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What does Umayabashi mean?

In Japanese History on December 22, 2015 at 1:29 am

Umayabashi
厩橋 Umayabashi  (stable/barn bridge)

o-umayabashi now

This triple arched green bridge is Umayabashi. If I’ve got my bearing right, the left side is the west bank (ie; Asakusa/Taitō Ward) and the right side is the east bank (ie; Honjo, Sumida Ward).

I’m really, really sorry for the delay getting this article out. I had a problem with my internet connection at home for about 2 weeks and literally couldn’t do any work[i]. Man, 2 weeks without internet is a horrible experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Well, maybe on Donald Trump or those assholes in ISIS. I really don’t like them.

Anyhoo…

厩橋 Umayabashi is a bridge that crosses the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[ii]. It connects 台東区蔵前二丁目 Taitō-ku Kuramae 2-chōme 2nd block of Kuramae, Taitō Ward and 東区駒形二丁目 Taitō-ku Komagata 2-chōme 2nd block of Komagata, Taitō Ward on the west bank with 墨田区本所一丁目 Sumida-ku Honjo 1-chōme 1st block of Honjo, Sumida Ward on the east bank.

The word is made of 2 kanji.


umaya, maya
(baya in some dialects)
barn, stable
(this kanji is extremely rare today)

hashi
bridge

There’s one more kanji we will encounter.


o-, on-, go-
an honorific prefix used in polite speech, but historically also used to refer to possessions of the shōgunate and the imperial court.
Onmayagashi

On-mayagashi (O-umaya Coast) – note the ferry service. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

The Etymology

The name derives from 御厩 O-umaya. The kanji were read as おんまや On-maya and おうまや O-umaya in the Edo Period. Both readings are acceptable, but the former seems more imperial, while the latter appears more shōgunal – or at the very least, it appears more Edoesque. The name is a reference to a short lived stable owned by the Tokugawa Shōgunate. As mentioned earlier, 厩 umaya means stable. 御厩 o-umaya/on-maya are honorific forms of the same word. Any possessions of the shōgun were generally given the honorific prefix 御 go/o[iii]. The exact location of the shōgunate’s stables is unclear today, but they were most likely located on the west side of the river in Kuramae/Komagata[iv].

The horses stabled in this area were not magical samurai war horses[v]. In fact, because the shōgunate restricted horse use to only high ranking samurai, you couldn’t just ride a horse through the city. The horses at O-umaya were merely pack horses used by the granary at 御倉 O-kura the great rice warehouse from which 大名 daimyō feudal lords and 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun were paid their stipends. At that time, Asakusa was a bustling suburb – that is, on the outskirts of Edo – while the east side of the river was generally rural. However, this particular stretch of the river was urbanized[vi] on both sides. 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō palaces and a detached palace of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family were located in this area[vii]. Fruit markets and vegetables markets existed on the quays, shōgunal storehouses lined the river, and warehouses of various daimyō dominated the alleyways.

If you’re scratching your head, check out these related articles later:

Umaya Coast

O-umaya Coast during a rainstorm.

Not so much a Place Name as a few Place Names

You’d think that the landholdings of the shōgun would loom large in the historical record, but the O-umaya’s existence seems to have been so short lived or so mundane that little is known about it. However, the place name seems to have been commonplace by 1690, the 10th year of the reign of the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. That year of the “golden age” of the shōgunate, a ferry crossing was established in the area. It was named 御厩之渡し O-umaya no Watashi O-umaya Crossing. The quay on the west bank of the river was referred to as 御厩河岸 On-maya-gashi or O-umaya-kagan the O-umaya Riverbank[viii].

asakusa-gawa shubinomatsu onmayagashi

O-umaya and the Asakusa section of the Sumida River at night.

Meanwhile, on the East Bank of the River

While people occasionally traveled from the west bank to the east, most of the traffic consisted of country merchants or rich farmers from the east bank seeking the pleasures of Edo. A good deal of them took the ferry to make religious pilgrimages to 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple in 浅草 Asakusa, but that was largely an excuse to indulge in the exotic and erotic delights of the 吉原 Yoshiwara, Edo’s licensed red light district. And even though the country bumpkins loved a little drinking and whoring when they had the time, the reality was that the samurai on sankin-kōtai duty in the barracks located on the east bank were the biggest spenders. The ferry services were all for hire, but few ferry services charged samurai. This was out of the commoners respect for their social superiors as there was a legally sanctioned chance of being killed for insulting a samurai’s honor[ix]. In Star Wars terminology, this is called the “let the Wookie win” defense.

asakusa-gawa shubinomatsu onmayagashi

O-umaya and the Asakusa section of the Sumida River at night.

On the east bank of the river, there had also been a rural palace of the Tokugawa shōguns known as 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten the Sumida River Palace[x]. The elite, rural side of the river was lined with 桜の木 sakura no ki cherry blossom trees and by 1872 (Meiji 5), it seems to have become a hot spot for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing in the spring. That particular year experienced a rush of Edoites from the west bank who wanted to see the cherry blossoms of 向島 Mukōjima on the east bank. A ferry loaded beyond capacity departed from O-umaya and soon capsized. The cold and rapid currents of the Sumida swept the boat and its passengers downstream. Many of the revelers drowned as few could overcome the force of the river in their heavy, early spring 着物 kimono and 羽織 haori traditional jackets worn with kimono. The incidence prompted quick action from the government.

1502jcii

The O-umaya Ferry

These kinds of accidents had happened quite often since the Meiji Coup in 1868 because of the unprecedented ease of travel that the liberalism of the new imperial government afforded. But tragedies like this were excuses to further modernization[xi]. Ferry service was temporarily halted and construction of a bridge was begun slightly downstream. Finally, in 1874 (Meiji 7), a traditional Japanese-style wooden bridge was opened for service called 厩橋 Umayabashi Umaya Bridge[xii]. The paid ferry service soon ended as the bridge was free to cross on foot[xiii].

