompanies the Yamato influence. BTW – Kofun are burial mounds typical of this culture. There are kofun scattered throughout the Kantō area – more than 200 exist in the Tōkyō Metropolis. The so-called 丸山古墳 Maruyama Kofun “Round Mountain” Kofun is in 芝公園 Shiba Kōen Shiba Park next to where Tokugawa Hidetada’s funerary temple was built in the early 1600’s[vi].

Here you can see the size and keyhole shape of the Maruyama Kofun.

Here you can see the size and keyhole shape of the Maruyama Kofun.

Maruyama Kofun is the largest in the area, so it must have been built for someone powerful. The kofun sits an easy walk from Edo Bay and is next to the 古川 Furukawa “the Old River,” one of many rivers and inlets in the area (at the time and, to a certain extent, today).

The hilly area surrounding it could provide high areas for residences and villages. Strategically speaking, these hills were ideal for defense because, duh, it’s better to be at the top of the hill in a ground war than at the bottom. Also, the high ground protected villages from tsunamis and flooding. The proximity to the bay was great for fishing and growing seaweed and the inlets and rivers were convenient for sending heavy supplies and foodstuffs in and out of the area. The bay also provided a natural defense as Japanese ship construction technology sucked ass at this time. The wetland areas were perfect for growing rice. In short, the area was defensible and sustainable. Whoever is buried in the Maruyama Kofun noticed this potential and most definitely exploited it to his and his subjects’ benefit.

From Maruyama Kofun, move a few clicks north on a map of Edo and you will see where Edo Castle stood[vii]. The same conditions existed here[viii] and it’s from here that our story really begins.

The kofun just looks like a big hill. Keep in mind, we don't know who was in here, but at least we can get an idea of the culture that lived in the surrounding areas along the bay.

The kofun just looks like a big hill.
Keep in mind, we don’t know who was in here, but at least we can get an idea of the culture that lived in the surrounding areas along the bay.

The Rise of Samurai in Kantō

Let’s move up to present day Saitama in the area called 秩父郡 Chichibu-gun Chichibu District near 大宮 Ōmiya Ōmiya, not far from the present day Tōkyō-Saitama boarder. At the end of the Heian Period in the 12th century, a noble clan descended from the 平氏 Hei-shi Taira Clan was in control of the area.  The original, major samurai houses descended from imperial branch families like the Taira.

The Taira Clan (called Hei-shi in Japanese) used a stylized butterfly crest called the 蝶紋 chō mon. Most branch families adapted the butterfly into new designs for themselves.

The Taira Clan (called Hei-shi in Japanese) used a stylized butterfly crest called the 蝶紋 chō mon.
Most branch families adapted the butterfly into new designs for themselves.

The family name Taira essentially means you descend from the imperial family of the Heian Period, but you are not 公家 kuge a court family, so your official status is that of a subject of the emperor. But as a samurai family with imperial blood, you – theoretically –have more power and rank than the average samurai.

By the way, this era marks the true rise of the samurai culture. Lords (daimyō) tended to take the names of their fiefs as family names to establish new branch families[ix].  So, although these families were of Taira blood, this branch took the name of their fief and became known as the Chichibu Clan. It seems that bearing the name of your territory was an expression of your dominance. (Remember that! It’s going to come up again later.)

So, for reasons unclear (to me at least), someone from this Taira samurai family in Chichibu moved south to establish a new clan. The most likely candidate is the guy generally considered the first head of the Edo Clan, Chichibu Shigetsugu.

Chichibu Shigetsugu moved south and fortified a small hill in 千代田 Chiyoda “Eternal Fields”[x]. He probably chose this area because this is where Tōkyō Bay had a major inlet that became the Sumida River. It had a strong current for bringing in goods. Being on the coast, it was immune from attacks by sea on one side and with so much seafood production and rice production in the area it was a sustainable area. The same natural features that made area appealing to the people of the Kofun Period, also made it appealing this 12th century samurai.

The area into which Chichibu Shigetsugu moved was supposedly known as 江戸郷 Edo-gō the hamlet of Edo[xi]. Following the tradition of his day, when he became lord of the area, he assumed the name 江戸 Edo and became Edo Shigetsugu. His descendants would also bear this name.

It’s thought that his fortified residence was built on what is now the current 本丸 honmaru main keep and 二ノ丸 ninomaru secondary enclosure of the Imperial Palace (areas still delineated clearly today).

TIP 1: Check to learn what the heck honmaru and ninomaru are!

This is where it gets weirder. Despite being a minor offshoot of the Taira clan, the second successive lord, Edo Shigenaga, was asked by Minamoto Yoritomo[xii] to help fight against the Taira. Lord Shigenaga switched sides (probably to save his ass) and in about 1180, after the war, he was rewarded with 7 additional fiefs in the surrounding area. I’m not sure about this, but although Edo Hamlet was still one of his holdings, it seems he made his main residence and seat of government at Kitami[xiii]. This consolidated the Edo clan’s influence over a wide area.

Edo Shigenaga continued fortification of the military residence in Chiyoda. Because of the clan’s connection to the Minamoto shōguns[xiv], the Edo family’s influence increased and Chiyoda Castle[xv] increasingly came to be referred to as Edo Castle, though the dual naming would persist[xvi].

Edo Castle at its height is highlighted. The tiny green circle is where the Edo residence is thought to have soon. By the this awesome interative map is from Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Edo Castle at its height is highlighted.
The tiny green circle is where the Edo residence is thought to have soon.
By the this awesome interative map is from
Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Edo from the Kamakura Period to the Muromachi Period

The area was still minor, but it’s clear from archaeological evidence and administrative records that the area began its first baby steps towards urbanization at this time. It was a minor military hub and because of the nearby 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and Edo Bay, logistically speaking, transportation of goods was most likely increasing.

We can only imagine that during the Kamakura Period, the villages and hamlets the fell under the protection of the Edo Clan would have grown and prospered a little. Occasionally the area shows up in records of the Kamakura Shōgunate. The Muromachi Period, however, is pretty much silent on the area. Kamakura was not so far away from Toshima and Musashi provinces and so would be up to date on things. The Muromachi Shōgunate was far off in Kyōto and probably too busy to care what a bunch of country samurai in the east were doing. But by 1467, we start to see the country descend into chaos as the shōgunate loses control of the country.

Sengoku Period
i.e.;  ザ・クラスターファック時代

The Sengoku Era saw the rise in castle towns centered around the castles of 大名 daimyō lords who were constantly at war with their positions always changing. So we see great development in castle building and military strategy, but not so much in city building or administration. In the final years of the Sengoku Period castle building reached the stage of what we usually think of when we imagine a stereotypical Japanese castle. In the early years, castle building was a little different. Think dirt-walled, wood-fenced, thatched roofed barn-like firetraps.

1457, at the beginning of the Sengoku Era, a Musashi warlord named Ōta Dōkan attacked Edo Shigeyasu. Shigeyasu surrendered to Dōkan (a vassal of the Uesugi). His life was spared and he was allowed to continue living at the Edo clan’s Kitami residence. (Remember that because it’s going to come up again).

Pretty sure Dokan couldn't get any girls in Tokyo if he walked around in pants like that.

Pretty sure Dokan couldn’t get any girls in Tokyo if he walked around in pants like that.

