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What does Kitami mean?

In Japanese History on February 2, 2015 at 9:49 am

Kitami (seeing abundant joy)

In 2012, Kitami Station was voted Best Place to Park a Bicycle.

In 2012, Kitami Station was voted Best Place to Park a Bicycle.

We’ve been exploring the Setagaya and Meguro wards recently. This area includes a place called 喜多見 Kitami. Long time readers of the blog may recall this name from when I wrote about the origin of the name of Japan’s greatest city, 江戸 Edo. Spoiler alert: there isn’t much known about the place name itself, but the backstory speaks volumes about what sort of city Edo was before the Edo Period. It also speaks volumes about a culture that was transitioning from the Sengoku Period to something completely new. Also, for my readers who are interested in samurai and samurai battles, we’ve got plenty of ‘em this time.

As always, I’ve included extra information in the footnotes and links to older articles on JapanThis! as well as other outside sources – there are actually 27 fucking footnotes to this article. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, but if you’re not sure who some of the people or events are that I refer to, I suggest you look them up on Samurai Archives – the rock stars of Japanese history on the internet™.


Wait. What?  No! Wrong Kitami.....

Wait. What?
Oh, wrong Kitami…..


OK, Let’s Get the Kanji Out of the Way


happiness, pleasure, rejoicing


many, much, often


seeing, hopes, chances


At first glance, this place name seems to mean “seeing much happiness.” It’s clear that the meaning is auspicious and – in my opinion – it’s obvious that the kanji are intentional[i]. To be sure, this place existed well before it was written down[ii], however, from the very beginning it seems to have been 当て字 ateji – kanji used for phonetic reasons[iii]. As such, this place name is a construct of the Kamakura Period and the Azuchi-Momoyama Period.

Anyways, I have no etymology to give you so I’m sorry for that. But I’ll give you a quick overview: During the Kamakura Period, we see the place name for the first time – in 1247, to be precise. The writing was finally standardized in the 1500’s, but from the 13th century to the 16th century the name seems to have been written several different ways.



tree, field, see


north, see


tree, abundance, see


rejoice, abundance, see


Get ready to talk about samurai.  Shit is 'bout to get real, son.

Get ready to talk about samurai.
Shit’s about to get real, son.


OK, So Let’s Talk About The Area!

As I said before, people have been living in the area since time immemorial and the origin of the place name is a mystery. However, at the end of the 12th century, samurai of the 秩父氏 Chichibu-shi Chichibu clan began to move into this area[v]. They had been granted 7 fiefs in the area including 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo Hamlet and 木田見郷 Kitami-gō Kitami Hamlet by the first Kamakura shōgun, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo, in return for helping him fight the 平氏 Hei-shi Taira clan[vi].

Longtime readers will know some of this story from my article on Edo. 秩父重継 Chichibu Shigetsugu took up residence in Edo and changed his name to 江戸重継 Edo Shigetsugu, thus establishing the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo clan. He gave the Kitami fief to his son 江戸重長 Edo Shigenaga who fancied calling himself 木田見重長 Kitami Shigenaga. Shigenaga established a 菩提寺 bodai-ji family funerary temple called 慶元寺 Keigen-ji Keigen Temple which still maintains the graves of the Edo clan[vii].

Graves of the Edo Clan. This temple is HIGH on my places to visit list this year.

Graves of the Edo Clan.
This temple is HIGH on my places to visit list this year.


The Chichibu clan had been longtime rivals of the 熊谷氏 Kumagaya-shi clan[viii] and it seems they continued fighting over control of the area well into the 1400’s when the Kitami-Edo finally established lasting control over the area. I’m not completely clear on the timeline or circumstances but sometime in the 1400’s the Kitami became retainers of the 吉良氏 Kira-shi Kira clan[ix]. I’m guessing it had something to do with bad ass samurai warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan descending upon the area and then thoroughly skullfucking it into submission.

Monsieur Dōkan, as he is known in French, attacked the Edo clan’s fortress in 千代田 Chiyoda in 1457. 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle, as it’s known in Japanese, fell and the head of the family, 江戸重康 Edo Shigeyasu surrendered to Monsieur Dōkan. Shigeyasu’s life was spared and he moved his family in with his relatives in Kitami.


The more I do this blog,, the more I love Ōta Dōkan. He's like a Sengoku version of Captain Japan (Yamato Takeru).

The more I do this blog,, the more I love Ōta Dōkan.
He’s like a Sengoku version of Captain Japan (Yamato Takeru).


