Yamanote and Shitamachi

Yamanote to Shitamachi 

(the High City and the Low City)

shitamachi 1.jpg
Shitamachi in a nutshell

Why Am I Re-Writing My Yamanote vs Shitamachi Page?

Yes, there was another page here that explained – in a really scattershot way – my experiences with 山手 yamanote the high city and 下町 shitamachi the low city. I was trying to do it “stream of consciousness” style but it worked out so fucking bad. I’ve been meaning to re-do it for ages and finally, I just said to myself, “enough with the embarrassment.”

I needed to re-do this… completely.

shirokane yamanote tokyo.jpg
Yamanote in a nutshell

For me, wrapping my head around this concept has been educational, edifying, confusing, and further enamored me with Edo-Tōkyō. The terms are tied to social class (perceived or real), geography, and they have changed over time.

This article is really long – like reeeeeally long. So for those of you with a short attention span, click this → [i] ← to read my TLDR (too long didn’t read) abbreviated explanation. I suspect most of you are willing to stick around for the ride, so get ready to strap yourselves in and feel the G’s, baby.


So, What Do the Kanji mean?

yama no tethe high city

Literally says “mountain hand” but actually  means “the hilly areas” (as opposed to 海手 umite “the sea areas”); the reading yama no te is somewhat unique to Edo-Tōkyō

shita machithe low city

Literally, “the low towns” or the “low city.”

In the Edo Period when these terms became prevalent in the shōgun’s capital. In short, yamanote evoked an image of the samurai class and their gardens on the hills and plateaux. It was characterized by wide streets, sprawling daimyō residences, high walls, and greenery. Shitamachi, on the other hand, evoked an image of the hustle and bustle of the commoner towns in the lowlands[ii]. It was typified by narrow streets, cramped living quarters[iii], and rivers – rivers that flooded often.

It was literally “the high city” and “the low city.”


TERMINOLOGY: What do Shitamachi and Yamanote mean?
Why is this even a thing?!  FFS

It depends who you ask and what era you’re talking about. Parts of town that were once yamanote are now considered bastions of shitamachi culture. Areas that were once shitamachi have been gentrified and seem more yamanote now. The issue is very confused and requires a lot of Edo Period, Meiji Period, and modern maps if you want to be a nerd about it. But the question definitely requires an understanding of the dynamics of how Edo-Tōkyō developed over the centuries.

Daimyō residences  were walled off to the public and entrances were fortified according to temple and shrine requirements.

I’ve already given the Edo Period definition. It’s pretty basic. Yamanote is the high ground populated by the samurai. Shitamachi refers to the lowlands populated by the commoners. It’s after most of the 藩邸 hantei domain headquarters[iv] were torn down in the early part of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that things start to get confusing. The abolition of the class system its accompanying segregation meant that rich commoners could buy up the unused real estate. A lot of the landscape of “Old Tōkyō” was a product of this socio-economic flux. Individuals and families from the former provinces permanently relocated to Tōkyō in this period. Not only were definitions of yamanote and shitamachi changing, the very identity of the inhabitants of the city had begun to change.


Who the Hell are These People?

Among modern Tōkyōites[v], the definitions of yamanote and shitamachi will vary. Also, keep in mind that much of modern Tōkyō’s urban population isn’t even from Tōkyō. They come from other prefectures. There are massive groups of foreigners from various countries also living in the city. Of the 江戸っ子 Edokko children of Edo, people who are 2nd or 3rd generation descendants of a family living in the city[vi], most of the ones you will come in contact with aren’t old people who remember the city before WWII (or more importantly, before the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923[vii]). Well, if you spend your time hanging out with old people, then maybe I’m wrong… but I digress.

