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The Sumida River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on May 31, 2014 at 5:35 am

隅田川
Sumidagawa (literally, “corner river,” but actually no known meaning)

First a quick note.
WordPress isn’t handling footnotes correctly anymore.
Not sure why, so the footnote links are not working.
You’ll have to manually scroll to the end of the article to read them. Sorry about that.

隅田川 墨田区

Senso-ji temple complex at Asakusa, a stone’s throw from the Sumida River, is one of the most famous places in all of Japan.

 

I’ve been told by Japanese people that “Japan is a country of water.” The idea being that there’s literally water everywhere and given the abundance of 温泉 onsen hot springs and rivers and… well, it’s a freaking island surrounded by water, I can’t argue with them. But herein lays the problem with this series[i]. When you have lots of water and people are living near it, the people usually have to bend the coasts and river banks to protect the villages, towns, and cities. They may dig a little deeper to make a new hot spring. They’ll merge rivers to make it easier to distribute goods. At JapanThis!, we’ve talked about reclaimed land a little bit in Edo, and we’ve seen massive landfill projects since the Meiji Period. But I underestimated how much work was being done controlling rivers as far back as the Kamakura Period[ii]. Since I’m only talking about Tōkyō place names, I haven’t even scratched the surface on this topic.

●  Linguistic stuff? Yeah, I got that covered, maybe.

●  Cultural and social stuff? Pretty sure that’s OK.

●  Historical events? That’s the easiest part.

●  The manipulation of a river over centuries of human habitation with ever increasing technological know-how?

No. I have to admit, I’m in way over my head. I hope I don’t drown.

 

墨田 隅田

Rivers dumping into Edo Bay. This really is “the land of water.” Surrounded by water but just pouring our rivers into the bay. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

 

In the Edo Period the Sumidagawa Didn’t Exist

At least not officially….

Until the Shōwa Period, it’s best to think of the 隅田河 Sumidagawa Sumida River as a work in progress. The river has been so modified by humans since the Heian Period (possibly earlier, but there would be no records of this). The river has also had many names. Different areas along the river referred to it by different names. In the early Edo Period, the whole area was essentially an alluvium into the bay. Over the years islands were connected and the geography was transformed slowly. From the 1920’s-1960’s a major transformation occurred. An Edo Period person wouldn’t recognize much of the river by the 1940’s and probably nothing by the 1970’s.

In short, the history of this river is a hot mess.

But the formal name of the river, at least according to the shōgunate was the 荒川 Arakawa Ara River. But you’re going to see the story gets a whole lot more confusing and incestuous. My head is hurting from trying to figure out what is what.

The Edo Period records are a mess. It seems the shogunate wasn’t so concerned with what this tributary or that was named on an official level. Again, I might be wrong here – I’m just some dude with an internet connection – but it seems like local communities in each village or township could have their own names for any landmark and people were pretty much cool with multiple names. Edoites affectionately referred to it as the 大川 Ōkawa the Big River, a name still used by older people for the area where the river empties out into Tōkyō Bay.

 

Elite women having a picnic at Gotenyama, enjoying a view of the bay and the rivers flowing out to it.

Elite women having a picnic at Gotenyama, enjoying a view of the bay and the rivers flowing out to it.
(Not the Sumida River, but shows how much Edoites loved the bay and the rivers).
It’s the floating world. Let things float. ffs.

 

In its efforts to bring the country in line with western map making and census taking (and just to have useful and modern records), the Meiji Government initiated a series of surveys and eventually issued a decree in 1896 which declared that this river was officially the Arakawa. However, the decree noted that certain sections were locally referred to as 大川 Ōkawa the Big River and 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 宮戸川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 浅草川 Asakusagawa Asakusa River. In short, Sumidagawa was just a nickname for a section of the Arakawa[i]. Today, it’s used to describe a section of river from the border of 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward to 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.

 

住田 隅田 隅田

In the early Edo Period the area was an uncontrolled alluvium. If I’m not mistaken, the area marked Suijin is where the Edo Period unofficial “Sumida River” began. It’s right there in the middle and was home to a shrine dedicated to water god/river god. So in many ways, this river intersection is where the spiritual heart of this river was born.

And now the modern river. Notice that Suijin is in the middle and the rivers are much more well defined. They clearly have tamed the rivers over the years.

And now the modern river. Notice that Suijin is in the middle and the rivers are much more well defined. They clearly have tamed the rivers over the years.

 

I will assume your head is spinning now (I know mine is). But if I may, I should throw out a quick one point lesson in Japanese for my readers who don’t know Japanese. In Japanese, river names end with the kanji [iv]. Think of it as a suffix. Depending on the final sound of the name of the river, it may be pronounced as /kawa/ or /gawa/[v]. I’m going to try to be consistent, but the romanization of these river names is traditionally inconsistent. So, just know that if you see –gawa or –kawa attached to the end of the word, it means I’m talking about the river. So for example, Sumidagawa = the Sumida River, Arakawa = the Ara River (though no one actually says that to the best of my knowledge).

 

Going out into the bay and then to the great unknown.

Going out into the bay and then to the great unknown.
I love the red reflection on the sea. Not sure what it’s all about but it’s beautiful.

 

What Is The Sumida River?

Originally this river was the downstream portion of the 入間川 Iruma-gawa, a river originating in present day Saitama that drained into Edo Bay. When provinces were created in the Nara Period, the Iruma-gawa formed the boundary Musashi and Shimōsa.

