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What does Tachiaigawa mean?

In Japanese History on January 18, 2019 at 2:52 pm

(Tachiai River; more at water meets water)


Tachiaigawa in the Edo Period and today

It’s been about a year since I updated the site. A whole fucking year [i]. Long time readers will remember the time I got rivered and almost abandoned the project altogether. Well, I started an article one year ago that, on the surface, seemed so simple, but actually turned into a nightmare. So, I’ve decided to take smaller bites and get things up and running again. I also apologize for keeping everyone waiting and hope I didn’t have anyone worrying. Also, a note about footnotes. WordPress changed the backend editor, so there is a chance the footnote links may not work.

So without further ado, let’s talk about a place in Tōkyō that foreigners don’t often go. Actually, a lot of Tōkyōites have never heard of this area either. It lies on 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route[ii], just past the former post towns of 北品川宿 Kita Shinagawa-shuku North Shinagawa Post Town and 南品川宿 Minami Shinagawa-shuku South Shinagawa Post Town, between the former fishing village of  鮫洲 Samezu and 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Of course, I’m talking about 立会川 Tachiaigawa[iii]. In the Edo Period, travelers leaving the capital for Kyōto would have probably lodged in either Shinagawa Post Town or 川崎宿 Kawasaki-shuku Kawasaki Post Town[iv], but they definitely would have passed this rural seaside area, called 大井村 Ōi Mura Ōi Village at the time.

Further Reading:

suzugamori at night (1 of 1)

Suzugamori Execution Grounds at night. Ooooooh, spooooooky.

Let’s Look at the Kanji

tatsu, tachi
stand, rise, set up

au, ai
meet, join

kawa, -gawa

There are several creative theories that try to explain the origin of this place name, yet none of them are particularly convincing to me. I have my own pet theory which is not creative and seems super-obvious, but before we talk about the explanations people have put forward over the years, I want to talk about the geography of the area.

Until the late 1950’s, the coastline of  江戸湾東京湾 Edo-wanTōkyō-wan Edo/Tōkyō Bay was more or less the same. The neighborhood called Tachiaigawa was outside of the old city limits on the Tōkaidō Highway and lay directly on the beach at a place where a distributary of the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River called the Tachiai-gawa which flowed into Edo-Tōkyō Bay[v]. Until 1903, when 立会川駅 Tachiaigawa Eki Tachiaigawa Station opened, the area was not called Tachiaigawa. In fact, this is just a local term. In the Edo Period, this area was just considered 荏原国大井村 Ebara no Kuni Ōi Mura Ōi Village, Ebara Province[vi]. Even today, Tachiaigawa is not an official postal code. These days, this is 南大井一丁目 Minami Ōi Itchōme 1st block of South Ōi. The only thing you have to remember is that the Tachiai River has flown and continues to flow through this area. That’s key to its etymology.

samurai battle

Theory 1: There was a Samurai Battle here

This theory posits that the name derives from the combination 太刀 tachi long sword 会 ai meeting 川 kawa river (ie; the river where long swords met). And sure, since the 弥生時代 Yayoi Jidai Yayoi Period (let’s say from 300 BCE) until the Edo Period (1603), the history of Japan was dominated by warfare, but without a specific battle connected to this location, it’s really hard to say if this is just oral tradition or false etymology. If 太刀会 tachiai meeting of long swords is a prevalent place name in other places in eastern Japan or the rest of the country[vii], I might buy into this theory. However, what would seal the deal for me is if someone could point to a specific battle at this location[viii].


Theory 2: There were Beautiful Waterfalls

It’s well a known fact that Edo Period castle towns didn’t have street names, so when people described their villages or neighborhoods to each other they used landmarks, hill names, and bridge names. It’s fair to say that either the bridges over the Tachiai River or the river itself could become an unofficial reference to the area.

The story goes that the original village lie on a calm section of the river between two waterfalls and was originally called 滝間 takima between the waterfalls, so locals began to refer to that stretch of the river as 滝間川 Takima-gawa the river between the falls which over time changed into Tachiai-gawa. I find this to be pretty unconvincing because in all my years running this site, I don’t remember a /ki/ becoming a //. Not that it isn’t possible[ix], I just can’t recall an example of that sound change in Japanese off the top of my head. Also, given the constant waterworks projects over the centuries, it would be hard to prove this.

buddha suzugamori (1 of 1)

Buddha statue at Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Recently, I’ve been going here late at night because I like creepy ghost shit. Awwwww yeah.

