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What does Shinanomachi mean?

In Japanese History on May 12, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Shinanomachi (Shinano Town)


Today’s place name is really easy, so I thought I’d take a little time to review some ideas that pop up from time to time. Hopefully this is a good refresher for long time readers and a way to bring new readers up to speed.

I’m constantly referring to a variety of administrative units and geographical areas, most commonly: 国 kuni provinces, 藩 han domains, 郡 gun districts, 村 mura villages, and 町 machi towns. The meanings of these terms changed over time. Since JapanThis! tends to focus on 江戸東京 Edo-Tōkyō, the last term 町 machi generally referred to tightly controlled towns made up of commoners or low ranking samurai that centered around a specific trade or activity. 郡 gun districts and 村 mura villages were more loosely defined and referred to larger areas with a less cohesive concentration of residences – districts being much, much larger than villages, naturally[i]. The first two terms, 国 kuni and 藩 han are a bit more specialized.

kuni, koku


令制国 ryōsei koku administrative provinces (also called 律令国 ritsuryō koku) were established sometime between 645 and 701. This is the birth of the “province.”

During the Muromachi Period, the large provincial territories came to be superseded by the protectorates of 守護大名 shugo daimyō (for lack of a better translation, “military governors/protectors of specific fiefs”).

By the time of 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ancient provinces were merely archaic boundaries on the map. Actual political authority was held by daimyō over their lands, ancestral or recently acquired. This situation continued through the Edo Period – the real power being controlled by local daimyō whose fiefs were now called 藩 han domains.

After the rise of the han system, the provinces existed as geographical borders – but not political borders – until 1871 when the imperial edict 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken was promulgated. The name means “abolition of domains, establishment of prefectures.” [ii]

Today provincial names are used as nostalgic nicknames.

kokushi, kuni no tsukasa
provincial governors

Governor is a somewhat weak translation, but it’s good enough for our purposes. But in short, with the establishment of provinces, kokushi were the officials granted control the provinces. The position weakened in the Kamakura and Marumachi Periods.

Kokushi titles came in 4 flavors. They consisted of a province name plus a rank. From highest to lowest, those ranks were 守 kami protector, 介 suke caretaker, 掾 jō officer, 目 sakan overseer[iii]. (The translations of those kanji are my own and just meant to give my non-kanji reading readers a general idea.)

As the geopolitical importance of provinces faded away, kokushi titles became mere courtly titles. In the Edo Period, these archaic titles were prestigious in the courts of the shōgun and emperor, but the people bearing the titles wielded no power over the territory. It was strictly a formality.

So why did I bother going through all of that? Well, as I said before, it never hurts to review a few important concepts. Also, there are new readers joining all the time and I want to make sure they’re all onboard. And lastly, the concept of 国司 kokushi is important to this place name.

信濃国 Shinano no Kuni[iv] Shinano Province was located inside present day 長野県 Nagano-ken Nagano Prefecture. The name of 信濃町 Shinanomachi is derived from this place name and is connected with the kokushi title 信濃守 Shinano no Kami Protector of Shinano.

Shinanomachi is located in Shinjuku Ward.

Shinanomachi is located in Shinjuku Ward.
“Why have I never heard of this place?” you’re probably asking yourself.
Simple, no one fucking lives there. As of 2010, the area claimed to house a mere 979 residents!!


So, Whose Title Was This?

永井尚政 Nagai Naomasa was a daimyō who was active at the dawn of the Edo Period. He was born in 1587; the same year 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi began expelling Christians from Japan. His father, 永井直勝 Nagai Naokatsu, was a retainer of 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. As such Naomasa was along for the ride at many of the major events that catapulted Ieyasu to the position of shōgun – ie; the military campaigns that defined both the beginning of the shōgunate and the end of the Sengoku Period.

In 1600, at the ripe old age of 13, Naomasa is believed to have accompanied his father Naokatsu to the 関ケ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara. In 1602, he became an attendant of 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, who would soon become the 2nd shōgun. Needless to say, this was an extremely prestigious position for a boy of his age.

A famous screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara. I actually recently saw the real thing at the Great Sekigahara Exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It was pretty freaking impressive.

In 1605, the newly installed 2nd shōgun, Hidetada, granted him the honorary title 信濃守 Shinano no Kami. Having received this title directly from the shōgun, this new name became far more well-known than his real name. However, his new status within the shōgunate ranks came with responsibilities and so from winter 1614 to spring 1615, he fought alongside the retired shōgun Ieyasu and shōgun Hidetada at the 大坂の陣 Ōsaka no Jin Siege of Ōsaka. Years later, the 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu sent him to protect the imperial city of 京都 Kyōto during the 島原の乱 Shimabara no Ran Shimabara Rebellion from winter 1637 to spring 1638[v]. These last 2 campaigns are often said to have put out the last serious threats to Tokugawa hegemony.

