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Amaterasu and the Rock Cave

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Japanese Mythology on July 2, 2020 at 7:00 am

天岩戸
Ama no Iwato
The Rock Cave

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

When you finish reading, check out the details of this woodblock print.

If you thought the Creation Myth was weird, brace yourself. I told you that the kami were self-absorbed and capricious, but things are going to get truly bizarre now. First, we looked at the birth of the universe and the creation of Japan[i]. This time we’ll look at the most famous legend in all of Japan, that of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and divine ancestor of the emperors of Japan. This tale begins with the birth of the sun kami, so if you’re just joining the story in progress, I highly suggest you read the previous articles first. Also, as with the previous myth, I’ve been liberal in my retelling so as to make the narrative more palatable to our modern sensibilities. That said, be prepared. A dude will take massive dump inside a house and then just fling crap everywhere like Donald Trump throwing a temper tantrum[ii]. I’m not joking.

Anyhoo, this story is divided into three parts. First, it describes the realms given to the Three Noble Children by Izanagi no Mikoto. Next, we experience the petulance of Susano’o. The story concludes with the Rock Cave Myth. All right, let’s get into it!

Further Reading:

SANKISHI

The Three Noble Children and the Three Divine Commands

After cleansing himself of the defilement he received during his journey to the Land of Yomi[iii], the last living creator god, Izanagi, gave birth one last time. “For many years[iv], I’ve been giving birth to kami after kami, but finally I’ve made Three Noble Children[v]. He removed his necklace[vi] which was decorated with 勾玉 magatama comma shaped jewels[vii]. He shook it so that the stones rattled and sounded throughout the land. Then he gave the necklace to Amaterasu Ōmikami the sun goddess. Placing it around her neck, he commanded her to rule the Heavenly High Plains and the Central Land of Reed Plains[viii]. Then, he commanded Tsukuyomi to rule the realm of the night and Susano’o to rule the storms and seas[ix].

Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi were obedient and followed their father’s wishes, worthy of being called “noble.” However, Susano’o was not obedient and disobeyed his father’s commands. Instead, he just threw tantrums and wept and howled until his beard grew down well past his chest[x]. In fact, he cried so much that it caused the green mountains to turn brown and the rivers and seas to dry up[xi]. As a result, the malevolent kami throughout the Central Land of Reeds also began to cry, and they swarmed around everywhere like summer flies causing all kinds of calamities[xii] all over the world.

All of this weeping and wailing was annoying AF to the other kami and all living creatures, so finally Izanagi came to Susano’o and scolded him. “Why are just weeping and howling like a man-baby when you should be ruling the storms and seas that I entrusted to you?” asked his father. “I wish to go to the land of my mother, Izanami – the Land of Yomi[xiii],” sniffled Susano’o. “That is why I weep[xiv].”

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Izanagi roared. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re destroying the world Izanami and I created. If you can’t rule properly like Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, then I forbid you from living in my lands!” And with that, Izanagi banished Susano’o from the world.

[And with that Izanagi disappeared from the world[xv].]

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Amaterasu looking bad ass. Notice she is holding a mirror and is wearing the magatama necklace given to her by her father, Izanagi. Her headdress is both sun-shaped and mirror-shaped.

Susano’o Says Goodbye to Amaterasu

Having been expelled from the Central Land of Reed Plains, Susano’o announced that he would say farewell to his sister, Amaterasu. As he ascended to the Heavenly High Plain, the mountains and rivers and all the lands shook violently.

Amaterasu, ruling the heavens, was startled by this and said “This can’t be good. Surely my brother wants to steal my lands in the High Plains of Heaven and in the Central Land of Reeds.” She undid her hair[xvi] and put up it up in buns on her left and right sides. She decorated her hair and arms with long strings decorated with priceless magatama beads. She donned a 1000-arrow quiver on her back and a 500-arrow quiver on her chest. She also put an arm-guard on her left arm and then shook the tip of her bow and stamped her feet on the ground kicking up dust everywhere and let out a war cry.

