TCM is showing the 1949 Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Shinshaku Yotsuya kaidan, 新釈四谷怪談) directed by Keisuke Kinoshita tomorrow night, and I’m going to record it because it’s said to be a great filmed version of Yotsuya Kaidan, “arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time.” Of course, most Western aficionados will associate the term kaidan ‘ghost story’ with the Lafcadio Hearn book and the 1964 Masaki Kobayashi film based on it, both called Kwaidan in English (kwa is a historical form of the syllable now pronounced, and transliterated, ka) and both of which I enthusiastically recommend. But what brings me to post is the word Yotsuya (四谷), which of course I was curious about.

It turns out to be the name of the Tokyo neighborhood where the story takes place, though the name of the heroine’s father is Yotsuya Samon (I presume it’s the same Japanese word). The Japanese Wikipedia article on the neighborhood says, in Google’s translation:

Origin of name

There are two major theories, but neither of them has become an established theory.

First of all, there are four teahouses, Umeya, Kiya (Kuboya), Chaya, and Nunoya, so there is a theory that it became ‘Yotsuya’ (Yotsuya), but it was not until the Genna era that these four teahouses came together. Therefore, it is difficult to explain why it was called ‘Yotsuya’ before the Edo period.

Another theory is that it comes from the four valleys of Sennichiya, Myogadani, Sendagaya, and Oouedani (there is another theory that the four valleys are Momijigawa Valley , Samegawa Valley, Shibuyagawa Valley, and Kanigawa Valley). There is no reason to extract only the four valleys, and doubts have already been issued since the Edo period.

Well, I don’t know much Japanese, but I do know that yotsu (四) is ‘four’; what’s ya? My trusty Essential Kanji has it as “KOKU, tani valley” — no ya. So I went to jisho.org, which found 82 words, starting with tani ‘valley’ and going on for pages… but no ya. I presume it’s one of those readings that occurs only in one term as a specialized and unpredictable use, and the only way to know it is to know it. Japanese isn’t for amateurs.


  1. W-ary: “Possibly a shift from yatsu above.” That entry says “Possibly from Ainu”.

    Batchelor’s Ainu dictionary has nai for valley.

  2. Interesting, thanks!

  3. Philip Schnell says

    YA is actually a fairly common kun (native Japanese) reading for 谷 = valley, but it probably doesn’t appear in O’Neill’s “Essential Kanji” because it mostly occurs in surnames and place names (世田谷 = SETAGAYA, 谷治 = YAJI, etc. etc.). There’s even a name 谷谷 (谷々) = YATSUYA or YAYA. There are some common-noun exceptions, though: 谷地 = YACHI = swamp land.

    However, the fact that the character 谷 is used in the modern place name is no guarantee that the second theory is correct. It’s not uncommon for kanji in older toponyms to be used for pronunciation value only, or to change over time, and there are quite a few other places scattered across Japan that are indeed called 四ツ屋 = YOTSUYA = four shops.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Way back when I was in 5th grade at the American School in Japan, my daily commute to/from school took me through https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yotsuya_Station both ways – it was where I switched from the subway to the regular surface commuter train.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    The Yotsuya who springs to mind for me is the character in the altogether excellent Maison Ikkoku (his name plays on the Tokyo neighbourhood, the associations with the famous ghost story, and the number four.)


  6. “Possibly a shift from yatsu above.” That entry says “Possibly from Ainu”

    Otto Karow in his article “俗語・俗曰 in der altjapanischen Literatur. Hochsprache und Mundarten der Naraperiode”, Monumenta Nipponica vol. 6 (1943), gives a more detailed account of the proposed Ainu etymon for this family of words. Among other things, Karow’s article treats some local terms mentioned in 常陸国風土記 Hitachi no kuni fudoki, a report compiled in 713 in Literary Chinese on the geography, life, and traditions of Hitachi Province in medieval Japan. On p. 163 of the article, Karow discusses an interlinear gloss that occurs in the text of the Hitachi no kuni fudoki and reads 俗曰謂蛇爲夜刀神 “Im Volk nennt man die Schlange yato no kami“, with yato no kami apparently “god of the valley”. He says the following (references omitted and some italicization added for clarity):

    “Im Volk nennt man die Schlange yato no kami.”

