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Posts Tagged ‘shibuya’

What does Udagawacho mean?

In Japanese History on February 15, 2020 at 11:37 pm

(Uda River Town)

center street

Good luck getting a photo like this lololol

.Since we’re heading back to 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku Shibuya Ward for the first time since 2013, I’d like to begin this this article by quoting a poem by the late, great 鈴木度助兵衛 Suzuki Dosukebe[i]:

Oh, Shibuya! Thy crazy intersection is overrun by tourists
Taking the same goddamn video everyone else taketh.
Thy streets, once home to
gyaru[ii] and AV scouts,
Now littered with rats and cockroaches,
Descended from the rats and cockroaches of yore
Beckon all to Udagawa-chō.

Chances are, even if you’ve only been to Shibuya once in your life, this is probably the part of town you came to. As soon as you walk out of the overcrowded and annoying ハチ公出口 Hachikō Deguchi Hachikō Exit, you enter 宇田川町 Udagawachō Udagawachō. Since the 1970’s, the neighborhood has become increasingly commercial, made up mostly of shops, restaurants, clubs, and businesses. In fact, the largest landholders in the area are 渋谷区役所 Shibuya Kuyakusho Shibuya Ward Office, 西武百貨店 Seibu Hyakkuten Seibu Department Store, パルコ PARCO Parco Department Store, LINE CUBE SHIBUYA (a concert venue), and 渋谷区立神南小学校 Shibuya Kuritsu Jinnan Shōgakkō Jinnan Elementary School. It’s also home to the infamous 渋谷スクランブル Shibuya Sukuranburu Shibuya Crossing (“Shibuya Scramble”), often touted as the busiest intersection in the world[iii]. If you’ve ever walked out of the Hachikō Exit and crossed that insanity, chances are you also walked down 渋谷センター街 Shibuya Sentā Gai Shibuya Center Street[iv]. If you’re a fan of the movie Lost in Translation, the karaoke scene was shot at the Udagawachō branch of カラオケ館 Karaoke-kan[v], a nationwide karaoke chain.


While most of Udagawachō is commercial these days and the place is literally teeming with people on every street and in every alley, as of 2017, there were actually only 530 households registered within this postal address, making it home to some 769 residents and an unknown number of pets. Estimates of the number of cockroaches, rats, and super-lethal death-crows are unconfirmed as of the publication of this article[vi].

Anyhoo, if you’ve ever been to Shibuya, you know it’s a shitshow – super-crowded with shoppers and, more recently, completely overrun by tourists. The area is so annoying that Tōkyōites refer to the residents of Shibuya as 渋豚 Shibuta “astringent pigs.”[vii]

Further Reading:


shibuya is trash

Yay! Udagawachō!!!

Let’s Look at the Kanji


This character means “eaves,” but was commonly used as ateji[viii] and is the origin of the hiragana /u/ and the katakana /u/ which represent the same sound.

,da; den

rice paddy

, –gawa; sen


chō; machi


So, at first glance, it looks like this means “town that sits along the Uda River” and I’ll be honest with you: in my personal opinion, this is a case of what you see is what you get. I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor. However, the story can be made more complicated and I’d like to drag you down the rabbit hole with me, so roll up your sleeves and let’s dive into it!


Ota Dokan, one of the builders of Edo Castle

A Tale of Two Families (but probably just one…)

Records from the 1400’s, late Muromachi Period, state that two clans called Udagawa or Utagawa[ix] controlled coastal areas from 品川 Shinagawa Shinagawa to 葛西 Kasai Kasai. The sources aren’t clear, but both families are said to have been illegitimate offshoots of the 佐々木氏 Sasaki-shi Sasaki clan (and possibly the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan)[x]. These clans were sent to develop the areas surrounding a minor seaside hamlet called 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo village by the warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan Ōta Dōkan on behalf of the Uesugi clan[xi]. As time went on, branches of the Udagawa clan spread this peculiar family name throughout what is present day 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. In fact, this name is mostly found in Tōkyō, with more than 7000 people registered as Udagawas[xii]. Some family members have even settled in present-day Shibuya. We’ll talk more about this hypothetical Shibuya Udagawa clan later.

日本橋 nihonbashi

Utagawa Hiroshige capturing a snapshot of life in Edo. This is in Nihonbashi, though. Nowhere near Shibuya.

A Connection to Art that You Never Saw Coming!

Interestingly, the main branch settled in Shinagawa and gave their name to an area that used to be called 芝宇田川町 Shiba Udagawa-chō Udagawa Town, Shiba[xiii]. In the 1700’s, a certain artist named 但馬屋庄次郎 Tajimaya Shōjirō who lived in that coastal village borrowed the name of the town and started calling himself 歌川豊春 Utagawa Toyoharu, literally “poetic river abundant spring.”[xiv] If that spelling looks familiar, it’s because Toyoharu was the ukiyo-e master who established 歌川派 Utagawa-ha the Utagawa school of art[xv]. If the name still doesn’t ring a bell, maybe 歌川豊広 Utagawa Hiroshige, the most famous master of this style[xvi], will. If there’s anything we know for certain about this whole narrative, it is that the Utagawa School definitely takes its name from the coastal Udagawa-chō/Utagawa-chō village. The Shibuya connection is still a mystery.

Further Reading:

1930 dogenzaka

Love Hotel Lane. Dōgenzaka in the post-war era.

But Alas, I Digress[xvii]

The story goes that this part of Shibuya used to be called 宇陀野 Udano the Uda Fields. This combination of kanji is most likely ateji and so the true origin of the place name is probably lost to time. However, if this river existed and flowed through the area, it would logically be named 宇陀川 Udagawa the Uda River. The kanji 陀 ta/-da is fairly obscure in Japanese, usually only showing up in Buddhist loanwords from Chinese, so it was eventually changed to 田 ta/-da. However, the first clan using the name, was definitely in present-day Shinagawa and not Shibuya.

As is often the case in Japanese history, clans usually took family names from their holdings. Due to high infant mortality rates, the 公家 kuge imperial court families in Kyōto tried to have as many sons as possible in order to pass on their lands, titles, and names to their first-born son. But what happened when you more than one son survived? The best solution was to send them out into the boonies to collect taxes and keep the peasants in check. These sons would establish new branch families and take the name of their fief as a family name. If there was another Uda River in Shinagawa, that would make sense. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

As for the hypothetical Shibuya Udagawa clan, we might have an example of the opposite thing happening. In this case, it’s possible that the area’s name derives from the clan. You see, by the same process of spinning off extra sons, the Sasaki clan that I mentioned earlier were descendants of the imperial family. The full name of the clan is 宇田源氏佐々木氏 Uda Genji Sasaki-shi the Uda Minamoto Sasaki clan.

OK, I know this is complicated, but bear with me. 宇多天皇 Uda Tennō, Uda the 59th emperor[xviii], established the Minamoto clan (also called Genji). This Minamoto clan spun off the Sasaki clan, which in turn, spun off the Udagawa clan. By this story, they included the name of Emperor Uda to remind people they had imperial blood in their veins – after all, they were two clans (Minamoto and Sasaki) and more than 400 years removed from their godly ancestor[xix]. If this were the case, the clan may have received their name (or petitioned for it) at the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto and then were sent east to Edo in order to fortify the coast and used their spiffy new name to look super-cool to all the stinky, dirt-crusted peasants and fishermen living in the area.

If we want to assume the family brought their name from the west to the east, there is another theory. This one claims that the family name derives from 大和国宇陀郡 Yamato no Kuni Uda-gun Uda District, Yamato Province in present day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture. Nara is very near Kyōto and this doesn’t seem any more unreasonable than the last origin story I told you. In short, the result would be the same as above: an elite family is sent eastward and the local people adopt their new lords’ name because it’s prestigious. Suddenly, you’re not just a bunch of filthy, dirt-grubbing, fish-mongering peasants. No, you’re peasants whose masters are a clan of a clan of clan from way out west with a tiny drop of imperial blood running through their veins.

Further Reading:


Yeah, I know… I think so too.

What Really Happened?

The source of the clan name, while not completely understood, at least has some reasonable origin stories. However, we know that an Uda River existed in Shibuya. By the Edo Period, this appellation referred to a very specific tributary of 渋谷川 Shibuyagawa the Shibuya River[xx]. This waterway existed right up until modern times and was ultimately covered up during the build up to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics. Like many rivers in Tōkyō, the Uda River is now a sewer. If we apply Occam’s Razor, this is really best etymology we can come to. In my opinion – as I stated earlier – the name literally just means “the town on the Uda River” and no more. The connection to the Udagawa clan in Shinagawa is a mere coincidence at best. I think this theory is tidy and logical.

Despite all the muck I’ve dragged you through, dear reader lolololololol


Clan Name and Place Name Confusion

The annoying this about this particular place name is as annoying as Shibuya itself. Sources constantly try to make a connection between the Udagawa clan and Udagawachō to such an extent that I couldn’t find anything that tried to disentangle the two. This could very well just be a case of folk etmology, but if someone put a gun to my head forced me to reconcile these stories, I think I could present something that sounds plausible given what we know (just so I wouldn’t get shot in the head).[xxi]

I suspect that in the Muromachi Period, a branch of the Sasaki clan was granted the name Udagawa/Utagawa in Kyōto for either reason stated above[xxii]. They were granted a large coastal fief and acted as governors of that territory on behalf of the Uesugi clan, much as Ōta Dōkan also was. Their name came to be attached to their lands, so that’s how the name transferred. As new cadet branches spun off, one family settled in present-day Shibuya[xxiii] and the name stuck, as it carried some imperial prestige. The fact that there is a river in Shibuya probably didn’t hurt. It would have reinforced this name. And the rest, as they say, is history.”[xxiv]

I haven’t heard a trigger go “click” yet, so I think we’re good.



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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)


[i] His name ド助兵衛 is code for ドスケベ do-sukebe “total pervert.” And yes, this is completely made up, stupid.
[ii] Please tell me you remember what ギャル gyaru were. If not, GTFO lol
[iii] I dunno. I’ve seen some crazy intersections in Ho Chi Minh City… just crowded with scooters instead of people, but whatever…
[iv] The nuance is like Main Street, but uses a word for “town,” “block,” or “neighborhood.”
[v] The room used in the film is actually commemorated with a plaque and can be booked in advance by phone. But warning, it uses the Joy Sound system, which is lame AF.
[vi] To put this into perspective, 西新宿 Nishi-Shinjuku, the area west of Shinjuku Station, is home to just as many businesses (probably more) but also houses 15,700 domiciles with roughly 22,600 residents. This gives it a balance that Udagawachō lacks. It’s basically a town devoured by consumerist culture and tourist culture. In short, there’s no community. It’s a neighborhood drunk on “meh.”
[vii] I totally just made that up.
[viii] We’ve talked about 当て字 ateji many times at JapanThis!. It’s when kanji are used for their phonetic values, rather than ideographic meanings. In the far countryside, like Edo before the 1600’s, many place names used ateji because the meaning of the name had been lost or it was just easier for semi-literate people to understand.
[ix] Both pronunciations are valid and families used them in addition to spelling variations to distinguish their unique family lines. For example, 宇田川 and 宇多川.
[x] That means, somebody been makin’ babies out of wedlock and shit. Awwwwww yeah.
[xi] Both the Ōta and Uesugi were based in Kamakura at that time, but they wanted to relocate to Edo. It seems the Udagawa clans were the vanguard of their development strategy.
[xii] The name is not restricted to Tōkyō, though. There are about 19,200 Utagawas throughout all of Japan. Also this spelling only takes into account 宇田川 Udagawa and not its more distinguished alternate spelling 宇多川 Udagawa/Utagawa.
[xiii] This area is near present day 新橋 Shinbashi Shinbashi, although their castle (fortified residence) was in 北品川 Kita-Shinagawa North Shinagawa, I would assume somewhere on the 高輪台 Takanawa-dai Takanawa Plateau.
[xiv] 歌 uta can mean song or poem.
[xv] When we use “school” in this sense, think of it as a style passed down from master to apprentice, not like some dude is taking finger painting classes on the weekends or like a modern fine arts university.
[xvi] Arguably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, ukiyo-e artists of all time.
[xvii] Who? Me? lol
[xviii] Emperor Uda ruled from 887 to 888. A short reign to be sure, but he lived from 867 to 931.
[xix] Godly in the sense that the imperial family claims descent from the sun goddess, 天照 Amaterasu, and the other court families likewise claim heavenly descent from other gods.
[xx] Some people believe the name is a coincidence of history. One theory about the origin of the place name Shibuya says it is a reference to a dried up, rust-colored riverbed, but I think that theory is a bit of a stretch.
[xxi] Not a fan of getting shot in the head. Jussayin’.
[xxii] Perhaps they initially lived in Nara…
[xxiii] The area was pretty much the boonies until the 1920’s, so obviously records would be spotty at best.
[xxiv] Again, I’m not convinced that the Shinagawa Udagawa clan and Udagawachō in Shibuya are related. I’m also not convinced there couldn’t be any overlap. There just isn’t enough information to make a strong argument either way other than Occam’s Razor.

What does Hachikō mean?

In Japanese History on May 10, 2017 at 5:54 am

Hachikō (Lord 8, but more at “oh look at you, you widdle cutie wootie eight, you’re a good boy, aren’t you, yes you are, you’re a good boy”)


First Time in Tōkyō?

You’re probably gonna go to Shibuya to see the famous intersection in front of the Hachikō Exit and you’ll probably take a picture – or try to – with the statue of the legendary dog for whom the exit is named. This is arguably the most famous meet up spot in Japan, and has a truly enduring image in Japanese pop culture. It comes up in TV and movies, and you’ll find casual references in books, news, and everyone’s travel photos.

Because there’s a lot of grammatic and semantic side notes, as always, I encourage you to check out all the footnote links to get the whole picture. You can easily jump to a footnote and back to the article, so… yeah.


Let’s Look at the Kanji


Actually, these aren’t kanji, they’re katakana. But they are a reference to 八 hachi, which means “the number eight.”

This kanji usually means public, but in medieval times was used for government officials.

So Who the Hell was Hachikō?