The so-called Edokko are notorious about arguing amongst themselves about who’s a real Edokko and who’s not. I’ve heard all-inclusive definitions like “anyone who’s a 2nd generation person living in the Tōkyō Metropolis” to the extremely exclusive “unless you’re the 3rd generation of a family that was from a 町 machi commoner town in the immediate vicinity of Edo Castle, you can never call yourself Edokko.” These are extreme definitions that represent the crazy shit I’ve heard about what constitutes a true Edokko. The first definition could include residents of Hachiōji, which is waaaaaaay outside of the 23 Special Wards. That second definition excludes Asakusa, which considers itself the heart of shitamachi today. It also excludes Ueno and much of Taitō Ward – usually considered shitamachi today. It even excludes the descendants of Edo-born samurai. Needless to say, if there’s an inability of Edokko to agree upon a proper definition of what a “child of Edo” is, how could you possibly rely on them to define what yamanote and shitamachi mean?

tokyo people

The question of “who is a real Edokko” to me is kind of a moot point and a real distraction. But I think it has to be dealt with before getting into all of this yamanote vs. shitamachi stuff. You see, Edo became Tōkyō 147 years ago. The last person who could actually call him/herself a true Edokko probably died about 50 years ago or more – and even that’s stretching the definition. So, let’s look at how the definition of Edokko has changed over the centuries.

Who can be called Edokko?

Pre-Edo Period

I don’t have any hard evidence for this, but I think it’s not unreasonable to assume the term Edokko was only used by the inhabitants of 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo Hamlet. And although I think it’s not unreasonable to assume the term may have spread after the fortification of 千代田 Chiyoda under the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan in the 12th Century, the expansion of those fortifications and the elaborate moat construction/integration by 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan in the 15th Century most definitely laid the groundwork for the next change in self-identity.

Edo Period

Anyone born in the shōgun’s capital of any class and spent most of their life in that area could be called an Edokko. If you were born outside of the capital proper, part of 大江戸 Ōedo the Greater Edo Area, you probably considered yourself part of the 郡 gun district or 村 mura village where you lived if you were a commoner. If you were a samurai, you considered yourself part of the 藩 han domain that paid your stipend. But within Edo proper, it seems the term was largely cultural. An Edokko lived in the city and knew her customs, manners, and dialect[viii].


Any person of 2 uninterrupted generations in the 23 Wards. This identity seems to have arisen from the Meiji Era need to distinguish those who had grown up when the city was still called Edo from those who grew up when the city was called Tōkyō. Over the years the generational stipulation became a way to distinguish established local families from families that relocated to the city. After a few generations (and after the real Edokko had died off), the families that had no connections to their provincial past came to be accepted as locals and could be called Edokko.
However, for the most part, the term I prefer to use today is Tōkyōite. I use this term to describe any tax paying resident of the metropolis. If you moved here tomorrow, you’d be a Tōkyōite – a newbie, but a Tōkyōite just the same. Similarly, in my blog, I regularly use the term Edoite in this way. Because of the system of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance, about half of Edo’s population was samurai from other domains. Some were temporary, but others were basically permanent residents. I only use the term Edokko under the broad definition I gave earlier: 2-3 generations in Tōkyō or someone born and raised in Edo itself. I sometimes extend the definition to someone who lived in the city up to the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923.

Thanks for Going off on a Tangent, Asshole.

Sorry. But the whole point of that was to show you that there’s a great deal of confusion about who’s an authority to talk about what yamanote and shitamachi mean. If “Edokko” isn’t even a clearly defined term anymore – and I believe that it’s an increasingly useless term today – we can’t really rely on the traditional definitions of “yamanote” and “shitamachi” as passed down by local people in Tōkyō.


Let Me Give an Example

When I first moved to Japan, I was told by a 70 year old retired lawyer who was born, raised, worked, and retired in Aoyama[ix] that everything west of the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line was yamanote and everything east was shitamachi. Oh, and did I mention? His ancestors were 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Tokugawa and the family home has sat on the same plot of land since the Edo Period?!! The ancestral property is on the side of the gentle slope that leads up to 明治神宮野球場 Meiji Jingū Yakyūjō Meiji Jingū Baseball Stadium. The stadium is located on the top of a hill, ie; yamanote. To this day, the neighborhood is expensive and elite – a clear holdover from the Edo Period.

