Monthly Archives: September 2010

Wordcatcher Tales: Kamigata, Kudarimono, Edokko

Tokyo may be the center of modern Japan. All trains bound for the capital, whether coming from northern Japan or western Japan, are nobori-ressha ‘upbound/ascending trains’, while those bound for “the provinces” are kudari-ressha ‘downbound/descending trains’. But the older Kamigata (‘upper’) capital region of Kyoto and Osaka still had the upper hand, both culturally and industrially, well into the Edo period. Goods manufactured in Kamigata for customers in the Tokugawa capital were kudari-mono ‘downbound/descending goods’. I wonder when the directions were officially reversed. Was it after Edo became Tokyo (‘Eastern Capital’) during the Meiji era?

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 41-43:

The center of Edo was the shogun’s castle. At least until the Genroku period (1688–1704) the city was primarily the capital of the warrior. It was a teeming metropolis, a million strong, with men outnumbering women by more than two to one. Edo bustled with warriors, craftsmen, merchants, and performers from throughout the land. The upper class amused itself at the kabuki or in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters; the activities of the big spenders captured the public imagination.

The shogun, daimyo, and their retainers spent almost all their money in the city; Edo was a center of consumption. Originally, very little was produced there, neither daily necessities nor high-grade cultural artifacts. Instead, articles were imported from Kamigata, that is, from the Kyoto and Osaka area. Such goods were called kudarimono—quality products that had “come down” from Kamigata. Wares that had not “come down” were considered inferior: thus the origin of the word kudaran (“not come down”), meaning uninteresting or worthless. The sale of imported goods netted great profits for Edo branches of stores headquartered in Ise, Ōmi, or other provinces. From around the Genroku period these businesses, known as Edo-dana and located at Nihonbashi, Denmacho, and elsewhere, expanded greatly. This expansion signaled the rise of the Edo chōnin‘s economic power.

As mentioned earlier, Edo-dana were staffed exclusively by men who had come to Edo only to work. These men even saw to their own cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Unable to sink their roots in the city, Edo-dana employees remained perennial outsiders. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, a new type of individual appeared: the Edokko, a pure Edo chōnin, who was rooted in the city itself. The first recorded usage of the term Edokko occurs in a senryū [satiric, witty verse identical in form to more serious haiku] of 1771, and thereafter was used by many authors….

One finds no label corresponding to the Edokko in Osaka and Kyoto. No concept of an “Osakakko” or a “Kyotokko” exists; nor is there any parallel in Nagoya, Kanazawa, or Hiroshima. Thus we must ask why the idea of such a native arose solely in Edo. The answer to this question is simple. In Osaka, Kyoto, and other cities, almost the entire chōnin population corresponded to what the Edokko was in Edo. In the capital, however, a huge number of unassimilated provincials remained “outsiders,” providing a contrast to the distinctly native Edokko. During the city’s early years, this heterogeneous population grew larger and developed evenly; but by the second half of the eighteenth century a marked contrast between natives and nonnatives begins to appear. This contrast was not entirely missing in other large cities such as Osaka or Kyoto, but in Edo a much larger part of the population remained nonnative.

Within Edo there existed yet another distinction: the sharp contrast between the uptown (yamanote) and the downtown (shitamachi) areas. These terms can already be found in the hanashibon (storybook) known as Eda sangoju (Beads of Coral) published in 1690. The yamanote area was a diluvial terrace packed with warrior residences; the shitamachi area was an alluvial area with a concentration of chōnin dwellings. Since the chōnin class was further split between Edokko and a large population of Edo-dana “outsiders,” Edokko were constantly confronted with a large number of people unlike themselves. The unmistakable character of the Edokko developed within this social context.

The Edokko‘s sense of nativeness that emerged during the second half of the eighteenth century fostered the efflorescence of Edokko culture. This unique culture was, however, not created by Edokko alone. Instead, it resulted from the interaction of three groups, each of which complemented the others: the warriors, the provincial chōnin “outsiders,” and the Edokko.

My first younger brother was born in Tokyo, and so claims to be an “Edokko.” But my other two brothers born in Japan have never been labeled “Kokurakko” or “Kyotokko” after their birthplaces. Until I read the passage above, I had never thought to ask why not.