The area was known as Sumida (written in a variety of ways, as I will show you throughout the article), though technically the river was still the Irumagawa. However, as far back as 835, there are references to the river as 住田河 and 宮戸河, both read as Sumidagawa – the latter sometimes as Miyatogawa).

At the end of the Heian Period, a post town was established called 住田宿 Sumida Juku. The area flourished. See my article on Asakusa. Goods and skilled labors traveled between this area and Kamakura. There is a record showing that Yoritomo Minamoto stationed many troops at Sumida Juku at one point.

Before the Edo Period, and I’m going out on a limb here and guess it was Ōta Dōkan who did this, the 浅草川 Asakusa River and a river that preserved the writing 宮戸河 Sumida/Miyato were merged with this section of the river.

 

Tokugawa Ieyasu. See that wall painting? That's a link between pre-Edo art and next era funerary Edo art.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu – Sengoku Period bad ass and – for all intents and purposes – the winner. Dude was really fat.
And ffs shave that 5 o’clock shadow before posing for an official portrait!!!

 

In 1594, Tokugawa Ieyasu, daimyō of the 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces[vi], asked his relative and retainer 松平忠吉 Matsudaira Tadayoshi lord of 忍藩 Oshi-han Oshi Domain[vii] to undertake a flood prevention projects on several rivers. One particular project merged the 入間川 Irumagawa Iruma River and the 荒川 Arakawa Ara River and created a few other tributaries to other rivers and channels[viii].

Throughout the 1600’s the course of many rivers, including this one were tweaked and refined. The work in the early Edo Period transformed this section of the Irumagawa into part of the Arakawa. As this section of the river came to be closed off from its original source and was more and more associated with the centrally located Sumida area[ix], it soon came to be referred to commonly as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River. The division in popular naming is evidenced by the existence of present day 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward which reflect how people viewed the sections of the river by the late Edo Period.

Furthermore, in the Edo Period, the area from 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge to the bay was referred to as the 大川 Ōkawa the Big River. In that area there are a few buildings and areas that have maintained the name Ōgawa and supposedly rakugo performers use the name to build up Edokko street cred, though I’m sure it’s not without an explanation, unless the audience is super plugged into the neighborhoods there.

To make matters more confusing, some sections of the river became tributaries or canals and are now separate with different names. Some that still exist today are 大横川 Ōyokogawa, 横十間川 Yoko-Jikkengawa, and 北十間川 Kita-Jikkengawa. Some channels are now underground and some have become sewers and drainage ditches.

 

A tributary that became a river over hundreds of years.

A tributary that became a river over hundreds of years.

 

But Where Did The Name Come From?

Alright, let’s get down to the etymology.

 


sumi

corner


ta, da

field


kawa, gawa

river

 

Let’s get this out of the way in the beginning. This name is 当て字 ateji. That is to say, the meaning of the kanji actually have… no meaning. They are used because they can be read this way.

As I mentioned before, this place name is quite ancient. However, no one ever thought to talk about the etymology until the end of the Edo Period. A text called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fudoki-Kō, often just called the Musashi Fudoki A Description of the Musashi Region which was written in the early 1800’s says that the word “sumi” comes from アイヌ語 Ainu-go the Ainu Language and it means “to wash away” (ie; into the bay), “to nearly drown” (ie; the current is so fast you can’t swim or pass it), or “rough waters” (and they are rough!). Always take Edo Period etymologies with a grain of salt when they start talking about the Ainu languages[x].

Interestingly, the book also presents an alternate theory. This theory hearkens back to older records. It states that in 葛飾郡 Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, there was a village called 墨田村 Sumida Mura Sumida Village. The authors seem to think this is the better theory. It should be noted that the kanji for the river and the kanji for this village are different.

From the Heian Period to the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, many variant spellings pop up. One interesting spelling is 須田川 most likely read as Sudagawa in Modern Japanese, but could have been read as Subedagawa or in the old Edo dialect as Sumidagawa. I’ve talked about dialect variances in the past, and so /b/↔/m/ and /e/↔/i/ switches shouldn’t be new to you[xi].

Just to drive home the point how irrelevant the kanji are to this river’s name, let me show you a list of spellings and variations used over the centuries. Mind you, the first three spellings in the list are found in the 万葉集 Man’yōshū Collection of 10,000 leaves, one of the most ancient compilations of Japanese poetry from the late 700’s. Kanji use was totally different at that time, so this is the main indication that we cannot use kanji to determine the origin of this place name.

 

墨田墨多角太

Sumida, Sumita

角田

Sumida

隅川

Sumigawa

墨陀河

Sumidagawa

墨之洲

Sumi no zu

墨之水

Sumi no sui

住田河

Sumidagawa

住田川

Sumidagawa

両国川

Ryōgokugawa

Again, since this river was technically the Arakawa, the name was never super important. It was a popular name used locally. We can see that it’s quite ancient by its appearance in some of the most ancient Japanese texts. We can also see that people viewed the river in various lights, as the last name on the list, Ryōgokugawa, is a reference to the boundary between 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province and 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province. That is most definitely a local name.

 

This is a map of the so-called Arakawa Water System. If you click it to zoom in, you'll see it stretches out Northern Saitama (almost to Gunma Prefecture) and the tiny section where it dumps into Tokyo Bay clearly lists the Sumida River as part of the network.

This is a map of the so-called Arakawa Water System. If you click it to zoom in, you’ll see it stretches out Northern Saitama (almost to Gunma Prefecture) and the tiny section where it dumps into Tokyo Bay clearly lists the Sumida River as part of the network.