“Why have you come here?” she asked.

“It’s all good, sis. I swear I have no bad intentions.” Susano’o declared. “Our father, Izanagi, asked why I’ve been weeping and howling for years, and so I told him that I wanted to visit the land of my mother, so he banished me from this land. Therefore, I’ve come here to say goodbye to you.”

“You’re a frickin’ weirdo. Anyways, how do I know your intentions are pure and bright?” Amaterasu asked.

“I propose a competition! Let’s each have a bunch of babies and the person has the most beautiful children wins!” Susano’o suggested.

Despite this being one of the dumbest ideas to prove one’s intentions that I’ve ever heard, Amaterasu agreed to this competition, and so they both immediately squatted down on the ground and began to grunt, pushing really hard in order to squeeze out some kami babies.

The Kokiji then goes on to spend an entire chapter describing the births of all the gods they created. And yes, they each have long-ass names like every other kami we’ve encountered up to this point. Skip!

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Susano’o

Susano’o Rages with Victory

After Amaterasu babbles on and on about the new genealogies linking herself and Susano’o to the birth of a handful of divine ancestors of the most elite clans of the future Yamato Court, they assess the quality of their respective offspring. Ultimately, Amaterasu popped out five sons while Susano’o popped out three daughters[xvii].

Susano’o bragged, “Look at this! My Three Divine Girls are purer, brighter, and more beautiful than your stupid five sons. Sucks to you be you, bitch!” And therewith he claimed total victory in this asinine competition[xviii]. He proceeded to raged with victory by breaking down the ridges between Amaterasu’s rice paddies[xix] causing them to flood. This destroyed all of her crops which meant there would be no harvest in the fall. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he ran into Amaterasu’s house, pulled down his pants to squat, and just took a massive shit inside her dining hall[xx]. Then he bounced around like a monkey just flinging feces everywhere – on the walls, on the ceiling, even in her cat’s litter box[xxi].

horse susanoo

Amaterasu was all like “WTF?” in her mind, but didn’t complain. No, she took it way better than you or I would. She just looked around her palace inspecting each room and said “Hmmmm. What is all this stuff on the walls, the ceiling, and in my kitty litter box?”[xxii] Susano’o didn’t say anything. “Umm, this stuff that looks like…uh, shit. This must just be vomit from the last time you passed out drunk[xxiii],” she suggested. “And you probably trashed my rice paddies because you thought I wasn’t using my lands correctly.”[xxiv] Susano’o had an out. She literally just gave him an excuse to calm down and move on without consequences, but instead he just got more obnoxious.

After cleaning up the shit her brother smeared throughout her entire palace, Amaterasu went to oversee the making of divine garments in her weaving hall. Susano’o took a “heavenly piebald colt[xxv]” and skinned it alive – yes, you read that correctly, he literally skinned it alive – from the tail up to the head causing the baby horse unimaginable pain. Dragging the dying animal with him, he climbed up her wall, crawled up on her thatched roof, tore open a hole, and tossed the bloody carcass into the weaving hall. As you can imagine, this startled her weaving maiden who was so terrified she accidentally pierced her pussy with the loom’s shuttle and died right there on the spot[xxvi].

WTAF???

encampment outside the heavenly rock cave

After you read the next section, see how many kami and how many sacred items you can identify in this picture.

The Heavenly Rock Cave[xxvii]

As you can imagine, Amaterasu was freaked the fuck out and opened the Heavenly Rock Cave[xxviii], went inside, and locked herself there – plunging the High Plain of Heaven and the Central Land of Reeds into total darkness. The natural order of things was broken and the world continued as if night was now eternal. The millions of other kami were pretty cool about it for a while, but eventually they got tired of walking around and bumping into each other all the time.

The other kami all decided to gather together beside the riverbed of 天安河 Ame no Yasu no Kawa the Tranquil River of Heaven which flowed past the Heavenly Rock Cave. They set up a camp where they could all work together to plead with Amaterasu to come out and restore sunlight to the heavens and earth.

