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What does Egota mean?

In Japanese History on July 30, 2015 at 1:06 am

江古田
Egota (literally, “inlet – old – field”)

Shin-Egota Station

Shin-Egota Station

This etymology is really problematic. No one can agree on how to pronounce it. No one can agree where the name come from. No one can even agree if it’s a good area or not. The people who live there like it. The people who don’t couldn’t care less about it

22669_18_nerima_ekoda_shopping2

No Agreement – How The Fuck Do You Pronounce It?

Is it Ekoda or Egota? Well, it generally depends on who you ask (or who’s telling you). There are two stations that each bears the two major variations.

江古田駅
Ekoda Eki

Ekoda Station
(Seibu Ikebukuro Line)

新江古田駅
Shin-Egota Eki

New Egota Station
(Ōedo Line)

As it stands, “Egota” is an actual postal code in Nakano Ward[i]. In the Tōkyō Metropolis, this is as official as a place name gets.  However, “Ekoda” Station in Nerima Ward uses the alternate pronunciation. It’s not an official place name. That said, Shin-Egota Station is on the boundary of Nakano and Nerima wards and uses the Nakano name. This means that the most “official” pronunciation is “Egota.”

The 2 spellings actually wreak havoc upon non-Japanese search engines. For example, English Google Maps lists both stations as Ekoda Station and Shinekoda Station[ii]. Despite all of this confusion, there does seem to be a general rule of thumb. In short, Nakano Ward tends to use “Egota” and Toshima Ward tends to use “Ekoda.[iii]” This seems to be a modern convention, though. Since the Edo Period, the place written 江古田村 Egota Mura Egota Village was referred to variously as えこだ Ekoda, えごた Egota, えごだ Egoda, and えこた Ekota.

nobodyknows-1

Now Let’s Look at the Kanji


e

inlet, bay


ko, go

old


ta, da

field, rice paddy

Just an initial glance at this whole mess makes want to say that this is 当て字 ateji. Long time readers of the blog will know that ateji is when kanji are used for their phonetic qualities, not their ideographic qualities. Basically, it’s a way to make a word that might be difficult to read instantly readable. In pre-modern Japan, ateji relied on kanji that any person with a basic grasp of high frequency kanji could read. Words that didn’t have kanji or that were of otherwise “mysterious” origin were often rendered in ateji. Place names were often mysterious – as they are even today[iv].

One of the big clues that this writing is ateji is the first character. 江 e inlet or bay is the origin of the katakana character エ e. Katakana is strictly phonetic and has no meaning. is one of those “go to” kanji for that sound. This location is nowhere near the bay or any inlet thereof.

One of the problems with place names written with ateji is that they usually blur or cover up the original meaning forever. The original name could have been a dialect word. It could have been a far more ancient name passed down from the 蝦夷 Emishi or アイヌ Ainu – peoples who lived in Japan before the people whom we think of as “culturally Japanese” became dominant[v]. I don’t want to get into a huge discourse on the peoples of Japan, so just understand that other cultures and languages existed in Japan before and some of their place names may have persisted after the introduction of kanji. But we can’t be certain about many of them.

ego no ki

The Most Famous Theory – The Japanese Snowbell Theory

This is by far and wide the most popular theory about this place name. According to this theory, the area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica). In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki. The snowbell blossoms could be pressed to make cooking oil. These trees grow everywhere in Japan – all the way from the north in Hokkaidō down to the south in Kyūshū[vi]. Most people believe this theory and it gets repeated in books, magazines, and TV.

Remember this theory. We’re going to come back to it later.

A flowering shiso plant

A flowering shiso plant

The Egoma Theory

荏胡麻 egoma is a kind of oil made from Perilla frutescens – oil made from a kind of wild sesame plant. The leaves and plant are generally known as 紫蘇 shiso in Japan. Shiso leaves are popular in seasonal tempura dishes and there is a famous brand of 焼酎 shōchū that is infused with shiso leaves. In pre-modern Japan, some clans used to make 油紙 yushi[vii] oil treated paper with this leaf’s oil. This was a traditional paper treated with egoma used for archival purposes or official messages that needed to be waterproof. Like Chōfu[viii], there’s no evidence this industry ever existed in the area.

Two old Ainu dudes. (At least I think they're both dudes)

Two old Ainu dudes.
(At least I think they’re both dudes)

The Ainu Theory

Long time readers – and by long time, I mean you’ve been reading regularly for a few years now – will be familiar with certain tropes that constantly come. I’ve referred to them as “the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” “the Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It theory,” “the Captain Japan[ix] Did It Theory,” and the occasional “the Ainu Did It Theory.”

Of course when we talk about Ainu in this part of Japan, we might actually be talking about the 蝦夷 Emishi, a culture said to be related to the Ainu but that might not be. But then again, we might be talking about actual Ainu people. Nobody really knows for sure. The Emishi and Ainu are a bit of an enigma and to make matters worse the names have sometimes been used interchangeably over history. The Emishi – who appear to be a related but separate people – seem to have been absorbed into the Yamato Culture[x] – or into the Ainu Culture – or both. Again, nobody fucking knows. But the Ainu most definitely still exist in Hokkaidō, one of their ancestral homes.

In short, this theory claims that the name derives from a lost Ainu/Emishi word that means 密集 misshū which means a crowd or a dense thing or place or 集団 shūdan which means a group or a mass (and carries a connotation of “people” or “populace”). This theory was recorded in the Edo Period without citing the original Ainu/Emishi word which means one of two things: the tradition was passed on for centuries by oral tradition and the word was lost along the way or it is complete bullshit made up at some time… probably in the Edo Period.

Yama no kubochi - a basin in the hills.

Yama no kubochi – a basin in the hills.

The River Basin Theory

In some old Kantō dialects, there is a word 江古 ego[xi]. These kanji and the reading are identical to the first 2 characters in 江古田 Egota. Ego doesn’t refer to “the ego” which you may know from psychology[xii]. No, it refers to something far more mundane and boring[xiii].