If anyone could give a good definition of yamanote and shitamachi, it should have been this guy. But therein lays the problem. His definition was clearly modern. He was born after the Kantō Earfquake and was presumably about 10 years old during the firebombing of Tōkyō in 1945 and the subsequent Occupation. Tōkyō had outgrown Edo. In his childhood, 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō City was essentially the former 大江戸 Ōedo Greater Edo Area. By the time he was in his most formative years, the Greater Edo Area had become the 23 Special Wards – and the Tōkyō Metropolis had come into existence. After that, the economic recovery happened. The Tōkyō Olympics happened. Unprecedented expansion and development happened. The Bubble Economy happened. There was no Edo anymore; there was only “Modern Tōkyō.”[x]

yokohama after quake
Yokohama after the 1923 earfquake. Tokyo Bay must have been similar

Yamanote & Shitamachi in the Edo Period

I started the article by showing you the kanji and the original meanings of the words. I also said it was pretty cut and dry in the Edo Period. Let’s go back to the beginning of the Edo Period and talk about that again.

In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu rolled into Edo and assumed control of the deserted Edo Fort[xi]. The former fortified residence was rebuilt as a modern (read: Azuchi-Momoyama Period) structure. Ieyasu’s retainers from 三河国 Mikawa no Kuni Mikawa Province came with him. They built large estates around the castle and in positions that required defense by loyal and invested families. They also helped finance the castle renovations. The samurai who had been living in the area before Ieyasu’s arrival were already living in fortified residences on the high ground. Many of these local samurai families became hatamoto.


If you were in the encincture[xii] of the castle, you were secure. At first, those were the daimyō with the best relationships to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Those families were said to have lived 丸之内 Maru no Uchi within the castle walls and moats. If you were a retainer outside the castle enclosures you were needed on the high ground. This was a tactical necessity of the Sengoku Period because it’s generally easier to defend the high ground. As such, military families were required to be on the high ground (ie; yamanote). The lower military families could be on the sides of the hill. The non-essential samurai families could be at the bottom of the hills.

In the fine tradition laid out by 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi Monkey Boy, commoners were expected to live next to the rivers and in the valleys. As far sighted as Tokugawa Ieyasu was[xiii], he couldn’t have possibly imagined what Edo became 50 years after his death.


After the Battle of Sekigahara

The Battle of Sekigahara (1600) is where Ieyasu made the final and greatest power grab of the Sengoku Period. After this, he was granted the title shōgun by the emperor. Many of the 大名 daimyō lords who supported him voluntarily set up embassies around Edo Castle in hopes to maintaining strong ties with the Tokugawa family. The daimyō he defeated also set up estates near the castle and voluntarily sent hostages (wives or children) to Edo as an act of submission to the Tokugawa. Eventually, in the 1630’s this became a standard requirement for all daimyō[xiv], ie; 参勤交代sankin-kōtai alternate attendance. New generations of children were born in Edo who became Edokko themselves – many of whom never saw their ancestral lands[xv]. Imagine a family living in Nebraska for 4 generations, but one son goes to New York City and has a child there. That child will grow up as a New Yorker and will be culturally different from the relatives it’s forced to hang out with at Christmas in Nebraska every 4-5 years.

Nagaya – long house that characterized Edo Period castle towns.

As I said before, most of the major daimyō residences were built on expansive plots of land on the high ground. The commoner towns developed in the lowlands, valleys, and riversides. Thus the elite were on the high ground, yama no te (hilltop areas), and the commoners were on the low ground, shita machi (the low towns). The yamanote was characterized by wide streets, major temples and shrines, and huge plots of land with high walls and gates isolating the 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences from the riff raff on the street. The 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō mansions boasted lavish gardens, security check points, and often fire watch towers. They were large enough to accommodate the appropriate number of samurai staff, including barracks. They also had their own water supplies and sewerage systems.