 

Another Mystery!

Sumida River and Sumida Ward Use Different Kanji

Perhaps you’ve noticed in this article or just in your daily life that the kanji for the ward and the river are different.

Why is the river written as 隅田川 and the ward as 墨田区? I’m happy to say I can bring closure to this issue. There was no standardization of the Japanese language during the Edo Period. People in the individual domains spoke their local dialects. When lords and their attendant samurai came to Edo for sankin-kōtai duty, they had to adjust to the local dialect in Edo. As you can imagine, they didn’t encounter just the local dialect, but dialects from all over Japan as every domain was represented in shōgun’s capital. The Meiji Government initiated language reforms that created a 標準語 hyōjungo a standard language[xii].

During the American Occupation, further standardization efforts were made. The Japanese writing system itself was completely overhauled. Prior to these reforms, people wrote from top to bottom, right to left. A spelling system that was a legacy of Classical Japanese was still in use, including syllabary characters that represented sounds not present in modern language. After these spelling reforms, left to right writing style became a kind of norm (it’s the norm, but books and temples still use more conservative styles).

But the most important change was a designation of the so-called 常用漢字 jōyō kanji daily use kanji. Given that there are thousands upon thousands of kanji with a myriad of variations, the government saw a benefit in restricting the kanji used in newspapers and for official government use. The restricting and standardization of kanji use began in the 1920’s and saw its most sweeping changes during the Occupation when the number of daily use kanji was restricted to 1850 characters. In 1981, they increased the number to 1945 characters, but 2010 saw a second increase to 2136 characters. Yikes!

 

As I mentioned before, in the pre-modern eras, the name Sumida pretty much started at the Suijin area. Here's an Edo Period depiction of the area.

As I mentioned before, in the pre-modern eras, the name Sumida pretty much started at the Suijin area. Here’s an Edo Period depiction of the area.

 

Anyways, after the war, was eliminated from the official list of daily use kanji. The name 隅田川 Sumidagawa was irrelevant because it wasn’t an “official” place name, so no official documents or signs were affected. But some conservative publishing institutions, especially newspapers, were at a loss as to what kanji to use and what kanji not to use when using the popular name “Sumidagawa.” Using the new system was progressive; using old kanji meant that new readers couldn’t read their publication[xiii]. So, newspapers continued to use the old kanji because it was so well known that changing it would confuse readers more than going with the new system. This actually happened with a lot of place names.

Two years later, 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward was officially created in 1947. In support of the language reforms, it proudly boasted the new spelling – shunning the old kanji. As you can imagine, occupied[xiv] Japan wanted to put the past behind them and push on into a new era[xv]. But remember, this is the first time the name “Sumida” was being used officially.

But of all kanji, why did they choose (which means “ink”) instead of any other kanji?

Well, there is an easy answer to that. In short, the kanji is far rarer and more obscure than and as such is harder to read. While any long term resident of Edo-Tōkyō may recognize the word 隅田川 Sumidagawa, the rest of the country probably wouldn’t. is instantly readable by anyone with a junior high education[xvi]. But all of that said, why does the modern river use the old kanji? Well, even though the kanji became a daily use kanji once again in 1980, the river’s name was referred to in official post war documents and signs as すみだ川 avoiding the kanji altogether, or with the new kanji. But local people and private interests continued to use the old spelling. As daily use kanji are an official recommendation to educators a publishers, but are not imposed on the private sector, anyone can use any damn kanji they want and it doesn’t really matter. In short, the writing of the river’s name persists out of tradition and affection, while the ward’s spelling is exists out of a bureaucracy that was promoting a new wave of change in post-war Japan.

 

Edo Period people loved the rivers and bridges of the city. While this isn't a pleasure boat, people of means enjoyed riding under the bridges.

Edo Period people loved the rivers and bridges of the city. While this isn’t a pleasure boat, people of means enjoyed riding under the bridges of the Sumida.

Some modern people enjoy that sort of thing.

Some modern people enjoy that sort of thing, too.

 

Taking boats down the Sumidagawa is actually quite popular among weird people… I’m looking at you, dear reader.

I haven’t done it myself yet, but as a pretty weird person, I’m dying to do it. Since this river flowed through the center of Edo, it was one of the most important rivers then and still is now. The Edo Era bridges were more or less landmarks. Today, some people like to walk or ride bicycles along the river to see all of the bridges.

If you’re interested in such a journey, here is a description of the course of the river with a list of bridges which I just straight up stole from Wikipedia. You can’t cross all of them today, but you’ll definitely get a unique view of the modern city and some glimpses of Edo.

 

Key

○ = Allows Pedestrians (most bridges allow for pedestrians)
× = No Pedestrians (usually for trains, cars, or utilities)

= Only Pedestrians (only one bridge)