Dōkan and Uesugi recognized the strategic benefits of the Edo Clan’s residence near the bay (and probably its nice view of Mt. Fuji on one side and the ocean on the other side and decided to build (or develop) the structure for Uesugi Sadamasa. The new structures were built in the same area that the original Edo Clan residence had been. As stated before, this is the area that became the honmaru and ninomaru of the Tokugawa Edo Castle (today this area is the Imperial Palace East Garden). The building may not have been terribly large, but he installed a large and complex system of moats and it began to look more like an early Sengoku Era castle.

Edo Castle at its height is highlighted. The tiny green circle is where the Edo residence is thought to have soon. By the this awesome interative map is from Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Same map as before.
Edo Castle is highlighted in yellow.
Ota Dokan’s thatched roof fortress is highlighted in green.
By the this awesome interative map is from
Click the map to go directly the page I took this from.

Also, as mentioned before, in the Sengoku Era we see the rise of 城下町 jōka machi castle towns. As the castles got bigger, they needed to rely on goods from the local people. As fighting got worse, the people needed to be closer to the castles for protection. After all, it was dangerous out there. Also, the lords wanted rings of meandering streets around the castles for 2 reasons; one, it’s difficult to siege a castle when you have to go through a city first and two, human shields. That said, this early in the Sengoku Period, I don’t think we were seeing a lot of that. But, it’s clear that this process had begun before the arrival of the Tokugawa. Dōkan also diverted a waterway that became the Nihonbashi River, one of the outstanding traits of city during the Edo Period.

Before I said, Ōta Dōkan didn’t really build Edo Castle. But now you know the reality. By diverting water supplies and laying out a defensive system of moats, he unwittingly began the urbanization process. This new fortress was the catalyst that made the area not just a lord’s residence with a few villages scattered around here and there. It made it a defensible, sustainable, strategic area with a growing population that would look mighty attractive to one Tokugawa Ieyasu about a hundred years later (at least on paper).

Ieyasu obviously new about Ota Dokan's "castle," but you can just imagine him seeing the150 year old ruins for the first time and being like "shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit."

Ieyasu obviously new about Ota Dokan’s “castle,” but you can just imagine him seeing the 150 year old ruins for the first time and being disappointed.

In 1477, Ōta Dōkan attacked Toshima Yasutsune. He took Nerima Castle, Shakujii Castle and the clan’s administrative center, Hiratsuka Castle. Then he literally annihilated the Toshima clan. Bye bye.

In the general narrative of the Sengoku Period, Ōta Dōkan is a kind of minor guy. But history isn’t a narrative. The actions he took, some barbaric, some wise, don’t play into the unification of Japan. But in the history of Edo-Tōkyō, he looms large.

It’s safe to say that he was definitely a product of his violent age.  And in 1486, he met a violent end typical of that age when he was murdered by the Uesugi Clan for a perceived betrayal.

His control of the fortress (can we really say “castle” yet?) in Chiyoda was a little over 20 years.

Now, as for what happened next, I’m not exactly certain. I’ve usually read that the castle remained abandoned from 1486-1590, but it seems that in 1525, Hōjō Ujitsuna took possession of the region and the castle. However, I don’t know if he actually lived there or did anything with it. If I had to speculate, I’d say that in the constant state of war of the Sengoku Period, rehabilitating a hundred year old castle would have been a risky and expensive operation.
If anyone knows, I’d appreciate the info!

End of the Sengoku Period

At any rate, fast forward 100 years later to 1590. Toyotomi Hideyoshi stamped the shit out of the last independent clan remaining on his quest for unification; this last remaining pocket of resistance was the Hōjō who were based in Odawara, thus ending about 80 years Hōjō influence in the area. As everyone who studies Japanese history knows, one of the generals helping Hideyoshi in this final act of unification was Tokugawa Ieyasu.


Honmaru of Osaka Castle in Hideyoshi’s time.
One of Hideyoshi’s many amazing accomplishments was building Osaka Castle.
It was said to be undefeatable – until Ieyasu defeated it. (lol).
Since the time of Nobunaga, castle building techniques had changed dramatically.
Having gotten used to this as the future of castle building,
imagine Ieyasu’s reaction to seeing Ota Dokan’s castle ruins.
(btw – this is just a model. lol.)

Of course, we also all know that Ieyasu despised Hideyoshi and, well, Hideyoshi pretty much didn’t trust Ieyasu either, especially after Ieyasu fought – but lost – against Hideyoshi in 1584. So after the defeat of the Hōjō/Odawara, Hideyoshi devised a unique plan to pacify and distance himself from Ieyasu. At the time, Ieyasu controlled 5 provinces, Mikawa[xvii], Tōtōmi, Suruga, Shinano, and Kai[xviii] which had fast access to Kyōto. Hideyoshi offered to buy out Ieyasu of his five provinces by giving him the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces. The Kanhasshū included Musashi, Sagami, Kazusa, Shimōsa, Awa, Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, and Hitachi[xix] — quite literally the whole Kantō region.

Ieyasu's new territory. Edo Bay is totally protected.

Ieyasu’s new territory.
Edo Bay is totally protected.

Ieyasu took the deal and could have chosen any place within his sprawling new dominion for his main seat of government. But he chose Edo.

Sure, he chose fixer-upper. But he chose one with a well-fortified castle that had room for expansion (and Ieyasu now had the money for it). He had waterways in and out of the city. He had a view of Mt. Fuji (a territory that had once been his). He had a view of the ocean, which not only was beautiful – it was a kind of super moat. The area was fertile and partly urbanized.

It’s said that when Ieyasu came to survey the city he planned to make the base of his 8 provinces, the castle that Ōta Dōkan had built consisted of around 100 buildings with thatched roofs surrounded by wide moats and earthen walls. Although it didn’t look like much upon his arrival, the moat system alone was enough to know he’d chosen well.

At the height of Tokugawa power, the castle is said to have been the biggest in the world and the city was likely the most populous.

Who REALLY built Edo Castle?

Ieyasu ordered his castle built in the new style.
There were 4 stages of construction throughout the Edo Period.
Look at that and then tell me who REALLY built Edo Castle.

So, um… What Happened to the Edo Clan?

Oh, I almost forgot.

Now that we’ve come to the Tokugawa Period, which is generally referred to as the Edo Period, I have to back track to something I said earlier about a certain Edo Shigeyasu.

Shigeyasu surrendered the Edo residence to Ōta Dōkan in 1457 in the early Sengoku Period. Keep in mind that ancient samurai families often took their branch names from the lands that they controlled.

Ieyasu arrived in 1590 and began establishing his new capita at Edo. He was still in the service of Hideyoshi at the time[xx], but as the lord of the Kanhasshū he had to establish rapport with his new retainers (lords in their own right). Likewise, his new retainers had to swear allegiance to him.

There was one major problem… with the name!

The Edo clan still had a residence in Kitami, which is present day Setagawa Ward. In light of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dominance over the area, it would be presumptuous (and confusing) for a clan to retain the name of the capital city when a new daimyō, appointed by the unifier of Japan, controlled that city. So in 1593, taking an oath of submission and fealty to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last Edo Clan daimyō gave up the name Edo and assumed the name, Kitami, which was where their primary holdings were.

In 1600, Ieyasu was victorious at the Battle of Sekigahara and became the de facto leader of a more-or-less unified Japan. In 1603, the emperor granted him the title of 征夷大将軍 seii taishōgun great barbarian subduing general.

Replica of the armor that Ieyasu wore at the battle of Sekigahara.  Pretty freaking Darth Vadery of him.

Replica of the armor that Ieyasu wore at the battle of Sekigahara.
Pretty freaking Darth Vadery of him.

