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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].

4f08732d

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.

img_4

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 Honjo mean?

In Japanese History on September 10, 2015 at 6:16 am

本所
Honjo (main place)

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

The etymology of this area is pretty straight forward and actually does little justice to the neighborhood’s actual value. The name seems to be derived from the 荘園制度 shōen seido shōen system[i]. Shōen were administrative units that were originally more or less autonomous from the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court, though they owed their legitimacy to their connections to the court. In English, this is often rendered as manor or estate[ii].

Under the shōen system, the 本所 honjo main place (main estate) designated the place where the 荘園領主 shōen ryōshu lord of the shōen lived[iii]. This would include the lord’s 本家 honke main family line and their direct retainers. Branch families would live elsewhere. As such, a honjo is actually a designation of an area that is not unlike the capital of the shōen (the lord’s territory). This use was common throughout Japan and as such there are many places in the country called Honjo. The most popular story ties the area to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, but whether the name dates from Ieyasu’s time or reflects an ancient honjo is unclear. Some have even suggested it’s a reference to the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan or 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area - also possible non-namer of the area. Nobody knows.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area – also possible non-namer of the area.
Nobody knows.

When 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu was granted control of Edo in the 1580’s by 太閤豊臣秀吉 taikō Toyotomi Hideyoshi imperial regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the term 荘園 shōen was all but obsolete, but some associated place names persisted. If this line of thinking is to be trusted, by the time Ieyasu assumed control of Edo and 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces, the term was just an archaism that gave the area a touch of class. The area set one of the early models for the 山手 yamanote high city. Ieyasu required the old Edo samurai families to move to the area to be closer to Edo Castle where he could keep his eyes on them[iv]. To keep them in check, those samurai families were granted 旗本 hatamoto status (ie; they became direct retainers of the Tokugawa). He later ordered 3 譜代大名 fudai daimyō daimyō loyal to the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara to build their 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residences there to keep the old Edo elite in check. I suppose the granting hatamoto status and naming the area Honjo was essentially the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down. But because of its elite beginnings, the area was replete with nature. It was famous for its greenery and suburban feel even in the late Edo Period despite the changes that would come with time.

The main gate of Tsugaru Domain's upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote. Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the drum tower inside the compound. It was a drum tower and used a huge taiko (Japanese drum) to sound the alarm.

The main gate of Tsugaru Domain’s upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote. Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the drum tower inside the compound. It was a drum tower and used a huge taiko (Japanese drum) to sound the alarm.

In the very early Edo Period, people used local terms to identify themselves. Perhaps you were 向島っ子 Mukōjimakko a child of Mukōjima.  Perhaps you were 吾妻っ子 Azumakko a child of Azuma. But for the first half of the Edo Period, if you were 本所っ子 Honjokko a child of Honjo that meant you were a real 江戸っ子 Edokko child of Edo. Your family may have even preceded the Tokugawa – or at least that was the image[v].

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might've heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might’ve heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant “Fire! Get to the other side of the river now!!!!”
この写真はイメージです

In 1657, the area was still quite rustic. After the 明暦之大火 Meireki no Taika Meireki Fire[vi], the site was chosen for the burial of those who perished in the conflagration. The fire burned for 3 days in some parts of the city and destroyed 60-70% of Edo – including sections of Edo Castle itself. Some accounts say 100,000 Edoites burned to death in the disaster. To appease the souls of the dead, a temple was built to tend to the mass grave of the victims. The temple is called 回向院 Ekō-in Ekō Temple which is still located in Honjo. By the way, an 回向 ekō is a Buddhist prayer for the repose of the dead[vii].

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi declared the burial mound where bodies were dumped a 万人塚

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi declared the burial mound where bodies were dumped a 万人塚 manninzuka “mound of a thousands of souls.”
Since that time, the temple has been tending to the souls of the poor, those rejected by their families, the unclaimed dead, the executed, and animals. The temple has connections with sumō wrestling, too.

If the Area was so Elite, Why is it Shitamachi Today?

In 1719, the area was officially incorporated into Edo and fell under direct control of the shōgunate. This happened after the construction of 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge. The building of the bridge saw an influx of craftsmen and laborers who worked on the project. Many remained in the area as 町人 chōnin townspeople of the commoner areas. The completion of the bridge created more demand for jobs that only commoners could do under the rigid social hierarchy of the Tokugawa.

The daimyō residences alone must have been big business. They needed maintenance of their villas, but they also needed landscaping work, they needed fish and other foodstuffs brought to their estates. They needed rain coats and new underwear. The other samurai families required the same conveniences of the day. As more businesses arose in the area, the commoner population exploded. Woodworkers and other craftsmen had quick access to the lumberyards of Kiba which made the area famous for woodwork. A unique culture emerged in the area. It was a culture of means – but one that depended on the working class.

The Tsugaru residence is great example of the Edo- Tokyo dichotomy. The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote. I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The Tsugaru residence is great example of the Edo-Tokyo dichotomy.
The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote.
I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The daimyō residences were essentially palaces. The original 3 daimyō were joined by a few other daimyō families that built 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residences in the area. These were fairly large estates with sprawling gardens and safe, wide streets. They weren’t very populated, though. The truth is, by the middle of the Edo Period, the commoner population of Honjo far outweighed the nobility, much like some parts of 麻布 Azabu[viii].

As such, wealthy artists, writers, farmers, and actors came to this area to hang out. Many 茶屋 chaya tea houses existed in the area that catered specifically to the non-samurai, moneyed bourgeoisie. Commoners of substantial means could come to Honjo and go drinking and whoring in a town that looked and felt like the yamanote. The commoners who grew up in this area were Edokko heart and soul, but they typified the next generation of sophisticates of the Meiji Era. In Honjo, commoners were gentrified, knew the arts and culture, and hobnobbed with the samurai elite[ix].