  Bridge Name                                                            Wards
Divergence from the Arakawa
Confluence with the Shingashigawa.
Shin-Kamiyabashi Kita, Adachi
Shindenbashi Kita, Adachi
Shin-Toyo Hashi Kita, Adachi
Toshimabashi Kita, Adachi
× Central Circular Route
(a national highway)
Kita, Adachi
Confluence with the Shakuji’igawa[xvii]
Odaihashi Arakawa, Adachi
Ogubashi Arakawa, Adachi
× Nippori-Toneri Liner Sumidagawa Bridge Arakawa, Adachi
Otakebashi Arakawa, Adachi
× Jōsui Senjū Suikanbashi[xviii]
(an aqueduct demolished 2013)
Arakawa, Adachi
× Keisei Main Line Sumidagawa Bridge[xix] Arakawa, Adachi
× TEPCO Sōdenbashi[xx] Arakawa, Adachi
× Senjū Suikanbashi Arakawa, Adachi
Senjū Ōhashi Arakawa, Adachi
× Jōban Line Sumidagawa Bridge Arakawa, Adachi
× Tsukuba Express Sumidagawa Bridge Arakawa, Adachi
× Hibiya Line Sumidagawa Bridge Arakawa, Adachi
Senjū-Oiri Ōhashi Arakawa, Adachi
Confluence with the Old Awasegawa
Suijin Ōhashi[xxi] Arakawa, Sumida
Shirahigebashi[xxii] Taitō, Sumida
Sakurabashi Taitō, Sumida
Kototoibashi Taitō, Sumida
× Tōbu Hanakawado Railroad Bridge[xxiii] Taitō, Sumida
Confluence with the Kita-Jikkengawa
Azumabashi
(one of the most famous bridges in Japan!)
Taitō, Sumida
Komagatabashi Taitō, Sumida
Umayabashi Taitō, Sumida
Kuramaebashi[xxiv] Taitō, Sumida
× Kuramae Senyōbashi
(power lines and waterworks)
Taitō, Sumida
× Sōbu Main Line Sumidagawa Bridge[xxv] Taitō, Sumida
Confluence with the Kanda River
Ryōgokubashi Chūō, Sumida
Confluence with the Tatekawa
× Ryōgoku Ōhashi Chūō, Sumida
Shin-Ōhashi Chūō, Kōtō
Confluence with the Ogigawa
Kiyosubashi[xxvi] Chūō, Kōtō
Confluence with the Sendai Horigawa[xxvii]
Sumidagawa Ōhashi Chūō, Kōtō
Confluence with the Nihonbashi “River”
Eitaibashi[xxviii] Chūō, Kōtō
Confluence with the Ōyokogawa
Aioibashi Chūō, Kōtō
Chūō Ōhashi Chūō, Chūō
Confluence with the Kamejima-gawa
Branches off to the Tsukudagawa tributary[xxix]
Tsukuda Ōhashi Chūō, Chūō
Confluence with the Tsukishima-gawa[xxx]
Kachidokibashi Chūō, Chūō
Branches off to the Shin-Tsukishima-gawa
Empties out into Tōkyō Bay

And that concludes my rambling, confusing, and insanely long tour of the etymology of Sumida… Strangely, I feel no closure with this article. I also sense more confusion coming in the next few articles because all of the rivers I’ve chose for this series have been seriously manipulated over the centuries. This is going to be a bumpy ride. I’m thinking of adding a recap at the end of the series to bring everything together. Not sure if it’s necessary yet, though. Let’s see.

But in closing,  I’d like to share two links with you from another blogger who goes by the name Rurōsha who wrote a 2 affectionate articles about the Sumida River. She goes into a Suijin Shrine (now Sumidagawa Shrine) and its unfortunate demise and separation from the river. The first article is here and the second article is here. I’ve referred to her blog a number of times because she really seems to have a passion for Tōkyō’s shitamachi style and history – she also probably knows way more about the Sumida River than I do. Interestingly, the first kanji in the word Rurōsha is 流 ru which means “river current” or “flow.” Check her out!

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[i] And I was afraid of this before I started it.
[ii] I’m gonna refer to Japanese Eras a lot, so if you need a refresher, please check out my cheat sheet here.
[iv] Without getting into more detail, the kanji 河 kawa/gawa also means river. But it’s an older form.
[v] To my knowledge, this is an unpredictable sound change. But for what it’s worth, it’s called 連濁 rendaku and you can read about it here.
[vi] At this time he was not shōgun.
[vii] Present day Gyōda, Saitama.
[viii] No specifics from me cuz…….. this way over my head.
[ix] Gonna talk about this more, trust me.
[x] I myself have never studied a word of Ainu, so I’m going to withhold any opinion on this. I just can’t verify or deny it.
[xi] If this is new to you, I’d recommend going back to the beginning of this blog and just re-reading everything. If you don’t have the time, this might push you in the right direction.
[xii] This arose out of a general “re-unification” policy as much as necessity. Most of the upper samurai and daimyō from the domains could handle the Japanese spoken in Edo (itself a mishmash of the local Edo Dialect, the Mikawa Dialect, and in the upper echelons, the Kyōto Dialect). But with the creation of a standing, national army headed by former samurai from Satsuma and Chōshū and staffed by men of every former class from every region of Japan who may have never heard another dialect in their lives came together. The need for a standard, national language was imperative.
[xiii] Furthermore, the reason the daily use kanji list was restricted in the first place was because literacy wasn’t high in the rural areas and there were simply too many possible readings that even city dwellers required 振り仮名 furigana syllabic subtitles for difficult kanji.
[xiv] Or liberated, depending on how you want to look at it…
[xv] Something they’d been trying to do ever since the Black Ships arrived in the 1850’s.
[xvi] There are some claims that people were harvesting materials from the river to make ink (), but I can’t verify them. I think these may be folk etymologies.
[xvii] I wrote about the place name Shakujii waaaaaaay back in the day.
[xviii] 水管橋 suikanbashi means water supply bridge. It’s easy and cheaper to pump fresh drinking water over a bridge than it is to dig deep under deep rivers – or to dam up the river to build an underwater pipeline. Tōkyō has so many waterways, that water supply bridges (essentially a pipe, sometimes with a pedestrian or some other bridge attached to it) are a very common thing due to their cost effectiveness.
[xix] Wanna know what Keisei means? Check this shit out, son.
[xx] Yes, that TEPCO, 東京電力 Tōkyō Den’ryoku Tōkyō Electric, the same clowns who are still mishandling the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Anyways, this bridge is just a bunch of power lines.
[xxi] Coming back to this place name sometime in the future.
[xxii] You can bet your left testicle I’ll be covering this place name. Too good to pass up.
[xxiii] More about the Tōbu Line here.
[xxiv] There’s an article for that!
[xxv] Yup. Yet again I’m referring you to my train line article. I should revisit the topic… hmmmmm…
[xxvi] Sound familiar? I talked about this area before in a double dipper!
[xxvii] I’m starting to sound like a broken record… I talked about Sendai Horigawa before!
[xxviii] This area is referenced in my article on Mon’naka.
[xxix] I haven’t covered 佃 Tsukada yet, so there’s actually a lot to talk about this area… in the future.
[xxx] If you’ve been to Tōkyō, you probably know the Tsukishima Fish Market. This area also has an interesting history, but now is not the time to get into it.

