Tofugu» Editorial A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can You Dig It? Of Love and Earwax Thu, 17 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 Forget hugs and kisses. Throw away your candy, flowers and rings. If you want to truly express love for someone, clean their ears.

Is It a Love Story?


Image from the anime, Hen Zemi (変ゼミ)

Perhaps you’ve seen it in anime, manga, drama or movies. Or maybe you’re one of the (un)lucky ones to have experienced it yourself. In Japan it’s common imagery – a blissful man rests his head on the lap of a woman who takes a long, pointy tool and picks, pulls, or wipes the excess earwax out.

How romantic.

However, ear cleaning, or mimi souji (耳掃除) isn’t limited to romantic interests. Family members might also get in on the act. Hitome Kobayashi, associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Showa University School of Medicine explains, “Many Japanese grew up having their ears cleaned by their mothers, and associate it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness.”

How did such a rudimentary cleaning routine come to embody intimacy? Few areas of the human body are as important yet as vulnerable as the human ear. Even a pressure change during air travel can rupture the delicate human eardrum. So it’s no wonder any physical contact with the ear’s organs should be avoided. Luckily they sit deep inside our heads, protected by the outer ear, pinna, and (sometimes hairy) ear canal.

You wouldn’t let any Jo-suke Schmo off the street poke around in your ears, would you? Of course not. Only the most trusted people should be allowed access to this vital, vulnerable area – particularly when it involves long, pointy objects. In an ideal world no one would be more trusted than one’s parents or lover(s). So ear-cleaning as a symbol of love kind of makes sense.

Or A Horror Movie?


But to the (un)trained eye the scene appears more fitting of a horror film. Ear cleaning tools resemble a dentist’s ensemble at best, medieval torture devices at worst. When I first witnessed the act my muscles tensed and my forehead broke into a cold sweat! I couldn’t escape the thought that a only small slip would cause major damage.

And I’m not the only worried Westerner. Andrew R. of Oita Prefecture wrote of his culture shock, “Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear!”

So if the act appears (and is) dangerous, why do it? A cotton swab or a towel over my finger always the job done for me. Are all of these tools really necessary?

Turns out they might be – not all earwaxes are created equal.

Earwax Nomenclature


Photo by Hiro

There are two basic types of earwax. Genetics determines which type you have, but it’s also connected to race.

Erika Engelhaupt of reported on earwax research performed at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “‘We could obtain information about a person’s ethnicity simply by looking in his ears,’ chemist Katharine Prokop-Prigge said. If you would describe yourself as white or black, your earwax is probably yellow and sticky. If you are East Asian or Native American, it’s likely to be dry and white.”

It appears that earwax type and underarm odor might share a connection. “As for our different ear odors, they came about because of a tiny change… that long ago granted an East Asian population a reprieve from both smelly underarms and sticky earwax.”

Why study earwax? Researchers hope to create an earwax test, similar to blood or urine tests, that would indicate health problems a patient might have.

Understanding earwax types allows us to understand the differences in ear cleaning cultures. Although my sticky earwax adheres to a cotton swab or towel, the “dry, flaky” earwax common among Japanese people doesn’t. This warrants the scoops, shovels and picks that pick and pull the dry, flaky earwax out. And considering the tools, having a partner perform the act seems seems safer than performing it alone.

Tools of the Trade


Whatever the reasoning, when it comes to ear-cleaning in Japan a simple cotton-swab won’t do. Ladles, loops, disks, picks and ear rakes line hygiene aisles. Ear cleaning tools, or mimi kaki (耳かき) come in plastic, wood, and even silver and gold models.

Some have puffs at the end to help pull wax out or brush it aside. Others have safety guards to prevent picks held by unsteady hands from entering too far.

The most technological models use LED lights to illuminate ear canal, making it easier to see. Some models even feature figurines for style. So Hello Kitty fans, for example, can reap extra satisfaction by cleaning their ears with an official Kitty-chan ear-pick.

If you’re single, don’t worry. Just because your love-life suffers doesn’t mean your ears have to. Daniel Krieger of TravelCNN reports, “When the Japanese government… (made) medical licenses unnecessary for ear cleaners, a new type of business sprung up in Tokyo and other big cities: ear-cleaning parlors, which now number in the hundreds.” Mr. Krieger purchased the hospitality of a “kimono-clad young woman,” tea, conversation, and the intimacy of a private ear cleaning for about $30.

Women with waxy build-up need not fret. “Though most Japanese ear-cleaning parlors cater more to men who may long for the maternal tenderness of their childhood, female-oriented salons have been appearing,” Mr. Krieger explained.

And if your love for mimi souji has grown into a fetish, there are parlors that cater to your needs as well. The Australian reported on the workers at a parlor called Tenshi no Tobira (Angel Gateway), “a job description that falls somewhere between beautician, unobtainable sex fantasy, and psychotherapist.” At these “discount versions of the traditional hostess bars” a cute member of the opposite sex cleans a customers ears while providing pleasant conversation and, according to an AFP News report, blowing their ears clean.

A few ear-cleaning parlors provide even more thorough, less innocent cleaning services. According to The Tokyo Reporter, “Mimi Kaki Club charged a heady 20,000 yen (about $200) for a 60-minute session, of which only the first 10 minutes involved ear-reaming.” If you’re having trouble imagining what followed mimi souji please read the article, but be forewarned that it includes adult language and strong sexuality. And please remember this type of mimi souji is the exception, not the rule.

But even improved ear cleaning technology and strong-lunged workers can’t hide the truth – most experts agree ear cleaning is unnecessary.

A Sound Argument Against Ear Cleaning


Photo by Ricky Qi

Wet or dry, earwax serves a noble purpose. Alice Gordenker explains, “(Earwax is) there to protect the skin of the ear canal and keep out things you wouldn’t want in your ear, including bacteria, water and (bugs).”

Doctor Timothy C. Hain of agrees, “One should realize that wax isn’t all that bad. It keeps your ear dry and helps prevent infection. Thus, you don’t want to eliminate wax.”

Perhaps my eyes didn’t deceive me. Maybe we should all tense up at the though of earwax removal – be it by finger, cotton-swab, pick, rake, or scoop. The act appears dangerous because it is. Even the innocent-looking cotton-swab causes its share of injuries. Rose Eveleth of Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Removing wax yourself can be dangerous… Thousands of people go to the hospital every year because of those pesky cotton swabs.”

Besides, ears are self-cleaning by design. Ross Pomeroy of RealClearScience explains, “‘(Excess wax) falls out of the ear without us noticing.’ Much of this cascade occurs while we eat. The movement of the jaw massages wax out of the ear canal. Along with the wax comes any particulates or dirt that were gumming up the hearing works.”

But what about waxy buildup? Surely some situations call for the physical removal of wax, right? Professor Kobayashi suggests that “there are times when ear wax has to be removed, but it should be always be handled by a medical professional.”

“If someone experiences symptoms such as pain, discharge, a sense of fullness or hearing loss,” Professor Kobayashi continued, “they should go to a doctor who has training and special tools.”

Is That Waxy Buildup In Your Ears, Or Are You Just Happy To Hear Me?


“Remember, never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ears,” an elementary school teacher of mine once said.

“My elbow’s too big to fit in my ear!” a classmate called out.

“Exactly!” He said with a smile. Though I couldn’t maneuver my elbow anywhere near my ear to try, the teacher had made his point – don’t stick anything in your ears.

And health professionals agree, cleaning one’s ears is unnecessary and often does more harm than good. Self cleaning can lead to deeper wax buildup, infections, and damage to the inner ear. And thanks to natural mechanisms, ears clean themselves. So is it really worth the risk?

Some people think so. In many countries ear cleaning has become a hygienic ritual. This is especially true in Japan, a culture that prides itself on cleanliness. But mimi souji supercedes hygiene. Many consider the act a pleasurable, comforting experience that embodies love and trust.

Mii-chan, an ear cleaning parlor girl concluded, “The ear is a very sensitive place and, when someone is cleaning it, you feel loved.”

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Is Japan Really “Conservative”? Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 I don’t think that I’m the only one who has experienced this but I often hear the word “conservative” being applied to Japan. At first I just accepted it as being true – because Japan is very obviously conservative on many fronts. But after a while, I started having doubts – maybe “conservative” isn’t the best word to describe Japan.

I’m going to try to explore how “conservative” Japan really is in this article. But first a definition is in order. I think most people have a their own idea of what conservative means, so when I use the term in this article, I mean prizing the group over the individual, a rejection of change, and a preservation of social and sexual mores.



Photo by Joe Jones

Election campaigning truck from the conservative – and dominant – Liberal Democratic Party

Politics in Japan does show a conservative stance, certainly. This is seen firstly in how rarely the regime changes. Since 1955, Japan has had only had four changes in the main governing party with no change in the main ruling party between 1955-1993.

Secondly, the main and dominant party in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has a conservative slant. For example, while most of the other major political parties support some legal recognition of same-sex couples, the LDP is strictly opposed to it. In addition, it has also traditionally and, especially recently, shown a nationalist stance involving efforts to revise the peace clause in the Japanese constitution, visiting the Yasukuni shrine, and so on.

But even so, there’s some qualifications to be made. The LDP for example, has also traditionally been heavily in favour of protectionism and wealth distribution from the cities to the countryside. Not very economically conservative then.



Photo by May S. Young

Conservative or not conservative, that is the question

Stuff is a bit mixed when it comes to society. It’s a bit “yes and no”. Let’s start with the “no” side.