The shitamachi, on the other hand, was characterized by narrow streets, cramped living quarters and shops with minimal space between buildings. Of course, course there were shrines and temples, but in many cases these tended to be more of a local nature. There was a conspicuous lack of greenery. Wells, toilets, and trash receptacles were public. Small canals and rivers provided some of the widest open spaces and these open spaces, especially near bridges would have been home to the busiest shops and food stands. These shops were temporary and could be moved quickly because these areas had to be cleared out as fire breaks and evacuation areas.

showa shitamachi

This is an oversimplification – I can think of quite a few daimyō residences that were in lowland areas[xvi] – a good example is 麻布十番 Azabu Jūban which is located on the 古川 Furukawa Old River area of Azabu. The modern area is considered yamanote and elite, but if you walk the blocks that exist today, you’ll notice that the river features cramped blocks with quick access to the river. This is a feature of shitamachi neighborhood. If you cross the main street you’ll find sprawling blocks with huge high rise apartments. The blocks of both areas are identical to their Edo Period counterparts. The commoners lived along the river, the samurai and daimyō lived at a safe distance from the river in the larger blocks. However if you walk to 元麻布 Moto-Azabu Old Azabu, you’ll find yourself walking uphill to 麻布台 Azabu-dai literally, the Azabu Plateau.

azabu plateau.jpg

Regardless of where a daimyō lived, that area was elite and so the term yamanote could be applied to it. Also, these elite areas needed food, clothes, and other goods. Merchant towns were built right next to and between all of the samurai towns. There was a symbiotic relationship. Neither could exist without the other. And so here, the terms yamanote and shitamachi served to differentiate between samurai and commoner. As the Edo Period progressed, soon the urban center become so crowded that in some areas you literally had commoner towns across the street from daimyō residences. While I doubt the daimyō himself would ever venture into those areas, his lowest ranking retainers would most likely go drinking and whoring there or at the very least have lunch or buy a new pair of shoes or something.

The Arima family were the lords of Kurume Domain. They lived at present day Akabanebashi near Tōkyō Tower and Azabu Jūban. The location is geographically “low” but in terms of city design, it is decidedly “high.”

The areas Edokko considered yamanote – broadly speaking, of course – were 青山 Aoyama, 麻布 Azabu, and 芝 Shiba; 市ヶ谷 Ichigaya[xvii], 四谷Yotsuya, and 牛込 Ushigome;  小石川 Koishikawa and 本郷 Hongō. But again, pretty much any hill or location that required defense would have been home to a daimyō and other samurai families and could be considered yamanote in the broadest definition.

The areas Edokko considered shitamachi – again, broadly speaking – were 日本橋 Nihonbashi, 京橋 Kyōbashi, 神田 Kanda, and the lowlands under 上野山 Ueno Yama the Ueno Plateau[xviii]. I’m gonna go ahead and throw in 森下 Morishita and 深川 Fukagawa just to round things up. The problem with defining shitamachi is that the small commoner towns could be located anywhere and spread as the city grew. Whereas, the samurai districts stayed more or less where they were until the Meiji Period.

commoners nihonbashi
Nihonbashi – for Edokko, this was the archetypal shitamachi area of the city.

After the Meiji Coup

In 1868, the Meiji Emperor entered Edo Castle and the new government found itself in a bit of a fix. Something like half a million residents of the city were samurai and daimyō serving sankin-kōtai duty. The daimyō were ordered to hand over their estates to the imperial court and take all their retainers and belongings back to their ancestral lands. The population of Edo literally halved. Some residences near the castle were repurposed as buildings for various government agencies. One of the residences of 福岡藩 Fukuoka Han Fukuoka Domain famously became the headquarters for the Tōkyō City Police Department. Others were simply demolished. The stretch daimyō residences between the inner and outer moat from 数寄屋橋Sukiyabashi (modern 有楽町 Yūrakuchō) to 大手町 Ōtemachi which was known as 大名小路 Daimyō Koji Daimyō Alley was razed to the ground and left fallow until it turned into an overgrown field teeming with wild animals[xix].


Today, you couldn’t even imagine this area being overgrown and unkempt. It’s all skyscrapers and pavement. Until recently, there was barely a tree in sight. Today this area is called 丸ノ内 Marunouchi, which literally means “inside the castle enclosure.”[xx] The area was purchased by the Mitsubishi Corporation and transformed into a business district. The city blocks are long and organized. The streets are wide and passable. Some of Japan’s largest companies have headquarters here. Why are these city blocks so large? Why are the streets so passable? Why is Edo Castle so close? You guessed it. Because it was yamanote.

The people with money – rich farmers, rich money lenders, and most importantly, rich merchants – moved in. And even though the former daimyō lands may have gone fallow for a while, the original shapes of the streets lasted.