The Edo Clan’s Final Disgrace…

In 1693, the direct family line, no longer Edo but Kitami, was extinguished after the banishment of Kitami Shigeyasu to Ise when his grandson murdered somebody or something. The once powerful country samurai family, descended from Taira blood in the 1100’s, who had held such influence over the area and had long born the name of the area, just fizzled out into oblivion[xxi].

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bye bye, Edo Clan.

Bye bye, Edo Clan.

But Wait, There’s More!

Now, if this were any other blog, that would be the end of the story. But long time readers of JapanThis! will surely be wondering why so many other ancient place name etymologies are so difficult and Edo was so easy. Is it really just “estuary???”

Well, not everyone agrees. It seems there are multiple theories on the origin of the name “Edo.”

 Theory 1 – It’s literal.
 Theory 2 – It derives from the Ainu word エト eto which means “cape” or “peninsula.” This theory claims that the name refers to the original shape of the Hibiya inlet around the beginning of the Heian Period[xxii].
 Theory 3 – It derives from 井戸 ido well. エ e and イ i confusion in the Kantō dialects is something that we’ve come across many times in Tōkyō place names. So it’s possible that an ancient spring (or hot spring) existed here at one time. References to wells in place names are common in Japan. This is because people would naturally build new villages near fresh water supplies. No wells that would be a candidate have been found, though.


There are a few other theories too ridiculous to bother with here. According to the Kadokawa Dictionary of Japanese Place Names, the literal meaning (estuary = edo) is the most likely derivation and the Ainu word (eto = cape, small peninsula) is the second most likely. I tend to agree.

So there you have it. More background on Edo before the coming of the Tokugawa than you ever wanted to know. Definitely more than you needed to know. Now you can bore your friends to tears at the next party with all of this pointless trivia.

I should probably print this whole article on a t-shirt, dammit.

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[i] It’s also incorrect to apply the term “feudal” to Japan.

[iii] Wet rice cultivation and bronze and iron technologies were imported sometime around 900 BC and eventually spread across the islands.

[iv] The Yamato Court were the predecessors of or origins of the current imperial line, depending who you ask. Their capital was based in Asuka (in current Nara Prefecture).

[v] Learned or brought, depending on who you ask.

[vii] Don’t use a map of Tōkyō because the shape of the bay is radically different today.

[viii] And it’s not unreasonable to assume that the ruler buried in Maruyama Kofun exerted influence over the Chiyoda area as well.

[ix] A reverse pattern sometimes occurs when an area derives its name from the ruling family, but this is not the case with Edo.

[xi] The name 江戸 Edo means “river/bay door.” This describes the inflow of water from Edo Bay into the rivers that gave the coastal regions life. Also, people always say Edo was a small fishing village. If I’m not mistaken, at the time a 郷 sato/ was bigger than a 村 mura village. So, technically speaking, at this point Edo wasn’t a small fishing village.

[xii] The guy who established the Minamoto Shōgunate (ie; Kamakura Shōgunate).

[xiii] In present day Setagaya Ward.

[xiv] The Minamoto Shōgunate is more commonly referred to as the Kamakura Shōgunate.

[xv] I’m not sure if we can call it a “castle” at this point. I imagine it was a large fortified residence, not unlike Shakujii Castle (see the CG reconstruction to get an idea).

[xvi] Even today, if you google Chiyoda Castle, Edo Castle will come up in the search results. Also, technically speaking any castle they held could theoretically be referred to as Edo Castle since this was also their Clan name.

[xvii] Mikawa was Ieyasu’s home province.

[xviii] If you’re good with your Japanese geography… this territory was roughly present day Nagano, Aichi, Shizuoka, and Yamanashi (think Mt. Fuji). It was a fair chunk of territory, but with so many allies at Ieyasu’s command so close to the capital, it apparently was too close for Hideyoshi who wanted a buffer around his court in Kyōto.

[xix] Again if you’re good with your Japanese geography… This is roughly Tōkyō, Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Ibaraki, a part of Gunma and Tochigi.

[xx] In fact, he would be serving him in Kyūshū for a few years, while Hideyoshi embarked on a retarded plan to invade China via Korea.

[xxi] They didn’t fizzle out into oblivion completely. There is a 喜多見駅  Kitami eki Kitami Station in present day Setagaya.

What does Adachi mean?

In Japanese History on July 16, 2013 at 12:29 am

Adachi (Standing Legs)

Map of the Tokyo Metropolis. Adachi Ward is highlighted in red.

Map of the Tokyo Metropolis.
Adachi Ward is highlighted in red.

We had a 3-day weekend here in Japan, yesterday was 海の日 Umi no Hi Sea Day which celebrates the, um, sea which surrounds Japan and from time to time wreaks great havoc and tragedy upon this fair group of islands. I spent all of my spare time with Mrs. JapanThis and so I had no time for researching and writing. But I’m back and ready to jump into an area of  Tōkyō I don’t think I’ve covered yet. I hope this is a good segue from my last place name post.

Adachi is a very ancient name that most likely pre-dates the 大化ノ改新 Taika no Kaishin Taika Reforms of the mid-600’s. I mentioned the Taika Reforms a few times, but I think the most I’ve ever talked about it was in my article on Mita, which also linked to the Wiki page on the subject. Be sure to read that article. You’ll see how much JapanThis has changed.

Anyhoo, one of the major outcomes of the Taika Reforms was the creation of the system of 国 kuni provinces, including our beloved 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In my article on Musashi, I talked about districts within Musashi Province. If you were paying attention, I mentioned 足立郡 Adachi-gun. So this name is on the books from some of the earliest eras of Japan’s historical record[i].

The Japanese apparently sucked at using kanji in this era – or more likely, hadn’t figured out how to adapt it to their own language yet – so they wrote things in ateji. This type of early ateji is called 万葉仮名 man’yōgana. The earliest form of Adachi that we have was written out phonetically as 阿太知 Adachi Adachi. Later the word becomes standardized as 足立 Adachi Adachi. Since the name began its life in such antiquity, it’s impossible to tell what the real meaning is[ii]. But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating since the old days to the present days. So let’s take a look at some of the theories and try to evaluate them.

Adachi Ward is pretty much all Tokyo shitamachi. In the Edo Period, this area fell well outside of the city of Edo, it was a sleepy suburb of the bustling capital.

Adachi Ward is pretty much all Tokyo shitamachi.
In the Edo Period, this area fell well outside of the city of Edo, it was a sleepy suburb of the bustling capital.

The most reasonable etymology I’ve come across is this one. As wetlands were common in this area[iii], there was a plot of land or area where many reeds were growing (ie; 葦が立つ ashi ga tatsu reeds are standing). Thus the name would have originally been 葦立 Ashidachi, but over time the pronunciation changed to Adachi[iv]. During the Taika Reforms, when the imperial court in Nara was taking inventory of the provinces they claimed dominion over, they had to render many backwater areas into kanji. Hearing the name Adachi, they chose to transcribe the name as 足立 Adachi.

The other theory I heard, is one of those ridiculous mythological stories that until I heard the story of Daita, I would have dismissed outright as sheer stupidity. I’ll probably dismiss this one outright as well, but before that, let’s at least take a look at it.

Captain Japan

Captain Japan

The story goes that this is place where 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (or as I like to call him, Captain Japan) stood up and took his first steps. Either that, or this is the place where Yamato Takeru recovered from an illness or an injury[v].

The same story is told of another dude. This time, instead of Captain Japan, the story revolves around 坂上田村麻呂 Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (or as I like to call him, the guy whose name I can’t be arsed to remember). The general idea behind these legends is that Yamato Takeru or Sakanoue no Tamuramaro’s 足が立った ashi ga tatta “(their) legs stood up.” Ridiculous folk etymology, if you ask me.

