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Posts Tagged ‘Taito’

What does Taitō mean?

In Japanese History on June 28, 2017 at 5:41 pm

台東
Taitō (plateau east, more at the Elevated East)

town hall

Taitō City Hall

Today we’re looking at one of my favorite places in Tōkyō, 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward. It’s actually surprising I haven’t covered this area yet. Long time readers of the blog will be familiar with many place names located in this area. I’ve written about spots here since the earliest days of JapanThis! because… well, it’s just that cool.

Despite being jam packed with cool shit, Taitō is actually the smallest of the 23 Special Wards. In terms of the sheer density of historical remains, neighborhoods, and world class museums[i], it’s the only place in Tōkyō that gives 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward a run for its money. And Minato is twice the size of Taitō!

oiran dokuchu

The Oiran Dokuchū was a daily form of advertising carried out in Yoshiwara, the official red light district of Edo. Once a year it’s recreated today in Taitō Ward. You can see a similar recreation every day at Nikkō Edo Wonderland.

It’s home to the former red light district, 吉原 Yoshiwara[ii]. It’s home to 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, funerary temple of the Tokugawa Shōguns[iii]. It’s home to 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park, one of the most epic, historically important urban green spaces in the world. Oh, and 上野駅 Ueno Eki Ueno Station is there –a critical hub station linking a variety of local train lines, but also connecting Tōkyō with the rest of Japan and the world via 新幹線 shinkansen high speed trains as well as by other long distance trains.

ueno station 1930s

Ueno Station in the 1930’s. Keen readers will notice the pre-WWII orthography, ie; it goes right to left).

I’m not going to give you much more of a sales pitch on Taitō Ward because we’ve been here so many times before, and rest assured we will return many times again. If you want to know more about the ward’s virtues, then enjoy the Further Reading links. That’s what they’re for.

Further Reading:

sensoji

Number 1 Destination for most tourists to in Tōkyō is Sensō-ji in Asakusa. It’s a great area, but for history nerds, it requires a little poking around to find the good stuff. Like much of Tōkyō, this area suffered terribly in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and the Firebombing during WWII.

So, Let’s Look at the Kanji


tai, dai

pedestal, platform


east

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Tōkyō’s Taitō was not an Edo Period name, nor a holdover from any earlier point in history. It was, in fact, a product of the Post War Occupation restructuring of the city’s administrative districts. In short, it was a new ward to be made of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward – neither of which exist today. This new ward needed a new name to not piss off the residents of either wards, both of which had existed since the Meiji Period and whose names were deeply tied to the Edo Period in terms of spatial anthropology and socio-cultural identity[iv].

hiroshige shitaya hirokoji.jpg

Shitaya Hirokoji by Utagawa Hiroshige depicts the wide boulevard leading up to the main gate of Kan’ei-ji, funerary temple of the Tokugawa shōguns. Notice the samurai at the center bottom who are wearing western trousers, a novelty only the most elite could afford at the time Hiroshige captured this scene.

The former Shitaya Ward, whose name means “bottom of the valley,” included 上野山 Ueno-yama the Ueno Plateau where the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns were located. There’s no documentation to back this theory up, but it seems logical to assume that the Meiji Government did not want to emphasize the graves of the rulers they had overthrown in an illegal coup. Rather than creating a 上野区 Ueno-ku Ueno Ward – literally, field on the top of a hill[v] – they chose to emphasize the valley at the bottom of the plateau. Thus, they made a Shitaya Ward and included the ornate mausolea[vi] in Ueno as a kind of dis[vii]. This 下町 shitamachi low city image persists to this day, even though parts of Ueno were considered 山手 yamanote high city in the Edo Period.

Further Reading:

taito ward map

Map of Taitō Ward today

The Creation of Taitō Ward

Anyhoo, in 1947 Shitaya Ward and Asakusa Ward were officially combined to create Taitō Ward. Regardless of whether late 19th century concerns about neutralizing the place names of samurai and shōgunate lands were still an issue or not, the post-war government adopted a more conciliatory attitude that would unify the inhabitants of this historic and cherished part of Tōkyō.

However, the inhabitants of the former wards had separate agendas.

Advocates from Shitaya pushed for 上野区 Ueno-ku Ueno Ward. Advocates from Asakusa pushed for 東区 Higashi-ku East Ward[viii]. The Shitaya faction clearly wanted to shake off the “bottom of the valley” image of their former name while emphasizing the elite, yamanote implication of “field on the top of the hill” – a hill that everyone knew was important to the Tokugawa Shōguns. The Asakusa faction wanted to emphasize the eastern side of the proposed district – that is to say, the vibrant, shitamachi culture. The two factions were at an impasse, so the governor of Tōkyō stepped in and made a judgement call based on the recent approval of a project to build a new school in Shitaya. The school was to be called 台東小学校 Taitō Shōgakkō Taitō Elementary School.

Further Reading:

Seiichiro_Yasui

Yasui Sei’ichirō, the first governor of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis.

 The Compromise

Obviously, nobody wanted to piss off the residents of either faction, and I think it’s safe to say that in the reconstruction years, the Tōkyō Government wanted to ensure both Shitaya residents and Asakusa residents could save face and come out of this as winners. Furthermore, the new proposed district really did feature both yamanote and shitamachi aspects. When the new ward name was announced, it was 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward. The committee announced that the decision was based on the same criteria used for the naming of the new elementary school.

康熙字典

The book that forever changed how Japanese was written and taught.

The naming of the elementary school and the subsequent ward weren’t trifling matters. They were very much part of the post-WWII zeitgeist in Japan. It was influenced by a Classical Chinese place name 台東 Táidōng which was found in the 康熙字典 Kāngxī Zìdiǎn Kangxi Dictionary – the Kōki Jiten, in Japanese. This reference book, compiled between 1710-1716, included more than 47,000 kanji, but more importantly, it laid out a simplified standard for writing them. It reduced the previously existing 540 radicals to a cool 214 standard radicals[ix]. Don’t get me wrong. The average Japanese person on the street didn’t give a shit about this 47,000 kanji dictionary from the 1700’s. However, the intellectuals involved in the sweeping post-WWII reforms of Japanese orthography[x] were very familiar with this work and they pushed for – and pushed through – the adoption of the 214 radical system proposed by the Kōki Jiten. Whether they know it or not, every Japanese teacher today is teaching kanji based on a version of this system and every student is learning from it.

cool story.jpg
So Why Taitō?

So, I know you’re saying something like, “Nice dictionary story, bruh. But why did they choose those kanji?” And to that, I can only say, “I’m glad you asked.”

台 tai is a character commonly associated with elevation – often geographic elevation, as in 台地 daichi  high ground or plateau. The Ueno Plateau which was the home to the shōgun’s tombs and present-day Ueno Park, while called 上野山 Ueno-yama by casual speakers of the time, was called 上野台地 Ueno Daichi by cartographers and smart people involved with urban planning. While creating a Ueno Ward might have annoyed the Occupation Forces by emphasizing the samurai past, using acknowledged the areas elite, yamanote status. 東 higashi/ east, on the other hand, was an easy concession to grant the Asakusa faction who were proud of their shitamachi culture that spread from the base of the Ueno Plateau to the west bank of the Sumida River.

The name Taitō gave both old wards the proverbial high ground. It was the “Elevated East.”

kan'ei-ji.jpg

Main temple complex of Kan’ei-ji as it looked before the Battle of Ueno in 1868.

Growing Pains

The name was officially promulgated as Taitō, but apparently old people often pronounced it Daitō until quite recently – you know, after they died. This wasn’t the first time there was confusion with kanji. When the city of Edo was renamed Tōkyō, many people thought it was supposed to be read Teikyō. Also, the mortuary temple of the second shōgun 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, who died in 1632, is written 台徳院 but has no official reading[xi]. Speakers are free to use Daitoku-in or Taitoku-in. There’s no one alive from the early 1600’s to confirm which pronunciation is correct, but in the case of Taitō, it’s official and spelled out phonetically in many places, including the ward’s website.

Additionally, within the ward, there’s a postal address 台東区台東 Taitō-ku Taitō, Taitō, Taitō Ward. Some people might speculate that the ward derives its name from this area. However, this just ain’t so. This so-called “display address” was created in 1967 as the result of postal[xii] reforms that are standard throughout Japan today. But make no mistake about it. It’s derived from the name of the ward, not vice-versa.

taito station.jpg

Taito Station is one of the preeminent video arcades (game centers) in all of Japan.

Taito Corporation

Some readers may associate the name TAITO with video games and ゲームセンター gēmu sentā video game arcades that go by the same name. That’s because TAITO was a major influence on the early development of video gaming culture in Japan and around the world. They still loom large in the world of gaming as an arcade-experience.

space invaders 1996

Apparently, Space Invaders was still a thing in 1996. I didn’t know this. I was too busy raving.

In the 1970’s, the company, known in Japanese as 株式会社タイトー Kabushiki-gaisha Taitō Taitō Corporation, invented a little game known as スペースインベーダー Supēsu Inbēdā Space Invaders. This was one of the first games that crossed over from the arcades to the home console/computer markets to such a degree that Space Invaders is even known to young gamers today. It’s real breakout to the home console market roughly coincided with the release of the original Star Wars movie. The merging of futuristic technology and a renewed enthusiasm for sci-fi couldn’t have come at a better time.

kogan

Nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd!

Jewish Taitō Time

In Japanese, Taitō (the company[xiii]) is always written without kanji as タイトー Taitō – a name that is simply phonetic and has no meaning. But the name of the company is way more interesting than its phonetic spelling, and it has nothing to do with Taitō Ward. Believe it or not.