Today, he’s usually referred to as 忠犬ハチ公 Chūken Hachikō the Loyal Dog, and in Japan he’s the archetypal embodiment of canine loyalty. This famous dog has been depicted in three movies, three TV shows, two anime, and his actual voice is recorded on a children’s record released in 1934. However, his actual name wasn’t Hachikō, it was just Hachi. And if we’re going to be all technical, it should be written as Hachi-kō not Hachikō, because the -kō is a suffix. But more about that later.

ueno hidesaburo.jpg

Professor Ueno Hidesaburō wearing a cunty outfit.

Hachi was born in 秋田県 Akita-ken Akita Prefecture[i] on November 11th, 1923[ii]. He’s presumed to have been the eighth puppy to pop out of the proverbial oven in the litter[iii], and by early 1924 was sold to a man named 上野英三郎 Ueno Hidesaburō for 30 yen[iv]. Hidesaburō was a professor of Tōkyō Imperial University and the two lived at his home in former 東京市豊多摩郡渋谷 Tōkyō-shi Toyotama-gun Shibuya Machi Shibuya Town, Toyotama District, Tōkyō City[v]. Hachi was the professor’s 3rd dog and it’s said that one of the older dogs was particularly interested in helping nurture the young pup[vi]. Hachi, who quickly bonded with Hidesaburō, took a particular liking to his home’s 玄関 genkan entrance. Every morning when the professor walked from his home to 渋谷駅 Shibuya Eki Shibuya Station, he would follow the whole way to see him off. Then, he would wait patiently for Hidesaburō to come back from work at night and loyally escort him back to their home. Hachi and the professor enjoyed this daily routine, and the locals – knowing that he wasn’t a stray or abandoned dog[vii] – got used to seeing him at the station entrance every day, waiting for his master. What can I say? People love dogs.


A Year of Bonding with Man’s Best Friend

Hachi escorted Hidesaburō to and from the station every day, and spent his afternoons playing with the locals in front of the station. Shop owners would feed the dog scraps until the professor returned to take his beloved puppy home. After a year of this daily routine, something happened on May 21, 1925. After a faculty meeting at Tōkyō Imperial University, Ueno Hidesaburō suddenly suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, collapsed, and died. He was only 53. Poor Hachi, who couldn’t have known what happened, waited patiently for his master.

According to legend, Hachi didn’t eat for about three days in anticipation of his owner’s return. They also say that all three of Hidesaburō’s dogs waited together at Shibuya Station[viii] on the night of his wake. Hachi passed into the possession of a few different households, but eventually found himself back in Shibuya with a family who let him come and go as he pleased. Naturally, he gravitated towards the station where there were people who knew him and loved him since he was a puppy. By 1927, he was a permanent fixture and when outsiders asked, “who is this cute dog?” the locals told them “this dog came here every day to see his master off to work and waited all day for his return.” Soon the story became “he’s still waiting for his master to come home.”

loyal hachiko.JPG

That’s the Legend, Here’s the Truth

That’s the story everyone knows today. The thing is, it’s only the Shibuya locals who knew about him. Sure, the shop owners saw him coming and going, but Hachi doesn’t appear in the historical record until a 1932 newspaper article introduced the so-called “loyal dog” to the whole country. The article waxed poetic about the dog’s loyalty – and in Imperial Japan, loyalty stories were hot. However, the article was written by the president of the 日本犬保存会 Nihonken Honzonkai Association for the Preservation of Japanese Dogs[ix] to bring attention to Hachi’s plight.


btw, don’t even get me started on this photo…


Though he was cared for by his last master, 小林菊三郎 Kobayashi Kikusaburō, to whose home he returned every night, it seems Hachi was less of a loyal dog waiting for Hidesaburō and more of a freeloading Party Dog™. The article said that kids had been teasing the dog in front of the station since Hidesaburō’s days, and many of the locals regarded him as an annoying, filthy stray who begged for food. The truth is, while maybe some Shibuya residents liked him, many did not. However, the article argued for compassion. After all, Hachi was a 日本犬 Nihonken native Japanese breed and he was “loyal” – great talking points that worked well in the increasingly militaristic atmosphere of 1930’s Imperial Japan.

This article actually locked down Hachi’s place in history and in our hearts. Sure, he may have been a filthy beggar dog running rampant the streets – friend to some, hated by others – but he metamorphosed into a symbol of canine loyalty and a source of cultural identity to Shibuya, a semi-rural area that was emerging into a distinct neighborhood at that time. In April 1934, a bronze statue of Hachi was placed in front of the station’s main entrance[x]. Hachi himself attended the unveiling ceremony to much fanfare. His popularity skyrocketed, but what happened next gave Hachi his place in history.

funeral 2

He Died

Hachi died in Shibuya on March 8, 1935. The やまと新聞 Yamato Shinbun Yamato Newspaper ran a national article about the dog, his loyalty, and included a touching photo of Hidesaburō’s wife and a handful of station attendants holding a funeral for Hachi. People donated about 25 funerary wreaths and 200 flower arrangements. Another 180 letters and telegrams also came in. It was a major event for the station and for the neighborhood. Hachi was then enshrined – and finally reunited with – his master at Hidesaburō’s grave in 青山霊園 Aoyama Reien Aoyama Cemetery. There’s just a small stone pole commemorating Hachi, but make no mistake about it: nobody visits Hidesaburō. Hachi is Top Dog at this graveyard[xi].

Additionally, Hidesaburō’s former employer, Tōkyō Imperial University, took it upon themselves to run an autopsy and taxidermically preserve Hachi, so you can actually go see him – yes, the real him – at the 国立科学博物館 Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsu-kan National Museum of Nature & Science in Ueno Park. The cause of death was determined to be a combination of cancer and heartworms. Poor doggy…


Here you can see the suffix -kō attached to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s name

So, What’s Up with That Suffix?

Yeah, so I promised to explain the whole ~公 -kō part of ハチ公 Hachi-kō and get into why that -kō is a suffix and not actually part of the dog’s name. In order to describe this, let’s talk about levels of formality or register in the Japanese Language.

First year Japanese students generally learn about the concepts of 内 uchi inside group and 外 soto outside group. Your friends, family, and social peers are your inside group. Unknown people, elders, and social superiors are your outside group[xii]. Complicating this in-group/out-group dynamic are several levels of formality. Without making this a grammar lesson, I’m just gonna give you the TLDR version[xiii].

nelson muntz ha ha

BTW, I lied. The TLDR Version isn’t Short

In Modern Japanese, when addressing customers or a head of state, you use honorific language because these people most definitely are in your out-group and using casual language presumes a closeness that could be very off putting to many people[xiv]. Using presumptuous, casual words and phrases in inappropriate situations can be taken as “talking down” to someone[xv]. Take for example, the word お前 o-mae you. This is one of the most basic words for “you” and is often used by males who are extremely close and among siblings. In this case, the meaning is equal, friendly, honest. A father or teacher might address children with o-mae. In this case, the junior-superior relationship is implied. Guys traditionally referred to their girlfriends or wives as o-mae. In this case, affection is implied, as well as a masculine-feminine power dynamic[xvi]. Pets are often addressed with o-mae because they clearly fall in the junior status, but they’re also part of the in-group, so this is an example of both meanings. However, if you just refer to a random person on the street as o-mae, you may find yourself in a street fight.

In addition, when addressing and referring to people, the Japanese attach honorific suffixes to names. In a formal situation, you might address or refer to your customer as 渡辺様 Watanabe-sama Mr. or Mrs. Watanabe. If you have a good relationship with a Mr./Mrs. Watanabe who isn’t in the room, you’d probably use 渡辺さん Watanabe-san, which is essentially the default way to refer to a person. Let’s say this person’s name is 渡辺彩姫 Watanabe Saiki and she’s younger than you or just a close friend. You could address her as 彩姫 Saiki-chan or さいちゃん Sai-chan which is cute. With pets, you wouldn’t use -sama or -san except as a joke. Because it’s a pet and clearly the junior in the relationship, a non-Japanese speaker at that, you don’t need to attach any honorific suffix to its name. But many people will attach -chan specifically because it’s just cute to refer to your pet like it’s a person or a member of the family.

inu kubō.jpg

The kanji for kō was used in Pre-Modern Japan when referring to members of the samurai ruling class. You can find it in such terms as 公方 kubō, a term that changed a little over time, but by the Edo Period was synonymous with shōgun. The most famous kubō is probably the fifth shōgun 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi who is referred to as the 犬公方 Inu Kubō Dog Shōgun because of his edict protecting dogs. When addressing the shōgun directly, you wouldn’t use any words for “you” as that would be too direct and a massive breach of protocol[xvii]. You would refer to him as 上様 ue-sama your highness. You would use this term when talking about him with others, never using his name (ie; the third person). But when talking about past shōguns, you could use names. In fact, it would be really difficult to talk about history in general if you didn’t use a name, right?

But given all the apprehension hard wired into the Japanese language regarding names, in-groups and out-groups, and taboos about saying “you” or directly addressing people, a simple fix evolved over the years. That was -kō. If you visit a temple or shrine dedicated to any of the shōguns, as well as the daimyō, you’ll find their names written in the Edo Period convention using -kō. For example, 徳川家康公 Tokugawa Ieyasu-kō. When translating this title, you have two choices. One, just ignore it because there’s no equivalent in English and we wouldn’t say “Mr. Tokugawa Ieyasu” about an historical personage. Two, translate it as “Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu” which is my preferred modus operandi. In fact, if you look back at my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, you’ll see that’s exactly what I did.


Shiba Tōshō-gū

So, in short, -kō was a suffix that showed deep affection or respect for elite members of the samurai ruling class, in particular, the shōguns and the daimyō. After the collapse of the Tokugawa Shōgunate in 1868 and the subsequent abolishment of the samurai, life in Imperial Japan underwent fantastic and far reaching changes. The switch from a highly stratified “feudal” society to a superficial western-style liberal democracy sent shockwaves through the Japanese language. There were paradigm shifts across the board, but most notably in the concepts of junior-senior relationships. The term o-mae, which I mentioned earlier, was once an honorific term[xviii]. Two other honorific terms for “you,” 手前 temae[xix] and 貴様 kisama[xx] also found themselves displaced over the years. In fact, if used inappropriately, these formerly polite words came to be deeply offensive and aggressive. The suffix -kō soon found itself falling by the wayside since you could say anything you wanted about the shōguns – they were gone and there was no fear of repercussion if your etiquette game was weak.


So How Does Hachi Become Hachi-kō?

Well, since I’ve already given you all the puzzle pieces, hopefully you’re starting to sort this out in your head. For people with a decent understanding of Japanese it should already be obvious, but I have a lot of readers who don’t read/speak Japanese so, let’s wrap this all up now, shall we?

We’ve seen that there are levels of familiarity and politeness in Japanese. We’ve also seen that there is some flexibility to change nuance using these registers in different contexts. Today, a dog named Hachi would probably just be called ハチ Hachi or ハチちゃん Hachi-chan[xxi]. In a ridiculous situation, you might call him 八様 Hachi-sama Honorable Hachi. However, in his own day the suffix -kō could be used in the same way as -sama. ハチ公 Hachi-kō Lord Hachi sounds funny and cute because clearly the dog wasn’t a daimyō or shōgun. On top of that, as I mentioned before, some old Edo Period honorific usage that was unnecessary in post-Tokugawa Japan shifted into completely opposite meanings. -Kō also became a suffix that, when used incorrectly, could be deeply offensive. In contrast to the original use as a term of deep reverence or affection, new words began to appear in Japanese like 先公 senkō shitty sensei (teacher), ポリ公 porikō fucking pig[xxii], and even racial slurs like アメ公 amekō fucking American.


Hachi and Hidesaburō really existed. Their story became a legend in the Shibuya Station area. And, despite the legend, it seems that Hachi wasn’t liked by all at first, so, sure… maybe some people called him Hachi-kō as an insult, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s good to know all the nuance and the fluidity and flexibility of language that Japanese speakers are mindful of – particularly in Hachi’s time[xxiii]. That said, I like to think the suffix was given because, one, he was a dog (junior-superior relationship); two, he was part of the in-group of those who looked after him at the station; three, it’s just cute to refer to a dog as a feudal lord or a duke[xxiv].

stuffed hachiko.jpg

Hachi, stuffed and on display in Ueno.

Lastly, there is one more layer to this wildly nuanced story. Stray dogs and cats are generally referred to as 野良公 nora-kō lords of the fields/rice paddies. This kō includes every nuance included above. It’s derived from the fact that Japanese people traditionally didn’t let pets into the house[xxv] until quite recently. By modern standards, Hachi was someone’s pet, but he was also kinda left to his own devices – as any dog or cat left outside in his time would have been. This explains why Hidesaburō would have seen taking Hachi home or leaving him at Shibuya Station as totally normal. The dog could have fun with locals, but could also run around the river area and the agricultural fields in the area. When the dog came home, he wasn’t chilling out on the tatami floor doing tea ceremony with humans. He was sleeping at the entrance to the house… outside.


Grave of Hidesaburō and Hachi in Aoyama Cemetery

And again, this -kō runs the gamut of nuance. It also puts Hachi’s life and the life of many pets in Pre-War Japan in a new light. The whole story is a great illustration of cultural and linguistic change over time. Next time you’re in Shibuya, take a minute to look at the statue of the loyal dog and realize how… well, realize anything you want to. I just live for how all this stuff comes together, and how messy and complicated it is. Trying to wrap your head around something as simple as a dog’s name can be so difficult, yet exploring it can be an edifying roller coaster ride.

I hope y’all had as much fun as I did with this one.

Love ya, mean it!


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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Do You Even History Geek, Bro?