Just for those who care, Yamato Takeru was a legendary transvestite prince and son of the legendary 12th emperor. There is no reason to believe he or his father ever really existed, especially in light of his ridiculous name, which literally means Japan Warrior[vi]. Sakanoue no Tamuramaro was most likely a real dude. They say he was the 2nd person to ever receive the title shōgun. According to legend, he received this appointment for subjugating the indigenous peoples of the Tōhōku area and forcing them up into Ezo (modern Hokkaidō) for Japanese lebensraum on 本州 Honshū the main island.

Both of these etymologies are lacking in my opinion, the real meaning of the word most likely obscured by ateji in the 600’s. That said, taking the etymology of a modern Japanese place name (in the Kantō area, no less) all the way back to the 600’s is a pretty impressive feat. Of all the place names we’ve covered so far on JapanThis, only a handful fall into this category.

As a result of the Taika Reforms, 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province was created. 安達郡 Adachi-gun Adachi District was created with the province. The name has been preserved in the modern 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward in the northern Tōkyō Metropolis.

This is a map of Musashi Province.

This is a map of Musashi Province.
The highlighted area is the Adachi District.
The bright red area is modern Adachi Ward.

One last thing, among snobbier Tōkyōites, Adachi Ward has a somewhat less than desirable image as a bastion of ヤンキー yankī yankee culture. Yankees are Japan’s version of white trash. I’ve heard it put to me once this way, “Yankees are the Jersey Shore of Japan. Like a bunch of people from Ōsaka and Saitama moved to Tōkyō and interbred.”

Ouch! Even if you’ve never been to Japan, there should be enough colorful cultural commentary in there to keep you thinking for days.

Tokyo's Jersey Shore?

Adachi Yankee Family.
Tokyo’s Jersey Shore?

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[i] And by historical, I mean written history.

[ii] When the imperial court chose to transcribe names with kanji, they generally ignored the original meanings and just applied the kanji as one character per syllable (ateji).
Although there is no meaning to ateji, if you must know what the characters mean, here’s the breakdown:
阿 a nook/shadow 太 ta fat 知 chi wisdom.
足 a foot/leg 立 tachi standing

[iii] What?! Another “wetlands” etymology in Kantō? I’m shocked.

[iv] Keep in mind these names most likely pre-date the use of kanji among the masses in the area (which was essentially the boonies of a “country” which was essentially the boonies).

[v] We first came across Captain Japan in my article about Kasumigaseki.

[vi] Hence, the “Captain Japan” translation.

What does Musashi mean?

In Japanese History on July 10, 2013 at 4:36 am

Musashi (etymology uncertain)

Musashi-Kosugi Station in East Bumfuck, otherwise known as Kanagawa. One of many stations that bare the name "Musashi."

Musashi-Kosugi Station in East Bumfuck, otherwise known as Kanagawa.
One of many stations that bare the name “Musashi.”

OK, this was a post that I’ve been putting off forever because it seemed quite daunting – and I’m both super busy at the moment and inherently lazy. But a reader on the JapanThis Facebook Page requested it and… I have a hard time turning down a request. So, I’m going to try my best to do this and do it right, while still being a little lazy. Let’s see if I can pull it off.

There are place names all over 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis that include the words 武蔵 Musashi or 武蔵野 Musashino. I’ve alluded to this many times over the last 6 months, so regular readers should have a little idea of what is coming next.

There's a common thread among places which include the word Musashi. They tend to be boring places in the suburbs and country...

There’s a common thread among places which include the word Musashi.
They tend to be boring places in the suburbs and country…

1871 was a major year for the nascent Meiji government and for Japanese geography and place names. That year, the imperial court issued an edict called 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[i] Abolishment of Han (domains) & Establishment of Ken (prefectures). I’m not an expert in this area and I have no formal training as a Japanese historian[ii], so take what I’m going to say with that in mind[iii]. Until this decree, the usual civil administrative unit of the Edo Period was the 藩 han usually translated as domain (or feudal domain[iv]). The domain would be a hereditary fief granted or allowed by the shōgun in Edo to a 大名 daimyō, a lord[v]. The domains of the Edo Period were theoretically in flux. Domains could be confiscated or abolished by the shōgun at any time – usually for some grave offense by the daimyō in charge. You can think of domains as autonomous “states” which were properties of the daimyō. The daimyō swore allegiance to the shōgun.  And although they were “free” to exercise discretion in their domains, they spent half of their time in forced service to shōgun and their wives and children were de facto “hostages” of the shōgun, a holdover from the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Clusterfuck.

The provinces of Japan.

The provinces of Japan.
Musashi is #10.

Another archaism that held over into the Edo Period, at least in theory, were the traditional territories called 国 kuni often translated as provinces, but usually used in Modern Japanese as country. The domains of the Tokugawa Period existed within these traditional regions.

Miyamoto Musashi, drunk and stoned. I know the questions will come. What's the connection between Miyamoto Musashi and Musashi Province. I beg someone else to answer the question for me....  because it's not a good story. lol

Miyamoto Musashi, drunk and stoned.I know the questions will come.
What’s the connection between Miyamoto Musashi and Musashi Province?
None.So suck it. 

Provinces were created during in the 7th century by an imperial decree called 国郡里制 Koku-Gun-Ri Sei the Province-District-Village Edict which established a norm for civil administration united under the imperial court in Nara, if I’m not mistaken. The Koku-Gun-Ri system created large provinces, sub-divided into districts, which were further sub-divided into territories[vi]. The system was never abolished, but it basically fell apart during the Muromachi Period as samurai culture ascended to supremacy under the leadership of 武将 bushō daimyō warlords who were fighting each other in a land grabbing free for all – essentially undermining the boundaries of the kuni.

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in the traditional area of Musashi Province, the 郡 gun districts survived into the Edo Period. In the Meiji Period, while 国 kuni provinces and 藩 han were eliminated by the Abolition Act, many 郡 gun districts continued to exist up until WWII.

Districts of Musashi Province:

足立郡 Adachi-gun Adachi District
秩父郡 Chichibu-gun Chichibu District
荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District
入間郡 Iruma-gun Iruma District
加美郡 Kami-gun Kami District
葛飾郡 Katsushika-gun Katsushika District
児玉郡 Kodama-gun Kodama District
高麗郡 Koma-gun Koma District
久良岐郡 Kuraki-gun Kuraki District
榛沢郡 Hanzawa-gun Hanzawa District
幡羅郡 Hara-gun Hara District
比企郡 Hiki-gun Hiki District
那珂郡 Naka-gun Naka District

Niikura District
男衾郡 Obusuma-gun Obusuma District
大里郡 Ōzato-gun Ōzato District
埼玉郡 Saitama-gun Saitama District
橘樹郡 Tachibana-gun Tachibana District

Tama District
豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District
都筑郡 Tsuzuki-gun Tsuzuki District
横見郡 Yokomi-gun Yokomi District

Long time readers of JapanThis will recognize some of those names, especially Toshima and Ebara. Anyone who’s spent a little time in the Tōkyō Area will recognize loads of other names as well, for example; Adachi, Chichibu, Kodama, Katsushika, Saitama, and Tama.

Sorry for the Japanese, but this is the best I could find on short notice.  If I can't find a better map, I'll modify this one with English labels later when I have a little more time.

Sorry for the Japanese, but this is the best I could find on short notice.
If I can’t find a better map, I’ll modify this one with English labels later when I have a little more time.