Kitami Katsushige – The Bad Ass Samurai You’ve Never Heard Of

We don’t really hear much about the clan or the area until 1590, when a certain 江戸勝忠 Edo Katsutada, a retainer of the Kira, who were in turn retainers of the 後北条 Go-Hōjō Late Hōjō[x] is mentioned fighting on the Hōjō side against 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Fans of the Sengoku Period know that the Hōjō obstinately refused to submit to Hideyoshi’s efforts to unify the country under his control to a stupidly tragic end. Not complying with Hideyoshi resulted in the complete eradication of the Hōjō.

So… yeah, that didn’t work out so well for Katsutada.

Edo Katsutada's funerary picture. But don't worry. He's not dead yet.

Edo Katsutada’s funerary picture.
But don’t worry. He’s not dead yet.

But luckily for him, this was the Sengoku Period and samurai always had a fancy trick up their sleeves called “changing sides to save your ass.” Edo Katsutada played his hands right, submitted to Hideyoshi, and in 1591 found himself in the Tōhoku region of Japan. He went there to help Hideyoshi put down the so-called 九戸政実の乱 Kunohe Masazane no Ran Kunohe Masazane’s Insurrection. Masazane was a retainer of the 南部氏 Nanbu-shi Nanbu clan in 盛岡 Morioka (modern day 青森県 Aomori-ken Aomori Prefecture)[xi] and like the defeated Hōjō he just wasn’t ready to submit to a dirty, monkey-faced, millet grubbing farmer like Hideyoshi[xii]. And also just like the Hōjō, Masazane and his cute little rebellion were beaten into cruel submission like little baby dolphins at Taiji.

This defeat paved the way for Hideyoshi’s ultimate hegemony over the country.

That, that dude looks like a monkey!  That, that dude looks like a monkey!

That, that dude looks like a monkey!
That, that dude looks like a monkey!

With the Hōjō gone, Hideyoshi granted 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu control of the 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces. Ieyasu became the supreme power in Kantō and took control of Edo Castle in 1593. At this time he did a survey of his new territory and required oaths of fealty from all the local warlords. Edo Katsutada was one of the local lords forced to submit. Ieyasu was now the lord of Edo Castle and he couldn’t allow some local yokel to bare the name of his castle, so he abolished the Edo clan and required them to only use the Kitami name. Accordingly, 江戸勝忠 Edo Katsutada became 喜多見勝忠 Kitami Katsutada. He later changed his name to 喜多見勝重 Kitami Katsushige, adopting the family kanji 重 shige.

In 1600, Edo Katsutada (Kitami Katsushige) supported Ieyasu at the 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara. In 1603, Ieyasu was made shōgun and Edo Katsutada (Kitami Katsushige) was now officially a 旗本 hatamoto direct retainer of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family – not a bad rank to hold in those days. Katsutada (Katsushige) accompanied shōgunate forces in either (or both) the 1614 (winter) Siege of Ōsaka and/or the 1615 (summer) Siege of Ōsaka. Both campaigns secured Ieyasu’s legendary status in the eyes of his new subjects in Kantō and throughout the country. For someone you’ve probably never heard of, Edo Katsutada had a pretty epic military career at the end of the Sengoku Period.

Ōsaka Castle. No easy task to take it down.  Today the castle is a shadow of its Sengoku Glory - a shadow with an elevator.

Ōsaka Castle.
No easy task to take it down.
Today the castle is a shadow of its Sengoku Glory – a shadow with an elevator.


The Rise & Fall of Kitami Shigemasa

The family carried on as powerful hatamoto until 1680, when they had an amazing stroke of good luck. In that year, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi assumed headship of the Tokugawa family and became the 5th shōgun. Tsunayoshi “took a liking”[xiii] to 喜多見重政 Kitami Shigemasa, the head of the Kitami family. Almost immediately we see him bestowed with gifts and honors by the shōgun. By the next year, 1681, Shigemasa’s court rank and stipend were raised substantially. In 1683, his rank and stipend were raised again, putting him at the same court level as 譜代大名 fudai daimyō[xiv]. His position was raised yet again in 1685.