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The Meiji Era wooden bridge

 

In 1893 (Meiji 26), a steel bridge was built to replace the traditional wooden bridge in order to accommodate trains and automobile traffic. It was finished in 1895 (Meiji 28). The current bridge is a much more stable construction that replaced the first steel bridge following the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. Interestingly, the modern bridge only allows automobile and pedestrian traffic. No trains cross it these days, though the 都営大江戸線 Toei Ōedo-sen Toei Ōedo Line, a subway, passes nearby. The bridge is nothing special today – just one of many bridges that cross Edo’s former 大川 Ōkawa Great River.

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The Meiji Era steel bridge. Note it is divided into 3 segments like the modern bridge.

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[i] On the bright side, I was able to plow through a pretty epic book. I hope to have a review for you before New Year’s.
[ii] The river was known by different names at different locales throughout its windy path. Sumida River referred to a very specific stretch of the river. Prior to the Meiji Period, the bulk of the river was referred to as the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River or the Big River. This is a name not unlike that of the Mississippi, which derives from a Native American dialect word that means “Great River.” I don’t know anything about Native American languages or dialects, but this is what Wikipedia has to say about the language group.
[iii] Refer to my article on O-daiba and my article on Kuramae.
[iv] 駒形 Komagata literally means “horse shaped,” but apparently this place name is from the 800’s and is actually a reference to 馬頭観音 Batō Kannon/Mezu Kannon, the Japanese version of हयग्रीव Hayagrīva. I’m not an expert in Buddhism or Hinduism, but for whatever reason the first kanji means “horse.” At nearby 浅草寺 Sensō-ji, you can see a structure called the 駒形堂 Komagata-dō. This is mostly likely where the place name Komagata comes from. The presence of a stable belonging to the shōgunate is most likely a coincidence.
[v] The magical samurai warhorses, as everyone knows, were stabled at your mom’s house.
[vi] Or, more accurately, “suburbanized.” Is that a word?
[vii] More about that in a bit.
[viii] The former, Onmaya-gashi represented in 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting daily life in Edo-Tōkyō. The latter, seems more logical considering other place names, including 大森海岸 Ōmori Kaigan Ōmori Coast (see article on Ōmori here). Also, the most basic rules of reading kanji in modern Japanese tend to favor “kagan/gagan” over “kashi/gashi.” So, Onmaya-gashi may be an affectation.
[ix] Under the Tokugawa Shōgunate’s rules, a practice commonly called 切捨て御免 kirisute go-men, which means “an excuse for killing and discarding someone” existed. The idea was a samurai was more educated and at the top of the hierarchy so if you caused some affront to him, he could kill you on the spot and in the following investigation claim his social status as an excuse. Whether the courts of Edo bought it or not, the samurai would be freed or asked to perform 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide. The suicide option was considered more dignified than execution.
[x] I discussed the palace briefly in my article on Mukōjima.
[xi] I’m not using excuse in a light way here, either. The more lives saved, the better. But with western technology, we see the chipping away at Edo. The old city begins to disappear.
[xii] Note the honorific kanji 御 o was removed for the new bridge name. This was a deliberate move by the imperial government to eradicated traces of the shōgunate from the shōgun’s former capital.
[xiii] Surely, you could walk across the river faster than fight the downstream current on a small boat.

What does Tsukuda mean?

In Japanese History on November 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm


Tsukuda (a cultivated rice field)

Edo's river town origins mixed with her ultra-modern skyscraper imagine. Tsukuda a sight to behold.

Edo’s river town origins mixed with her ultra-modern skyscraper imagine. Tsukuda a sight to behold.

佃 Tsukuda is an area in 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward. These days it’s not very famous. There are no train stations bearing its name. Unless you’re a Japanese History nerd or live in the area, there’s probably no reason to ever go there. But this small, out of the way area was one of the most famous spots of Edo and has bestowed a lasting legacy upon Japanese cuisine. Tsukuda has humble commoner roots as well as a connection to not only the samurai class, but to the very shōgunate itself.

On the surface, the kanji itself is not very helpful in figuring out where this place name came from. But actually, the origin is very simple and we’ll get to that in a minute. For the time being, I can tell you that the kanji 佃 tsukuda refers to a “cultivated rice field.” However this area was never used for rice production.

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P1210369

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Tokugawa Ieyasu Had Some Fishing Buddies… in Ōsaka?

In 1590, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo and began his urban planning efforts. He needed to ensure a solid infrastructure for his new home, 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. Supplies, water, and food needed a way into the castle. Edo was located on a pretty bad ass bay and had a strong tradition in fishings so securing fresh fish and other seafood for the castle was an absolute priority.

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This is a great picture of Edo Castle. But see that big tower in the back? That amazing tower was built in 1607 but burnt in 1657. For most of the Edo Period, there was no tower in Edo. The shogunate knew the city was secure.

This is a great picture of Edo Castle.
But see that big tower in the back? That amazing tower was built in 1607 but burnt in 1657. For most of the Edo Period, there was no tower in Edo. The shogunate knew the city was secure.

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The Connection is Unclear but…

In 摂津国西成郡佃村 Settsu no Kuni Nishi Narigōri Tsukuda Mura Tsukuda Village, Nishi Narigōri, Settsu Province[i] there lived a certain fisherman by the name of 森孫右衛門 Mori Magoemon who was quite famous for his fishing techniques. Ieyasu invited him to be one of the main purveyors of fish and seafood to Edo Castle. He gave Magoemon some land in the 日本橋 Nihonbashi area and granted him control of an unnamed sandbar at the mouth of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[ii]. The sandbar ideal for keeping boats that could go out into 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay for fishing, and yet have fast access to the rivers and channels of the city.

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Modern Tsukuda carries on much of its Edo Period tradition beautifully. Even though the design of this restaurant is from the Showa Era, it would be immediately recognizable to any person from the Edo Period just by the architecture.