Theory 3: The Suzugamori Theory

I’ve written about 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds in the past[x] and in that article, I mentioned 涙橋 Namida-bashi the Bridge of Tears. For reasons of ritual cleanliness, executions were generally carried out beyond the city limits, so Suzugamori was a great place for that. People coming in and out of Edo would have seen the shōgunate’s ultimate authority, that over life and death. Also, it’s well known that 浜川橋 Hamagawa-bashi Hamagawa Bridge is generally known by locals as Namida-bashi. This was the last chance for condemned criminals to say their final farewells to their families[xi]. If this is the case, 立会 tachiai has a literal meaning of “standing and meeting.” Family and friends stood and watched their loved ones for the last time here.

namidabashi at night (1 of 1)

Namidabashi at night. Everyone’s coming home after a hard day of work at Suzugamori…

There is a corollary theory that pertains to the specifics of death sentences in the Edo Period. Condemned criminals would have been paraded through the streets as an example to all and then executed at one of the Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo. This related theory says that this river was where 御立会 o-tachiai government “involvement” happened. In short, shōgunate officials would arrive at Suzugamori to confirm the details of the condemned person’s case and observe (another meaning of the word o-tachiai) the execution. That means Tachiaigawa would mean “the place on the river where the shōgunate observed and confirmed executions.”

Because there are two theories presented, this seems to be a solid case for this etymology – on the surface. But guess who has two thumbs, writes JapanThis!, and thinks this is bullshit?

two thumbs

The Edo Period wasn’t that long ago. In fact, last year (2018) was the 150th anniversary of 大政奉還 Taisei Hōkan the shōgunate handing political authority over to the imperial court or 明治維新 Meiji Ishin the Meiji Coup (depending on which side you take). But think about it. Who the fuck would want to brag about living in a neighborhood famous for thousands of executions? To this very day, the former execution grounds of Suzugamori and Kozukappara are some of the least desirable places for real estate, with rent being cheap, and zero developers swooping in to build swanky high-rise apartments and shopping centers[xii]. In fact, the only reason people even live in areas like Tachiaigawa is because of necessity caused by urban sprawl in the post-war years. It’s the main reason the area still feels like the post-war years. Very little has changed since the 1960’s and 70’s! I doubt the execution thing would be a source of pride for the local fishermen and seaweed farmers who operated in this area from before the Edo Period until the 1950’s. Even the “Bridge of Tears” is a nickname. The official name is still “Seaside River Bridge” referring to the fact that it was literally a bridge crossing a river that emptied into the sea. Way more kosher than all that dark execution shit.

ryoma warehouse (1 of 1)

Because Tosa Domain had a huge residence here, you’ll find references to Sakamoto Ryōma and the Black Ships everywhere. For example, on this warehouse or whatever it is.

Theory 4: Where Water Meets Water

In doing this research, I remembered that time I got rivered. There were a few times I came across the kanji stand and meet. We see this in place names like 立川 Tachikawa Tachikawa and words like 合流 gōryū confluence. Without ever reviewing my previous research, it just seemed natural that a place where a river flowed into the sea would be called Tachiai-gawa. Why invoke all this stuff about samurai battles and executions?

To quote from my article on the Meguro River:

The Shinagawa clan was a branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other.  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).

I can’t find any maps from the Kamakura Period for this area[xiii], but Edo Period maps are readily available both online and in my private collection. Although it’s underground today, you can still trace a split in the river near Tachiaigawa Station that once flowed into the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki suburban palace of 土佐藩 Tosa Han Tosa Domain. I’m assuming this is a remnant of the Kamakura Period waterworks. And when I say you can trace the path, I mean you can literally walk the path of the river today. Like right now. I dare you to do it, you lazy fuck.

All of those other fantastic theories are great stories, but if I were a betting man, I’d venture to say the etymology of Tachiaigawa is a mix of “rivers that split off from each other” and “where the river meets the sea.” In a bayside region full of rivers, Occam’s Razor comes down hard in favor of this theory. It’s clean and simple, looks like other derivations we’ve seen before, yet doesn’t require unattested battles, unconfirmed waterfalls and irregular diachronic sound changes, or a bizarre glorification of public executions for 250 some odd years and the shōgunate’s protocol in such matters. It’s just where water meets water. Pretty sure that’s it.

Further Reading:

hamakawa daiba (1 of 1).jpg

Cannon commemorating the Hamakawa Battery. Yup, that’s right. There’s a big ol’ cannon in the middle of a playground for children. Sounds more American than Japanese…

Sakamoto Ryōma

If you get off the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line at Tachiaigawa Station, you’ll find yourself in a very 下町 shitamachi low city neighborhood with a distinct post-war looking 商店街 shōtengai shopping street replete with local bars, yaki-tori joints, and a big old statue of 坂本龍馬 Sakamoto Ryōma. I’m not gonna explain who he was, you can read about him here. But across the street from the station is a school and residential area that sit on the suburban palace of his native domain, 土佐藩 Tosa-han Tosa Domain – modern 高知県 Kōchi-ken Kōchi Prefecture. He most definitely spent some time walking on the Tōkaidō while serving guard duty at the nearby by 浜川砲台 Hamagawa Hōdai Fort Hamagawa in his twenties[xiv]. In Tachiaigawa, you can find a cheap knock off of a famous statue in Kōchi, which itself is a cheap knock off of the iconic photograph of Ryōma himself taken at the 上野撮影局 Ueno Satsueikyoku Ueno Photography Studio in Nagasaki some time in 1867[xv]. At any rate, nearby is a placard depicting the four 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships commanded by Commodore Perry that arrived in Edo Bay in 1853: the Susquehanna, Mississippi, Saratoga, and Plymouth[xvi].