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi preferred the company of men.  Not an inherently bad thing. Just a little tricky for keeping up that dynasty thing

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi preferred the company of men.
Not an inherently bad thing. Just a little tricky for keeping up that dynasty thing

Kitami Shigemasa must have sucked a mean dick because in 1686, Tsunayoshi elevated him to daimyō status and elevated his fief to 藩 han domain status. The Kitami residence was officially elevated to 陣屋 jin’ya status – which means from the government’s perspective it was a castle[xv]. It served as the center of government for the new domain and would have been an appropriate venue for entertaining the shōgun or other daimyō[xvi]. In return for this honor, Shigemasa supported Tsunayoshi’s first wacky 生類憐みの令 Shōrui Awaremi no Rei Compassion for Living Things Decree[xvii] in 1687. The law protected stray dogs. In order to support the edict, Shigemasa built a huge kennel to protect stray dogs in his newly created domain[xviii].

Shigemasa’s meteoric rise didn’t sit well with all. He was considered 寵臣 chōshin a favored retainer – a term that could be interpreted sexually. Jealous shōgunate officials, one 柳沢吉保 Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu in particular, argued that he disrespected the shōgun’s intentions or just wasn’t up to the task of being a daimyō[xix].

So when some monkey business went down in 1689, shōgunate officials used the opportunity to take Shigemasa out. At the residence of his cousin (or grandson, it isn’t clear), 喜多見重治 Kitami Shigeharu and his sister’s husband 朝岡直国 Asaoka Naokuni got into an argument that led to a sword fight. In the end, Shigeharu killed Naokuni. The details of the fight aren’t preserved, but Shigeharu was evidently deemed to be in the wrong and was beheaded[xx]. Shigemasa, already on the rocks with the shōgunate, got kaiekied (改易された kaieki sareta[xxi]), ie; he was stripped of his rank and titles and placed under house arrest as a hostage of 松平定重 Matsudaira Sadashige, lord of 伊勢国桑名藩 Ise no Kuni Kuwana Han Kuwana Domain, Ise Province (modern Mie Prefecture). Shigemasa, apparently went crazy and then died in 1693.

The family temple at Keigen-ji.

The family temple at Keigen-ji.

A second theory states that the sword fight incident – regardless of whether it really happened or not – had nothing to do with Shigemasa’s dismissal and house arrest. According to this story, once the first Compassion for Living Things Edict had been put into effect, Shigemasa realized it was actually a pretty stupid law. Basically, it was now against the law to kill dogs. Because of this stray dogs were out roaming the streets everywhere. More edicts were promulgated protecting other animals and things were bound to get out of hand[xxii]. To make matters worse, Tsunayoshi had found a new plaything, the aforementioned Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu[xxiii], daimyō of 川越藩 Kawagoe Han Kawagoe Domain. Apparently, he was a spiteful little bitch and turned the shōgun and the senior councilors against the johnny-come-lately, Shigemasa. So if you ever thought the women in the movie 大奥 Ōoku! were back-stabby, well, welcome to men’s version of that[xxiv].

Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu - brilliant daimyō or petty little bitch. You be the judge.

Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu – brilliant daimyō or petty little bitch?
You be the judge.

In short, the jealous Yoshiyasu stole the shōgun’s heart, stole Shigemasa’s position[xxv], turned the shōgun against him, turned the entire shōgunate against him, stripped him of all rank, confiscated his property, and essentially ran him out of town to die disgraced in a faraway land. If this account is true, it’s no wonder Shigemasa went insane while in exile. It also makes Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu look like a total cunt.


The grave of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (Matsudaira Tokinosuke).  Located in Kōfu.

The grave of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (Matsudaira Tokinosuke).
Located in Kōfu.


After The Edo Period

Kitami, like other parts of Setagaya, remained rural until quite recently. After the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923, the area experienced a population explosion as people relocated away from the devastated urban center. In 1926, 成城学園 Seijō Gakuen was split from 成城学校 Seijō Gakkō in 牛込 Ushigome[xxvi] and moved to Kitami. Part of the former Kitami area now bears the name Seijō. Interestingly, in 1927, the 小田原急行鉄道株式会社 Odawara Kyūkō Tetsudō Kabushiki-gaisha[xxvii] opened train service to the area which reminds me of the connection between the Kitami-Edo clan and the Late Hōjō of Odawara. The presence of the station guaranteed growth in the area as it was now connected with central Tōkyō… and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except for that one guy.

There’s always one.