The entrepreneur who built Taitō was a Russian Jew named Майкл Коган Michaell “Misha” Kogan[xiv]. I’ll let Wikipedia do a little more explaining about him:

He was born in Odessa, but his family moved to HarbinManchuria to escape the Russian Revolution of 1917, where he later met Colonel Yasue Norihiro, a member of the Japanese Army’s intelligence services and one of the architects of the Fugu Plan, an ill-fated plan to settle European Jewish refugees in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. He moved to Tokyo in 1939, where he spent most of the duration of the war studying at Waseda School of Economics. He moved to Tianjin in 1944 before returning to Japan in 1950, settling in Setagaya, Tokyo.

Michaell, Mikhail, Michael, Misha, or however you want to call the guy, was a brilliant dude. Naturally, he spoke Russian, but he also learned Chinese, Japanese, and English. He was a smart guy who was in all the wrong places at the wrong times in his childhood, and that provided him with a unique point of view and skill set that when he was in the right place at the right time, he grabbed the bull by the horns and rode that bitch straight to millionaire land. The craziest thing is Mikhail was born in the early 1900’s, but his company came to be centered on the tech industry. He started off importing Russian vodka, but soon expanded to jukeboxes and vending machines, symbols of Japanese post-war recovery. By the time he died, his company was pioneering video arcade culture. Just let that set in for a minute. He grew up as a refugee in the early 1900’s and died as a rich guy whose company made video games – arcades, in particular – mainstream. Taitō changed gaming and the promulgation of digital entertainment forever.

azabu space invader.jpg

One of many mysterious Space Invaders in Tōkyō’s Minato Ward.

Let’s Look at Some Other Kanji

猶太
Yudaya

Judea (Jewish)


The East

The first set of characters is read as Yudaya (which means “Israel”), but these are 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic values rather than proper ideographs. If you combine the kanji, you can make 太東 Taitō which is essentially a Japanese abbreviation for a Chinese rendering of the 極東猶太人会社 Jídōng Yóutàirén Huìshè Jewish East Asia Company. To make things work in Japanese, the name was rendered as 極東の猶太人会社 Kyokutō no Yudayajin-gaisha, which seems to convey the same meaning as the Chinese original[xv].

OK, so long story short: 太東 Daitō/Taitō – which has nothing to do with Taitō Ward – was an abbreviation that meant “Jews in the East,” or something like that. While the pronunciation is more or less the same, the kanji are quite different: 太東 Taitō the company vs. 台東 Taitō the ward.

Taitō the company was more interested in branding itself as an international company than a Japanese company, so they used ローマ字 rōma-ji the Latin alphabet to render their name: TAITO. They back-translated the name into Japanese using 片仮名 katakana, a script traditionally associated with foreign words that also had a masculine nuance. Thus, the company didn’t use kanji for their name in Japan, they used katakana. They weren’t 太東 Taitō, they were タイトー Taitō. That said, the company tends to prefer the Latin alphabet in all caps: TAITO.

TAITO LOGO.pngAlright, so I hope you enjoyed that break down of the etymology of Taitō Ward as well as the unexpected tangent about the Taitō Corporation. Be sure to check out all the Further Reading links for articles related to this area of Tōkyō because I’ve been covering it for years. Also, if you’re ever in Tōkyō, I give a particularly nerdy and fun tour of the a major portion of the area.

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Guided Tours

 

______________________________________
[i]
Or musea, as I like to say – using the Latin neuter plural, like datum/data.
[ii] Shut down by US Occupation Forces, though still home to a thriving sex industry – most of which is off limits to foreigners, unless you have connections, or speak great Japanese and are willing to pay inflated prices.
[iii] The other being 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in Minato-ku. Hence, the “rivalry” between the two wards in terms of historical importance. I used “quotes” because there isn’t any real rivalry except in my own head – and that boils down to a simple question: “where should I spend my time exploring Edo-Tōkyō history?” The answer is “both places.”
[iv] In other words, Shitaya and Asakusa had actually fallen under direct control of the shōgun in the Edo Period and the people who lived here were fiercely proud of that. They considered themselves bonā fide 江戸っ子 Edo-kko Edoites, as opposed to the clowns who lived out in places like 内藤新宿 Naitō Shinjuku. (Curious about that? Here’s my article about Shinjuku).
[v] Remember, hilltops are yamanote, lowlands and riverbanks are shitamachi.
[vi] At this time, the shōguns’ funerary temples were intact, but the main temple of Kan’ei-ji had been burnt down in the 上野戦争 Ueno Sensō Battle of Ueno in 1868, when Tokugawa samurai holed up at Kan’ei-ji to protect the last (and retired) shogun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu who had put himself under voluntary house arrest at the temple in submission to the Meiji Emperor.
[vii] If the theory is to be believed. However, Shitaya was a popular area during the Edo Period up to the pre-war era. Visiting Ueno – or living in Ueno – was for rich people. Perhaps, Shitaya was just more relatable. Then again, if it’s more relatable to the common person, it’s less associated with the samurai class. This theory seems reasonable to me.
[viii] This is similar to another ward created at the same time, 北区 Kita-ku North Ward. (And yes, I have an oooooold ass article here).
[ix] What the fuck is a radical?
[x] Orthography is “spelling.” It’s boring, but here’s a history of orthographic reforms in Japan.
[xi] It’s not a place name or postal code… Oh, and it was destroyed in the war.
[xii] ZIP code
[xiii] More about this later…
[xiv] ミハエルコーガン Mihael Kōgan in Japanese.
[xv] Full disclosure: I have never studied Chinese, and the Japanese is more like “Far East Jewish Company.”

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.

Ōedo Line: Ueno-Okachimachi & Shin-Okachimachi

In Japanese History on June 11, 2015 at 7:26 am

上野御徒町
Ueno-Okachimachi (Ueno-Okachimachi)

Okachimachi

Okachimachi

This is a combination of place names to create a new station name. It’s derived from 上野 Ueno[i] and Okachimachi[ii]. Exploring the Ueno area can literally take a whole day. Keep reading, I’m going to go into a little more detail.

Just follow this straight ahead and you'll Okachimachi. Soon thereafter you'll find Akihabara,

Just follow this straight ahead and you’ll Okachimachi. Soon thereafter you’ll find Akihabara,

新御徒町
Shin-Okachimachi (New Okachimachi)

御徒 o-kachi were among the lowest ranks of 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun. They were so low that they were even allowed to ride horses[iii]. They didn’t even have their own homes. They lived in barracks towns until they married up in rank or sold their samurai status to become merchants. Even though this area looks cheap, that’s a veneer it acquired in the Shōwa Period when the 下町 shitamachi low city area became a black market for domestic and foreign goods. Naw, who am I kidding, it was pretty much a dump of privileged-but-broke-ass samurai and has ever since lived on as a playground for the everyman.

Which is what makes it awesome!

Good old school vibe.

Good old school vibe.

I’ve never been to Ueno-Okachimachi Station or Shin-Okachimachi Station, but I’ve been to the Okachimachi area hundreds of times[iv]. I love it. It retains its Post War charm and is a good refuge for those seeking remnants of the dying shitamachi Edokko culture. At any rate, it’s a great part of town with a lot of vibe. I highly recommend taking a stroll through the area.

I also highly recommend you read my original article about Okachimachi[v].

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

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[i] My article about Ueno.
[ii] My article about Okachimachi.
[iii] This was an issue when Henry Heusken was riding horses around Edo. It’s thought that some country samurai who also couldn’t ride horses, saw him flaunting his extra-territoriality – but in fact this was probably just a cultural difference. In the west there weren’t laws saying you couldn’t ride a horse because of your social rank. If you could afford a horse, you could ride it. This didn’t jive with the Japanese mind of the time. You can read about his murder here.
[iv] A bit of literary exaggeration. But I’ve been coming to Ueno up to 5 times a year for the past 13 years. That’s about 60 times. So… yeah… not hundreds of times. lol.
[v] Of course, I have, bitches.

What does Akihabara mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Japanese Subculture on November 12, 2014 at 3:26 am

秋葉原
Akihabara (“autumn leaf field,” but more at “field of Akiha”)

shinsengumi akihabara cosplay maid

I’m gonna get all this “moe” shit out of the way first, then get into the serious history.
That said… A Shinsengumi cosplay cafe… really?
Sounds like a place for a JapanThis meet up! lol

For a certain segment of the population, Akihabara is ground zero for the ultimate experience in Japan. This certain segment of the population is generally referred to by the term オタク otaku – geeks, nerds, in other words people with very specific interests. You won’t find many Japanese history nerds here, though.

In the case of Akihabara, one image is a manga and anime based wonderland inhabited by メイド meido maids, Tōkyō’s coolest gamers, and cutting edge IT specialists. The other image is an IT business district overrun by the biggest losers in Japan who can’t get girlfriends so they collect figures and become obsessed with 抱き枕 dakimakura cuddle pillows and フィギュア figures and are so socially retarded that they have to resort to going to メイド喫茶 meido kissa maid cafes where girls clean their earwax and trim their nails over a cup of tea at inflated prices. Oh, and single, middle aged salarymen who are obsessed with the idol group, AKB-48, who is based in the area.

The reality is somewhere-in-between and not-even-fucking-close.

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Old School Akihabara

Before it became the otaku paradise it is today, Nakano, Akihabara were the centers of Tokyo's porn industry (due to their proximity to Shinjuku and Ueno, respectively). Both areas have changed over the years, but blatant  exhibitionism in Akihabara (like in this photo) is rare - replaced by legit cosplay acts. In Nakano, there are still certain off-the-radar spots where you may still encounter some porno-filming shenanigans.

Before it became the otaku paradise it is today, Nakano/Akihabara were the centers of Tokyo’s porn industry (due to their proximity to Shinjuku and Ueno, respectively). Both areas have changed over the years, but blatant exhibitionism in Akihabara (like in this photo) is rare – replaced by legit cosplay acts. In Nakano, there are still certain off-the-radar spots where you may still encounter some porno-filming shenanigans. I rarely go to Akihabara, but I haven’t seen something like this in 10-11 years.