In standard Japanese this word is rendered as 山の窪地[xiv] yama no kubochi “a depression in the hills” which itself is an obscure term. Kubochi is essentially a synonym for 盆地 bonchi a basin – this is a term all Japanese people are familiar with. According to this theory, 江古田 Egota means 水が流れ込む田んぼ mizu ga nagarekomu tanbo a field that water flows down into.

This looks legit on the surface. There is actually a river called 江古田川 Egota-gawa and an actual bridge called 江古田川大橋 Egota Ōhashi the Great Egota Bridge. There are hills in the area as well. The only problem with this theory is that within the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō Metropolis, virtually nothing of the old dialects remains. The evidence for this theory is supplied from other places in agricultural areas of Kantō where bits and pieces of the old dialects persist. No documents link this place with this etymology – it’s purely hypothetical[xv].

This tree look familiar? Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

This tree look familiar?
Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

Let’s Revisit the Japanese Snowbell Theory

There are more theories than I’ve listed here, but these are the big ones. However, I promised to talk about the most famous theory. That theory states (and I quote from myself) that:

The area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica).

In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki.

I don’t know why this is the “pet etymology” that gets shared the most because it’s probably the most easily disproved etymology. It’s complete shite.

On the surface, it seems legit. 江古田 ego-ta a field of snowbells could be ateji for エゴノキの田んぼ  ego no ki no tanbo a field of snowbell trees. For native speakers and non-native speakers, this theory looks pretty good.

At the heart of this conundrum lays the name of this tree, エゴノキ ego no ki. Japanese spelling[xvi] has changed over the centuries, in particular, after the Meiji Coup and especially after WWII. The etymology of ego no ki has been obscured by the modernization of Japanese orthography[xvii]. It’s also obscured by the standard Romanization, ie; ローマ字 rōma-ji .

Before the spelling reforms, this tree’s name was written as ヱゴの木  ego no ki[xviii]. That first character doesn’t exist in the modern syllabary[xix]. It’s a character that’s been obsolete since the 1940’s and is only used for dramatic effect today[xx]. The easiest equivalent I can think of in English is when “the” is written as “ye”[xxi] today to look medieval or something. In Japanese, this character actually reflects Classical Japanese (probably from the Heian Period until the Kamakura Period). That is to say, it uses characters that represent sounds that died out long ago[xxii].

However, when 江古田 Egota/Ekoda is spelled out in hiragana, the first character has historically been e. The character  we/ye came to be pronounced /e/ (ie; it’s phonetically identical to e), but it indicates a mora[xxiii] that is etymologically distinct. To make this clearer, I’ll summarize using rōma-ji: ego couldn’t have derived from “yego” (or “wego“).

my brain hurts

So WTF Is the Etymology?

As I said, there are additional theories, but most of them are tiring – at least to me. Maybe I’ll look into them a bit more later. Unless you live in Egota, which would have been a rare case until after the Great Kantō Earfquake, your chances of even knowing this area at all are low. In the Edo Period, this was just farm land.

As for my opinion, I think it’s clear that the kanji are ateji. The kanji have no meaning and actually hinder getting us to the bottom of the story. It’s also clear that the popular theory of a field of Japanese Snowbell trees is absolutely untrue.

The “Ainu Did It Theory” is impossible to prove until somebody produces an Ainu word that seems to make a plausible case. I also think the “Ainu Did It Theories” are weak in general given the nearly complete cultural saturation of the Yamato Culture. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of archaeological data from the area, but it doesn’t seem to have been very populated until the last 50-100 years.

If I had to choose a favorite of theory, I think the “The River Basin Theory” is pretty good. Long time readers who remember my grueling Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series may seem some logic behind this etymology. Having researched more than 250 place names, rivers and other bodies of water seem to be one of the most common reference points. Many Japanese people have said to me the “Japan is a country of water.” Edo was often called “Venice of the East.” The most common modern epithet (which has both positive and negative connotations) is 島国 shimaguni island country. So it’s clear that from time immemorial to present day water is very important to this land and the country’s relationship with water is deeply ingrained in the culture.

That said, none of these theories can be confirmed. And as I said before, the name just reeks of ateji and ateji actually hinders understanding the origins of a name. The presence of 江 e (a water kanji) is the most confusing part of the mystery. It supports was I think is the strongest theory because it is a reference to water, but it is also the source of the katakana character エ e. That means the kanji was used so much for its phonetic usage other than its ideographic meaning that there’s almost no way to grasp which usage is more important (the phonetic meaning or the ideographic meaning).

So, yeah. This has been a wild ride. But there’s no definitive answer. Egota/Ekoda will forever be a mystery. Sometimes it’s good to have them – they keep us on our toes.

Wanna learn about Egota Station and Shin-Ekoda Station?