First, the gods gathered together a bunch of roosters to crow in hopes that they could trick the sun into rising again. Then, they brought a large stone to use as an anvil[xxix] from the upper stream of the river and they took metal from 天金山 Ame no Kanayama the Heavenly Metal Mountain (because, of course, they did). The gods then commanded 天津麻羅 Ama tsu Mara and 伊斯許理度売命 Ishikoridome no Mikoto[xxx] to use the metal and anvil to forge a mighty bronze mirror[xxxi]. And finally, they brought out the big guns. They ordered 玉祖命 Tama no Ya no Mikoto the god of jewelry to make a long strings decorated with thousands of magatama beads.

They also ordered two priestly kami, 布刀玉命 Futo Tama no Mikoto and 天児屋命 Ame no Koyane no Mikoto[xxxii], to climb 天香久山 Ame no Kaguyama[xxxiii] Mt. Amanokagu to remove the whole shoulder of a male deer and gather up bird cherry wood[xxxiv] in order to perform divination rituals[xxxv]. They also uprooted a large, verdant evergreen[xxxvi] and brought it to the encampment in front of the cave. The gods tied the long strings of magatama beads to the upper branches. Next, they hung the large sacred mirror on the middle branches. And lastly, on the lower branches, they draped white and blue prayer clothes. After everything was prepared, Futotama held up sacred objects in his hands as a sacred offering while Amenokoyane chanted sacred words. But these rituals were not enough to soften Amaterasu’s heart and coax her out of the Heavenly Rock Cave[xxxvii].

Then 天鈿女命 Ame no Uzume no Mikoto who is the kami of parties and art suddenly had an idea. An idea, as they say, so crazy it just might work. She ordered the god of physical strength[xxxviii] to run up to the Heavenly Rock Cave and hide next to the door. Then she rolled up her sleeves[xxxix] and fixed her hair so she looked sexy and grabbed an overturned wooden tub to make an impromptu stage. Ame no Uzume hopped up on to the tub and began to dance. She stamped her feet upon the stage making sounds that caused the ground to shake, this grabbed the attention of all the kami, including Amaterasu who was hiding in the cave.

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Ame no Uzume dancing on the tub for all the gods

She became divinely possessed[xl] and her dancing became more intense. Each move, each turn entranced the other kami who followed her closely with their eyes. She raised one hand to her breast and slowly opened her shirt exposing her cleavage. The other kami cheered with loud voices, and Amaterasu could here all this from inside the cave. Continuing her dance, Ame no Uzume pulled open her top exposing her nipples which caused the gods to clap and howl, and several gods tossed a few ¥1000 notes on the stage to encourage her to show more. Slowly, she pushed down her skirt past her belly button. All the kami gasped. She pulled it down further exposing her glorious, hairy black bush[xli].

All of the millions of kami lost their shit and started cracking up[xlii].

All of the ruckus outside had Amaterasu’s curiosity piqued. She just had to see what was going on outside, so she nervously peaked out the door of the Heavenly Rock Cave, but couldn’t really see what was happening. She scooted up a little farther to get a better look and saw Ame no Uzume dancing half naked and the millions of other kami falling out of their seat with laughter.

Announcing her presence, Amaterasu shouted, “I locked myself in this cave and thought the High Heavenly Plain and Central Plain of Reeds would be plunged into darkness. And, yet Ame no Uzume is singing and dancing[xliii] and getting nekkid out here and all of you can see it and are laughing! What’s going on?” Adjusting her skirt, Ame no Uzume replied to her, “Just sitting around in the dark was boring, so we’re just having a little fun. Oh, and guess what? We found another kami who is superior to you!”

