Russian Japanology Review

Advanced search

The role of place names in the political culture of medieval Japan

Full Text:


The article focuses on the role and place of toponyms in the medieval Japanese political culture. The toponym can be considered as a hyperlink, “clicking” which reveals an endless chain of general cultural, historical, and literary images, events, and phenomena. Place name study requires a multidisciplinary approach. The insularity of the Japanese territory, terrain features, prevalence and sustainability of animistic beliefs contributed to the fact that the exact localization of an event or phenomenon took on special significance. A detailed address of an event or phenomenon most often consists of toponyms relating to a province, county, village or some particular place, which almost always makes it possible to find the specified object on a geographical map. Moreover, once introduced into the context of culture, geographical locations become places of worship, sources of inspiration for many generations and are rarely subject to change. Toponyms are an integral part of the names of deities, emperors and their family members. Place names were also important in determining and fixing the boundaries of the state. Probably, for the first time in the Japanese literary tradition the geographical area of the entire archipelago, except for the remote north-eastern part, was referred to in the oldest existing anthology of the Japanese poetry “Manyoshu” (dated by the second half of the VIII century). This article presents a detailed analysis of the provenance and use of toponyms making up the cultural and historical image of the country, its name (Yamato - Nihon), and the name of the archipelago’s highest mountain (Fuji). Also, as an example, we examine the toponym for a barrier (Shirakawa), the site which is currently little known, though once it used to be an important element of the medieval state political and administrative structure. The toponym as a type of proper names is inherently conservative, which allows it to be the custodian of historical information, to be an indicator of time in the written culture, that is, using the term coined by M.M. Bakhtin, to shape a chronotope of culture. The geographical certainty characteristic of the insular mentality and the correlation thereof with the imperial myth that has been one of the Japanese political culture’s foundations right down to the twentieth century, have become the grounds for the increased attention to the cultural tradition toponymy.

About the Author

E. K. Simonova-Gudzenko
Moscow State University
Russian Federation


1. Agapov, B. N. (1974). Shest zagranits [Six Foreign Countries]. Moscow: Sovetsky Pisatel.

2. Basho Matsuo. (2004). Oku no Hosomichi [The Narrow Road to the Deep North]. / Introduction, Chronology, Map of Basho’s Journey, Parallel texts, Notes by T. Chilcott. Available at: URL: (accessed: 12 June 2018)

3. Engishiki [Procedures of the Engi Era] (1999). In Kokushi taikei [Collection of texts on the national history]. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kоbunkan.

4. Fudoki. [Local Gazetteers]. (1973) In Nihon koten bungaku taikei [Collection of Japanese Classical Literature]. Vol. 2. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

5. Grachev, M. V., Simonova-Gudzenko, E. K. (2002). Ideya preemstvennosti imperatorskoi vlasti [The Idea of the Imperial Power]. In Ermakova E. M. (ed.) Sinto. Put’ yaponskih bogov [Shinto. The Path of Japanese Gods]. Saint-Peterburg: Hyperion, 2002. Vol. 1. Pp. 148-165

6. Grachev, M. V. (2009). Gosudary i poddannie v drevnei i rannesrednevekovoi Yaponn [Sovereign and Subjects in Ancient and Early Medieval Japan]. In D. M. Bondarenko (ed.). Pravitely i poddannie: Sotsiokulturnaya norma i ogranicheniya. [Sovereign and Subjects: Sociocultural Norm and Limitations of Individual Rule]. Moscow: The Institute for African Studies. Pp. 172-190.

7. Ise monogatari (1965). / Translated by Harris H. Jay. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.

8. Kodai chimei daijiten [Great Dictionary of Ancient Place names] (1999). Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten.

9. Kodai chimei gogen jiten [Dictionary of Etymologies of Ancient Japanese Toponyms] (1981). Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan.

10. Kogo jiten [Dictionary of the Old Japanese Language] (1986). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.

11. Kojiki [Records of Ancient Matters] (1981). / Translated by B.H. Chamberlain. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

12. Kokushi daijiten [Encyclopedia of National History] (1990). Vol. 11. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan.

13. Konrad N. I. (1980) Ocherk istorii kulturi srednevekovoi Yaponii [Essay of the History of Culture of Medieval Japan]. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

14. Manyoshu [Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves] (1976). In Nihon koten bungaku taikei [Collection of Japanese Classical Literature]. Vol.4-7. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

15. Matsumae Takeshi. (1978). Origin and Growth of the Worship of the Amaterasu. Asian Folklore Studies. Nagoya. Vol. XXXVIII-I. Pp. 1-11.

16. Meshcheryakov, A. N. (2000) Kulturnie funktsii yaponskih toponimov [Cultural Use of Japanese Toponyms]. Vestnik RGGU. № 2. Pp. 290-310.

17. Meshcheryakov, A. N. (2010a) Yamato i Yaponiya: processi formirovaniya gosudarstvennoi identichnosti v period Nara (mejdunarodnii aspect) [Yamato and Japan: the National Identity Formation Processes in the Nara Period (International Aspect)]. In Meshcheryakov A. N. Yaponiya v ob’yatiyah prostranstva i vremeni [Japan Enfolded in Space and Time]. Moscow: Natalis. Pp. 174-188

18. Meshcheryakov, A. N. (2010b) Gora Fuji. Mejdu zemlei i nebom [Mount Fuji. Between Earth and Heaven]. Moscow: Natalis.

19. Meshcheryakov, A. N. (ed.) (2010) Bogi, svyatilischa, obryadi Yaponii. Enciclopedia Sinto [Gods, Shrines, and Rites of Japan. Encyclopedia of Shinto]. (2010). Moscow: Russian State University for the Humanities.

20. Miyako-no Yoshika. (2009). Zapisi o gore Fujiyama [A Record of Mt. Fuji]. In Yaponiya v epohu Heian (794-1185). Hrestomatiya [Heian-Period Japan (794-1185). Collection of texts]. / Translated by M. V. Grachev. Moscow: Russian State University fot the Humanities. Pp. 55-56

21. Nihongi [Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697] (1972). / Translation by W. G. Aston. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

22. Nihon Shoki (1965). In Nihon koten bungaku taikei [Collection of Japanese classical literature]. Vol. 67. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.

23. Norito. Semmyo (1991). / Translated and commented by L.M. Ermakova. Moscow: Nauka.

24. Shoku Nihongi (2002). Vol. 1-3. Tokyo: Kodansha.

25. Simonova-Gudzenko, E. K. (2005). Yaponiya VII-IX vekov. Formi opisaniya prostranstva i ih istoricheskaya interpretaciya [Japan in VII-IX centuries. Forms of Description of Space and Their Historical Interpretation]. Moscow: Vostok-Zapad.

26. The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter. (1978). / Translated by D. Keen. In R.J. Thomas (ed.) Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


For citations:

Simonova-Gudzenko E.K. The role of place names in the political culture of medieval Japan. Russian Japanology Review. 2018;1(1):91-109.

Views: 113

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

ISSN 2658-6444 (Print)
ISSN 2658-6789 (Online)