Funabashi – Boat Bridges in the Edo Period (船橋)

The term Funabashi, is probably most recognized as a city immediately east of Tōkyō, in Chiba prefecture. But the name literally translates to boat bridge. This is a totally unknown subject to me – I never knew they even existed until a few days ago.

Photo of the funabashi near the mouth of the Jinzu river in Toyama prefecture.

While following Internet leads, as I often find myself doing, I ran across the text of a Japanese lecture that turned out to be by Mr. Naoki Hirose, who I know from his connection with Douglas Brooks’ work in Himi City, Toyama prefecture, and more recently from the Wasen Kenkyu Kai meetings that I’ve been attending recently via Zoom. He is the curator of the Himi City Museum. As I already know and communicate with Hirose san now and then, what a coincidence and discovery! The lecture was actually part of some kind of event focused on railroads, but this was an article that talked about how things and people traveled on the “boat highway”.

Now, pontoon bridges are know in modern service, either as an emergency temporary bridge, or for military operations where vehicles and equipment need to cross a major river or stream. I suppose it’s mostly a military thing today, as in civil emergencies, it’s the military (like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) that responds anyway.

But, in pre-modern Japan, bridges were expensive, took much effort to build, and they prevented larger boats from sailing up otherwise navigable rivers. Also, as Hirose san says, there was also probably some desire to limit and control the movement of people, and maybe armies, between daimyo-controlled territories.

An alternative to bridges were ferries, which have the advantage of not blocking river traffic for the larger boats and ships, but required loading and unloading of boats. For busier crossings, they might employ many sendō or boatmen. But, another, that required less labor was the boat bridge.

A boat bridge was a series of small boats, lined up side-by-side that stretched the width of a river. A heavy chain was use to join them together, and boards were laid across the boats, forming a wooden road. Of course, being a floating bridge, the boards weren’t entirely stable, the boats were subject to some movement, and accidents did happen.

I didn’t know such things existed and I don’t know how prevalent they were, or how much historical information there is about the subject. Hirose san mentioned them, but admitted that he didn’t have much information about them. What he did share with me was some art, including the following print, that shows a string of 64 boats forming a floating bridge.

It is an interesting subject. I hope I can find some more information about it. But, the only other reference I’ve found was this entry in the Samurai-Archives wiki about Korean embassies to Edo. According to that article, funabashi were erected for the embassies to cross the larger rivers of the Kanto region (greater Tōkyō area), and that these were normally only otherwise set up for the Shōgun’s entourage. Here’s a link to that entry, though the mention of funabashi is only a couple sentences:

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to show in a diorama, but I don’t know if I want to make 64 tiny boats. Surely, there must have been smaller ones where the river wasn’t so wide. Since it would block river traffic, maybe something only erected temporarily when large movement of goods or maybe an army was necessary.

Anyway, the document is in Japanese, but is accessible for download here:

This text in this document actually translates pretty well with Google Translate. You can’t do the whole document at one time, as it’s too large. But, you can cut and past into it as you read through it. It’s quite interesting, even in the machine translated form.

Special thanks to Mr. Naoki Hirose for providing the images above – I am told these are royalty free – also for the lecture itself. Ω




1 thought on “Funabashi – Boat Bridges in the Edo Period (船橋)

  1. Pingback: A blog site on Illustration of Historical Japanese Ships | Wasen Mokei 和船模型

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s