Just then, Amenokoyane and Futotama grabbed the bronze mirror[xliv] and shined in Amaterasu’s eyes. To her astonishment, she saw what looked like another sun goddess. “Wait, what?” she thought, “how can there be another…?” She crept closer to the entrance of the cave to get a better look when…

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Tajikarao no Kami, the god of strength hiding next to the door of the Heavenly Rock Cave

The god of strength, who was hiding beside the door, seized her and pulled out of the cave by her arm, and this suddenly brought light back to the heavens and earth. Futotama ran behind her and blocked the entrance with a magical rope[xlv]. “Now you can’t run back into the cave!” he said. And thus, the sun was restored to both the Heavenly High Plain and Central Land of Plain of Reeds, and the natural order of things returned[xlvi].

After that, all the kami had a meeting and decided to kick Susano’o out of the Central Land of Reeds forever.

Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.

Pretty Nifty Story, Right?

I hope you enjoyed the story of the Rock Cave Myth as much as I did. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this has become one of the most important of all Japanese myths. While they might not remember all the details and all the names of the various kami, most Japanese people know the basics of Amaterasu hiding in the cave and the striptease that lured her out, thus returning sunlight to the world. That said, the story is dense with deeper meanings, so if you’re curious about that, please check out my next article which dives deep into the significance of this legend.

Further Reading:

 