Compared to other East-Asian countries, Japan is actually quite liberal on some issues. The Pew Attitudes Report, for example, notes that Japan is actually one of the few countries where there is a clear plurality (44% vs 28%) that views abortion as acceptable. Japan also has a relatively high acceptance for divorce, contraceptives, and homosexuality – especially when compared to other Asian countries.

Very interestingly, Japan has the fewest number of people who view alcohol use as immoral among all countries. And while I do agree with Japan’s stance on this issue…why am I not surprised?



Photo by

Entrance to Kabukicho, the most infamous red-light district in Japan

This is hard to talk about without overblowing all the sensationalist imagery with which Japan is associated – tentacles, kinks, and all.

What is clear, however, is that Japan has commercialised sex to an extent not often found in other societies. This isn’t just regarding their (in)famous pornography or how adult magazines are uncensored and right next to shonen-jump at convenience stores. Commercialised sex permeates Japanese society in a way which may appear very nonchalant to an outside observer.

For example, it is not uncommon for some very traditional Japanese companies to, after work, have a company nomikai (drinking party) at a strip-club. The little TVs in capsule hotels also will probably have one porn channel which anyone staying there can access. The size of Kabukicho (the most well-known red-light district in Tokyo) and how blatant it is – after all, it is but a few minutes from Shinjuku – may symbolise how ubiquitous and normalised commercialised sex is in Japan.

This often shocks outside observers, but I don’t think moral judgements on Japan are that easy to make in this case. After all, it’s not as if sex isn’t commercialised in other countries – it may not be as blatant, but it certainly happens. However, if one views commercialised sex as exploitative of women, this would be a problem.

Sex and Gender


Photo by OiMax

While there is certainly a degree of freedom in terms of commercialised sex, there are some qualifications and contradictions to be pointed out here.

For one, there is a permissiveness towards sex. But this does not mean that it’s talked about in an open manner – in my opinion, this is likely linked to a reluctance to discuss one’s private life and an avoidance of generally “serious” topics in conversation.

In any case the above applies to male sexuality – it won’t be mentioned in polite conversation but for a salaryman to go to a sex joint is perfectly “acceptable”. For a woman to do these things is frowned on much more.

This also shows some ways in which Japan appears to be very conservative – gender roles. While Japan scores well in terms of female health in international rankings, consider the following:

  • Politics – This is still pretty much a boy’s game in Japan. Only 8.1% of the lower house of parliament are women, according to this website. This is lower than the world average (21.9%) and is 132nd among 189 ranked countries.
  • Education – Differences are very clear when it comes to higher education. For example, the male to female ratio in the University of Tokyo is around 8:2. The number of male “ronin” (students spending an extra year to retake the University examinations) is around 3 times that of female “ronin”. Females also tend to apply for 2 year university courses instead of four year courses.
  • EmploymentThis article mentions some points about employment. In any case, the Japanese workplace is still quite gender unequal.
  • Society – If you go to a nomikai in Japan and, especially if it’s formal, it’s obvious that women at the table will be very attentive to the beer levels in everyone’s glasses. Once they hit dangerously low levels, women swoop in and pour. This perhaps emphasizes how there’s an underlying assumption that women are supposed to be subservient.

In Other Words…


So maybe “conservative” isn’t the right word to describe Japan. The word I’m thinking about is more along the lines of “change-resistant”, because very often things move slowly in Japan. This may be surprising to people who view Japan as a hyper-modern high-tech society with robots and such. But when you consider how change-resistant Japanese organisations are, how job and university applications are still done by paper, and how fax is still used in Japan, this needs to be qualified.

There are many reasons for this resistance to change, but here are just a few I could think of:

  • Adversity to Risk - Japan and the Japanese people are still very risk adverse. And this is pretty much visible in all parts of society. From the low levels of entrepreneurship, to low numbers of people going abroad, to the tendency to vote for the “safe” conservative political party. Take a look here for an article on Businessweek on this. In any case, without risk-taking, there won’t be as much change in society.
  • Hierarchy – When society is structured based on age with seniority the main criteria for “moving upward”, then it probably means that decision making is likely to be centered on a more change-resistant group of people.
  • Consensus - This isn’t exactly a bad thing but, stereotypically speaking, Japanese firms take much longer to make decision than, say, American firms. One reason is the cultural need to build consensus and ensure that everyone is on the same page before making that decision.

You can see how this can have its benefits. However, one downside to this is that decision-making as a whole is slowed down. In addition, I personally think that consensus also means that often the “lowest common denominator” decisions are taken – not exactly conducive for radical reform.

Yes and No


Photo by D. Julien

Obviously whether Japan is “conservative” or not really depends on the definition and what you’re comparing Japan to. However, in contrast with many other countries and many of Japan’s close neighbours, it certainly can’t be said that Japan is “extremely conservative”, even though it has its very rigid parts.

I’m now wondering if anyone else has heard any other “Japan is ________” statements that they feel are suspicious or worthy of examination. Leave your comments and suggestions below and I’ll see whether I can write another article examining these stereotypes.

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More Than Gaijin: Specific Ethnic Groups Living in Japan Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:00:03 +0000 When you hear that Japan is a homogenous country, know that it’s a lie. There’s certainly less diversity here than other places, but there are tons of foreigners. Some are harder to spot than others, partially because there is pressure to conform and blend in, but diversity is here. We have preconceived notions of many ethnicities in our own countries, so Japan isn’t alone in its treatment of foreigners. But their treatment is a bit different (again, partially because of that emphasis to fit into the group). There are so many other foreigners out here that I feel some comments should be made about some of these stereotypes. That way, hopefully, people have a starting point for in-depth discussions about, not only being a gaijin in Japan, but something more specific. Being Nepalese, being half Korean, half Japanese, Vietnamese American. In Japan! Something more than just gaijin.

She’s Not Foreign!


Photo by Dylan Raife

I know people forget this often but, sometimes, just because someone looks foreign, doesn’t mean they are. Some of us are born to parents who look a little different from other native people and end up kind of in between two or more cultures. I know a bit about how this feels, but Japan isn’t my home country. I have been mistaken for half in Japan, but it’s more funny than insulting to me. I know I’m foreign here, but for the kids born here that look foreign, I know it can be rough.

As a teacher, the first day of the first semester generally means I have to do a self introduction. While for normal people this should take less than a minute, for some reason, Japanese teachers want to make it much, much longer. I’ve turned mine into something more akin to “people and places in my life before Japan” because, well, talking about yourself for up to an hour seems really narcissistic. Anyway, while I’m doing my presentation, I notice there’s a little commotion centered around one student. The room’s a bit dark at this time, so I can’t tell why. I keep looking to the teacher, and he just smiles. I’m still not sure if it was because he knew why it was happening and wanted to surprise me, or because it was normal and he didn’t think much of it. When the lights come up and I ask if anyone has any questions, I see the students staring at the kid: she’s half white, half Japanese. I’ve been in similar situations myself but, as a kid, I didn’t really share my ethnicity and people could never guess it. I knew the girl didn’t want to be singled out, so I just taught class as I usually do. She never spoke and never raised her hand. She didn’t try to come talk to me after class or school. Instead, on her introduction card, which only I see, she says the obvious, like any other normal Japanese kid would. It turns out her mother is from the same state as me, but she spells it the way Japanese people would.

I rarely interact with her but, when I do, she’s fully Japanese. Some students get very interested when I randomly call on her or in the very rare cases she’s brave enough to ask for help in class, but she’s very much a normal Japanese girl. Her English isn’t great. There are many students better at English than her, even in her own class. We have no special bond, no chats after class, nothing like that. I know she’s Japanese but mixed, and she knows it too. She knows kids are staring and expect her to do something different, to suddenly turn super foreign and, I don’t know, speak perfect English and suddenly know all about America. But it doesn’t happen. It’s not that much different from the states except that here, it stands out much more.

If anything, I probably end up connecting more with the kids who are mixed asian. Students secretly (or sometimes openly) tell me they’re also mixed or born to foreign (asian) parents after my self introduction, if my mixed heritage comes up. I’ll talk about it a bit more later, but sometimes it’s the teachers who tell me someone is mixed, like it’s a secret, and those are the kids that, like the girl I described above, might distance themselves from me a bit. Moreso than her, though, there’s kind of some unspoken tension because we both know what being mixed and “not foreign” is like, and calling any attention to it is just not needed most of the time except when the kid gets teased.

It’s not just something that happens in class though. I had a kid somehow mistake me for her dad in the super market and grab my leg. Maybe it’s because we both were wearing black jeans and, being a small child, she didn’t look high enough before latching onto my leg. I heard perfect Japanese, no accent, and looked down to see a little black girl. Mom (Japanese) and dad (African) had a good laugh as the kid noticed her mistake and found them a few aisles down.

Asian Foreigners or “Oh, So You’re Not a Japanese Girl?”


Photo by camknows

I hope that Tofugu faithfuls recall Austin hitting on this topic, but will hopefully allow me to make a few broad additions and add new voice to the discussion.

As Austin mentioned, the Japanese often can’t tell the difference between their country’s men (or women) and non-Japanese Asians until they hear an accent, and sometimes even then they seem to have trouble. For example, I went to a Chinese restaurant with some Japanese friends and I noticed the waitress’ accent. I mentioned that I thought she was Chinese, but my friends didn’t believe me, so we asked her in the politest way possible (“Can you speak Chinese? Oh, where did you learn it?”) and yes, she said she was Chinese and had moved to Japan. Now, I’m not saying everyone can do this, but let’s compare this to my trip to Korea where my Japanese friend, who always approached people in English, always had Korean people greeting him in Japanese. As much as he thought he’d be able to blend in, he somehow stood out like I normally do in the Japanese countryside.