Tea houses in Honjo

Tea houses in Honjo

Rise of the Shitamachi

By the early Meiji Period, the look of the area changed dramatically. The daimyō and largest samurai residences disappeared and were either reclaimed by nature or became new homes for the working class. The lots that became overgrown with unkempt trees and tall grasses became inhabited by stray animals. Those spots became popular with people who wanted to commit suicide. It was said that in Honjo at least one person a day would hang themselves in the night and be discovered the next morning. Of course, this changed over the 44 years of Meiji. By 1912, most of the abandoned lots had become factories that relied on the river for distribution, bringing in raw material, and dumping of whatever waste byproduct they produced. The Sumida River became extremely polluted and whenever the river flooded it caused outbreaks of disease because of all the waste that was left in the streets and in people’s homes after the waters receded. It was fucking nasty.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

By the middle of the Meiji Period, the area was famous for cheap housing. Notably, day laborers could find daily or weekly lodging for a pittance as they hopped around from menial job to menial job. Whatever entertainment existed there in the Edo Period had long since disappeared[x]. Honjo, in contrast to nearby 向島 Mukōjima, was a place to work and live and nothing more. It also failed to hold on to its vigor in contrast to 浅草 Asakusa, which lay on the other side of the river and was still a bustling hub of 下町 shitamachi low town excitement, art, and culture. Honjo died in the late Meiji Period. And talk about kicking someone when they’re down, the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923 laid another epic smack down on the area. It wouldn’t start to recover until after WWII.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can't rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick. It's pretty sad.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can’t rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick. It’s pretty sad.

So Why Should I be Interested in this Area?

Thank you for asking that question. And rest assured, I will answer in the form of biographies that show the diversity of people who have lived in the area. Unfortunately, I ended up with an article that was 18 pages in MS Word with more than 50 freaking footnotes. The footnotes alone were like… 3 or 4 pages. So I’ve decided to cut the article in half, using the first 4 pages and more than 2,000 words to talk about the area. Part 2 will be a beast, clocking in at 13 pages and more than 6,000 words. Trust me, you don’t want the original, unsplit version.

.

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[i] The fine folks at Samurai Archives have a good definition of this term: Shōen – Private estate exempted from central government control and often subject to a multi-layered proprietorship. Established in the Nara Period, the shōen system lasted until the late 16th Century, when it was finally eliminated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s sweeping land surveys.
[ii] I don’t like this translation, but I don’t know a better one. It’s similar in some ways to European feudalism… but in other ways it’s really different. Let’s save this discussion for another day.
[iii] Sometimes translated as “lord of the manor/estate.” I don’t like this translation either.
[iv] We’ll be coming back to this later.
[v] However, by the end of the Edo Period 江戸っ子 Edokko was the only word used to describe natives of Edo and Edoites in general.
[vi] Also called the 振袖之大火 Furisode no Taika Unmarried Woman’s Kimono Fire because legend says the fire began when a Buddhist priest burned a cursed kimono. The kimono was said to be cursed because it was owned by 3 young girls who died when it came into their possession. They never even had a chance to wear it. After the kimono had been passed to the 3rd girl and she died, the family asked the priest to destroy it.
[vii] This name should be familiar to long time readers. There is a temple of the same name near 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground. You can see my article here.
[viii] See my article on Azabu here. It’s old and not so good, but whatevs.
[ix] Not entirely true. The area was prestigious, even as a commoner area. Even to this day, samurai heredity pulls some weight. But in the late Edo Period and early Meiji Period, Honjo was prime real estate and if you lived there or hung out there, that carried a lot of social power. That said, the shōgunate didn’t want samurai and commoners hanging out with each other too much. They either turned a blind eye to it or it was done on the down low. Of course, in the Meiji Period, there was no problem with mixing if you were “a person of talent.”
[x] The only exception was Mukōjima, where a unique geisha culture emerged.

What does Ushima mean?

In Japanese History on August 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

牛島
Ushima (cow/ox island)

e7899be5b68be7a59ee7a4be02

Today’s article is a bit of whimsy. I want to investigate some really obscure and unknown aspects of Japanese religion that tangentially hit on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. In my article on 向島 Mukōjima, I mentioned that one of the theories is that there were a collection of islands (or more likely sandbars in a flood plain) dotting the east bank of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. According to this story, these were collectively called mukōjima “the islands on the other side of the river” by the people of the west bank who lived in 浅草 Asakusa. Today I want to talk about the name 牛島 Ushima Cow Island[i]. It’s not preserved as an official place name today, but there is shrine in Mukōjima that bears the name. It’s a quite ancient name – possibly as ancient as Asakusa[ii].

Eat more chikin, bitches

Eat mor chikin, bitches

As I’ve said many times before, the west bank of the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (as this stretch of the river was known as in the Edo Period) had been fairly developed since the Heian Period. It got a major boost with the rise of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate in the 1200’s and was one of the few shining centers of art and commerce in the Edo area in those early days. The area really rose to prominence with the establishment of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate in the early 1600’s by the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa family.

As I said earlier, today there isn’t any area officially called Ushima, but prior to the Meiji Period, there was an area of present day 墨田区本所 Sumida-ku Honjo Honjo, Sumida Ward that was referred to by that name. The east bank of the river was essentially grassland, even during most of the Edo Period this side of the river was relatively rustic[iii]. During the Asuka Period and Nara Period[iv], the grounds on the flood plains of the eastern bank of the Sumida River were used for grazing cattle. Thus the area came to be called 牛島 Ushijima Cow Island – a name that was eventually contracted to Ushima[v].

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Asakusa is the Rockstar of the Area, but…

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Sumida River, in 628 or 645[vi] (the Asuka Period) Sensō-ji was founded in Asakusa Village. Sensō-ji was a key temple in the area and it was pivotal in the spreading of Buddhism in the Kantō area. In the 850’s (Heian Period), a famous itinerant monk who had recently studied Buddhism in China visited Sensō-ji to view the secret image of Buddha that was alleged fished out of a stretch of the river and is the alleged raison d’être of the great temple. That monk was a certain 慈覚大師 Jikaku Daishi[vii] and he is about to play the biggest part of the Ushima story.

Jikaku Daishi

Jikaku Daishi

The story goes that Jikaku Daishi, who had been studying Buddhism in China, was ejected from the country during the Great Buddhism Purge of 845 and forced to return to Japan. Upon his return he visited various centers of Buddhism in the country to share his knowledge and engage in philosophical discussions with other monks. While visiting a hermitage called 一草庵 Issōan, Jikaku Daishi took a walk and happened upon an old man. The old man told him that he should build a shrine to protect the local people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The old man then revealed that he was an incarnation of the Shintō 神 kami deity named 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.

Susano’o no Mikoto

Susano’o no Mikoto

Wait. Whaaaa?!!

You may be scratching your head now. Buddhism builds temples to reflect upon enlightened souls… or something like that. Shintō builds shrines to house 神 kami deities[viii]… or something like that. At the very least, these are just 2 distinct belief systems!