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[i] 中野区江古田 Nakano-ku Egota Egota, Nakano Ward.
[ii] The missing hyphen is technically a mistake, too. The official station name is clearly hyphenated in signage.
[iii] There seem to be a few exceptions to the rule, but I couldn’t find specific examples.
[iv] The tradition of ateji was born out of necessity when kanji (a Chinese writing system) was first imported to Japan. The Japanese presumably had no standardized writing system – if any writing system at all – and began transcribing their spoken language into the ideographic writing of the Chinese. You can read more about ateji here.
[v] I don’t want to get into the Emishi and Ainu here. It’s a really big topic and may not have any connection to this. You can read more here.
[vi] They actually grow in some parts of Okinawa, which is farther to south and more or less tropical.
[vii] Also read abura-gami.
[viii] Did I mention I have an article about Chōfu?
[ix] Captain Japan, of course, being my nickname for the semi-legendary 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru character of the old Yamato State.
[x] Basically, the “Japanese people” who followed the Imperial Family and took over the main islands of Japan (with the exception of Hokkaidō and Okinawa – territories annexed by the Meiji government after the 1868 Meiji Coup).
[xi] I use “is” in the loosest of possible senses. Most of the Kantō dialects have died out and been replaced with 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese. So, “there was a word” might be more appropriate, but I’m not sure what linguistic hijinks is going on the backwater farming communities of Kantō.
[xii] That word, ego, is actually the first person singular pronoun in Latin. It’s the Latin word for “I.”
[xiii] But absolutely intrinsic to place names in a county that is mountainous and covered in rivers.
[xiv] Sometimes written as 山の凹地 yama no ouchi (same meaning).
[xv] This theory was proposed by linguistics using modern dialectal dictionaries.
[xvi] Spelling is what we call this in English normally, but I’m actually talking about orthography.
[xvii] Are shitting me? You didn’t read the last footnote? Orthography is how you write words. To use the loose term, spelling.
[xviii] It can also be written entirely in kanji as 野茉莉 egonoki, but usually isn’t.
[xix] Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet; it has 2 syllabaries reinforced by kanji.
[xx] Occasionally archaic spellings even make it into their Romanized counterparts, sometimes you might see Yedo for Edo, Yebisu for Ebisu, Iyeyasu for Ieyasu, Kwan’non for Kan’non, and kwaidan for kaidan. These aren’t just random affectations. They actually reflect the etymological origins of these names and words. The kana in question is sometimes rendered as we, especially when standing alone because it occurred in the わ行 wa-gyō “wa” row: わ waゐ wi, blank, ゑ we, を wo.
[xxi] “Ye” meaning “the” is one of the greatest examples of how misunderstood orthography can explode in your face.
[xxii] There are probably more examples in English than any other language, but consider the word “comfortable.” This spelling reflects a pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time which was 4 syllables /ˈkom for tə bəl/ but the modern pronunciation is 3 syllables /ˈkʌmf tər bl/.
[xxiii] What the fuck is a mora??!!!

Ōedo Line: Toshimaen

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on July 21, 2015 at 9:11 am

豊島園
Toshima-en (Toshima Park, the name of an amusement park)

Remains of the natural moat of Nerima Castle (the Shakuji'i River) taken before the amusement park was constructed.

Remains of the natural moat of Nerima Castle (the Shakuji’i River) taken before the amusement park was constructed.

To the average Tōkyōite, Toshima-en is an amusement park. To Japanese history fans, Tohima-en is an amusement park built on the ruins of 練馬城 Nerima-jō Nerima Castle.

This “castle” was actually a hilltop fortification that the 豊嶋氏 Toshima-shi Toshima clan established in the 1330’s as an outpost to protect their larger 石神井城 Shakuji’i-jō Shakuji’i Castle[i]. All of the Toshima held castles and fortifications fell to the 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan in the 1470’s. Dōkan was the first warlord to really stir up shit in the area near Edo and he made his main fortification in the Chiyoda area[ii], by kicking out the Edo clan and taking over their satellite fort on the coast. He hunted down and killed off the Toshima clan and forced the Edo clan to stay at their distant fort in Kitami. In short, the path of this corner of the Kantō region changed dramatically with the fall of these castles and clans – and they fell Game of Thrones style. Dōkan himself would be assassinated a few years later.

The remains of the natural moat today.

The remains of the natural moat today.

Hydropolis water park

Hydropolis water park

But today, the Sengoku Period fortification that was Nerima “castle” is an amusement park. One of the main attractions, a waterslide called ハイドロポリス Hydropolis, is built on one of the old natural fortifications and you can still see part of the natural moat system. And while Japanese castles are pretty cool, waterslides are way more fun than warfare, killing off entire families, and forcing people to do 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide. Also, 4 sweet, sweet words: Japanese Girls In Bikinis™.

toshimaen

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[i] The clan’s patriarch controlled the main “castle” at 平塚城 Hiratsuka-jō Hiratsuka Castle in modern day  北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward.
[ii] Edo Castle.

Ōedo Line: Shin-Egota & Nerima

In Japanese History on July 16, 2015 at 6:26 am

新江古田
Shin-Egota (New Egota)

Shin-egota has some apartments and a even has its very own tire shop.

Shin-egota has some apartments and a even has its very own tire shop.

I’m going to give an oversimplified explanation of this etymology. There was a station called Ekoda Station. Later, a New Egota Station was created[i]. If Ekoda and Egota look different to you, then you’re normal. They are. This place name may warrant its own article, so I’ve added it to my to-do-list.

At any rate, the station is located near the border of Nakano Ward and Nerima Ward. It’s a residential area. No need to go there.

Nerima Station in 1972

Nerima Station in 1972

練馬
Nerima (horse training)

Nerima Station today

Nerima Station today

I wrote a whole article about this place that was very thorough. The history of this place name is pretty much a mystery, but there are a variety of theories. I suggest you click the link below if you’re interested in the etymology.

In the Sengoku Period, this area was controlled by the 豊嶋氏 Toshima-shi Toshima clan. In the Edo Period, this was all country – mostly farmland located well outside of the city limits. Today Nerima refers to one of the 23 Special Wards, so the name applies to an area much larger than the immediate station area. Supposedly, Nerima is the ward that can boast the most farmland. Woo-hoo.

Apparently, you can go drinking and whoring in Nerima. Who'd a thunk it?

Apparently, you can go drinking and whoring in Nerima. Who’d a thunk it?

As for the area modern area, I don’t know much. I’ve been to Nerima Ward before but never Nerima Station. My impression is that it’s a local shopping district with restaurants, small shops, and some department stores.

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[i] They added the “new” because the old station is still in use.

What does Komagome mean?

In Japanese History on September 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm

駒込
Komagome (Crowd of Horses)

Komagome Station

Komagome Station

There are a few place names around Tōkyō that reference horses. I covered one, 高田馬場 Takada no Baba, in an article in March.[i] Today we have a rather odd one. It’s also a bit of a mystery.

The name, first documented in the Sengoku Period, consists of two kanji:


koma

horse



komi

swarming, huddling, amassed, crowded,
“in bulk”[ii]

If you know a little Japanese, two things will stick out immediately.

One, the Japanese word for horse is 馬 uma.
Two, is read as komi, not gome.