From what I’ve gathered, in Japanese eyes, Koreans seem “preferable” to Chinese. I’ve never heard complaints about the accent or personalities from Japanese people about Koreans, only sometimes that Koreans can be a bit “outgoing.” When I’ve brought up the idea of studying a foreign language, a fair number of students I’ve had in Kanto said they wanted to study Korean. It’s seen as “cool” by the younger generation. Korean dramas and bands are really popular here, and the “Korean Towns” I’ve visited aren’t just filled with Koreans.

However, even being Korean-Japanese still gets you treated as a foreigner. Teachers will sometimes “out” a student to me. I will say that the Korean students do stand out a bit most of the time, and seem to be popular. But for the most part, I would have never guessed they were foreign born unless I had been told. In some ways, it almost feels like the reverse of the American perspective of Canadians, in that they’re seen as friendly neighbors, but Japanese kids at least seem to think Koreans are cool, or at least when there’s no political misalignment (though a lot of the kids don’t seem to understand why Koreans are sometimes angry at Japan).

The Chinese, though, get a lot of complaints, both from Japanese men and women. I had a student everyone called “China” even though his dad was Japanese. He had a Chinese accent and was tall, so it was hard for him to blend in. The person he seemed closest to (and got teased by the most) was a yankiI think they meshed together because they were both outsiders. Unlike other kids, when he learned I was mixed, he was pretty happy. I could get him to work a little harder just by giving him a little extra attention, or he might hang back in the hall to talk a bit if I saw him between classes or after school, which isn’t totally uncommon for Japanese students, but it’s usually the sign you’ve won them over.

Like in English, Chinese accents (and thereby the people) are often accused of “sounding angry” in Japanese, which is something part of my culture is accused of (I prefer see it as “passionate”). Chinese are often seen as selfish and loud, more so than rude Americans, except that no one here understands Chinese (even though Mandarin is honestly spoken in my city more than English). The typical idea of Chinese here seems to be that they always want to be first in line and always speak loudly and don’t care who’s around. I’m sure white foreigners are a bit familiar with this idea, except Japanese really don’t understand Mandarin or Cantonese, so whatever’s being said is just a mystery to the locals. With Western English speakers, however, they usually understand quite a bit about when you’re complaining about Japanese culture.

What’s funny though, I’ve heard many Chinese people here say the Japanese are too quiet and polite, and that the food here “has no taste”. Of all the foreigners though, I feel like I get along with the Chinese best in that we try to blend in a bit, but also understand that we have our own culture and want to share it. One thing to note, though: If you’re dating Chinese and Japanese out here, be ready for a bit of a rant if you tell one that you’ve dated the other!

My Vietnamese friend and her mother who visited kind of blended in, until they spoke. My friend would get dirty looks because, truthfully, she’s more endowed than your average Japanese girl and showed a little skin, but once she started speaking to her mom in Vietnamese, people apparently got a little confused. I was recently talking to her and figured it might be nice to get some exact quotes from a female, non-Japanese Vietnamese, American-born perspective:

“It was oddly comfortable in Japan compared to say when I was visiting Canada or France. Maybe it was because everyone was Asian, so non-Asian foreigners stood out a lot more. However, in Tokyo, it was clear that my mom and I were foreigners in some sense because of the way we dressed. Tokyo’s very…stylish and the women there dress very feminine, while my mom and I were more comfortable in jeans. I really think that I was the only girl my age wearing jeans…and I got even strange looks when I finally took out my flip flops. Of course, the “low cut” shirts were also a very odd experience since that’s what would be considered mildly “conservative” where I’m from. My sister-in-law mentioned that when she went to Japan during May two years back, when she wore shorts, and got a lot of stares. And she doesn’t wear Daisy duke short shorts; they’re typical shorts that stop just above the knee.”

“I would get strange looks from Japanese people when I was speaking in Vietnamese to my mom – and when I couldn’t think of the word – switch to English. Or a full-on English sentence.”

“My mom wasn’t really into all the bowing. She felt uncomfortable when we went to the hotel and the staff members bowed at us. For me, I understand that it’s a cultural thing, but for my mom, who really takes pride in women standing up for themselves and all that, felt uncomfortable and sorry for the staff.”

European and Not “White”


Photo by camknows

During the last Cherry Blossom festival, I met an older German woman selling bratwurst. I can’t tell every nationality apart, but from both the look and sound of her, I knew she was German when she stood up: heavy accent, fading blond hair, blue eyes, and tall. Very tall. We had a short chat, and one thing that was kind of interesting popped up: Japanese people apparently thought she was from England!

That’s important because in Japan, many people (Japanese and traveling foreigners alike) see white Europeans and seem to think they’re American, English, Australian, or Canadian. If you’re Irish, they might ask why your accent’s so different. French? “Your English is amazing!”

Often on trains, I’ll see “white” people who are French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The travelers are always happy to ask me questions since my English is (naturally) better than the locals’ and they have questions. Those who teach here though are sometimes a bit miffed. Sometimes they’re accused of “not speaking real English” because it’s also their second language though. At the same time, they’re seen as experts. It can be a frustrating situation from what I’ve seen and heard, but I hear most of it second hand. Just know that if you’re from Europe but not England, Japanese might ask you about your hometown, what foods you like, and might even ask for some recipes. How do I know ? To be honest, after a bunch of drunk Americans walked by a little ramen shop I was having lunch at, the store owner turned to me and asked where my parents came from. I claimed the French part. And I taught them about French toast. Not my proudest moment, but now you fellow Americans who know your background, maybe a little of the language and food can pull that off if your colleagues get horribly embarrassing and you are tired of playing ambassador (sorry America!).

Quick aside to those who are mixed in America and are asked about their heritage by European people: If your grandparent came from Europe, but not your parent, you might be told you’re not European, just American. It’s happened a few times when trying to explain my various ethnicities (more on that later). Simply note which exact family member came from which European country in order to possibly avoid the long debate on when Americans stop being foreigners and become Americans (personal opinion: when people stop questioning your nationality).

“What are you?”- The Rest of Us


Some cultures here are rarer than others, and while I have maybe a single, strong experience with a group or many small run-ins with the same people, I’m kind of lumping them together because I have experience (or a great link to share) and have done the “cross culture” chat with them a few times so I don’t look like a total boob. That being said, remember these are just my experiences, and everyone will have a different one.

Now, I really hate saying this, especially with the current political climate, but in Japan, Muslim people stand out in Japan, and in a horrible way. I don’t really mean it in the “terrorist” way, but there’s that too. I used to have a long beard and long hair I kept under a beanie, and my brother was often described as either “That guy that looks like Jesus” or “the terrorist.” And that was in English. In Japan, he got stopped pretty often and attracted a lot of attention, good and bad.

No, it’s not quite the “terrorist” thing. The religion is seen as extreme, and the dietary restrictions are starting to become well known even in the inaka.” I had a co-worker who was Muslim and she had a very difficult time with food, which is one of the things Japanese really try to share. The easiest way to bond with most people is through food in my opinion, and when you can’t do that, things become difficult. Japanese people don’t realize that almost everything they eat is haram, or “not allowed.” They know about the “no pork” thing, and some know about “no alcohol”, but they don’t know quite how far Muslims take this. For example, I was told that a lot of baked goods (even the bread!) from convenience stores comes from factories that use pork-based grease on their pans. That’s not allowed. Mirin? It’s a kind of rice wine. Not allowed. Even things with soy sauce are dicey because natural soy sauce is fermented. Fermentation is how you make alcohol, which is very much haram. How the new Muslim Egyptian sumo is able to keep his weight here is a mystery to me.

Black people in Japan is something I don’t want to talk a lot about, not because it makes me uncomfortable, but because it’s a whole other article. Dark skin in asian countries is usually not viewed well, but Nigerians in Tokyo have particularly stood out and are associated with crime. Obviously not every Nigerian is like that, but the stereotype is hard to avoid, even out in the inaka where the rare black people I see are often working in a hip-hop store if they aren’t teachers. For those who want a really good, slice-of-life black-in-Japan look, I suggest reading Gaijin Chronicles. The blog hasn’t been updated in a few years, but it covers the topic so well, and in so much detail for everyday life, that I really can’t even try to do it any justice. Just give it a read.

Next time you to got an Indian place, ask yourself this: are they Indian or Nepalese? I won’t lie, I can’t tell the difference, which is why I ask. My favorite “Indian” restaurant here is actually run by a guy from Nepal, and he actually had another place in Tokyo before. Japanese people who lament not being able to practice English in the inaka always forget that Indian and Nepalese people speak English. They say it’s “not real English” but let’s be honest: there are so many dialects of English, you might as well use what you’ve learned and talk to someone else who can understand you. Honestly, any Japanese people reading this: go talk to foreign staff at your favorite curry house! They’re always friendly, to the point where the half Indian kid who barely speaks English (born in Japan) still goes out of his way to greet me if we bump into each other, even though I only ate at his parents’ place one time. Same goes for the Indian guys from another place. The Nepalese guys… I only go to their place twice a year, but they seem to know I love their food, or are just happy to have someone to practice English with. Anywhere I see them they give me a head nod at the very least.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m mixed. If I say I’m part Ainu, people are actually willing to believe it, even though it’s a joke. If a co-worker introduces me as half Japanese, people will believe it. Sometimes, if the conversation is right, Japanese people will think I’m half too. That’s only the ones that are more culturally aware though. Most Japanese just see my beard and think I’m American, English, or German (got a bit of all of that in me though, so that’s fair). However, I do get asked where my parents are from, and “America” isn’t good enough because, like many Americans, some Japanese can tell I’m “not quite white.”