Further Reading:

ryoma tachiaigawa (1 of 1)

Ryōma voguing Bakumatsu style

tachiaigawa at night (1 of 1)

After a day of walking the old Tōkaidō, I love grabbing dinner Shōwa-style in Tachiaigawa.

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(And yes, I’ll take you through Shinagawa post town and to Tachiaigawa, or even the execution grounds. It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)


[i] Or, a hole fucking year, if you’re on #TeamIenari.
[ii] One of the 5 Great Highways. The 東海道 Tōkaidō Eastern Sea Route and 中仙道  Nakasendō Mountain Pass Route connected the shōgun’s capital of 江戸 Edo Edo (modern day Tōkyō) with the imperial capital 京 Kyō (modern day Kyōto).
[iii] Of course I am lol
[iv] I’ve actually walked from 日本橋 Nihonbashi, the easternmost starting point on the Tōkaidō (the name literally means “the bridge to Japan”), to the modern city of Kawasaki. Without visiting too many temples and shrines and walking at a brisk pace, I made the journey in a day. I think most Edo Period people would easily spend a full day and night in Shinagawa before beginning the tedious walk to Kawasaki. Shinagawa offered delicious seafood, plenty of drinking and whoring, and a non-stop variety of amazing views of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. Some ghoulishly curious types probably checked out the execution grounds, cuz, yeah. Humans.
[v] At various points in history and depending on the stretch of river in question, this may have been referred to as the Shinagawa River.
[vi] It was directly controlled by the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate, but it wasn’t part of Edo proper. The term 国 kuni province was basically a traditional term – as it is today – to refer to old Heian Period territories. Today, it’s nostalgic, but in the Edo Period, province names were retained for their “classical appeal” and used in court titles.
[vii] It’s not.
[viii] I can’t find anything that satisfies these criteria.
[ix] This exact sound change is quite well known and regular in Latin languages – Italian and French in particular. Latin centum /kentum/ became Italian cento /tʃento/ (one hundred) and Latin cattus /cattus/ became French chat /ʃat/ (cat).
[x] Here’s my article on Suzugamori.
[xi] If their families even bothered to show up.
[xii] The exception being 小伝馬町 Kodenmachō, which is near 日本橋 Nihonbashi whose thriving business district overshadows the grim atmosphere of the neighborhoods around Suzugamori and Kozukappara. Kozukappara was so awful that the place name doesn’t exist outside of historical landmarks. Suzugamori’s name is still attached to a park and an elementary school.
[xiii] There might not be any, but maybe I’ll visit the 品川歴史館 Shinagawa Rekishikan Shinagawa History Museum again to see if they can help.
[xiv] This is a 30-40 minute walk today. I suspect in the Edo Period it would have taken about an hour.
[xv] If I remember correctly, the statue used to stand in front of a convenience store or something as a kinda gimmick. But since the renewal of the old Tōkaidō beginning in 2008 or so, they’ve played up Ryōma’s association with the area much more and put the (I’m assuming) plastic statue on a large concrete pedestal and put him in a park next to the train station.
[xvi] Not that these ships ever actually made it to Edo. They did their business in Uraga Bay which is actually miles from Edo-Tōkyō.

Ōedo Line: Hongō San-chōme

In Japanese History on June 10, 2015 at 3:48 am

Hongō San-chōme (3rd block of Hongō)

The famous Akamon (red gate) of Kaga Domain which is now the entrance of Tokyo University

The famous Akamon (red gate) of Kaga Domain which is now the entrance of Tokyo University

Hongō literally means “the main hamlet/village.” Because it is extremely hilly, it was allocated for residences of samurai of various ranks. Theoretically speaking, the location of your house on the hills indicated your rank and the type of house you could have. Naturally, low ranking samurai were at the bottom of the hills and the highest ranking samurai were at the tops of the hills. Today the area is famous for education and medicine. Tōkyō University, Juntendō University, and Tōyō Gakuen University are all located in the area.

It was Pre-Modern Japan. Sometimes, you gotta burn a bitch. Alive.

It was Pre-Modern Japan.
Sometimes you gotta burn a bitch.

In the lowlands, in one of the commoner districts of Koishikawa is the place where 八百屋お七 Yayoya O-shichi lived. Loooooong time readers will recognize her as the 16 year old crazy bitch who set tried to burn down a temple in 1683 to get the attention of the monk who had saved her from a fire a year or so earlier. The fire was soon put out and she was apparently caught red handed, but this was arson and had to be dealt with by the 奉行 bugyō magistrate. In the end, the teenage girl was burnt at the stake the same year at Suzugamori Execution Ground near Shinagawa. The story is one of the greatest tragedies of the Edo Period – most of it based on highly fictionalized bunraku[i] and kabuki[ii] adaptations. But at its core, the story is based on some facts. The precise location of her home, the name of the temple she burnt and even the name of the boy she was infatuated with aren’t known for certain[iii]. But shōgunate records apparently confirm the date of her arrest and the location and manner of her execution. The location of her grave is also somewhat contested, but the traditional site of her grave is the temple 円乗寺 Enjō-ji, also written 園乗寺 Enjō-ji, which is a 20 minute walk from Hongō Sanchōme Station. It’s a straight shot on a single street, so it’s probably worth the walk if you’re in the area.