Kozukappara Execution Grounds

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm

小塚原死刑場
Kozukappara Shikeijō
Kozukappara Execution Ground

This illustration is said to be at Denma-cho, but in reality, it could have been anywhere. Although, probably not a daily occurance, it would have been a regular enough scene at Kozukappara that normal people like you and me would have avoided the place like the plague.

This illustration is said to be at Denma-cho, but in reality, it could have been anywhere.
Although, probably not a daily occurance, it would have been a regular enough scene at Kozukappara that normal people like you and me would have avoided the place like the plague.
Notice the paper blinds on the faces of the condemned.
Also notice the hole dug to contain the blood and catch the head so it doesn’t roll off under a bush somewhere.

This is probably Edo’s 2nd  most notorious execution ground. It definitely has the longest lasting legacy. The facility was in operation from 1651 – 1873. It’s said that 100,000 – 200,000 people were executed here.

The killing floor is supposedly under the train tracks, and most of what remains is a small cemetery. Real Edo-kko might tell you that the Jōban and Hibiya lines break down often when passing through here or that the trains slow down so as to not disturb the spirits that haunt the area. Sounds spooky, but totally untrue.

Again from Denma-cho. Disposing of the bodies and cleaning the heads. Cleaned heads would be displayed for about 3 days so that anyone passing through would realize the shogun's power over life and death.

Again from Denma-cho.
Disposing of the bodies and cleaning the heads.
Cleaned heads would be displayed for about 3 days so that anyone passing through would realize the shogun’s power over life and death.

This seems to have been the most mismanaged and sloppiest execution grounds of Edo. The area had a reputation for being filthy and just downright nasty. For whatever reason, bodies of the executed weren’t cremated, but just dumped in shallow mass graves. Stray dogs and other animals would regularly come and dig up the carcasses and eat them and drag bones all over the area. The smell of decaying human flesh was said to be unbearable on hot summer days. The street on which on the corpses and heads were displayed was apparently littered with human bones and so it came to be called 骨通り kotsu dōri bone street[i]. The name has never been official, but locals still use it. This is part of the reason that, even today, the area is considered a bit of a pisspot in Tōkyō. Apparently, new construction sites find human bones regularly[ii]. The main modes of execution were beheading, crucifixion, boiling, burning at the stake and a variety of creatively gruesome methods.

Heads were displayed outside of the execution grounds at street level as a warning to passersby.  Note crucified guy in the background. Crucifixions were a mess to clean up, as were burnings at the stake. Those also took place at the street level.

Heads were displayed outside of the execution grounds at street level as a warning to passersby.
Note the crucified guy in the background.
Crucifixions were a mess to clean up, as were burnings at the stake.
As such those also took place at the street level.

Close up of the heads

Close up of the heads

As an execution ground, Kozukappara was considered spiritually defiled. Therefore, the only people who lived there were the 穢多 eta untouchables. The area was essentially an 穢多村 eta mura a government enforced ghetto populated by a group of people considered non-human or at best 1/7th the worth of “normal person.” The only work these people could get was in the business of death; executions, disposal of corpses, butchery, leather-working, and chaperoning Justin Bieber. After the execution ground was closed, “bone street” continued as an untouchable ghetto and the main businesses in the area were shoe makers, leather-workers, and butchers.

A Google search said this is  today's Kotsu Dori. The architecture looks like bubble economy style. Notice how low the buildings are. (but since I haven't been in a while, I don't know if this is how Kotsu Dori looks today.)

A Google search said this is today’s Kotsu Dori.
Notice how low the buildings are.
(but since I haven’t been in a while, I don’t know if this is how Kotsu Dori looks today.)

Even today, the area is famous for cheap housing for day laborers as well as a meet up point for day laborers in the area formerly known as 山谷 San’ya (still informally called that, but no official name exists). Every morning, hundreds of poor and homeless descend upon the area in hopes of scoring a job for the day and a little money.

Kubi Kiri Jizo.

Kubikiri Jizo.

In 1741, the 首切地蔵 kubikiri jizō was built[iii]. A jizō is a Buddha who – among other things – watches over souls in the underworld (ie; the dead). Executions were carried out in front of this statue. So it’s said that this Buddha was the last thing a condemned criminal would see in this world. The statue stood watch over the cemetery until March 11th 2011, when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake knocked it over. Since the area is rarely talked about, I just found out about this recently. I don’t know if there are plans to reassemble the statue, but I hope they do. It’s really a symbol of the area.