Long time readers should be well aware that Japanese religions – and polytheistic religions in general – tend to be syncretic. This means they are open to blending, mixing and matching, and picking and choosing. Roman religion was like this prior to Christianity and is probably the best example I can think of in terms of western syncretism. In short, while for some people Buddhism and Shintō may have been diametrically opposed to one another in many ways; for the most part both can accommodate each other. Indeed, until a Meiji Era imperial decree separating Buddhism and Shintō[ix], the two faiths were essentially in bed together. Other faiths like 庚申 Kōshin[x] flourished in conjunction with Buddhism and Shintō. It was all one spiritual tapestry. A Buddhist founding a Shintō shrine was nothing out of the ordinary.

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues. The Kōshin faith is neither Shintō nor Buddhist, but rather Taoist.

But Back To Ushima

Jikaku Daishi set about founding a shrine on the east bank of the Sumida River in the Ushima area. The name of the original shrine was 牛御前社 Ushi Gozen-sha[xi]. It was built sometime between 859 and 879[xii]. Keep in mind, this all went down in the 800’s. If the Tokugawa Shōgunate hadn’t been established in the 1600’s, Sensō-ji may have remained the temple with the largest influence in the area until today.

The wishes of the old man that Jikaku Daishi encountered were that the shrine would protect the people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The shrine would become home to the 本所総鎮守 Honjo sō-chinju the tutelary kami of the entire Honjo area. The west bankers had their Sensō-ji but the people on the east bank needed a tutelary kami[xiii], too. The Sumida River even had its own deity[xiv]. So the people who lived in the eastern flood plain needed equal protection from the powerful river god.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

The Gods of Ushi Gozen-sha

Ushi Gozen-sha didn’t only enshrine one deity. It enshrined 3 specific kami to protect the people of Honjo (present Mukōjima). Let’s take a quick look at these 3 kami.

須佐之男命
Susano’o no Mikoto

a major kami associated with rough seas and summer storms (typhoons)[xv]

天之穂日命
Ame no Hohi no Mikoto[xvi]

a minor kami with close ties to Susano’o no Mikoto[xvii]

貞辰親王命
Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto

my understanding is that this is the kami of an imperial prince whose death coincided with the construction of the shrine[xviii]

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu began to patronize the shrine as the Tokugawa family came down to their beautiful palace where the river met the bay. In its time, it must have been a gorgeous villa with a spectacular view of the sea.

Iemitsu called for a secondary shrine to be created. That shrine was called 若宮牛嶋神社 Wakamiya Ushima Jinja Wakamiya Ushima Shrine[xix]. It is a 20 minute walk from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine. During the shrines’ festival on 9/15, the kami is carried in a 神輿 mikoshi portable shrine from Ushima Shrine in Mukōjima to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine in Honjo.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

Sadly, both shrines were completely destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. For some reason, the main shrine was relocated and rebuilt a little bit south at its present location[xx]. In the Meiji Period, the rank of the shrine was officially demoted by the government to the status of 郷社 gōsha village shrine[xxi]. Like many shrines and temples that didn’t fully recover after the earfquake and/or WWII, Ushijima Shrine is clearly a shadow of its former glory. But it’s not as dismal as, say, Shiogama Shrine, and its summer festival still draws substantial crowds.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

As for the place name, Ushima has all but vanished from Tōkyō’s civil administration and postal code system. Mukōjima and Honjo have superseded officially. But today the shrine sits in the shade enjoying its quiet solitude. It eschews the modern writing, 牛島 Ushima, for the pre-Modern writing, 牛嶋 Ushima. While the city has moved on and Sensō-ji has grown in fame and Tōkyō Skytree has become yet another symbol of a city replete with symbols, Ushima Shrine proudly holds on to its former glory as the protector of the people on the east bank of the Sumida River.If you’re interested further reading, I have related articles:

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[i] Could be “ox” island, too. The Japanese is ambiguous.
[ii] The name 浅草 Asakusa is without a doubt much older than 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple (literally, Asakusa Temple). See my article on Asakusa.
[iii] This is why the 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace was built by the shōguns here – they had plenty of space for private villa.
[iv] And presumably later, too.
[v] Because syllables are hard.
[vi] Depending on what you consider the foundational act. See my article on Asakusa.
[vii] He is best known in Japan by his 諡号 shigō (okurigō) posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. His name as a monk was 円仁 Ennin.  He was born into the 壬生氏 Mibu-shi Mibu clan of 下野国 Shimozuke no Kuni Shimozuke Province which is modern day 栃木県 Tochigi-ken Tochigi Prefecture. Jikaku Daishi means Great Teacher of Merciful Enlightenment (satori).
[viii] Kami isn’t a word that translates easily into English. The English language has spent most of its life with a Judeo-Christian backdrop, ie; Abrahamic monotheism. If you want to understand more about the concept of kami, here is a good place to start.
[ix] Read more about the policy here.
[x] This is a totally unrelated article, but I talk about the Kōshin faith in my article on Gohongi.
[xi] Another reading is Ushi Gozen-ja. The name means something like “revered shrine in front of the cows.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the etymology of the original shrine name, but the area’s name of Ushima seems to have had much more influence than the name of the shrine.
[xii] The few surviving documents only list the 年号 nengō era name 貞観年間 Jōgan nenkan (859-879). I rarely use nengō on this site, but here’s Wiki’s explanation of them.
[xiii] Tutelary deity/tutelary kami means a deity who looks out for your best interests and protects you.
[xiv] See my article on Suijin.
[xv] Here’s the Wiki on him.
[xvi] Sometimes rendered as Ama no Hohi no Mikoto.
[xvii] Check out the story here.
[xviii] In Japanese they say 胡麻刷り goma suri brown nosing. In this case, the shōgunate was placating the increasingly irrelevant 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto.
[xix] 若宮 wakamiya mean “young prince” and often indicates an auxiliary shrine.
[xx] If you walk a bit north, there is a commemorative sign that marks the original location of the shrine.
[xxi] That means, it wasn’t the tutelary kami of the Honjo area – presumably because it was absorbed into the Mukōjima area.

What does Oshiage mean?

In Japanese History on August 27, 2015 at 6:09 am

押上
Oshiage (push up)

oshiage station

Whenever I make the arduous journey to and from 成田空港 Narita Kūkō Narita Airport, I pass a station next to Tōkyō Skytree called 押上 Oshiage. Every time I pass it, I think, “hmmmm, I should write about this place name” but then I soon forget because of all the excitement of traveling. Every time I pass it on the way back home, I think, “hmmmm, I should write about this place name” but then soon forget because I’m so exhausted and it takes like 3 hours or some shit to get home from Narita[i]. Today I can finally talk about this place name that I’ve been dying to talk about for a long time.

Most people take a train to the station so they've probably never seen this sign. lol.