In his career as a chief retainer of the first 4 Tokugawa shōguns[vi], Shinano no Kami’s life spanned the last gasps of the Sengoku Period and saw the birth of the so-called Pax Tokugawa[vii]. The shōgunate changed his domains 3 times, which meant his status as a daimyō was elevated 3 times.

An image of an audience with 3rd shogun Iemitsu. The shogun is seated in the dais at the top center of the picture. He is flanked by 2 attendants. The term attendant (koshō, in Japanese) is actually a somewhat erotically charged term. But to the best of my knowledge Hidetada didn't have an established sexual relationship with Naomasa. He probably just acted as an assistant and secretary.

An image of an audience with 3rd shogun Iemitsu. The shogun is seated in the dais at the top center of the picture. He is flanked by 2 attendants.
The term attendant (koshō, in Japanese) is actually a somewhat erotically charged term. But to the best of my knowledge Hidetada didn’t have an established sexual relationship with Naomasa. He probably just acted as an assistant and secretary.


OK, So This Guy Is Cool and All, But Why Is There a Place in Tokyo Called Shinanomachi?

According to the rules of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance[viii], Nagai Naomasa (Shinano no Kami) was required to build 3 palaces in the shōgun’s capital at Edo. He built his下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence[ix] in an area between modern Shinanomachi and 四ツ谷 Yotsuya. The title Shinano no Kami was hereditary and since all of the daimyō living in that palace were called Shinano no Kami (and indeed, this title is written on maps, not Nagai), it’s clear the local economy that popped up to service the Nagai daimyō and their retainers came to be called 信濃町 Shinano Machi “Shinano Town.”

Spoiler alert.  Nagai Naomasa becomes a monk.

Spoiler alert.
Nagai Naomasa becomes a monk.

Nagai Naomasa’s Final Days

In 1632, shōgun Hidetada died, and Naomasa was one of the daimyō in charge of overseeing the construction of the lavish funerary temple, 台徳院 Daitoku-in[x] at the Tokugawa 菩提寺 bodai-ji, family temple 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in 芝 Shiba[xi]. By the time of his retirement in 1658, his imperial court rank had been raised from 従五位下 ju go’i no ge Lower Junior 5th Rank to 従四位下 ju shi’i no ge Lower Junior 4th Rank[xii]. After retirement he became a Buddhist monk and changed his name to 信斎 Shinsai which means “holy truth” but preserves the first kanji from his courtly title. He eventually died in 1668 and then his body was interred at 興聖寺 Kōshō-ji Kōshō Temple in Kyōto.

Koshoji in Kyoto, final resting place of Nagai Naomasa - Shinano no Kami.  Not a bad place to go into that good night, right?

Koshoji in Kyoto, final resting place of Nagai Naomasa – Shinano no Kami.
Not a bad place to go into that good night, right?

In the popularized tales of samurai lore, Nagai Naomasa isn’t particularly well known. But I think you can appreciate that he was living in one of the most exciting times a Sengoku samurai could have lived in. He lived through the very tail end of the Sengoku Period – and definitely witnessed and participated in warfare. But he also lived to be an old man who saw the most stable regime anyone had seen in 100 years. It reminds me of the scene in Game of Thrones, where Bronn says “I’ve had an exciting life. I want my death to be boring.” Naomasa was of the first generation that made that dream a reality. He had grown up in a time full of violence but the dawn of the new age had afforded him the luxury of dying a peaceful death. Such a death was a luxury that would become a norm for the samurai of the Edo Period.

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[i] 郡 gun is sometimes translated as “county.”
[ii] By the way, why does Japan have prefectures and not states?
[iii] Two famous examples from the Edo Period are 吉良義央 Kira Yoshihisa – usually portrayed as the villain in the 47 Rōnin story – whose titles was 上野介 Kōzuke no Suke Guardian of Kōzuke Province – and 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū – whose title was 阿波守 Awa no Kami Protector of Awa Province.
[iv] The short name for the province was 信州 Shinshū. By the way, the kanji for Shinano – like most provincial names – is most likely ateji. That is to say, there is no meaning.
[v] We talked about the Shimabara Rebellion the other day in my article on Fuda no Tsuji.
[vi] Ieyasu, Hidetada, Iemitsu, Ietsuna.
[vii] A pseudo-Latin term that means “Tokugawa Peace” based on the real Latin term Pax Romana “Roman Peace” – referring to the establishment of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar.
[viii] You should probably know the basics of alternate attendance.
[ix] A daimyō’s lower residence was often the largest estate. It was generally suburban and served as a refuge in case of disaster or if said daimyō just needed to get away from it all.
[x] Sometimes Romanized as Taitoku-in. Here’s my article about it.
[xi] Hidetada’s mortuary temple was one of the grandest examples of Edo Period funerary architecture, next to the mausolea in Nikkō, was probably one of the most unique graves of a Tokugawa Shōgun – without a doubt, it was the greatest example in Edo itself.
[xii] Don’t even ask me to explain the court rank system. I can’t! lol

Nijubashi – Tokyo’s Most Famous Bridge

In Japanese History on May 13, 2013 at 12:40 am

Nijūbashi (Double Bridge)

Is this bridge really called Nijubashi or the Stone Bridge? Hmmmm... let's find out!