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[i] ie; the world.
[ii] I’m not joking.
[iii] If you don’t know what the Land of Yomi, you really, really, really read my article on Japanese Cosmogony and the Japanese Creation Myth. Seriously, dude. You’ve been warned.
[iv] This is my insertion. The Kojiki has no sense of time. In a way this annoying to modern readers, but on the other hand, it creates this interesting disconnect between the mundane Age of Men and the mythical Age of the Gods.
[v] The Three Noble Children: Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susano’o. In Japanese they are called 三貴子 Mihashira no Uzu no Miko. If that name is too long for you, the short form is Sankishi which is by far the easier reading and, of course, easier to pronounce.
[vi] The name of the necklace is 御倉板挙之神 Mikuratana no Kami.
[vii] We talked about magatama in my last article so I’m not going to repeat myself. Look it up in your own.
[viii] Seriously, read the previous articles. I’m not explaining this shit twice.
[ix] Readers have wondered a lot about Tsukuyomi. We’re unsure of this kami’s gender, appearance, and divine duties. Basically, after this mention, we never hear from Tsukuyomi again!
[x] ie; until he matured. Essentially, he was a big ol’ man-baby – just like #BunkerBoy aka Donald Trump.
[xi] Not sure why the rivers and seas dried up since he was incessantly crying. Seems counter-intuitive, if you ask me.
[xii] Calamatitties. Follow me on Twitter, you won’t regret it.
[xiii] Actually, in the Kojiki, it doesn’t say the Land of Yomi, rather 根之堅洲國 Ne no Katasu Kuni the Realm at the Borderland of Roots, and later in the text 妣國 Haha no Kuni the Land of my Dead Mother. Sometimes these are synonymous with Yomi, but other times they seem to be different, but related places.
[xiv] This is weird because Izanami died well before Susano’o was born so she couldn’t possibly be his mother under “normal” circumstances, or perhaps she impregnated her brusband Izanagi before she died, and thus the Three Noble Children are still the genealogically related to both Izanagi and Izanami. Weird shit, huh?
[xv] Remember, I used the term “hide” in the previous articles.
The Kojiki merely states that Izanagi is enshrined at Taga of Awaji. Apparently, this is a gloss and not part of the narrative. It’s a reference to 伊弉諾神宮 Izanagi Jingū Izanagi Shrine which is located in 兵庫県淡路市多賀 Hyōgo-ken Awaji-shi Taga Taga, Awaji City, Hyōgo Prefecture on Awaji Island. Some glosses claim it refers to 多賀大社 Taga Taisha Taga Grand Shrine in 滋賀県犬上郡多賀町 Shiga-ken Inukami-gun Taga-chō Taga-chō, Inukami District, Shiga Prefecture which lies on 旧仲仙道 Kyū-Nakadendō the Old Nakasendō highway. Scholars think glosses mentioning the larger and more famous shrine in Shiga date from the Heian Period when many local shrines on well-traveled routes tried to boost their status by claiming relevance to ancient myths. Gotta get those sweet, sweet pilgrim yen!
[xvi] Which up to this point was apparently done in some other Yayoi style hairdo. Who knows?
[xvii] Susano’o’s three daughters are: Takiri Hime no Mikoto, Ichikishima Hime no Mikoto, and Takitsu Hime no Mikoto. If you’ve ever been to 宮島 Miyajima in Hiroshima, you’ve probably been to the famous shrine 厳島神社 Itsukushima Jinja Itsukushima Shrine. The three daughters are enshrined there and you may have seen their images in the underground passage that leads from 宮島口駅 Miyajimaguchi Eki Miyajimaguchi Station over to the ferries that take you to the sacred island. If the name Ichikishima (sometimes read as Itsukishima) sounds similar to Isukushima, well, I think you can put two and two together.
By the way, the Nihon Shoki claims Susano’o has three sons, not daughters.
[xviii] One wants to say, “oh, wow, he’s such a proud father,” but let’s face it. In the end, Susano’o is just a dick.
[xix] These days, the footpaths between rice paddies are usually called 畦道 azemichi. Long time readers maybe recall that in Old Japanese the word 谷地 yachi was used to describe the same thing, but in the old Kantō dialects near Edo, 瀬田 seta was the common term in the Heian Period. I talked about this in my 2013 article What does Setagaya mean?
[xx] The Hall of First Fruits – this is a reference to a place where harvest festivals were held. In imperial times, the first rice of the harvest would be presented to the emperor in a special ceremony at 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine which was the favored shrine of Emperor Tenmu who ordered the Kojiki to be compiled. Amaterasu is enshrined at Ise and Emperor Tenmu strongly supported her cult.
[xxi] And the cat was PISSED.
[xxii] OK, I have to be honest. I made up the kitty litter box part.
[xxiii] Because who the fuck would take a dump in someone’s dining room and then throw the shit all over the place?? Come to think of it. Why would anyone vomit in every room of someone’s house when they were drunk?
[xxiv] The modern reader gets the impression that Amaterasu isn’t the sharpest knife in the kitchen. I mean, why does she take Susano’o’s bullshit like a chump and not call him out or get angry at him? Who knows? This part of the myth is kinda stupid, if you ask me, so it’s not terribly important. That said, scholars have put some thought in to it – because that’s what they get paid to do. You know, think about shit-flinging deities. Don Philippi suggests it might be an ancient belief that “one could turn evil into good by speaking well of it.” He points out that in the past Japanese people believed in kotodama (kotoba tama) “word-spirit” (a magical power of words) which was used to bring out desired results by speaking them into existence.
[xxv] WTF does “piebald” mean? (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too! The pronunciation, btw, is /ˈpaɪbɔld/). This is an animal – a horse in particular – that is black with white spots. 天斑駒 Ame no Fuchikoma Heavenly Spotted Pony/Horse/Foal is probably meant to evoke the stars dotted across the blackness of the night sky.
[xxvi] Remember that Shintō is obsessed with ritual purity. Having a dead and bloody animal in your home was considered utterly contaminated. Having an actual human death occur inside your home? That was the absolute worst.
[xxvii] Interestingly, the Ainu allegedly have a similar myth where the sun-goddess is kidnapped and the world is plunged in to darkness. Because they don’t know when to waken up, the gods and humans literally sleep themselves to death.