Let me address the horse thing first. In modern Japanese, the kanji 駒 koma is classified as a variant of horse. It’s a rare variant that usually only shows up in a few places, ie; names of animals or plants (which are usually written in katakana anyways) and in shōgi idioms. 将棋 shōgi is Japanese chess. The original meaning of the kanji in Chinese was 仔馬 ko-uma a small horse, a colt, or a pony. However, in Japan it has always been just another word for horse[iii].

As for the komi/gome discrepancy, long time readers of Japan This! should already be familiar with the two phenomena going on here. The first is a very regular morphological change in Japanese compound words called 連濁 rendaku (see the Wiki article). Long story short, often in compound words you get a euphonic change to make a difficult word easier to pronounce. In this case, when you combine koma + komi it will become komagomi[iv]. The second thing that is happening is confusion between the phonemes /i/ and /e/, something that is very common in Japanese dialects, particularly in the old dialects of the Kantō area[v]. We’ve seen this vowel confusion before, most notably in my article on Akabane.

OK, now with the kanji and the linguistics out of the way, let’s get down to the etymology. There are basically 6 theories as to the origin of this place name, a few of which overlap. And let’s get this out in the open before going any further; there is not a shred of evidence to support any of these claims. Except for one, all of them are based on the kanji, which we’re starting to see are less than reliable in pre-Edo Period Kantō.

The Traditional Explanations

The “Seems Reasonable” Theory
This theory has for a long time played it safe and went with the 駒 koma means horse and 込 komi means crowded literal reading. This was an area of the Musashi Plain where a lot of wild horses flocked together.
(horses flock??)

Horses flock?

Horses flock?

 

The “Captain Japan Did It!” Theory
Two emergent patterns I keep seeing here at Japan This! are Iemitsu Did It™  and Captain Japan Did It™. The story goes that when 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto aka Captain Japan made his 東征 tōsei Eastern Expedition[vi] he saw his local ally’s troops with a shit ton of horses. He was all like, “Whoa, it’s full of horses!” and so the name stuck[vii].

Captain Japan!!

Captain Japan!!

The “Somebody Just Totally Made This Up” Theory
This theory states that a ko or ko (little) + mago grandchild + め me (an untranslatable pejorative suffix) = a komago-me once lived here, that is to say, a worthless little grandchild[viii].

Bad grandchild!

Bad grandchild!

The Modern Explanations

The “No Frills” Theory
If we take the kanji at face value, they seem to refer to a place where horses were herded into a confined space, perhaps a large stable of a local noble. If this is to be accepted, then it’s not a far leap given the fluidity of the Kantō dialects from こまごみ komagomiこまごめ komagome. This theory relies on the use of in some of the uses mentioned in the footnotes which have associations with “barging in” or “going into crowded spaces.”

That's a lot of horses...

That’s a lot of horses…

The “Sorry, We Don’t Have a Fucking Clue” Theory
In Hon-komagome, Jōmon Period artifacts were found which have lead a few people to speculate that the place name may be a borrowing from a pre-Japonic language (Ainu or whatever language Jōmon people of this region spoke) and that would make the kanji ateji and the original meaning of the word would then be lost to time.

I don't know.

I don’t know.

Additional Information

In the past,  豊嶋郡駒込村 Toshima-gun Komagome-mura Komagome Village, Toshima District was located where present  本駒込  now stands (they’re neighboring areas even though today Komagome is in Toshima Ward and Hon-komagome is in Bunykō Ward).

Is Hon-Komagome the Original Komagome?

No, it isn’t.

When the same place name has variations, the kanji is sometimes read as moto “source” (in place names, often “old, original.”[ix] But Hon-komagome is different. In the former Tōkyō City, there was an ward called 本郷区 Hongō-ku Hongō Ward but in 1966 administrative units were re-assigned when the city became the Tōkyō Metropolis. At that time, Bunkyō Ward and Toshima Ward found themselves both in possession of areas called Komagome. The area in Toshima (the former Toshima District) kept the original name Komagome. The new Bunkyō Ward merged the former Hongō Ward name with the old name and so it became Hon(gō) + Komagome = Hon-komagome. So the meaning is not “Original Komagome” as some might think, the original Komagome is the area still called Komagome.

In conclusion, I think all I can say is that I don’t know. The kanji evidence all points to horses, but my gut instinct is to side with a possible non-Japonic source (which basically commits to very little in this case). If someone finds a mass grave of horses or post holes in a pattern of stables or anything like that, I may be persuaded to the horse story side.

Well, alright… I’m going to bed now.
Love you all, leave a comment below so I know anyone is actually reading!

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[i]
At that time Japan This! must’ve had like 3 readers… whom I probably begged to read.
[ii] This kanji appears in a lot of compound words, for example; 詰め込み tsumekomi cram into, 押し込み oshikomi push into, crowd into, 入り込み irikomi barge into, break into, 申し込み mōshikomi application, 吹き込み fukikomi blow into, 追い込み oikomi herd into, 売り込み urikomi to sell, 立て込み tatekomi tied up, busy, crowded, バンパイヤの心臓に杭を打ち込み banpaiya no shinzō ni kui wo uchikomi drive a wooden stake through a vampire’s heart… just to name a few.
[iii] Just think about how many words there are in English for horse. Off the top of my head I can think of horse, stallion, steed, mare, nag, sarah jessica parker, mustang, colt, foal, filly, pony, bronco. And I’m sure there are more. I’m not sure what the nuance of  was throughout the evolution of pre-modern Japanese, but today the kanji is hardly used even though it’s only a level 8 kanji for native Japanese.
[iv] The Wikipedia article is actually quite good at explaining the phenomenon. If you really want to get nerdy about what’s going on underneath the hood of the Japanese Language, here’s a fascinating treatment on the subject from a linguistics perspective.
[v] The same phenomenon happened with Latin dialects. Compare the Latin cominitiare and the French commencer (commence), and the Latin oleum with the Italian olio (olive oil)
[vi] 東征 tōsei, the so-called Eastern Expeditions, appear in various myths about the founding of Japan. Yamato Takeru is not the only one said to have subjugated the east, the most well-known tōsei is the 神武東征 Jinmu Tōsei Emperor Jimmu’s Eastern Expedition. Jimmu is the legendary first emperor of Japan.
[vii] The story specifically uses an Old Japanese phrase 駒込たり koma komitari “horses be all up in this bitch, yo.”
[viii] I totally just made this up by the way. Blame it on the booze.
[ix] For example 元麻布 Moto-Azabu “Old Azabu.”