Many samurai Edokko had been hatamoto. Suddenly, they had no source of income[xxi]. To make matters worse, with the abolition of the samurai class, the low level Edo samurai had no status. Basically, they had to get jobby jobs. The lowest of the low level samurai had lived in barracks that were more or less the same as commoner districts. 御徒町 Okachimachi is a great example of this. This area is very shitamachi today, but in the Edo Period it also must have had a shitamachi feel – but with a bunch of broke ass samurai living there.

Former commoner areas – from this point forward, let’s use the words “working class” areas[xxii] – began to encroach on former samurai districts for many reasons. First, many mid-level and high-level samurai couldn’t afford their residences so they sold them – or at least the unnecessary parts. Barracks towns were unnecessary, so out they went. Some demolished and now barren daimyō residences were just wasted spaces, so shrewd businesspeople bought the land from the imperial court and repurposed it however they chose to. 岩崎弥太郎 Iwasaki Yatarō, the founder of Mitsubishi, is the usual example of this sort of business person. Yeah, he’s the guy who bought what is now Marunouchi, which I mentioned before. 渋沢栄一 Shibusawa Eiichi is another guy who comes to mind. All of this said, certain areas of the yamanote were still considered prime real estate, but the shitamachi areas were the throwaways still affordable to the working class – even if they sat smack dab between to former samurai districts. However, the shitamachi was still tainted the stink of commoners[xxiii]. Artists and writers flocked to certain suburban yamanote areas and formed “circles” (I think “cliques” is a better word) where they could carouse all night and share ideas. These artists weren’t necessarily of samurai stock, so this was one type of Meiji Era incursion of shitamachi elements into the yamanote area.

As the city expanded, so did the shitamachi. The working class and former穢多 eta outcaste class moved east beyond the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River and 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River. This is the beginning of the modern definition of a sort of east/west divide – the east being shitamachi, while the west is yamanote. This was a huge urban expansion. During the Edo Period, the west bank of the Sumida pretty much marked the end of the shitamachi. The east bank was rural.

2 Cataclysmic Events, 2 Administrative Reshuffles, and the Emergency of a New Metropolis

I’m not going to try to explain how Edo became Tōkyō Metropolis because that would take ages. And besides, Edward Seidensticker has already done that. But there are 5 major factors that need to be taken into account:

Expansion of Tōkyō City

From 1886-1889, Tōkyō City was basically just Edo with a new name and an emperor instead of a shōgun.

From 1889-1920, the city and former Tōkyō Prefecture expanded (adding areas like Shinagawa, Setagaya, Shibuya, Nakano, Itabashi, Nerima, etc…).

Great Kantō Earfquake

In 1923, an estimated M7.9 earfquake rocked the Kantō region and claimed a staggering 105,385 lives. The quake toppled just about every building, but what the shaking didn’t get, the uncontrollable fires – given added fuel by winds from an incoming typhoon – did. By most accounts, the destruction of Tōkyō was total. The Great Kantō Earfquake snuffed out the shōgun’s capital once and for all.

Many examples of Edo’s great shrines and temples were rebuilt in the yamanote, but the shitamachi continued to encroach upon yamanote areas as people just needed housing.

The Firebombing of Tōkyō City in WWII

It took years to rebuild the city from ground up and the outbreak of WWII in 1939 didn’t help[xxiv]. Resources constantly were redirected to the war effort. That said, almost 20 years had passed so most of the revival of the city had been completed.

Then, between 1942 and 1945, the US Air Force began firebombing the shit out of the city. On March 9th and 10th 1945, US forces carried out the most destructive bombing raid in history. Estimates of casualties range from 75,000-200,000[xxv].

Creation of Tōkyō Metropolis

Recovery under the occupation wasn’t overnight either, but within 5 years, the city was beginning to stand on its own 2 legs. The real progress didn’t kick in until the 1950’s. In the build up to the 1964 Olympics, the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis steamrolled over its past by paving rivers, covering up polluted rivers with roads and highways, using minor rivers as paths for elevated highways, discouraged the building of wooden homes and businesses, and put an emphasis on modernization that they hoped would say to the world “Tōkyō is a modern metropolis equal to New York or London.” All of this modernization brought Tōkyō to where it is today.