[i] He was actually a local breed called an 秋田犬 Akita Inu Akita Dog.
[ii] The records are good. We even know the name of his father and mother – 大子内 Ōshinai and 胡麻 Goma, respectively.
[iii] This is not at all unusual – even in the traditional naming of humans. Boys were often given names like 一郎 Ichirō first born son, 一 Hajime first; 二郎 Jirō or 次郎 Jirō second son and next son, respectively; 三郎 Saburō third born son, etc.
[iv] Which, if my math isn’t correct – which it could be – would be about 10,000 yen today ($100).
[v] Shibuya was pretty undeveloped at this time, except for the station area.
[vi] The other two dogs were ジョン Jon and エス S. Jon, a pointer, was the one who helped raise Hachi.
[vii] More about this later…
[viii] I’d like to point out, this story seems bullshit AF. There’s no account of Jon and S ever accompanying the professor to Shibuya Station, so it would be weird that they would go during a wake. Oh, and by the way, at a traditional Japanese wake of this time, Hidesaburō’s body would have lain in state at his home. If the dogs, or Hachi in particular, were so loyal, they’d probably recognize the corpse of their master.
[ix] This organization still exists today.
[x] During WWII, the original statue was melted down for the war effort. The current statue was erected in 1948 and was created by the son of the original sculptor.
[xi] Sorry, I’m groaning too. That was so bad. Sorry.
[xii] Interestingly, some women, particularly 30 and over, may often use polite Japanese with their husbands or when flirting because it’s seen as more feminine, playing up the traditional view of men and women occupying superior and junior positions in society.
[xiii] If you want to read about Japanese Grammar, here’s a link.
[xiv] This is called 馴れ馴れしい narenareshii which means “too close” and carries the nuance of “presumptuous.”
[xv] Interestingly, when people are in the same inside group or in a junior-senior relationship, often the angry party will revert to polite language – usually not too honorific, but just basic polite forms – when “dressing down” the offending party. A boss in a traditional Japanese company isn’t expected to use polite language to his subordinates. However, when he is angry at his workers, the boss or CEO may chew out an employee in polite language – a very scary situation because of the shocking role reversal. Furthermore, angry wives often chastise their husbands in polite language – another terrifying situation.
[xvi] Recently, this has changed and a lot of girls from thirty and below, use o-mae with their close friends, boyfriends, or husbands. This seems to be a byproduct of a flattening of Japanese society, particularly in regard to gender equality. It’s also fed by otaku culture which has led to many women taking on traditionally male vocabulary these days.
[xvii] Using names is still often preferable to directly referring to a person as “you.” An example: 昨日クラブに行ったよ。Kinō kurabu ni itta yo. Last night I went clubbing. え?さいちゃんが? E? Sai-chan ga? Wow, Sai-chan went? Sai-chan being a girl’s nickname, the sentence is weird in English and would be better translated as “Wow, you did?”
[xviii] It literally means “the honorable (person) in front (of me)” and was a way to avoid directly addressing a person.
[xix] Also, a way to avoid a person, it just means “(the person) right in front of me” and is now only used in fights.
[xx] The word literally means “your noble highness” and was a way to address a daimyō or high ranking aristocrat, but today is word used in manga and anime for fights. In modern usage, I don’t think people use this word in conversation. It’s just for otaku media.
[xxi] More likely はっちゃん Hacchan because it’s less wieldy, less formal, and just sounds cuter.
[xxii] In the meaning of police officer, the term is literally “poli(ce)” + “kō.” But just for your information, these terms are rarely used today. Old timers who remember WWII or the pre-Bubble Era will recognize the American slur, but most people under 30 probably wouldn’t recognize it. The word has vanished. The police slur is only known from ooooold yakuza movies and isn’t used anymore. The “bad teacher” term is well understood, but it has also died out. I most -kō words have all become 死語 shigo obsolete terms.
[xxiii] A fluidity and flexibility still present in modern usage.
[xxiv] And keep in mind, this was before WWII. The former court families from Kyōto and the former daimyō families were all given western style ranks under the peerage system, ie; they had barons, counts, and all kind of stupid aristocratic ranks. The title 公爵 kōshaku duke (yes, same kō) was a term you’d encounter frequently.
[xxv] This is a subject for another time, but fascinating.

Yamanote Line: Shibuya

In Japanese History on May 9, 2016 at 5:56 am


shibuya river

The Shibuya River. It smells as good as it looks.

I don’t really have a lot to say about Shibuya because… you should just experience Shibuya on your own terms if you’re interested in it[i]. But if you ask a native New Yorker what they think of Times Square, you’ll probably get a similar response from a native Tōkyōite about Shibuya. Not exactly the same, but close in many ways.

shibuya crossing

Just by coincidence, between today’s article and my last article about exploring Tōkyō via the Yamanote Line, a discussion was raised on the Twitter account @BeingTokyo[ii] about the most overrated and underrated places in Tōkyō. Shibuya seemed to come up as the most overrated.

And while now I kind of agree with that as an 11 year resident of the greatest city in the world, I’m not ready to flush the area down the toilet and be done with it.

However, before we get into my opinions about Shibuya, I just have to say that when I first visited Tōkyō, Shibuya was one of my favorite 3 places here[iii]. But as the foundation of JapanThis! is built on history and linguistics, if that’s your thing, dear reader, there’s not much tangible history going on in the area. Shibuya’s charms and whatever the opposite of “charms” is lie in other areas – which we will explore as we get off the Yamanote Line at Shibuya Station and prepare to take a look at this infamous neighborhood.

Oh, and before we get too deep, I’d like say that Shibuya has the same problem Meguro had in the previous article. That is, there’s a 渋谷駅 Shibuya Eki Shibuya Station (our topic today) and a much larger 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku Shibuya Ward. I’m gonna try to confine most of this article to the Shibuya Station area.

Aaaaand… Cuz We’ve Been There and Done That:

shibuya night


Yes, the first time you experience the 渋谷交差点 Shibuya Kōsaten Shibuya Crossing[iv] will be intense. It’s probably the busiest intersection in the world! Shibuya Station is certainly up there as one of the busiest train stations in the world, so this is to be expected.

A walk across the street from the ハチ公出口 Hachikō Deguchi Hachikō Exit to センター街 Sentā-gai Center Street is par for the course the first time you visit Japan. Everyone does it and you should too. Go ahead, take pictures and videos to blow your friends’ minds (but keep in mind, Tōkyōites and longtime expats will look at you like you’re an FOB newbie buffoon, but it’s OK, you definitely will impress your friends and family). Knock yourself out. Just try not to get in the way of the other people getting in your way.

Oh yeah, and the mall called Shibuya 109? It’s pretty iconic.  When Shibuya was ruled by ギャル gyaru gals[v], this place was the epicenter of a kind of subculture generally described by Japanese girls as めっちゃやばい meccha yabai totally off the hook.

Today, it could be argued that Shibuya has lost some of its fashion mojo. As the once outlandish style of the gyaru has slowly seeped into the mainstream in diluted form over the years, the area is different. Extreme gyaru have come to be seen as ヤンキー yankī rebellious country girls who were late getting onboard – the Japanese equivalent of having a mullet after 1986 or so. It should be noted that gyaru style is still a very popular image in Japanese porn and the Japanese sex industry. I don’t know if this is nationwide or just a Tōkyō thing. It could just be a Kabukichō esthetic that refuses to die. Sorry, I try to keep up with these things, but as a married dude I just don’t know.


Blade Runner

Now, don’t get me wrong. Shibuya hasn’t become obscure or anything and maybe I’ve just gotten old and outgrown the area, but I used to love it!

I remember the first time I exited Shibuya Station. It was night and Shibuya Crossing was a complete and total sensory overload. I felt like I’d stepped into Blade Runner or something. Not only were the big screens and sounds intense, the sheer crowdedness and raw energy of the area was exciting beyond belief. Thinking I was the only person to ever have the idea, I took pictures of the crowds crossing the intersection and emailed them back to my family in the States. This was 2003 or something – before smartphones, but Japanese flip phones were still years ahead of the average phone and… dammit, I was visiting the future!


Not only Blade Runner, but the shitty Star Wars prequels also borrowed from Shibuya’s iconic look.

Since I’d come to Japan to perform[vi], I met the promoters and organizers who brought me over and they were all so cool and friendly and I loved the clubs and record stores they took me to. Oh, and the fashion! At that time there were still コギャル kogyaru and 顔黒ギャル ganguro[vii]. They had dark tans, blonde hair, and the shortest mini-skirts ever. Even the 山姥 yamanba gyaru[viii] ran the gamut from trashy to glam. I was younger and even though I’d seen pictures of these Japanese girls with crazy fashion, everything about Japan was new to me at that time and actually seeing the real deal was intense. So yeah, Shibuya was fucking awesome!


Ganguro kogyaru. Ganguro means “black face” and is a reference to the tan skin. Kogyaru means “high school gyaru.” Gyaru is a Japanization of “gal” (girl).

Today, and again, this could just be me being an old fart, it’s just crowded. The fashion isn’t as bold and crazy as it used to be. There are foreigners all over the place taking the obligatory shots/videos of the Shibuya Crossing area – the same shot I thought I was original about but wasn’t; except now, half of that sea of people are carrying selfie sticks and smartphones. It’s just… crowded. Listen to me… I really am an old fart, aren’t I?

If you’re interested in the dimming vibrancy of Harajuku and Shibuya:

shibuya station hachiko exiy.jpg

Shibuya Station’s Hachikō Exit

What Can You Do in Shibuya Today?

You can change trains.

And after your obligatory first visit, this is by far your best bet. Suffer the shit station that Shibuya Station has become[x] and get on other trains. That’s the best the station is good for. The sad thing is that even as a hub station, Shibuya Station is kinda crap. It’s not as crap as Shinjuku Station, but… yeah… it’s super crowded and super chaotic and has just gotten worse over the years.


Me, playing at Module (another club in Shibuya) years ago. The t-shirt is from a night my friends did at another Shibuya club.


Unless you’re in the fashion industry or the music industry, Shibuya is basically just for shopping, honestly. Shopping and eating. However, there are a few famous clubs there – some are really good and some are really cheesy[xi]. For example, Womb is one of the longest running dance music institutions in Tōkyō. Like any club, you have to check the schedule to see who’s spinning, but its status as a major club in the city intersected with a special time in Tōkyō clubbing history. It’s generally considered part of the Trifecta of Tōkyō that actually played underground music and featured international talent on the regular: Maniac Love, Yellow, and Womb. I’m basically 9 years out of the loop, but back in the day Shibuya was the center of House Music in Japan and Womb is pretty much all that remains of that era without including smaller operations.


Nakata Yasutaka, producer extraordinaire

A Musical Tangent

Shibuya was such an epicenter of music that in the 1990’s and lasting well into the early 2000’s, a very vaguely defined, broad genre[xii] of music called 渋谷系 Shibuya-kei Shibuya Style flourished. It was influenced by… god, I dunno, J-Pop, disco, Chicago House, and lounge music. A certain Pizzicato 5 and Capsule emerged from this scene. Capsule was the personal project of an up and coming producer named 中田ヤスタカ Nakata Yasutaka whose sound became increasingly electronic and techno-influenced. While Capsule is his still his main project in name, he’s most famous for developing such acts as Perfume, Meg, Kyari Pamyu Pamyu, and the melody they play when the shinkansen arrives at 金沢駅 Kanazawa Eki Kanazawa Station, which is his hometown.

Famous Things in Shibuya

shibuya crowded.png

The Crowds

Shibuya Station has about 2.4 million passengers a day, making it one of the busiest stations in the world. Most of my readers live in cities with train service that that never comes close to that. Hell, most of my readers live in cities without train service.


The Dog

The story of ハチ公 Hachikō is pretty well known outside of Japan now. If you want to know the dog’s story, you can read it here. For the etymology/linguistics nerds who read JapanThis!, let me break down his name. The dog, often called 忠犬ハチ公 Chūken Hachikō Loyal Hachikō in Japanese, wasn’t named Hachikō. His name was ハチ Hachi which just means 8 and is presumably a reference to his number in the litter in which he was born. ~ is an obsolete honorific suffix. It’s similar to ~さんsan or ~sama but was reserved for the most elite male members of society. When you visit shrines like 東照宮 Tōshō-gū which is dedicated to the first Edo Shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, you may see his name written as 徳川家康公 Tokugawa Ieyasu-kō which is something like Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu. With the abolition of the samurai cast, certain linguistic trappings of the feudal period disappeared from common parlance. –Ko came to be used in a joking and friendly manner with pets. Just as a good friend who never uses honorifics with you (because you’re close), may jokingly apply –san or –sama to your name, people do this with pets today. I have a friend with a cat named Momiji. She sometimes affectionately refers to Momiji as Momiji-san or Momiji-sama. In this same way, Hachi was affectionately referred to as Hachi-kō. I guess that’s something like Lord Hachi or His Lordship Sir Hachi of the Vale[xiii].

nonbei yokocho


Because Shibuya blew up during the Bubble Economy, it’s basically a shopping and party district. It’s a place to spend money and have a good time. Restaurants, department stores, newly developed malls, and masses of annoying people are par for the course.

However, famous among Tōkyōites, のんべい横丁 Nonbei Yokochō Drunkard Side Street, is one of the few remaining areas in central Tōkyō that preserves the feeling of the Shōwa Period. This atmosphere is a direct descendent of the commoner districts of the Edo Period. This website has some great photos. Most of the shops seat something like 5-10 people max and some have menus you can’t choose from. The best whale bacon I ever had was at a shop I visited here in 2003. Just amazing.You should not miss it.



Technique is one of Tōkyō’s – no, scratch that[xiv] – one of Japan’s greatest record stores. If you love house or techno, this store caters to all your vinyl needs. The selection of vinyl is fastidiously curated and frequented by many of Tōkyō’s most active underground DJ’s. If you buy something there, tell them Marky Star of OMNI A.M. sent you. It might bring a smile to their faces[xv].

shibuya 108

Shibuya 109 is so iconic that it commonly appears in manga and anime. In the opening credits of the 2nd season of 地獄少女 (Jigoku Shōjo – Hell Girl), it appeared under a slightly modified name as 108.

Shibuya 109

Although the big sign says SHIBUYA 109 it’s really just called ichi maru kyū which means 109.

This was ground zero for gyaru culture back in the day. It’s still popular with fashionable high school and university girls. Because the original gyaru were kind of rebels, they were also sexually rebellious.  As such, the Shibuya Crossing used to be (and may still be) a famous spot for ナンパ nanpa hitting on girls. I say “it may still be,” but I think online options have made “street nanpa” a thing of the past. Some people I’ve spoken with have told me that the only girls who get picked up on the street these days are 田舎者 inakamono hicks who moved to Tōkyō.