Domains 藩 han  that were located in Musashi Province:

深谷藩 Fukaya Han
岡部藩 Okabe Han
本庄藩 Honjō Han
八幡山藩 Hachiman Han
東方藩 Higashigata Han
忍藩 Oshi Han
Kisai Han
Kisaichi Han
松山藩 Matsuyama Han
伯太藩 Hakata Han
Kakezuka Han
Takasaka Han
久喜藩 Kuki Han
石戸藩 Ishito Han
武蔵小室藩 Musashi Komuro Han
原市藩 Haraichi Han
岩槻藩 Iwatsuki Han


Musashi Ichinomiya Han


Kawagoe Han


Hatogaya Han


Kitami Han


Mutsūra Han
Bushū Kanazawa Han


Akanuma Han
Akamatsu Han

This map is a placeholder.   I need a map of the domains inside Musashi Province. If anyone has access to such a map (book, website, etc) or has the drive to make one themselves, I'd totally appreciate it.   I'll swap the new image for this one (which is basically a repeat of the image directly above it).

This map is a placeholder.
I need a map of the domains inside Musashi Province. If anyone has access to such a map (book, website, etc) or has the drive to make one themselves, I’d totally appreciate it.
I’ll swap the new image for this one (which is basically a repeat of the image directly above it).

OK, so a quick re-cap.

Old Japan was divided by the imperial court into large province called 国 kuni. Kuni were subdivided into districts called 郡 gun. In the Sengoku Period many 国 kuni provinces became obsolete, but the names continued traditionally. Generally, the 郡 gun districts remained intact. In the Edo Period, it seems to be case by case. So again, the province names continued to exist traditionally if not officially and territories were very much intact.

So why have I taken you on this insanely boring walk through Japanese civil administrative units from the 7th century to the 17th century?

Because the area was so large and famous, it’s important to understand how people before the Meiji Period thought of this area geographically. Also, the district names (and sometimes the domain names) are still relevant today[vii].


Anyways, there’s more to the story.

So, let’s go back to the name of the imperial decree of 1871, it abolished domains and created prefectures[viii]. Go back a little further to 1868, the emperor took the Tokugawa Shōgun Family’s main holding, Edo, and renamed it Tōkyō. Things were more or less in a state of flux as the court and the government, which was slowly taking shape, figured out what the hell they were doing.

To my understanding, from 1869 to 1943, 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City embodied the former city of Edo plus many suburban and urban holdings. Tōkyō Prefecture absorbed a much larger area that included the city of Tōkyō and mixed an agrarian and metropolitan area into a new civil unit.

There’s much more to the story than this, but this is all we need for now.

OK, this map is totally inadequate. But I'm trying to illustrate where modern Tokyo Metropolis stands as compared to the traditional Musashi Province.   This may be totally wrong. So if you can make a better one, I'd appreciate it. Also this map doesn't north enough in Saitama to so the other holdings.  Now that I'm looking at it, the highlighted area doesn't go far enough west.  Dammit, Jim. I'm a doctor not a map maker.

OK, this map is totally inadequate. But I’m trying to illustrate where modern Tokyo Metropolis stands as compared to the traditional Musashi Province.
This may be totally wrong. So if you can make a better one, I’d appreciate it. Also this map doesn’t north enough in Saitama to so the other holdings.
Now that I’m looking at it, the highlighted area doesn’t go far enough west.
Dammit, Jim. I’m a doctor not a map maker.

Wasn’t this article about the meaning of Musashi?

Why, yes. Yes, it was.

武蔵 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province
Bushū Warrior State[ix]

These are alternate names for more or less the same area. The kanji used today are slightly simplified variants. The original way to write it was 武藏國 Musashi no Kuni, which give me a headache if I look at it too long.

The province was spread over areas of present day Tōkyō, Kanagawa, Saitama, although the bulk of is still within Tōkyō. Most places that include the name Musashi were outside of the Edo or direct control of the shōgun, so they could claim a little prestige by adding Musashi to their name. This became a big thing with the implementation of train systems, when differentiating station names became necessary.

Any place name in Tōkyō, Saitama, or Kanagawa is more or less is a reference to Musashi province.  Even today, many of these places are not just suburban areas, but areas considered really country by Tōkyōites in the 23 Special Wards. But this is their heritage. They are preserving an ancient name that wasn’t a political reality since the 15th century. Nice, right?

The Musashi Plain

The Musashi Plain

Other related place names are:

武蔵野 Musashino Musashi Plain
むさし Musashino Musashi Plain
(variant spelling)
武蔵台 Musashidai Musashi Plateau
武蔵野台 Musashinodai Musashi Plain Plateau
福岡武蔵 Fukuoka-Musashino Auspicious Knolls
Musashi Plain[x]
大井武蔵 Ōi-Musashino Great Well
Musashi Plain[xi]

So What Does Musashi Mean?

There are many competing theories, none of which is considered a prevailing theory. Most of the theories seem so shaky that they’re not worth getting into here. It is interesting to note that the earliest recorded instances of the name in the 7th century are written with different kanji:  无耶志国 Muzashi no Kuni Muzashi Province.

Other variants were:

无射志 Muzashi
牟射志 Munzashi
牟佐志 Munzashi
無邪 Muzashi

The problem with all of these variants is that they are all ateji – which means they don’t tell jack shit about the origin of the word or meaning. Because it was always written with ateji as far back as the historical record goes, it has prompted some linguists to speculate that it was a non-Japanese word. They’ve pointed an Ainu word, ムンザシ munzashi, which means a grass covered plain. The similarity is uncanny. But I don’t know much about the Ainu, where they lived, their language, or… well, anything. So, I can’t say if this is better than the other weird theories I heard[xii].

When Tokyoites hear place names with "Musashi" in the name, this is what they think of....

When Tokyoites hear place names with “Musashi” in the name, this is what they think of….

OK. So there it is. Nobody knows what the fuck Musashi really means and it has taken me roughly 2000 words to say so. But that said, we’ve been able to take a good look at the size and administrative reality of Musashi Province and I hope that this post will be a good point of reference for past posts and future posts. And since a lot of my readers are new to Japanese history, hopefully I was able to unweave the rainbow a little bit in terms of how Japan, or at least the Japan surrounding Edo-Tōkyō was administered in the old days.

And like I said in the beginning of this post, I’m not an expert on civil administration in the Edo Period – the era I know the best so there may be some mistakes in here. If anyone sees any glaring ones, let me know. Also, if I wasn’t clear about anything, feel free post your questions. I’m hoping this is a nice launching point for more place names and hopefully more discussion on bad ass Tōkyō history.

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[i] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan abolition of domains & public groping.

[ii] Never even had a single class in Japanese history.

[iii] And if you can shed some light on this, your knowledge would be greatly appreciated.

[iv] This isn’t an accepted term among scholars of Japanese history, but the terminology is out there for generalists and n00bs and since I’m trying to keep this blog accessible to everyone, I sometimes use it myself.

[v] Often translated with the Eurocentric term, feudal lord – again not used by serious scholars of Japanese history, but often tossed around by generalists because it is easily understood by westerners.

[vi] As time went on and the population in urban center ballooned, further sub-divisions were created. One that is confusing for me is the the existence of 2 ri;  里 ri village and 領 ri territory/county.

[vii] I didn’t even get into the 領 ri territories/counties (too many of them), but these territories account for most of the extant place names in the former Musashi Province.

[viii] Where this word comes from is also interesting, but let’s leave that for another day.