Other foreign people seem to pick up on it too though. Spanish people have approached me in Spanish first. I’ve gotten a “guten tag” while I was in Kyoto before my terrible German quickly revealed to them that I was not a native speaker, and just last month, I had an Indian or Nepalese ask for directions yet insist that I was from a Middle Eastern country (I have Persian friends who would have been a bit upset with that).

Some people say I should be mad, or I should call them out on their racism, but let’s be honest: if you’re not a little bit racist, you’re probably terribly innocent. Americans people love cheese and bacon, Germans love beer, Asians can use chopsticks. You can actually offend people by questioning them about these things, even though there are honestly people out there that these stereotypes don’t apply to. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve been the guy that didn’t fit the stereotype and the one that was shocked I was asked about it. It’s just how our world works.

In general, foreigners stand out a lot, even in Japan, unless you’re a quiet Asian. Much like the “Are you Chinese?” question many Asians report encountering, Japan has only the faintest idea of where people come from. And sometimes it’s really, really far off. Just smile, laugh, and try to educate people a little.

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Special Education on Japanese Special Education Mon, 30 Jun 2014 16:00:27 +0000 An English teacher walks out of a classroom with two students with down’s syndrome, a student with polio, and two “regular” students. He asks a Japanese teacher why the “regular” students are in that class. The Japanese teacher replies, “She’s too fat. The other one is too shy.”

If you think that punchline was in poor taste, I have bad news for you: that wasn’t a joke. That was how one of my classes at a special needs school ended. As a person who got to teach those (honestly great) kids, I was actually quite offended. I know the teacher didn’t mean to be offensive, and that maybe what he was saying was the students’ parents’ reason for enrolling in a special needs school, but hearing it put like that was upsetting to say the least.

While Tofugu has talked a bit about how (Japanese) parents want their kids to be normal, the issue can also work in reverse. That is, their child is “normal,” but the parent seeks to shelter them. I use “regular” and “normal” here in quotes because what defines these words is relative, not only on a cultural level, but on a personal one as well.

Handicapped in Japan – An Overview


Photo by Trent McBride

Japan has an interesting relationship with handicapped people. On one hand, the country is notoriously unfriendly for those who are physically disabled, to the point that there’s a website specifically for those curious about how (in)accessible a location may be. Sorry, but the note on this site about Akihabara is quite an understatement. There are handicapped parking spaces in Japan, but they’re so rare that most blue and white marking I see on the road mostly signify as bicycle lane.

This isn’t all of Japan though, and Japan also does a lot of good for their handicapped. When some of the Tofugu members visited Japan last year, they mentioned how accessible it is, but this is mostly for the blind. What they didn’t mention is that even Japanese beer cans are accessible. I have witnessed several instances of crossing guards going the extra mile to help blind people cross the street, but kids who can’t walk seem to avoid some of the main roads in my neighborhood. While I am living in what seems like a textbook example of a city by American standards, anything outside of Tokyo is considered “inaka” (countryside) by many. So perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve experienced a little culture shock when dealing with disabilities issues in Japan, or students who are in special needs schools but lack disabilities.

To be frank, disabilities are still viewed negatively. Some people still dress it up, but one Japanese mother quite bluntly described her disabled children as “God’s defective goods.” While it may sound cruel, the woman is being very honest about her experience, and those who may wish to believe raising disabled kids is only a “blessing” would need to be dishonest with themselves if they could not at least admit that it is a difficult situation. That being said, the situation can be made easier. People with down’s syndrome can, controversially, receive reconstructive surgery, both for cosmetic and functional reasons. Naturally, the cognitive abilities of the patient may sometimes limit what can be done but, as I’ll discuss later, that doesn’t always stop parents from pursuing it.

Training for Special Education


Photo by Amy Watson

Being a developed country, one would expect good things from Japan in terms of taking care of their disabled. It is, however, a bit of a mixed bag. While there are some small schools for the handicapped in my prefecture, there is one quite large school that is a technological wonderland.

While my “normal” schools have teachers who have no idea how to use an overhead projector or believe the only tools worth using in the classroom are a blackboard and chalk, my special school had… well, everything. Huge televisions, automatic doors, toilets and faucets, washlets in every bathroom, an elevator with doors opening in the front and the back, Wii Sports Resort, and computers for the faculty. All the faculty. That might sound normal, but most teachers around here who aren’t full time employees are lucky if they can even borrow their own computer on a daily basis. At my old special needs school, every employee had their own. It’s also worth noting that there was one teacher for every student.

Let that sink in for a moment. Think about your own classrooms growing up. I was thrilled in college when I had a class with one teacher and eight students. Walking into some of the handicapped classes with a teacher literally holding each student was mind boggling, in a very good way. Not all classes were like this, but the classes were very small and always well supported.

However, that also had a down side which actually took a very long time for me to figure out. Despite the fact that this was a school for handicapped children– children with learning disabilities, physical deformities, blindness, deafness, etc– aside from the sign-language interpretor, these teachers were not properly trained for their work. It may be a bit ethnocentric, but that’s my feeling. While I’m no expert, I grew up in a school that had students with down’s syndrome and shared some classes with them and their personal teachers. I had to study special needs issues, particularly in their relationship to language learning, and some of the things that well meaning but ignorant Japanese special needs teachers said or did were often dated, to say the least.

Students with working hands and facial deformity learned to use a speaking computer rather than sign-language. Teachers talking to deaf students generally yelled, rather than (if they knew it) use sign-language or more clearly moving their lips at the absolute least. I was told certain kids would never understand Japanese, which, after triple checking with one of my former university teachers, isn’t true (grammar is difficult, but simple nouns and verbs are very possible). In fact, these same teachers would use complex grammatical structures when addressing kids and even said there was nothing they could do. Even after I tried showing them how a single word or very simple sentence (in my poor Japanese) repeated in different tones could catch a student’s attention and get them to focus on the most important part of your message, most teachers simply believed that I had some sort of gift. Only rarely did other teachers seem to employ these techniques themselves or pick them up from me.

I should have suspected something sooner, but it wasn’t until a rather unfriendly teacher at my academic high school was being transferred to a special school that I learned the truth: any regular Japanese teacher can be assigned to a special needs school. While I’ve had many teachers tell me that there is no training for this in Japan, it’s not true. It’s just very, very uncommon. The current generation of teachers do get some training when they enter the new school, but I’m told that is only a few hours or days. While some teachers seem like naturals, others are clueless and seem to have given up hope on the students, simply going through the motions as one might expect in a “regular” school.

Too Shy For “Normal” School


There was often a very clear line as to when I was able to teach and who I could teach to, but that didn’t make it easy. I had “students” who were hydrocephalics, with heads twice the size of their tiny four year old bodies. I had screaming students placed onto my lap that bit themselves out of nervousness till they bled. I had students who, just by seeing an adult male, would burst into tears. Some of the problems could be overcome, but others were impossible, at least for me.

Some students though, were quite normal. From what I understand, Japan’s official policy is to separate disabled students from “regular” classes, but it’s up to local boards of education to handle this. However, around here, a parent can get their way if they make enough noise. I know that might seem odd from the culture that constantly employs “the nail that stands up gets hammered down,” but it’s true. Many parents use their outspokenness to get their very normal kids placed in special needs schools.

One little rebel, for example, was supposedly in the special needs school because she had a “rough home life.” This child was stuck in a class with several down’s syndrome students and a few with handicaps that made it difficult for them to speak or write. And this girl certainly had an attitude! Most Japanese kids are thrilled to meet foreigners. While I could tell she was curious about me when I first came to class, she tried to pretend I was just another “useless” teacher. However, as lessons went by, I noticed she was whispering the answers to herself. I started asking her to help other students, both the ones who were unable to do anything on their own and the ones who, at the very least, seemed to understand the lesson but had disabilities that made expressing their thoughts difficult. This girl was smart and seemed to figure out when she was “helping” or giving her answers quite quickly. She started smiling more, and at one point, asked me to put some furigana above some lyrics she had printed out so she could learn to sing some songs she liked (curse you Lady Gaga and your use of French!). Last time I saw her, she had certainly grown, both in height and maturity. She was freely helping her classmates, always with a smile, and was patient with the ones who understood their situations but had trouble expressing themselves.

As for my students from the start of this article, they’re great kids. The kid who was “too fat” was a middle school student and understood English better than some of my high school students. In fact, most of the students in that class who didn’t have down’s syndrome understood English better than some of my high school kids. Her “too shy” friend was the same. The girl had a great imagination and was a good artist (I had thought she’d drawn some Pokemon I hadn’t seen before, but it turned out they were just her own ideas). The girl with polio? She might have had trouble walking, but she had her own way of running. All three girls were pretty happy kids, high functioning, and only limited by having to go at a slower speed because they were studying with classmates who had mental disabilities.

I did, however, have down’s syndrome students who, if it were up to me, would have been in a mainstream school. “Alex” (not his real name) was actually quite amazing. He was an elementary school student with not only down’s syndrome but another growth problem that made him much shorter than most kids his age. At about nine years old, he only stood maybe two and a half feet tall. Like many kids with his disability, he has a tongue that’s slightly too big for his mouth, so talking for him was more difficult. Somehow though, his English accent is quite good, even if he doesn’t speak more than perhaps three words at a time. He understands what’s being said and was able to play “Simon Says” quite well after only a few mistakes. He could even sometimes give answers his “normal” peers couldn’t. Teachers worried about him because of his height, but he was allowed to move around on his own and even led me to the teacher’s office by himself once. This kid was less disruptive and much smarter than the down’s syndrome kids I had classes with in “regular” elementary school.

