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The Archaeological Remains Buried Under Tokyo

Akio Tanigawa
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Jomon Skeletons in Shinjuku

A Jomon skeleton from the Ichigaya-kagamachi Ni-chome site (Photo credit: Shinjuku City)

The discovery of human skeletal remains dating to the Jomon Period at the Ichigaya-kagamachi Ni-chome site in Shinjuku City, central Tokyo was recently reported in newspapers and on TV. The site is located on a plot of residential land where an excavation was conducted prior to construction work on an apartment building.

The discovery has drawn attention for two reasons. First, the Yamanote plateau is covered by the acidic soil of the Kanto loam formation where it is difficult to find human remains. This was a rare case in which human remains from the Jomon period were unearthed from a site that was not located on a shell mound. Secondly, Tokyo is, as everyone knows, one of the largest cities in the world, as was its antecedent, the city of Edo, with a population of one million. The place where the Ichigaya-kagamachi Ni-chome site is located has transformed over time from the samurai residences of the Edo period to a residential area of modern-day Tokyo. The fact that ancient remains dating back about 4,000 years have survived these waves of development without being destroyed is nothing short of a miracle.

Edo Period Remains and Early Modern Archaeology

Most people may be unaware of the fact that archaeological remains lie buried under Tokyo. Archaeological Sites in Central Tokyo [Toshinbu no Iseki], published by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education in 1985, is a summary of basic data collected by the Team Researching the Distribution of Archaeological Sites in Central Tokyo (headed by Professor Hiroshi Takiguchi, Waseda University) on the remains of shell mounds, kofun (large tombs built between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE) and Edo-period sites in central Tokyo. It lays particular emphasis on the importance of Edo-period remains buried beneath the city of Tokyo.

Full-scale research and surveys of Edo-period remains have been conducted since the mid-1980s. The driving force behind this research, however, was the rapid redevelopment of Tokyo during the bubble economy years and the threat it posed to the survival of these remains. Centered on the archaeology of Edo and other early modern cities, these studies have given birth to a new field of archaeological research called "early modern archaeology."

There is an image of archaeology as something concerned with the far-distant past, evident in expressions such as "ancient Roman." If, however, we define archaeology as a field that analyzes the relationship between people and things during any time period, the inclusion of the Edo period will come as no surprise. In addition, people often ask what new information can be learned by excavating the remains of the Edo period, which has left us with a wealth of written materials. The answer is that these excavations unearth historical realities that were not recorded back then.

The same logic holds for archaeology of the modern period-namely, archaeology focused on the remains of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods-which has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years. Early modern and modern archaeology are fields of study connected to the present day.

The Preservation and Use of Edo Period Remains

The "Report by the Investigative Commission on the Management of Edo-Period Remains" issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education in 1988 indicated that about 50 percent of Tokyo's Edo period remains had survived. Now that 25 years have passed, how many are still left? The current percentage of surviving remains is unknown. An accurate understanding of the current state of these remains, however, is essential for addressing issues surrounding their future preservation and use.

Meanwhile, the scope of city remains like Edo is broad, multi-layered and deep. With the metropolis of Tokyo going about its business above the remains, however, there are all kinds of constraints. When an Edo period site is excavated, artifacts are usually collected, but most of the architectural remains are left at the site and destroyed after being recorded. It is extremely difficult to preserve even a portion of the excavated architectural remains.

The architectural remains of sites such as Edo Castle and the Outer Moat of Edo Castle, designated by the Japanese government as a Special Historic Site and Historic Site, respectively, have been preserved in situ. Other remains have been preserved through relocation, such as the stone tube from the Kanda water supply system in Bunkyo City, Tokyo, where the Hongo Water Station Park now stands, and sewage culverts from the principal residence of Matsudaira Settsu-no-Kami in Shinjuku City, Tokyo, now replaced by the Ochiai sewage treatment plant. Stones from the Hirakawa River Dyke excavated from the remains of Iidamachi in Chiyoda City were used in the stonework of a walkway after its redevelopment. The "Walk through Edo History Corner" in Ichigaya Station on the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line is one example of an exhibit on Edo period remains that has been installed. All of these remains have been preserved in some way thanks to the hard work of the people involved.

The way preserved remains are used is another important issue. It is natural for cultural properties to be used and made available to the general public. However, we must not turn this logic on its head and argue that things with a low probability of being used do not need to be preserved. Conserved sites could be used as commercial establishments or tourist attractions, but if they are demolished when business becomes unprofitable, we will have gotten our priorities backwards. We need to formulate a basic framework for thinking about the preservation and use of archaeological remains.

Archaeological remains are the traces of the lives and behavior of people from the past that remain in the earth. They are literally the earth's memories. We have, it seems, been entrusted with the task of passing down to future generations the earth's memories of the people who once lived here and left their remains. And a vast historical record lies buried in the earth beneath the ever-evolving global city of Tokyo.

Akio Tanigawa
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Tokyo in 1953. Graduated from the Geography and History Major, School of Education, Waseda University.
Completed the doctoral coursework for the History (Archaeology) course at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University and withdrew before receiving a degree.
Worked as an assistant under the School of Education, Waseda University, an assistant in Waseda's Tokorozawa Campus Cultural Properties Research Unit, and a full-time lecturer, assistant professor and professor in the School of Human Sciences before assuming his current position.
Received a Ph.D. in Human Sciences.

[Major Works]
Co-edited and coauthored book:
The Archaeology of Burial Coins [Rokudosen no Kokogaku] (Koshi Shoin, 2009).
Academic articles:
"The Relation between Tombstones and the Family in the Edo Period" ["Kinsei Bohyo no Hensen to Ie-ishiki"] (Shikan: The Historical Review 121, The Historical Society of Waseda University, 1989).
"Burial Facilities and Funerary Goods of Graves during the Edo Period" ["Edo no Haka no Maiso Shisetsu to Fukusohin"] in Graves, Burial Practices, and the Edo Period [Haka to Maiso to Edo Jidai] (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2004).