The Bubble Economy and Beyond

The Great Kantō Earfquake may have killed the mighty feudal city but it revived much of the yamanote (the shitamachi was always just the shitamachi). The firebombing and lack of funds after the war doomed the yamanote in some ways. The wonders of Edo’s yamanote weren’t rebuilt for the most part. They were sold off to developers. This trend hasn’t slowed down at all. Many of Tōkyō’s great yamanote areas have been rebuilt as urban developments such as Shiodome, Roppongi Hills, and Tōkyō Midtown. These areas still have upscale connotations, though. But the shitamachi hasn’t been spared either. Areas like Nishi-Arai were once looked down upon, but are now going through gentrification and reasonably priced sky rise apartments are attracting young families who eschew the shitamachi style but will tolerate it over living in lame places like Saitama or Chiba. Areas like Sendagi and Yanaka which were rural yamanote in the Edo Period are considered shitamachi today because they have some Edo Period and Shōwa Period buildings – basically, if it’s old = it’s shitamachi – but much of the real estate in that area is extremely expensive unless you’re living on property passed down through your family.

So What Does Yamanote and Shitamachi Mean Today

Is your head spinning? It should be. The fact that commoner/working class towns existed sided by side with samurai neighborhoods in the Edo Period is enough to confuse the situation – even though things were much clearer in those days.

The encroachment of the working class and middle class onto former samurai towns combined with the expansion of the Edo into Tōkyō City and eventually into Tōkyō Metropolis led Edoites and Tōkyōites alike to label the new areas outside of the former city limits of the shōgun’s capital as yamanote. There was more space in those areas – they were suburbs and country after all. In some ways, these new suburban areas of Tōkyō reflected the yamanote of the samurai class. The western expansion of this so-called yamanote culture was fueled by western-style entrepreneurship and business.

Areas east of the Sumida River had come to be considered shitamachi. This transformation began in the Meiji Period, but it really kicked in after the 1923 earfquake and post-WWII years. Companies continued expanding westward, but the new industrial and blue collar base remained on the northern and eastern areas of the Sumida River and Arakawa River. It’s been suggested that some of this has to do with traditional stigma associated with the amount of 穢多村 eta mura outcaste villages in these areas, especially after the Meiji Coup, as many people of outcaste status sought newly created factory jobs along the rivers. The rivers served as natural boundaries and these people took shitamachi culture farther east. But because of discrimination problems, it’s hard to say how much the outcaste thing really factors in. It’s a sensitive topic that most Tōkyōites seem to have put behind them[xxvi].

In some ways, you could say a new urban and moneyed “Tōkyōite Culture” moved west, while the east is a continuation of the older, working class “Edoite Culture.”

 Some Modern Examples



Roppongi, Shiba, Tamachi, Azabu, Hirō
(S/SW of castle)

Hills, large plots of land, lots of greenery, wide streets. Tokugawa funerary temple in the area.If you venture off the beaten path, you’ll find commoner towns intact, wooden houses, and small, local shops run by Edokko.

Ueno, Yanaka, Sendagi
(NE of castle)

Hills, large plots of land, lots of greenery, wide streets. This was the outskirts of Edo. Tokugawa funerary temple in the area.These areas are traditional and maintain a lot of Shōwa culture. There are wooden houses, the shopping streets a bustling with Edokko vibes. Most people consider this shitamachi today.

Shinjuku, Nakano
(W/NW of castle)

Hills, large plots of land, greenery and wide streets. This was the countryside in the Edo Period.Nakano Station area is a maze-like wonderland cramped with tiny shops and bars. The area was built up in the Late Shōwa and Bubble Economy years. Shinjuku exploded much earlier due to the presence of a major hub station. Modern Shinjuku Ward is a mix of post town and castle town.

Aoyama, Omotesandō
(SW of castle)

Hills, large plots of land, lots of greenery, wide streets.One look at the labyrinthine streets of Harajuku should tell you that this area’s roots were commoner towns. However, Meiji Shrine and Aoyama Cemetery and the other hilltop real estate were all daimyō mansions.

