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What does Tennōzu Isle mean?

In Japanese History on April 8, 2020 at 8:46 am

天王洲 I S L E
Tennōzu Isle (island of the sandbar of the heavenly king)

So, COVID-19 is Still a Thing

I hope everyone is staying at home as much as possible. Deaths worldwide are up 13,000 since the last article. Yeah, so… you know what? Today we’re going to look at a popular man-made island in 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay that is connected to a 神 kami god who has the power to protect mankind from disease epidemics. So, how ya like dem apples, Corona-chan?

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Tennozu Isle at dusk

Tennōzu Isle

It’s dusk, on a hot summer’s eve and you’re strolling along a fashionable boardwalk on a rectangular man-made island. Couples and families bounce in and out of the galleries, restaurants, and creative spaces that line the boulevard as bridges tower overhead. Enjoying the sea breeze in the wind, you pause to take in the flittering lights that dance across the waterfront. It doesn’t seem so hot anymore. The salt water in the wind soothes you. Looking down to where the sea splashes up against the land, you spot something familiar – something old. Everything fades into the background as you squint to get a better look at… yes, yes, you can see them clearly now. This is the only thing that matters now.

Edo muthafuckin’ Period stone walls, bitch. Focused on what must be done now, you grunt with satisfaction and begin rolling up your sleeves and hock a loogie into the water. A seagull perched on a rooftop above inhales deeply, opens its beak wide, and releases a single stream of fire writhing like a whip. You growl to the stone walls, “Oh yeah, baby. You ready for this? You think you’re ready? You better be. That’s right. You know you love it. It’s time to get nerrrrrdy. Awwwwwwww yeah.”

The seagull flies away aaaaaaaaaaaand… SCENE!

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First Let’s Look at the Kanji


ten, ama/ame

heaven, sky


ō

king

[i]
su, –zu

sandbar, mid-ocean sandbank

Today’s place name is a combination of two words: 天王 tennō heavenly king and 洲 su sandbar. It has a spiritual connotation which could better be translated as “sandbank sacred to the heavenly king.” In this case, the heavenly king is a reference to 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō – a syncretic deity with Shintō, Buddhist, and Hindi aspects[ii]. He is the god of plagues, pestilence, and pandemics, who has the power to bring epidemic destruction as well as take it away and protect from it. Soon after the importation of this Indian deity through Buddhism, the Japanese came to equate him with the kami of storms and seas, 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto. The center of Gozu Tennō worship is 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine in 京都 Kyōto.

Obviously, Tennōzu Isle glaringly includes an English word. In Japanese, island is shima/-jima and so theoretically we could’ve gotten *天王() *Tennō(zu)jima Tennōzu Island, but let’s face it. That sounds dumb. So, the cool English word “isle” is used in ローマ字 rōma-ji romanization rather than 片仮名 katakana the simplified syllabary, which would be アイル airu. Also, the area is officially known as 天王洲 I S L E, but at the train station name is written only in Japanese characters as 天王洲アイル.

Anyways, the keen reader has probably figured out that water is pretty important to this story. We’ve got the sandbar in the middle of the ocean, a mashup kami who deals with the seas, and a reference to an island. Keep the water theme in the back of your mind.

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Tennozu Isle during the Bakumatsu

The Etymology

Before any artificial islands were built here, there was a large sandbar formed by the accumulation of sediment. It was well known by fisherman who worked in 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay for centuries.

The story goes that one day in 1751, a fisherman cast his nets across the sandbank, but when he tried to pull it back aboard, there was something heavy weighing it down. He soon realized that he had caught a wooden carving of the face of Gozu Tennō. Realizing that this was “miracle” – which was a more common occurrence than you’d think[iii] – the people began referring to this place as Tennō’s Sandbar. The people of 品川 Shinagawa gathered round and took the sacred object up the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to 荏原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine which protected all of 荏原国 Ebara no Kuni Ebara Province. Gozu was enshrined as Susan’o and came to be worshipped as a triune kami. Furthermore, the locals began celebrating 天王洲祭 Tennōzu Matsuri Tennōzu Festival every spring by parading 御神輿 o-mikoshi portable shrines decorated with the 神面 shinmen sacred visage of Gozu Tennō down to the bay. There, in a rite called 海上渡御 kaijō togyo[iv] they would return him to the sandbar whence he arose to present himself to the good people of Shinagawa.

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Notice the divine face on this portable shrine.

It’s a good story and I suppose it does a decent job of explaining the etymology of this place name. Except, according to Ebara Shrine itself, Gozu Tennō was enshrined as Susano’o all the way back in the Kamakura Period – June 19th, 1247, to be precise. Priests at Yasaka Shrine[v] in Kyōto perfumed a ritual called 勧請 kanjō and split the spirit of Gozu Tennō and sent it all the way across the country to Ebara Shrine. That’s about 500 years before the Edo Period story I just told you!

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Gozu Tenno

So Which is Correct?

Who the fuck knows? But clearly, there’s a strong association between Ebara Shrine and the sea and the local people who make a living off the bay – and I suspect that has to do with the sea god aspect of Gozu Tennō. In the 1200’s, the villages around Edo experienced a boom, so it makes sense that with a little finagling and a little help from the Minamoto court in Kamakura, the shrine could convince the priests of Yasaka Shrine to share a bit of their juju with Shinagawa, both areas were now fairly connected via the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō ancient Tōkaidō trail[vi].