[ix] The kanji 武 bu “warrior” is the same kanji for 武士道 bushidō way of the samurai. Anyways, I doubt any of my readers don’t know that. But ぶ bu and む mu are similar sounds and there are diachronic variations across Japanese dialects, which means that the kanji can be read as bu or mu. A common family name is 武藤 Mutō which also uses the softer, mu sound. Other common examples are 寂しい samishii or sabishii and 寒い samui or sabui.

[x] In Saitama, not Tōkyō.

[xi] In Saitama, not Tōkyō.

[xii] If you are interested in what some real Japanese linguists have to say on the matter (and you can read technical linguistics documents in Japanese), then knock yourself out. But it’s pretty dry.

What does Setagaya mean?

In Japanese History on July 8, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Setagaya (Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy)

All of Setagaya looks like this.  Every last bit of it. And they have flying monkeys too...

All of Setagaya looks like this.
Every last bit of it.
And they have flying monkeys too…

This place name is ancient. So take all of this with a grain of salt. But the generally accepted theory is as follows.

瀬戸 seto usually means a strait, as in the Strait of Gibraltar[i], but in Old Japanese, it could also be applied to 谷地 yachi a narrow marsh in a valley. In the old dialect of the area, it’s said that word seto was pronounced seta and written 瀬田 seta. Old Japanese had two possessive particles. Modern Japanese uses の no, but Old Japanese also used が ga. It survives in place names all over the country, the most famous being 関ヶ原 Sekigahara[ii], which literally means “the checkpoint gatehouse’s prairie/field.” Thus 瀬田ヶ谷 seta ga ya meant something like 瀬田の谷地 seta no yachi “the narrow marsh in the valley’s narrow marsh in the valley,” which I would have said was a totally ridiculous name, if they had asked me. But they didn’t.

Eventually, the first kanji was swapped out with 世 se “generation, world” because it’s an auspicious character. 世田 sounds like rice paddies that are bountiful forever, hence my translation of “Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy.” Also, is a standard ateji character. It was so common in phonetic renderings that the shorthand form of became katakana セ se.

The first attestation of the name is in 1376 as 世田谷郷 Setagaya-gō Setagaya Hamlet. By the Edo Period, the town was listed as 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village and this name lasted until the Meiji Era. In the Edo Period it was not part of the city of Edo, but of 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province[iii]. In 1871, when the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[iv] the abolition of domain and establishment of prefectures was enacted, the eastern section of what is now Setagaya Ward was absorbed into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City within 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture. In 1936, the boundaries of present day Setagaya Ward were pretty much fixed. It became a special ward of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis in 1946 and lived happily ever after.

Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

Oh wait, I forgot something kinda cool.

So that cat is called 招キ猫 maneki neko, it’s kind of a good look charm for businesses in Japan. 招く maneku means to invite or beckon and 猫 neko means cat[v]. There are a few origin stories for this good luck charm. One involves Setagaya Ward.

The story goes that once upon a time, there was an impoverished temple called 豪徳寺 Gōtoku-ji. Even though the head priest of the temple had barely enough food for himself, he took in a white stray cat and cared for him. Nice guy.

The temple isn't impoverished anymore.  They have a huge market share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

The temple isn’t impoverished anymore.
They have captured a huge share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

According to the legend, the daimyō of Hikone Domain, Ii Naotaka[vi], a contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada, was passing through Setagaya Village with his entourage as a storm was coming up. As Naotaka’s group passed by the temple, the daimyō noticed the white cat beckoning them to enter the temple precinct. As it was totally about to rain, he and his group commandeered the temple for shelter. It started raining and maybe some lightning struck somewhere and, you know, some legend shit happened. I dunno, maybe it was a crazy storm.

Naotaka was thankful for being able to take shelter at the temple. As a result he requested to make the temple the Ii clan’s 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple in Edo and the family made endowments to the temple and basically just made it rain[vii] on them throughout the Edo Period. As a result the family of the priest attributed the family/temple’s good luck to the white cat[viii]. And they found another awesome way to make money. They  started selling little white cats and telling people that if you buy this little white cat, a hereditary daimyō  might pass by your place and start throwing money at you for 2 and a half centuries. Well, anything’s possible, right?

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

Anyhoo, whatever you think of this story, the Ii clan was definitely a major patron of the club, err, I mean temple. The place is definitely in Setagaya Ward. The temple plays up the maneki neko story and the characters is known far and wide. Even in the ancestral Ii lands based around Hikone Castle, they use a cat character called Hikonyan, a reference to the maneki neko legend.

[i] I don’t know why I gave this example. After all, there are perfectly good Japanese examples.

[ii] As in the Battle of Sekigahara which secured Tokugawa Ieyasu’s position of dominance over Japan. This set the stage for him being granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei-i taishōgun, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces against the eastern barbarians, as they say.

[iii] See my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for another passing reference.

[iv] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan the public groping abolition of domains.

[v] It’s also slang for a “submissive” male homosexual.

[vi] I don’t want to get side tracked, but he is the illustrious ancestor of the no-less illustrious Ii Naosuke who was the regent of the clown shōgun, Tokugawa Iesada.

[vii] Make it rain. If you haven’t experienced this, then (a) you’re not a stripper or (b) you’re not rich or (c) you haven’t lived your life vicariously through rich people and strippers like me.

[viii] Because religious people love to thank imaginary shit instead of the people who actually help them.

What does Shimo-Kitazawa mean?

In Japanese History on July 4, 2013 at 1:43 am

Shimo-Kitazawa (Lower Northern Stream)

shimokitazawa history

I’m about to tell you how popular this place is by starting off with a picture where there isn’t a human in sight.

Shimo-Kitazawa is located in Setagaya Ward. Because of its bohemian appeal, it’s popular with artists, musicians, college students and young professionals. It’s not as commercial as the more urbanized centers like Shibuya and Shinjuku, and it has a nice balance of residential and boutique business culture. It’s not the most accessible area, but that’s part of its charm. But don’t let that fool you; the small Shimo-Kitazawa Station is busy as hell. It’s definitely a hot spot.

But actually, there is no official place called Shimo-Kitazawa.
By this I mean, there is no official postal address called Shimo-Kitazawa. There is a train station with this name.
And that’s it.

The area colloquially referred to as Shimo-Kitazawa is composed of two official areas Kitazawa and Daizawa.

It’s interesting to me, because Shimokita (as it’s usually nicknamed) has a momentum that reflects changes we’ve seen in Tōkyō’s history. Readers of JapanThis will remember how we’ve watched Iidamachi fade into oblivion as Iidabashi gained dominance simply because of the presence of a train or bus station. We also saw this with Nijūbashi, Kudanshita, Ebisu, and Omotesandō. There are too many examples of this to list. So if you wondered how these place names transition, there’s a good chance that we’re seeing a transition before our very eyes. A legitimate, modern Shimo-Kitazawa might exist sometime in the very near future.

Crowded Shimo-Kitazawa.

OK, that’s more like it.
Crowded Shimo-Kitazawa.

So What’s the Origin of this Place Name?

We have to look at two important geographical words before we can go any farther.





It’s said that in this area, there were many 沢 sawa streams (or that there was one particular stream here). Since this area was the northernmost section of the 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District[i], the stream[ii] was called 北沢 Kitazawa, the Northern Stream[iii].

In old Japanese place names, the upstream area would generally be referred to as 上 kami upper and the downstream area as 下 shimo lower[iv].