What does Mejiro mean?

In Japanese History on August 17, 2013 at 1:50 pm

目白
Mejiro (White Eyes)

Little known fact. Mejiro Station is haunted by the ghosts of two high school girls.

Little known fact. Mejiro Station is haunted by the ghosts of two high school girls.

Last time, I wrote about 目黒 Meguro. The kanji mean “black eyes.” Far across town there is an area called 目白 Mejiro. The kanji mean “white eyes.” A couple of readers brought up the name Mejiro and asked if it was related. Some actually knew the story of the 五色不動 Goshiki Fudō the 5 Colored Fudō.  If you don’t know about these 5 temples, you can read about them here. If you didn’t catch my article about Meguro, you can see it here. As seems too often to be the case, there is a little fiction and a little reality served with a healthy dash of mystery – and in this case, an incredibly frustrating mystery.

First, Let’s Start with the Most Commonly Kicked Around Etymologies

Hi yo, Silver! Away!

Did someone say famous white horse?

The Famous White Horse Theory

This theory says, without stating much else, that a famous white horse was born here, a 白い名馬 shiroi meiba, if you will. This theory is plausible because, well… ok, anything’s possible. But naming a place after a single white horse seems a little silly. Anyways, the etymological basis for this derivation is that the original place name was 馬白 Mejiro “white horse” – representing a dialectal variant of ma (horse), me.  If you’re familiar with my article on Meguro, then you’ll likely find the similarity of 馬白目白 to the proposed change of 馬黒目黒 intriguing.

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Tokugawa Iemitsu

When in doubt, Iemitsu did it!

★ The “Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It” Theory

Having researched a ton of Tōkyō place names this year, I’m starting to see patterns emerge that set off my BS detectors. Theories that say the third shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, came into some place and renamed it are a dime a dozen. I’m willing to entertain some of them, but some are just retarded. This is one of them.

The story states that one day Tokugawa Iemitsu came to Meguro for falconry and thought the name 目黒 Black Eyes was inauspicious and ordered the area to be called 目白 White Eyes. The stupidest thing about this theory is that anyone who looks at a map will see that the modern Meguro and Mejiro are nowhere near each other. And while – yes, anything is possible – there could have been another village called Meguro here at one point, it’s pretty fucking unlikely. Even if it was true, why didn’t Iemitsu care about the other Meguro? And he was the shōgun for fuck’s sake – the samurai dictator of the realm. I doubt he was such a pussy as to change the names of villages simply because the name scared him.

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There it is! The statue that named a village.  Or is it?

There it is! The statue that named a village.
Or is it?

★ The “Buddha Did It” Theory

This is by far the most elaborate – and widely told – theory.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the super monk[i], 天海 Tenkai, was placed in charge of developing Buddhist temples in the area. His pet project was to build a cluster of 5 temples dedicated to Acala, called 不動 Fudō The Unmovable One in Japanese.  Each temple’s statue of Fudō had a different colored pair of eyes. The one in 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes had black eyes[ii]. The statue in 目白 Mejiro White Eyes had, you guessed it, white eyes.  The presence of a temple established by Tenkai, which was part of a grouping of 4 other temples was prestigious for the area and probably brought many pilgrims to the town’s 門前町 monzen-chō (town built at the front of a temple)[iii]. The area then derived its name from this temple’s claim to fame, the white eyed statue.

This theory sounds plausible on the surface, but the fact is that the name Mejiro pre-dates the Edo Era, so sorry to say, the statue’s eye color might originate from the place name, but the place name does not originate from the statue. The name Mejiro allegedly first appeared in one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s original surveys of Edo when he moved into the area and was sizing up his new holdings.

Now it's time to some useless trivia.

Now it’s time to some useless trivia.

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By The Way, Why Did The Statues Each Have Different Colored Eyes?

Well, I’m glad you asked. The cluster of temples is called the 五色不動  Goshiki Fudō The Five Colored Fudō. The 5 colors are a reference to something called  五行思想  Gogyō Shisō the Theory of the Five Elements, which is some ancient Chinese woo that views the cosmos through a delicate balance of, you guessed it, 5 “elements;” wood, fire, earth, metal, and water[iv].

Gogyo - the Theory of the 5 Elements

Gogyo – the Theory of the 5 Elements

As you can see in the image above, there are 5 colors associated with these “elements;” blue, red, yellow, white, black. Which temples actually make up the Goshiki Fudō is a point of contention these days, as the grouping during the Edo Period is different than the grouping now. In fact today’s grouping has 6 statues (a second yellow eyed statue has been added). The truth is the whole story of the naming of these towns and their connections to the temple statues is an invention of the Bakumatsu Era which only gained popularity in the Meiji Era. In other words, there is zero connection between the temples and the place names.

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OK, so where does the place name Mejiro really come from?

No one knows.

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After reading all that, I hope you feel as let down and disappointed as I was researching this topic. When looking into the origins of Tōkyō place names, there are some that have fascinating stories and some that are just dead ends. At least this story has some interesting tangents that have made it worth your time. I had fun doing the research, but… yeah. I’m disappointed too.

See that large section of green?

See that large section of green labeled “Tokugawa Village?”
Let’s talk about that a little bit…

But the story isn’t finished quite yet. Have you ever been to Mejiro? There’s not much to do there so there may be no reason for you to go. But in 1932[v], the head of the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke Owari branch of the Tokugawa Family built a residence here[vi]. Since then, his property has been turned into an exclusive planned community called the Tokugawa Village. It’s home to high ranking diplomats and über-rich douche bags of every stripe[vii] and it’s home to the 徳川黎明会 Tokugawa Reimeikai Tokugawa Dawn Society which sounds like an evil cult, and may in fact be one, but on the surface it seems to be a group dedicated to historical research related to the Tokugawa. It’s affiliated with the prestigious 徳川美術館 Tokugawa Bijutsukan Tokugawa Fine Art Museum in Nagoya which preserves the largest collection of art and property of the Tokugawa family and has a hell of a gift shop if you want goods with the Tokugawa family crest printed on them[viii].