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A Little Backstory

When I first visited Japan 12 or 13 years ago, Akihabara was a very different place. My friend, Kai, first brought me there. We walked from Uguisudani to Akihabara. He wanted to show me Electric Town, but most of all he wanted to show me a massive, multiple-story porn shop – easily the largest porn shop I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking a Tower Records of sex. Needless to say, it was fucking awesome.[i]

Anyhoo, my friend pointed out to me that the town wasn’t just famous for electronics and porn, but it had a gritty, Shōwa Era feeling but it was slowly being cleaned up and taken over by massive commercial interests. He was absolutely correct. 13 years later, Akihabara is a completely different town. There are massive electronics retailers (the tiny specialist shops are still there, though) and skyscrapers and cutting edge IT companies in the area. Some specialist electronics shops have given way to specialist shops centered on オタク文化 otaku bunka otaku/nerd culture. 13 years ago it was still very specialized (for example, the porn shop had a whole floor dedicated to any genre you can imagine), but today there is a more unified theme. Tech, gaming, anime, and computers reign supreme[ii].

Sometimes I think it’s a saccharine technophile dreamland, but today let’s look at what this neighborhood was before it became 電気街 Denki-gai Electric Town and before it became the otaku mecca it is today.

People lived here in the Edo Period and after. Before there were maids and before there was ever electricity, people lived here.

So let’s see Akihabara before its recent transformations.

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Once you leave the station area, you enter the Showa Era mess that is Electric Town. This is where Akihabara can be a lot of fun.

Once you leave the station area, you enter the Showa Era mess that is Electric Town. This is where Akihabara can be a lot of fun. (and see, I promised the pictures would get more normal…)

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Let’s Look at the Kanji

This place name is made up of three kanji. None of which are particularly helpful in deducing the origin of this place name.


aki

autumn


ha

leaf


hara

field

Also, the location is difficult to nail down. In 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward there is an official postal address 秋葉原 Akihabara. But the area considered Akihabara by most people is the area immediately surrounding 秋葉原駅 Akihabara Eki Akihabara Station, whose official postal code is in 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward[iii]. The 電気街口 Denkigai-guchi Electric Town Exit of the station is located in Chiyoda Ward, but it spills over into Taitō Ward.

Aki - Autumn/Fall; Ha - Leaves; Hara - source/field

aki – autumn/fall
ha – leaves
hara – source/fieldEnd of Story!

The reality of the situation is that the The place name dates from the Meiji Period. In short, in the Meiji Period, the blocks that make up the immediate Akihabara Station area burned to the ground. The government decided not to rebuild, as this area had long been prone to fires. A small Shintō shrine called a 鎮火社 chinka-sha fire prevention shrine was built on the vacant lot. The 神 kami spirit enshrined there – or believed to be enshrined there – was 秋葉大権現 Akiha Daigongen[iv]. The sprawling vacant lot was referred to as a 原 hara “field.” Thus this was Akihabara – “Akiha’s Field.”

But there is so much more to this story.

Let’s take a trip back to the Edo Period.

Here is a Meiji Era map of the area after the surrounding areas had been built up. Business was still conducted along the main roads, it was only the inner area that wasn't rebuilt.  (I have a photo later)

Here is a Meiji Era map of the area after the surrounding areas had been built up. Business was still conducted along the main roads, it was only the inner area that wasn’t rebuilt.
(I have a photo later)

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The Edo Period

In the beginning of the Edo Period, a few 大名 daimyō feudal lords built their 藩邸 hantei daimyō residences near the area in order maintain a good relationship with the new shōgun, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. The area had access to water[v] and quick access to 江戸城 Edo-jō. However, the area was apparently prone to fires and by the time the policy of alternate attendance – 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai – was implemented, most daimyō had moved elsewhere. There were still a few samurai residences in the area, and in nearby 御徒町 Okachimachi[vi] you could find residences and barracks for low ranking 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the 将軍家 shōgun-ke shōgun family and nearby there were still a few daimyō mansions.

By the late Edo Period, the area was a small collection commoner residences and merchants. The term 町 machi/chō town was used because under the Tokugawa regime similar businesses tended to be grouped together, residences of families with similar incomes also tended to be grouped together, but most modern people would just think of these as blocks. But each block had its own name. 神田佐久間町 Kanda Sakuma-chō, is an example of name of one block that persists to this day. But in short, in the Edo Period this area was considered part of Kanda.

The white area shows the presumed extent of the damage of the fire.  The red stars mark the shogun's road from Edo Castle to Ueno.

The white area shows the presumed extent of the damage of the fire.
The red stars mark the shogun’s road from Edo Castle to Ueno.

An important road, the 下谷御成街道 Shitaya O-nari Kaidō ran through the area. As I mentioned in an earlier article, 御成 o-nari is a word that refers to the presence of the shōgun. An 御成御門 o-nari go-mon is the shōgun’s private gate. An 御成御街道 o-nari o-kaidō is the shōgun’s private road. The Shitaya O-nari Kaidō was the private road of the shōgun to travel back and forth from 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle to 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple. The stretch of present-day 中央道 Chūō Dōri “Main Street” from 上野一丁目 Ueno Icchōme and 上野二丁目 Ueno Nichōme to the Kanda River follows the path of the Shitaya O-nari Kaidō.

The bridge over the shogun's road in 1937 (Showa 12). The city still retains its 2 story structure in the shitamachi. Notice the dome off in the distance? That's Holy Resurrection Cathedral. We'll talk about that later.

The bridge over the shogun’s road in 1937 (Showa 12). The city still retains its 2 story structure in the shitamachi.
Notice the dome off in the distance? That’s Holy Resurrection Cathedral. We’ll talk about that later.

Today, the 総武線 Sōbu-sen Sōbu Line passes through the area on elevated tracks. There is a non-descript bridge that spans Chūō Dōri. And even though the word o-nari became irrelevant after the collapse of the shōgunate, this bridge preserves the name of the O-nari Kaidō. To this day it is called the 御成街道架道橋 O-nari Kaidō Kadōkyō the O-nari Kaidō Overpass Bridge[vii], even though this particular O-nari Kaidō doesn’t exist anymore.

The bridge today. Not sure what the shogun would think of this...

The bridge today.
Not sure what the shogun would think of this…

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In the Meiji Period

The real history of Akihabara begins in the Meiji Period.

In 1869 (Meiji 2), there was a major fire in this part of Tōkyō[viii]. The area we’ve been discussing, which was roughly 17 blocks of Edo Period real estate was completely burnt to the ground. I can’t find numbers on the casualties, but 17 blocks of cramped residential apartments, each unit housing at least 2, possibly 3 generations of a family is an absolutely horrible tragedy. As mentioned earlier, the new Meiji Government decided not to rebuild and designated the area as a 火除地 hiyokechi firebreak. The idea is that if other areas burned, the fire would stop spreading once it hit the 野原 nohara field.

Here you can see the fire break. There is a huge clearing surrounded by buildings. The origin of Akihabara.

Here you can see the fire break. There is a huge clearing surrounded by buildings. The origin of Akihabara. (click to enlarge)

On the field (or near the field, I’m not clear which), a small type of shrine called a 鎮火社 chinka-sha was established to protect the area from further conflagrations. The name of this type of shrine literally translates as “extinguished fire shrine[ix].”

Details are fuzzy, but it seems that the local people incorrectly assumed that the main 神 kami deity of fire protection of the Edo Period had been enshrined here. But it seems like the chinka-sha was nothing more than an empty shack until 1870, when a kami was enshrined here – and it was kami the people assumed had been installed.

So who is the kami in question?

Akiha Daigongen is actually a Buddhist name. This kami's original Shinto name is Hinokagutsuchi-no-Okami. Try saying that 3 times fast.

Meet Akiha Daigongen. His name is Buddhist. His original Shinto name is Hinokagutsuchi-no-Okami.
Try saying that 3 times fast.

His name is 秋葉大権現 Akiha Daigongen, a beaked and winged Shintō-Buddhist syncretic deity who is crowned with an aura of fire. The kami was affectionately called 秋葉様 Akiha-sama or 秋葉さん Akiha-san Mr. Akiha[x] and this name could also be applied to a temple or shrine where he was enshrined.

Initially, I thought some Meiji hijinks were going down, possibly connected to the 1868 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei Order Separating Kami and Buddhas. Part of the government’s efforts to separate Japan’s two fused religions was a specific order banning applying the Buddhist title 権現 Gongen or 大権現 Daigongen to Shintō kami. That would put Akiha Daigongen – as syncretic as they get – in direct violation of the law. But as I thought about it a little more; there were big changes going on in Tōkyō and across the country and realistically, only a year passed before Akiha Daigongen was enshrined into the chinka-sha and the name changed to 秋葉社 Akiha-sha Akiha Shrine. I think people were busy and it just to a long time to transport the priests and necessary implements from the main Akiha Shrine in Shizuoka to Tōkyō[xi].

Sorry autumn leaves have no connection to this place name...

Sorry autumn leaves have no connection to this place name…

So, What’s the Etymology?

The burned out area left as a fire break was officially called a 火除地 hiyokechi, literally “fire prevention land” but to the commoners of Edo – erm, I mean Tōkyō – it was just a 野原 nohara field. When you have roughly 17 blocks of burnt out land in the middle of an urban center, it’s a landmark – especially in a city like Edo-Tōkyō. Streets don’t have names, so giving directions is primarily down by landmarks.

As far as landmark names go, “that burned out field over there” leaves much to be desired. So the people latched on the Akiha Shrine, which is a much more pleasant name given the deadly reality of fires in Japanese cities at the time. Several names were in use before standardization.