Special Needs in “Normal” Schools


Photo by Angie Harms

I don’t want to demonize the special schools or “normal” students though. The situation is simply different, partially due to how people choose to raise their kids. There are kids who have real problems whose parents put them in regular schools. I had two students (in separate classes) in the same school who had aspergers syndrome. It wasn’t mild either. It was immediately apparent that there was something different with these students. Oddly enough, both loved English and would often be the loudest or most outspoken person in the class, but the similarities ended there.

One boy had friends, or so it seemed, since he lives in my neighborhood and I’ve seen his friends wave him over to join them. However, he craves attention, not just from his classmates, but teachers also. He studies a lot, but because of his condition, it’s obvious that some of the most important lessons he’s learning aren’t in his books. Being in a normal school has probably helped him a lot, yet he still misses a lot of social cues. He asks odd questions and takes things (at least in English) far too literally, which has caused some confusion and hurt feelings when he thinks another teacher or I are upset with him. Overall though, I think he’s having a good experience, and his parents made the right choice to keep him mainstream.

The girl, on the other hand, might need some more attention. While outspoken, she seems to fear her classmates at times, and her classmates are often silent if she says anything. For example, at the start of class, when the students are normally expected to greet me in unison, the other students are mostly silent and allow the girl to speak directly to me. Of course, she wants the teachers’ attention, but that’s not exactly seen as a positive attribute. There’s some giggling, but I haven’t seen people really try to hurt her beyond that. Other students seem to try to work with her in class, even if they think no one’s watching, but it seems like she’s more comfortable working on her own, even in group. If she thinks I’m upset with her, she’ll almost be afraid of me, sometimes for a whole month (and I only might see her once a week at most). A specialist might be able to help her, especially if she had some one-on-one time with someone at the school. I’m glad she’s not at a special school, but at the same time, it feels like our school isn’t quite equipped to help her.

Slightly related are my students who are in regular classes but deemed unfit for the classroom and sent to a different room for independent study. Some teachers will tell me the student has a mental disorder but have no name for it, while other teachers will tell me that said student is bullied and the disorder is a made up as an excuse to separate the child. One child studies alone, and I only see them when I have to give them a test, which they take in a separate room, sometimes with an off-duty teacher there to monitor them.



Photo by ykanazawa1999

Japan’s reputation for helping the handicapped is deservedly mixed. The blind and the deaf seem to be well taken care of, and those with certain physical handicaps are slowly getting more tools to help them. However, mental disabilities are still a very difficult topic. The line between who has a disability and who doesn’t is further blurred by social problems under the same category from my western perspective; problems ranging from weight to bullying. While there are employment opportunities for the disabled, financial independence is difficult for them. As the this article mentions, 30,000 yen a month really isn’t a living wage. No country’s perfect in their treatment of the handicapped, but the situation in Japan is overall different (not better or worse) than what we may be used to at home.

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Why Japan Laughs At Zombies Tue, 24 Jun 2014 16:00:40 +0000 If you think about it, Japan is almost the perfect setting for zombie fiction: densely populated cities, sprawling subway system, small island nation—add a zombie outbreak and I’d watch that movie. However, nine times out of ten in Japanese zombie movies, instead of seeing a slow, deliberate, creepy film where the shambling hordes of the undead shuffle through crowded Tokyo subways spreading their deadly plague, you often get this:


Finally, a zombie film that’s also about poop!

or else you get this:


A scenery-chewing Power Rangers-style villain and wacky action sequences

Japanese zombie films are almost exclusively horror comedies and typically come in two flavors: zombie movies with farcical comedy elements built into the plot, or zombie kung-fu movies with farcical comedy elements built into the plot (With movies like “Versus”, “Wild Zero”, and “Zombie Self Defense Force”, this is apparently a thriving genre in Japan) . Both are executed with tongue-firmly-in-cheek and very thick layers of camp.

If the zombies aren’t playing an over-the-top game of kung-fu baseball against our protagonists, like in “Battlefield Baseball,”


Then they are the background of a romantic-horror-comedy with the main character’s impending zombification as the crux of the plot, like “Life is Dead.” Let’s not fail to mention that he contracted the virus by having sexual intercourse with a zombie prostitute.


Zombies are parodied further in manga like “Kore wa Zombi Desu Ka” and “Tokyo Zombie.” The latter also got a movie treatment featuring two friends who are factory workers and, of course, martial arts masters squaring off against legions of the undead in a zombie kung-fu horror comedy (Jeez, they really are THAT popular).


There are even movies that push the horror elements fairly well but still seem overly interested with parodying the genre, making jokes, and having creepy comedy elements. A good example of this is “Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies.” The title and many of the visuals are used for cheap shock value, with over-the-top gore and wacky sight gags aplenty. The filmmakers also keep up a near constant barrage of self-aware references to pioneers of the modern zombie film like George Romero and Sam Raimi.


Why are zombies so often seen as clowns in Japanese media? Despite the fact that a zombie clown could actually be a very scary prospect, the tendency in Japanese media is to use zombies for comedic relief instead of pants-wetting horror. While a lot of this comes from the subversive nature of Japanese cinema, there are a couple of cultural theories that could help to explain this:

Why Zombies DON’T Scare Japanese People

They’re Foreign


Photo by Joe Mabel

Just like vampires, werewolves, and several other horror beasties, the zombie is not native to Japan. Japanese interactions with the undead are limited to spirits, certain yokai, and sometimes the Chinese Jiangshi (hopping corpse). After the zombie boom of the 1990s, which followed the popularity of the Romero movies, Zombies began to get more international appeal and Japan got on board the zombie train.

However, the foreign-ness of zombies never seems to leave the Japanese consciousness when they are making zombie media. It’s similar to American-made ninja or kaijuu movies— very similar if you consider how ridiculous some American ninja movies are. For this reason, invoking zombies in a Japanese movie is often considered referential of Western pop culture and because of that is often approached from a more ironic or humorous angle. This is perhaps why, when Japanese creators tackle the subject matter in a more straightforward and less subversive way, such as in “Dead Rising,” “House of the Dead” or the “Resident Evil/Biohazard” games, they are always set in the Western world and not in Japan.

They’re Not Ghosts


Historically, ghosts have captured the imaginations and fears of Japanese people far more than any promise of the corporeal undead ever has. There are a handful of reasons for this. Firstly, the Japanese traditionally cremate their deceased. Because of this, the iconic imagery of zombies rising from the grave is not only culturally disconnected from the mainstream its also completely impossible to depict realistically in Japan. Second, there is a rich history surrounding the existence of ghosts and spirits in Japan where zombies are not only the new kids on the block, but they are also seen as more outlandish and, as such, carry less weight in a horror movie. If the movie is meant to scare you, Japanese film might lean in the direction of a ghost story before using something with a physical body. Zombies just don’t have the same creep factor as a ghostly hand on your shoulder that slinks away when you stop to notice it. I mean how can they, because, well,

They’re Clumsy


Let’s face it, traditional depictions of zombies aren’t really THAT menacing. The idea is that they are slow and lumberingly incompetent by themselves but in a massive horde can quickly become a problem— a slow moving problem, but a problem nonetheless. This can go south for moviemakers because the slow movements, imperviousness to damage, lack of awareness when limbs fall off, and tendency to trip, slip, and look silly causes zombies to be a big unintentional source of physical comedy. There is not a single movie that I mentioned above that didn’t feature at least one scene where a zombie was flailing around humorously or otherwise used for a visual joke. Zombies are just silly-looking sometimes. Several western depictions of zombies have abandoned the slow moving schtick of the past for the swift-moving predatory “infected” model from “28 Days Later” or “Left 4 Dead.” I can’t help but think this is due at least slightly to the fact that you can only generate so much tension in a scene where your main antagonist is moving at the speed of smell and in danger of falling down at any given moment.

They’re Everywhere


This is definitely a big factor for any filmmaker approaching a zombie movie, Japanese or otherwise. Creators have to spend a bit of time digging around in the barrel of creativity going, “what else have we got?” It can’t just be zombies anymore. It has to be zombies with this or zombies with that. Between movies, video games, board games, card games, television shows, podcasts, t-shirts, and anything and everything else, we have over saturated the universe with zombie media. We’re approaching a zombie singularity where every movie will either have a zombie in it or a superhero. Even in Japan, which has much less of an infatuation with zombies than the West, the feeling has started to emerge that they are running out of fresh twists on the zombie formula and that’s a driving force in leading Japanese filmmakers to continue creating weird and wacky films. Zombies have reached the point where they are so played out that, frankly,

They Don’t Mean Anything Anymore


Zombies have worked as a scare in the past, not just by relying on blood and gore, but because they were representative of the perceived social ills and legitimate concerns of the filmmakers. In the same way that the original 1954 “Godzilla” endures because it’s a striking nuclear allegory, George Romero’s “Dead” films (the movies that for better or for worse started this modern zombie craze) endure because they dealt with issues like government ineptitude and unchecked commercialism. Romero’s zombies represented the fear of individuality being wiped out and absorbed into a mass consumer horde—fears that don’t resonate with the rather collectivist Japanese population. Zombies also represented the concept of the “other,” something that is different from you that swoops in and grows until you are pushed out of your rightful place. This is a very common fear to play on in the West, but something that a largely homogenized society like Japan’s didn’t readily cling to.