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OK, so, to re-cap: famous horse, Iemitsu, 5 Buddhas, eyeballs, über-rich douche bags, Tokugawa cult, nobody knows.

The end.

 

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[i]
I say supermonk because it seems like every other temple in Kantō claims to have been established by or have some connection to him. Dude got around. Or who knows? I’m not into monks so don’t hold me to it. (And “supermonk” sounds hilarious.)
[ii] But as mentioned in my article on Meguro, the name of the town predates the Edo Period. So Meguro’s name does not derive from the statue. There is a chance that Tenkai chose the town Meguro for the black eyed statue or it may be a happy little coincidence. But Edo Period people probably dug that kind of shit, so I wouldn’t put it past the supermonk.
[iii] See my article on Monzen-nakachō for more about this kind of town.
[iv] None of which is actually an element.
[v] Shōwa 7
[vi] In the Edo Period he would have been a successive daimyō, but after the reforms of the Meiji Era he was a Marquis – just as I am a Marquis Star (cue cheeseball drumfill).
[vii] That’s totally uncalled for. I don’t know if the people there are douches or not. I’m not rich, so that’s just my jealous oozing out as totally unjustified contempt.
[viii] Yes, I want. Thank you very much.

What does Akabane mean?

In Japanese History on June 20, 2013 at 6:44 am

赤羽
Akabane (Red Wings; but more at Red Clay)

Pre-Saitama

Akabane Station.
It’s next to Saitama, so it’s sort of your last chance to be cool and say you live in Tokyo.
It’s also so close to Saitama that it’s kinda uncool by association.
It’s like you’re trying to get your pre-Saitama on.
Preparing to graduate to Saitama[1].

Today’s place name etymology is a pretty interesting one because we will get a sneak peak at the extinct pre-Edo Period dialect of the area. Akabane sits in the northern part of Kita Ward. It’s basically next to Kawakuchi, Saitama. So it’s on the literal outskirts of Tōkyō. Mind you, you won’t see any difference leaving Tōkyō and entering Saitama due to the thorough urban sprawl.

Historically speaking, 赤羽村 Akabane Mura Akabane Village wasn’t a particularly important place, but in the Kamakura Period a highway called 岩槻街道 Iwatsuki Kaidō was built. The road is better known by its Edo Era name, 日光御成街道 Nikkō O-nari Kaidō. As mentioned in my article on Tokugawa Ietsugu’s Mausoleum, 御成 o-nari refers to the presence of the shōgun. As such, this was a private highway for the shōgun family to use when visiting 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū. It was a shortcut that connected the 中仙道 Nakasendō to the 日光街道 Nikkō Kaidō. The road passed through Akabane and there was a rest station 宿場 shukuba at the next town, 岩淵宿 Iwabuchi Shuku Iwabuchi Post Station. That town was pretty important and well known.  Akabane was just another small village in the country.

A Map of the Iwatsuki Kaido as it passes through Akabane and Iwabuchi.

A Map of the Iwatsuki Kaido as it passes through Akabane and Iwabuchi.

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OK. So now we have a little historical context for the city. Where does the name come from?

Well, if we strip away the kanji, we can find the origin of the name:

あか aka means red.
はね hane is the old local dialect word for 埴 hani, clay.

Why would anyone look at the dirt? When you considered that Japanese folk craft pottery could use this clay to make red pottery items, it becomes clear why "Red Clay" was a good place name originally. Remember, this place name pre-dates the Edo Period and gets its first mention in the Kamakura Period. This place name is OLD.

Why would anyone look at the dirt?
When you considered that Japanese folk craft pottery could use this clay to make red pottery items,
it becomes clear why “Red Clay” was a good place name originally.
Remember, this place name pre-dates the Edo Period and gets its first mention in the Kamakura Period.
This place name is OLD.

The 荒川 Arakawa River apparently deposited a lot of red colored volcanic ash from Mt. Fuji here. The buildup of this material produced a red slimy, claylike soil that was particular to the area. If an area eroded, the red clay would become exposed. Thus the area was called 赤埴 Akabani Red Clay. But in the local accent the name was pronounced Akabane. Later, as literacy rates improved in the area, the second kanji was changed to actually match the pronunciation. So 羽 hane wings was added, thus obscuring the origins of the place name as 赤羽 Akabane Red Wings[2].

For another sneak peak at the old dialect, we can look at the name of the highway that passed through here. It was called the 岩槻街道 Iwatsuki Kaidō. But place name 岩槻 Iwatsuki was originally written as 岩付 Iwatsuke. Diachronic Japanese linguists and dialectologists use evidence like this to track the development and differentiation of vowel quantities – in particular /e/ and /i/ which traditionally show great instability. So now you know.

Apparently, 赤羽橋 Akabanebashi (Red Wing Bridge) in Shiba (Minato Ward) has the same derivation. Archaeological findings in the postwar years confirmed the existence of medieval kilns and earthenware factories.

 

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[1] But the most famous pre-Saitama of all is Ikebukuro.

[2] A family name and a place name Akahani still persists elsewhere in Japan and the kanji is consistent with the original writing of the of the name. The writing of Akahani instead of Akabani reflects a conservative pronunciation before the 連濁 rendaku sound changes of the Tōkyō area became the national standard.

Why is Itabashi called Itabashi?

In Japanese History on May 22, 2013 at 1:16 am

板橋
Itabashi (Plank Bridge)

Itabashi Bridge

The Itabashi (plank bridge) as it looks today. (Hey old man, get out of the shot!)

In 1180 Minamoto Yoritomo is recorded having temporarily stationed his army near a bridge called 板橋 Itabashi “the plank bridge” on the upper 滝野川 Takinogawa Takino River* in the 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District of 武蔵国 Musashino no Kuni Musashi Province. There was no road by the name at the time, but it is believed that this bridge is where the 中仙道 Nakasendō crossed the Takino River.