(NE of castle, next to Ueno)

Valley with narrow, maze-like streets, cramped quarters, and vibrant sex industry[xxvii].This area was country in the Edo Period but today is decidedly shitamachi. In the Edo & Meiji Periods, the area was popular with writers and calligraphers.

My Stupid Conclusion

(Just a heads up, there’s no clear take away here)

As should be very obvious by now, there is no clear cut definition of yamanote and shitamachi. There never was. Adding to the confusion, the interpretations have changed over time – and that depends on who you were talking to. The terms were never official. They were just words the Edoites and Tōkyōites have used over the years to describe certain locations. The distinction could have been by culture, socio-economic rank, or architectural and landscape characteristics.

As for how I use the term, I try to be flexible. I might say, “In the Edo Period, this neighborhood was…” or “In the Meiji Period, this area was…” or “Today this area is…” That said, I always find myself coming back to the poetic descriptions of yamanote and shitamachi by 陣内秀信 Jinnai Hidenobu. He relied on the visual and topographical characteristics of neighborhoods – something that has stayed somewhat constant from the Edo Period until today and transcends all of the definitions that seek to define shitamachi and yamanote. But it’s by virtue of Jinnai’s brilliant view of Edo-Tōkyō that I find myself quoting the United States Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, who described his ability to discern free speech from unreasonable or gratuitous obscenity by saying: I know it when I see it[xxviii].

If you spend a little time in Tōkyō, you’ll get a sense for what is yamanote and shitamachi mean. If you spend a long time in Tōkyō, you’ll get a better sense of what these terms mean. If you read up on the subject, you’ll get a better sense of what they mean. But along the way, you’ll realize that yamanote and shitamachi – like many concepts – are fleeting terms, evolving terms, and terms that are impossible to nail down because they’re always in flux. But all of that said… if you know what you’re looking at and you know the history, then you’ll definitely know it when you see it.

You’ll also know it when you feel it.

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[i] I propose several definitions:
yamanote is any hilltop area inhabited by samurai families
yamanote is any area inhabited by samurai families
yamanote is any upscale area with wide blocks – especially those west of Edo Castle
shitamachi is any area in the lowlands inhabited by commoners
shitamachi is any area inhabited by commoners
shitamachi is any area with cramped quarters – especially those north and east of Edo Castle.