Even today there are train stations named 上北沢 Kami-Kitazawa Upper Kitazawa and 下北沢 Shimo-Kitazawa Lower Kitazawa. Other related names are 北沢 Kitazawa, 代沢 Daizawa, 代田 Daita and 新代田 Shin-Daita[v]. By the way, I know a bad ass ramen shop in Shin-Daita.

The oldest recognizable photograph I could find of Shimo-Kitazawa.  This one is from the Showa Era. The platform has no roof so it must have been a bitch in the summertime.  But the platform and tracks must be in the same places as they are now. Also, you can tell this is after WWII, as the kanji are written left to right.

The oldest recognizable photograph I could find of Shimo-Kitazawa.
This one is from the Showa Era.
The platform has no roof so it must have been a bitch in the summertime.
But the platform and tracks must be in the same places as they are now.
Also, you can tell this is after WWII, as the kanji are written left to right.

In the Edo Period, this place was just country. In fact, it wasn’t even part of Edo. It was just part of the Ebara District of Musashi Province. Maps of the time confirm the presence of two small villages by the name of 下北沢村 Shimo-Kitazawa Mura Shimo-Kitazawa Village and 上北沢村  Kami-Kitazawa Mura Kami-Kitazawa Village. When 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō City was created, it absorbed the area into the city boundaries. At that time, the villages were officially merged into 北沢村 Kitazawa Mura Kitazawa Village[vi]. This sort of thing happened all over Tōkyō, but the old names often would come back into circulation for bus, trolley, and train station names that needed to be differentiated. This is why the Shimo and Kami names still exist today at all.

A Map of Tokyo City (basically the modern 23 Special Ward of Tokyo) The highlighted area is the Ebara District -- or at least what was incorporated into Tokyo City. #17 is Setagaya Village. You can easily see that it's at the northernmost point of the county.

A Map of Tokyo City (basically the modern 23 Special Ward of Tokyo)
The highlighted area is the Ebara District — or at least what was incorporated into Tokyo City.
#17 is Setagaya Village.
You can easily see that it’s at the northernmost point of the county.

Kami-Kitazawa Station was built in 1913. Shimo-Kitazawa Station was built in 1928. The names seemed destined for mediocrity until 1991 when the area became a hub for performing arts (theater in particular) and slowly the area gained momentum as quirky boutiques and shops and restaurants came to be established there. By the mid-2000’s the area had a reputation for its bohemian/Shōwa chic. I hear there are plans to re-develop the area that would change the area dramatically, but this seems to be on hold as the residents of the area are opposed to making drastic changes to the neighborhood.

I’ll admit it’s not my favorite place in Tōkyō, but every time I’ve gone, I’ve had fun. Part of its cool factor comes from the fact that it’s not so easy to get to. It’s on the Keiō and Odakyū lines, which aren’t the most widespread rail companies in the Tōkyō Metropolis.




[i] Ebara District was one of about 21 districts that made up 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province.

[ii] Or streams…

[iii] Or streams…

[iv] See my article on alternate attendance where you will see daimyō residences in Edo categorized by 上 kami upper, 中 naka middle, and 下 shimo lower.

[v] More about these names in upcoming articles.

[vi] They were administered by the newly created 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village.

What does Mitaka mean?

In Japanese History on June 27, 2013 at 2:56 am

Mitaka (3 Falcons)

Three falcons.

Three falcons.
Let’s get it on!


I don’t know why I haven’t written about Mitaka yet. I’ve known the etymology of this for about 7 years. It was told to me by a monk at one of the temples located around 井ノ頭公園 Inokashira Kōen Inokashira Park – which is another interesting place name, actually.



Inogashira Park has a beautiful canopy.

Inogashira Park has a beautiful canopy.


Mitaka is part of the Tōkyō Metropolis, but it is not one of the 23 Special Wards. So it doesn’t use the word 区 ku ward, rather it uses 市 shi city, thus the full name is 三鷹市 Mitaka-shi Mitaka City. Despite not being “special,” Mitaka does have some interesting attractions. The most famous place is the town of  吉祥寺 Kichijōji where the famous Inokashira Park is located. It’s a great park, a little crowded, and popular with young people. It’s famous for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing and hippies. There are some interesting shrines and temples located in and around the park that have their own interesting stories as well. The city is also famous for the Studio Ghibili Museum[i].


Mitaka Station

Mitaka Station


My research confirmed the story I was told by the monk and also produced an alternate theory. First, I’ll give you the story I heard 7 years ago.

In the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shōguns used the area as a 鷹場 takaba falconry hunting ground[ii]. The shōguns could use any damn place they wanted for falconry – it’s good to be the shōgun – but as with all things in the Edo Period, there were restrictions on the other noble families, including the other branches of the Tokugawa clan. The vast Mitaka area was reserved for the 御三家 Go-sanke The 3 Families the 3 branches chosen by Ieyasu to provide a shōgun if his direct family line went extinct[iii]. Because members of the 三 mi 3 most elite branches of the Tokugawa family came here frequently to hunt with 鷹 taka falcons, the area came to be known as 三 鷹 mi taka, the 3 falcons.

The alternate story that I came across states that Mitaka was surrounded by 3 領 ryō territories[iv]. Those territories were 世田谷領 Setagaya-ryō ,  府中領  Fuchū-ryō , and  野方領 Nogata-ryō, therefore the area was called  三 鷹 mi taka, the takaba surrounded by 3 territories.

Falcons.... not so cool in our era....

Falcons…. not so cool in our era….

In the Edo Period, the area was just a collection of villages and the name Mitaka seems to have been a nickname or deliberately chosen later. It wasn’t until 1889 when the 22 year old Meiji government abolished the old Tokugawa civil administrative units and created the 市町村制 Shichōson Sei City-Town-Village System of administration. At that time the area that is now Mitaka was officially created. Apparently, there was a document that included the reason the name Mitaka was chosen but it was lost when the old village office was destroyed in a fire. This is one of those times when we are close enough to the creation of a name that we could have an official etymology but far enough back in time that backups and copies of things weren’t always so common and – the curse of any person interested in Japanese history – the cities were fire traps. So close and yet so far.

To be honest, both stories sound credible to me. And it’s not inconceivable that the reality lies a little in the middle.




[i] I see no reason to talk about Ghibili here…

[ii] See my article on Kōenji for more about falconry and the samurai elite.

[iii] Anyone reading my blog by now probably already knows these, but just in case, those families are the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke the Owari branch,  紀伊徳川家 Kii Tokugawa-ke the Kii branch and 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke the Mito branch. And a quick aside, the area wasn’t only for the Go-sanke’s use, of course, the shōgun family could use it if they wanted to.

[iv] Mitaka itself didn’t exist. It was just an unincorporated area of 武蔵国多磨郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District of Musashi Province.

What does Ryogoku mean?

In Japanese History on June 25, 2013 at 3:30 am

Ryōgoku (Both Provinces)

Fireworks from Ryogoku Bridge and the Sumida River.

Fireworks from Ryogoku Bridge and the Sumida River.

Love sumō?

Love the 47 Rōnin?

Love chanko nabe?

Love Japanese History?

Love Japanese girls with glasses?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then Ryōgoku is the place for you!



Ryogoku Sumo Hall - It's What's For Dinner

Ryogoku Sumo Hall

Ryōgoku is home to the 両国国技館 Ryōgoku Kokugikan Ryōgoku Sumo Hall. Order yourself a little 日本酒 nihonshu sake and enjoy watching fat men hugging and then throwing each other out of a circle.



The gate to that little bitch Kira Kozunosuke's residence.

The gate to that little bitch Kira Kozunosuke’s residence.