Kubikiri Jizo as he looked at the end of the Edo Period. I'm not sure, but I hope this is how the execution ground looked at the time, not after it was shut down.

Kubikiri Jizo as he looked at the end of the Edo Period or beginning of Meiji.
I’m not sure, but I hope this is how the execution ground looked at the time, not after it was shut down in 1873.

Kubikiri Jizo after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

Kubikiri Jizo after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

As with Suzugamori, the execution ground was blocked off from the general public and so the final farewells were said at 泪橋 Namidabashi the Bridge of Tears. The bridge crossed the 思川 Omoigawa which is now underground. Today the area is a nondescript intersection with a bus terminal.

I haven’t been to Minami Senju in years. I’ve only actually been twice in my life – both times to explore and photograph the execution ground. My impressions at the time were just depressing. When I exited the station there were almost no people in sight (a very unusual phenomenon in Tōkyō). The buildings were old and dirty. There was litter all over the streets (another unusual phenomenon in Tōkyō). The few locals I saw were either just dirty, or homeless. There were a few shops here and there and although the area looked somewhat like other shitamachi areas, the shops lacked the lively atmosphere. When I got to the execution ground’s graveyard, there was a temple with a massive 葵之御門 aoi no go-mon the coat of arms of the Tokugawa. I couldn’t help but feel like the shōgunate having executed so many here was still just lording over the dead. “We took your life and we’ve still got our eyes on you, muthafuckas.”

To the right of the Kubikiri Jizz-o and the cemetery remains, stands Enmei-ji, the shogunate's enduring F U to the executed.

To the right of the Kubikiri Jizz-o and the cemetery remains, stands Enmei-ji, the shogunate’s enduring F U to the executed.

One of the great things about Twitter that I never knew before doing this blog was that all the cool Japanese history nerds are there. I was told by a Twitter friend that the area’s gentrification is indeed taking off and that I should see it firsthand. So maybe it’s not as bad as I remember it. I haven’t been there since… ohhhhh, I don’t know… maybe since 2007, so I reckon another trip up that way is well overdue.

Oh, and speaking of Twitter, hit me up, bitches!
Let’s Japanese History! Awwwwwwww yeah.

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Ah, I almost forgot. The temple next to the Kubikiri Jizō is called 延命寺  Enmei-ji (which ironically mean “long life temple”). But if you go across the train tracks there is another temple built to comfort the souls of the executed called 回向院 Ekōin (ekō are Buddhist memorial prayers said for the souls of the dead). Among its treasures is a sword of the hereditary sword tester and executioner of the shōgunate, 山田浅衛門 Yamada Asaemon.

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EDIT: The Hopeful Monster has informed me via Twitter that the Kubikiri Jizō has been repaired and once again watches over the graves of the executed. He also runs a blog here on WordPress that I think JapanThis readers might also enjoy. You can see his blog here.

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[i] While the name persists among locals, apparently these days it is written コツ通り to disguise the meaning of the word 骨 kotsu bone. When written in kana instead of kanji, kotsu has an idiomatic meaning of “art” or “skill.”

[ii] Recently the area is undergoing gentrification. Even on the so-called “bone street” massive tower apartment buildings have been built in hopes of attracting people to the area.

[iii] Kubikiri jizō means “decapitation jizō.”

Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!!!

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 22, 2013 at 6:59 am

江戸の大三死刑所
The Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo

Burning at the stake. Capital punishment for arsonists.

Burning at the stake.
Capital punishment for arsonists.

The first time I visited Tōkyō, I heard about a place where the rent was cheap because it used to be an execution ground. The locals called it a 心霊スポット shinrei supotto haunted place. It was a place so haunted that people still brought new flowers ever day to appease the angry spirits. This place was 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds.

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to visit! Later I read a book by Romulus Hillsborough that briefly touched on the subject. Since that time, I’ve been fascinated with the 3 great execution grounds of Edo.

At the time, about 8 years ago, there was nothing on the internet about these places, especially in English. Since that time, a lot more has come to be written about these facilities – some for better and some for worse. There have also been some new developments in some of the areas – particularly in the field of archaeology.

Witnesses observing a crucifixion. Note the two guys with halberds, they are delivering the coup de grace by simultaneously slitting the condemned's throat.

Witnesses observing a crucifixion.
Note the two guys with halberds, they are delivering the coup de grace by simultaneously slitting the condemned’s throat.

Japanese Name

English Name

Status

  鈴ヶ森

Suzugamori

The killing floor is extant. The area is well maintained by the nearby temple and neighbors. Well and some post holes are extant.

 小塚

  Kozukappara

Cemetery is extant. The symbolic Buddha statue collapsed in the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. One of the executioner’s swords is owned by the nearby temple.

伝馬町

 Denma-chō

The killing floor is commemorated on the grounds of a temple, some foundations and sewage pipes still exist.

What can we say about these places?

Well, first of all, they were on the outskirts of town. Suzugamori was in Shinagawa – waaaay outside of the center of the city and basically on the bay. Kozukappara was in Minami-Senju, while outside of the city, it was near one of the access points to the city. Denma-chō was the closest to the center of Edo, its legal standing within the old city is debatable.