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Remnants of Early Baltic Settlers

From The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People, by Alan Palmer (Overlook, 2006), pp. 16-17:

Neither anthropology nor philology is an exact science and few today would follow the nationalistic scholars of the nineteenth century who equated race and language when seeking the origin of a country. But new techniques can revive familiar speculation while mellowing past prejudice. In the early 1980s the Finnish historian Matti Klinge argued that research into hereditary blood groups showed that three-quarters of the Finnish population were of western descent and only a third of eastern origin. He pointed out, however, that the linguistic structure of the Finnish language has remained more markedly eastern in character than western. Is this perhaps because the Finns and their kinsfolk south of the Gulf in Estonia are peoples with traditions of folk epic handed down orally? Their languages were shaped before the coming of written words. Finland’s Kalevala and Estonia’s Kalevipoeg survived as tales of patriot derring-do in taming both the forces of Nature and the evil spirits conjured up in a primeval wilderness of lake and forest.

By the end of the Scandinavian Bronze Age (circa 500 BC) other migrants felt drawn towards the setting sun, like the Finno-Ugrian before them. They came mainly from the south-east, to form compact units along the Baltic’s southern shores, with their communities set apart by forests, bogs and rivers. Among them were Prussian tribes astride the Vistula, the Polame on the Warta (farther inland, around modern Poznan) and a group of Lithuanian tribes around the river Niemen (Nemanus) and its tributaries. Over the following centuries tribal chiefs, seeking effective means to defend their homesteads, created what were in effect embryonic nations across these marchlands. Some tribes, like the Salic Franks and the Burgundians, provided a nucleus for historic kingdoms established after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Others bore names that recur in successive periods of northern Europe’s history. Thus the Cours (or Curonians), a tribe who lived in the peninsula between the central Baltic and the Gulf of Riga, survived as a separate people until the late thirteenth century and gave their name to the Duchy of Courland (Kurzeme, or in German Kurland) which between 1561 and 1795 enjoyed semi-independence within the Polish Commonwealth. The Cours’ neighbours, the Zemgal tribe (Semigallians), also maintained a distinctive corporate existence until 1290, farming the low-lying region west of the Daugava river that later formed the eastern part of the Courland Duchy.

Both Kurzeme and Zemgale are back on the map in today’s atlases: they form administrative divisions in modern Latvia. Three of the Western Slav peoples survive as member states of the European Union: Poland; the Czech Republic; Slovakia. Other tribes, once famed and feared for their fighting qualities, have sunk without trace. Among them were most of the Wends, the Western Slavs who settled between Kiel Bay and the Vistula Spit and may themselves be subdivided into Wagrians, Abotrites, Polabians and Rugians. But two of the ‘lost’ Wendish peoples are still extant, though few in number: some 50,000 Sorbs of Lusatia now live between the Oder and the Elbe and there is an even smaller community of Kashubs, Pomerania’s original ‘dwellers by the shore’. Like the people of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Provence, the Sorbs and Kashubs owe their linguistic survival to academics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who defied the exclusiveness of master nations to fire the embers of a dying culture. By contrast, the Setus, a Finno-Ugrian people who settled around Lake Peipsi, were too isolated to find scholarly champions in the West. No more than 7,000 Setu survive, their communities separated today by the geographically ill-defined border that provides a frontier between Estonia and Russia.

I find two of Palmer’s linguistic explanations almost laughable.

(1) Are Finns and Estonians the only “peoples with traditions of folk epic handed down orally,” the only peoples whose “languages were shaped before the coming of written words”? Does he doubt that Norse sagas were orally transmitted long before they were written down? Does he realize that legions of illiterates have done far more over the millennia to influence the structures of the languages they speak than literates have?

(2) Were academics the saviors of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Occitan, Sorbian, and Kashubian? Are those languages only spoken in classrooms? If so, then they are not yet saved. Academics may have documented those languages and first reduced them to writing, but they haven’t saved them until people pass them on to their children in a wider variety of settings.

As a historian, Palmer depends crucially on written records to construct his view of the world, but his imagination also seems hemmed in a bit too much by that literacy, as if nothing noteworthy exists until it exists in writing.