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The Ōsaka Fishermen Take Control of the Island

Mori Magoemon accepted the offer and came to Edo with 32 other fishermen. They found the “sandbar” to be of a fairly substantial size were able to build a few permanent buildings and docks and could use it as a base for their business. They made a deal with the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate to send their first catches and biggest catches to Edo Castle and the rest could be sold at a profit. At the beginning of the Edo Period it was a risk (Ieyasu wasn’t shōgun yet, just a very powerful daimyō[iii]) but it turned out to be a pretty sweet deal. As the city expanded and the Tokugawa power grew, these fishermen from Ōsaka found themselves running one of the largest seafood concessions in the new metropolis. Magoemon’s son[iv], 森九左衛門 Mori Kūzaemon[v], established a wholesale fish market in Nihonbashi[vi]. That private fish market was the origin of the 日本橋魚市場 Nihonbashi Uo’ichiba Nihonbashi Fish Market[vii], Edo’s most famous fish market.

The “sandbar,” which was actually more of an island at the mouth of the Sumida River, came to be referred to by the fishermen from 佃村 Tsukuda Mura Tsukuda Village as 佃嶋 Tsukuda-jima Tsukuda Island after the place of their birth[viii]. However, maps at the time label the area 森嶋 Morishima (or Mori-jima) and 鎧嶋 Yoroi-jima[ix], but this was all soon to change.

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For most of the Edo Period, the island looked like this (after the shogunate subsidized expansion in 1645).  Note the red area. That is Sumiyoshi Shrine, a branch of shrine of an Osaka-based shrine.

For most of the Edo Period, the island looked like this (after the shogunate subsidized expansion in 1645).
Note the red area. That is Sumiyoshi Shrine, a branch of shrine of an Osaka-based shrine.

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The Island Becomes Home to Commoners and Samurai  

In 1645, 3rd shōgun 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu granted the fishing concession rights to expand the sandbar with landfill. The shōgunate subsidized the project and extended the island’s north bank substantially creating a massive island in the Sumida River delta. Shōgun Iemitsu gave[x] the north bank of the island to a certain 石川八左衛門 Ishikawa Hachizaemon. Because of this, the north bank of the island came to be known as 石川嶋 Ishikawa-jima Ishikawa Island.

By this time, the island was famous first and foremost for providing seafood to the shōgun at Edo Castle and secondly for providing fresh fish to the citizens of central Edo. This location served both the commoners and samurai. The walk from Tsukuda to 大名小路 daimyō koji daimyō alley[xi] would have been 30-40 minutes tops on foot. That meant the most elite lords who served the Tokugawa could get a fresh fish in less than an hour. If the delivery was sent by boat, maybe we can halve that to about 15 minutes. Tsukuda was a force to be reckoned with. It was prime bayside property. It had access to Edo’s major river delta. It was enfranchised by the shōgunate. It was also producing a new, local product that would put the name Tsukuda in the history books. That product was called 佃煮 Tsukuda-ni. But let’s talk about that later…

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Tokugawa Ienari looking quite dapper and not-so-riddled by syphilis.

Tokugawa Ienari looking quite dapper and not-so-riddled by syphilis.

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For most of the Edo Period, Tsukudajima and Ishikawajima were marked as separate on maps (presumably because the south bank was for lowly fishermen and the north bank was a samurai’s fief). However, in 1817, a monumental land survey of shōgunate holdings and later the entire realm was undertaken. The Party Shōgun, 徳川家斉 Tokugawa Ienari[xii], commissioned a map made by “western standards[xiii].” The map in question is known as 江戸実測図 Edo Jissokuzu A Realistic Map of Edo[xiv].  At this time, the area began appearing on maps as 佃島 Tsukudajima with no regard to the north/south differences[xv].

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Inō Tadataka - the first "modern" map maker of Japan.

Inō Tadataka – the first “modern” map maker of Japan.

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Modern Tsukuda 1-chōme and the northern part of Tsukuda 2-chōme make up the former Tsukuda-jima and Ishikawa-jima. Now the island is supplemented by reclaimed land that includes 月島 Tsukishima, 勝鬨 Kachidoki, and 晴海 Harumi. The collective area is generally referred to as 月島地域 Tsukishima Chiiki the Tsukishima Area or just Tsukishima, though technically speaking 中央区佃 Chūō-ku Tsukuda Tsukuda, Chūō Ward is a real postal code.

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If you compare the blocks, and bridges, you can still make out much of the late Edo Period layout of the island despite all of the expansion. The river's path has also been modified since the Edo Period. The easiest way to get your sense of size and direction is to use Sumiyoshi Shrine as an anchor.

If you compare the blocks, and bridges, you can still make out much of the late Edo Period layout of the island despite all of the expansion. The river’s path has also been modified since the Edo Period.
The easiest way to get your sense of size and direction is to use Sumiyoshi Shrine as an anchor.

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Why Did Ishikawajima Disappear?

It didn’t really.

And if you look at the map above this paragraph, you’ll see it didn’t. Scroll up a little higher to review the Edo Period map.

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Today there are no official references to the Ishikawa family except for a park called 石川島公園 Ishikawajima Kōen Ishikawa Park and 石川島記念病院 Ishikawajima Kinen Byōin Ishikawajima Memorial Hospital. Interestingly enough, in the bakumatsu, the land called Ishikawajima was bought by 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain to be used as a shipyard – presumably to follow through with their psychopathic 尊王攘夷 sonnō jōi[xvi] philosophy. This happened in 1853. After the Meiji Coup, the shipyard was privatized in 1876 (Meiji 9) and became 石川島造船所 Ishikawajima Zōsensho Ishikawajima Shipyard[xvii]. Until the shutdown of the shipyard in 1979, much of the traditional atmosphere of Tsukudajima was preserved.