Most people take a train to the station so they’ve probably never seen this sign. lol.

First Let’s Look at the Kanji


oshi

push, compel, be diffused (light/water)


age

go up, raise, tide comes in, land a boat
Oshiage in the 60's-70's

Oshiage in the 60’s-70’s

Most of the theories about this etymology focus on the verb 押し上げる oshiageru which means “to push up,” but I included some other nuances of the kanji above that might be useful in understanding the etymologies we’ll be looking at today.

Sadly, I could only find 3 theories, all of which stand on shaky ground, in my humble opinion. All of them are based on the kanji. Kanji usually leaves much to be desired with pre-Edo Period names. But in this case, the kanji seem to be consistent with Kamakura Period documents[ii]. There’s nothing earlier than that.

Today you can visit Tōkyō Sky Tree from Oshiage Station

Today you can visit Tōkyō Sky Tree from Oshiage Station

Let’s Talk Etymology, Baby.

Before 徳川家康公 Tokugawa Ieyasu-kō Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu came into the area, there was already a district called 押上村 Oshiage Mura located on the east bank of the Sumida River.  So where did that name come from? Interestingly, nobody set out to ask and answer that question until the Edo Period – or at least nobody bothered to write anything down until then.

Sumidagawa Shrine

Sumidagawa Shrine which houses the kami (deity) of the Sumida River.
(click the picture to see more photos of the shrine)

The Sumida River Did It

Anyone who has read my articles about the Sumida River and any of the lands[iii] along 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay knows, the shape of the Sumida River and the shape of the bay have changed dramatically over the centuries. In the days when the river emptied directly into the bay, it’s said that the gushing freshwater torrents would crash into the salty waters of the bay at high tide. The turbulence created at the mouth of the river was said to create 押し上げられた潮 oshiagerareta shio salt water currents/splashes[iv]. Today, the bay is quite some distance from this area because it’s been built up with landfill since the Edo Period until quite recently.

A 2nd similar theory states that the force of the river hitting the waters of the bay created an embankment on the east side of the Sumida River as it pushed up sand, mud, and debris over the years. This 押し上げられた土 oshiagerareta tsuchi pushed up ground eventually became usable and was reclaimed by the locals. Thus the area was named after the land created by the meeting of river and bay.

The first version is interesting because it echoes a sentiment we’ll see in the 3rd theory – a much more mythical story. The 2nd version is interesting because we just saw a similar etymology based on reclaiming land created by the Sumida River in my last article on Mukōjima – located a stone’s throw from Oshiage.

yamato takeru captain japan

Captain Japan Did It

Long time readers should be aware that 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru Yamato Takeru Captain Japan often shows up in Kantō etymologies. He’s a semi-legendary character who is most famous for his 東征 Tōsei Eastern Expedition[v] which is purported to have taken place in the early 1st Century. A famous story that took place during the Eastern Exhibition is when his boat encountered rough waters off the coast of the 三浦半島 Miura Hantō Miura Peninsula[vi]. His concubine[vii], 弟橘姫 Ototachibana-hime Princess Ototachibana, knowing that Captain Japan had fallen in love with another concubine, decided to perform a final act of selflessness. In order to appease the local 海神 kaijin sea god, she committed 犠牲死 giseishi sacrificial suicide, by jumping into the ocean and drowning herself. The local deity was satisfied[viii] with the sacrifice and allowed Captain Japan and his army to pass the waters safely.

Ototachibana’s personal effects were said to have washed ashore in this area and the place where those items 押し上げられた oshiagerareta were pushed up on the beach came to be known as 押上 Oshiage. This etymology is almost identical to the etymology of nearby 吾妻橋 Azumabashi which literally means “my beloved wife” bridge[ix].

Princess Ototachibana drowning in the ocean. (interestingly, this is a common theme in yakuza tattoos)

Princess Ototachibana drowning in the ocean.
(interestingly, this is a common theme in yakuza tattoos)

Interestingly, while I put zero credence in this particular Captain Japan Theory, the rapid, thrusting current of the Sumida River combined with its wide girth pounded hard into the warm, salty waters of Edo Bay when the tide was high[x]. This kind of turbulence would have made traveling through the mouth of the river very hard. A person could easily have been thrown off a boat into the rough waters and their body and personal effects could have easily been discovered at low tide or have washed up ashore as the tide came back in. Some belongings of a woman or a person of either gender could have been found and ascribed to Princess Ototachibana. That, I think, is plausible. Would that warrant a place name? Who knows. But I think this is a very unlikely origin of the place name Oshiage. Still, the proximity to Azumabashi is intriguing.

So there you have it. Did you find any of those explanations compelling?

I found them interesting. But I can’t help but wonder whether or not this is a much more ancient place name and the kanji are ex post factō 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic value rather than meaning. This would have happened because the meaning was either forgotten long before the place name was written down or because the place name was actually a word belonging to the people who lived here before the Yamato State took the area by force[xi].

Tokyo Skytree and Mt. Fuji

Tokyo Skytree and Mt. Fuji

If you’re interested, here are a few related articles:

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[i] Not including all the time I wasted going through immigration. I always end up in line behind complete morons who take forever.
[ii] Much of Kantō’s history is shrouded in myth and legend before the Edo Period when the Tokugawa Shōgunate was established in the area. However, the earlier eras aren’t a complete blackhole. The Kamakura Shōgunate left many documents that shine a light on much of the mysterious eastern regions – if only for a moment.
[iii] There are too many to list, but off the top of my head, Tsukuda, Tsukiji & Tsukishima, Shinagawa, etc…
[iv] The connotation being “rough waters.”
[v] This is essentially a literary description of the Yamato State’s eastern conquest of 本州 Honshū, the main Japanese island, which had up to that point been populated by Yayoi peoples described as アイヌ Ainu or 蝦夷 Emishi.
[vi] In modern 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture.
[vii] By some accounts, his wife. I referred to her as his wife in my article on Azamabashi.
[viii] In the earliest texts of Japanese mythology, human sacrifices to sea deities are fairly common.
[ix] There are places all over Japan where her belongings were said to have washed ashore. When they did, the local people buried them in mounds called 吾妻塚 Azuma-zuka “beloved wife mounds.”
[x] And holding on. I’m gonna be your number one♪
(and the waters of Tōkyō Bay aren’t particularly warm, btw).
[xi] The Yamato State, having adopted Chinese Learning, spread kanji throughout their holdings.

What does Mukōjima mean?

In Japanese History on August 13, 2015 at 7:21 am

向島
Mukōjima (island/s over there)

Take a good look at this map. You're gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Take a good look at this map. You’re gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible.  The word itself is written with two kanji.


mukō,
mukai

over there,
facing


shima

island
The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area.  The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.

Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.

He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.

hyakka-en

His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.

hyakka-en2

Japanese Sweets

There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.

Kototoi Dango

Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,

These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.

It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

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Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.

Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō).  The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.

mukojima geisha

Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called “gaybies” so please don’t e-mail me asking about that.

At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.

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[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives  /ka/ and /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative // and nasal sounds /ma/ and /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.

What does Eitaibashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 3, 2015 at 5:08 am


永代橋
Eitaibashi (eternity bridge, but more at “Eitai Bridge”)

Eitaibashi at night.

Eitaibashi at night.

A few days ago, I wished everyone a happy new year and I promised you 2 articles about bridges on the Sumida River that were named after shrines. I’m pretty sure I followed through with that promise[i]. So, please accept my humble apologies as I present a 3rd article about a bridge on the Sumida River. This time the bridge is associated with a temple instead of a shrine.

Let me briefly outline the history of this area first. First there was an island, then there was a temple, next there was a birthday, and finally there was a bridge.

It's become a fairly photogenic bridge over the years.

It’s become a fairly photogenic bridge over the years.

The Kanji You Should Know For This Place Name

永代
eitai

forever, eternity,
endless generations


shima/-jima

island


tera, –ji

temple


hashi
/-bashi

bridge

Prior to the coming of the Tokugawa, there was small fishing village located on a shoal in the shallows of the present day 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. The area was called 永代島 Eitai-jima Eitai Island (literally “the eternal island”)[ii]. Once Tokugawa hegemony was established, the area was connected to the mainland by landfill in order to encourage business. A Buddhist temple was established in the area in 1624 during the first year of 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu’s reign[iii]. That temple was called 永代寺 Eitai-ji Eitai Temple. It took its name from the name of the island, so the name means “Eitai Island” → “Temple of the Unending Generations.” Anyways, it’s just an auspicious name, so don’t read too much into it. A few years later in 1627, a major shrine was established here called 富岡八幡宮 Tomioka Hachiman-gū[iv] and placed under the supervision of Eitai-ji. This kind of rapid progress is typical of the reigns of the first 3 shōguns.

Today, Eitai-ji is a shadow of its former self.

Today, Eitai-ji is a shadow of its former self.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu is still a force to be reckoned with.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu is still a force to be reckoned with.


The Story of the Bridge

Prior to the Edo Period, the traditional way of crossing the Sumida River was by established ferry crossings called 渡し watashi. These established ferry crossings were located where major roads needed to connect to roads on the other side of the river, in particular 街道 kaidō highways[v]. The original ferry crossing was located about 100 meters[vi] upstream from the current location of the current bridge, Eitaibashi. It was called 大渡し Ōwatashi the Great Ferry Crossing (also known as 深川之渡し Fukagawa no Watashi the Fukagawa Ferry Crossing).

This isn't the Owatashi, but it is the Sumida River. In this particular image, the bridge in the background is the Ryogoku Bridge.

This isn’t the Owatashi, but it is the Sumida River. In this particular image, the bridge in the background is the Ryogoku Bridge.

An Eternal Bridge and an Eternal Shōgunate?

In 1698, the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, celebrated his 50th birthday. In a time where infant mortality was high, turning 50 years old in any part of the world was a pretty big deal. Let’s be realistic here. Living 7 years was pretty much a monumental feat in itself[vii]. So the shōgunate decided to go balls out. They happened to be building a 4th bridge across the Sumida River at the 大渡し Ōwatashi Great Ferry Crossing. The local temple Eitai-ji was based in nearby Eitaijima and the kanji were auspicious enough to make a good name for the shōgun’s birthday. As the bridge connected 2 business districts, the implied meaning was “an eternal shōgnate granting eternal prosperity.[viii]

Believe it or not, this is the official image of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi issued by the shogunate.

Believe it or not, this is the official image of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi issued by the shogunate.

The bridge soon became a famous sightseeing spot. From the top of the bridge you could see Mt. Tsukuba to the north, Mt. Hakone to the south, and Mt. Fuji to the west. If you looked out eastward across the bay, you could see 安房国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province and 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province (in modern 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture).

Not these clowns again? Really?  My deepest apologies... but yes, the "47 Ronin" are about to make an appearance.

Not these clowns again? Really?
My deepest apologies… but yes, the “47 Ronin” are about to make an appearance.

Famously, on the evening of December 14th, 1702 a group of armed rednecks raided the home of a hatamoto bureaucrat named 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke no Suke[ix]. Kira is the dude who is generally portrayed as the bad guy in the popular 47 Rōnin narrative[x]. In what was essentially an honor killing, the 四十人之芋侍 yonjūnin no imozamurai 47 hick samurai[xi] stalked Kira for a year and then finally beheaded him[xii] at his estate in 両国 Ryōgoku. The popular narrative often says that they crossed Eitaibashi while marching in a procession from Kira Kōzuke no Suke’s estate in Ryōgoku to their lord’s grave at Sengaku-ji in 高輪 Takanawa. The route would have been possible. Maybe they just wanted to check out the new bridge. Or maybe since both events happened during Tsunayoshi’s reign, the stories were conflated. At any rate, Eitaibashi figures into to some versions of the 47 Rōnin story.

A Few Year’s Later the Situation Changed..

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

By the reign of 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune (1716-1745[xiii]) the shōgunate found itself in a financial crisis. Yoshimune’s first act as shōgun was his first – and apparently only – act of extravagance. He commissioned a gorgeous mausoleum called 有章院 Yūshō-in at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji for the child shōgun, 徳川家継 Tokugawa Ietsugu[xiv]. After that, his entire reign (and indeed his pre-shōgunal career) was marked by austerity and frugality. His emphasis on fixing the shōgunate’s deficit culminated in the 1630’s when the 享保之改革 Kyōhō no Kaikaku Kyōhō Reforms became law. But preceding these reforms there were a string of actions that attempted to return the government to solvency. One such act was when the shōgunate decided to relinquish control of Eitaibashi in 1719.

Yusho-in is undoubtedly one of the greatest monuments of Edo.  Sadly, the mausoleum was firebombed into oblivion and does not exist today.

Yusho-in is undoubtedly one of the greatest monuments of Edo.
Sadly, the mausoleum was firebombed into oblivion and does not exist today.

For whatever reason, the shōgunate saw the upkeep and maintenance of the bridge as a money pit. However, the local townspeople freaked out when they heard about this. After all, they depended on the bridge for their livelihoods. Accordingly, they petitioned the shōgunate for the right to maintain and control the bridge themselves. The shōgunate agreed to the arrangement and the bridge was privatized for about 88 years.