Even the more universal themes that could’ve made zombies frightening to the Japanese, such as the fear of spreading illnesses or the abuse of nuclear and biological weapons, have now been so watered down in the media that they too have lost their resonance. The iconic imagery of a walking human corpse has been used and reused and recycled and overused and reiterated and distilled until it doesn’t actually stand for much of anything any more. Sprint has used them to sell cell phones for goodness sake! A zombie is no longer an icon of fear. A zombie is just a zombie: A disposable rotting mook. If that’s all they are, why not throw them into kung-fu movies where filmmakers are always looking for hordes of something or other to have their stars punch their way through? I mean, it’s not like they matter—they’re just zombies!

Now if you’ll excuse me—I have some Japanese zombie movies to catch up on.

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City Life Outside Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto Thu, 19 Jun 2014 16:00:17 +0000 My mouth was hanging open and I know I was being rude, but it was really hard to pull myself together. The woman I was speaking with was from one of the top Japanese Universities. She has had international relationships, traveled the world, and done work that most foreign anime fans would kill to see. Someone with her experiences, to me, should be open-minded about other cultures and lifestyles. Just the same, I can’t help but to be bothered by what she said: “I feel like anything outside Tokyo’s 23 wards is inaka.”

Most of what you read about Japan and Japanese culture will come from people living in Tokyo. Some of it comes from people in Osaka, Kyoto, or sometimes Okinawa, since the base is there. But in general, Tokyo is seen as the center of the Japanese world.

While people say my new Japanese hometown is inaka, or “countryside,” I can walk to several malls from my house, take a free shuttle to the outskirts of town for even more shopping, and walk by a few schools on the way to work. My town even has its own line from Tokyo that comes by every thirty minutes or so. To me, this sounds like a city but to others, this is a countryside town.

Anything Outside the 23 Wards is Inaka


Photo by Otota DANA

My companion’s quote from the start of the article is one reason why some Japanese people, both inside and outside of Tokyo, look down on the Tokyo citizens.  This isn’t a random saying. I’ve heard it several times and every time I’ve brought it up to people who have talked about Tokyo being “different” from the rest of the country, people sort of shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s Tokyo.”

Now, to be clear, “the 23 wards” is specifically the 23 special wards (tokubetsu ku). Looking over that list might seem a bit funny, since you’ll notice Chiba, home of Tokyo Disneyland, is not in that list. That’s right! Some people think Disneyland is out in the “inaka.” In California, Disneyland’s practically considered it’s own city. It was at this point I had to start asking Japanese people an important question: “What does inaka mean?”

Often, people usually just use what they read in the dictionary, but I learned fast that “countryside” in American English is much different than in Japanese English. For me, countryside means farms. Countryside is driving to see your closest neighbor, riding tractors for work and pleasure, and being able to immediately tell who’s from your town just by looking at them.

When I say this to Japanese people and ask them to explain inaka, the joke is always the same: “Inaka is anything outside of Tokyo.” Osaka and Kyoto, for many, aren’t inaka, but Sapporo, which is one of the few parts of the country where this legendary thing called “insulated housing” exists, is inaka. Okinawa, in general, is kind of seen as “not Japanese” mainly due to the military base and the fact that the people there are viewed as different (you’ll hear about “Okinawa time” if anyone wants to joke about being an hour late). In fact, one person I spoke with said that most people, in general, can refer to their hometown as their inaka, but a person from Tokyo would never dare to do this.

I bring this up not only to make a point about the way Japanese people seem to feel about the word inaka, but to illustrate that Japanese people might think you are from the inaka.

Despite the fact that the cheapest houses in my hometown in America are over a million dollars, have Malibu-priced clothing stores, and a golf course built by Donald Trump, I was assured that, because there is one convenience store, no train, no game center, and no bars, my city surely must be inaka.

Everyday Life in a City that isn’t Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto


Photo by Takato Marui

So you might be wondering how “bad” it really is out here. Truthfully, I’m living in a city, at least by American standards. Great bus and train systems, tons of malls and movie theaters, some of the major stores people visit Tokyo to see, game centers, golfing… and a few rice paddies. Not many, but there are some. Imagine a fashionable mall, famous manga store, well-respected school with a strong baseball team, and major supermarket, all within walking distance, with maybe one field of rice. Honestly, the place is so city that I don’t think I would willingly eat any rice that grew in that field. I swear, it’s in front of a bus stop.

I can still buy some imported stuff, but it’s expensive. Raw peanuts and walnuts, canned pumpkin, oatmeal, peanut butter, buffalo wing sauce… I’ve seen tons of stuff from home, but not at the prices I’d be willing to pay unless desperate (I’m looking at you, pumpkin!). Clothes in my size, however, require a trip to Tokyo or other non-inaka city, except for when I go bowling. Yes, I can get shoes in my size at the alley.

Oddly enough, after having lost weight, I’ve had a really hard time finding an affordable belt in my size (I’m cheap). The pants are often too short here, but the belts, oddly enough, tend to be too large! If you’re a big guy or gal, you can get a decent belt here, even at a 100 yen shop.

For food, while people complain about the price of vegetables and fruits, you just have to make due with the local foods rather than try to rely on what you used to eat. Onions, especially nira, a grass-like green onion, are rather inexpensive. Potatoes aren’t that bad for the small sizes you can buy, garlic is well priced, and, for fruit, look out for mikan (it’s very similar to a tangerine) in the winter and apples in the fall

However, one really big difference is that non-Asian foreigners really stand out. If gaikokujin in Tokyo complain about it, consider it at least twice as bad outside of the city. I’ll discuss this more in the future, but oddly enough, not every foreigner out here is a native English speaker.

Now, to be blunt: outside the major cities, foreigners are not super common and the traditional Japanese politeness may start to go out the window. My second month in Japan, an old Japanese man rode up to me on his bike, jumped off, and started staring at me, just inches from my chest (he wasn’t very tall). This was in the middle of a popular shopping street that always has a few black guys standing outside their American fashion shop, so I didn’t think I’d be that interesting. The guy was amazed, and said something I didn’t fully catch, so my friend translated it: “He says, ‘Is your beard real?’”

The beard wasn’t the end of it. In bathrooms, both young children and old men will lean over to check out my, ah, “foreign member.” Some don’t even hide their curiosity, which is why I am completely uncomfortable going to any onsen other than the ones just for your feet. It’s not as bad as the “bigu dikku” comments black men have to endure (at least, I imagine it’s not), but it’s still rather uncomfortable.

Any stories you’ve heard about kids and a certain “game” involving the thrusting of fingers towards the anus are real. I’ve only had one kid try to pull it on me, and it was a little girl. Apparently she had never tried to do that with the Japanese teachers, but the teachers laughed when she tried it with me. I try to be open-minded about different cultures, but having a child do that to a grown man in public, especially a teacher, just doesn’t seem “okay” to me. It’s funny looking back at it now, but at the time, I was pretty surprised at the “kids will be kids” reaction, rather than the “Sweet Siddhartha, what in Buddha’s name do you think you’re doing!?” reaction I expected from such a bold move.

For me, what’s more interesting is how, if you’re a foreigner, anyone with you becomes foreign, unless you’re approached while they’re speaking Japanese. I’ve had Japanese friends accused of being foreigners by little Japanese kids who just walked up to us and said “Gai(koku)jin(foreigner (foreign person))?” It’s not totally bad though, because then the kids try the very little English they know and will ask the Japanese person for some help. It’s a great time to prep the young generation for dealing with foreigners in perhaps a more respectable manner the next time they bump into one. What’s funnier is when I’m with a non-native Asian person who speaks little to no Japanese while I do some very basic translating for them. More on that later though.

There is a lot of good that comes with the not-so-good. People are usually friendly. Even when I’m “scary”, people will warm up to me if given enough time. Kids and old people I walk by everyday say “hi” or at least greet me. Store owners I can barely talk to and whose stores I barely shop at will greet me. Some even throw in small gifts from time to time (thanks for the little scoops of potato-salad, yakitori-ya no obaachan!). As an introvert, the extra attention isn’t exactly desired but, when I’m having a rough day or if I’m starting to question why I stay in this country, the positive aspects and seeing people grow a little through interaction can really make my day.

Japanese People Don’t Speak English, But They Understand It


Photo by bonovox84

Despite the fact that very few people spoke English to me when I first came to Tokyo ten years ago, I remember getting a strong feeling Japanese people understood my English. For that matter, they understood the groups of Europeans who sat around in cafes and slammed Japanese culture, turning noisy cafes dead silent.

If there is one thing I want people to take away from this article, both for those in Tokyo and the inaka, it is “don’t slam Japan in English!” If you must, do it in Spanish, German, Mandarin, Arabic, or any other language but English. English is pretty much the only foreign language Japanese people study, and it’s mandatory. Japanese borrows tons of English words. You’ve heard seemingly random English words in J-Pop, Japanese commercials, and anime, right? Even in the inaka, English is scattered here and there, from tourist attractions to school club posters for the Tea Ceremony club. Japanese people may not speak a word of Japanese to you, but they’ve learned at least six years of English if they’re an adult. They might not understand the difference between “on the computer” versus “in the computer” but they certainly understand when you say, “They’re too polite!” I’ve heard stories from Japanese friends about foreign businessmen saying overtly sexual things about Japanese girls in their elevator thinking the girls didn’t understand them. They did, and those women felt deeply ashamed by the situation. Don’t be the foreigner in those stories!

Let’s switch gears to something a bit more positive. I said the Japanese understand English, right? Even out here, with my poor Japanese, I can usually overcome the language barrier if I speak slowly and try switching my vocabulary. My father doesn’t natively speak English, so I do have a lot of experience communicating with non-native speakers. I think patience is the real secret for adjusting and making connections.