In accordance to Shintō practice, to keep the city of Edo “ritually pure,” “unclean activities” such as butchery, leatherworking, and executions had to be done outside of the city limits. Prisons and execution grounds were laid out according to the principles of 風水 fū-sui feng-shui having entrances and exits[i] placed in auspicious directions to keep the dark activities within from “leaking out” and “defiling” the city.

Each of these areas was located near a major artery. Suzugamori was near the Tōkaidō. Kozukappara was near the Nikkō Kaidō, Ōshū Kaidō and Mito Kaidō. Kodenma-chō was near Nihonbashi, which was the hub of Japan. This sent a strong and clear message to those coming in and out of the shōgun’s capital that the shōgunate held the power of life/death. As you entered the shōgun’s city and as you left it, you would be reminded of his absolute power.

Heads were generally put on display along main street that passed by the execution grounds. "don't do it again!"

Heads were generally put on display
along main street that passed by the execution grounds.
“Don’t do it again!”

And lastly, the point most Japanese don’t want to bring up is that because pre-modern Japan had a caste system, these areas have been and still are associated with the 穢多 etauntouchables[ii].” These were families who fell outside of the samurai-famer-artisan-merchant class system. They could only work as butchers, executioners, leather workers, and disposers of corpses, etc… These 3 areas bore a heavy stigma because of their association with prisoners, killings, and the eta class. Rent in these areas is said to be cheap. Schools in these areas are said to be bad. People who live here are said to be cursed.

Well, at least in the old days. Tōkyō doesn’t really have a problem with this anymore – I’ve heard that issues with “untouchable” families continue to persist in Ōsaka and some other parts of Japan. In Tōkyō, half of the population is from somewhere else. People can’t be arsed to worry about your ancestry unless you have a bad as name like Tokugawa or Matsudaira. So I think most of the “stigma” of these areas is exaggerated today. However, when you visit these places, Kozukappara, in particular, you’ll notice that there’s something off about these places. They’re not vibrant places. They’re not affluent places. They’re places that you’d probably need a good reason to even go to. Some are downright inconvenient.

Executions were carried out by untouchables. The lead executioner was an untouchable given samurai status and certain legal rights by the shōgunate. The position and the family name were hereditary. The most famous executioner was the hereditary 様斬 tameshigiri sword tester of the Tokugawa Shōgun Family, whose first and second name was hereditary[iii].

Execution by cutting the condemned's abdomen, separating top and bottom. (I feel bad for whoever has to clean up after this...)

Execution by cutting the condemned’s abdomen, separating top and bottom.
(I feel bad for whoever has to clean up after this…)

A vast array of techniques existed for dispatching criminals. But the main technique was beheading. In special cases for samurai of distinction, 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment was allowed. Torture was commonplace. Corpses and heads were generally put on display outside of the facilities as a reminder to passersby that you don’t fuck with the shōgun. Conditions within the facilities seem to have been pretty bad. Disease was rampant and inmates often killed other inmates for petty transgressions such as snoring too loudly or receiving too many gifts from a wife or family. Generally speaking, there was no shaving or bathing. Public latrines were filthy breeding grounds for bacteria and stink. You get the picture. Unpleasantness all around – some of which may still linger today.

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I’m going to say right now, this isn’t going to be pretty. I refrained from putting anything too graphic in this first article. But in the next three articles some pictures will be more grotesque than I have included before. If you’re squeamish about cadavers, dismembered heads and whatnot, you might want to wait until the series is over. That said, I’m not going to go crazy with death and gore pictures. I don’t like it either. But for illustrating certain points, it may be necessary. So I just want to give everyone a heads up. OK?

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Anyhoo, the next 3 installments of JapanThis will be my Edo Execution Ground Spectacular. Get ready to strap it on and feel the G’s, baby.

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EDIT: Here’s a cool link that Rekishi no Tabi shared with me. It’s an online version of The Pictorial Book on the Penal Affairs of the Tokugawa Government, a Meiji Era document. I think it will compliment this series nicely.

EDIT: http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/beato_people/fb2_essay01.html
Loads of bad ass-ness from MIT.

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[i] The “exit” of the execution ground being the place where the corpses were taken out for disposal or exposure.

[ii] The word eta is extremely taboo now. The “preferred” term is burakumin. But burakumin is seen as more of a problem of western Japan, not the modern eastern capital. But that said, even today in international, cosmopolitan Tōkyō, there are some remnants of this legacy of discrimination. It’s really pretty fucked up. Check out the article on Wikipedia if you want to know more about this shitty discrimination.

[iii] ie; each generation’s male head of the household had the same name.

What does Senju mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm

千住
Senju (1000 Homes, but the actual meaning is lost)

Kita-Senju Station

Kita-Senju Station

Most people in Tōkyō have been to (or at least heard of) 北千住 Kita-Senju North Senju. Few people have heard of its depressing counterpart, 南千住 Minami-Senju South Senju. If you read about life during the Edo Period, especially sankin-kōtai, you’ll come across the name 千住 Senju (usually without a “north” or “south” attached to it).

“1000 Homes” makes this place sound like a bustling suburb of Edo (I’m sure it was a great place to raise a family lol). But the fact of the matter is that this place name is officially a mystery. Let’s look at the 3 prevailing theories about this place name, shall we?

Kita-Senju yankee.

Kita-Senju yankee.