Ishikawajima Shipyard in the Meiji Era

Ishikawajima Shipyard in the Meiji Era

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After the shutdown of Ishikawajima Shipyard, the old facilities were cleared out and real estate developers descended upon the area with a vengeance. They began throwing up massive タワーマンション tawā manshon sky rise apartment buildings. This forever changed the look of this traditional area via 都心回帰 toshin kaiki – renewing antiquated or depressed areas as modern residential areas desirable to families. Toshin kaiki is essentially the Japanese version of gentrification. As a result, the area is mix of modern sky rise apartments towering over traditional 1 and 2-story wooden residences. You can still get a feel of the Edo Period – or at least the pre-bubble Shōwa Period – but it’s fast disappearing. The Tōkyō Metropolitan Government has deemed the traditional wooden buildings and their tiny traditional alleys a fire hazard. In order to protect the city from a conflagration in the event of a major earthquake, in 2012 they enacted a 10-year plan to rid the city of old wooden buildings. The traditional legacy of Tsukudajima will surely disappear sooner rather than later.

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A "panoramic" shot of Tsukuda 1-chōme in 1989.

A “panoramic” shot of Tsukuda 1-chōme in 1989.

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About The Name

I’ve been throwing around the names Tsukudajima and Ishikawajima. Some local residents still refer to the area as Tsukudajima, but in 1967, 佃島 Tsukudajima and 石川島 Ishikawajima were merged into an official postal code as 佃 Tsukuda. Interestingly, while the former Ishikawajima has been expanded greatly and is more or less unrecognizable when compared to its Edo Period predecessor, Tsukuda still retains much of the original street plan. Even the shape strongly resembles the shape of the island in the late Edo Period.

Tsukuda 1-chōme in January, 1988.

Tsukuda 1-chōme in January, 1988.

Tsukudajima Transcends Geography in Favor of Your Mouth


tsukuda
Tsukuda

ni
simmering, boiling

Tsukudani, in its most generic sense, is a vegetable or seafood simmered in soy sauce and sugar, dried, and then served as a topping on rice or eaten as a side dish. There is probably an infinite variety of tsukudani available all across Japan. Today it is as ubiquitous as 御新香 o-shinko Japanese-style pickled veggies – second only to… I dunno… rice? This type of dish is so widespread and so entrenched in the pantheon of modern Japanese cuisine that few people even give a thought to where it began. Well, of course, it originated on Tsukudajima in Edo.

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Kelp tsukudani. The modern versions use sugar to make the taste mild.  While Edo Period food would be a bit bland to the modern international palate, tsukudani was considered quite flavorful. This was a hallmark of the Edo flavor of Kanto in comparison to the light flavors of Kyoto.

Kelp tsukudani.
The modern versions use sugar to make the taste mild.
While Edo Period food would be a bit bland to the modern international palate, tsukudani was considered quite flavorful. This was a hallmark of the Edo flavor of Kanto in comparison to the light flavors of Kyoto.

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The Origin of Tsukudani

When the fishermen of Tsudajima had bad weather or bad fishing conditions, they wouldn’t have food for themselves or their families. Also, when they were on the boats fishing, they needed a kind of preserved food that was small and light and that they could take with them. For these times, the wives used cooking techniques called 煮付ける nitsukeru hard simmer and 煮切る nikiru reduce by simmering[xviii]. They would hard simmer very small fish, minnows, and shellfish in salt and soy sauce and boil it down until no liquid remained. The end result was a preserved food that could be stored for a rainy day or brought out to sea by the fishermen.

As Edo’s population exploded and prospered, it wasn’t long before the process was used for making a side dish or topping for rice, rather than a staple for starving fishermen[xix]. The simple and delicious seasoning combined with the unique, gelatinous texture was an instant hit with the 江戸っ子 Edokko Edoites. Tsukudani quickly became popular in the areas surrounding Tsukudajima and soon became one of many 江戸之名物 Edo no Meibutsu Special Dishes of Edo. Also, because it was a stable, preserved food, samurai serving sankin-kōtai service in Edo would bring it back to their domains as 御土産 o-miyage souvenirs for friends and family. As such, tsukudani – which was not difficult to replicate – spread throughout the samurai families of the various domains and many local variations began to develop among the households of the elite.

Edo-mae tsukudani made from seaweed. It's rice time, baby!!!

Edo-mae tsukudani made from seaweed.
It’s rice time, baby!!!

The Imperial Army placed huge orders for tsukudani in 1877 (Meiji 10) during the 西南戦争 Seinan Sensō the Satsuma Rebellion. It’s said that the dish endowed the emperor’s soldiers with such superhuman strength that Saigō Takamori actually never had a fighting chance[xx]. Again, in 1894 (Meiji 27), tsukudani played an important role in the Imperial Army’s strategy during the 日清戦争Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War[xxi]. After the wards, the soldiers came back to their hometowns with a taste for the real deal, the so-called 江戸前佃煮 Edomae tsukudani Edo Style Tsukudani. It’s after these two wars that the dish really took off with the common people. By the middle of the Meiji Period it had become a standard household side dish.

Note the gelatinous texture... that is the result of the cooking process.

Note the gelatinous texture… that is the result of the cooking process.

With advent of modern packing, refrigeration, and other technological advances, tsukudani is an ubiquitous food throughout Japan. You can make it from pretty much anything given it is tiny enough or julienned small enough for the cooking process. The most popular form across the country is without a doubt 昆布佃煮 konbu tsukudani kelp tsukudani. The modern versions are often coated with sesame oil and sesame seeds for a richer flavor.

Shio-konbu (salted kelp), Tokyo's new twist on Tsukudani.

Shio-konbu (salted kelp), Tokyo’s new twist on Tsukudani.

Although it’s technically not tsukudani, one of my favorite toppings for cabbage is a tsukudani-inspired condiment called 塩昆布 shio konbu salty kelp. It’s not made through the simmering and boiling down process, but rather dried and cured with salt. The end result is similar to tsukudani but with a much more intense flavor that is aligned with the globalizing Japanese palate.