秋葉之原 Akiha-no-hara
秋葉っ原 Akihabbara
秋葉ヶ原 Akiha-ga-hara, Akiba-ga-hara
あきばはら Akibahara
あきばっぱら Akibappara
秋葉原 Formal writing; pronunciation is ambiguous.But this is the spelling used to day.

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What’s Up With the AKIHA and AKIBA Thing?

The readings for 秋葉 are /akiha/ and /akiba/. Both are used throughout the country. The main Akiha Shrine in Shizuoka uses the /ha/ sound, but there are shrines that use /ba/. It seems that both /akibahaɽa/ and /akihabaɽa/ were used as readings of 秋葉原 and this is most like the source of the affectionate nickname アキバ Akiba used by otaku. And here I thought it was a diminutive slang term. Go history!
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torii_cute

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I want to visit Akiha Shrine

OK, good for you. You can.

You just can’t do it in Akihabara.

I don't want to break your otaku heart, but this shrine has very little going for it today...

I don’t want to break your otaku heart, but this shrine has very little going for it today…

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The chinka-sha was built in 1869. It was renamed the Akiha-sha in 1870 (Meiji 3), and in 1888 (Meiji 21) was moved to present day 台東区松ヶ谷 Taitō-ku Matsu-ga-ya Matsugaya, Taitō-ku and became 秋葉神社 Akiha Jinja Akiha Shrine.

You might be thinking, why the hell would you move a shrine to another place? Well, this happened all the time – Kichijō-ji and Yanaka, I’m looking at you! – but in this case, it happened because of the area’s next big step: a freight train station was to be built here. Due to its proximity to the Kanda River, the area was a major lumber town. Lumber distribution had traditionally made use of Edo’s vast river network prior to trains. Once the train network was in place, merchants could increase their reach.

In 1890 (Meiji 23) the train station was opened under the hiragana name あきはのはらえき Akiha no Hara Eki Akiha no Hara Station. Since 1870, various informal names had appeared on maps, but this was the first time the area had an official sign. The hiragana is a testament to the confusion caused by the kanji and the casualness of the name – it was just a burned out field by the river after all.

Since people don’t really use freight trains so much, over time the local people’s reference to the neighborhood was based on the formal kanji use, which was today’s 秋葉原. This kind of kanji is ambiguous as to pronunciation, but it seems fairly clear that the final 2 contenders were /akihabaɽa/ and /akibahaɽa/.

1960's Akihabara Station was all about distribution. High end electronic parts came in and out of here and gave birth to Electric Town.

1960’s Akihabara Station was all about distribution. High end electronic parts came in and out of here and gave birth to Electric Town.

However, until re-administration of the Tōkyō in 1964 there had never been an official place name using the kanji 秋葉原. In that year, two traditionally shitamachi towns in Taitō Ward named 松永町 Matsunaga-chō and 練塀町 Neribei-chō officially became 秋葉原 Akihabara. The names of those towns date back to the Edo Period. Again, it’s interesting to point out that the official Akihabara is in Taitō Ward, while the station and much of the original burned out field where the name began are in Chiyoda Ward.

So that is the end of the story of Akihabara. The evolution of the name isn’t preserved step by step, but we’ve got signs, maps, and finally an official government endorsement of a place name. In Tōkyō, this is place name gold.

Speaking of gold...  This is the main shrine in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Speaking of gold…
This is the main shrine in Shizuoka Prefecture.

But I Want To Talk About The Main Shrine in Shizuoka…

Will you humor me for a few more paragraphs? I’m comparing an Edo Period map with a modern map and I want to go on, but I think it’s more interesting if we return to Akihabara’s namesake for a moment.

The main shrine that houses Akiha Daigongen is located in 静岡県浜松市 Shizuoka-ken Hamatsu-shi Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture and called is called 秋葉山本宮秋葉神社 Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja Akiha Mountain Main Shrine Akiha Shrine[xii]. The name Hamatsu should ring a bell as this is where Tokugawa Ieyasu ruled from 1570-1586[xiii]. As such the shrine was well patronized by the Tokugawa. In December they celebrate the 火祭り Hi Matsuri Fire Festival. The shrine boasts a collection of 浮世絵 ukiyo-e paintings and a collection of swords donated by such notable Sengoku warlords as 武田信玄 Takeda Shingen, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and 加藤清正 Katō Kiyomasa.

By the way, there are roughly 800 Akiha/Akiba Shrines scattered throughout Japan. There are more of these than there are Tōshō-gū.

The Akiha Fire Festival. Where Shinto priests play with fire inside wooden structures. Ummm... ok...

The Akiha Fire Festival.
Where Shinto priests play with fire inside wooden structures.
Ummm… ok…

What’s Left Today?

Finding bits of Edo in Tōkyō isn’t hard, but it takes a careful eye and you really have to know what you’re looking at and looking for. But given Akihabara’s reputation as the technology epicenter of Japan – possibly Asia – and that it was burnt to the ground in the early Meiji Period, you’d think there’d be little left of the Edo Period there. But you’d be wrong.

What could this possibly be?

What could this possibly be?

When they began construction on the 秋葉原UDXビル Akihabara UDX Building in 2006, the construction company discovered some suspicious stones. An archaeology team was called in who quickly realized this was an 石垣 ishigaki stone wall from the mid-Edo Period. Given the quality of the construction and location, they were able to determine this was the remains of a 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residence. The stone work was painstakingly excavated and re-assembled and the design team scrambled to incorporate the walls into the design of the building. Today, the average person probably wouldn’t recognize them, but the traditional stonework and random stones here and there on the street level of this ultramodern sky rise date from the Edo Period. There is a small sign describing the wall.

I'm not even kidding. With minimal effort you can find a piece of Edo in Akihabara.  Bet you didn't see that coming!

I’m not even kidding. With minimal effort you can find a piece of Edo in Akihabara.
Bet you didn’t see that coming!

The monument displays a picture during the excavation

The monument displays a picture during the excavation

I Want to Finish By Revisiting a Photo

Take a look at the Akiha no Hara (Akiha's Field), then note the rebuilt buildings around it. Why are those buildings there?  To answer that question, look at streets. You can see street cars. The street cars were the predecessors of buses    and were active in this area. Business was good, and station front property was (and is) the hottest real estate.  That said, in the bottom left-hand corner note the traditional wooden Edo Period bridge....

Take a look at the Akiha no Hara (Akiha’s Field), then note the rebuilt buildings around it. Why are those buildings there?
To answer that question, look at streets. You can see street cars. The street cars were the predecessors of buses and were active in this area. Business was good, and station front property was (and is) the hottest real estate.
That said, in the bottom left-hand corner note the traditional wooden Edo Period bridge….

The panoramic photo was taken from the 東京復活大聖堂 Tōkyō Fukkatsu Taiseidō Holy Resurrection Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral built in the 1890’s[xiv]. I don’t know the details of this photo, but my guess it was taken shortly after construction was finished. So this is mostly likely the only photo of the area. It’s pretty amazing.

So, otaku people. Stuff that up your proverbial pipe and smoke it.

The Church of the Holy Resurrection - once the tallest building in the area, now it's obscured by skyscrapers.

The Church of the Holy Resurrection – once the tallest building in the area, now it’s obscured by skyscrapers.

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[i]
Cuz we all love sex. Awwwww yeah!
[ii] This is seen by the old school otaku of 中野 Nakano as the ultimate sell out. They will proudly tell you that true spirit of otaku culture is alive and well in Nakano and that Akihabara is a fucking clown show.
[iii] I have an article about that, by the way.
[iv] This chinka-sha seems to have been built informally and later enshrined, but it’s not clear.
[v] The 神田川 Kanda-gawa Kanda River was nearby.
[vi] I have an article about Okachimachi here, bitches.
[vii] I could go a lot deeper into the history of the bridges, but that would take me back down the river rabbit hole. I could go on about the history of Chūō Dōri, but that would also take me back down the river rabbit hole. No thank you. Not going there now. No way. I have river rabbit hole trauma.
[viii] The name of the city was changed from Edo to Tōkyō the year before.
[ix] Though, interestingly, if you pop the word into Chinese Google Translate, it comes up as “town fire company.” Not sure if that’s accurate, cuz Google Translate is usually a trainwreck.
[x] Mr. Akiha doesn’t really convey the nuance of the Japanese, but I can’t think of a better translation.
[xi] You’re off the hook on this one, Meiji government. But I’m watching you.
[xii] Yes, I know the name is redundant, but don’t blame me. I didn’t name the place.
[xiii] He then relocated to 駿府城 Sunpu-jō Sunpu Castle.
[xiv] The cathedral is more commonly referred to by its nickname, ニコライ堂 Nikorai-dō Nikolai’s Church. The name is a tip of the hat to the church’s founder, St. Nikolai of Japan.

What does Sendagi mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on April 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

千駄木
Sendagi (a lot of trees)

sendagi_station

Sendagi is a mixed residential and shopping area between Nezu and Yanaka[i]. Today the area is distinctly shitamachi[ii]. However, if you go there you’ll notice slopes which are clear indicators that in the Edo Period the area was mixed with the elites living on the yamanote (high city) and the merchants and other people living on in the shitamachi (low city) while low ranking samurai naturally lived on the hillsides according to rank.

The area of Tōkyō extending from Ueno Station[iii] out to Nippori Station[iv] is one of the most popular destinations for lovers of Edo-Tōkyō to take walks. There are many different routes one could take through this area, but one common route is walking the 谷根千 Yanesen, an abbreviation based on the collective areas of  谷中 Yanaka, 根津 Nezu, and 千駄木 Sendagi. The area is dotted with temples, shrines, shops dating as far back as the Edo Period, and is literally so steeped in history that it would probably take a book to do it justice[v]. Also, there are a lot of references to past articles, so be sure to check the footnotes (remember, they’re clickable).