Today there is still a bridge called Itabashi where the 仲宿商店街 Nakajuku Shōtengai Nakajuku Arcade crosses the 石神井川 Shakujii River**. And it’s generally agreed that this is the same bridge. The arcade street is actually the Old Nakasendo highway and the name refers to the fact that it cuts through () the post town (宿).

By the Edo Period, a major 宿場 shukuba post town had grown up around the bridge and the area was well known as 板橋宿 Itabashi-shuku. The town was a major stopping point for daimyō processions after the 1630’s. The town prospered under the sankin-kōtai edict until 1862 when the requirement was suspended in the crisis of the bakumatsu. Itabashi-shuku was a 3-4 hour walk from Nagareyama*** and it was also the starting point of the 川越街道 Kawagoe kaidō Kawagoe Highway.

Shukuba me all night!

Did someone say post town? Shukuba all night long, baby. Awwwwwwww yeah!

So Why “Plank Bridge?”

The prevailing theory seems to be that in the late Heian Period in a backwater area far from Kyōto, the presence of an elegant and smooth plank bridge would have been something unique — as opposed to a bridge sorta thrown together with a bunch of crappy logs of various shapes and sizes. The fact that a bridge was even mentioned in the same sentence as Minamoto Yoritomo is held up as corroborating evidence… or that’s what people say.

Itabashi-shuku’s big claim to fame is a bit more nefarious than just being a convenient post town with a smooth-ass bridge. As the area was well outside of central Edo and on a major road, it was also the site of a prison and execution ground during the Edo Period. In 1868 as the Imperial Army was taking possession of the city and its infrastructure, they used the prison and execution grounds to detain and eventually execute Kondō Isami. Nothing remains of the execution grounds or the prison except for a quiet plot of land purchased by Nagakura Shinpachi to build graves for Kondo and Hijikata Toshizō and all the other dead members of Shinsengumi. Definitely a must-see spot if you’re a Shinsengumi fan like me.

Modern Itabashi is a sleepy area – boring one might say. But there are a few Shinsengumi related spots (mostly just plaques now) and of course the “Shinsengumi Graveyard.” But the bridge itself, while made of concrete now, is still there and the temples and shrines along the Old Nakasendō still remain****.

A younger me chilling at Kondo Isami's grave in the Shinsengumi graveyard.

A younger me chilling at Kondo Isami’s grave in the Shinsengumi graveyard.

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* Today the Takino River is called the 石神井川 Shakujii River.
** Remember, the Shakujii River was the Takino River back in the day.
*** Shinsengumi fans will know why I mentioned that.
**** Itabashi sightseeing spots. Knock yourself out.

Why is Kita called Kita?

In Japanese History on May 21, 2013 at 12:54 am


Kita (The North)

Kita-ku's logo is a Pink K.

I see what you did there…

Until the 1940’s, this ward didn’t exist. In the 1930’s, 郡 gun districts of Tōkyō were abolished and absorbed into wards or other administrative areas. The former 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima District was broken up. Toshima Ward was created in 1932 but two remaining areas of the former district, namely 滝野川 Takinogawa, 王子 Ōji, and 岩淵 Iwabuchi were merged into a new ward in  in 1947. Many names were suggested for the ward, but since the area is in the northernmost part of Tōkyō and is comprised of areas of the former North Toshima district, the name Kita was chosen – reflecting the area’s heritage and geographic reality.

And that’s all she wrote, biatch!

What does Toshima mean?

In Japanese History on May 20, 2013 at 1:24 am

豊島
Toshima (Islands Abound)

Toshima Ward's logo

Toshima Ward’s logo

“However, the name survived. Even on Edo Era maps you can see references to the Toshima District. And these days, it’s one of the 23 Special Ward of Tōkyō. Good for it.”

marky star
(from an earlier, shittier draft of this article)

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I totally just quoted myself.

For no good reason.

Right then, let’s get started.

Recently I’ve shifted direction towards the northern part of Tōkyō. We’ve touched on the holdings of the Toshima clan quite a bit recently, haven’t we? Shakujii, Nerima, and Itabashi – I covered Ikebukuro a while ago. Up until this point, I’ve been referring to a certain administrative area called 豊島郡 or 豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District.

As a real political entity, it seems that the Toshima district is quite ancient. From times immemorial (take that with a grain of salt) the etymology has been consistent. The bay* had a number of undeveloped, natural inlets that meandered well into the interior of what became Edo. Left unchecked, natural channels of water may merge with other natural channels of water and result in island-like formations. This is exactly what happened in this area. In fact, numerous “islands” were formed; one might say there was a proverbial “abundance of islands.”

豊 to richness, abundance
, shima islands

The kanji 豊 to/toyo is a really auspicious character. It’s “nobility ranking” is off the meters**. Given our previouos encounters with ateji in old place names, take that with a grain of salt.

Anyways… the Toshima area is first attested in the 700’s. At the turn of the century (1000’s), the 秩父氏 Chichibu clan (a branch of the Taira) was granted influence over the area by the Imperial court. The branch of Chichibu in Toshima took the name of their fief and became an independent clan***. They maintained dominion over the area until the 1400’s when Ōta Dōkan stepped up and slapped their dicks out of their hands and face-fucked them full-force with the giant phallus that was the Sengoku Era.

Ota Dokan. Don't let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the Sengoku Period.

Ota Dokan. Don’t let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the boring part of the Sengoku Period.

There were four major clans operating in the area:
豊島氏  the Toshima
渋谷氏  the Shibuya (vassal)
葛西氏  the Kasai (vassal)
江戸氏  the Edo (vassal)
There are place names derived from all of these clans still extant in Tōkyō today

Ōta Dōkan’s actions disrupted the old status quō and throughout the Muromachi Period the area was unstable. However, the district did not collapse or disappear.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The city of Edo was just one of many small cities in the district. Before the arrival of the Tokugawa, the district had been divided into two distinct areas, 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima and 南豊島郡 Minami Toshima-gun South Toshima. More about Kita Toshima later this week.