And why should you be in the area? There are plenty of temples and shrines and the area has more hills than other local tourist sites – so you can get a feel for the prime real estate of the Edo Period. Although there are no samurai residences left, you can get the feel for how uniquely 山手 yamanote high city the area was[iv]. You can also get some great photos here because most people don’t come here to take pictures.

But, this station also gives you access to the 東京都水道歴史館 Tōkyō-to Suidō Rekishikan Tōkyō Waterworks Historical Museum. The museum is dedicated to the history of water, aqueducts, sewerage, reservoirs, and water treatment in Edo-Tōkyō. At first, you might say, that sounds boring. But trust me, it’s surprisingly eye opening and is easily one of my favorite museums in the city. When I visited, they had English pamphlets, but most of the exhibits were in Japanese only. I’m sure that will change in the build up to the 2020 Olympics. The museum’s website is here.

Tokyo Waterworks Museum.  Don't make me say it again.

Tokyo Waterworks Museum.
Don’t make me say it again.

Wanna read my original article about fires in Edo? (to read O-shichi’s story)
Wanna read my article about Suzugamori Execution Ground? (She gets mentioned)


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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

[i] Creepy puppet shows that Edoites loved the shit out of.
[ii] Highly ritualized theater of Pre-Modern Japan – also a little creepy, visually-speaking.
[iii] Some versions of the story are more well-known than others, tho.
[iv] I had a great discussion with Jcastle about how you can’t really understand old Japanese castles and samurai homes without walking the terrain yourself. Even if there is nothing left to look at, the lay of the land, the hills, the plateaux are all things the samurai were concerned with during the Sengoku Period. These physical characteristics of the land gave rise to the varying castle types and the subsequent 城下町 jōka machi castle towns. In the Edo Period, things changed, but the earliest samurai districts were built with this Sengoku philosophy in mind.

What does Omori mean?

In Japanese History on May 13, 2014 at 5:39 pm

(great forest, big forest)

The Omori Kaigan Swimming Area (pre-war)

The Omori Kaigan Swimming Area (pre-war) It’s interesting how Tokyoites preferred a drop into the ocean from a man-made structure, rather than a natural beach. We have no natural beaches in Tokyo today.

So in my last article, I returned to 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward for the first time in maybe a year. Well, technically that’s not true. We got close when I talked about the 5 Great Roads of Edo and Suzugamori Execution Ground. But for the most part, we haven’t hung out in this part of town for a while.

It’s kind of shame, too.

“Why?” you ask.

Because, as I said the other day, the area is literally littered with history. I’ve walked this area countless times over the last 10 years and I haven’t even scratched the surface. While it’s not as well preserved as Kyōto, Shinagawa is one of those areas that – like Kyōto – you can come back to time and time again and always find something new. The main difference is that Kyōto gives up her past easily. Shinagawa plays hard to get. You really have to know what you’re looking for.


Hijikata Toshizo was here. So was everyone else and their uncle.  The Tokaido Highway was the main artery in and out of the city.

Hijikata Toshizo was here.
So was everyone else and their uncle.
The Tokaido Highway was the main artery in and out of the city.


Oh, for fuck’s sake! I just remembered Ōmori is in 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward not  品川区 Shinagawa Ward. Goddammit! Arrrrrrgh!!!!!!! Well, anyways, it’s part of the coastal area that was called 品川沖 Shinagawa-oki, an ambiguous term that in the Edo Period could refer to a coastline or the open sea or, well, just the sea.

OK, let me catch my breath and calm down for a second. In all fairness, I guess it doesn’t really matter because Shinagawa and Ōta border each other – and in the Edo Period, there would have been no distinction made between the two places. In fact, the closest station to the ruins of Suzugamori Execution Ground is called 大森海岸駅 Ōmori Kaigan Eki, literally Ōmori Coast Station but that area is still in Shinagawa Ward.

Anyhoo, this place was a coastal 田舎 inaka rural area and was well outside of central Edo. So let’s imagine what we might have found in the outskirts of Edo that existed around Edo Bay, shall we?

The Tokaido literally hugged the coast.

The Tokaido literally hugged the coast.
Oh, and 下に居ろ, muthafucka!

What comes to mind are things like… execution grounds, fishing villages, and trees. Lots and lots of trees. Which brings me to my next point. Japan is a 島国 shimaguni island country, but it’s not a tropical island. Japan is mountainous and heavily forested in her most beautiful areas. These forests often extended right up to the coastline, for the most part[i]. For much of the Edo Period, this area was still heavily wooded.