Given the cultural richness of the area, I will just point you here, and move on to the timeline of Sendagi and then get into the place name itself. If that’s alright with you…

Edo Period gate to the residence of the Komagome Village headman.

Edo Period gate to the residence of the Komagome Village headman.

The area was formerly part of 駒込村 Komagome Mura Komagome Village and in fact today is still officially part of Komagome[vi]. The name Komagome isn’t attested until the Sengoku Period. One the other hand, 千駄木 Sendagi isn’t attested until the early Edo Period when it appears as a label in a map. The label reads 上野東漸院持ち駒込千駄木御林 Ueno Tōzen’in mochi Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi the Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi which is controlled by Ueno Tōzen Temple. Another early Edo Period map includes the label 上野寒松院持ち駒込千駄木御林 Ueno Kanshō’in mochi Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi the Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi which is controlled by Ueno Kanshō Temple. An 御林 o-hayashi was a hilltop wooded area owned by the shōgunate, but control of the area was granted to a lord or temple[vii]. Which temple was actually in control of Komagome Sendagi O-hayashi at what time isn’t clear to me, but it’s not really important for us today[viii].

O-hayashi Inari Shrine in Sendagi is one of the legacies of the old forest.

O-hayashi Inari Shrine in Sendagi is one of the legacies of the old forest.

About 1656, the former hilltop forest came to be the site of a daimyō residence of the lords of 豊後国府内藩 Bungo no Kuni Funai Han Funai Domain, Bungo Province (present day Oita Prefecture in Kyūshū). The family was the 大給松平家 Ōgyū Matsudaira, a samurai family from 三河国 Mikawa no Kuni Mikawa Province, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s homeland. As Edo depended on the shōgunate and the shōgun himself was from Mikawa, having a Mikawa family bearing the name Matsudaira bolstered the area’s prestige[ix]. The hill became a yamanote town comprised of high ranking samurai residences. It seems that because the Ōgyū residence was first the prestigious palace built on the hilltop, the area came to be to be known as 大給坂 Ōgyūzaka Ōgyū Hill. If you go to the top of Ōgyūzaka there is a crappy little park with a huge gingko tree called the 大銀杏 Ōichō[x]. They say this tree stood inside the original Ōgyū property.

Yup. That's a big tree, alright.  OK, let's move on.

Yup. That’s a big tree, alright.
OK, let’s move on.

Nearby is another hill called 道灌山 Dōkanyama. It’s said that at the end of the Muromachi Period, 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan had a branch castle here which he built for tactical support of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle[xi]. I only jumped way back in time to mention this because… well, you’ll see.

Dokanyama is the large slope next to Nishi-Nippori Station. I've seen this hill hundreds of times, but I never knew it was called Dokanyama until today. Cool!

Dokanyama is the large slope next to Nishi-Nippori Station.
I’ve seen this hill hundreds of times, but I never knew it was called Dokanyama until today.
Cool!

 

OK, so now let’s look at the kanji.

 


sen
1000

da
a pack horse;
a load carried by a pack horse

gi
tree

 

WTF?! This fucking kanji again?

WTF?!
This fucking kanji again?

The other day, we looked at 千駄ヶ谷 Sendagaya and we learned that 千駄 senda was another word for 沢山 takusan a lot. If we want to take the kanji as they are written today, which is by all means the easiest way to do things, we can deduce that the name 千駄木 Sendagi means “a lot of trees.” From what we know, the place name is first written down[xii] in the early Edo Period. From what we know, the area was a hilltop forest at that time. One could make a very strong case that this is the origin of the name Sendagi.

 

But it’s Never That Easy, Is It?

So there are some other theories of varying quality – or a few variations with some anecdotal stories added to lend credence to the general narrative[xiii]. OK, so where to begin?

 

Sexxxy firewood. Awwwwww yeah!

Sexxxy firewood.
Awwwwww yeah!

 

The 1000 Da Theory

In the late Muromachi Period and opening years of the Edo Period, the forest here was used for lumber or for firewood. You could easily get 千駄 sen da 1000 da each day. (If you don’t know what 1000 da are, you should read the last article). This is basically adding information to the above theory.

 

Chinaberry is a flowering tree. There are many planted around Edo Castle. In the background you can see (I think) Shimizu Mon.

Chinaberry is a flowering tree. There are many planted around Edo Castle.
In the background you can see (I think) Shimizu Mon.

The Ōta Dōkan Did It Theory

During the construction of Edo Castle (or perhaps his aforementioned branch castle), Ōta Dōkan used the area for lumber. After cutting down so many trees, he re-forested the area by planting 栴檀 sendan Chinaberry trees here. In the old Edo accent, sendan ki became sendagi. The Ōta Dōkan thing could be true or not. Who knows? The Chinaberry tree thing? It’s possible. Still, we’re looking at a bunch of trees any way you look at it.

 

20121218160224a11

 

It’s a Reference to a Traditional Japanese Prayer For Rain

The last theory is interesting. The godfather of Japanese folklore and linguistics, 柳田國男 Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), actually spoke about this place name. The reason his story bears repeating is because he insisted that prior to the Meiji Restoration, the common narrative of Japanese history was the story of the elite classes only. The day to day toils and reality of the commoners was just omitted. He was also fascinated by the variety of Japanese dialects and began laying the groundwork for modern Japanese dialectology.

Anyhoo, his theory says that in the Edo Period, and indeed, in his youth, at the beginning of summer as the rains got scarcer, the farmers would bring 1000 da of reeds or wood to the nearest body of water and burn them as an 雨乞い amagoi prayer for rain. In the common parlance, this activity was called 千駄焚き senda-taki burning 1000 da. While he was making some of the first modern dialect maps of Japan, he noticed that in many parts of the country the phrase senda-taki was contracted to sendaki. He speculated that this might be the origin of both Sendagi (sendaki – burning 1000 da of wood) and Sendagaya (senda kaya – buring 1000 da of reeds).

His speculation is interesting because he’s a guy who was born with the first 10 years of the Meiji Era, watched Japan modernize, go all crazy theocratic and fascistic, be occupied by a foreign power for the first time ever, modernize again, and host the Olympics. He also lived through the greatest and fastest advances in linguistics and the scientific method.

Kunio himself. Or as I like to call him, "kun'ni."

Kunio himself.
Or as I like to call him, “kun’ni.”

 

So Which Theory Is Correct?

With all this talk of Yanagita Kunio, it’s gotten me thinking about my choice in terminology up to this point on JapanThis!. Linguistics is a science and as such when talking within the framework of science, terminology is important. I’ve been using the word “theory” for some time in the vernacular sense. But “theory” actually means a kind of testable model – something that is so predictable that we can say it’s a fact – for example; the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Evolution. These things we know are true. The correct term for dealing with much of what I write about on this blog is “speculation.” Unless we have an actual historical document saying “so-and-so named this place such-and-such because of this-and-that” were are dealing with speculation[xiv].

but_i_digress

 

As usual, we saw some interesting speculations today. Without extraordinary evidence, I tend to err on the side of simplicity. For me, I like the literal reading of the kanji. There were a lot of trees in the area. I think the rest of the stories are embellishments, folk etymologies, or downright wishful thinking and coincidence.

Then again, what do I know? I’m just some dude with an internet connection.

 

 

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[i] See my article on Yanaka.
D’oh! I’ve never written about Yanaka before. Weird. Well, anyways, if you scroll down a little bit, on the right hand side there is a list of the 50 most recent articles. Above the list is a search field. If you type “yanaka,” a ton of articles will come up. (If you click word “yanaka” above, it will bring up the same list of articles. Can everyone say, “let me google that for you?”)

[ii] In the modern sense of the word.

[iii] See my super old article on Ueno. Or not, because I just looked at it and it sucks. It’s from when I started covering place names. Night and day difference.

[iv] See my super old article on Nippori. One of the early ones that got researched well.

[v] Here’s an English article I came across about the Yanesen.

[vi] See my article on Komagome here.

[vii] The emphasis on hilltop is most likely because the low city was developed for commerce and commoners and wouldn’t have had many trees, whereas the hilltops were kept lush and green.

[viii] More interesting is that both temples still exist. Tōzen’in was established in 1649 and is affiliated with Kan’ei-ji, the Tokugawa Funerary Temple. You can find Tōzen’in in Uguisudani. Kanshō’in, established in 1627, is also in Uguisudani and is also affiliated with Kan’ei-ji. In fact, later they became of a sub-temple of 上野東照宮 Ueno Tōshō-gū. See my article on Uguisudani here. Don’t worry that the temples are located in Uguisudani and not Komagome – although it’s walking distance, both temples have actually been relocated a few times.

[ix] Keep in mind, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s real family name was Matsudaira.

[x] Literally, big ass gingko tree.

[xi] However, there is an alternate theory which claims the name Dōkanyama is actually derived from a powerful noble who had a fortified residence here in the Kamakura Period. His name was 関道閑 Seki Dōkan.

[xii] A first attestation doesn’t necessarily mean the name was created at that time. It only means it was the first time anyone bothered writing it down. So, in theory, a name in Kantō could be hundreds of years old before anyone made a record of it that we still have.

[xiii] It’s not always the case, but when you get anecdotal stories, your BS Detector should start blinking; often times these stories reek of folk etymology.

[xiv] Even in that case, the document would have to be proven authentic and written by the person who named the place.

What does Kuramae mean?

In Japanese History on January 30, 2014 at 5:01 am

蔵前
Kuramae (In Front of the Warehouse)

The only picture of the warehouse I could find.

The only picture of the warehouse I could find.

This is an easy one. Just like the common Japanese word 駅前 ekimae in front of the station, 蔵前 kuramae means in front of the warehouse. “What warehouse” you ask? Why the 浅草御蔵 Asakusa O-kura. An 御蔵 o-kura was shōgunate controlled rice warehouse. This warehouse held 扶持米 fuchimai that came from shōgunate lands[i]. Fuchimai was the rice used to pay the stipends of shōgun’s vassals. The magistrate who over saw the collection, accounting, and distribution of the rice lived here and worked here, as did his officers.