After the arrival of the Tokugawa, much of South Toshima fell under direct rule of the shougun as part of the city of Edo. The remaining areas of district continued to exist as an administrative unit separate from the city of Edo – part of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In 1868, the Emperor entered Edo Castle and Edo’s name was changed to Tōkyō. The boundary of the new city was different from the shōgun’s capital. The Edo Era Toshima District was incorporated into the new city limits. In 1878, the district was abolished when the new system of 区 ku wards was implemented in Tōkyō. But a district called 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima District continued to exist until 1932. An official ward called 豊島区 Toshima-ku Toshima Ward was created that year when all of the districts of Tōkyō were abolished. The kita (north) part of 北豊島 Kita Toshima wasn’t thrown out altogether… and we’ll talk about that missing tomorrow.

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* At this point we can’t even say Edo Bay, let alone Tōkyō Bay. It was just “the bay.”
** The so-called second great unifier of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, received his -name from the imperial court in 1586. It brought potential lasting prestige to him and his newly founded clan, BUT…. use of the kanji in names and place names declined after the rise of the Tokugawa. And take THAT with a grain of salt, too!
*** I mentioned the Toshima clan in the recent articles about Shakujii and Nerima.

What does Nerima mean?

In Japanese History on May 10, 2013 at 12:34 am

練馬
Nerima (original meaning unclear)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. What a wuss.)

The grave of Toshima Yasutsune in Shakujii Park. He was utterly defeated by Ota Dokan and instead of doing seppuku he tried to escape. (Another legend says he threw himself in the lake. Either way, dude was a wuss.)

Today’s place name is another request. It was on my TO DO list but I sorta put it off because… well, let’s just say “can of worms.”

The history of Tōkyō generally starts with the Edo Period. But it wasn’t like this city just popped into existence in 1600. Before Tokugawa Ieyasu, there was Ōta Dōkan. Before him there was the 豊島氏 Toshima-shi Toshima Clan* and (spoiler alert) the Edo Clan. In terms of written records and political relevance, this area’s history actually begins in the Kamakura Period and only accelerates from there.

Toshima family crest

Toshima family crest

The necessary background is this:

The Toshima clan controlled large areas of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province. Most of their dominion fell within the present Tōkyō/Chiba area. The 郡 gun district was called 豊島郡 Toshima-gun. Their seat of governance was in at 平塚城 Hiratsuka-jō (also known as 豊島城 Toshima-jō), but the family was firmly established in their residential estate in Shakujii Castle and had another fortification at Nerima Castle).** Today in Kita Ward, there is still a shrine called 平塚神社 Hiratsuka Jinja Hiratsuka Shrine. So the Toshima influence was strongest in the north region of Tōkyō. Place names that will definitely come up later will be Itabashi and Edo. The only reason I mention this is because these names will come up again later, for sure.

But OK, back to the subject at hand…

What does Nerima mean?

At first glance the kanji are confusing.

練 neri training, kneading
 (u)ma horse

First, let’s look at the etymologies that make use of the 練り neri “training” and ma “horse” theories

★ One of the oldest stories, documented from the Kamakura Period says that sometime between 700 and 800, there was a road connecting 武蔵国 Mushashi no Kuni Musashi Provice and 下総国 Shimōsa no kuni Shimōsa Province. On that road the Toshima clan had a 宿駅 shukueki a horse relay station. The name of the relay town was 乗沼 Norinuma, “ride-swamp”. This etymology claims that because the area was a wetland it had many lakes and, well, you could refresh your horses there, too. The local accent changed “Norinuma” to “Nerima” and eventually the kanji was changed to ateji.

a horse relay station

a horse relay station

★ Another theory says vassals of the Toshima family were training horses here. This is the most believable story, though it isn’t attested as early as the previous theory. So the name “training horses” is literal.
Compare this to Takadanobaba.

horse training place

horse training place

★ Another literal theory says some dude was stealing horses and keeping them here and then training them for resale. This kind of etymology, while entertaining, is unlikely IMO. But who knows…

dumb theory

Now let’s look at the clay theories

★ Another theory uses an alternate meaning of the kanji 練 neri. The kanji can also mean “knead” as in “knead bread” or “knead clay.” Supposedly there was an abundance of great clay for pottery making and the place was famous for kneading clay. This etymology says the name was originally 練場 Neriba Kneading Place. There are many examples of diachronic changes and dialect variants where ば ba becomes ま ma (and vice-versa). So linguistically speaking, it’s not impossible. On the site of the former Nerima Village (present day 貫井 Nukui), archaeologists discovered a type of kiln which was rare in the Edo-Tōkyō area.

kiln excavation

kiln excavation (this isn’t the one from Nukui, I couldn’t find a picture of that one)

★ Another clay theory claims that the dirt and clay in the area was sticky as if it had been kneaded professionally. Thus the area was called 練場 Neriba, just as in the theory I just mentioned. Over time the pronunciation changed from Neriba to Nerima. The clay hypotheses are intriguing.

wet clay! yummy!

wet clay. yay!

★ I’ve saved the weirdest theory for last. The Shakujii Basin lowlands were an expanse of lakes and swamps and so if you looked at water filled rice-paddies they looked really deep, as in “deep to the roots.” 根 ne root + 沼 numa swamp, marsh = 根の沼 Ne no numa root deep swamp, which changed to 根沼 Nenuma root swamp. Eventually Nenuma changed to Nerima and the kanji was changed to ateji (just like Hibiya).

BTW – The place name 丹根沼 Tannenuma exists in Hokkaidō.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do.

I have no idea what a 根の沼 looks like so this will have to do (丹根沼、北海道)

So it looks like the jury is out on this one. And while every theory, except the last one, has an argument based on kanji, the possibility of the name being just ateji is very possible. It’s particularly possible with old names that pre-date the Edo Period. At any point in history ateji could have been used – and changed later again to support other folk etymologies. So this one will just be a mystery.

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* Toshima can be written 豊島 or 豊嶋.
** Toshima Amusement Park (called としまえん Toshima-en in Japanese) is built on the castle ruins of Nerima-jō.

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