By the Edo Period, Shinagawa was home to the busiest and most prestigious post town on the shōgunate’s most prominent highway. Even to this day, the modern road is littered with temples and shrines once made rich by travelers coming and leaving the bustling capital. It isn’t hard to imagine an overly zealous Ebara Shrine priest taking a boat out one moonless night in 1751, then tossing a wooden carving of Gozu Tennō’s face into the shallow waters covering the sandbar in hopes that some dumb ass fisherman is gonna find it the next day and show it to the other mud-grubbing, low-tide-smelling lemmings of the village. Ebara Shrine would blow the fuck up over night. Every local, every traveler, every priest and monk from far and near would want to throw a few coins in the collection box just to get a look at the miracle face mask, know what I’m sayin’?

 

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Tennozu Isle today

 

From Baby Sandbar to Big Boy Island

Tennōzu was just a sandbar only known to fishermen for most of its history. Then in 1851, Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay demanding the shōgunate open up for trade and international relations. He gave them time think about it, vowing to return in a year to accept Japan’s agreement to his terms, or he would bombard the shōgun’s capital. Understandably, the government lost its collective shit and ordered the construction of 11 man-made islands to serve as 台場 daiba cannon batteries to prevent Perry’s 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships from getting to close to the city. The government chose Tennō’s Sandbar as the most efficient spot to build 第四台場 dai-yon daiba Battery #4. Work was completed in 1853, but a fire broke out and burned down the wooden structures. The shōgunate abandoned the island, its stone sea walls being the only indicator that it had once been an artificial island, much less a sandbar.

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Oaki Daiba in the Taisho Period. You can see the factory buildings.

In 1873 (Meiji 6), a shipbuilder named 緒明菊三郎 Oaki Kikusaburō bought former Daiba #4  and renamed it 緒明台場 Oaki Daiba. Then, with a little investment by the 中将 chūjō vice-admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 榎本武揚 Enomoto Takoyaki[vii], a pro-Tokugawa loyalist turned Meiji statesman, he began expanding the island to use as a shipyard. Kikusaburō made a killing building boats, and the island was still is use during 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895; Meiji 28-28) and 日露戦争 Nichiro Sensō the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905; Meiji 37-38).

From 1925-1939, further land reclamation projects expanded the island ever more. Although no longer used as a shipyard, the site became home to bayside factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. This changed the look of the former sandbar and daiba forever. The former nickname, Oaki Daiba was gradually forgotten and the traditional name Tennōzu came back into use.

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Edo Period stone walls. Awwww yeah.

Fast forward to about 1985, a group of 22 landholders designed the diabolical 東品川二丁目マスタープラン Higashi-Shinagawa Ni-chōme Masutā Puran Master Plan for the 2nd Block of East Shinagawa[viii]. It included a plan to redevelop the area as a stylish boardwalk with a waterfront view, including a new station for the super-spiffy 東京モノレール Tōkyō Monorēru Tōkyō Monorail. It’s during this expansion that the island took its final, rectangular shape which can still be seen today. Two sides (the northwest corner) of the former pentagonal daiba are still visible, this is where you can see the Edo Period seawalls.

The developers thought Higashi-Shinagawa 2-chōme was too long and re-christened the project 天王洲I S L Eマスタープラン Tennōzu Airu Masutā Puran the Tennōzu Isle Master Plan. Now, remember, this was the height of the Bubble Economy, and one of many fads at the time was studying English just because it was popular. Suddenly, 和製英語 wasei eigo Japanese English meant to be understood by Japanese speakers only began popping up everywhere. This place name is a product of that fad. Tennōzu Isle sounded like Tennō’s Isle and rolled off the tongue easier than Tennōzu-jima (both “Tennō’s Island”) [ix], but it looked foreign and exotic – perfect for a population of passively English-literate Tōkyōites with money burning holes in their pockets.

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kaijo togyo

To this day, Ebara Shrine celebrates the Tennōzu Festival and local worshippers still perform the kaijō togyo ritual, returning the Oxhead Heavenly King to the sandbar he first appeared at. This tradition is said to protect the area from floods, hurricanes, and most importantly for us, massive epidemic outbreaks.

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I hope you found this bite-sized JapanThis! article informative. I tried to avoid as many rabbit holes as possible, and I hope I’ve succeeded. We’re not out of the dark on this coronavirus bullshit yet, so please stay home, wash your hands, and stay six-feet apart from everyone. Call your loved ones and take care of yourself. Also, if you see a fire breathing seagull, get the hell away from it.

 

Further Reading:

 

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[i] This is an older kanji still used in place names or to seem old timey. Modern Japanese tends to use , but this kanji can also mean “state” or “province,” so the older kanji is good for clarity in place names.
[ii] Gozu literally means “ox head” and is probably a reference to Mt. Oxhead in Southern India.
[iii] Longtime readers will remember all the other time people were just finding random Buddhist statues in the water. It’s a pretty hilarious trope. I can picture monks whose temples are lacking funds, dumping statues in the water to create “miracles” and drum up a little business for themselves.
[iv] Transferring a sacred object to the sea.
[v] Also known as 祇園神社 Gion Jinja Gion Shrine.
[vi] I use Ancient Tōkaidō and 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō former Tōkaidō (“old Tōkaidō”) to distinguish between the very well organized and regulated Edo Period highway. Ancient refers to the road as it slowly developed over centuries.
[vii] OK, ya got me! He’s real name is Enomoto Takeaki. You can read more about him here.
[viii] Well, let’s be honest. It wasn’t actually diabolical.
[ix] Though, the more natural Tennō-jima doesn’t sound bad. Just doesn’t pop like the Japanese/English hybrid.

What does Ushima mean?

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

牛島
Ushima (cow/ox island)

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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.

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