Let's talk about parties. Then let's talk about the structural integrity of wooden bridges.

Let’s talk about parties.
Then let’s talk about the structural integrity of wooden bridges.

However, on September 20th, 1807 tragedy struck. Every 12 years Tomioka Hachiman-gū has a special 御祭 o-matsuri festival. The tradition continues today and thousands of people descend upon the area to participate in this crazy Edo Period festival. In 1807, so many people gathered on the bridge at the same time that the bridge collapsed into the river. It was so horrific that we actually have documents describing the collapse in vivid detail and the event is preserved in 落語 rakugo[xv]. About 1400 people died (or were reported missing)[xvi].

Nightmare situation...

Nightmare situation…

The shōgunate once again realized the importance of the bridge and – perhaps not trusting the local townspeople to manage things – rebuilt it and maintained authority over the new structure. This wooden bridge remained in use until it started to fall into serious disrepair after the Meiji Coup in 1868.

The closest thing I can find to a picture of the wooden bridge.

The closest thing I can find to a picture of the wooden bridge.

In 1897 (Meiji 30), the decaying wooden bridge was demolished, and a new site 100 meters downstream[xvii] was chosen as the site of the first iron and steel truss bridge to span the Sumida River. This bridge being one of the first of its kind in Japan was a sort of experiment in engineering. The main structure was built of iron and steel, but bases were built out of wood.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

In 1904 (Meiji 37), the bridge was adapted to allow trolley service to pass through and tracks were laid for the 東京市街鉄道 Tōkyō Shigai Tetsudō Tōkyō City and Suburbs Railway[xviii]. The Meiji Period steel and iron structure served its purpose nobly until September 1st, 1923 when a major earfquake brought the capital city to its knees. This was none other than the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earthquake. It seems that the tremors didn’t break the bridge. However, the wooden bases on which the heavy metal structure rested caught fire and when their integrity was compromised, the entire bridge once again collapsed.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Reconstruction began immediately as the bridge was vital to the city’s infrastructure. A new, blue, arch-shaped European style bridge was completed in 1926. This is the structure that stands today.

Originally the bridge was red as a warning to ships. But now the bridge is blue

Originally the bridge was red as a warning to ships. But now the bridge is blue

The Shape of the Modern Bridge

The Meiji Coup was carried out by emperor-worshipping psychopaths from Satsuma and Chōshū. As they tried to modernize Japan they looked for Western examples that fit their emperor-centric world view. Prussia and the German Empire had definitely caught their eyes since they possessed cutting edge western technology, a seemingly modern system of governance, and – most importantly – an emperor at the top of the pyramid. When seeking to design a bridge suitable of the Emperor’s Great Capital[xix], the Japanese Imperial Government fixated on a bridge crossing the Rhine called the Ludendorff-Brücke Ludendorff Bridge[xx], an iron and steel truss bridge featuring a unique arch shape[xxi]. The Ludendorff Bridge served as a template for many of the arch-shaped bridges built at the time, first and foremost, Eitaibashi.

But Edo Period bridges had a slightly rainbow shape. It could also be argued that this was a justification for traditional Japanese architecture and a return to traditional shapes during a period of heightened nationalism.

The German model of many of Sumida's bridges.

The German model of many of Sumida’s bridges.

In the build up to the 1964 Olympic Games, much of the rebuilt city was covered up or completely overhauled. The first to get the axe was the trolley network which was susceptible to bad weather, flooding, snow, earthquakes, and car accidents[xxii]. An overall trend towards subways and new train technology took root. In 1972, the trolley was shut down and since then access to Eitaibashi has been limited to automobile and pedestrian traffic. Today you can’t see Mt. Fuji, Mt. Tsukuba, Mt. Hakone, or Chiba. So there.

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[i] Check the last 2 articles, bitch.
[ii] I couldn’t find any pre-Edo Period info on the island, but long time readers will be familiar with the use of auspicious kanji in place names. One could suppose 永代 eitai forever is a reference to a hope for abundant and prosperous fishing.
[iii] The 3rd Tokugawa Shōgun.
[iv] I’ve written about this area before. See my May 2013 article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[v] The kanji literally means “roads connecting cities” or “commercial roads.”
[vi] 109 yards
[vii] This aspect of pre-modern Japan is still preserved in the celebration of 七五三 shichi-go-san 7-5-3 wherein families celebrate their children having made it to 3 years old without dying and then 5 and 7 years old – child mortality rates being sky high for children under 10 years old in the Edo Period.
[viii] Some not so subtle propaganda for ya.
[ix] I’m using his court title “Protector of Kōzuke Province” because his actual name 吉良義央 is the source of some confusion. The traditional and most common reading is Kira Yoshinaka, but there seems to be evidence that the actual reading is Kira Yoshihisa. Using his court title avoids the confusion as his honorary title is very well known.
[x] But as usual, the popular narrative is at odds with historical records. Samurai Archives has an excellent description of the historical account of the 47 Rōnin as opposed to the hysterical account of the 47 Rōnin. I highly suggest reading the Samurai Archives’ article. In their discussion forum, the incident has been described as a “feudal driveby.” It’s a hilarious description, but it’s funny because it’s true.
[xi] I made up the Japanese term here. The Japanese do not call this group “the 47 Rōnin,” instead they use the term 赤穂浪士 Akō Rōshi the masterless samurai of Akō Domain.
[xii] ISIS/Taliban much?
[xiii] Those are the dates of his reign. He was born in 1684 and died in 1751. Say what you will about him, but he is a truly transitional shōgun – even shōgunal burial architecture reflects this change. He’s the last of the exciting shōguns (the next interesting one would be the last shōgun, Yoshinobu, 100 years later).
[xiv] I have an article about that here!
[xv] A kind of Edo Period traditional storytelling.
[xvi] Yes, 1400 people were on the bridge at the same time. That’s how big this festival is.
[xvii] The current site of Eitaibashi.
[xviii] I can’t find an official English translation of the company name but that’s what it literally meant. This company was the forerunner of the modern 東京都電車 Tōkyō-to Todensha literally, Tōkyō Metropolitan Electrified Cars, but in sad reality, only one line remains of the original trolley network.
[xix] Don’t even get me started… ugh!
[xx] The namesake of the German bridge is Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff. Ludendorff was a nationalist to the core and a supporter of Germany’s imperialism. For a while, he even supported Hitler and the Nazis, but apparently was too old for all that newfangled Nazism. Even if he wasn’t a Nazi, he still seems like a bit of douche bag.
[xxi] Hence the Shōwa government’s obsession with this shape. But to be honest, the German bridge has almost medieval brick and mortar turrets defending the entrances, so the final Japanese design is much more appealing, IMO.
[xxii] Subways were now coming into vogue.