[xxviii] Why this cave has a door is beyond me. It’s often depicted in art a large boulder, similar to the boulder that blocks the Land of Yomi from the Central Land of Reeds.
[xxix] In the Kojiki just calls this stone a heavenly hard rock. I added the anvil bit because that is how the stone is used and that is how it is depicted in traditional artwork.
[xxx] Amatsumara is an obscure kami of iron-working. It’s been suggested that his name means “heavenly one-eyed diviner.” Losing an eye was a common work hazard among blacksmiths. On the other hand, Ishikoridome is much better known as the divine ancestor of the clans who produced ceremonial mirrors for the Yamato Court. Her name means “special woman who is can cast mirrors using stone molds.”
[xxxi] Called 八咫鏡 Yata no Kagami the Eight Ta Mirror. A ta is an ancient Chinese measurement. I think eight ta is the equivalent of 64 thumb lengths. And no, I didn’t just make that up.
Interestingly, in 938, some ladies of the court discovered Ishikoridome’s bronze mirror (Yata no Kagami) in a palace store at Heian-Kyō (the ancient name of Kyōto). This story is interesting for two reasons. First, it sparked renewed interest in the Rock Cave Myth among court nobles and subsequently among Shintō shrines associated with the Yamato Court. Secondly, it implies that perhaps the imperial regalia (the mirror, the sword, and the magatama beads) were not critical to 大嘗祭 daijōsai the ritual of imperial accession prior to the mirror’s rediscovery. I mean, how do you lose an ancient mirror made by the gods before the Yamato Court or its imperial family even existed?
[xxxii] Also, these kami aren’t actually priestly, I just added that to make it easier to understand. They are, however, the divine ancestors of two of the more important priestly families in the Yamato Court.
[xxxiii] Also read as Ama no Kaguyama. This mountain is located in 奈良県橿原市 Nara-ken Kashihara-shi Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture.
[xxxiv] In the text, this is 波波迦 hahaka. And now you know the word for Japanese bird cherry (Prunus grayana).
[xxxv] This divination ritual was performed by placing the shoulder bone over burning bird cherry wood and then “reading” the cracks that formed in the bones.
[xxxvi] The evergreen in question is 榊 sakaki (Cleyera japonica) which is sacred in Shintō.
[xxxvii] This isn’t said directly in the text of the Kojiki, but any person in the Kofun Period would have understood the symbolism. They would recognize the rituals performed by these kami as typically Shintō and they would also expect them to be effective, but they are not. Therefore, there is a tension in the original lost on modern readers. We will soon see that, it isn’t going through the motions of using sacred objects and chanting that will coax Amaterasu out of the Rock-Cave, it will be the impromptu striptease that comes up next.
[xxxviii] Ame no Tajikarao no Kami
[xxxix] Well, actually, she bound them up with a cord (Yayoi Period clothing was very loose).
[xl] The Kojiki uses the term 神懸かり kamu-gakari kami-possession (with an emphasis on sudden divine utterances). Shamanism was practiced in ancient Japan, but persisted in many ways up until the Meiji Period when the influence of western organized religion (ie; Christianity) made it look uncool to Japanese elites who saw themselves as purveyors of “modernization.” Traditional Korean religion is still shamanistic, as are many of traditional practices of the Ainu and Okinawans.
[xli] Before you jump all over me for getting graphic here, this is intentional. Exposing the breasts or genitals is pretty much limited to this myth in Japan. Anyone familiar with the extreme formality of most Shintō dance and other rituals immediately will find this shocking. However, in many other cultures, exposing the genitals is often used as a way to drive away evil influences (thru the pussy power? lol) while at the same time amusing the spectators to alleviate the scene. It should also be noted that Japan has traditionally been a very, how shall we say, prurient culture. Pornography, casual public nudity, and 下ネタ shimoneta dirty jokes have enjoyed long popularity right up to present times. In recent years, especially during the 64 Tōkyō Olympics and the 98 Nagano Olympics, great effort was made by the government to shield foreigners and foreign press from the casual presence of the sex industry, even going so far as to shutting down entire red-light districts. As a result, the presence of this vibrant and storied aspect of Japanese culture is very much diminished today on the surface, and only thrives underground or in the seedy parts of town. That said, the caricature of the Japanese “dirty old man” is very much alive and well, and one can image telling this myth and really going to town during Ame no Uzume’s striptease while everyone enjoys another round of sake.
[xlii] Believe it or not, some scholars believe that the gods dying of laughter is a reference to ritual laughter meant to provoke the anger of a kami who is not paying attention to them. By laughing (perhaps even mocking) the kami, you can grab the god or goddess’s attention and then submit your prayer to them.
[xliii] Here’s one for all you language nerds out there. The word for “singing and dancing” is written as (read in Modern Japanese as raku/gaku), but the glosses tell that the kanji should be pronounced as /asobi/ or /utamaɸi/. The first reading is modern 遊び asobi play/playing, the second reading is 歌舞 utamai singing & dancing. Utamai is a rare kun’yomi (Japanese reading) for modern 歌舞 kabu singing and dancing, which is on’yomi (Chinese reading).
[xliv] Remember, mirrors are a symbol of the sun kami.
[xlv] In Japanese, this magic rope is called 尻久米縄 shirikume nawa ass-shroud rope. 尻 shiri is butt (not as rough as ketsu ass, which uses the same kanji) and 久米 kume is modern 籠め kome to enshroud, to block off.
[xlvi] I took a lot of liberties with the last handful of paragraphs to make the narrative more palatable to modern audiences. The Kojiki is really choppy and while I try to stay as faithful as I can, sometimes I just have to extend bits to make it flow better. Keep in mind, the texts were compiled from oral traditions, so it’s easy to imagine storytellers embellishing bits here and there to pique the listeners’ interest. The Kojiki itself was meant to establish a basic text that preserved these myths in an efficient manner while emphasizing the parts that legitimized the imperial family’s position and the positions of the most important noble families of their court.