    Yato, yatsu ist ein seit der Kamakurazeit belegtes Mundartwort der Ostprovinzen für Tal (谷 tani) vgl. yatsu-ai, yatsu-wa; ferner in den Ortsnamen Shibu-ya, Setaga-ya usw. Sehr wahrscheinlich ein altes aus der Sprache der Ainu übernommenes Wort (yachi Sumpf, Schwemmland.) So rodet nach dem Berichte des Hitachifudoki, zu dem die Glosse gehört, der Krieger-Kolonist Yahazu uji matachi die „Schilfebene des Tales“ und kämpft gegen den Schlangengott Yato no kami „Gott des Talgrundes.“

    Karow translates the whole passage from the Hitachi no kuni fudoki, with the interlinear gloss as a parenthetical, in footnote 49 on p. 163 :

    ,,Die Alten sagen: …[I]m Palaste von Tamaho in Iware… lebte ein Mann namens Yahazu uji matachi, der die Schilfebene des Tales westlich des Kohori-Amtes zur Urbarmachung erwählte und neue Reisfelder anlegte. Da kamen die Yato no kami in Scharen vereint gezogen, hinderten (ihn) in jeglicher Weise und machten die Feldbestellung unmöglich. (Im Volke nennt man die Schlange yato no kami. Sie ist von schlangenförmiger Gestalt mit Hörnern am Kopfe… Falls ein Mensch sie gelegentlich erblickt, bringt sie Verderben über sein Haus, und Nachkommenschaft bleibt aus. In den Feldern in der Nähe des Kohori leben sie in grosser Zahl). Da wurde Matachi von gewaltigem Zorn erfüllt, zog seinen Panzer an, ergriff seine Waffen, tötete und jagte (die Schlangen) davon. Dabei erreichte er den Bergabhang, wo er Pfähle in die Erde versenkte und einen Grenzgraben aushob. Sich zu den Yato no kami wendend, sprach er: ,Das Land oberhalb von hier möge das Gebiet des Gottes, das Land unterhalb sollen die Felder der Menschen sein. Von nun an werde ich für alle Zeiten dem Gotte als Hafuri ehrfürchtig dienen. Ich hoffe, dass du mich nicht verfluchst, noch Groll gegen mich hegst.‘“

    Karow gives a reference to the entry for the Ainu word yachi “swamp” in Batchelor (1905) An Ainu-English-Japanese dictionary, page 503 here. There is also an entry for this word on a more modern Ainu language site here (type swamp in the “full-text search” tab and then click on the entry “marsh land/swamp” that comes up).

  7. > Mundartwort der Ostprovinzen für Tal (谷 tani)
    … which survives today, as Philip Schnell notes above, primarily in place names. Generally speaking, if you see the kanji 谷 in a place name in western Japan, a reasonable first guess for the pronunciation is “tani” (or “dani” if there is rendaku); if you see the same kanji in a place name in eastern Japan, you should seriously consider “ya” as an alternative.

  8. William A Boyd says

    Thanks for the heads-up on the TCM presentation.

  9. Trond Engen says


    Lit. “valley mouth”, a whirly hot spring in the swampy valley floor.

    Edit: Oh, of course it’s an actual placename. Yaguchi is the name of a district in the suburbs of Tokyo, and also found elsewhere with other spellings,

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    A famous 谷 Tani-:


    And a possibly less famous one:


    … though she took her nom de guerre from the novelist’s, specifically inspired by


  11. If you find the name 塩谷 in Japanese, you need to ask the owner whether it is Shioya or Shiotani. Similarly for other names. Maybe there is a correlation with the person’s family’s geographical origin — I’ve never thought of it that way.