An Edo/Meiji Era tea house  on the Omori Coast. Don't mistake this for a place to do tea ceremony.

An Edo/Meiji Era tea house on the Omori Coast. Don’t mistake this for a place to do tea ceremony. Nope, it’s for drinking and whoring.

So Let’s Take a Look at the Kanji!


big, great, large



So from this we can recognize that exactly the kind of natural, wooded area we would expect to find in the Edo Period was here. It was country. It was covered in trees. Normal. This is a literal place name – without a doubt: The “big-ass forest.”

I tend to err on the Japanese side these days.. Beards are dirty.  This dude's hair is fine, but's up with that beard? Go back to Afghanistan! lololol

What’s up with that filthy beard, Edward Morse?


There’s another interesting twist to this story, though.

Edward Morse, an American naturalist/zoologist[ii] who specialized in shellfish, came to Japan in 1877 and helped the first incarnation of 東京大学 Tōkyō Daigaku Tōkyō University establish a zoology department. Along the way, and perhaps by accident, he launched archaeology and anthropology in Japan when he discovered a 貝塚 kaizuka midden (a mound made of discarded shellfish) in Ōmori. This was Japan’s first archaeological dig and it was a major discovery in that it showed the Japanese that their origin wasn’t really recorded in books like the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki[iii]. It showed that science could prove that Japan’s history actually went way farther back than anyone had ever imagined. The shells and pottery fragments dated from the Late Jōmon Period, about 2000-1000 BCE. The term Jōmon which all Japanese will recognize as a legitimate prehistoric era is actually a translation of Morse’s English description of the pottery samples he found. He noticed rope-like patterns and called them “cord marked” which was translated into Japanese as  縄文 “rope-design.”

It’s all in Japanese, but if you’re interested, here’s the website for the Ōmori Kaizuka Park.

Jomon pottery. Notice the rope patterns.

Jomon pottery.
Notice the rope patterns.

The entire excavation site is preserved as a park and a memorial to Morse and the team that launched Japanese archaeology. you can walk around the wall inside the excavation and look at the cut away wall and see rows of shells piled up.

The entire excavation site is preserved as a park and a memorial to Morse and the team that launched Japanese archaeology. you can walk around the wall inside the excavation and look at the cut away wall and see rows of shells piled up.


As I mentioned in my article on Samezu, this part of Edo Bay was renowned for its fish and 海苔 nori seaweed. This local specialty was generally referred to as 江戸前海苔 Edo-mae nori seaweed from Edo Bay, but each area had its unique brands. 品川海苔 Shinagawa Nori, 大森海苔 Ōmori Nori, and 芝町海苔 Shiba Machi Nori were some of the most sought after brands, the latter being the most prestigious[iv]. The development and modernization of Tōkyō Bay in the 50’s and 60’s more or less put an end to the fishing and nori cultivation that typified the area for centuries.

Drying sheets of nori in the sun in Omori.

Drying sheets of nori in the sun in Omori.

One unique aspect of Ōmori as opposed to other areas that were developed in the late Edo Period and “modern eras,[v]” is that the actually coastline is still preserved to a certain extent. The ruins of Suzugamori Execution Ground are located next to 大森海岸駅 Ōmori Kaigan Eki Ōmori Coast Station. A short walk from the station will bring you to small inlet which is basically where the shoreline began in the Edo Period[vi].


A small section of the Omori Coast is still preserved, believe it or not.

The Omori Nori Museum is still growing nori in the traditional way and offers classes in traditional nori cultivation and manufacturing!

The Omori Nori Museum is still growing nori in the traditional way and offers classes in traditional nori cultivation and manufacturing! BTW, those sticks are called HIBI and I talked about them in my article on Hibiya. (Get the link yourself, you lazy bitch, lol)

If anyone is interested in the Ōmori Nori Museum, here’s the website. It’s Japanese only.



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[i] If you want to see tropical Japan, you’ll have to go to Okinawa – which wasn’t officially a part of Japan until after the Meiji Coup in 1868.
[ii] Neither of these titles may be accurate. All of the disciplines he was involved with were sciences in their infancies – though arguably their most exciting days. All the disciplines he worked in were very much overlapping at the time, too. But any way you look at it, the guy is pretty much a huge bucket of win for Japan, archaeology, anthropology, and biology.
[iii] There are 2 ancient sources for Japan’s earliest history – mostly legendary stories. They are the 古事記 Kojiki Record of Ancient Matters and the older, more detailed 日本書紀 Nihon- shoki Chronicles of Japan.
[iv] Most likely due to the fact that it was located a fair distance away from the Tōkaidō – also this is where the grand funerary temple of the Tokugawa shoguns is located, Zōjō-ji. Ōmori and Shinagawa are on the Tōkaidō, so it was easy to pick up some nori as 御土産 o-miyage souvenirs to give your friends and family.
[v] Often the term “pre-modern” is applied to Japanese history before 1868 when the Meiji Coup took place. I actually find this term a bit distasteful as it seems to presume that “modernity” is defined by the advances of the western cultures. Scientifically, there’s no doubt, the western countries were more advanced, but there’s no need to kick another culture in the balls. To be sure, the Japanese were developing a rich cultural tapestry and were making advances of their own. I don’t know what other word to use, but “pre-modern” really rubs me the wrong way. Words like “feudal” and “medieval” often get thrown around and I find these unfulfilling as well. I guess this is why I use the generic phrase “Old Japan.”
[vi] I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but some people say that one form of execution at Suzugamori was to crucify prisoners upside down in the bay at low tide. The, they would wait for the tide to come in slowly. They would be drowned by the sea at high tide. This is just my musing… but is it easier to let a person drown tied upside-down to poles and go clean up the mess the next day, or is it easier to burn them, cut off their head or do some more expedient execution? It all sounds horrible to me. The life of outcastes (read, “the lucky bastards who had to do this work”) in the Old Japan sounds truly awful.