Filed under Baltics, Finland, Germany, language, migration, nationalism, Poland, Scandinavia

Westernized Edo-period Woodblock Prints

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 70-71:

Gennai, who was well versed in Western art and painted in oils himself, was surrounded by a cultural group whose role in Edo-period culture can hardly be overestimated. Gennai’s coterie included scholars of Western learning, doctors practicing Dutch-style medicine, scholars of Chinese literature, calligraphers, and many others. The interaction of these men led to the creation of a number of ukiyo-e and books.

Nishiki-e were an artistic development that stood in sharp contrast to earlier Japanese prints. In Japanese painting before the age of nishiki-e, empty space was charged with great meaning. Use of blank areas was deeply related to the Buddhist notions of emptiness (), to specifically Japanese ideas of space (ma), and to Japanese philosophies of nature. These concepts are in turn related to the idea of nothingness (mu) found in Eastern thought in general. From the time of Harunobu’s nishiki-e, however, virtually the entire surface of the picture was filled with color. Moreover, many nishiki-e employed Western techniques of perspective. This denial of the Eastern concept of mu and departure from the design and coloration of previous Japanese pictorial art was in part the result of a familiarity with Western techniques of oil painting and copperplate etching. Not everything was taken from these sources, but the works of Harunobu, Haruaki, Sharaku, Utamaro, and Hokusai unambiguously show such influence. These men (with the possible exception of Sharaku) often attended the daishōkai [calendar designing and printing events] and were good friends with Hiraga Gennai, Shiba Kōkan, and Gennai’s outstanding disciple Morishima Chūryō.

The establishment of nishiki-e with perspective within the context of traditional “flat” Japanese painting was an epoch-making event in the history of Japanese pictorial art. Western techniques had here been completely absorbed into Japanese culture. Although the roots of these techniques could be traced back a century and a half to Western influence at the start of the Edo period. Western procedures now reemerged as something entirely new. Nishiki-e met with such unusual acclaim by the Japanese commoner population because Western techniques had been so thoroughly assimilated.

This process of assimilation also led to the nishiki-e fads in Europe and the United States. From the end of the Edo period to the early years of the Meiji era, a tremendous number of nishiki-e masterpieces were sold to foreigners. The works of Hokusai, which were perhaps the most Western in tone, were especially prized and often became the subject of scholarly studies.

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Edo-period Sinophilia & Hollandophilia

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 13-14:

There is yet another reason why Edo-period culture has not been properly appreciated: the influence of Chinese culture has not yet been properly understood. During the Edo period Chinese culture was highly venerated. Its deep and lasting influence was important, not just for Japanese Confucianism and Confucian scholarship, but for a whole range of other pursuits as well. The effect of Chinese poetry and literature, or of Ming and Qing dynasty art and scholarship, can hardly be overestimated. For example, the book Tianxia yitong zhi (Records of All the World) greatly influenced the fudoki (gazetteers) produced throughout Japan. This volume was published as Dai Min ittō-shi (Records of the Ming Dynasty) at the beginning of the Genroku era (1688–1704) by a warrior from the Wakayama domain. Similarly, the volumes Gai yu congkao (Gaiyō sōkō in Japanese) by ZhaoYi (1727–1814) were also profoundly influential. The respect for things Chinese lasted until the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), but thereafter the fact that Chinese culture had once been of great importance faded from memory.

Similarly, “Dutch learning” (that is, Western learning, rangaku) was also highly important during the Edo period. Over one hundred times throughout the Edo period, the chief of the Dutch settlement at Dejima in Nagasaki came to Edo to receive an audience and present gifts to the shogun. For some twenty or thirty days during the spring, the chief and his retinue stayed at the Nagasaki-ya, a lodge at Hongoku-chō. From around the middle of the Edo period, a number of cultured individuals made use of these few weeks to engage in unfettered cultural exchange widi the Dutch. Japanese were strictly forbidden to enter the Dutch outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki, but within Edo much free activity was possible. After the Meiji Restoration, however, the diplomatic relations maintained by the Tokugawa bakufu with the Dutch were overshadowed by the Meiji government’s policy of strengthening ties with England, France, Germany, and the United States. In turn, much that concerned rangaku was forgotten. Although cultural exchange with the Dutch was once of great significance, its conditions and historical role have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. Such examples show that Edo-period culture demands reevaluation. The type of historical perspective suggested here should begin to make a correct appraisal possible.