Because Japanese people spend so much time on translating and very little time using the language, they are sometimes literally afraid to speak English. I mean shaking, almost crying, deeply-ashamed-to-try-and-communicate kind of afraid. During one instance, a grown man, upon finding out that the woman I was with was Taiwanese-American, not Japanese, and that I was the one that spoke Japanese, turned obviously pale when I spoke to him in Japanese. He never tried to respond to me, he just kept trying to speak in Japanese to the “Asian” person.

And that’s one thing you’ll need to get used to. While in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, Japanese people may be willing to try to use some English with you, outside, more often than not, people will simply talk to you in Japanese and hope that you can repeat their “translation trick” with their langauge. Despite how often I visit Tokyo, it’s still often a surprise to me when someone replies to my Japanese in English. Out here, even with some Japanese teachers of English, I’m used to getting Japanese replies.

If the example of me being ignored in favor of my Taiwanese companion didn’t reveal the next point I want to cover, than allow me to be frank: even when Japanese people understand you, in English or Japanese, Japanese people may sometimes ignore you or your request if it conflicts with their expectations. Not just in everyday life, but at work as well, and it will primarily be based on what’s expected. For example, during a self introduction, I had a teacher translate that “I hate McDonald’s” into “daisuki” (love) McDonald’s. I even said it in Japanese, but it wasn’t until I explained that I never eat there, I think the food is mazui (unappetizing), and that would rather cook for myself that the teacher believed I knew what I was saying. This has happened when I’ve only asked for one bag for all my souvenirs instead of one for each item, that I didn’t need chopsticks for take-out, or that I didn’t need a fork for my katsu. It happens kind of often in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, but much more often in the inaka. At first, some Japanese co-workers and friends who are good at English didn’t quite believe my experience, but upon witnessing it, became very protective and supportive of me. It can be difficult to keep learning Japanese when your correct Japanese produces opposite results.

I haven’t lived everywhere in Japan. Some people will have different experiences than me, or find what I said to be the complete opposite of their experience. And that’s fine! I encourage people to share their adventures in the comments. This is, however, a collection of what I’ve found to be the most common situations for myself and others from various locations around Japan.

Tokyo may have a lot more imported goods, stylish shops, theme parks, and foreigner-acclimated locals, but life in the inaka is still good. Just different. Foreigners can make a much bigger impact, exposing both young and old to different cultures and slowly showing them that we don’t all fit certain stereotypes. If you’re trying to learn Japanese, living in the inaka will force you into situations where your Japanese will improve. Japanese locals won’t always believe you know what you’re talking about, but it’s better than in Tokyo where, no matter how hard to try to only speak Japanese, they keep replying in English. And your inaka experiences will at least make for some decent stories. After all, Japan is much more than what many travelers experience in Tokyo and some of the “smaller” cities.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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HELP! I Don’t Know How To ALT! Mon, 16 Jun 2014 16:00:50 +0000 Summer is almost here, bringing with it sweltering heat, limited edition Crunky ice cream bars, and a whole new flock of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). Maybe your dream of coming to Japan is finally coming true. Soon you and other ALTs will be scattered across the Japanese countryside, about to be faced with your first classes.

Three years ago I found myself in front of a class of 40 High School kids for the first time. I’d worked with children before (though they tended to throw things at me rather than sit silently staring.) This was a whole different situation. So I’ve written this slightly unconventional guide to ALTing so you can learn from my mistakes. This is a mix of practical tips and some more abstract ones that will hopefully help you get through the first few weeks more smoothly than I did

ALTing and the Art of Improv


Photo by Katie

If I was running an orientation for new ALTs, I’d replace almost all the talks with three days of improv classes. “Every situation is different,” is the realistic but often frustrating refrain heard at these orientations. Okay, so all your situations are going to be different. Then let’s learn how to improvise to suit any of them!

As I said, I have worked with kids before, but that experience didn’t give me as many ALTing skills as the Comedy Improvisation classes I took in college.

Mostly I’m talking about a mindset (though some improv games can also be adapted very neatly into English games too.) The most important one of these I think is the, “Yes, and…” mentality. In the classic improv game you have to accept what your partner says (yes). Then you add your own element to the story or performance (and…). It’s a practice in positivity and rolling with whatever comes your way.

When a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) asks you to do something strange, (“Please talk about [random thing],”) reach for the “Yes, and…” When a kid says something a bit weird, cheeky, or even rude, just “Yes, and…” them.

Kid: “You became fat.”
Me: “Yes, and I’m practicing sumo.”

This attitude will help keep you from the nightmare situation of being flustered in front of class. It does take practice, but it is something you can learn. Personally I used “Yes, and…” almost everyday, even when I wasn’t speaking. I use a lot of gestures. Sometimes kids would imitate and mock me for them. I’d just do the gesture bigger and more ridiculous. It got a laugh and I kept control of the class, as well as of myself.

“Yes, and…” doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything. You can “No, but..” instead. The important thing is accepting that you’ve been told something and adding your own information.

Smile Until Your Face Falls Off


Photo by Daniel Go

I suddenly became a much, much better ALT one gloomy day in October. I only had to change one thing – my face. After I arrived in August I had been walking around with a slightly terrified expression, like a dog confused by a lemon. Then one day I decided to smile. It wasn’t a particularly good day, I wasn’t smiling because I was happy. I simply decided to smile, no matter what happened.

Then suddenly it became a good day. Kids smiled back. Shy kids spoke up. Loud kids were loud in English. I felt like I’d discovered something magic. Those first few weeks my face actually hurt from perfecting my ALT face, but the benefits of smiling were amazing. Some of the changes were in the kids. They became more willing to talk to me, less sleepy in class, and discipline problems lessened. When my students wrote me letters, many of them wrote how they liked my smile.

The other changes were in myself. It was a positive feedback loop. I smiled – kids smiled – I was happy – I smiled more. I felt more confident, which made a huge difference in how I acted in class. Smiling is free. It is a simple thing, but it can make a big difference.

The ALT Voice


OK, so you’ve got your ALT face on. Now let’s work on your voice. That smile you’ve already got is affecting how your voice sounds. Try it. With a straight face say, “This is a weird experiment that Tofugu is making me do,” Then smile and try saying it again. Listen to how your voice changes. That smiley voice is part of developing an ALT voice.

Now slow it down and speak louder.

Really, really slow and really really loud.

Even slower! Even louder!

There you go. That’s your ALT voice. It took me weeks of confused students’ stares before a teacher took me aside and told me I was speaking too fast and too quietly. Three years later and my ALT voice makes kids sit up and listen. I once even used it to great effect on a drunk, semi-naked Russian man, but that’s a story for another time.

Don’t strain yourself. As an ALT your voice is your most important tool, so take care of it. Projecting your voice doesn’t mean you have to shout. Try to speak from your diaphragm. Doing some voice exercises will help you develop the endurance you’ll need to genki your way through six classes in a row and still be up for karaoke that night.

Games vs. Motivation


Photo by Camil Tulcan

Games, games, games. How I hate games. Okay, that’s an over simplification but I do hate being a clown, not a teacher. This is a classroom, not a children’s birthday party. I’m talking specifically about Senior High School and maybe the upper years of Junior High School. Games will only get you so far in motivating older kids. What really motivates them is a feeling that they are learning something and are improving. You can have fun in class, but fun that teaches the students something relevant is best. If you are doing a game, try to make sure it’s linked to the material the students are studying. That can be harder than it sounds, especially if your JTE doesn’t cooperate and tell you what material the class is covering, but persevere if you can. You may have to remind some JTEs that you are an ALT and the T stands for teacher.

The other thing that motivates students is realism. Let me tell you the tale of the worst game I ever saw. A JTE had printed out vegetable pictures. Students had to walk around and ask each other “Please give me carrot,” or “Please give me potato.” To which the other students responded, “I give you carrot,” or “I give you potato,” as they handed over the cards.

“I give you carrot.” That’s not English! Have you ever said that? Has anyone ever said that? Of course the game ended with the kids getting bored and simply giving up and sitting down. I don’t blame them. What is the point of learning English like that?

When I was asked to make a similar activity I put as much realism into it as I could. To create a realistic setting, I divided the class into shoppers and shopkeepers. Each shopper had a different shopping list. Each shopkeeper had different goods to sell from their “shop”. The important thing was that, even though we were still in their classroom in Japan, we’d made that classroom as close to a realistic shopping experience as we could. The students responded with much more enthusiasm than if they’d been asked to say, “I give you carrot.”

Realia, or real items from your home country, are great for creating a true-to-life setting. Props are great tools too. Even a simple thing like using a book for a passport when doing an airport role-play can make a difference. I can’t overstate the power of hats either, especially with younger students. Students are often willing to suspend their disbelief if you give them something to hang it on.

A good rule to remember, and to tell your JTEs, is if it wouldn’t be interesting in Japanese, then it’s not going to be interesting in English. English doesn’t magically make something cool (despite what all the Engrish on T-shirts would have you think.)

Building Your ALT Kit Bag


Photo by Germain Wu

Whether you are stationed at one school or 20, you can make your ALTing life easier by making yourself a kit bag. Grab it and go!


Comfortable indoor shoes! As you probably know, in most Japanese schools, people wear a different pair of shoes indoors. There are slippers provided for guests. Avoid these slippers at all costs. They only wish you pain, suffering, and broken ankles. Get your own pair of comfy shoes that you can easily jump around in. They don’t have to be smart, just something you can stand up and run around in all day. If you travel to different schools, consider getting a drawstring shoe bag. It looks more professional than a plastic bag and makes it easy to carry your shoes around.

