Wordcatcher Tales: Kami-, Shimo-, -zen, -chu, -go

If you found yourself in Lower Slobovia and wanted to head for Upper Slobovia, in which direction would you head?

  1. upcountry
  2. upriver
  3. upstate
  4. upmarket
  5. up north (or up south down under?)
  6. to the capital city

In how many places outside Japan would the last answer be most likely? Anyone who regularly rides the long-distance trains in Japan knows that all trains bound for Tokyo are ascending trains (上り列車, noboriressha), while all trains heading away from Tokyo are descending trains (下り列車, kudariressha). That’s not too surprising for train systems in centralized states. Of greater interest is the fact that old placenames in Japan show the same alignment, as I discovered while deciphering a Japanese map from a few hundred years ago.

The names that most puzzled me were 上総 Kazusa ‘Upper Fusa’ in lower Chiba and 下総 Shimousa ‘Lower Fusa’ in upper Chiba (where my use of ‘lower’ means southern and ‘upper’ means northern), along with 上野 Kōzuke ‘Upper Keno’ for what is now Gunma and 下野 Shimotsuke ‘Lower Keno’ in what is now Tochigi. ‘Upper’ Gunma lies to the southwest of ‘Lower’ Tochigi. Neither riverflow nor terrain height will explain why one member of each of these pairs is ‘upper’ and the other is ‘lower’. Nor will orientation to Japan’s current capital, Tokyo (lit. ‘East Capital’).

The key to the answer fairly leapt out at me when I factored two more sets of old provinces into the equation.

  • The old provinces of 越前 Echizen ‘Near Echi’, 越中 Etchu ‘Middle Echi’, and 越後 Echigo ‘Far Echi’ run up the Japan Sea coast from southwest to northeast, corresponding to the current prefectures of Fukui, Toyama, and Niigata.
  • The old provinces of 備前 Bizen ‘Near Bi’, 備中 Bitchu ‘Middle Bi’, and 備後 Bingo ‘Far Bi’ run along the Inland Sea from east to west, corresponding to parts of the current prefectures of Okayama and Hiroshima.

In both cases, the provinces whose names end in -zen ‘before, in front, pre-‘ are closer to the old capital of Kyoto, while those whose names end in -go ‘behind, in back, post-‘ are farther from Kyoto. Kyushu also had three pairs of former provinces, where the half of each pair ending in -zen (Buzen, Chikuzen, Hizen) lay to the north (and thus nearer Honshu) of its counterpart ending in -go (Bungo, Chikugo, Higo).

LATER INSERT: These old placenames still turn up in modern contexts. The 上越新幹線 Jōetsu Shinkansen, the bullet train line that runs from Tokyo through Gunma to Niigata gets its name from the Sino-Japanese reading (jō) of the first character of 上野 Kōzuke ‘Upper Keno’ (now Gunma) and an alternate Sino-Japanese reading (etsu) of the first character of 越後 Echigo ‘Far Echi’ (now Niigata). Furthermore, a native Japanese reading of the latter character, 越 koshi, shows up in the name of perhaps the most famous cultivar of Japanese rice, Koshihikari (越光), which originated in Niigata (although Koshihikari is rarely written in kanji these days). Koshi was the older (7th century!) name for the province that was later divided into Near, Middle, and Far Echi, which were in turn eventually renamed as prefectures of Fukui, Toyama, and Niigata on Japan’s Hokuriku coast.

How many other placenames that can be rendered as Upper X and Lower X, or Near X and Far X, describe relative distance from capital cities? (Far Rockaway in Queens, NYC, was apparently named for its relation to what used to be East Rockaway, now part of Nassau County, NY, and not for its relation to NYC.)

UPDATE: The title of this post does not include the usage of nobori ‘ascending’ and kudari ‘descending’ for travel toward and away from the capital city, respectively. That usage I suspect is very, very common, as two commenters have pointed out. I’m interested in placenames, where Japanese usage is unique, at least in my experience. Lower Saxony is on the coast and lower in elevation than landlocked Saxony farther inland. Orientation to Berlin, or Vienna, or Rome is irrelevant. The Prussian province of Lower Silesia was actually closer to the Prussian capital, Berlin, than Upper Silesia. There are many towns on the slopes of the Carpathians in Romania named along the lines of Făgăraş de Sus and Făgăraş de Jos, but Sus means upslope and Jos means downslope, not closer or farther from Bucharest or Vienna or wherever the capital may have been at one time. In East Asia, Korea has many provinces split into North (-bukdo) and South (-namdo) parts—Hamgyong, Hwanghae, Pyongan, Chungcheong, Gyeongsang, Jeolla—none of which are distinguished relative to the position of the capital city. China, similarly, has several sets of matching province names—Guangxi, Guangdong; Hunan, Hubei; Henan, Hebei—but all of them are distinguished by cardinal positions relative to the globe, not relative to the capital city. So the question remains: In what other country or language would the equivalent of Upper Slobovia be closer to the capital than Lower Slobovia?

UPDATE 2: In the comments, Nathanael of Rhine River notes the conflict between the German usage of upper and lower to signal the highlands and lowlands of German-speaking lands and the (North) American tourist usage of upper and lower to distinguish northern and southern Germany, plus similar conflicts in usage that afflict those who equate ‘upper’ with ‘north’ and ‘lower’ with ‘south’ in reference to both the Nile and the Mississipi, which flow in opposite directions.

UPDATE 3: Well, this post prompted me to consult my hitherto underutilized electronic Super Daijirin and solve a few onomastic problems that have nagged at me for a long time. (And just in time, too, since I leave Japan tomorrow.) As noted above, Tochigi Prefecture used to be called 下野 Shimotsuke ‘Lower Keno’ while Gunma used to be called 上野 Kōzuke ‘Upper Keno’. It turns out there are several ways to write both province names. In fact, the Keno portion is rendered more accurately by adding the syllable for ke ‘hair’, as in 下毛野 ‘Lower Hair Field’ and 上毛野 ‘Upper Hair Field’. (I wonder if those names refer to the bearded wheat and barley that still dominate the agriculture of the region.)

Not only are there multiple ways to write each placename, there are also multiple ways to pronounce each kanji in the placename. Older placenames seem to have been pronounced in native Japanese form (like Koshi instead of Echi/Etsu for 越), but the kanji originally used to write them have contributed Sino-Japanese pronunciations to the same placenames, and the latter readings usually show up in abbreviations. So the old name of Gunma is alluded to in the 上 Jō- of 上越新幹線 Jōetsu Shinkansen, and a slightly longer version appears in the name of 上毛電鉄, Jōmō Electric Railway, which runs from the Gunma border city of Kiryū, which abuts Ashikaga City in Tochigi Prefecture, to Maebashi, the capital of Gunma Prefecture. Two local newspapers also conjure up the old placenames: Jōmō Shimbun (“Upper Hair News”?) in Gunma and Shimotsuke Shimbun (“Lower Field News”) in Tochigi.

Now, finally, the pièce de résistance: The JR line that runs through Ashikaga is known as the Ryōmō line. It runs between Oyama City in southeastern Tochigi, and Takasaki City in central Gunma. The Tōbu railway express train that runs through Ashikaga and terminates at Akagi in central Gunma is also called the Ryōmō. Ryōmō is written 両毛 ‘Both Hairs’, a strange name that doesn’t make much sense unless you know that it refers to the combination of regions formerly known as ‘Upper Hair’ (上毛, now Gunma) and ‘Lower Hair’ (下毛, now Tochigi). Weird, huh?


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