Is the street in front of Shibuya 109 the best place to find a random hook up? I don’t know. I have no idea. I know it used to have that reputation[xvi], but I think these days, the whole “nanpa” thing has been shifting away from “street nanpa” to “online nanpa.” That said, if you head up 道玄坂 Dōgenzaka Dōgen Hill you’ll come to an area with a thriving sex industry and most notably the collection of love hotels infamously known in English as “Love Hotel Hill.”

fukubukuro trade

During the first sale of the new year, Japanese stores clear out last year’s merchandise in randomized grab bags called 福袋 (fukubukuro – lucky bags). After the fukubukuro event at 109 (akin to a non-violent version of Black Friday), the girls all stand in the street exchanging sizes and colors all morning long.


In the vast ocean of shopping malls that is Tokyo, what’s one more?

Shibuya Hikarie

So, look, I’ve been done with Shibuya for years. I just don’t want to go there. I don’t give a fuck about it because it used to be exciting but now it’s as boring as Ikebukuro, which is a total shithole. But in 2012 a massive retail development was completed called Shibuya Hikarie. Like Shibuya 109, it’s essentially a mall in a somewhat unique shape. I’ve never been there, but the managing company’s website actually uses the word synergy – and they were serious.

Shibuya Hikarie is essentially a mall in denial. It markets itself as some lifestyle changing force in the universe, but it is, in fact a mall, just like any other mall – and probably less unique than Tōkyō’s more expansive retail developments in Roppongi. And they actually used the word “synergy” seriously lol.


Dear whomever created this meme at (ehem), It’s “then” not “than.” English. Do you speak it?

And before everyone craps on me for crapping on Shibuya, I will say that I have had a lot of memorable, life changing experiences in Shibuya. While most of them were during my first visit to Japan which compelled me to move to Tōkyō in the first place, one night in particular comes to mind. The first time I met Mrs. JapanThis face to face was in Shibuya to eat 焼肉 yaki niku. I have tons of other great memories of crazy parties and stories I could never repeat here[xvii] and they all happened in Shibuya. But as you’ve probably noticed, there hasn’t been a lot of history up in this bitch yet.

flatulent historian.jpg

Don’t Worry. Shibuya is not Culturally Vapid

Off the top of my head, there are two cool cultural things you can do in Shibuya.



The building called 文化村 Bunkamura literally means “culture village” and is essentially a museum/arts center.

They put on art shows of varying quality. My image is that it’s focused on the performing arts, but admittedly, I’ve only been once or twice. From time to time they do have decent exhibitions, so check the website first. Also, there was a time when none of this was available in English, but it looks like their website is totally English-friendly now.


Konnō Hachiman Shrine and the Ruins of Shibuya Castle

Don’t get your history nerd hopes up too high. 金王八幡宮 Konnō Hachiman-gū Konnō Hachiman Shrine is really all you can see here. Well, that and the elevation of the terrain.

This shrine once sat on the grounds of 渋谷城 Shibuya-jō Shibuya Castle. Don’t imagine a beautiful white castle like Himeji Castle[xviii]. Imagine a sprawling fort on a plateau protecting the residence of a local strongman. In this case, the warlords in question were the Shibuya clan[xix] who made the hill their home in the Heian Period.

Nothing of the Shibuya “Castle” remains except for this shrine dedicated to 八幡 Hachiman, the Japanese god of war. This god was the 守護神 shūgoshin tutelary kami (tutelary spirit) of the Minamoto clan which rose to power and established the first 幕府 bakufu shōgunate in Kamakura in 1192. The Shibuya supported the Minamoto in their rise to power, so this shrine may be a tip of the hat to their benefactors in Kamakura. The site was destroyed in 1524, but there’s a single stone on the shrine grounds that the priests claim is a remnant of the original fortifications of Shibuya “Castle.” I’m not sure how anyone could prove or disprove this claim, but for what it’s worth, yeah, there’s a rock.

shibuya castle.jpg

Shibuya “Castle” in all its glory. And yes, it may very well be made of mashed potatoes or Play-doh.

Oh, and one piece of trivia for you. Until massive redevelopment in the 50’s, Center Street was a small river called the 宇田川 Udagawa Udagawa River, hence that area is still called 宇田川町 Udagawa-chō Udagawa Town today.

In conclusion, visit Shibuya Crossing. Experience Hachikō Exit once. Walk down Center Street once. Go to Shibuya 109 once. Absorb it. Do it at day time or do it at night time. Then get the fuck out of there.

This is the same advice I’d give you about Roppongi or Shinjuku.

My original article on Shibuya:



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[i] Long time readers know that “I don’t have a lot to say about x” is code for “this is going to be a long article.”
[ii] What is @BeingTokyo? It’s a rocur account on Twitter. What the hell does rocur mean? I had to ask too, so don’t feel bad. RoCur is an abbreviation of “rotating curation” or “rotating curator.” Basically, the account is owned (“curated”) by a rotating (or ever-changing) line up of hosts. In the case of @BeingTokyo, the curators change every week. The account ranges from super-hysterical, to really interesting & insightful, to insipid, to occasionally irritating to the point of wanting to smash your phone. In short, it spans the whole perspective of foreigners and foreign-friendly English-capable Japanese living in Tōkyō.
[iii] First favorites were Uguisudani and Ueno.
[iv] Usually referred to as 渋谷スクランブル Shibuya Sukuranburu Shibuya Scramble.
[v] A fashion movement from the late 80’s to early 2000’s that still exist in the mainstream as standard fashion, but in the sex industry still exists as an イメージ imēji “image fantasy.”
[vi] Longtime readers know what this means. If you just found the blog, the reason for the crazy name Marky Star is because I was a DJ and producer (mostly producer, I’ll be honest) of dance music. Don’t believe me?
[vii] There were many types of gyaru. Here’s a list of types of gyaru.
[viii] “What’s a yamanba gyaru?” you ask… Yes, this was a real thing.
[ix] Most of what she says is true in regards to everyday girls in Tōkyō. However, many people in Tōkyō are from the countryside, especially young people. There is still a large contingent of girls in 歌舞伎町 Kabukichō working in the 水商売 mizu shōbai “entertainment industry” and in 風俗 fūzoku the sex industry who maintain some of these looks. If you move out of Tōkyō to towns with thriving sex industries, for example 横浜 Yokohama, 沼津 Numazu, or 大宮 Ōmiya, you’ll find the classic ヤンキーJK yankī  JK “bad high school girls” are very much still alive and well in real life and in “fantasy image.” To the best of my knowledge, most of these girls are university aged girls (not necessarily students) who roleplay this look to appeal to mid-career salarymen who always had a fantasy of getting with an exotic “bad girl” – something they never had the chance to do while young or couldn’t do outside of the privacy of the sex industry.
[x] There are other shit stations in Tōkyō. I’m looking at you, Shinjuku Station.
[xi] Which is a topic for another time. As a former DJ, I have strong opinions on the matter that probably don’t interest the average reader of JapanThis!.
[xii] And I use the term “genre” very loosely, it was more of a scene than a style.
[xiii] OK, I made up that reference to the Vale. Game of Thrones season 6 just started, so sue me. Interestingly, in Japanese, superiors are not required to use honorifics to their juniors. However, when they get angry, superiors often resort to using honorifics to their subordinates. The psychological effect is that junior is placed in an awkward and humiliating position where their superior implies that some shame has befallen them as a result of the junior’s mistakes. It’s for this same reason that feudal honorific terms like 貴様 kisama your nobleness and お前 o-mae honorable sir (both roundabout ways of saying “you”) have become potentially insulting ways to say “you” in Modern Japanese. O-mae requires a very close relationship, whereas kisama is pretty much a good way to start a fight. In the same way, the suffix – is used in racist epithets. For example, アメ公 ame-kō means “fucking American.” Not that words like this are thrown around much these days, mind you.
[xiv] See what I did there?
[xv] Or they may scratch their heads thinking, “haven’t heard that name in a loooooong time.”
[xvi] And I have heard some stories from my friends and exes lol. Legendary shit.
[xvii] At least not without some serious blowback lol.
[xviii] Himeji Castle and other Japanese castles that you usually think of are products of the final years of the Sengoku Period called the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. This is the transition from a century of civil wars and power grabs by samurai to the 250ish years of peace of the Edo Period. Because of its relative stability, samurai strongmen could build gorgeous defensive structures with solid military functionality and display their power, wealth, and authority. That’s the era when the samurai became a social and political class and were able to (literally) lord their power over all of Japanese society. Learn more about Japanese Eras here.
[xix] Many people attribute the name Shibuya to this clan. I wrote about that in my article about the area in 2013 and asserted that this was the most likely etymology. Since then, I’ve come to have a more nuanced understanding of the history of this place name. My original article does a crappy job of explaining what happened, so I’m planning to revisit the article and give it a makeover sometime this year.

What does Harajuku mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Travel in Japan on April 7, 2016 at 3:01 pm

(first post town, more at “rest spot on the plain”)

harajuku stupid

Let this image sink in for a minute.

I get emails about the blog. Not a shitload, but I get them from time to time. However, it’s rare that I get blindsided by an email.

That said, I love getting blindsided by emails, so let’s check this out.

I recently moved to Japan and I’m living in Yoyogi. I spend a lot of time in Harajuku. Because I’m studying Japanese now I’m interested in the kanji for Shinjuku and Harajuku. You’re article on Shinjuku was amazeballs and it got me thinking. But I can only find information on Yoyogi and Shinjuku. I searched your website and can’t find anything about Harajuku. Do you have a plan to write about Harajuku? Love the blog. Looking forward to your next article!

I was outraged! I must’ve written about Harajuku 100 thousand times at least.

Well, OK, not 100 thousand times, but I know I’ve written about Harajuku at least 100 times. And I set out to prove this reader wrong, goddammit.


But She was 100% Correct

I searched my own site like crazy, convinced that I’d covered the subject before. After all, it’s such a simple one; I knew I had to have written about it! But after a good 15 minutes of scavenging my own work for a single article about Harajuku, I realized that I’ve mentioned Harajuku and the surrounding areas many times, but I’ve actually never written about the etymology of Harajuku itself.

Dear reader, I stand corrected, and this glaring omission is going to be remedied today – right freaking now. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention[i].

As for some related articles, you might want to check later:


Japanese vs English google seach

Your image of Harajuku probably depends on your ethnicity, culture, and language. The image of the left was the first image that came up on a Google image search in Japanese. The image on the right is the first image that came up when I searched in English.


First Let’s Look at the Kanji

hara, gen

origin, source, beginning; field, plain

shuku/juku, yado

inn, post town

At first glance the word 原宿 Harajuku looks like it means “first post town,” but its actual etymology is “post town on the plains.” You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Like many place names in the Kantō area, we don’t get a lot of solid information about this place until the Kamakura Period[ii]. Prior to this period elite culture had flourished in Kyōto and western Japan under the imperial court. Kantō cities like Kamakura or (god forbid) Edo[iii], were nothing before the rise of samurai culture in the East under the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan[iv]. With their rise in the East, came a rise in literacy in the East and much better record keeping.

harajuku station taisho period.jpg

Harajuku Station in the Taishō Period (1920’s), when it was brand spankin’ new.

What Little We Know

It’s said that the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō Kamakura Highway going from 相模国 Sagami no Kuni Sagami Province[v] to 大州 Ōshū (roughly modern 岩手県 Iwate-ken Iwate Prefecture) had a post town in the area. But, if you’ve read my article about Shinjuku, don’t get any big ideas. This “town” wasn’t much more than a scattershot collection of farms just barely subsiding on their (luckily) fertile land. Until quite recently, this was the boondocks.

Specifically, it seems to have been a 宿駅 shukueki relay station[vi] for horses. The Kantō area was famous since time immemorial for horse rearing. The highlands near modern Harajuku seem to have been horse grazing areas in the 11th Century. The area was referred to as a 原 hara field/meadow, so 原宿 Harajuku literally meant “field inn.”

But I want to emphasize that it was basically just a horse relay station. This wasn’t a place to eat, sleep, take a bath, and get your dick wet. For the casual traveler in this area, you were lucky to find a little shelter from the elements and a clean dirt floor to sleep on. There wasn’t even a proper village here for most of its existence.


Minamoto no Yoshiie was held up as the paragon of samurai values by Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the first shōgunate. The family’s reverence of his ideals and beliefs (true or not) came to permeate all of samurai culture. As a result, he’s one of those mysterious people who affected Japanese culture in a way that would have blown his mind if he could rise from the dead and read about himself on the internet today.

I mentioned the rise of the Minamoto clan in the east, and usually we talk about 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo the first Kamakura shōgun. But today we’ll talk about an earlier family member, 源義家 Minamoto no Yoshiie also known as Hachimantarō.[vii] During the 後三年合戦 Gosannen Kassen Gosannen War[viii] which was fought in the 1080’s, Yoshiie set up a camp in this area. Today this day in 神宮前2丁目 Jingūmae Ni-chōme 2nd block of Jingūmae there is a hill called 勢揃坂 Seizoroi-zaka which means “hill where troops are mustered.” The hill is also known as 源氏坂 Genji-zaka Genji Hill – Genji, of course meaning “the Minamoto clan” (but you already knew that).


The hill isn’t much to look at today, but if you do a Google image search in Japanese it’s mostly pictures of amazing looking food. I’m gonna follow up on this.

In the Edo Period, the high grounds were home to daimyō residences and high ranking samurai, while the sides of the hills went to low ranking samurai. The lowlands were fields for growing rice and other types of farming. Keep in mind, this area was on the outskirts of the shōgun’s capital. There really wasn’t much action out here at all.


Farmers cleaning off rice in the area. Why is Mt. Fuji so prominent? Because there was NOTHING in this area in the Edo Period.

So What is Harajuku Today?