As I mentioned earlier, the dish was originated in a fishing community. It diversified to a point where marine vegetation came to be included. To this day, the most common forms of tsukudani are seafood and plant and fungus based. But there are always a few people who have to take a good idea and fuck it up for everyone. The word tsukudani has a dark side. Ask a person from the extreme country or far mountain villages[xxii] what tsukudani means and they may tell you that it’s something like 蝗佃煮 inago tsukudani. This dish is basically cooked locusts[xxiii]. Another rustic variation is ざざ虫佃煮 zaza mushi tsukudani. Zaza mushi refers to a variety of semi-aquatic insects in Nagano[xxiv]. Silk worms and bee larvæ[xxv] are also fair game for this type of insect tsukudani.

And there it is... tsukudani's logical conclusion....

And there it is… tsukudani’s logical conclusion….

I’m a picky eater, but believe it or not, yours truly has actually eaten 蝗佃煮 inago tsukudani (locusts). The taste was actually good. But I have to be honest. I had to eat them with my eyes closed, because seeing segmented legs and robot-like antennæ is a major gross out.

Well… whatever. You only live once and sometimes having certain cultural experiences is worth stepping outside of your comfort zone. No regrets and all that shit.

Awwwwwwww yeah.

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[i] This is present day 大阪府大阪市西淀川区佃村 Ōsaka-fu Ōsaka-shi Nishi Yodogawa-ku Tsukuda Mura, Tsukuda Village, Nishi Yodogawa Ward, Ōsaka City, Ōsaka Prefecture.
[ii] Read more about the Sumida River here!
[iii] A daimyō who controlled the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces (Musashi, Sagami, Kazusa, Shimōsa, Awa, Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, and Hitachi) – most of the Kantō region.
[iv] By some accounts his first son, by other accounts his second son.
[v] Another possible reading is Kyūzaemon – both being equally ridiculous sounding names.
[vi] I have an article about Nihonbashi here.
[vii] Many other fishermen set up markets in the Nihonbashi area. Eventually these were consolidated to become the 日本橋魚河岸 Nihonbashi Uogashi Nihonbashi Riverside Fish Market. This was the largest fish market in Edo (and possibly the world). It was also the predecessor of Tōkyō’s world famous 築地市場 Tsukiji Shijō Tsukiji Market – but that’s a story for another day.
[viii] Remember, they came from Tsukuda Village in Settsu Province (present day Ōsaka).
[ix] The name 森嶋 Morishima derives from the family name 森 Mori who controlled the fishing concession on the island. The name 鎧嶋 Yoroijima (literally “armor island”) is a bit mysterious.
[x] I was going to use the verb “enfeof” but then I thought my own neologism “infief” would be better. Then I realized if modern spell checks don’t recognize either of those words, then neither will you, dear reader.
[xi] Modern day Hibiya, Yūraku-chō, Tōkyō Station, and Marunouchi.
[xii] #TeamIenari for life, y’all!
[xiii] And by “western,” we mean “Dutch.”
[xiv] This monumental survey and map-making project was conducted by 伊能忠敬 Inō Tadataka (merchant/surveyor) – he has his own stamp. He’s that important to Japanese history. He is known for completing the first map of Japan created using modern surveying techniques.
[xv] Interestingly, this is the same year Tokugawa Ienari deported Titia Bergsma. Titia sounds like “titty ya” but I assure you Ienari had no idea – if he had, he probably wouldn’t have deported her.
[xvi] I’m assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the basics, but just in case, sonnō jōi used by anti-foreign radicals. The word means “revere the emperor – expel the barbarians.”
[xvii] The company still exists, though. It’s called IHI Corporation in English. The Japanese name is 石川島播磨重工業株式会社 Ishikawajima-Harima Jūkōgyō Kabushiki Gaisha Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries. It’s a pretty major company. In 1995, the company merged with another company with a Bakumatsu connection, but since I think “business” is a boring ass topic, you can read more here, if you like.
[xviii] The entire process can also be described by a single Japanese word: 煮詰める nitsumeru the general word for “boiling down.”
[xix] Edo and fishing go hand in hand well into time immemorial. But after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the city prospered like no other city in Japan. Being a fisherman in a city of a million hungry people meant you probably weren’t going to go hungry.
[xx] OK, that’s actually not true.
[xxi] OK, that’s actually not true either, but it is true that as they had in the Satsuma Rebellion, the Imperial Army again relied heavily on tsukudani for troop rations.
[xxii] Niigata and Nagano, I’m looking at you.
[xxiii] 蝗 inago (also written in katakana as イナゴ or less commonly as 稲子) is sometimes translated as rice grasshopper. There are a variety of species in Japan and I assume they all taste more or less the same and that if you’re out in the rice paddies gathering up bugs to eat, you’re probably not terribly concerned with what species you’re getting so… let’s just go with “locust” as this is pretty much gonna cover everything.
[xxiv] Again, if you’re out there, you know, getting bugs for food. You’re probably not going to be too bothered by which species you get. This is also a reminder that every time you eat a lobster or crab or shrimp, you’re essentially eating an insect’s cousin.
[xxv] Bee larvæ, known as 蜂の子 hachi no ko “baby bees” in Japanese, is a subject worthy of discussion all on its own because there seem to be a variety of ways to make dishes from them.

The Arakawa River

In #rivered, Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on June 26, 2014 at 5:53 am

荒川
Arakawa (raging river)

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

Welcome to my 3rd installment of my 8 part series on the Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō[i]. My second article, which was about the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, literally tore me a new hole. It broke me. I thought rivers would be an easy topic, but they’re not. Researching this article broke my brain again. And my apologies for publishing so late. I had to step away and come back with a fresh perspective.

