Kyōto (or Heian-kyō – as we has seen, both the names are fine) was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, with an interruption in 1180, when it was temporarily moved to Fukuhara-kyō, for roughly six months during the Genpei war.

Tōkyō, unlike the other cities we have seen, wasn’t built on purpose to serve as a capital, but had its own history and had been the seat of power much before the formal move.

The ancient name of Tōkyō was Edo (江戸), which means “bay entrance” or “estuary”; in ancient times it was simply a small fishing village on the bay; in the XII century Edo Shigenaga, a member of the Edo clan, a minor offshot of the Taira clan, first had fortifications built. The clan had moved there from Chichibu in present-day Saitama Prefecture led by their patriarch, Edo Shigetsugu, Shigenaga’s father.

Edo-clan tombstones at Keigen-ji

In 1180, Shigenaga was asked by Minamoto Yoritomo to cooperate in his uprising against the Taira; hesitant at first, he eventually accepted and, as a reward, he was granted seven new estates in Musashi Province, including Kitami in what is now Tokyo’s western Setagaya Ward.

In 1457, Edo Shigeyasu surrendered his main base at Edo to Ōta Dōkan, a vassal of Uesugi Sadamasa, Governor of the Kanto Plain, and moved to Kitami.

Ōta Dōkan, who is considered Tōkyō’s founder, constructed fortifications overlooking the entrance of the Kantō plain and diverted the Hira river east at Kandabashi to form the Nihonbashi river, so to improve navigation.

Edo Castle with surrounding residential palaces and moats, from a 17th century screen painting.

On the ancient seat of Edo Shigetsugu’s residence, he built Edo Castle – also known as Chiyoda Castle (千代田城 Chiyoda-jō) –  in 1457.

Edo Castle became the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

 Edo itself became the seat of the actual power under the Shogunate, even though formally the capital was still in Heian – but this will be the topic of another post.


Purity and pollution

June 8, 2011

I’ve already mentioned how impurity or kegare (汚れ or 穢れ) is a major concern in Japanese religion. Even though nowadays the emphasis is placed more on mental or spiritual pollution, kegare originally had no moral meaning, rather being the reaction of natural forces that caused misfortune.  Some scholars interpret it to mean the exhausting of vitality, that is to say a condition in which ke=ki (vitality) has withered (kare). It was thought to be caused by the contact with impure things such as death of humans and domestic animals, childbirth, menstruation, eating meat and sickness. Since kegare is an impediment to religious cerimonies, those who are polluted with it cannot take part to them.

A related concept is imi (忌み or 斎み), which can be translated as “mouring” or “avoidance”; it is a period in which one has to stay pure in order to celebrate ceremonies. The Taihou code (701) imposed a set of rules for the Emperor, in order to keep him protected from kegare. There were imi periods in which the ruler in which he could not: attend a funeral; see sick people; eat meat; sentence someone to death; play a musical instrument – and other supposedly impure activities.

Repulsion for impurity is anything but uncommon among cultures of the world. The concept of tittu, spread among people in southern India, is similar to kegare. Also the repulsion for shoku-e (触穢 touching impurity) are acknowledged in the Bible (e.g., Leviticus 5.2-3).

Kegare was considered contagious as if it were an infective disease: it was believed to be transmitted not only by physical contact but also by handling objects such as food, fire etc. Furthermore, it could be transmitted from person to person up to three times, as stated by Engishiki (905).

The link with childhood and menstruations is also the reason why women were considered impure (again, this fact is common in many primitive cultures, up to superstitions that survive in our civilization as well). However, women were not considered impure in ancient Japanese society: actually, they were considered closer to kami; the concept of impurity stemming from blood became stronger alongside with the exclusion of women from power and reached the top with Buddhism. In the 14th century the sutra Ketsubon-kyoo was introduced in Japan; it stated that women were so impure to deserve being tortured in hell, since they were polluting earth and rivers with their blood. This concept still survives and it’s the reason why women are prevented from taking part in some institutions such as nou theatre, sumo, the pageants of Gion festivals and some shrines and rites.

In order to restore a condition worthy of approaching the gods, one has to undergo ritual ablutions (misogi, 禊) and rites of purification called harae (祓祓) – which is the traditional pronunciation is harae, but today the word is usually pronounced harai. Purification rites are still a core part of Shinto and are performed both for special purposes, and at the beginning of all religious ceremonies. As observed by Ono Sokyou, matsuri has four such elements, including (1) purification (harai); (2) offerings (shinsen); (3) litany (norito); and (4) a communal feast (naorai); the purification must be the first step, representing the separation not only form the pollution, but also from the profane world.