Today, Harajuku is kind of a cultural clusterfuck. 15-20 years ago, the bridge leading from 原宿駅 Harajuku Eki Harajuku Station to 代々木公園 Yoyogi Kōen Yoyogi Park (in front of  明治神宮 Meiji Jingū Meiji Shrine) was the spot that saw コスプレー kosuprē cosplay evolve from a hobby to a kind of freaky anime-based exhibitionism[ix]. Photographers, tourists, and foreign gamers/anime fans began descending upon the area to experience Japanese cosplay firsthand or even try to participate in the emerging cosplay culture. As cosplay became more mainstream and otaku culture changed, the Japanese レイヤーreiyā ‘layers (slang for cosplayers) disappeared from Harajuku and “the bridge” came to be populated by foreigners copying a 15 year old, outdated practice. The police cracked down on the crowds of foreign cosplayers, but sometimes you can still see a few foreigners hanging out posing for pictures.

Harajuku is also known as a kind of hair salon mecca. In addition to famous hair salons there are also many small boutique shops. The area was traditionally famous for its street fashion, but Gwen Stefani made the area stupid and to the best of my knowledge these days it’s mostly tourists (both international and from the Japanese countryside).

harajuku station today.jpg

Harajuku Station today. Hasn’t changed at much.

Architecturally speaking, Harajuku Station is interesting because the building dates back to 1901 and it looks like a typical station of the time. Unfortunately, at the time it was build this area was pretty undeveloped and the station can barely handle the amount of traffic it gets. It’s just wall to wall people on the weekends and national holidays. Another interesting aspect of the station is a separate pair of train tracks and platform for the 御召し列車 o-meshi ressha emperor’s private train[x]. The imperial family uses the tracks to visit Meiji Shrine at 御正月 o-shōgatsu the New Year holiday because it leads to a super-secret backdoor.

Harajuku-Kyutei-Platform (1).jpg

OK, it’s not so super-secret… But people like you and me can’t use it.

meiji jingū - damn son

Meiji Shrine is a large shrine, but its architecture is very restrained in contrast to the grand shrines/temples of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. That said the amount of land allotted to the shrine speaks volumes of how rural this area once was and how much money the Imperial Household Agency has.

Which brings me to Meiji Shrine. It’s a big shrine dedicated to the 明治天皇 Meiji Tennō Meiji Emperor of whom long term readers will know I’m not a particularly big fan. That said, the shrine is quite beautiful and definitely worth a visit. If you go on 文化の日 Bunka no Hi Culture Day, you can see an event called 流鏑馬 yabusame which is where people dress up like samurai and do mounted archery. It’s pretty fucking cool and I highly recommend it to everyone. Culture Day is on November 3rd which, incidentally, was originally the Meiji Emperor’s birfday.

yabusame doesn't mean broken shark

Yabusame doesn’t mean “broken shark” that would be 破鮫 and that’s just silly. No language needs a word for that.

Also in the area, though technically not in Harajuku, is 東郷神社 Tōgō Jinja Tōgō Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to 東郷 平八郎 Tōgō Heihachirō who was supposedly Japan’s most decorated naval officer. I don’t know a lot about the dude, but apparently his shrine was partially built as an “eff you” by the Imperial Navy to the Imperial Army. The army had erected a shrine to their hero, the general 乃木希典 Nogi Maresuke in Akasaka, so not to be outdone, the navy set up this shrine. It’s actually a really beautiful spot and it’s popular for weddings because of its photogenic traditional garden. I’ve never served in the military, but I know there are rivalries among the branches, I guess this one got us a scenic city retreat. Not bad.

togo shrine

A wedding at Tōgō Shrine

Alright. So in conclusion, I hope you’ve all enjoyed my take on Harajuku. A lot of people have a lot of opinions – both positive and negative, both reality and fantasy – but the history of the area and its etymology are pretty much straight forward.

As always, thanks for reading to the end and thanks for your support.

Next on the agenda, I’m finally getting around to my Yamanote Line series.If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check my Ōedo Line series. It’s gonna be hardcore, so I hope you’ll join me for what will literally be a wild ride!


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[i] I’d much rather update my blog than slice open my own belly, which is what samurai bloggers used to do when they were wrong.
[ii] We could roughly say the 12th century, but it’s easiest to think of this as the first shift of power away from Kyōto in the west to the Kantō region. Samurai strongmen ruled in the name of the western nobles in the east. The shift in power was a logical leap from stupid court politics to real martial control over fiefs.
[iii] What does Edo mean? What? You thought I didn’t have an article about Edo? lol
[iv] 源氏 Genji is essentially a nickname for 源氏 Minamoto-shi. The kanji is the same, it’s just more common to read it as Genji. It’s the same with the 平家 Hei-ke which is shorthand for 平家 Taira-ke. Again the kanji are the same and the meaning is the same: the Taira clan (well, technically “family,” but same thing).
[v] This area was located in central and western 神奈川県 Kanagawa Ken Kanagawa Prefecture. For the purposes of this article, it’s a reference to Kamakura – the capital of the Kamakura Shōguns.
[vi] If that word 駅 eki sounds familiar, it is. The modern word for train station is 駅 eki. The kanji was originally 驛 eki and the radical 馬 uma horse. Before trains it referred to relay station for changing horses, just as the modern term “post office” originated from places where messengers “posted” their horses.
[vii] Also known as 八幡太郎 Hachimantarō. 八幡 Hachiman is the god of war and ~太郎tarō is a suffix of a boy’s name. Hachiman was the tutelary 神 kami deity of the Minamoto clan. If you’ve ever been to Kamakura, you’ve probably visited the shrine 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū which was built by the first shōgun, Yoritomo. As a result of the Yoshiie and Yoritomo’s  devotion to this deity, it became the de factō tutelary spirit of all samurai.
[viii] This war is waaaaay beyond the scope of this article, but here’s the Wiki about it.
[ix] Now it’s a fulltime job for some people, at least that’s what my Twitter feed leads me to believe.
[x] Yes, the emperor has his own train.

What does Hirō mean?

In Japanese History on November 21, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Hirō (Wide Tail, Spacious Tail)



The area called 広尾 Hirō[i] is the area surrounded by 渋谷区恵比寿 Shibuya-ku Ebisu Ebisu, Shibuya Ward and 南麻布 Minami Azabu, 西麻布 Nishi Azabu, and 南青山 Minami Aoyama – the 3 of which are in 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward. The area presently called Hirō is officially located in Shibuya Ward – though historically, Hirō has been considered both part of Shibuya and Azabu.

Hirō is boasts some of the priciest real estate in Tōkyō and the area surrounding 広尾駅 Hirō Eki Hirō Station has an upscale, international vibe. I can’t say much more about the area from firsthand experience because I think I’ve only been there once… and that was a month or so ago when I took Mrs. JapanThis there for Mexican food.

Let’s Look at the Kanji


wide, spacious


tail;  area where a mountain or hill fans out into a plain

Hirō is located in the lowlands under the 麻布台地 Azabu Daichi Azabu Plateau[ii] and so these kanji make sense. The hill fans out into a wide plain at the bottom of the plateau. But interestingly, this combination of kanji date from the Edo Period. There is an earlier and much more complicated writing 樋籠 Hirō that combines 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading and 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading.


gutter, conduit

basket, palanquin, secluded, etc…

This writing could just be ateji. However, there is an area called 埼玉県春日部市樋籠 Saitama-ken Kasukabe-shi Hirō Hirō, Kasukabe City, Saitama Prefecture. That place name is said to derive from its use as an emergency flood plain that protected the villages by absorbing excess water. If this kanji use is the same, the original kanji could be a reference to the nearby 渋谷川 Shibuya-gawa Shibuya River. This area was unsettled until the Meiji Period and so it could be that it was left undeveloped for the same reason: to absorb excess flood water to protect the nearby villages.

At any rate, the area came to have various names such as 広野 Hiroya spacious field, 広野 Hirono spacious field, and by the nickname 土筆ヶ原 Tsukushi-ga-hara cattail field. The nickname definitely sounds like a reference to wetlands so there may be something to the idea that this area regularly flooded or was just wet enough to not be good for building villages in the area. By the coming of the Tokugawa, new flood control and river works came to be implemented on a large scale. One can only imagine that the area became more stable and soon you had daimyō building residences on the surrounding highlands. The sprawling lowlands were left as is.


cattails… yeah.

In the early Edo Period, there was a village here called 下渋谷村 Shimo-Shibuya Mura Lower Shibuya Village[iii] but in 1664 a merchant town was established called 下渋谷広尾町 Shimo-Shibuya Hirō-chō[iv]. The suffix 町 chō indicated that this was a merchant and artisan town. These merchant towns became the residential and commercial centers of Edo Period Hirō.

Then, during the reign of the 5th Shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the shōgunate undertook a series of land surveys collectively referred to as the 元禄検地 Gen’roku Kenchi Gen’roku Land Surveys[v]. The open, spacious field previously referred to as Tsukushi-ga-Hara or Hirono/Hiroya was still there. After the land surveys, the name of the field was standardized and we start seeing maps and art with the name 広尾原 which could be read as Hirō-no-Hara or Hirō-ga-Hara.

inu kubo - tokugawa tsunayoshi

In the early 1800’s, the 江戸名所図会 Edo Meisho Zue Guidebook to the Famous Places of Edo, depicts a wide open field of ススキ susuki Japanese silver grass. You can get a real feeling for the rustic beauty of the area in the Edo Period. One of the images focuses on the area near 山下橋 Yamashita-bashi Yamashita Bridge. The bridge was also known as 水車橋 Suisha-bashi Water Wheel Bridge.

This name nickname is a reference to Hirō-chō’s most famous landmark, the 玉川水車 Tamagawa Suisha Tamagawa Water Wheel, more commonly called 広尾水車 Hirō Suisha Hirō Water wheel. The water wheel may have served several purposes, but my main understanding is that it was for flood control.

Hiroo-bashi and you can see the water wheel in the middle ground and the field in the distance.

Hiroo-bashi and you can see the water wheel in the middle ground and the field in the distance.

a colorized version of the aforementioned picture

a colorized version of the aforementioned picture

Hirō-no-Hara (or Tsukushi-ga-Hara) was a place where friends, families, and lovers would come to take a stroll in the beautiful greenery, gaze at the distant hills and mountains, and relax and enjoy picnics. Today that area corresponds to the area from 広尾5丁目 Hirō 5-chōme to 恵比寿2丁目 Ebisu Ebisu 2-chōme. If you note the picture below, I’ve highlighted the area. It’s essentially present day 広尾病院 Hirō Byō’in Hirō General Hospital and 慶應義塾幼稚舎 Keiō Gijuku Yōchisha Primary School.

The area had always been quite rustic and located just outside of the city limits of Edo, but in 1713, 広尾橋 Hirōbashi the Hirō Bridge was built over the 古川 Furukawa Furukawa River[vi]. This  added a convenient access point that allowed more traffic in and out of the area. As a result, the area was formalized under the jurisdiction of the 江戸町奉行 Edo machi-bugyō. A machi-bugyō was the senior administrative official of a large city[vii]. The term is often translated as “commissioner,” but in short, he was like a mayor, a police commissioner, a fire commissioner, a tax commissioner, and local chief justice. Regardless of what his job may or may not translate to in Modern English, the move meant that while this area had heretofore been a shōgunate holding, from 1713 on this was officially part of Edo – not some outlying suburb.

In 1870 (Meiji 3), 渋谷広尾町 Shibuya Hirō-chō was split into 3 towns: 渋谷広尾町 Shibuya Hirō-chō, Shibuya Kami-Hirō-chō, and 渋谷下広尾町 Shibuya Shimo-Hirō-chō[viii]. Since then the area has been further divided and re-administered many times. As such, even though the area called Hirō is actually in present day Shibuya Ward, 広尾神社 Hirō Jinja Hirō Shrine is in 港区南麻布 Minato-ku Minami Azabu Minami Azabu, Minato Ward.

The "wide field"

The “wide field”

A Few Famous Places in Hirō

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve only been to Hirō once – as far as I know. That said, I’ve been told by Rekishi no Tabi that Hirō is a goldmine of Edo Period coolness if you know where to look. Given its proximity to massive residences of some of the richest daimyō, I am sure this is true. So apologies if my list comes up short compared to his.

La Jolla Mexican restaurant in Hiro.

La Jolla Mexican restaurant in Hiro.

The First Mexican Restaurant in Tōkyō

A throw’s stone away from Hirō Station is a small Mexican restaurant called La Jolla. Mexican food is still a bit scarce in Tōkyō. If you’re an American used to a variety of home-style dishes and high end Mexican food readily available in your hometown, you’ll find yourself going without for a long time in Tōkyō. I’ve met foreigners who have standing offers to blow anyone who can get them a decent tamale and some pico de gallo that actually has flavor.

This shop opened in 1987 and claims to be the first Mexican restaurant in the metropolis. The shop came highly recommended by a few people and was actually what brought me to Hirō in the first place. It wasn’t bad and if you’re in the area and have a craving for enchiladas or something, it might cure your hankering for a spankering of la cocina mexicana. I’m still looking for the perfect plate of tacos al pastor and… yeah, I’d probably blow you for a decent tamale[ix].

Kuroda Nagamasa's grave or something...

Kuroda Nagamasa’s grave or something…

The Grave of Kuroda Nagamasa at Shō’un-ji

黒田長政 Kuroda Nagamasa was a famous general during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and early Edo Period. He was originally a retainer of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and despite having to lead his troops into Korea on Hideyoshi’s ridiculous mission to invade China, Nagamasa and his samurai held off the Koreans and protected the Japanese forces as they retreated from the Korean Peninsula. It was a shit job, but he was paid well for it. Oh, and if his family name sounds familiar, that’s because he was the son of his even more famous father, Kuroda Kanbei, who was the subject of a recent NHK Taiga Drama.

Later, Nagamasa served directly under 2nd shōgun, Tokugawa Hidetada, in the Winter and Summer Sieges of Ōsaka Castle in 1614 and 1615 respectively. The Kuroda Clan were the lords of 福岡藩 Fukuoka Han Fukuoka Domain until 1871 when a certain douchebag named Price Arisugawa Taruhito was installed as a Provincial Governor. But more about that later.