A rice dealer district sprung up on the west side of the warehouse. Since rice was essentially a kind of currency, the area also became famous for money lenders. The proximity to the licensed kabuki theaters and Yoshiwara meant the area tended to be pretty lively with people coming and going. Basically, this was the Edo Period equivalent of going to the ATM on payday and then going out with the guys for a long night of drinking and whoring[ii].

An interesting side note about the rice brokers of Edo, called 札差屋さん fudasashi-ya san in Japanese, is that many of them became filthy, stinking rich as money lenders and “tax accountants” for the samurai class. They would make loans to anyone, but their most cherished clients were daimyō and insolvent samurai families who were becoming increasingly impoverished due to the stagnant Edo Period economy. As a result, these merchants – who for all practical purposes were bankers – enjoyed luxurious lifestyles. They were the taste-makers of the late Edo Period, being able to afford the latest fashions, the newest art, the hottest literature and theater, and of course, the finer pleasures of Yoshiwara. Although not of elite samurai rank, surely they were the envy of the non-elite classes.

In the Meiji Era, the warehouse fell under control of the new government only to be destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923. Today nothing remains of the warehouse, but there is a plaque. Although the area was popularly referred to as Kuramae, or more politely O-kuramae, the official place name actually dates from 1934.

So is Kuramae a literal reference to the area directly in front of the warehouse? Probably not. It’s basically a reference to the town of rice brokers, the offices and residences of the magistracy that oversaw the granaries, and the day to day business affiliated with the rice. All of those people and all of that business were “in front of the warehouse.”

The plaque stands on the site of the old warehouse.

The plaque stands on the site of the old warehouse.

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[i] 天領 Tenryō, as I mentioned in my article on Haneda, were lands that didn’t belong to any daimyō and as such fell under control of the shōgunate or 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun family.
[ii] As one does.

What does Asakusa mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on November 13, 2013 at 3:06 am

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

I was going to keep this one short, but since Asakusa is one of those spots that comes up not just as one of the top tourist attractions of Tōkyō but all of Japan[i], I figured I’d spend a little extra time on this one and do it right the first time. So today we’ll look at an overall history of Asakusa and then take a quick look at the etymology of the name.

As far as I know, this place name only occurs in Edo-Tōkyō. The areas that preserve this place name today are:

浅草 Asakusa Asakusa
浅草橋 Asakusabashi Asakusa Bridge
西浅草 Nishi-Asakusa West Asakusa
元浅草 Moto-Asakusa Old Asakusa

However, it should be noted that an 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward existed from 1878-1947. At that time, the places called Asakusa increased. After 1947, the number of Asakusa place names decreased dramatically until what is today considered is Asakusa is defined by little more than a train station here or there and a few vestigial postal addresses. But some 江戸っ子 Edokko 3rd generation Tōkyōites might consider some nearby neighborhoods as Asakusa, when technically they are not.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

The Asakusa Station area is teeming with tourists from all over the world. I first visited Asakusa in 2002 and I loved the shitamachi flavor, but I really didn’t have any sort of appreciation for what I was seeing. But the more I learn about the Edo and the Meiji Periods, the more I feel I can really sink my teeth into the area. But to be honest, except for the temple precinct, most of the charm of the area is its lingering Shōwa Era past.  And that’s all fine and good. Just know what you’re looking at.

Most Tōkyōites would put Asakusa in their top 3 places to visit in Tōkyō[ii].

The nakamise - a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to

The nakamise – a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to “ichiban” t-shirts, to yukata and kimono, to beer.
This shot is great because you can see the Kaminari Mon, the first gate, and the nakamise. Then at the end of the nakamise you can see the massive Hozomon Gate (also called Niomon) which was built in 942 by Taira no Kinmasa. Beyond that is the main hall (honden or Kan’non-do) which was built under the auspices of Tokugawa Iemitsu. The honden was destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo. The current structure was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

The Story So Far…

The beginnings are purely mythical. In 628, some brothers were fishing in the 宮戸側川 Miyato-gawa Miyato River[iii] and – surprise, surprise – they caught a statue of 観音 Kan’non the goddess of mercy in their fishing nets[iv]. The brothers enshrined the statue in their home and kept it for private worship. It’s interesting to note, that this year, 628, just happened to be the same year as the death of 推古天皇 Suiko Tennō Empress Suiko, whose reign had seen great encouragement of Buddhism. This time in general is seen as a tipping point for the broader acceptance of Buddhism in Japan.

In 645, having been shared with the local villagers from time to time, the statue was made into a  hibutsu, image of Buddha hidden from the public. Then a proper temple was established.

Both dates, 628 and 645, are considered the founding of Asakusa-dera or Sensō-ji (we don’t know which pronunciation was prevalent at the time[v]). Also both dates would still earn it the title of the oldest temple in Edo-Tōkyō. It seems that by 942, the first 雷門 kaminari mon thunder gate[vi] had been established, although in a different location.

From here on out we will see a dichotomy between Asakusa (the area) and Sensō-ji (the temple).

Remember, all of this is preserved in the legends and records of the temple itself. There doesn’t seem to be any corroborating evidence elsewhere. In fact, the area isn’t recorded by non-temple sources until around 1266. At that time it is mentioned in a Kamakura Period text called the 吾妻鏡 Azuma Kagami Mirror of the West.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It's located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark's in all of Japan.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It’s located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark’s in all of Japan.

The common understanding is that the temple was founded on a small plateau on the west bank of the Sumida River. A 門前町 monzenchō[vii]  formed around the temple precinct and continued growing from that time. Because of the town’s location on the Sumida River, which was good for trading, the town not only prospered, but attracted the best craftsmen of the region. Temple records indicate thriving trade between the Kamakura area and this region.

Legend has it that when 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo chose Kamakura as his capital (thus establishing the first of the 3 great shōgunates), he couldn’t find sufficiently skilled craftsmen in the area. On one occasion, he camped along the Sumida River near Asakusa. He visited the temple, as one does, and was so impressed with the builders that he hired them to come to Kamakura to build 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gū which is still one of Kamakura’s grandest shrines[viii]. It’s said that trade between Asakusa and Kamakura was so intense that by the time the shōgunate collapsed, many of Kamakura’s merchants and artisans had relocated to Asakusa[ix].

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Temple and shrine building wasn’t a big deal in the Sengoku Period, but carpentry and building skills were definitely in demand. It’s not hard to imagine some of the craftsmen of Asakusa being hired to help the Toshima, the Hōjō, the Edo Clan, or even crazy ol’ Ōta Dōkan in their building efforts[x].

Prior to the Edo Period, Asakusa was just a prosperous temple town on the river. But with the coming of the Tokugawa, everything changed. Urban sprawl from nearby by Chiyoda/Edo soon brought the area under the influence of the shōgun’s capital at such an early stage that Edo Period people and modern Tōkyōites generally just considered the area to have been part of Edo since time immemorial – even though for most of its existence, Asakusa was a separate town from the hamlet of Edo.

This

This “shinkyo” or sacred bridge is all that remains of Asakusa Tosho-gu.

The temple came under a particularly special patronage by the shōgun family because the head priest of Zōjō-ji had claimed that Asakusa Kan’non was the strongest deity in the Kantō area and that she had served Minamoto Yoritomo well[xi]. Tokugawa Ieyasu believed this deity helped him achieve total victory at the Battle of Sekigahara and as such it received great honors from the shōgunal family. While the temple was endowed by Edo’s most elite, its main mission was catering to the common people – a brilliant PR move on both Ieyasu and the temple’s parts[xii]. The temple has always been important to the commoners of Edo-Tōkyō.

In 1657, after the Meireki Fire[xiii] burned Edo down to the fucking ground, the licensed pleasure quarters called Yoshiwara was relocated from Nihonbashi to the area north of Asakusa because this was just a northern suburb at the time. Remember, we’re only 57 years into the Edo Period, son. Anyways, this transformed the area from just a pilgrimage spot to a proper tourist destination. And not just any old tourist destination; a tourist destination with a happy ending – if you know what I mean.

As lively as the area had become, its fame was only getting greater. In the 1840’s, after some crack downs on unlicensed kabuki theaters[xiv], the three prominent licensed kabuki theaters were forced to relocated to the Asakusa area. The area’s reputation as a center of nightlife was already secured, but adding popular theater to the area guaranteed this legacy for several more generations[xv].

By the way, if you’re curious about kabuki, Samurai Archives has a 2 part podcast crash course that you can listen to here.

Kabuki

Kabuki

In the Meiji Era, kabuki received imperial patronage and the underground kabuki theaters were as legit as the formerly licensed ones. Soon cinemas opened up in the area which showcased a foreign art form that the Japanese immediately became infatuated with. The area was now a bigger destination than ever; home to one of Tōkyō’s grandest temples and a vibrant theater district. Nearby Yoshiwara was still going off like crazy. Until WWII, Asakusa and Yoshiwara defined nightlife Japanese style.

It should be noted that in the Meiji Period, the temple lands were made into a park, naturally called 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park. The area was not unlike modern 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The centerpiece of the park was Sensō-ji, but the real attractions were the theaters, cinemas, izakaya, and pleasure quarter overflow.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan's first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan’s first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

I’m sad to say that most of Sensō-ji and the Asakusa area were destroyed in the firebombing of March 1945. In a pattern similar to the other major temples of Edo-Tōkyō – Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji – Sensō-ji found itself one of the biggest landholders but without a single yen to rebuild. They basically had no choice but to sell off their lands to get the money to rebuild the temple. The look of Asakusa changed dramatically. Today, the area retains nothing of its Asakusa Park halcyon days and even less of its Edo Period look.