What does Suijin Ōhashi mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 2, 2015 at 1:00 am

水神大橋 
Suijin Ōhashi (water god big bridge, more at “Great Suijin Bridge”)

Suijin Ohashi. Not one of Tokyo's more famous bridges.

Suijin Ohashi.
Not one of Tokyo’s more famous bridges.

This bridge was named after a ferry crossing, that was in turn named after a shrine, 水神社 Suijinsha or 水神宮 Suijingū Suijin Shrine. The shrine was located at the confluence of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River[i] and the 利根川 Tone-gawa Tone River[ii] and was located directly on the riverbank. After this confluence, the merged river was called the 墨田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[iii]. The origins of the shrine are lost to time, but one legend[iv] holds that in 1180 Minamoto no Yoritomo put his army to camp in this area and paid his respects to the shrine. Yoritomo is said to have felt the presence of the 神 kami spirit that lived in the river and threw some cash at the humble shrine so it could get a facelift[v].

Suijin Shrine it's former glory. Note the torii on the riverbank. That was one possible landing point for the Suijin Ferry.

Suijin Shrine its former glory. Note the torii on the riverbank. That was one possible landing point for the Suijin Ferry.

The kami was popularly referred to as 水神様 Suijin-sama or 水神さん Suijin-san (literally “water spirit”). Over the years, the shrine itself went by various names: 浮島神社 Ukijima Jinja[vi] and 浮島宮 Ukijimagū Ukijima shrine or 水神社 Suijinsha and 水神宮 Suijingū Suijin Shrine[vii]. The shrine was famous among the people who worked on the river. It was also popular with the girls who worked at the tea houses that served the horny boatmen[viii].

At the bottom right you can see Suijin no Mori (Suijin Grove) and if you look carefully you can see Suijin Shrine (labeled Sumidagawa Jinja here). The river is flowing by and in the distance you can see Mt. Tsukuba. Also notice the yaezakura (double cherry blossoms).

At the bottom right you can see Suijin no Mori (Suijin Grove) and if you look carefully you can see Suijin Shrine (labeled Sumidagawa Jinja here). The river is flowing by and in the distance you can see Mt. Tsukuba. Also notice the yaezakura (double cherry blossoms).

The shrine was so popular with the locals and that the whole area came to be referred to as just 水神Suijin. One of the oldest ferry crossings on the Sumida River was built here and was called 水神渡し Suijin Watashi Suijin Crossing[ix]. In the Edo Period, the area along the river and near the shrine was famous with locals for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The Suijin Crossing allowed Edoites great access to the area. The ferry crossing was active until the bridge was built and put the traditional ferrymen out of work…… wait for it……….… in 19-fucking-88!!

Yes, that’s right, kids. Taking a ferry across the river was an alternative to using the bridge until the late 80’s.

A typical river ferryboat.

A typical river ferryboat.

The last ferry crossing still in use on the Sumida River is used to transport employees of Nippon Kayaku (Japan Pharmaceuticals).

The last ferry crossing still in use on the Sumida River is used to transport employees of Nippon Kayaku (Japan Pharmaceuticals).

The bridge was built in 2 stages. Initially, a pedestrian bridge was built in 1988 as an evacuation route in the event of a fire or natural disaster[x]. As the areas on both sides of the bridge developed, it became clear that a pedestrian-only bridge spanning a wide river wasn’t really good use of a bridge (ie; nobody was really using it). So they expanded the bridge and added 2 car lanes to allow traffic to flow both directions in 1996.

See the elevated highway in the background? We're going to talk about that in a minute.

See the elevated highway in the background?
We’re going to talk about that in a minute.

Today the shrine is near the river, but not on the river.
So what gives?

In the Edo Period, the Tone River was diverted eastward to the Pacific Ocean and so for much of the Pre-Modern and Modern Eras, there was no confluence here. However the Sumida River (or what is now called the Sumida River) has always been here. But that’s not the only thing that changed, in 1872 (Meiji 4) the name of the shrine was changed to 隅田川神社 Sumida-gawa Jinja Sumidagawa Shrine[xi].

Sumidagawa Shrine today.

Sumidagawa Shrine today.

But until recently, the shrine was still located on the river. When the unsightly elevated highway that is 国道6号 Kokudō Roku-gō National Highway 6 was built in the 1960’s, the shrine was moved about 150 meters to the east, partly to protect the shrine from being so close to the river and mostly to make way for the highway. This highway expansion, like all of the other elevated highways in Tōkyō, became an instant eyesore and destroyed the scenery of this once historic area. This area was once so famous for its view of the river, of cherry blossoms, and of far off 筑波山 Tsukuba-san Mt. Tsukuba that even 歌川広重 Utagawa Hiroshige painted it. Judging from its former fame and from the splendid representation by Hiroshige, it’s kind of a tragedy we lost this one. All we have now is a fairly obscure – and fairly ugly – bridge and the shrine that started it all is an afterthought of a bygone era living under a filthy, noisy highway.

Supposedly this is the torii that once stood on the riverbank (from the B/W photo above)

Supposedly this is the torii that once stood on the riverbank (from the B/W photo above)

Just a quick note, if I may. Part of what inspired me to right this article is an old post by blogger, Rurōsha, who is a lover of the Sumida River and of Tōkyō’s 下町 shitamachi low city. If you love Tōkyō’s rivers and shitamachi, you may like her blog. She gives a little more info about the shrine and her impressions of it.

Also, I visited the site the other day and took these pictures.

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[i] Here’s my article on the Arakawa.
[ii] Here’s my article on the Tone.
[iii] Yes, the kanji is “wrong” intentionally. More about that in my article on the Sumida River here.
[iv] Another, much more ridiculous legend, says the shrine was established by 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto Yamato Takeru, ie; Captain Japan. Long time readers should be able to guess my feelings on this theory.
[v] Keep in mind, this is a local tradition preserved by the shrine. There are no documents that verify Yoritomo’s visit.
[vi] Ukijima (or Ukishima) means something like “floating island.”
[vii] There are shrines called Suijinsha and Suijingū all over Japan.
[viii] Is it just me? Or does “Horny Boatmen” sound like a great band name? Somebody get on that stat!
[ix] There are traditions that say 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo and later 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan had built bridges here but these fell into disrepair, once again giving rise to a ferryboat system. I can’t say if this was true or not.
[x] I’m assuming this was in reaction to a string of destructive earthquakes in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s. They were nothing as bad as the 1995 Kōbe Earthquake or cataclysmic 2011 Tōhoku Earfquake, but still there was a lot of damage done and a lot of people died.
[xi] Judging from the Hiroshige print, I’m guessing Sumidagawa Shrine had become a popular name for the shrine by the late Edo Period..

