The yakko in hiyayakko

A friend demanded that I explain asked me about the word hiyayakko. Specifically, the hiya part is obviously related to words like hieru (become cold) and hiyasu (make cold), but what about the yakko?

I told him it was basically the same as yatsu, meaning "guy" or "thing" (as the kanji suggests). But he pressed on: why would such a general word be applied only to tofu?

I figured it was either that hiyayakko used to be used more generally, to mean "cold dish", and narrowed in meaning later; or that yakko meant "tofu" because tofu was so important to everyone's diet back then. But a few mimute's googling revealed that I had been completely mistaken.

Explaining this picture properly would take a whole other blog post, but I hope the crest on the sleeve is visible enough.

Turns out that yakko is an Edo-period expression meaning "in square blocks". This comes from the then-current usage of yakko (< 家つ子, "house boy"?): a brutally non-euphemistic word for a retainer, squire, or literal spear-carrier, serving but generally not of the warrior class.*

Anyway, the crests these yakko wore on their clothing, called kuginuki-mon (釘抜紋, "nail-puller [washer] crest"), had distinctive square patterns like the washers used in Edo nail pullers. From this tenuous link the association with squares was born.

Hence, yakko-dōfu is a square block of tofu, and the final transition to hiyayakko is clear.

Yakko live on today in kite form. Some say that these yakko-dako were intended as a sly dig at the upper class and/or their lackeys; all I can say is that something is up with all the goofy pictures of real, live yakko-dako that the Edoites left behind.

* Eventually, of course, yakko came to be used to insult/describe other groups -- everyone from actual samurai to common thugs and even Yoshiwara courtesans. I always assumed that this usage derived ultimately from yatsu, but apparently not. (Back.)

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I presume your reference to the yakkodako is the top kite on this page:


About 10 years ago, I visited a kite maker and he seemed especially proud of a similar kite. He explained the symbology, I couldn't understand his obscure terminology, but I remember he thought they were hilarious. Here's a pic of him holding up that kite:



Yep, that top one is the yakkodako, and so is the kite your kite maker friend is holding up. I wonder if it's some specific yakko important to the people of Hakodate.

A lot of sites claim that the fun of the yakkodako was the fact that it allowed a yakko, who (like the kite flyer) was a commoner, to literally look down on the warrior class he served. Maybe that's what the guy was explaining...


I think he was trying to explain who it was, I didn't know enough of the local historical figures to follow the references. It seemed to be an important local mascot, and I saw quite a few of those blue yakkodako during the local festivals.


Nice! Question (demand) answered!

PS nice French.


Justin: Merci.

Charles: I shall investigate!


Oh, don't go to a lot of trouble. I know how this goes, it's like trying to identify the person in a kabuki ukiyo-e. You can tell from the way the face is painted, and from the kimono and mon, that this is a specific person. You can dig up the info and discover it's some guy like Ishikawa III and he was famous for some specific kabuki role, and all this seemed terribly important back then but seems meaningless now. But you never know, there might be an interesting piece of folklore (and you know how we love obscure folklore, or you wouldn't be doing this blog).
If I was really that important, I suppose I could dig up the original photo and blow it up, there seems to be a kanji label next to the face, but it's too small to read on the web pic. But if you really do want to pursue it, I will confound you further: there is a second yakkodako on the wall in that photo, the face is similar but the costume is entirely different. Ha!

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