During the Occupation, places like Yoshiwara came under the puritanical eye of the Americans at GHQ. The Yoshiwara was mostly burnt to the ground and so under General MacArthur’s orders it was not to be rebuilt. Plans were made for the moats to be filled in and the area was to be normalized into the reconstructed Tōkyō. While Asakusa and Yoshiwara were not the same place, keep in mind that their histories were intertwined since the Edo Period.

I mentioned this briefly in my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, so I should mention it here again because very few people know about this. If you turn towards the east of the 本殿 honden the main temple of Sensō-ji (ie; if you’re facing the honden, turn right and walk toward the bay), you’ll walk out of the east entrance which is called 二天文 Niten Mon[xvi].

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it's now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan'ei-ji.

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it’s now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan’ei-ji.

This gate didn’t survive the firebombing, but when it was rebuilt, Kan’ei-ji and the Tokugawa family made a special donation. Gen’yūin, Tokugawa Ietsuna’s mausoleum in Ueno[xvii], was also destroyed in the firebombing. Apparently, the gate itself was destroyed beyond repair, but the statues inside survived. The statues were moved here to Sensō-ji to remind the people of Tōkyō that the spirits of the Tokugawa shōguns were still protecting them.

So That’s The Story
What’s the Etymology?

Sorry, that’s the only reason come here anyways, lol.

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

The etymology of Asakusa has been researched by people since the Kamakura Period[xviii] and people have been coming across the same roadblock every time.

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

Asakusa-dera is the native Japanese reading. This reading is plainer than the Chinese reading, Sensō-ji. As most of the major Buddhist teachings came to Japan via China, the Chinese reading would be more prestigious – more in touch with this new foreign and exotic religion.

There are no written records to support this but common sense would lead one to the conclusion that the name Asakusa is the older name – it most likely predates the temple. Once a proper temple was built and Chinese learning was imported, the temple assumed the local name but used the Chinese reading. So 浅草 asa kusa became 浅草 sen sō in the Chinese reading.  The village continued to use its native Japanese name. Today the area is still called Asakusa, even though the temple is called Sensō-ji.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Look at the Kanji

This is the least reliable way to look at ancient place names, including Asakusa. However, in this case, I think we can trust these kanji because a temple would require reading and writing of its priests. The temple’s history pre-dates any attempted at standardization of kanji, but what they present is fairly solid.

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

There are many theories, but the most popular one is this:

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

The idea being, the Musashi Plain was famous for its untamed and tall grasses[xix]. This area had no grass. Long time readers of Japan This! will know that the grasses of the Musashi Plain were famous and appear time and time again in etymologies. Another interpretation is that the grasses were short, not tall as in other untamed areas.
Some other etymologies have been suggested.

麻草 asa kusa hemp grass[xx]
藜草 akazakusa goosefoot or lamb’s quarter


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

After the firebombing in March 1945.
This isn’t Senso-ji. It’s Higashi Hongan-ji, located in the former Asakusa Ward.
But you can see how utterly complete the destruction was.
The wooden city was burned to the ground and thousands of lives were lost.

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

Asakusa isn’t really next to the sea today. Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay) is located a bit south of the area). But it’s located on the west bank of the Sumida River, one of the largest inlets that lined the area in ancient times. While it’s hard to consider it “crossing the sea” today, maybe 1500 years ago it was more like crossing the sea. While we can use imagination and give it a little head nod, we can never know if this is true.

Tibetan

アーシャクシャ aashakusha place where a Buddhist holy man lived

Not to be an asshole, but c’mon… this is the most contrived etymology EVER.

But as I said, the first theory, the literal one (low grass) is the predominant theory. The Ainu language theory carries a certain amount of weight, but can’t really be proven. I think we can dismiss the others.

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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[i] Asakusa as a tourist destination goes back all the way to the Edo Period when the area truly began to flourish under the patronage of the Tokugawa shōgun family.
[ii] I wouldn’t put it on my Top 5 list, though it would make my Top 10. Asakusa doesn’t really make sense unless you understand Edo-Tōkyō history well. So Tōkyōites hold it up as something awesome, but I feel it’s a massive let down for outsiders. But I suppose it depends what you’re looking for…
[iii] Today this is the  隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River.
[iv] Where have we heard this before? (too many times to count by now…)
[v] But we have a good idea. More about this later!
[vi] Or lightning gate. The kanji are the same.
[vii] Please don’t make me explain what monzenchō were again…
[viii] The name nicely translates to “Great Shrine to Hachiman on the Hill of Cranes.” Hachiman was the war god.
[ix] Presumably the Sumida River made for better trading/business.
[x] Purely conjecture on my part.
[xi] Ieyasu used a contrived genealogy to link his family to the Minamoto clan as a familial claim to the rank of shōgun.
[xii] There used to be a Tōshō-gū on the premises but it was destroyed in WWII.
[xiii] Read more about fires in Edo here.
[xiv] The Tokugawa shōgunate always had a bug up its butt about sexual impropriety. The glorified martial virtues of the Sengoku Period were often in conflict with the arts and the “looser living” of the non-martial classes. In short, they felt that artists and actors and commoners made for a “loose morals ticking time bomb.”
[xv] As I’ve often gone on about 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, the lower classes and upper classes of Tokugawa society weren’t often legally allowed to mix – although they did. Asakusa was quite unique in the fact that they received patronage from the shōgunate but were always allowed to keep their humble mission of serving the common people intact. It might be said that Asakusa is where samurai and commoner were equal. Some of this might also be due to the proximity of Yoshiwara in which, in theory at least, all customers were to be treated as equals.
[xvi] Here’s a quick explanation of what Niten means.
[xvii] Tokugawa Ietsuna was the 4th Tokugawa shōgun, my article on his mausoleum is here.
[xviii] Well, at least that’s the first time we see it recorded.
[xix] The word is 草深い kusabukai verdant grass, literally deep grass.
[xx] The Japanese varieties seem to never have been cultivated for their psychoactive qualities, so these were plant cultivated firstly for building and cloth making and occasionally for medicine making in the form of 漢方 kanpō fake herbal medicine from China.

What does Okachimachi mean?

In Japanese History on June 19, 2013 at 2:42 am

御徒町
O-kachimachi (Kachi Town)

okachimachi-station

In former castle towns all over Japan you can find areas with similar names.

So what exactly is a kachi?

Well, a 徒 kachi [i] is one of the lowest ranking samurai of the Edo Period. They were not permitted to ride horses[ii]. Until the 1800’s, they were not allowed to wear clothes with a family crest as their families were not considered successive clans[iii]. Some people draw a parallel between this rank of samurai and low level salarymen and low level management of Tōkyō – the analogy being in the type of housing and accessible neighborhoods according to their salary.  This isn’t a good analogy, in my opinion, in that the samurai ranks were highly regulated by the Tokugawa Bakufu and a modern worker can marry “out of his station” or just move to the suburbs and get a bigger place.

from the "incident in front of the sakuradomon" movie.

from the “incident in front of the sakuradomon” movie.

the work of a low level samurai is never done.

the work of a low level samurai is never done.
look how tired this dude is….

In more recent times this kanji has become associated with gangs and the yakuza, so, except for the station name in Tōkyō, the name “o-kachimachi” doesn’t exist in the official list of postal codes.

Even though these kachi were direct retainers of the shōgun, they were a kind of non-commissioned officer. They were expected to live in barracks[iv].  In many cases they wouldn’t be granted permission to live with their wives and children[v]. In times of war, they were forbidden from marching in the vanguard. In times of peace, they were basically the white trash of Japan. They were supposedly privileged, but in reality, they were just commoners. The commoners had to show deference to them, but the rest of the samurai elite probably shat on them.

okachimachi

This isn’t Tokyo’s Okachimachi, but another town’s Okachimachi.
Even the big merchant quarters were more lively than this.
The Meiji Era and WWII blew a new breath of life into Okachimachi.

Anyhoo, I’ve touched on this a bit in my ongoing[vi] piece on yamanote vs. shitamachi in Edo-Tōkyō. But areas of the castle town of Edo were sectioned off for people of certain ranks. This area was a border between the high town (yamanote) of Ueno and the low town (shitamachi). Today, the whole area from O-kachimachi to Ueno is considered the low town today.

This isn't O-kachimachi, but the layout it similar.

This isn’t O-kachimachi, but the layout it similar.

O-kachimachi is roughly located between Ueno Station and Akihabara. These were the outskirts of Edo at the time. It was a bad location when you had to walk everywhere. If you pay attention to the layout of the streets in O-kachimachi, at first you’ll notice what looks like an easily navigable grid layout, but you’ll soon find it has seemingly random streets crossing at various points creating sub-neighborhoods within the neighborhood. This is typical of Japanese castle towns and typical of Edo-Tōkyō in particular. So it’s still a fantastic area to walk around.

The long blocks echo the existence of the Edo Period barracks (nagaya). And today the area has a markedly shitamachi culture that has persisted since the mid-Meiji Era. Nothing exists of its military past, but the shitamachi atmosphere hangs heavy, as does the merchant vibe that has reigned here since the Restoration was underway. The samurai who stuck around mostly became merchants themselves after the warrior class was abolished.

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[i] Also written 徒士, and referred to in the common language as 御徒さん o-kachi-san, though the more polite 御侍さん o-samurai-san would probably have been used to their face.

[ii] I mentioned briefly referred to the Edo Period view of people on horseback in my article about Heusken.

[iii] This changed in 1862 (Tokugawa Iemochi), who made their status as Tokugawa retainers successive.

[iv] In Edo, these were less barracks, and essentially the same as the ubiquitous 長屋 nagaya. So it was a step up from a fully military setting. Still, you were living in a gated off dormitory kinda building with a bunch of other dudes. After a while, I’m sure it got old.