Suzugamori Execution Ground

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Suzugamori Shikeijō
Suzugamori Execution Ground

At first, the ruins of Suzugamori look like a nice park.

At first, the ruins of Suzugamori look like a nice park.

This is probably the most famous and most accessible 死刑所 shikeijo execution grounds in Tōkyō. It’s located on the old Tōkaidō highway, near 品川宿 Shinagawa-shuku Shinagawa post town and is designated as one of the 100 Historic Spots of Shinagawa.

The area that is preserved today is allegedly the actual killing floor. As such there are many Buddhist monuments which have been erected to “soothe the lost souls” that inhabit the area. Today, two streets run along the preserved area and an elevated pedestrian crossing goes over the entrance, so most people don’t even notice the area. This may be by design, as execution grounds are seen as unclean places. I’ve heard the rent is cheap in this area because people are afraid of ghosts – never investigated this myself, but my gut instinct tells me that while this might have been true in the past, in the overcrowded Tōkyō of today, this area might be just as pricey as anywhere else in the area. And while the name Suzugamori instills fear in the hearts of those who know the gruesome history of the area, there is a park and elementary school which both bear the name Suzugamori. So it’s not quite as dark and taboo as I’d been told when I first came to Japan.

The area around Suzugamori in 1887. This is most likely the Tokkaido. Edo Bay/Tokyo Bay to the left, the remains of the execution ground would be to the right.

The area around Suzugamori in 1887.
This is most likely the Tokkaido.
Edo Bay/Tokyo Bay to the left, the remains of the execution ground would be to the right.

Executions at Suzugamori were directly overseen by a hereditary line of men called 弾左衛門 Danzaemon, which looks like an Edo Period given name, but to the best of my knowledge it was a translatable family name. The male heads of the Danzaemon family always started their given names with the kanji [i]. Danzaemon was the highest ranking 穢多 eta untouchable in Edo. He was a sort of lord the outcaste – that is to say, lord of the butchers, executioners, undertakers, and all those who dealt in the business of death.

Decapitated heads displayed as a deterrent.

Decapitated heads displayed as a deterrent.

Suzugamori was home to some of the wilder forms of execution; sawing in half, boiling, burning alive, and everyone’s favorite, crucifixion. There was a small detention facility there, but the area was more or less just for executions.

Decapitated heads displayed as a deterrent.

So executioner dudes hanging out with some heads.

Suzugamori’s Claim to Fame:

Yaoya O-shichi, the crazy bitch that tried to burn down Edo was supposedly burned at the stake here[ii]. A stone 台 dai post hole for 火刑 kakei burning at the stake is preserved at the site[iii]. The sign says this was the post hole that O-shichi was burned at. But nobody can really know. Apparently, because of its distance from the city and its location next to Edo Bay, Suzugamori was the main execution site used for burning at the stake. The body would be left exposed for about 3 days.

Burning at the stake.  Awwwwww yeah.

Burning at the stake.
Awwwwww yeah.

Post hole for burning at the stake. Fresh flowers are given throughout the year by the nearby temple staff and neighbors.

Post hole for burning at the stake.
Fresh flowers are given throughout the year by the nearby temple staff and neighbors.

Sign marking the post hole for burning at the stake.

Sign marking the post hole for burning at the stake.

A stone 台 dai post hole for crucifixion can also be seen here. When westerners think of crucifixion, they think of the stylized Christian symbol that comes down to us from Roman Catholicism. But even that isn’t an accurate representation of what Roman crucifixion was. Japanese crucifixion is a similar ordeal to the Roman style. While the Roman’s typically emphasized exposure to the elements and starvation as a mechanism of death, the Japanese tended to be a little more officious about the whole thing. They’d tie you to a few stakes and eventually a pair of dudes armed with halberds would come forth to stab the condemned 20-30 times and then dispatch them by cutting their throat. The body would be left exposed for about 3 days.

Post hole for crucifixions.

Post hole for crucifixions.

Sign marking the post hole for crucifixions.

Sign marking the post hole for crucifixions.