Anyhoo, Nagamasa’s grave is located at 祥雲寺 Shō’un-ji Shō’un Temple. The temple is located on the 広尾商店街 Hirō Shōtengai Hirō Shopping Street near Hirō Station. In the Edo Period, the temple served as a 菩提寺 bodaiji family temple of the Kuroda family. The Kuroda clan had close connections to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family and began intermarrying early in the Edo Period. A newly formed branch called the 松平黒田家 Matsudaira Kuroda-ke Matsudaira Kuroda Family was established that had direct bloodlines to the shōgun family. As a result, various shōguns or emissaries of the shōgun family came to this temple for お墓参り o-haka mairi visiting and maintaining graves and observing Buddhist memorial services.

Autumn foliage at the former estate of the Morioka Domain.

Autumn foliage at the former estate of the Morioka Domain.

The Remains of the Nanbu Estate

OK, things might get a little messy now…
Near Hirō Station there is a large park with lush greenery. This park actually lies in Minami Azabu and not Hirō, but that’s neither here nor there. In English, the park called Arisugawa Park – more about that later.

In the Edo Period, this plot of land was the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence[x] of the 南部氏 Nanbu-shi Nanbu Clan.  They were the lords of 盛岡藩 Morioka Han Morioka Domain and based out of 盛岡城 Morioka-jō Morioka Castle in present day Aomori. These days, most people think of Morioka as a city and Nanbu as a region and a dialect – especially people from Aomori. That’s because during the Edo Period the 2 cadet branches were formed that held 支藩 shihan satellite domains[xi]:

Domain Name

Year Established


Morioka Han



Hachinohe Han



Shichinohe Han



Since all three domains were controlled by the same family, it was and is easier to refer to the area collectively as 南部藩 Nanbu Han Nanbu Domain. The Nanbu were loyal to the Tokugawa to the bitter end and fought against the Meiji Coup even after the shōgunate fell. As a result, the Nanbu clan was punished by the newly formed Meiji Government[xiii]. In a moment, we’ll see how this affected their lower residence near Hirō.

But in fiction, Morioka/Nanbu Domain plays a major role in the movies 壬生義士伝 Mibugishiden When the Last Sword is Drawn and たそがれ清兵衛 Tasogare Seibei Twilight Samurai. The Japanese seem to love the idea of a bunch of country bumpkin samurai fighting to the death for a lost cause. The problem is that having been defeated and humiliated by the winners of the Meiji Coup, the Nanbu Clan and their retainers switched sides and went 100% pro-Imperial Theocracy. I’m not even joking when I say that these “fierce Tokugawa loyalists” drank the Meiji Kool Aid so fast it hurts. Case in point: Some prominent 20th century figures in Pre-WWII and Post-WWII descended from high ranking Nanbu retainers. The most infamous were convicted war criminals 板垣征四郎 Itagaki Seishirō and 東條英機 Tōjō Hideki. In our own time, the Nanbu family has gone so far off the deep end that the 45th generational head of the family was the Chief Priest of 靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja Yasukuni Shrine from 2004-2006.

Anways, the shape of modern day Arisugawa Park is more or less the same as the lower residence of the Nanbu Clan. I haven’t been to this park yet, so I don’t know if anything of their palace remains, but I highly doubt it.

If you haven't seen "When the Last Sword is Drawn," close your browser and go rent it now.

If you haven’t seen “When the Last Sword is Drawn,” close your browser and go rent it now.


Arisugawa Park

Today, the former lower estate of the Nanbu Clan is a beautiful park. The full name of the park is 有栖川宮記念公園 Arisugawa-no-miya Kinen Kōen Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park – commonly abbreviated as Arisugawa Park. As I mentioned earlier Arisugawa was a dude… a dude whom longtime readers will know I don’t hold in very high regard.


Who was Arisugawa?

I recently wrote a little about him in my 15 page review of Romulus Hillsborough’s book, Samurai Revolution. Feel free to download the review (it’s a PDF), but I’m going to give you more Arisugawa Taruhito than you can shake a stick at now.

His full name was 有栖川宮熾仁親王 Arisugawa-no-miya Taruhito-Shinnō. The name can be abbreviated as Prince Arisugawa Taruhito. The family name is technically Arisugawa but the suffix miya is attached. This suffix indicates that the person is a member of the imperial family. His given name was Taruhito. And the suffix shinnō indicates that he was an imperial prince[xiv].

Despite being a courtier, Taruhito seems to have been a fairly intelligent and capable guy. However, personality-wise, he was a total douche bag. He was a close advisor of 孝明天皇 Kōmei Tennō the Emperor Kōmei. The emperor was fiercely xenophobic and anti-foreigner, though he believed the shōgunate was the only apparatus capable of running the country. Later, he was a close confidant of 明治天皇 Meiji Tennō the Meiji Emperor, whose court was made up of anti-shōgunate radicals from Satsuma and Chōshū.

Prince Arisugawa cosplaying as a white imperialist dickhead

Prince Arisugawa cosplaying as a white imperialist dickhead

In 1861, he was betrothed to 和宮親子内親王, Kazu-no-miya Chikako-Naishinnō – daughter of Emperor Ninkō[xv]. She is usually referred to as just Kazunomiya or sometimes Princess Kazu[xvi]. The title naishinnō means imperial princess and is similar to the aforementioned title, shinnō. The engagement was broken off so that she could be married to the 14th shōgun, 徳川家茂 Tokugawa Iemochi. The intention was to build a stronger bond between the imperial court in Kyōto and the shōgunate in Edo[xvii].

In the end, Taruhito ended up being married to a daughter of the batshit crazy daimyō of Mito Domain[xviii], Tokugawa Nariaki. Nariaki, despite being a close relative of the shōgun family who shared a name with the shōgun family, and owed all of his wealth, status, and privilege to the shōgun family was essentially a pro-imperial, xenophobic nutball who was considered a loose cannon by everyone around him.


Kazu-no-miya. I’d hit it.

Do You Have a Point?

So I’m going on and on about this dude’s background and bombarding you with footnotes. I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this (if you haven’t already quit reading). But rest assured – I have a point. I’m trying to paint a picture of Taruhito’s environment. He was surrounded the most negative and radical elements and philosophies of the Bakumatsu for his whole adult life.

This is why it should come as no surprise that after Prince Arisugawa was given nominal control of the newly named “Imperial Army,” he set out to make a name for himself as the imperial courtier who restored the martial dignity of the imperial family that had been dead for… oh, I don’t know, about 600 years. What better way to restore that dignity than bitch slapping the Tokugawa? Yes, the Tokugawa who had protected the imperial court and more or less suppressed war for about 250 years? Oh, and I said he was given “nominal control” over the anti-shōgunate army, right? For all intents and purposes, the psychologically unstable, pro-imperial, anti-shōgunate Satsuma native, Saigō Takamori was really calling all the shots.

I can see where this is going...

I can see where this is going…

Arisugawa’s Demands

Before the pro-imperial forces had reached Edo, Arisugawa proved himself to be a total dick. First, he asked for Edo Castle to be surrendered. He wanted every Tokugawa warship (they had some of the most state of the art western warships). He wanted all weapons, arsenals, and munitions of any sort handed over.

But then his demands got ridiculous. The first of his insane requests was that Tokugawa Yoshinobu turn himself over to the so-called imperial army to await 天誅 tenchū divine punishment or heaven’s revenge. In the context of pro-imperialism, this term implies that you are at the mercy of the emperor (or his cronies) as a living god incarnate. In the context of the Bakumatsu, this was a word that pro-imperial, anti-shōgunate terrorists used to justify their acts of violence. Supposedly, many of them would shout this word at their victims before assassinating them. The word was short hand for a certain, unquestionable death sentence. Yoshinobu would have known that because he was brother of Arisugawa’s wife and they shared a father. Yes, the batshit crazy Tokugawa Nariaki.

Come on. Look at this face. You don't want to behead me. What would the ladies do? Tokugawa Yoshinobu

Come on.
Look at this face. You don’t want to behead me.
What would the ladies do?
Tokugawa Yoshinobu

But wait, there’s more.

Arisugawa didn’t stop at demanding his brother-in-law’s head. He demanded that all 旗本 hatamoto be put under house arrest. Hatamoto were the direct retainers of the Tokugawa Shōgun Family. There were ranks within the grouping of hatamoto and I’m not sure which definition Arisugawa was referring to, but we can say that depending on how strictly or loosely he was using the term, the number of hatamoto could have been somewhere between 5000- 17,000 samurai.

Imagine your city had a population of 1,000,000 people. Now, imagine 5,000-17,000 public officials serving various administrative roles where suddenly, randomly confined to their homes and weren’t allowed to work. Now, imagine what would happen to the infrastructure and day to day operations of the government. The imperial army had a war strategy, but they had no plan in place for governing the country. Clowns.


Arisugawa… remember this face.

But wait, It Gets Better

Demanding his brother-in-law submit to execution was harsh. After all, the former shōgun was the protector of his relative and ex-fiancée, Kazunomiya[xix] and the other imperial women and court women in the 大奥 Ōoku women’s quarter of Edo Castle[xx]. Killing the shōgun would also turn not just the city of Edo against you, it could have caused fence-sitting Tokugawa branch families to turn against you as well. It could have turned Edo into a guerrilla warfare battleground that resulted in the utter destruction of the city. But all of this wasn’t enough.

In Arisugawa’s imagination, he would march his army into a pristine Edo with no shōgun. Magically, the city would have no hatamoto doing any jobs because they were under house arrest. And again, magically, the government would be fully operational and the commoners and merchants would welcome the Meiji Army as liberators. But Arisugawa had one final way to ingratiate himself with the people of Edo. He demanded that 100 shōgunate official be beheaded.

Beheading would have been the ultimate insult to a member of a samurai family. 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide would have at least allowed the offending member of the family to ritually atone for his transgressions in an effort to take ownership of his actions and release the family from any responsibility. I don’t know if he had a list of names or if he just wanted 100 random samurai officials, but FFS, I have no idea what he thought beheading all those people would accomplish. But all of these insane demands basically secured Arisugawa’s reputation as a total asshole.

Beheading 17 people looks like this. Imagine 100.

Beheading 17 people looks like this. Imagine 100.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū worked out a deal with 西郷隆盛 Saigō Takamori and negotiated a peaceful and bloodless surrender of Edo Castle. Later, the Nanbu clan joined an alliance of northern domains and rebelled against the imperial government. The coalition was called the 奥羽越列藩同盟 Ō-U-Etsu Reppan Dōmei[xxi] also known as 北部同盟 Hokubu Dōmei the Northern Alliance. The coalition soon fell apart and all the clans were punished by the Meiji Government. The Nanbu clan’s estate in Hirō was confiscated and supposedly Saigō Takamori took it over as a temporary residence.

Saigo Takamori and Katsu Kaishu negotiating a reasonable surrender of Edo Castle in Mita (modern day Tamachi Station area)

Saigo Takamori and Katsu Kaishu negotiating a reasonable surrender of Edo Castle in Mita
(modern day Tamachi Station area)

Prince Arisugawa had expressed a desire to buy the property and retire there, but it seems he never had the chance. He got malaria or some shit while staying Kansai[xxii] and died in 1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War. In 1896 the Arisugawa-no-miya family formally acquired the property and 有栖川宮威仁親王 Arisugawa-no-miya Takehito-Shinnō Prince Arisugawa Takehito moved in. Takehito died in 1913 without an heir, thus ending the Arisugawa-no-miya line. His best friend had been adopted into the family but wasn’t allowed to continue the family name, so he established a new cadet family under the name 高松宮宣仁親王 Takamatsu-no-miya Nobuhito-Shinnō Prince Takamatsu Nobuhito.

Prince Takamatsu looking  fabulous in his imp-wear.

Prince Takamatsu looking fabulous in his imp-wear.

Nobuhito seems to have been a pretty cool dude. Although he served in the imperial army in various capacities, his diaries expressed his objections to Japan’s actions in Manchuria and he opposed military action against China and the US. In November 1941 he told his older brother, Hirohito[xxiii], that Japan couldn’t defeat America and would possibly face defeat in “about 2 years.” Hirohito, who was too busy playing war god while squatting in Edo Castle[xxiv], started to ignore Nobuhito and the two became estranged. He and the empress actually pressed the cabinet and the emperor to remove Tōjō Hideki from his role as Prime Minister.

At any rate, before the war Nobuhito had taken an interest in the role of nature as a tool for educating children. In 1934, upon the anniversary of the death of Arisugawa Taruhito, he donated the land to Tōkyō City as a park for children to play sports and enjoy nature. That is when Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park was born. In 1975, the Tokyo metropolitan authority transferred the administration of the park to Minato Ward.

And now I realize how truly bizarre it is that I spent the bulk of this article talking about this park which isn’t even in Hirō. The end.



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[i] Also written Hiroo.
[ii] If you walk from Azabu past Arisugawa Park, you’ll notice that you are descending the Azabu Plateau and the Hirō Station area is lowlands.
[iii] I’ve mentioned this before 下 shimo lower was a prefix that designated a village that sat downstream, whereas 上 kami upper was a prefix that designated a village that sat upstream. The village in between would have been prefixed with 中 naka which means middle.
[iv] The merchant town quickly expanded and soon there were: Shimo-Hirō-chō, Naka-Hirō-chō, and Kami-Hirō-chō.
[v] Gen’roku is 年号 nengo a Japanese era name that occurred during Tsunayoshi’s reign. The Gen’roku Era is roughly 1688-1704, however these surveys took place here and there from 1680-1697.
[vi] The name for this stretch of the Shibuya River.
[vii] Edo actually had 2 machi-bugyō – and for a short time 3!
[viii] The 上 kami, 中 naka, and 下 shimo place names have long since disappeared from the official post codes. I’m not sure if bus stops bear these designations anymore either, but I couldn’t find anything via Google, so I’m assuming those labels are now defunct.
[ix] Somebody should start a Mexican Food in Tōkyō Blog!
[x] What’s a lower residence? Please read a quick primer on sankin-kōtai.
[xi] Literally, branch domains.
[xii] Kokudaka is the system for determining land value for taxation purposes in Edo period. One 石 koku was more or less the amount of rice it took to feed one person for a year. The system was used to value the incomes of daimyō and homes and fields of landowners. Read more about it here at Samurai Archives.
[xiii] In 1871, the Nanbu were divested of prefectural control and some dickhead named Arisugawa was given control. More about this later.
[xiv] The 世襲親王家 seshū shinnōke were the 4 cadet branches of the Imperial Family that could provide a successor to the Chrysanthemum Throne via adoption. 親王 shinnō is usually translated as “imperial prince” (but the literal meaning is more like “close blood relative of the emperor”). Basically, this was the imperial version of the Tokugawa 御三家 go-sanke, the three cadet families who could provide a successor to the shōgunate.
[xv] The emperor before Kōmei.
[xvi] If her name is modernized it would be Kazunomiya Chikako or Kazu Chikako.
[xvii] This effort was called 公武合体 kōbu gattai, Union of Court and Camp. The Japanese term for shōgunate, 幕府 bakufu, originally referred to the shōgun’s camp on the battleground. The reason for this particular princess to marry the shōgun was because Kazunomiya had been raised to the rank of naishinnō. If I’m not mistaken, this particular rank meant she could provide a successor to the imperial throne. If this was the case, then had she and Iemochi given birth to a boy, there would have been a very possibility that an emperor born of mixed imperial and Tokugawa blood could have ascended the throne instead of the Meiji Emperor. Japanese history would have taken a very, very different course…
[xviii] Who happened to also be the father of the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
[xix] Who loyally supported the Tokugawa after her marriage, it must be noted.
[xx] The wives of the shōguns had long been chosen from the imperial court.
[xxi] You can read more about the Northern Alliance here.
[xxii] As one does.
[xxiii] That’s 昭和天皇 Shōwa Tennō Shōwa Emperor to you and me.
[xxiv] 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle.