    Then you have 磯谷, which can be read Isoya, Isotani, or Isogai. Isogaya is very uncommon.

  12. According to this page (https://name-power.net/fn/%E5%A1%A9%E8%B0%B7.html), 塩谷 can be read: しおや / えんや / しおがい / しおたに / しおのや (Shioya, Enya, Shiogai, Shiotani, and Shionoya).

    It also gives geographical distribution for each name.

  13. Thanks, I was hoping you’d show up in this thread!

  14. Placenames in Japan are a rich topic, as they are everywhere else, but made more complicated by the writing system. I’ve blogged about a few here.
    During my high school years in Kobe, the neighborhood just below our hillside school was called Go-mou, written as if it meant ‘Five Hairs’ (五毛), but on a return trip I found out it was originally Goma-u (胡麻生 ‘sesame-grow’) because the area was not suitable for paddy fields, so the farmers grew sesame instead. (The city in Gunma Prefecture called Kiryu—桐生 < kiri-u ‘Paulownia-grow’—must have got its name for similar reasons.)

    Two of my favorite Tokyo placenames are the high-sounding 高田馬場 Takada-no-baba ('high paddy horse place') and the down-to-earth 御茶ノ水 Ocha-no-mizu ('tea water'). I hadn't realized that -tani/-dani was a more common reading for 谷 in southwestern Japan (where I grew up) while -ya is more common in northeastern Japan. (In names it can also be read -hiro, according to my old Canon Wordtank electronic dictionary.) The Sino-Japanese (Go-on) readings are KOKU, YOKU, ROKU. There are about 100 different kanji used to write hiro in names of people and places, according to O'Neil's (1993) Japanese Names, which nevertheless only lists names beginning with Ya- and Tani- under 谷, except for the one Sino-J. reading Koku- in Kokuna.

  15. On a bike trip in Hokkaido in 1975, we stopped at a little town called Pippu, written 比布, which would normally be pronounced Hifu in Japanese. I asked a local guy about it and he explained that it used to be pronounced Hifu but had evolved over the years into Pippu. In katakana, the change would be ヒフ > ピップ, almost the reverse of what actually happened to Japanese *p historically. Of course, with kanji you can’t write the diacritics that change hiragana/katakana hi to pi/bi or fu to pu/bu.

  16. I asked a local guy about it and he explained that it used to be pronounced Hifu but had evolved over the years into Pippu.


  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Are you doing the eyebrow thing?

  18. *gives DE a calm, supercilious look*

  19. The surname Kinoshita caught my eye. Offtopic, but incidentally, I just wrote about a different Kinosita, an eminent oncologist, and the WWII saga of Nazi fake butter and cancer (a sequel to the Danish butter stories we’ve discussed in the Yamnaya thread)

  20. used to be pronounced Hifu but had evolved over the years into Pippu.

    I find that a rather disconcerting explanation. Why would Hifu evolve into Pippu?

    There are a lot of Ainu place names in Hokkaido written in ad hoc ways in Chinese characters. Pippu as an Ainu place name that was hard to find kanji for sounds more plausible than Hifu evolving into Pippu….. I am speaking only from a gut feeling since I don’t know the actual etymology or history of the place name.

    Incidentally, there was a product in Japan many years ago called Pippu Erekiban — I think it was a kind of plaster with embedded magnets for the relief of muscular pain, although I’m not sure — which featured the elderly company founder/president saying the name of his product to comic effect. It was a very affectionate kind of ad. One of the last commercials before the old fellow died showed him trudging through the snow at Pippu Station in Hokkaido.

    There is a web page that looks back at how the Pippu company made 比布 into a household name back in the 1980s thanks to its commercials, and the continuing connection between the company and the town.

  21. John Cowan says

    That led me (mentally speaking) to the Kurita-Kinoshita space drive, and thence ….

  22. Here is one of the ads filmed at Pippu station:


    And here is a whole series of the Pippu Erekiban ads:


  23. One of the last commercials before the old fellow died showed him trudging through the snow at Pippu Station in Hokkaido.