That said, every article I write enhances my view of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum more and more. I’m only 3 rivers deep into this series and I feel like I’m slowly starting to wrap my head around things. I probably shouldn’t have started with the 3 most incestuously confusing rivers in Kantō. But there’s no looking back, is there? Yes, I’m an idiot. (But this shouldn’t be news to any of you, my dear readers)

Just like “Sumida” became 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, there is an 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and an 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward[ii]. I touched on this briefly in my article on the Sumida River. And I promise to talk about this later. There are going to be a few big surprises as we go on, but before that let’s do the etymology.

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By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and  derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.

By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.

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The Name of both the River and the Ward are the Same.

So let’s look at the kanji first so we know we have a base point from which to start.


ara

wild, rough, rude; devastating


kawa

river

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Unlike most etymologies we’ve encountered at JapanThis!, there actually seems to be some sort of consensus about this river’s name. I’ve looked all over and I can’t find an alternate or older way of writing the name of the river. The name of the river seems to have been written 荒川 Arakawa since the Heian Period.

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Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.  Remember this name, we're coming back to Senju in a bit.

Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.
Remember this name, we’re coming back to Senju in a bit.

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Etymology of the River

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荒ぶる川
araburu kawa

unruly, wild, malevolent river

荒れる川
arareru kawa

stormy, short-tempered river

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This river was part of the Tone River watershed. As mentioned in my previous article, the Tone had a reputation for being uncontrollable and wild. Not only did the river periodically flood, these floods often changed the course of the river. As such, the Arakawa was a dangerous and scary river. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that the kanji are literal in this case.

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Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.  Some of the reference points I've added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.

Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.
Some of the reference points I’ve added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.

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Why do we say Arakawa River and Arakawa Ward and not Ara River and Ara Ward?

You just asked the $100k question, son! If you didn’t care about why Sumida Ward and Sumida River use different kanji, if you can’t read or speak Japanese, or you fucking hate grammar with every fiber of your body, you might want to skip to the next section. If you’re a Japanese grammar nerd, then stick around because you might dig this.

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OK, so one of these is not like the other one. Sesame Street style, see if you can spot the difference.

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Japanese

Romanization English

隅田川

Sumidagawa the Sumida River

利根川

Tonegawa the Tone River

富士山

Fuji-san Mt. Fuji

江戸町

Edo Machi the city of Edo

荒川

Arakawa the Arakawa River

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Can you spot the difference?

.Except for Arakawa, all of those examples follow this pattern:

Japanese Romanization

河川名

river name + river suffix

山名

mountain name + mountain suffix

町名

city name + city suffix

荒川

prefix + suffix (ie; inseparable)

So the typical pattern is “name + river/mountain/lake suffix.” However, ara by itself is not a word. Ara by itself is not a name. In fact, in this case, it’s a prefix. Therefore ara can’t be spilt from kawa and kawa can’t be split from ara. (This leads some people to say that “Arakawa” was originally a nickname or just a normal word in itself meaning “a raging river” – indeed there are Arakawa rivers all over the country).

Furthermore, the convention for signposts and naming will split the words from river/lake/mountain. So Tonegawa can easily be split into Tone and kawa – which is then rendered into English as “the Tone River.” If we split ara from kawa we get a non-word (a freestanding prefix) plus the word for river[iii]. I can’t think of an equivalent name in English, but imagine trying to convince someone that Opportunity should be split into two separate words Op and Portunity. It’s just weird, man.

But keep in mind, as Japanese has no spacing between words and this is just a convention (not a law) for romanization of Japanese words, there are occasional exceptions[iv]. Also, the Japan River Society, while having no real ability to affect laws, has strong opinions on the matter (Japanese only).

Totally random fact, but I've been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.

Totally random fact, but I’ve been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.

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Etymology of the Ward

☆ Short Answer:
Name of the ward is derived from the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River. The ward was officially created in 1932 and named after the river.

☆ Long Answer:
You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?
OK, this is pretty complicated, especially because I haven’t described the course of the river or its history yet. So you’re going to get some spoilers. But that’s fine because this is history and there aren’t really spoilers – just shit you don’t know yet.

The name of the ward comes from the Arakawa River flowing through the northeastern part of Arakawa Ward. But – surprise! – the river flowing through the northeastern part of the Arakawa Ward, is called the Sumida River.

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The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. The red one is the original. The big blue one is the new one.
Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

Say What?!

From 1924-1930 a project was undertaken to create a man-made river to drain excess water from the Arakawa River and dump it into the 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River which would then expediently flushes it all out to sea. This feat of civil engineering is sometimes credited with keeping Tōkyō relatively flood-free since 1916 (fingers crossed!)[v].

This construction of this man-made canal meant the Arakawa was split into 2 discrete waterways:

 The so-called 荒川放水路 Arakawa Hōsuiro Arakawa Drainage Canal began at 岩淵水門 Iwabuchi Suimon Iwabuchi Floodgate in 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward and then meandered through 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward, 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward, 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, 江戸川区 Edogawa-ku Edogawa Ward, and 江東区 Kōtō-ku Kōtō Ward.

 The other waterway, the Arakawa went from the Iwabuchi Floodgate in Kita Ward to create the borders of Adachi Ward and Arakawa Ward, then marked the borders of Arakawa Ward and Sumida Ward, then to mark the borders of Sumida Ward and 台東区Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, then Sumida Ward and 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward, then to mark the borders of Chūō Ward and Kōtō Ward where it dumped out into Tōkyō Bay.

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

In 1965, the Arakawa Drainage Canal was formally designated as the official path of the Arakawa River. This meant the stretch of the Arakawa from Iwabuchi Floodgate to Tōkyō Bay was designated as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, which you can read about here. That stretch of river had had the unofficial nickname of Sumida River since the Edo Period and since it delineated many borders of Sumida Ward, the changing the name seemed obvious.

But because of this new, formal re-designation of the Arakawa’s “main path,” it meant that the border of the 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward was no longer the Arakawa River, it was the Sumida River.

Yes, that’s right, folks. The Arakawa River does not flow through (or even touch) Arakawa Ward – at least not officially[vi].