[v] In which cases, they could visit on their days off and they would be expected to send money wife and children who would reside with the parents.

[vi] Read: “unfininished.”

Yutokuin

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Tokugawa Shogun Graves, Travel in Japan on June 6, 2013 at 9:33 pm

有徳院
Yūtokuin
(Divine Prince of Virtue & Riches)
八代将軍徳川吉宗公
8th Shōgun, Lord Tokugawa Yoshimune
Kan’ei-ji

The Abarenbo Shogun himself, Mr. Tokugawa Yoshimune!!!!

The Abarenbo Shogun himself, Mr. Tokugawa Yoshimune!!!!

Writing this series just got a lot easier.

I’ve mentioned before that later in the Edo Period, the shōguns were enshrined together; something called 合祀 gōshi in Japanese. We have now finally come to that moment. I’m sad to say that from here on out, there are no new mortuary temples built. I also mentioned that that for whatever reason, Kan’ei-ji has always kept the Tokugawa Shōgun family graves private. Once a year, they run a lottery for a chance to attend a special 3 day opening of the Tokugawa Shōgun Graveyard and the 葵之間 aoi no ma the room at Kan’ei-ji where the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, having abdicated, confined himself in an act of submission to the emperor – a kind of voluntary house arrest. So once a year, a few lucky people are allowed into the graveyard. However, photography is strictly forbidden. There are a few photos floating around the internet, but most of these are accompanied by a story of sneaking in – a risky venture in my opinion.

what Yoshimune "really" looked like...

what Yoshimune “really” looked like…

A Little Background

Yoshimune is considered one of the best shōguns. He ruled for about 30 years. He was closely related to Ietsuna, Tsunayoshi, and Ienobu. Before he was installed as shōgun, he had been the daimyō of Kii. The domain was in serious financial strain when he became lord of Kii, so his reign was marked by frugality and an effort to save money. When Ietsugu died at age six – obviously without an heir – Yoshimune was installed at shōgun. He restructured the shōgunate and implemented many austerity measures. Building Ietsugu’s massive mausoleum at Zōjō-ji did not seem to be a money saving action, but hey, nobody asked me.

In his will, he expressed a desire to be enshrined at Eikyūin because he respected the 5th shōgun, Tsunayoshi. He requested a simple stone monument. Because of his financial reforms or out of respect for Yoshimune, all subsequent shōguns were enshrined at existing mausolea.

Click here for a description of Eikyūin.

Yoshimune's 2-story pagoda style funerary urn from an old book about Kan'ei-ji.

Yoshimune’s 2-story pagoda style funerary urn from an old book about Kan’ei-ji.

A recent pic of Yoshimune's grave taken despite the ban on photogtaphy.

A recent pic of Yoshimune’s grave taken despite the ban on photogtaphy.

 

 

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Eikyuin

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Tokugawa Shogun Graves, Travel in Japan on June 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

常憲院
Eikyūin  (Divine Prince of the Eternal Law)
五代将軍徳川綱吉公
5th Shōgun, Lord Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
Kan’ei-ji

The Dog Shogun, himself. Mr. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

The Dog Shogun himself.
Mr. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

I don’t know if this name was a sort of joke by the imperial court in Kyōto, an honest compliment, or just an obligatory flattery… or a combination of all three. But the 5th shōgun, Tsunayoshi’s legacy is a mixed bag of leadership and lunacy.

To the average Japanese he’s known as 犬将軍 inu shōgun the dog shōgun.
In his day, he was referred to by the less savory name of 犬公方 inu kubō, which has the same meaning.

His legacy hangs on an edict he promulgated called the 生類憐之令 Shōrui Awaremi no Rei Edict in Regards to the Compassion for All Living Things. Basically, the dude was a total religious freak. Because of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, he felt compelled to protect all living creatures. Since he was born in the Year of the Dog according to the Chinese Zodiac, he was especially interested in protecting dogs. Tsunayoshi is a pretty interesting character, so if you want to read more about him, you can start HERE. I’m just going to talk about his funerary temple, so let’s get right into it[1].

They say he had a sanctuary for stray dogs in present day Nakano. Nakano Ward says this arial shot is of the place. OK, if you say so....

They say he had a sanctuary for stray dogs in present day Nakano.
Nakano Ward says this arial shot is where the former site was.
OK, if you say so….

If one were to judge the economic conditions of the Edo Shōgunate over time based on the funerary practices at Kan’ei-ji, one might come to the conclusion that the government was still in its heyday under Tsunayoshi’s reign and then we’d see a steep drop in quality by the time the next shōgun[2] was interred at Kan’ei-ji. It’s more nuanced than that, but I can say now that Tsunayoshi’s mausoleum was the last one built at Kan’ei-ji. Not the last used, but the last built. After his temple was built, the successive shōguns interred at Kan’ei-ji were enshrined together in Ietsuna’s and Tsunayoshi’s mausolea.

Structures of Eikyūin

Structure Name Description Condition Status
本殿
honden
the main hall destroyed

相之間
ai no ma
in gongen-zukuri architecture, the structure that connects the honden and haiden. destroyed

拝殿
haiden
the inner or private worship hall destroyed

前廊
zenrō
a latticework fence that forms the border to a temple destroyed

中門
nakamon
The “middle gate” which usually opens from a court yard into the worship hall  destroyed

左右廊
sayūrō
portico on the left and right side of a shrine destroyed

渡廊
watarō
portico destroyed

透塀
sukibei
latticework fence that encloses a temple or shrine destroyed

仕切門
shikirimon
I’m not sure, but it’s a kind of gate… destroyed

鐘楼
shōrō
belfry, bell tower destroyed

勅額門
chokugaku
mon
imperial scroll gate; posthumous name of the deceased hand written by the emperor which marked the official entrance to the funerary temple decent condition usually open to the public
奥院宝塔
oku no in hōtō
the 2-story pagoda styled funerary urn that houses the remains of the deceased. decent condition off limits
奥院唐門
oku no in
karamon
so-called Chinese style gate that provided entry and exit to the tomb of the deceased. decent condition off limits
水盤舎
suibansha
water basins for ritual purification pretty freakin’ good condition, actually. generally off limits
石灯籠
ishidōrō
traditional stone lanterns so-so condition scattered here and there

The 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi’s grave suffered the same fate that his brother, Ietsuna’s, grave suffered (they were next door to each other). Also, like Ietsuna’s, a few portions of the temple were torn down in the annexation of much of Kan’ei-ji’s land by the Meiji government for the creation of Ueno Park. Bizarrely, from the Edo Period until the firebombing of Tōkyō, nobody took a single photograph or painted a single picture of the sites[3]. As a result, what you see here is basically what you get; a gate and a water basin.

The 奥院 oku no in or 霊屋 tamaya (inner sanctuary/graveyard) still exists but it is generally off limits. The wash basin mentioned above is also usually off limits.

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The Imperial Scroll Gate

Tsunayoshi's imperial scroll gate. (Notice there is no scroll....)

Tsunayoshi’s imperial scroll gate.
(Notice there is no scroll….)

A closer shot of the scroll gate... but why is there no scroll..................

A closer shot of the scroll gate.
(I read that the scrolls — actually plaques — of Tsunayoshi and Ietsuna survived the firebombing, but they were taken down so as not to be exposed to the elements. Not sure where they are, tho.)

The Wash Basin

You usually can't enter the cemetery, so this is what that the wash basin seems to most people.

You usually can’t enter the cemetery. Most visitors can just view it from afar.

The wash basin of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi

It appears to be in much better condition that the wash basin in Ietsuna’s mausoleum.

Check out that roof. Pretty freaking siiiiiiick, if you ask me.

Check out that roof. Pretty freaking siiiiiiick, if you ask me.

The Chinese Style Gate

Open chinese gate leading to the cemetery....

Open Chinese style gate leading to the cemetery….

Tsunayoshi's funerary urn

Tsunayoshi’s funerary urn

Tsunayoshi's grave after restoration in the 1950's.

Tsunayoshi’s grave after restoration in the 1950’s.

Stone Lanterns

stacks of stone monuments....

Stacks of stone lantern bases….
These are most likely from lanterns that were toppled by earthquakes, in particularly the Great Kanto Earthquake.

After Tsunayoshi’s enshrinement, burial methods at Kan’ei-ji changed dramatically.

Keep in mind, we’re now 5 shōguns into the Edo Bakufu and from here on out we will not see an individual funerary temple built there again[4]. After this, Kan’ei-ji burials consist of 合祀 gōshi group enshrinements. That means that Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi’s graves became the main Tokugawa cemeteries at Kan’ei-ji for the heads of the Tokugawa family (and occasionally their main wives). Siblings and concubines were buried at Kan’ei-ji, but most of those graves were in what is now called 谷中霊園 Yanaka Reien Yanaka Cemetery.

 

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Spoiler Alert!
I’ve already alluded to this, so I’ve already given way part of this, but other people enshrined in Tsunayoshi’s temple are:
  8th shōgun, Yoshimune
●  13th shōgun, Iesada & his main wife, Princess Atsu
●  Iemoto, the eldest son of the 11th shōgun, Ieharu (called the phantom 11th shōgun because his name had the kanji for “ie” but he was never installed as shōgun ‘cuz he sucked)[5]

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[1] As a side note, Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi were brothers. Easy to remember because of that “tsuna” thing.

[2] The 8th shōgun was Tokugawa Yoshimune, who is a beloved character for his austerity and his bad ass white horse on his TV show for old people, Abarenbō Shogun.

[3] I’m being facetious here, but seriously… why is there no photographic or artistic evidence of either site? It is mysterious as hell, if you think about it.

[4] 5 shōguns deep = 10 more shōguns to go. For all intents and purposes, we’re still very much in the early Edo Period.

[5] Just kidding, he died suddenly at the age of 17.

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