What does Tabata mean?

In Japanese History on April 29, 2014 at 4:25 pm

田端
Tabata (on the edge of the field)

In JR's ongoing effort to put department stores in every train station, Tabata Station looks like every other JR station.

In JR’s ongoing effort to put department stores in every train station, Tabata Station looks like every other JR station.

First Let’s Start with the Kanji, Shall We?

ta

rice paddy

hata

edge, boundary, beside, close to

This is a place name found all over Japan, with reading variations.

It’s also a family name found all over Japan… yes, also with reading variations[i].

And despite sounding really backwatery to our modern ears, many people with this family name can apparently claim descent from the 源氏 Minamoto-shi/Genji Minamoto clan. So, stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

In the Edo Period, 田端村 Tabata Mura Tabata Village was located on a section of the elevated area that is geographically referred to as the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi the Ueno Plateau, but was to known at the time as 上野山 Uenoyama Ueno Mountain. The area was well known because one side was bordered by a cliff. Although, most people don’t notice it now, the west side of Tabata Station clearly shows the cliff – it’s just been woven into the fabric of the modern metropolis.

The cliff of former Tabata Village.

The cliff of former Tabata Village.

It’s said that meaning of the name is 田ノ端 ta no hata on the edge of a rice paddy. Historical records and maps from the early Edo Period are vague at best, but the area would have been quite rural at the time. The presence of 田畑 tahata rice paddies and fields is more or less a given. Speaking of tahata, a second etymology says that via rendaku, tahata became tabata. So there, you just got 2 for the price of 1.

Tabata sits on a ridge – a cliff, if you will – on the edge of the Ueno Plateau. The agricultural lands here were eventually surrendered to the Tokugawa Shōgunate in the name of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance[ii], for the purpose of building daimyō residences and samurai residences. Without clear historical records, the “edge” could have referred to rice paddies on the plateau itself, or could refer to the cliff – a proverbial “edge” clearly delineating the yamanote and shitamachi, thus indicating the farming was being done in the valley.

one the left, you can see the Hongo Plateau, on the right, the Ueno Plateau. Where you see 田端駅 is Tabata Station.

one the left, you can see the Hongo Plateau, on the right, the Ueno Plateau.
Where you see 田端駅 is Tabata Station.