    This could be historically incorrect. It’s just my hazy memories of the time.

  24. Trond Engen says

    The ethnic Japanese settlement of Hokkaido is recent, and that of a ski resort like Pippu probably very recent. Isn’t it more likely that Hifu is a reading pronunciation, or Standard Japanese if you prefer, that was common among the newcomers until they eventually took up the local or historical pronunciation, maybe even as a result of the marketing campaign?

  25. Definitely not a result of the marketing campaign — the station name Pippu is clearly written in hiragana. But the first hypothesis seems possible to me.

  26. Very, very tangentially: I recently heard an Israeli TV announcer refer to the Po river (spelled פו without niqqud) as “the Fu river”.

  27. @Bathrobe: I thought it was obvious that the Hifu > Pippu explanation was bogus. It’s not even getting language change backwards, since the kanji were assigned to an Ainu name only recently. I haven’t found Ainu words that would sound like Pippu, but maybe the last syllable of Cape Nosappu (written 納沙布 ‘pay-sand-cloth’ only for their sound values) could be cognate. Kanji are used to write even place names with acknowledged Ainu sources.

    Hokkaido was Japan’s first foreign settler colony, so Japanese kanji renderings of Ainu placenames are mostly a recent phenomenon, since the Meiji era. Lots of samurai from defeated clans moved to the Hokkaido frontier. The foreign cemetery in Hakodate has a separate section for the defeated Nanbu clan members from northern Honshu.

    I believe household registry names were also required to be in kanji, much to the chagrin of Resident Koreans who don’t want their names Japanized. That policy may have changed (if it did) only in this century.

  28. I thought it was obvious that the Hifu > Pippu explanation was bogus

    Sorry, I thought you’d actually swallowed his story!

    Even Hat seemed to believe it.

  29. Well, what do I know? I’m not a Japanologist, Spock, just an old country doctor.

  30. My point was that Joel was quite straightfaced in presenting this tidbit, without even a nudge nudge wink wink. We both reacted in our own way: you calling it fascinating, and me saying “Hey, wait a minute!” As it turns out, Joel didn’t actually agree with the local and was merely presenting his statement as a bit of unsophisticated codswallop. There was no intent on my part to cast aspersion on the venerable Hat; I was just giving an excuse for not understanding Joel’s intent.

  31. No aspersion taken!

  32. The Japanese Wikipedia entry for Pippu says the name is of Ainu origin and offers some etymological breakdowns.

    Mashiho Chiri apparently proposed that the name originates in a pipi-pet ‘strewn with rocks – river’ (石のごろごろしている・川). There is another explanation taking pi-o-p ‘stone – many – place’ = ‘stony place’ (石の・多い・ところ).

    Breaking this last one down, pi is ‘small stone, pebble’. According to Suzuko Tamura, The Ainu Language (2000), the suffix -o ‘exist, be situated’ forms intransive verbs from nouns (p. 218)—functioning like English adjectives in -y here, I supppose. The suffix -pe / -p makes nouns from verbs (p. 221):

    -pe / -p ‘thing’
    This element can be attached to all verbs and verb phrases to form a noun phrase, and was treated in section 4.10.2 Nominalizing Particles. There are also many set derived words with -pe / -p attached.

    Here is the relevant portion of section 4.10.2 (p. 124):

    pe thing (p after vowels)
    Used to refer to non-human things or events. When used instead of kurto refer to humans, it indicates women or children, or may be pejorative or insulting.

    The Wikipedia entry also adds that among the municipalities of Japan, it is the only one beginning with the consonant p.

  33. The Wikipedia entry also adds that among the municipalities of Japan, it is the only one beginning with the consonant p.

    OK, that’s amazing. (As is your ability to dig up all this stuff.)

  34. pet is indeed ‘river’. That is why there are so many places in Hokkaido that with names that end in -betsu.

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