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[i] This reeks of 当て字 ateji, ie; the kanji were added or modified later for phonetic reasons and don’t reflect any etymological history. They were easy to read and looked pleasant. That’s it.
[ii] Archaeologists know the area has been inhabited since the Final Jōmon Period (about 1000 BCE). This means the place name could be fairly ancient – perhaps dating from as far back as the first century CE.
[iii] There’s a possibility that the name goes way farther back in time, but no one seems to have taken a stab at it.
[iv] The temple called 北院 Kita-in, literally the North Temple, in Kawagoe was renamed 喜多院 Kita-in Temple of Abundant Joy by the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. These are the same kanji. Remember that city name, Kawagoe. We might come back to that.
[v] The clan originally held lands in modern 駄埼玉県 Dasaitama-ken Saitama Prefecture.
[vi] Ironically, the Chichibu clan was actually descended from the Taira.
[vii] The temple seems to have originally been located on 紅葉山 Momiji-yama Momiji Hill on the grounds of Edo Castle, but was relocated here in 1451. The temple was originally established in 1186.
[viii] This is hilarious to Tōkyōites who hate Saitama, because today Chichibu and Kumagaya are about the lamest places in the country.
[ix] Yes, the same Kira clan whose descendant would play a role in the story of the 47 Rōnin. See my article on Setagaya.
[x] The Late Hōjō had become the primary power in Kantō and ruled from 小田原城 Odawara-jō Odawara Castle.
[xi] His family name 九戸 Kunohe literally means the “9th Door.” This unique name and its unique reading are… um… unique to Aomori. If you meet an 一戸さん Ichinohe-san or 七戸さん Shichinohe-san, you can rest assured, they have roots in Aomori. You can read about the castle that Katsutada attacked here at Jcastle.
[xii] All rights reserved, Samurai Archives.
[xiii] In a very #TeamIenari sort of way, Tsunayoshi seems to have “taken a liking” to a great number of samurai, elevating the status of all sorts of, ehem, “qualified men.”
[xiv] Fudai daimyō were the daimyō families that had sided with Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara. These daimyō families were among the most prestigious in terms of rank.
[xv] Supposedly, this was the only jin’ya located within the present 23 Wards.
[xvi] A hatamoto’s residence, no matter how grand it may have been, would not have been appropriate. I guess this means Shigemasa and the Tsunayoshi could have sleepovers now.
[xvii] This is the decree that earned the shōgun the laughable nickname, 犬公方 Inu Kubō “Dog Shōgun” because he especially wanted to protect dogs.
[xviii] The other kennels were in 大久保 Ōkubō and 四ツ谷 Yotsuya, and the main kennel was in 中野 Nakano. I have an article about Nakano here.
[xix] A job that, let’s be honest, wasn’t too difficult anyways.
[xx] Remember, beheading was reserved for criminals or samurai who had committed an act so egregious that 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment was disallowed.
[xxi] 改易 kaieki is the Japanese word for “sudden dismissal and deprivation of position, privileges, and properties.”
[xxii] And indeed, things did get out of hand.
[xxiii] Yoshiyasu’s 吉 yoshi was given to him by Tsunayoshi. The shōgun later promoted him to daimyō of 甲府藩 Kōfu Han Kōfu Domain in the former lands of 武田信玄 Takeda Shingen. He also granted him a courtly name that essentially made him an honorary Tokugawa, 松平時之助 Matsudaira Tokinosuke. Yoshiyasu was given land in 駒込 Komagome to build a new 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence. He built an elaborate garden there called 六義園 Rikugien. The garden still exists today in Tōkyō.
[xxiv] This doesn’t show the back-stabby stuff, but this is the movie I’m referring to.
[xxv] His position in the shōgunate was 御側御用人 o-soba go-yōnin, which is usually translated as “lord chamberlain” and called 御側 o-soba for short. The o-soba was the shōgun’s closest advisor and it was his job to report the shōgun’s commands to the 老中 rōjū senior councilors. In the case of Shigemasa and Yoshiyasu, the o-soba also served as the royal penis cleaner.
[xxvi] I have some articles about Ushigome.
[xxvii] This train line was the forerunner of the present 小田急電鉄株式会社 Odakyū Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha Odakyu Electric Railway Co., Ltd.

What does Eitaibashi mean?

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

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

Eitaibashi at night.

Eitaibashi at night.

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

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

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

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

The Kanji You Should Know For This Place Name


forever, eternity,
endless generations



tera, –ji




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

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

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

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

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

The Story of the Bridge

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

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

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

An Eternal Bridge and an Eternal Shōgunate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Year’s Later the Situation Changed..

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightmare situation...

Nightmare situation…

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

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

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

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

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

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

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

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

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

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

The Shape of the Modern Bridge

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

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

The German model of many of Sumida's bridges.

The German model of many of Sumida’s bridges.

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


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

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