Photo/IllutrationThe city government office of Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

An anonymous individual donated 100 million yen ($941,000) to the city of Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture last December, requesting that its name be changed to Tanba-Sasayama.

Intrigued by this story, I visited Sasayama earlier this month, hoping to identify the donor and learn why the individual took issue with the city's name.

"I have been suspected of being that 100-million-yen donor, but I am not," said Ryosuke Enso, 58, with a wry smile.

A Japanese confectionery shop owner and the head of the local chamber of commerce and industry, Enso has long championed the name change. He welcomes the stir triggered by the sizable donation as he believes it will advance his cause.

Sasayama was a thriving castle town during the Edo Period (1603-1867), famed for its "kuromame" black soybeans and as the birthplace of the popular folk tune "Dekansho Bushi." The municipality of Sasayama came into being 19 years ago with the merger of four towns.

But when six nearby towns became the city of Tanba and three towns in the neighboring Kyoto Prefecture named themselves Kyo-Tanba, matters began to take an unsettling turn for the citizens of Sasayama.

For instance, it became evident that out-of-towners could not differentiate between Sasayama's specialties and those of surrounding municipalities. And when a television feature program titled "Tanba Sasayama" aired, not one scene showed the city of Sasayama itself.

Before long, Sasayama's agricultural, tourist and commercial associations began to root for a name change.

But there are opponents, too. "The cost of changing the name is estimated at 60 million yen, and that's going to cause a big fiscal strain," goes one argument. "The city should be spending that kind of money on nursing care and education" and "People would confuse Tanba-Sasayama with Tanba," go others.

And one outraged citizen denounced the 100 million yen donation as effectively a "bribe" for the city to change its name.

The feudal province of Tanba, once a sprawling domain, was carved up over time into three prefectures of the Kinki district. And since what is now the city of Sasayama flourished under the Tokugawa clan, while the present city of Tanba was historically the home of the rival Oda clan, some antagonistic sentiment remains to this day between the citizens of these cities.

While interviewing the locals, I suggested somewhat hesitantly, "If the cities of Tanba and Sasayama merged, wouldn't that resolve the problem?"

My suggestion was dismissed outright by both the pro- and anti-name change camps.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 17

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.