A real Japanese crucifixion. Straight up gangster shit.

A real Japanese crucifixion.
Straight up gangster shit.

There are stories that nearby Edo Bay were also used for executions. I’ve heard of upside down crucifixions that waited for the tide to come in and drown the poor bastards. But I can’t confirm if these were real or not. At any rate, this type of execution is associated with Suzugamori.

The Japanese equivalent of drawing and quartering...

The Japanese equivalent of drawing and quartering…

And lastly, there is still preserved a place called 泪橋 Namidabashi the Bridge of Tears. This bridge crosses the river that marked the natural, physical boundary of the Suzugamori Detention Center and Execution Grounds. It was the last place where the family could say goodbye to their loved one before they met their final moment. Edo Period executions were generally not public, though they were often witnessed by the offended party and the presiding magistrates. However, after the execution, heads and/or corpses were quite regularly put on display for at least three days. The remains would be disposed of according to Buddhist rites, or in some cases, the remains would just be left exposed to whatever stray dogs or crows lived in the area[iv]. Burnings and crucifixions tended to be down outside of the facilities for safety reasons and because it would just be a pain in the ass to move all that mess for displaying.

Namidabashi (the Bridge of Tears) as it looks today. The current incarnation of the bridge was built in the late Meiji Era.  The original bridge was (naturally) wooden.

Namidabashi (the Bridge of Tears) as it looks today.
The current incarnation of the bridge was built in the late Meiji Era.
The original bridge was (naturally) wooden.
The neighbors didn’t like the name Namidabashi and its association with Suzugamori, so today the bridge is officially known as Hamakawabashi.

Today, there are apartments and houses and schools and companies and highways and even a major aquarium near Suzugamori. If no one told you about its ghastly past, you might not even notice it. But a few hints still exist. No train station uses the word Suzugamori. The train station there now, which is quite close, is called 大森海岸 Ōmori Kaigan Ōmori Beach (it was a beach in the Edo Period, now it’s not). The train line that stops there is a pretty minor train line – at least in the sense that it doesn’t go through central Tōkyō. Shinagawa is as close as it gets. And lastly, only the local train stops there, most of the trains just pass it by. Coincidence? I think not.

The well of Suzugamori.  This is where decapitated heads were washed before being put on display. (The fence is there to keep people from falling in)

The well of Suzugamori.
This is where decapitated heads were washed before being put on display.
(The fence is there to keep people from falling in)




[i] Here’s a list of their names.

[ii] I mentioned her in my article on fires in Edo-Tōkyō.

[iii] 火刑 kakei fire punishment is the formal word for this kind of execution. 焼き殺す yakikorosu burn and kill is a casual way to refer to it.

[iv] Again, keep in mind, these areas have been traditionally considered unclean (things are a little different now), but in the Edo Period, Suzugamori was really quite far from the urban center. Even walking from the Suzugamori ruins to Namidabashi is quite a hike. It gives you a feel for how isolated the area actually was.

Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!!!

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

The Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo

Burning at the stake. Capital punishment for arsonists.

Burning at the stake.
Capital punishment for arsonists.

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese Name

English Name




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



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



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

What can we say about these places?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Loads of bad ass-ness from MIT.

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

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

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

Conflag Hag – How Fires Shaped the Face of Edo and Tokyo

In Japanese History on February 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm

(I thought of the title all by myself)

Conflag being my abbreviation for the word conflagration.

And how the hell do you say conflagration in Japanese?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
In Japanese the word is 大火 taika (big ass fire).
The word used for smaller fires is 火事 kaji (fire situation/trouble).
火 hi (fire) refers to fire in general.

The traditional architecture of Japan has always been wooden. Wooden houses, wooden temples and shrines, even wooden castles. When you have entire cities built of wood, you can imagine that even a little carelessness with a flame could have dire consequences. “Old Japan” had a fuckload of fires and Edo, being the biggest and most populated city, was no exception.

After each conflagration the city of Edo would have to be rebuilt. In the modern era, two major conflagrations have occurred in Tokyo. Each time the city was rebuilt. All the destruction and rebuilding is part of the reason modern Tokyo looks very little like “Old Japan.” If you visit Kyoto, you’ll notice how different it is from Tokyo.
That’s because Kyoto hasn’t experienced any major fires in the modern era.

Knock on wood.

fires in tokyo

chaos everywhere! note the fire brigade standing on the tops of the buildings. (meireki fire)

☆ The 3 Great Fires of Edo

Edo had many conflagrations, but there are three that are considered the big ones, the so-called 江戸三大大火 Edo san dai taika (the 3 Great Fires of Edo).

fire in tokyo edo


1- 明暦ノ大火 Meireki no Taika (Meireki Conflag)

If I’m not mistaken, this was the worst fire in Edo – and one of the worst disasters in Japanese history.
70% of the city was burnt to the ground.
Somewhere around 107,000 people were killed. Dogs and cats living together… you get the picture.