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The Strength of Edo-period Culture

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 8-9:

The strength of Edo-period culture is not to be found in extant artifacts of the era. Rather, its strength lies chiefly in its spectacular breadth and diversity. This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural forms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryū (seventeen-syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayū, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations (kō) and toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally to indulge in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered the development of a highly refined handicraft industry. Never before had there been such an extraordinary variety of hand-made cultural artifacts in Japan.

Even in remote areas in the countryside or on distant, isolated islands, inhabitants cultivated rare varieties of flowers and trees and marketed unusual rocks or curiosities. As Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842) noted in his Akiyama kikō (Autumn Mountain Travelogue, 1831), people in every corner of the land were busy manufacturing local specialties. Such articles were being produced, one by one, by thirty million people. By the late Edo period this activity had stimulated an unprecedented development of the transportation network. Mountain roads, waterways, and sea routes were extended in all directions to every nook and cranny of the country. Indeed, the construction of footpaths during the late Edo period can be seen as a kind of symbol of this golden age of handicraft culture.

No doubt, Japan today boasts a high level of culture. But the price has been high as well: severe environmental pollution and the wholesale destruction of nature. Until the end of the Edo period, red-crested cranes could still be seen soaring through the skies over the city; swans and geese flocked to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. Foxes and badgers were found everywhere, and cuckoos (hototogisu) flourished in such numbers that their song was considered a nuisance. Even during the late Meiji period the water of the Sumida River was clean enough to be used for brewing tea while boating. Human activity imparted only minimal damage to nature. Viewed in this way, Edo-period culture seems almost ideal.

Certain elements of the Edo-period cultural heritage were vulgar, no doubt, but a more comprehensive view of the period reveals an almost infinite number of admirable qualities. Nevertheless, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, governmental policies of modernization and westernization dictated a wholesale rejection of the preceding feudal era. Even the best elements of Edo-period culture were deemed outdated and vulgar and were thought to require prompt and thorough extirpation. That the true value of Edo-period culture could not yet be properly assessed had much to do with the lack of any inquiry into its origins and actual conditions. Recent research, however, has shown that Edo-period culture was outstanding in its own way and not at all inferior to the culture of earlier or later periods.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Birds for Trains

“So what is a shirasagi, anyway?” I asked the JR clerk in Nagoya Station who had initiated our rail passes and booked reservations on the Shirasagi Limited Express to Hida Takayama. “Could it be a white rabbit (shira- ‘white’ + usagi ‘rabbit’)?” She had no idea. But I should have known it would be a bird.

Before the advent of the Shinkansen bullet trains in 1964, the most famous limited express train along the Tokaido Main Line was the Tsubame ‘swallow’. In fact, the Japan National Railways (JNR, 国鉄) used a swallow logo on its bus system and called its professional baseball team the (Kokutetsu) Swallows. Two other notable limited express trains we rode in those days were the Hato ‘dove’ and the Kamome ‘seagull’.

Most express trains were named for destinations, like the Miyajima Express that I used to ride home to Hiroshima from boarding school in Kobe, but the fastest limited express trains tended to be named for birds. The first bullet trains went for even speedier names: Kodama ‘echo’ (speed of sound), Hikari ‘flash’ (speed of light), and the latest, postmodern-sounding Nozomi ‘desire’. But regional bullet trains have revived a lot of the old limited-express bird names: Hayabusa ‘peregrine falcon’, Kamome ‘seagull’, Toki ‘crested ibis’, Tsubame ‘swallow’.

On our latest trip, we were in the Hokuriku region, off the Shinkansen grid, where the fastest trains are traditional limited expresses, so we encountered several bird-named trains that were new to me. Shirasagi can be translated ‘snowy egret’ (Egretta thula), although sagi labels the whole family of herons (Ardeidae), as in aosagi (lit. ‘blue heron’) ‘gray heron’ (Ardeia cinerea).