What does Azumabashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 1, 2015 at 3:18 am

吾妻橋
Azumabashi (my wife bridge, but more at “Azuma Bridge”)

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?! Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!! Now I remember!

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?!
Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!!
Now I remember!

Today we’re going to look at one of Tōkyō’s most iconic bridges in one of Tōkyō’s most popular tourist destinations near 浅草 Asakusa and 東京スカイツリー Tōkyō Sukaitsurī Tōkyō Skytree. Stand on the bridge and take in the sight of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. I guarantee you’ll be in awe of the river that gave life to this part of the city. You can watch it flow out into the bay that also made this area an important part of town as far back as the Kamakura Period.

5 bridges spanned the Sumida River in the Edo Period. Azumabashi was the last one built. In 1769, a local merchant and priest headed a group that petitioned the shōgunate to build a privately held bridge as an alternative to the 竹町の渡し Takechō no Watashi Takechō Ferry Crossing[i]. The shōgunate approved the project and after 5 years of construction, the first wood bridge was completed in 1774 during the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu[ii].

Two geisha on Azumabashi throwing a bunch of crap into the river or something. Littering is bad, mkay?

The bridge was initially called 大川橋 Ōkawabashi Ōkawa Bridge a reference to the 大川 Ōkawa Big River, one of the popular names of the Sumida River[iii]. Edoites, who seemed to have nicknames for freaking everything, casually called it 東橋 Higashibashi (which can also be read as Azumabashi) which literally means “the east bridge.” Interestingly, it was a toll bridge. It cost 弐問 ni mon 2 mon[iv] per person to cross… unless you were a samurai, then it was free. Bitches love samurai.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn't about truth in advertising, it's about a feeling... much like Japanese advertising today. Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn’t about truth in advertising, it’s about a feeling… much like Japanese advertising today.
Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Anyhoo, the “East Bridge” was said to be extremely well built. In fact, in 1786 the Sumida River flooded; one bridge was damaged and 2 others completely destroyed, but the East Bridge withstood the flood and didn’t sustain any damage. As a result, shōgunate rewarded the people who designed and built the bridge. It’s said that around this time, the kanji and pronunciation 東 higashi/azuma (east) were informally changed to 吾嬬 azuma which means “my wife” but can also refer to the east. The name is a reference to a nearby shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

In 1876 (Meiji 9), the bridge was renovated and the name was formally registered as 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge[v]. Coincidentally, this was the last wooden incarnation of the bridge. In 1885 (Meiji 18), there was a massive flood that ripped the 千住大橋 Senju Ōhashi Great Senju Bridge from its base and sent the bridge down the river at full speed until it smashed into Azumabashi causing irreparable damage. Daaaaaaang.

I can't find an actual photo of the wooden bridge. This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the last photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

This is the only photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

In 1887 (Meiji 20), a modern truss bridge built of steel was erected. This was the first of its kind on the Sumida River – evidence of how important the bridge had become over the years. Originally built for pedestrians, a signal system and tracks were later installed to allow pedestrians and trolley service to utilize the bridge. In 1923, the wooden portion of the bridge was burnt away in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. The bridge was maintained in a temporary state on a shoestring budget while Tōkyō rebuilt herself. Finally, in 1931 the current steel and concrete bridge was built and stands to this day.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.
Notice they have viewing walkways on both sides of the main thoroughfare. That was for viewing the city and the far off mountains.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

So What About That Shrine?

The bridge takes its name from an ancient shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine on a road and river route to the east of the bridge. Apparently, it was quite a splendid shrine with excellent pedigree in those days. However, today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha).

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha). The shrine was located in a large grove of trees called Azuma Mori (Azuma Forest).

The shrine claims a mythological provenance. It’s located in 墨田区立花 Sumida-ku Tachibana – said to derive from 弟橘姫 Ototachibana-hime Princess Ototachibana, wife of 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru, or as I like to call him, Captain Japan[vi]. In Japanese mythology, Captain Japan embarked on a triumphant 東征 Tōsei Eastern Expedition to conquer Eastern Japan in the name of the Emperor. Long story short, his wife, Princess Ototachibana, had to throw herself into the sea to appease the 神 kami spirits of the Pacific Ocean to ensure Captain Japan’s safe passage. When her personal effects washed ashore, people would bury them in small mounds called 吾妻塚 azumazuka “my wife mounds.” Many of these mounds became 吾妻神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrines, literally “my wife shrines.” These mounds and shrines can be found all over Japan. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what kind of personal effects the shrine claims to have washed ashore in the area, it was a small shred of her clothing[vii].

Hi! I'm Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Hi! I’m Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Azuma Shrine today

Azuma Shrine today

Alright, so that’s it. The first article of the year. Hope you liked it!

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[i]
The Takechō Ferry was where most men would begin their trip to Yoshiwara. Even though the bridge was built, ferry service seems to have continued right up to 1876 (Meiji 9).
[ii] For those of you scratching your head, he was the 10th shōgun.
[iii] The name Sumida River wasn’t officially applied to the whole river until after the Edo Period. See my article here.
[iv] I’m not sure how to convert mon into modern currency, but this was just pocket change at the time. Samurai Archives has a great article on currency and it mentions that 8 mon would buy one piece of low quality sushi (today that would be about ¥100-¥120 yen). 16 mon would get you a bowl of soba (today that would be about ¥200-¥400 in front of a train station for shitty soba). Now the part I’m curious about, 300-500 mon would get you one night with a prostitute in 宿場町 shukuba machi a post town (today 40 minutes at a ピンサロ pinsaro pink salon in 静岡県沼津市 Shizuoka-ken Numazu-shi Numazu City, Shizuoka would set you back between ¥4000-¥8000 depending on the quality of the establishment and girls). I have no idea if comparing those things is even realistic, but whatever…
[v] If you’ve been a long time reader, you’ll be aware that the Tokugawa Shōgunate wasn’t really in the business of going around assigning official names to things.
[vi] Rest assured, I’ll go into more detail when I write about Tachibana.
[vii] Is it just me or does this sound like people were venerating trash that washed up on the beach?

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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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?

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