THEORY #1

The 千葉氏 Chiba-shi Chiba clan lived here during the Sengoku Period[i]. This theory would have us believe that the place name is a play on words. The family name Chiba is made of two kanji, 千 chi/sen 1000 and 葉 ha leaves. The word for “lives in” is 住む sumu. With the implicit understanding that the kanji 千 sen represented the Chiba clan and 住 shu represented living, the resulting combination 千住 Senju would mean 千葉氏が住んだ所 Chiba-shi ga sunda tokoro “the place where the Chiba clan lived.” This etymology is not just boring; it’s insulting to the intelligence[ii].

The Chiba clan family crest

The Chiba clan family crest

THEORY #2

Another theory is the 8th Ashikaga shōgun, Yoshimasa[iii], kept a mistress whose hometown was a small village in the area. Her name was 千寿 Senju. The area adopted her name to raise its prestige[iv]. Long time readers of JapanThis can probably guess what I think of this theory, so let’s move on.

Since the place name for Senju first appears in the historical record in 1279 with the ateji 千寿, these Muromachi and Sengoku Era names are most likely fake, but there are schools and other places in the area that still use the kanji 千寿. This probably has little to do with Yoshimasa’s prostitute lover, though, and more to do with the auspiciousness of the kanji. 千 sen means 1000 and 寿 su/kotobuki means “congratulations!” or “long life!” Thus, 千乃寿 sen no kotobuki means “congratulations 1000 times!”[v] Since this is the earliest way of writing the word and it is obviously ateji, it leads me to believe that this represents a much older place name which has unfortunately been lost to history.

Another NO GO. This theory isn't very likely...

Another NO GO.
This theory isn’t very likely…

THEORY #3

The next theory? OK.  A statue of 千手観音 Senju Kan’non 1000 armed Kan’non, was pulled out of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa (River)[vi]. Thus the area was known as 千手 Senju 1000 Arms, which just sounds creepy. Over time, the place name came to be written as 千住 Senju 1000 Homes, which sounds like a nice place to raise to a family. Believe it or not, this is the most accepted etymology.

1000 armed Kan'non.

1000 armed Kan’non.

I say “poppycock” to the random 1000 armed statue floating down the river; however the statue was housed at the nearby temple, 勝専寺 Shōsen-ji Shōsen-ji, so it’s possible there might be some connection. But given the antiquity of the place name, I would venture to say that it’s actually the other way around. The old name Senju was the reason for making a senju statue. Japanese temples and shrines capitalize on this kind of play on words all the time; I don’t see why Shōsen-ji would have been any different.

So my guess is that each of these are folk etymologies and that the real place name pre-dates all of them. The original ateji is nice, though. It’s very auspicious. But remember, ateji doesn’t have meaning, so we may never know the true origins of the name.

The shitamachi feeling of Kita-Senju.

The shitamachi feeling of Kita-Senju.

A Few Bits of Trivia About Senju:

The old Edo shitamachi dialect is preserved by some local people in the area. They don’t call the area Senju, but Senji.

The most important town in the area was 千住宿 Senju-shuku Senju Post Town, which was the first 宿場 shukuba post town on the 日光御成街道 Nikkō Onari Kaidō[vii]. Because the 水戸街道 Mito Kaidō and 奥州街 Ōshū Kaidō also branched off from here, it was one of the busiest post towns of the Greater Edo Area.

To supervise the development and maintenance of the Nikkō Kaidō, Tokugawa Hidetada constructed a small 御殿 goten shōgunal lodging at Shōsen-ji[viii]. Hidetada, Iemitsu, and Ietsuna are all recorded as having stayed here. I imagine other shōguns stayed here, too. After all, the Nikkō Kaidō was an Onari Kaidō, that is to say, it was reserved for the private use of the shōgun and his retinue[ix].

北千住 Kita-Senju (literally, North Senju) is well known throughout Tōkyō as a shitamachi (low city) area that preserves some of the so-called Edo-kko culture[x]. It’s lesser well-known counterpart, Minami-Senju (literally, South Senju) is virtually unknown. Those who do know it, have a very bad impression of the town… for reasons I’ll get into next week.

 

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[i] Yes, this is the same Chiba clan whose name now adorns present day Chiba Prefecture in all its, um, glory.
[ii] Although, I had my balls handed to me by the etymology of Daita. So I guess I should keep an open mind.
[iii] Yes, that Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The Ashikaga shōgunate sucked balls from the beginning, but this clown is the guy under whose watch the Ōnin War broke out – that is to say, it was on his watch that Japan descended into the proverbial clusterfuck that we call the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period.
[iv] As if the some chick that the 8th shōgun of the lamest shōgunate was banging was prestigious…
[v] Sushi lovers out there will recognize this kanji as the first character of the ateji 寿司 sushi sushi.
[vi] As 1000 armed statues just float down rivers and get caught in fishermen’s nets all the time.
[vii] By now you should all know what shukuba were, but feel free to check my articles on Nihonbashi, Itabashi, and Shinjuku for a quick refresher.
[viii] Goten is often translated as “palace,” but in this case, I think “lodging” is better. Basically, when the shōgun and his entourage rested here, this is where they stayed the night – it wasn’t like a second home or anything. And as making a pilgrimage to the shrines at Nikkō was a spiritual perfunctory task and the procession was a purely martial affair, this sort of goten would have befitted a shōgun but was probably quite spartan.
[ix] I go into detail about the meaning of 御成 o-nari “the presence of the shōgun” in my article on Yūshōin, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ietsugu.
[x] 江戸っ子Edo-kko child of Edo is what you call a 3rd generation Tōkyōite. The stereotype is a plain speaking local of the shitamachi area. This stereotype has more to do with the post-Tokugawa merchant middle class class than it does with Edo’s samurai past.

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