Coming back to Kanazawa from Nanao on the Noto Peninsula, we rode the Sandābādo/Thunderbird, whose name left me a bit nonplussed until we paired it with Raichō ‘rock ptarmigan’ (Lagopus muta), a limited express that runs from Osaka through Kanazawa to Toyama. Thunderbird began operations as Super Raichō (Thunderbird), and Raichō (雷鳥) literally translates as ‘thunder bird’. The rock ptarmigan is a symbol of Toyama Prefecture’s Tateyama, one of Japan’s 三霊山 Sanreizan ‘Three Holy Mountains’, along with Fujisan and Hakusan. (Doesn’t the Rock Ptarmigan sound like a good name for a smaller version of Ford’s SVT Raptor?)

Another limited express we rode between Kanazawa and Toyama was the Hakutaka, whose name is always written in kana, not kanji, and whose train cars carry an emblem with the English words “White Wing.” The name evokes an old Tateyama legend about a white hawk (白鷹, which would normally be pronounced shirataka), but also evokes the name of a long-distance train, Hakuchō (‘white bird’ =) ‘swan’ that used to run all the way from Aomori (where the swan is the prefectural bird) via Ueno and Kanazawa to Osaka. The name Hakutaka was independently used for trains running on the leg between Ueno and Kanazawa until that leg was disrupted by the extension of the Shinkansen toward Nagano and Niigata in 1982. In 1997 it was revived for limited express trains running along the Japan Sea coast between Fukui and Niigata prefectures.

The first Japanese long-distance trains to receive names seem to have been the Fuji and Sakura, which began running between Tokyo and Shimonoseki in 1912, but were not named until 1929.

The first train named Hato ‘dove’ was an express on the South Manchuria Railway (満鉄 Mantetsu) running between Dalian and the new (in 1932) Manchukuo capital, 新京 Shinkyō (now Changchun). The limited express on that route was named あじあ Ajia ‘Asia’.

POSTSCRIPT: The first trains named Hikari and Nozomi were Mantetsu expresses running between Busan (釜山) and Shinkyō (新京). (Japanese Wikipedia offers very detailed coverage of Japanese train systems, past and present.)

And, speaking of Imperial Japan, many of the same bird names were used for Hayabusa-class torpedo boats built between 1900 and 1904 that served so well in the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Two Lakes Ōmi, Near and Far

Japan’s largest freshwater lake, 琵琶湖 Biwa-ko ‘biwa lake’, got its current name from its elongated shape, which vaguely resembles that of the biwa, a Japanese lute, sharper at one end, rounder at the other. But the older name for the lake and the land around it (now Shiga Prefecture) was Ōmi 淡海 < awaumi ‘light (= freshwater) sea’. (Compare the native Japanese reading for 湖 ‘lake’ mizu-umi lit. ‘water-sea’ and the Sino-Japanese compound 淡水 tansui ‘freshwater’).

The older name, Ōmi, still shows up in a host of local place names—Ōmi-Hachiman (近江八幡), Ōmi-Imazu (近江今津), Ōmi-Maiko (近江舞子), Ōmi-Shiotsu (近江塩津), etc.—but nowadays it’s always written as 近江 lit. ‘near-bay/inlet/river’. (江 is the e of 江戸 Edo lit. ‘bay-door’.) What’s up with that?

Well, it turns out there was another notable freshwater lake near Hamamatsu in what is now Shizuoka Prefecture. To the Kinki hegemons of the Nara and Heian periods, it was the 遠つ淡海 Tōtu-ōmi ‘far freshwater sea’, later shortened to 遠江 Tōtōmi ‘far waters’, which was also the name of the surrounding province.

The lake closer to the capital was distinguished as the 近つ淡海 Tikatu-ōmi ‘near lake’, shortened in writing to 近江 ‘near waters’, but pronounced simply Ōmi, since it was, after all, The Lake (like ‘The City’).

Nowadays, the two lakes are no longer sibling rivals. A major earthquake in 1498 breached the narrow shoreline that separated Lake Tōtōmi from the ocean, leaving its waters brackish, though still very productive. It now goes by the rather prosaic name Lake Hamana (浜名湖 Hamana-ko ‘shorename-lake’), while Lake Ōmi sports a more poetic moniker, Lake Biwa: 琵琶湖 Biwa-ko ‘lute lake’.

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