If you’re into the 赤穂浪士 Akō Rōshi the 47 Rōnin, the bitch that they stalked and hunted down and killed like a fucking sick dog had a residence here. Some of the walls and gate of that residence are preserved and are a stone’s throw from the Edo-Tōkyō Museum.



Chanko Nabe. The Meal of Champions.

Chanko Nabe.
The Meal of Champions.

お相撲さんo-sumō-san sumō wrestlers have traditionally eaten ちゃんこ鍋  chanko nabe[i] in order to fatten up. Ironically, it’s super healthy. There are tons of chanko nabe restaurants in Ryōgoku because there are many 相撲部屋  sumōbeya sumō training schools located there.



All Your Bass Are Belong to Us

Japanese History Has Landed

If you love Japanese history, you can find the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum in Ryōgoku. It’s easily one of the best museums in all of Japan and a must-see tourist destination for anyone who wants to visit Tōkyō[ii]. Also, it looks like a giant space craft which just adds to its badassness[iii]. Also, they have volunteer English guides who will give you a tour for free!![iv]




Japanese Girls with Glasses

And finally, if you love Japanese girls who wear glasses, Ryōgoku is the place for you. Because Ryōgoku is in Japan, and there are a lot of Japanese people there. Statistically speaking, about half of them are female. And statistically speaking, about half of those females are wearing glasses!!![v]

How much better can it get???





Let’s talk about the etymology of Ryōgoku. After all, that’s my shtick, baby.

In the past I’ve talked about 藩 han domains and 国 kuni provinces. Well, in the old days, as they say, there were two 国 kuni provinces divided by the 隅田川  Sumidagawa Sumida River. Those provinces were 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province. The Tokugawa Shōguns’ direct authority ruled over the city of Edo, and the greater Edo area sprawled across these two provinces. In 1659, The shōgunate built a bridge spanning the Sumida River and, voilà!, linked the 2 provinces. Hence the area is called Ryōgoku, or the place where both provinces met in Edo. Oh, how the shōgunate was magical like that!


More Sumida River Fireworks at Ryogoku

More Sumida River Fireworks at Ryogoku

So, anyways, if you visit Tōkyō, you have to come to this place. The museum alone is worth your time. I’m a long term resident of Tōkyō and I regularly return to this museum for the special exhibits. If you go there, or have gone there, I’d like to hear about your experience!!! There’s a comments section just for that!




[i] Not to be confused with チンコ鍋 which is something entirely different.

[ii] Pro Tip #1: Read my blog before you go. Bring my blog with you as you go.

[iii] Pro Tip #2: Don’t eat at the restaurants in the museum.

[iv] Pro Tip #3: I’ve never used a free English guide, but if you can read Japanese, they have a study room with access to thousands of maps and documents about the history of Edo-Tōkyō. It’s free to use and I can’t recommend it enough.

[v] DISCLAIMER: I have no idea about the statistics of glasses wearers in Japan.

What does Nerima mean?

In Japanese History on May 10, 2013 at 12:34 am

Nerima (original meaning unclear)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. What a wuss.)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune in Shakujii Park. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. Either way, dude was a wuss.)

Today’s place name is another request. It was on my TO DO list but I sorta put it off because… well, let’s just say “can of worms.”

The history of Tōkyō generally starts with the Edo Period. But it wasn’t like this city just popped into existence in 1600. Before Tokugawa Ieyasu, there was Ōta Dōkan. Before him there was the 豊島氏 Toshima-shi Toshima Clan* and (spoiler alert) the Edo Clan. In terms of written records and political relevance, this area’s history actually begins in the Kamakura Period and only accelerates from there.

Toshima family crest

Toshima family crest

The necessary background is this:

The Toshima clan controlled large areas of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province. Most of their dominion fell within the present Tōkyō/Chiba area. The 郡 gun district was called 豊島郡 Toshima-gun. Their seat of governance was in at 平塚城 Hiratsuka-jō (also known as 豊島城 Toshima-jō), but the family was firmly established in their residential estate in Shakujii Castle and had another fortification at Nerima Castle).** Today in Kita Ward, there is still a shrine called 平塚神社 Hiratsuka Jinja Hiratsuka Shrine. So the Toshima influence was strongest in the north region of Tōkyō. Place names that will definitely come up later will be Itabashi and Edo. The only reason I mention this is because these names will come up again later, for sure.

But OK, back to the subject at hand…

What does Nerima mean?

At first glance the kanji are confusing.

練 neri training, kneading
 (u)ma horse

First, let’s look at the etymologies that make use of the 練り neri “training” and ma “horse” theories

★ One of the oldest stories, documented from the Kamakura Period says that sometime between 700 and 800, there was a road connecting 武蔵国 Mushashi no Kuni Musashi Provice and 下総国 Shimōsa no kuni Shimōsa Province. On that road the Toshima clan had a 宿駅 shukueki a horse relay station. The name of the relay town was 乗沼 Norinuma, “ride-swamp”. This etymology claims that because the area was a wetland it had many lakes and, well, you could refresh your horses there, too. The local accent changed “Norinuma” to “Nerima” and eventually the kanji was changed to ateji.

a horse relay station

a horse relay station

★ Another theory says vassals of the Toshima family were training horses here. This is the most believable story, though it isn’t attested as early as the previous theory. So the name “training horses” is literal.
Compare this to Takadanobaba.

horse training place

horse training place

★ Another literal theory says some dude was stealing horses and keeping them here and then training them for resale. This kind of etymology, while entertaining, is unlikely IMO. But who knows…

dumb theory

Now let’s look at the clay theories

★ Another theory uses an alternate meaning of the kanji 練 neri. The kanji can also mean “knead” as in “knead bread” or “knead clay.” Supposedly there was an abundance of great clay for pottery making and the place was famous for kneading clay. This etymology says the name was originally 練場 Neriba Kneading Place. There are many examples of diachronic changes and dialect variants where ば ba becomes ま ma (and vice-versa). So linguistically speaking, it’s not impossible. On the site of the former Nerima Village (present day 貫井 Nukui), archaeologists discovered a type of kiln which was rare in the Edo-Tōkyō area.

kiln excavation

kiln excavation (this isn’t the one from Nukui, I couldn’t find a picture of that one)

★ Another clay theory claims that the dirt and clay in the area was sticky as if it had been kneaded professionally. Thus the area was called 練場 Neriba, just as in the theory I just mentioned. Over time the pronunciation changed from Neriba to Nerima. The clay hypotheses are intriguing.

wet clay! yummy!

wet clay. yay!

★ I’ve saved the weirdest theory for last. The Shakujii Basin lowlands were an expanse of lakes and swamps and so if you looked at water filled rice-paddies they looked really deep, as in “deep to the roots.” 根 ne root + 沼 numa swamp, marsh = 根の沼 Ne no numa root deep swamp, which changed to 根沼 Nenuma root swamp. Eventually Nenuma changed to Nerima and the kanji was changed to ateji (just like Hibiya).

BTW – The place name 丹根沼 Tannenuma exists in Hokkaidō.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do (丹根沼、北海道)

So it looks like the jury is out on this one. And while every theory, except the last one, has an argument based on kanji, the possibility of the name being just ateji is very possible. It’s particularly possible with old names that pre-date the Edo Period. At any point in history ateji could have been used – and changed later again to support other folk etymologies. So this one will just be a mystery.

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* Toshima can be written 豊島 or 豊嶋.
** Toshima Amusement Park (called としまえん Toshima-en in Japanese) is built on the castle ruins of Nerima-jō.

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