What does Sendagaya mean?

In Japanese History on April 9, 2014 at 5:47 am

Sendagaya (1000 “da” valley)

Quite possibly the most useless map of Sendagaya ever.

Quite possibly the most useless map of Sendagaya ever.

Sendagaya is the area surrounded by Shinjuku, Yoyogi, Harajuku, and Akasaka. In my experience, 千駄ヶ谷駅 Sendagaya Eki Sendagaya Station is famous, but unless you live or work there, I think the area is overlooked. Much of what people may consider to be Harajuku or Yoyogi is actually Sendagaya[i]. Anyways, I’ll talk about what Sendagaya is today at the end of the article.


OK, Let’s Look at the Kanji!




a pack horse, a load (carried by a horse)


the genitive particle in Old Japanese, similar to の no in modern Japanese.



Seems pretty random, right? .


駄 Da

The key to this place name are the Old Japanese words 一駄壱駄 ichida 1 da or 二駄弐駄 nida 2 da. These are units of measurement that describe how much stuff you can put on a horse’s back. I don’t know the specifics, but it’s probably something like a size and weight measurement. So you could say “This horse is carrying 3 da.” 千駄 senda 1000 da, of course, would be a crazy number and as such, the local people used the word senda to mean 沢山 takusan a lot of.

So the idea is that this area was 千駄の谷 senda no ya “the valley with a 1000 da.” This begs the question, a 1000 da of what? Well, it’s said that when Ōta Dōkan came to the area to inspect his new holdings, the valley was primarily used for rice cultivation so the name meant “the valley where a lot of rice is grown.”

The word 千駄 appears in another Tōkyō place name, 千駄木 Sendagi. I haven’t researched this place name but I’ll take a guess that it means “a lot of trees.” But that’s topic for another day.

This is a 駄馬 daba, a pack horse. I don't know how many da the horse is carrying, but you get the idea...

This is a 駄馬 daba, a pack horse. I don’t know how many da the horse is carrying, but you get the idea…

 But Wait, There’s More!

One theory states that the 渋谷川 Shibuya-gawa Shibuya River ran through this valley and there were so many 萓 gi day-lilies growing along the bank of the river, that in a single day you could carry out 1000 da of them. This etymology is suspect because of the reference to day-lilies which isn’t preserved in the name.

In 1644, we have a shōgunate record that spells the place name 千駄萱村 Sendagaya Mura Sendagaya Village. This name means 1000 da and 萱 kaya is a kind of reed. This theory states that long ago, along the bank of the Shibuya River, a lot of reeds were growing. It seems that the current writing dates from 1688.

Lastly, another theory states that the writing was 千駄茅 senda kaya a 1000 da of kaya, a kind of hay. (We’ve seen this kanji before in my article on Kayabachō.) While the exact origin of this place name isn’t known, the common theme seems to be the use of the word 千駄 senda 1000 da. Take your pick of which one you like the best.

While yes, today Sendagaya is real area in Tokyo, many people don't know where it actually is because the area is only serviced by a single train line. That said, it's proximity to other well traveled stations makes it an attractive residential district. It's quiet, yet has access quick walking access to major areas.

While yes, today Sendagaya is real area in Tokyo, many people don’t know where it actually is because the area is only serviced by a single train line. That said, it’s proximity to other well traveled stations makes it an attractive residential district. It’s quiet, yet has access quick walking access to major areas.

A Little Bit About the Area

In the Edo Period, the area was just countryside. Some daimyō had residences out this way. The 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke Owari branch of the Tokuagawa Family had maintained a 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence in Sendagaya for a long time. In 1877 or 1878, 篤姫 Atsu-hime Princess Atsu[ii], wife of the 13th shōgun,  徳川家定 Tokugawa Iesada[iii], moved to this residence until she lost her battle with Parkinson’s Disease in 1883. Atsu-hime was originally born in Kagoshima and helped negotiate the bloodless eviction of the Tokugawa from Edo Castle. Her counterpart was none other than the Kagoshima-born general 西郷隆盛 Saigō Takamori[iv].

The Owari Tokugawa maintained their residence here for some time. Today the palace’s lands have been transformed into 戸山公園 Toyama Kōen Toyama Park, but believe it or not, one of the Edo Period buildings of this residence still survives.

In 1957, the 書院 shoin study of the residence was moved to 總持寺 Sōji-ji Sōji Temple in 横浜市鶴見区 Yokohama-shi Tsurumi-ku Tsurumi Ward, Yokohama, not far from Tōkyō. The former study is now the reception hall of the temple. So if you want to see a beautiful daimyō study from a daimyō compound, you can.

The entrance to the study of the Owari Tokugawa's sprawling residence.

The entrance to the study of the Owari Tokugawa’s sprawling residence. Pretty freakin’ dope, huh?

Later, the area around the former Tokugawa residence was used by the Imperial Army as a training ground. Later, under the American Occupation, the US military used the confiscated training ground. Probably due to all the soldiers being there, the area became famous for love hotels and the sex industry. The red light district was shut down in the buildup to the 1960 Tōkyō Summer Olympics and today the area is mostly known as the home to many fashion and design related businesses. I think this is due to its proximity to Harajuku and Shibuya, both of which are fashion epicenters. .

Toyama Park

Toyama Park

There is another Bakumatsu personage associated with the area. One account of of the untimely death of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi commander, 沖田総司 Okita Sōji took place here. There are conflicting accounts of this due to the confusion generated by the abdication of the last shōgun 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Also, Sōji’s brothers-in-arms were scattered at the time. All of the accounts of his death come to us years later.

A sento (public bath) near Jingumae Stadium.

A sento (public bath) near Jingumae Stadium.

鳩森八幡神社 Hatomori Hachiman-gū Hatomori Hachiman Shrine is a famous shrine in the area. I’ve talked about what a Hachiman shrine is before, so I’m not going to get into that today. However, this particular shrine is special in that it has a 富士塚 Fuji-zuka Fuji Mound. In the Edo Period, travel was tightly controlled by the shōgunate and non-samurai would have had a difficult time getting travel permission to leave their 藩 han domains. Many people wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji, so a trend was to bring rocks from Mt. Fuji to Edo and build a huge mockup of the volcano at a shrine and the local people could make the journey up the hill to honor the 富士浅間 Fuji Sengen, the kami of Mt. Fuji. There are still a few of these remaining today in Tōkyō – I’ve been to about 3 of them, I think.

The Fuji-zuka

The Fuji-zuka

The NTT DoCoMo building which looks like the Empire State Building is also in Sendagaya. If you’ve ever been shopping at the Southern Terrace of Shinjuku Station or enjoyed a stroll through 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The NTT DoCoMo Building. Sometimes a purely derivative and truly bizarre choice in architecture can work.

The NTT DoCoMo Building.
Sometimes a purely derivative and truly bizarre choice in architecture can work.

Oh, any expat resident of Tōkyō will tell you that Mexican food is hard to come by. While not in Sendagaya proper, there are two very famous Mexican places in nearby Yoyogi and Shibuya – both walkable from Sendagaya. One is a super famous date-spot known as Fonda de la Madrugada located in 北参道 Kita-sandō. It’s expensive, but they have a mariachi band that come to the tables and take requests (unfortunately, the only Spanish song most Japanese people know is the Gypsy Kings’ cover of Volare, so expect to hear it a few times throughout the course of your dinner)[v]. The other one is the more casual and less expensive, El Torito, located in the Southern Terrace of Shinjuku Station. OK, that’s about all I’ve got on Sendagaya.




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[i] Or maybe that’s just me.
[ii] She’s also called 天璋院 Tenshō-in because this is the name she took after the death of Iesada. It’s a Buddhist name, and I think it’s more like a title. I was told that after the Meiji Restoration she would have been called 篤子 Atsuko, since the title 姫 hime (usually rendered as “princess”) was banned by the new government.
[iii] Yes, the same Tokugawa Iesada who is generally depicted as a complete moron. You can read about his grave here.
[iv]  A guy I don’t have a lot of respect for.
[v] Of course, I’m speaking very broadly here. I’ve personally met Japanese people who know loads of Spanish music – waaaaaay more than I do – but just the average person doesn’t know much.

What does Shirokane mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on September 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Shirokane (Silver Coins)

Something unique in the big city!

Something unique in the big city!

Shirokane appears in a few place names




Shiba-Shirokane (now defunct)

So the story goes that in the 14th century, a powerful clan migrated here and took the area under their direct control and began the development and cultivation of the area. According to the legend, the family was called 柳下氏  Yanagishita  or Yagishita or Yanashita the Yanagishita clan[i]. The story goes so far as to allege the head of the clan was a certain 柳下上総之介 Yanagishita Kazusanosuke[ii] who was so rich that he was called the 白金長者 shirokane chōja the silver coin millionaire[iii]. Bear in mind that there is very little corroborating evidence to support this story.

The name Shirokane first appeared in 1559, when the so-called Late Hōjō clan granted a place called 白金村  Shirokane Mura Shirokane Village to the great grandson of Ōta Dōkan. But the story I just told you doesn’t appear until the late Edo Period.

If you don't know what you're looking for, this is what passes for castle ruins of this era.

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, this is what passes for castle ruins of this era.

According to the experts, of which I ain’t one, judging from the topography there clearly was a pre-Azuchi-Momoyama fortress in the area[iv], which at least indicates that some powerful lord lived in the area before the coming of the Tokugawa. The ruins, which are just embankments and plateaux today, can be seen in Shirokanedai at the 国立自然教育園 Shizen Kyōikuen National Park for the Study of Nature. You can see their busted ass English website here. I haven’t been to this place myself, but it seems that the hills and ridgeways are the remains of the original earthen fortifications. This Japanese website goes into some detail on the topic.

Again, I’m not an expert on castles, but in the Kamakura Period, this area fell under the domain of the clans such as the Edo and the Shibuya. One of these clans may or may not have had fortresses in the area – and it’s possible that they could have – and the timing is right. Apart from the anecdotal story from the late Edo Period, the Yanagishita clan is otherwise unknown in the area.

so this is the kind of fortification we're talking about...

so this is the kind of fortification we’re talking about…

Complicating the issue, later, after the coming of the Tokugawa and the establishment of 参勤交代  sankin-kōtai the alternate attendance system, this area became home to many palatial residences of 大名 daimyō lords. In 1627, the 讃岐高松藩松平家 Sanuki no Kuni Takamatsu-han no Matsudaira-ke the Matsudaira Family of theTakamatsu Domain in Sanuki Province, a branch family of the Tokugawa, established a 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence here. As mentioned in my article on sankin-kōtai, of a lord’s 3 usual residences, the lower residence was usually the grandest and would have included beautiful gardens and ponds.

Matsudaira Yoritoshi, last lord of the Takamatsu Matsudaira Family. (ie; the dude who had to surrendur his bad ass mansion in Edo to the Meiji Government)

Matsudaira Yoritoshi, last lord of the Takamatsu Matsudaira Family.
(ie; the dude who had to surrendur his bad ass mansion in Edo to the Meiji Government)

In the Meiji Era[v], the imperial government set about its wholesale erasing samurai history and appropriated the sprawling palace of the Matsudaira and repurposed the land as an arsenal for the Imperial Navy. In 1893, the arsenal was transferred to the Imperial Army. In 1917, the wooded area was granted to the Imperial Forestry Bureau. In 1949, the area was finally open to the public as 国立自然教育園 Kokuritsu Shizen Kyōikuen the National Park for the Study of Nature.

OK, so this is the traditional narrative and, as mentioned, etymologically speaking it’s open to a lot of criticism. That said, the presence of fortifications there are very real.

However, another intriguing theory exists. This theory proposes that the name actually derives from a Classical Japanese phrase 城ヶ根 shiro ka ne/shiro ga ne/jō ga ne which would mean something along the lines of “the castle’s embankments” or “castle foundations.”  According to this etymology, the presence of a former lord’s castle ruins from time immemorial came to be written in more auspicious kanji, ie; 白金 shirogane/shirokane “silver” or “silver coins.” In the Edo Period, a folk etymology came to be circulated which created this Shirokane Chōja Silver Coin Millionaire character and story.

This new theory simply re-spins the traditional narrative but it doesn’t seem so cheesy. It also falls into a pattern that we’ve seen with Kantō place names that pre-date the Edo Period.  It doesn’t have widespread acceptance, but there are other place names around Japan that use the word 根 ne (literally root/source, specialized geographic meaning “ridge, embankment” in relation to a fortification). Actually, we’ve already seen a  根 ne conjecture in the etymology of Nerima.

Which is correct? I don’t know and we’ll probably never know. But that’s the thing with history, isn’t it? As much as we want a clear picture of what really happened, we’re always reaching.