[ii] In Tokugawa society, you couldn’t just buy a house anywhere you wanted to in Edo. The city was zoned by social rank.
[iii] In some areas 長屋 nagaya row houses are a major characteristic of the shitamachi – even today!
[iv] For the purposes of JapanThis! this term is interchangeable with 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō residence/palace.
[v] And by Tōkyōite, I mean “a person living in Tōkyō” long enough to consider Tōkyō their permanent home.
[vi] By one definition, as we shall see.
[vii] A child who was 10 years old during the Great Kantō Earfquake would be 102 years old now. Most of their memories of Tōkyō wouldn’t be the remnants of Edo, it would be pre-War Japan. Admittedly, pre-War Japan retained many characteristics of the shōgun’s capital, but it really had become a new entity in its own right.
[viii] Dialect is also a somewhat ambiguous term when talking about this subject. Different classes spoke differently and certain groups of people rarely intermingled. There was no standard language as we might have today. But there are accounts of provincial samurai coming to Edo and trying to learn 江戸の言葉 Edo no kotoba the Edo Dialect. Whether they knew it or not, they were creating a framework that would one day become 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese. This was a mix of 下町の言葉 shitamachi no kotoba the shitamachi words and 山手の言葉 yamanote no kotoba the yamanote words. They needed to interact with merchants and local people and they needed to work with the shōgunate, both of whom spoke in different registers – even though both of these were 江戸の言葉 Edo no kotoba Edo words.
[ix] An area I think is safe to say has been yamanote since time immemorial – right up to this day.
[x] I only use this term in contrast the previous phrase “Old Tōkyō” that I used.
[xi] The term “castle” should be understood in a very loose sense. The “castle” of the Edo Clan who originally fortified the area in the 12th century was nothing more than a well defended residence – a fort, if you will. The area was re-fortified by Ōta Dōkan in the 1450’s, who built an extensive moat system that brought some commoner hamlets under the fortress’s protection. An area called Chiyoda was incorporated into this safe zone and a 城下町 jōka machi castle town began to emerge.
[xii] ie; within the moats.
[xiii] Despite his indisputable superiority as a civil administrator in comparison to Nobunaga and Hideyoshi.
[xiv] This is arguably the source of the modern rivalry between Tōkyō and Ōsaka. Tōkyō fancies itself the torchbearer of samurai culture – in particular manners – and looks down on Ōsaka as culture built on merchant values. These are bullshit oversimplifications, but the cultural differences can’t be ignored.
[xv] If they had Twitter, I wonder if #YoshiwaraBaby would have been a thing?
[xvi] But remember, daimyō were expected to maintain 3 residences in Edo. Just because one wasn’t on the top of a big ass hill doesn’t mean all of them weren’t.
[xvii] This is where Kondō Isami’s dōjō, the 試衛館 Shieikan, was located
[xviii] The Ueno Plateau is essentially modern Ueno Park. This area was elite in the Edo Period, but under it was and still is very shitamachi.
[xix] The streets were still intact and people sometimes used them. It’s said that bandits would lurk there at night and attack passersby. More horrifically, men were being raped by other men (women were probably fair game but didn’t dare pass through the area unattended). The Edokko at the time called this act 薩摩風男色 Satsuma-fū danshoku Satsuma-style man love. Man on man relations were classically extolled by the samurai of Satsuma Domain (it was seen as extremely manly and warrior-like). In Edo (now Tōkyō, an increasingly western city culturally), this man on man sex was seen as archaic. The everyday Edokko on the street used the term to mock Satsuma who had played a major role in the coup that ousted the Tokugawa and throw the city’s economy into a tizzy. They felt as if Satsuma was raping their city. Don’t forget, the main general of the imperial army, Saigō Takamori who was from Satsuma, originally wanted to burn Edo to the ground. Whether it was just an anti-Satsuma term or if the perpetrators actually were from Satsuma, I think we can all agree that raping anyone of any gender in an unlit urban meadow is pretty fucking horrific. The area had transformed from palatial neighborhood to dangerously rapetastic wasteland in a very short time.
[xx] Here’s my article on Marunouchi.
[xxi] Samurai weren’t allowed to engage in commerce or “get a job.” Rather, they received stipends for bureaucratic duties performed for the shōgunate.
[xxii] After the Meiji Coup, the traditional caste system was abolished… sorta.
[xxiii] I deliberately used the word “commoner” again, despite saying we were going to say “working class” because the class system didn’t change overnight. The city didn’t change overnight. The culture didn’t change overnight.
[xxiv] Japan was already at war in Asia at this time, so there really isn’t an “exact start date” to the war.
[xxv] Let’s put it this way, the combined atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 129,000. I don’t think this number takes into consideration later deaths from radiation exposure/cancer/etc.
[xxvi] While Tōkyō culture isn’t very concerned with the 部落民 Burakumin descendants of the outcastes anymore, this is apparently still a big problem in 大阪 Ōsaka. It’s an image problem that exists well outside of Ōsaka itself. Recently, an acquaintance from Shizuoka made an offhand comment about his disdain for Ōsaka by adding 部落だし buraku da shi – a pretty offensive way of saying Ōsaka people are all former outcastes – at last it was offensive to me. So… yeah, this is still problem in modern Japan.
[xxvii] And as a form of commerce, sex work fell under the purview of the merchant class and as such is a distinct feature of the shitamachi landscape.
[xxviii] Just for the record, I don’t just go around quoting US Supreme Court Justices. This is literally the only quote I know.

6 thoughts on “Yamanote and Shitamachi

  1. Great blog. Thanks. In uguisudani what was your rent? Really interesting place. Really like your love of tokyo. More questions to come. Do you have an email address i can write to?

    1. Wow, it was so long ago I don’t remember. I only stayed there for 2 months, so it was a super cramped, claustrophobic room.

      Best way to get in touch is via the comments section on the Japan This Facebook group 🙂

  2. This is a great article — very well researched and much appreciated; however, you have misspelled “earthquake” every single time you used it.

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