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon "Red Floodgate." It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon “Red Floodgate.” It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

Arakawa Ward’s Dark Secrets

Prior to and during the Edo Period the area was made of rural, agricultural communities in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District (this was never part of Edo). The area was only associated with peasant farmers until 1651, the first year of 4th shōgun Tokugawa Ietsuna’s rule. In this year, the shōgunate built 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground in the village of Minami Senjū. Around this time, the area of Minami Senjū came to have a heavy association with the 穢多 eta outcastes (literally “abundances of filth”)[vii] in the Edo Period. These were people at the bottom of the social class structure who did “unclean work” such as execution, clean up and disposal of dead bodies, leather work, butchery, etc. Minami Senjū’s reputation as a village of “unclean” people and a place of death and torture has tarnished the area for centuries[viii]. Also, it didn’t help that it was one of the most mismanaged execution grounds of the shōgunate.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Present day Arakawa Ward is also home to 浄閑寺 Jōkan-ji Jōkan Temple, often called 投込寺 Nagekomi-dera the “dumping temple.” I mentioned this briefly in my article on Yoshiwara, but this was where most licensed prostitutes were interred. The name seems to imply that dead prostitutes were just impiously dumped at the temple gates at all hours of the day throughout the Edo Period, but this is probably not the case. In 1855, there was a major earthquake which burned down much of Yoshiwara[ix]. As a result, the corpses of the girls were wrapped in sheets – or whatever facilitated easy transport – and they were dumped in a massive heap in front of the temple. At any rate, the sight of the pile of bodies of young girls (mostly 12-20 years old) made an impact on the local people and the nickname stuck. At any rate, thinking of girls sold off by their families to be sexual slaves and then dumped at a crappy temple in the countryside because no one else would take them is pretty fucking depressing.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren't just Edo Period 'tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.  It's estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren’t just Edo Period ‘tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.
It’s estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.

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In 1868, 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture was established and this area the Toshima District was included in the newly created Tōkyō. In 1932, the area called Arakawa Ward was formally incorporated into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City[x]. Even by the 1930’s, the area’s image hadn’t improved.

The reason for this is that with the Meiji Coup came industrialization. The industrial revolution in Europe and the US was a filthy and polluted affair. Japan was no different. In Meiji Japan, many factories were built along the Arakawa River (present day Sumida River). This area was chosen for a number of reasons. First, the river allowed for the transport of raw material into the factories and distribution of finished products. Garbage and waste of the factory could be dumped into the river. Factories were dirty and produced unnatural smells and smoke and waste, so it was better to put these outside of the city center. As a result, other businesses and factories associated with “unclean” work were relocated to the area along the present day Sumida River. Of course, the people working these jobs were none other than the recently “liberated” and “integrated” 部落民 burakumin, the new polite word for the outcastes and their descendants. Burakumin villages lined the Arakawa river system. And what about good ol’ Minami Senjū? (Nowhere near the Arakawa River, by the way.) Well, the execution ground was shut down early on by the Meiji Government, but the area still bore a massive stigma. Its inhabitants continued doing “unclean” work that was forbidden in the city center, ie; leatherwork, slaughtering animals, butchery, and disposing of corpses.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?  Yup. These people.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?
Yup. These people.

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To the surprise of most Tōkyōites, some traditionally burakumin areas in Tōkyō still exist. There seems to be some controversy as to whether these areas are populated by the descendants of actual burakumin. Privacy laws and anti-discrimination laws have wiped identifiable burakumin village names from maps and postal addresses. Even the infamous 山谷 San’ya area, whose name persists in the minds of locals, does not exist as a modern place name.  Many of these areas are still economically depressed. Many of these areas can be found in Arakawa and 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward and Taitō Ward. I’ve been in some of these areas and you can tell something is off (a lack of signs identifying the area and a “silence” on your GPS is one sign that you’re there).

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60's when people pined for traditional Japan. There's still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60’s when people pined for traditional Japan. There’s still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

If someone really wants to know precisely where an Edo Period burakumin village used to be located, it’s not hard to find that information. However, villages after the Edo Period are harder to pinpoint due to the sensitivity of the issue. And the reality of the situation is that in most parts of Japan, there isn’t any discrimination towards them. In fact, there’s almost no way of finding out who is a descendant of this class; it’s also not important to most people these days anyway. Also most of the old villages have just melted into the metropolis of Tōkyō since the 1960’s. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of doubt if the descendants of the burakumin populate these areas anymore. The only thing that is certain is that many of those traditional areas are still economically depressed.

Most Tōkyōites are generally repulsed by discrimination against the burakumin and may be shocked to hear the “they even exist anymore” (in many ways, this is an Ōsaka problem, not a Tōkyō problem). So don’t get the idea that there is rampant hatred and oppression of these people. There isn’t. It’s just part of the history of this area. Some of it from the Edo Period, most of it from the Meiji Period – but it’s part of a dark legacy that happens to be encapsulated within the confines of modern Arakawa Ward and has kept the ward less well off than some its counterparts in the Tōkyō Metropolis. Also, don’t think that things aren’t changing. There’s a lot of gentrification going on in Tōkyō’s shitamachi and blue collar districts. Families who want to live in a タワーマンション tawā manshon skyrise apartment but want to save money can find reasonably priced, spacious, modern apartments in the heart of a shitamachi neighborhood. That’s a combination of yamanote living in the heart of a traditional Shōwa Era neighborhood. It’s like having the best of both worlds and paying half the price for it.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn't give a shit about. They've re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and "low city" feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo's last dying gasps for air.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn’t give a shit about. They’ve re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and “low city” feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo’s last dying gasps for air.

But I Digress…

Back to the river. The Arakawa River originates on 甲武信ヶ岳 Kobushigadake Mount Kobushi which is in the Saitama Prefecture side of the border of Saitama, Nagano, and Yamanashi. That region is called Chichibu which is a reference to 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province which existed from the Taika Reforms until 1868[xi]. As mentioned before, at Iwabuchi Suimon, the river splits in two. The old river become the Sumida River, the more recent river path become the Arakawa. From there, the river merges with the Edo River and empties into Tōkyō Bay.