The city burned for 3 days because the flames were stoked by strong typhoon winds. The flames somehow “jumped the moat” of Edo Castle and burned a shitload of the outer buildings of the castle and all of the daimyo and high ranking samurai residences near the castle. Most Japanese castles have a large castle keep called a 天守閣 tenshukaku which would loom over the castle towns, but Edo Castle’s keep was destroyed in this fire. It was never rebuilt, but if you go to the Imperial Palace today, you can see the stone base of the tenshukaku.

the tenshukaku of edo castle as it looks today (tokyo imperial palace)

the tenshukaku of edo castle as it looks today (tokyo imperial palace)

2- 明和ノ大火 Meiwa no Taika (Meiwa Conflag)

The names of these fires are derived from the 年号nengō, (Era Names). The Meiwa Era was, as eras go, pretty much a shit era. It began in 1764 and ended in 1772… a year so shitty in fact that the imperial court decided to change era names. But no dice. The next era was just as shitty.
Anyways, this fire pretty much sucked giant donkey balls. About 15,000 people perished. The cost of rebuilding Edo put a massive economic strain on the shōgunate.

meiwa fire

the meiwa fire

3- 文化ノ大火 Bunka no Taika (Bunka Conflag)

I don’t know much about this fire, but from what I’ve read, it mostly just affected the elite of Edo. There are other fires not included in the Big Three list that had higher death tolls, but the elite wrote the history books, so… take that, stupid commoners.

fire in tokyo edo


☆ That Crazy Bitch’s Fire

There’s another very famous fire called 八百屋お七の火事 Yaoya O-shichi no Kaji (Yaoya O-Shichi’s Fire). This fire has been preserved in kabuki theater because of the tragic drama of the story, which goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a crazy bitch named O-shichi. During a major conflagration in 1682, she saw a good looking dude. She fell in love with him on the spot, as crazy bitches do. So a year later she got this fucking awesome idea that if she started another fire, she could meet him again. (Because just going to the place where he worked would be too commonsensical).

So she starts a fire – in Edo, which is still recovering from the last major fire.

Anyhoo, the bitch get caught and handed over to the local judge.
In the Edo Period, age 16 was considered an adult, under age 16, a minor.
As a minor, she would get a slap on the wrist and sent home to mommy and daddy.
As an adult, she would be burned at the stake.

The magistrate decided to give the girl a break — because obviously she was a fucking idiot and couldn’t even get a good fire going.
So he was all like, “You’re 15, right? Wink wink, nudge nudge.”
And she was all like, “Naw, I’m 16.”
He gave her another chance.
He was all like, “You are 15, right? Wink wink, nudge nudge.”
And she was all like, “Naw, I’m 16.”
And she was too fucking stupid to figure out what the judge was doing.

So he was all like, “Fuck it. Sometimes you just gotta burn a bitch.” And they burned her alive at the stake.

The official name of the major conflagration is 天和ノ大火 Ten’na no Taika, in keeping with the Era name and O-shichi’s fire was a separate incident, but since they happened in the same era, her fire is also called Ten’na no Taika. But here at Japan This!, we call it like it is: That crazy bitch’s fire.

crazy ass bitch

bitch you crazy!

☆ Conflagrations in the Modern City

After Edo was renamed Tokyo and Japan moved into the so-called “modern era,” there have been two major conflags in the big city.

The first disaster happened on September 1, 1923. The 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai (the Great Kantō Earthquake) rocked the region. The earthquake caused a lot of damage, as you can imagine. But the earthquake occurred at lunch time. People had fires in their homes for cooking and… well, fires and collapsing wooden buildings are a recipe for disaster. But as if that shit wasn’t sucky enough, a typhoon was rolling into Tokyo Bay at the same time and the strong winds created firestorms. Most of the Tokyo was leveled and burnt to the ground. About 105,385 people died, mostly in the fire. To make matters worse, there were some vigilante groups going around killing foreigners (in particular ethnic Koreans). Very nasty stuff, indeed.

On the bright side, Earthquake preparedness became a priority of the government. Since the 60’s September 1st has been Earthquake Preparedness Day. The city rebuilt, of course, encouraging non-wooden materials when possible.

So everything was fine and dandy until a little squabble known as WWII. The Americans firebombed the shit out of the city, destroying about 50% or more of the city and killing hundreds of thousands. The bombing again caused firestorms that ripped through the city. The number of deaths is usually quoted as 100,000 – but the number is debated by some historians who say this number is too low.
Anyways, a veritable fuckload of people died and the pictures aren’t pretty.

holy shit!

aerial view of one raid on tokyo

☆ After the Firebombing 

What sucks for me is that this was the final loss of “Edo.” In the post-war recovery, the city was heavily modernized across the board. The symbol of Edo, Edo Castle, was all but destroyed. If you go to the Imperial Palace today, you’ll see only a few remnants of what was the biggest and most luxurious castle in the country. The Imperial Family (read: “squatters”) never restored the castle to its former glory.

Very sad indeed.

fire is bad

fire is bad, mkay?





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