A second, more intriguing theory maintains that the place name is most likely far more ancient than the kanji reveal. We’ve seen this in really old names. This theory maintains that the oldest place names are all based on the terrain. In an age where most people were illiterate and there were very few – or no – maps, short and descriptive places were the easiest way to find your way around. In my experience writing Japan This!, I’ve definitely noticed this pattern. As areas became more literate, kanji were added post hoc. However, using kanji for their phonetic values distorts forever the original meaning of the word, especially if it’s a name that predates the importation of kanji to Japan or if the place name dates from the languages of the aboriginal peoples of Japan (ie; before the spread of the Yamato people).

This alternate theory uses some archaeological findings to back it up. The area has been inhabited since the Jōmon Period[iii] but the real activity picked up around the Yayoi Period[iv]. During the early to mid Jōmon Period (7,000-4,000 years ago), this area was coastline, and the high areas were inhabited by villagers, communities highly reliant on the sea and not farming. The sea began receding during the Yayoi Period and we find evidence of all kinds of coastal fishing activity, but no farming. Because the only people who farm next to the ocean are idiots[v].

Again, if this is an ancient name – not a medieval[vi] name – the kanji does not matter. Kanji have sounds (readings) but no kanji is divorced from meaning. It always has a meaning. Going by this theory, the archaeological evidence has led a small group of people to maintain that the name comes from a very ancient place name that originally meant “the top of the plateau.” One of the more interesting speculations[vii] was that the name is evidenced by 束旗 tabahatatabata a bundle of flags, because the high ground is where you can build your fort (and of course put up your flags, which can be seen from everywhere).

A residential alley in the shitamachi area near Tabata.

A residential alley in the shitamachi area near Tabata.

So Which Theory Do I Like?

I think the 2nd theory is more or less crap. Trying to relate a place name to the Paleolithic Period or the Jōmon Period is just absurd. Even the Yayoi thing is stretch. If we had a record from the Nara or Heian Period, I’d start to loosen up my skepticism. But we don’t. This name doesn’t even seem to appear in Kamakura Period records, which is when the Kantō area really starts showing up in the historical record. No matter what activity happened here 2000 years ago, I’m willing to bet that has absolutely no connection with what was happening here by the time the Edo clan was established or Ōta Dōkan came around. I don’t know if Japanese clans were raising flags on the high ground around their forts or not before the Sengoku Period, but flags all over the place is an image I associate with the rise of the warrior culture, and in particular with the Sengoku Period[viii].

If we start messing around with ateji again, it becomes a game of unsolvable multiple choice. I’m going to use Occam’s Razor and say that “a village next to a rice paddy” is the most realistic etymology. The fact that this place name occurs all over Japan backs up this rationale as well. After all, why did people make rice paddies? Well, it was to feed villages! Even the “rice paddies and fields” makes more sense than referencing the Yayoi Period.

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[i] There are approximately 23,900 people with the surname 田端 in Japan today. As a place name or surname the variations are: Tabata, Tahashi, Tahata, Tabashi, Tabana, and Tabuchi – in order from most common to least common. As a family name, I think we can say this is fairly rare in Japan.
[ii] See my quick overview here.
[iii] I’m not going into the Jōmon thing because it’s soooo far beyond the scope of Edo-Tōkyō. That said, it bears repeating that the Jōmon people were racially distinct from the Yayoi people. The Jōmon may have been more Caucasian looking. It’s with the Yayoi people where we start getting people whose bones, at least, start looking Japanese.
[iv] Let’s say from 400 BC to 200 AD just to be conservative. But this is where we start seeing people who are racially “Japanese.”
[v] Unless you’re farming seaweed, but that’s completely different from maintaining fields and rice paddies. But try to grow some vegetables in salt water and see what happens.
[vi] This is a term I hate using, but I can’t think of a better one.
[vii] And there are a lot more!
[viii] This is just the image in my head; I honestly don’t know shit about flags and banners in Japanese history.

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