Another kind of interesting thing about this place name is that it does mean “silver” or “silver coins” and to this day the area is located in the richest ward of Tokyo.

Oh, one last loose end to wrap up! So at the beginning of the article, I mentioned some other place names. The etymology of 芝 Shiba can be found here. The etymology of 高輪 Takanawa can be found here. 台 dai, on the other hand, needs a little explainin’.

The kanji is a reference to a 台地 daichi plateau. As mentioned earlier, the area was clearly fortified no less than 500 years ago. The area was probably a naturally high area, but it was intentionally built up too. Anyways, while one common meaning of the kanji in a place name is “high ground,” it’s not always a reference to elevation in the modern geological sense (think sea level); it was a much more relative term. But in this case, it is most certainly a reference to the foundations of the old fortifications.

[i] The name itself is interesting, it means “under the willows,” but it has 3 possible readings. I’m not sure which the correct reading for this particular clan is as I’ve seen both Yanagishita and Yagishita in reference to this clan. Yanagishita seems to roll off the tongue a little easier, so I’m going with that one.

[ii] The traditional story also asserts that homeboy was a minor official in the service of the 南朝 Nanchō, the Southern Court. Readers unfamiliar with the establishment of the Muromachi shōgunate should know that in the 14th century, there was a succession dispute in the Imperial Family which led to the establishment of a second Imperial Court. Long story short, the Northern Court won and the current imperial line claims descent from this branch and considers the Southern Court a bunch of poseurs. Read more about the Northern and Southern Courts here.

[iii] Silver coins or silver itself, usually 銀 gin in modern Japanese, were apparently called 白金 shirokane at the time. Technically speaking, both methods of writing can be read as either gin or shirokane. There is an additional reading hakkin which means platinum.

[iv] If you remember from my article on What does Edo mean?, when you think “Japanese Castle,” you are most likely thinking of structures that were first developed around the time of Oda Nobunaga and reached their peak of development in the Edo Period. But the word 城 shiro is applied to both structures.

[v] In 1871 no less. This is so soon after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, that it seems like a deliberate dig at the Tokugawa to me.

What does Inokashira mean?

In Japanese History on June 28, 2013 at 3:10 am

Inokashira (Well’s Head, but more at Top of the Well – a poetic way to say “source of water”)

Inokashira Park in the day time.

Inokashira Park in the day time.

This place name has some written variants:





They are all read the same way.

Also there is some dispute over the correct pronunciation of the name. The name is pronounced Inogashira or Inokashira and people who prefer one pronunciation will ardently defend their use of it by saying that the other one is just stupid. But I’m a foreigner and a non-native speaker, so I don’t fucking give a shit. Both pronunciations are perfectly acceptable[i].



Alright, now that we’re one F bomb deep,
I think we’re ready to get started.

The area that is called 井之頭 Inogashira[ii] derives its name from the lake, 井ノ頭池 Inogashira Ike Inokashira Pond. On a falconry outing to the Mitaka area for the first time, the 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, is alleged to have said something along the lines of 「ほら此処は井之頭じゃhora koko wa i no kashira ja “Yo, this is where the water comes from, homie.”

Inokashira Lake is the source of the Kanda River.

Inokashira Lake is the source of the Kanda River.

What the hell was he talking about?

Well[iii], before the Tokugawa came, Edo was a tiny coastal town. With the establishment of the shōgunate and the establishment of Edo residences for all of the lords across Japan, water came into short supply. One of the primary sources of water for Edo Castle was Inokashira lake, located some 10 km outside of Tōkyō in modern Mitaka (to be specific, Kichijōji). Whether the story of Iemitsu visiting the lake for the first time and naming the well is true or not, the fact was that this lake which had natural springs in it was providing fresh water to the shōgunal residence and providing water to the other daimyō (feudal lords) living in the yamanote. Soon that waterway was diverted to other samurai families and later to the general populace of Edo in general.

So, whether Iemitsu really named the lake or not doesn’t really matter (and I totally made up the quote). Maybe the engineering team who came in and started the building project came up with the name and Iemitsu got credited for it. What does matter is that it demonstrates how massive the city of Edo had become in a short time and that the shōgunate had the wherewithal to increase the water supply in a timely manner. It was mostly under Tokugawa Iemitsu’s watch that these changes took place.

By the way, some of the walking paths through the park were formally part of the 玉川上水 Tamagawa Jōsui Tama River Aqueduct. They’re labeled in Japanese, but I don’t think there’s anything in English. Let me know if you’ve seen English signs.

There is another story about the lake. As the area was used for falconry by the Go-sanke, the local villagers asked Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the vice-shōgun, and lord of Mito if they could also use the water for drinking. Mitsukuni said, “Go ahead, I don’t give a shit.” The people were happy and they built a special stairway to thank him. The stairway can still be seen in the park.

Anyways, to today’s modern Tōkyōite the name is associated with the park in Kichijōji which is next to Mitaka. There is also a train line that runs from Shibuya to Kichijōji called the Inokashira Line[iv].



Some guy’s blog about the extant portions of the Tamagawa Jousui (Japanese only):
The first pix are in Inokashira Park.




[i] I would say the 江戸っ子 Edokko native Tōkyōites of 2 generations or more prefer “ga” over “ka” and that it is a dialect thing, but I’ve been told by one or two people who qualify as Eddoko that it’s not. I don’t know who to believe and at this point, it doesn’t matter. Dialects change. Personally, I use “ga” because it’s easier to say.

[ii] Or Inokashira.

[iii] Not a pun, really, I swear.

[iv] But many locals will pronounce it Inogashira.

What does Yoyogi mean?

In Japanese History on June 26, 2013 at 1:57 am

Yoyogi (Generations Old Tree or Trees)

Yoyogi Station.

Yoyogi Station.
Don’t hold me to this, but I think the present Yoyogi Station wasn’t actually part of Yoyogi Village.


Once again, I want to throw out a million thanks to my readers. If none of you followed, commented, messaged or just generally showed up, I wouldn’t be able to continue. Y’all make this so much fun.

I was asked by a reader the other today to talk about Yoyogi. So I bumped it up in the pecking order. Hope this is a good one.

Hatsune Miku.

And for no particular reason, here’s Hatsune Miku.


The name 代々木村 Yoyogi Mura Yoyogi Village is attested in the writings of the Sengoku Period. But it’s not clear where that name came from. There’s a good chance the name is much older than the Edo Period. But without other records, we can’t say.

In the Edo Period, the area called Yoyogi was what is now more or less the Meiji Jingū and Harajuku Station area.


Let’s Look at the Kanji:


alternate: yoyo
an adverb meaning “for generations, for ages”
alternate: gi 



The simplest explanation seems to be the most believable to me. There were a lot of trees in the area for a long time – generations, if you will.

There are a few slight variations of this theory. The reason I put off doing this place name for so long[i] was because sorting thru all the details of etymologies that varied little except for a slightly different angle or a curious anecdote was too time consuming. Given the amount of time and effort I’ve put into JapanThis since that time, this topic seems much less daunting now[ii]. And in reality, it wasn’t difficult to research this one.

One theory states that 皀莢 saikachi honey locust trees were cultivated here[iii]. I like this theory best because it’s simple and plausible. It doesn’t try to hard.

This is a close up a honey locust tree.  You can see its bean pods. Legumes FTW... or something

This is a close up a honey locust tree.
You can see its bean pods.
Legumes FTW… or something


Another theory states specifically that on the Ii family’s lower residence, which made up part of Meiji Jingū and some of the hill at the high point of Harajuku, was covered in  樅 momi Japanese fir trees. This story has some cool anecdotes attached to it, but reeks of folk etymology.

a Japanese fir tree, It looks very firry. Good for it.

a Japanese fir tree,
It looks very firry.
Good for it.


It should be noted that today both types of trees exist in the area around Meiji Jingū, although after WWII, local trees from all over Japan were donated here during the rebuilding effort.
Also, the area that is now Meiji Jingū Gaien was the original site of the Ii clan’s palatial lower residence’s tea garden. To my knowledge, nothing remains of the site.




If you go to Meiji Jingū, near the garden’s east gate, there is a tree with a sign that says 代々木の大樅 Yoyogi no Ōmomi The Great Japanese Fir of Yoyogi. The tree is no bigger or smaller than any of the other trees near it. But the story goes that once upon a time, there was a super tall Japanese fir tree that had stood here for generations. The current unimpressive tree is a replacement that stands on the site of the original Great Japanese Fir of Yoyogi Village.

This is where the sign says the big fir tree of Yoyogi was.

This is where the sign says the big fir tree of Yoyogi was.
Note: it’s not a fir tree….


It was said that this 大樅 ōmomi great fir tree on the Ii family’s lower residence was so great, that mapmakers from the shōgunate would climb to the top of it to survey the city. Another anecdote states that the Ii family’s watchmen would keep an eye on the family’s upper residence which was located near the 桜田門 Sakuradamon Sakurada Gate[iv]. In fact, it was said that you could see all the way to Shiba and Edo Bay. Utagawa Hiroshige even painted a picture of the tree titled 代々木村ノ世々木 Yoyogi Mura no Yoyogi The Generations Old Tree of Yoyogi[v].

There was an imperial residence built on the site of the Ii family’s lower residence[vi]. The tree was preserved… or at least the location of the alleged tree. Eventually the land was incorporated into Meiji Jingū and, as I said, the old tree doesn’t exist anymore, but the new tree does and it has its own sign. So, good for it.




[i] When I started looking into place names, it was one of the first I wanted to write about.

[iii] 代々木 daidai ki, (alternatively, yoyo ki) “generations of trees” was basically shorthand for 代々皀莢ヲ生産  daidai/yoyo saikachi no ki wo seisa “cultivating honey locust trees for generations.”

[iv] I’m sure I’ve alluded to the Sakuradamon Incident (which sounds like a euphemism, it should be called “the Assassination of Ii Naosuke at Sakuradamon”). Many people consider this the opening of the Bakumatsu.

[v] The Yoyogi of Yoyogi. See what he did there? In the second “yoyogi” he used a variant for 代々 daidai/yoyo generations 世々 yoyo. I can’t find this picture on the internet, so if someone can help me find it, I’d really appreciate that!

[vi] Remember, the lower residences were much more palace like and rustic than their urban upper residences near the castle. When the Meiji Era urban sprawl began in earnest, the Harajuku area became a prime target for rich people and the elite imperial family who wanted to build their own estates in the area.

What does Toshima mean?

In Japanese History on May 20, 2013 at 1:24 am

Toshima (Islands Abound)

Toshima Ward's logo

Toshima Ward’s logo

“However, the name survived. Even on Edo Era maps you can see references to the Toshima District. And these days, it’s one of the 23 Special Ward of Tōkyō. Good for it.”

marky star
(from an earlier, shittier draft of this article)


I totally just quoted myself.

For no good reason.

Right then, let’s get started.

Recently I’ve shifted direction towards the northern part of Tōkyō. We’ve touched on the holdings of the Toshima clan quite a bit recently, haven’t we? Shakujii, Nerima, and Itabashi – I covered Ikebukuro a while ago. Up until this point, I’ve been referring to a certain administrative area called 豊島郡 or 豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District.

As a real political entity, it seems that the Toshima district is quite ancient. From times immemorial (take that with a grain of salt) the etymology has been consistent. The bay* had a number of undeveloped, natural inlets that meandered well into the interior of what became Edo. Left unchecked, natural channels of water may merge with other natural channels of water and result in island-like formations. This is exactly what happened in this area. In fact, numerous “islands” were formed; one might say there was a proverbial “abundance of islands.”

豊 to richness, abundance
, shima islands

The kanji 豊 to/toyo is a really auspicious character. It’s “nobility ranking” is off the meters**. Given our previouos encounters with ateji in old place names, take that with a grain of salt.

Anyways… the Toshima area is first attested in the 700’s. At the turn of the century (1000’s), the 秩父氏 Chichibu clan (a branch of the Taira) was granted influence over the area by the Imperial court. The branch of Chichibu in Toshima took the name of their fief and became an independent clan***. They maintained dominion over the area until the 1400’s when Ōta Dōkan stepped up and slapped their dicks out of their hands and face-fucked them full-force with the giant phallus that was the Sengoku Era.

Ota Dokan. Don't let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the Sengoku Period.

Ota Dokan. Don’t let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the boring part of the Sengoku Period.

There were four major clans operating in the area:
豊島氏  the Toshima
渋谷氏  the Shibuya (vassal)
葛西氏  the Kasai (vassal)
江戸氏  the Edo (vassal)
There are place names derived from all of these clans still extant in Tōkyō today

Ōta Dōkan’s actions disrupted the old status quō and throughout the Muromachi Period the area was unstable. However, the district did not collapse or disappear.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The city of Edo was just one of many small cities in the district. Before the arrival of the Tokugawa, the district had been divided into two distinct areas, 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima and 南豊島郡 Minami Toshima-gun South Toshima. More about Kita Toshima later this week.

After the arrival of the Tokugawa, much of South Toshima fell under direct rule of the shougun as part of the city of Edo. The remaining areas of district continued to exist as an administrative unit separate from the city of Edo – part of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In 1868, the Emperor entered Edo Castle and Edo’s name was changed to Tōkyō. The boundary of the new city was different from the shōgun’s capital. The Edo Era Toshima District was incorporated into the new city limits. In 1878, the district was abolished when the new system of 区 ku wards was implemented in Tōkyō. But a district called 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima District continued to exist until 1932. An official ward called 豊島区 Toshima-ku Toshima Ward was created that year when all of the districts of Tōkyō were abolished. The kita (north) part of 北豊島 Kita Toshima wasn’t thrown out altogether… and we’ll talk about that missing tomorrow.



* At this point we can’t even say Edo Bay, let alone Tōkyō Bay. It was just “the bay.”
** The so-called second great unifier of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, received his -name from the imperial court in 1586. It brought potential lasting prestige to him and his newly founded clan, BUT…. use of the kanji in names and place names declined after the rise of the Tokugawa. And take THAT with a grain of salt, too!
*** I mentioned the Toshima clan in the recent articles about Shakujii and Nerima.

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