Let's go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It's a beautiful, clean source of water.

Let’s go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It’s a beautiful, clean source of water.

Taming Of the Raging River

At the beginning of the Edo Period the river followed the course that is now called the 元荒川 Moto-Arakawa Old Arakawa in Saitama. This river isn’t connected to the modern river today, but the Old Arakawa still flows from 行田 Gyōda to 越谷 Koshigaya where it merges with the 中川 Nakagawa. Today the river is essentially a drainage ditch. This stretch of what was once a might river lies with the boundaries of former 忍藩 Oshi Han Oshi Domain, a name that we’ve seen in the last two articles.

Again, as mentioned in previous articles, typhoons and torrential rains caused the Tone and Arakawa rivers to flood seasonally with disturbing regularity which would devastate Edo’s shitamachi areas. So, in the early 1600’s the shōgunate began massive river projects in order to protect the shōgun’s capital from flooding as well as the administrative centers along the Tonegawa Watershed. Major work on the river continued until the late 1960’s. The overall effect was that the Tone River ceased flowing south into Edo and was gradually diverted east toward Chiba over the centuries. This eventually created the two current river paths of the Sumida River and the (modern) Arakawa.

With all the manipulation of the waterway and the levees and the space between the river and the communities lining the river, one might think the Japanese have tamed the Arakawa River. This may not be the case, though. Even though the last devastating flood was in 1916, officials in Tōkyō are worried that the metropolis still isn’t prepared enough if the Arakawa (or any other river, or even the bay itself flooded). The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana and Hurricane Sandy on New York as well as the tsunami in Tōhōku raised more than a few eyebrows in Tōkyō and there has been a renewed interest in buttressing anti-flooding measures in the interest of saving lives and safeguarding existing infrastructures. If you’re interested in reading more about this renewed interest in taming Tōkyō’s rivers, here’s article from 2008 that talks about some worst case scenarios and here’s another article from 2013 that describes the progress made and what still needs to be done to keep Tōkyō safe.

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[i] Wanna start from the beginning? You can catch up by reading my first post.
[ii] There are 荒川 all over the country. Wikipedia actually has a disambiguation page (Japanese only).
[iii] Yes, there is an adjective 荒い arai but an adjective doesn’t make a place name in Japanese, it has to be something connected to the word. For example, 新宿 New Post Town isn’t written as Shin Juku or even Shin-juku, but Shinjuku. The two elements are inseparable.
[iv] The opposite also happens when many Japanese romanize the end of a phrase like おいしそうだよ oishisō da yo as oishisō dayo because many people consider da yo to be a cluster (one word, if you will), though a prescriptive grammarian would insist that they be separated as da is a copula and yo is an emphatic particle. I tend to take the prescriptive approach when I Romanize Japanese because I’m a jerk like that.
[v] That’s because the impetus to build the Arakawa Drainage Canal was the last major flood in, you guessed it, 1916.
[vi] Just to remind you… Arakawa Ward was created in 1932, reaffirmed in 1945, and it became a 特別区 tokubetsu-ku Special Ward 1947. All of this happened while the Arakawa River marked the border of Sumida Ward and Arakawa Ward.
[vii] By the way, this term “eta” is highly offensive in modern day Japan. For most people, in particular those who know they are descendants of this class, the carries the weight of the worst racial slurs you can imagine. The term seems to be used quite freely outside of Japan when talking about this group of people prior to the Meiji Coup in 1868. But don’t use it in Japan. Instead, you should use “burakumin.”
[viii] Even if most people don’t know about this today.
[ix] Remember, Yoshiwara was surrounded by a moat and there were essentially only two ways in and out. As a result, the Yoshiwara was a death trap in the case of fires. The prostitutes were indentured servants and were forbidden to leave without special permission. Clients and tea house owners could leave, but for the working girls, crossing the threshold without permission could have meant torture or “accidental” death. Of course, staying within the confines of the pleasure quarters during a fire could have meant “torture” or accidental death as well. Catch-22. Whatcha gonna do?
[x] Longtime readers will be familiar with this. Tōkyō Prefecture contained a much larger area than Edo proper. One of those areas, an “expanded Edo” – if you will – was Tōkyō City. The prefecture and city were abolished in 1943 and the whole are became 東京都Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The former Tōkyō City roughly corresponds to the modern 23 Special Wards.
[xi] Chichibu’s major connection to Edo-Tōkyō is actually its contribution of a cadet family of the 平家 Heike the Taira clan. Learn more about this in my article on Why is Edo called Edo?

The Sumida River

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

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

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

隅田川 墨田区

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

 

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

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

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

●  Historical events? That’s the easiest part.

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

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

 

墨田 隅田

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

 

In the Edo Period the Sumidagawa Didn’t Exist

At least not officially….

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

住田 隅田 隅田

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

What Is The Sumida River?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

A tributary that became a river over hundreds of years.

A tributary that became a river over hundreds of years.

 

But Where Did The Name Come From?

Alright, let’s get down to the etymology.

 


sumi

corner


ta, da

field


kawa, gawa

river

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

墨田墨多角太

Sumida, Sumita

角田

Sumida

隅川

Sumigawa

墨陀河

Sumidagawa

墨之洲

Sumi no zu

墨之水

Sumi no sui

住田河

Sumidagawa

住田川

Sumidagawa

両国川

Ryōgokugawa

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

 

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

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

 

Another Mystery!

Sumida River and Sumida Ward Use Different Kanji

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Some modern people enjoy that sort of thing.

Some modern people enjoy that sort of thing, too.

 

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

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

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

 

Key

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

= Only Pedestrians (only one bridge)

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

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

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

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

The Rivers of Edo-Tokyo

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

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

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

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

We’ve Reached a Milestone!

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

So I’m celebrating!

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We call it the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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