Is this bridge really called Nijubashi or the Stone Bridge? Hmmmm… let’s find out!

The bridge above is the main bridge to the Imperial Palace. It appears on guidebooks and postcards and is arguably the most famous bridge in Japan – even a symbol of Japan. Most people, including the Japanese, call it Nijūbashi. But this is sort of a case of mistaken identity.

First let’s look at the kanji:






Nijūbashi is actually a nickname. The correct name of the bridge is 正門石橋 seimon ishibashi main entrance stone bridge.

Folk Etymology 1
There are actually two main bridges to the Imperial Palace. The 正門石橋 seimon ishibashi main entrance stone bridge and the 正門鉄橋 seimon tetsubashi the main entrance iron bridge. When you stand in front of the stone bridge you can see the iron bridge behind it and it looks like there are two bridges.

Double Bridges - Tokyo Imperial Palace

Seems legit.

Folk Etymology 2
When reflected in the moat, an illusion of two stone bridges occurs, hence a “double bridge.” Some old people actually refer to the bridge as メガネ橋 meganebashi the “glasses” bridge because… well, it looks like a pair of glasses.

Double Bridge or Glasses Bridge - Tokyo Imperial Palace

I see what you did there…

Those two stories are cute, but they’re not actually correct. Here’s the real deal:

Edo Castle also had two bridges here, but the names were different. The stone bridge was a wooden bridge called 西之丸大手橋 nishi no maru ōtebashi “front bridge to the western compound” and the iron bridge was also a wooden bridge called 西之丸下乗橋 nishi no maru kejōbashi “dismount bridge to the western compound.”*

Nijubashi was actually the nickname of the kejōbashi (now the iron bridge), not the ōtebashi (now the stone bridge). The bridge was built in 1614 by the shōgun, Tokugawa Hidetada. The bridge had a secondary wooden support mechanism built underneath which made it a 2 level construction. Because of these two levels, it looked like there were two bridges. The nickname 二重橋 nijūbashi/futaebashi came to be used as it was quite a distinctive bridge.

The Original Nijubashi - Edo Castle

A hard to see photo of the original “double bridge.”

Here's a digital version of the same view of the old kejobashi.

Here’s a digital version of the same view of the old kejobashi.

When the imperial court moved into the castle in 1868 but the bridges remained. After the confiscation and destruction of the daimyō residences in Daimyō Alley and elsewhere, the old bridge and gate system was re-evaluated. The two bridges were chosen as the main entrances to Tokyo Castle (the Imperial Palace). The kejōbashi was torn down and replaced with an iron bridge in 1888. It was rebuilt again in 1964 to match the 新宮殿 Shin Kyūden the New Palace, which is the collection of shitty 60’s-looking buildings that litter the palace grounds.

The iron bridge as it looks today (the true

The iron bridge as it looks today (the true “nijubashi”)

The 大手橋 ōtebashi was also torn down and replaced with the famous stone bridge in 1887. Because of its modern style, it quickly became a very high profile bridge – especially with the demolition of Daimyō Alley and the encroachment of commoners to the inner moats (in the Edo Period most commoners probably wouldn’t have been able to get too close).

Side view of the original otebashi bridge (now the stone bridge). My guess is the photographer was standing on the kejobashi... maybe...

Side view of the original otebashi bridge (now the stone bridge). My guess is the photographer was standing on the kejobashi… maybe…

Main Bridge to Edo Castle

Front view of the original ōtebashi  taken by a lopsided person. (present day stone bridge).

In the Meiji Period, since the old kejōbashi formerly known as Nijūbashi no longer looked like a double bridge, the new main bridge became associated with the name. All the strange folk etymologies started popping up then too. And even though the bridge is not formally referred to as Nijūbashi, the Chiyoda Line subway station in the area (built in the 1970’s) is called 二重橋前駅 Nijūbashimae Eki Nijūbashi Front Station. Today the area around the station and bridge is colloquially referred to as Nijūbashi or Nijūbashimae.

Imperial Palace Bridge Satellite

In case you were wondering where the bridges go… The left one is the stone bridge, the right one is the iron bridge. (Interestingly, if you look up 二重橋 on google maps/google earth, the iron bridge is – correctly – labelled as Nijubashi).

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* I’m not sure if I’ve translated the term correctly because I don’t really understand the purpose of this particular bridge. 下乗 kejō means “dismount” as in “get off of a horse.”
Also, if you’re curious about what “maru” means, please have a look on my post about Marunōchi and Daimyō Alley.

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