English Posters

You can make any classroom an English room if you prepare some posters and take a few magnets. A lot of schools don’t have a dedicated English room, but you can still throw up some portable posters before the start of the class to create a good English learning environment. Mine include different ways to answer, “How are you?”, a poster about the benefit of mistakes, and a few useful classroom English phrases. As well as encouraging kids, making posters is a good way to spend your desk hours.

A Timer

A very useful tool for keeping students and yourself on track.

A Set of Laminated Pictures

Or other simple, flexible activity materials. I just went online and found about 40 interesting pictures. They have saved me many times from the dreaded “Please do an activity,” request that comes 5 minutes before a class.

Your Self-Introduction Materials

You never know when a school is going to surprise you with a class of students they have kept hidden for months.

Educate Yourself on Education


Photo by fallsroad

There is a debate to be had about employing ALTs who have no formal teaching qualifications. While that debate is interesting, the reality of the current situation is that many ALTs, private or JET, come to Japan with little teaching experience or pedagogical training. So if you are one of those ALTs, I’d really encourage you to do some research. It’s not the same as teacher training, but if you can familiarize yourself with teaching theory you’ll have a skeleton to build your teaching around.

One of the turning points for me as an ALT was working at a seminar run by Dr Olenka Bilash. She is a Canadian educator who works with the Hokkaido Board of Education to improve English teaching. Her website is a good place to go to understand some ways of thinking about education, particularly aspects which are often lacking in Japan, such as student output (“using it” and “proving it”) and how assessment should feed back into how children are taught. At that seminar, I saw that there were better ways of teaching English than the read-repeat-read-repeat I’d mostly seen in Japanese classrooms. Perhaps more importantly, I learned how to talk with JTEs about my ideas using terms they were familar with.

My interest was sparked and from there I began my own research into resources for teachers that went beyond print and play games. Once I had a better grasp of some of the theories behind education, I was able to design my own activities to suit my students. What I know can’t compare to a trained teacher, but even a little understanding is better than nothing. There are so many books and internet resources. Personally, I recommend Teach Like a Champion by Norman Atkins, as it has a lot of practical advice that really works.

Educate Yourself on English


Photo by Verity Lane

Okay, so you’ve got your kit bag, you’ve spent those long hours at your desk studying up on educational theory, you are ready to go! Not quite. You need to do a bit of English study too.

“But I’m a native speaker/native speaker level,” I hear you say, “I’m crazy good at English.” Dear Tofugu reader, that is what I thought too, but I was wrong. I have a Masters in writing and I still get stumped by our bizzare language sometimes. While I might be able to function in English, that’s not the same as being able to teach it. I have done many a frantic Google search to remind myself which are transitive and which are intransitive verbs. You need know the vocabulary to talk about sentence constructions that you’ve probably been using since you learned how to talk. I was never taught those at school, especially some of the obscure ones used in Japan.

The good news is that almost all ALTs say that they’ve learned more about English since coming to Japan than they ever knew before. Don’t worry. You already speak the language. You just have to review the bits of English that we use to talk about English. You can get a head start by Googling some grammar guides and glancing at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Even so, remember that no matter how prepared you are, some really archaic grammar patterns pop up in Japanese grammar books now and then. Unfortunately, Japanese Exams haven’t been updated for a while, so kids still have to learn these constructions, even if you feel like you’ve stepped out of a black and white movie when you say them. If you get stumped, don’t feel down. Learning English is an ongoing activity. You’ll never truly be finished, and I think that’s kind of cool.

Final Hints and Tricks


Photo by Verity Lane

I’ve got three final things to share with you.

First is the best thing I learned at my orientation. If you see a JTE make a spelling or pronunciation mistake, don’t say, “Hey that’s wrong!” Instead use the wonderful variety of the English language to your advantage. The phrase, “Maybe that’s the American spelling. In Britain we write it like this…” has saved me many times, even when I knew that it was just flat out wrong. Swap American with British, Canadian or Australian etc. as you wish. You might be significantly better at English than the JTEs you work with, but by avoiding stepping on their toes you’ll make your own life easier in the long run.

Secondly, three words that changed my students’ participation rates massively: THINK, PAIR, SHARE. I got this from a presentation on ALTing given by the excellent teacher Rashidat Amanda Oumiya. First, write the words THINK, PAIR, SHARE on the board. Sometimes I illustrate them too. Then you give the students a question or discussion topic. Put a timer under THINK. They have 1 minute to think silently by themselves. Next move the timer under PAIR. Students practice saying their answer with their partner for 2 minutes or so. Finally, move the timer to under SHARE and ask for volunteers. Sometimes you’ll still have to pick out students if they are very shy, but even so, they’ll be more comfortable and prepared to answer. Basically, this is a framework to encourage reluctant Japanese students to volunteer by letting them know it is expected of them from the start of the activity. Moving the timer serves as an extra visual hint. Make sure you explain it clearly the first time and it can really help.

Finally, in Japan a correct answer is marked with a circle. A wrong answer is marked with a tick or line. Don’t do what I did and mark a whole batch of work with ticks and crosses before you find out!

Good luck brave, new ALTs! You will face challenges, especially if you are placed in a bad school, but ALTing can be quite rewarding. Don’t beat yourself up in those first few weeks if it’s tough. I’m sure you’ll find your own groove in no time! Just remember to smile!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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5 Things To Know About Suicide In Japan Fri, 06 Jun 2014 16:00:57 +0000 If there’s one negative stereotype that you hear about Japan, it’s the supposed epidemic of suicides in this country and a whole lot of other ideas linked to it. This view has some merit, but there’s a whole lot of inaccurate information or ideas flying around out there.

This may be because when you put “suicide” and “Japan” in the same sentence and you’ll probably going to get two sensationalist images: 1) The kamikaze fighter and 2) Disemboweling samurai. This article is here to help debunk some of those myths.

#1: Japan is not the most suicidal country in the world


Photo by RageZ

Myth: That Japan is the suicide capital of the world

It may have been but it isn’t right now.

Wikipedia notes that because of problems with reporting, not to mention the difference in the years which statistics were reported, it may not be fair to compare suicide statistics across countries directly. That being said though, when addressing the above myth statistics are all we have to rely on.


Number of suicides per 100,000 people per country

Here’s some data that I tidied up from Wikipedia as you can see, Japan is rather far from being the top in terms of proportionate suicides with around one quarter the suicide rate of Greenland.

Even if you remove Greenland and consider it a part of Denmark, it’s still one third less than Lithuania. And while the numbers are still high, it would still it would be 8th place not the first.

The data may be distorted in various ways but this is more than ample grounds to doubt whether Japan really is the most suicidal country in the world. Plus, based on the data I found here the last time that Japan was at the top of the suicide tables for current OECD countries was back in the 1960s.

And poor Greenlanders!

#2: Actually Suicide Rates have been falling for quite a few years.


Photo by skyseeker

Myth: Suicide rates in Japan just keep getting worse and worse!

Every year the same sort of headlines come out: “Japan’s suicides top 30,000 people!” “Suicide in Japan is a huge problem!” … etc. While these headlines are technically true, they’re being sensationalist because the real story just isn’t as interesting. The fact is, Japan’s suicide rates have seen an overall decrease since the early 2000s, both in the total number of suicides as well as suicide rate. Japan’s suicide rates peaked in the late 1990s to early 2000s with the total number of people committing suicide crossing 30,000 people for the first time in history in 1998 and peaking in 2003 with 34,427 people (or about a hundred a day) committing suicide.

The graph below shows the change since then. (Data from Japan National Police Agency)


As you can see, stuff is improving with constant decreases from 2009 onwards. Maybe it’s because Japan’s economy has stagnated instead of worsening like in the 1990s. Or maybe it’s because the government measures (the Basic Law on Suicide Prevention and many other policies that were enacted in 2006-2007) are working. It’s hard to know for sure, but certainly something right is happening.

#3: Tokyo isn’t the most suicidal part of Japan


Photo by Vincent_AF

Myth: Suicides are mainly caused by city stress and overwork, thus Tokyo (especially from the view of Kansai people) is probably going to be the most miserable and suicidal place within Japan.

Tokyo prefecture’s suicide rates are actually below average. Let’s take a look at this table (Statistics for 2013 from the Japanese Cabinet Office).


Points to note:

  1. The prefecture with the highest suicide rate is Miyagi – possibly due to the effects of devastation from the 2011 earthquake.
  2. The top 5 (actually top 10 but not shown to save space) prefectures with the highest suicide rates are generally rural outside the immediate Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka areas. Yamanashi (which borders Tokyo) is at No. 10 but it generally isn’t considered heavily urbanized nor a part of the Tokyo Megapolis.
  3. The prefectures with the highest number of suicides is Tokyo – but then Tokyo has the highest population of any prefecture. When considering it’s proportional suicide rate it’s less than the national average.
  4. Osaka is less suicidal than Tokyo – that’s at least one thing the Kansai people have gotten correct.

So we can see that actually, instead of the stereotype about happy people living in rural villages, there’s something else going on. In fact, it seems like the stereotypes are flip flopped from what they should be. As for why it’s opposite from what most people expect? Let’s take a look at Myth #4.

#4: Age and economics explain the pattern.


Photo by yuichirock

The above discrepancy between prefectures is explained by how most rural prefectures have more elderly people and worse economies compared to the big cities.

This site and this site point out the strong links between older age, unemployment and suicide. These, at least to me, are probably somewhat similar to the rest of the world too.

Economics: The Japanese wikipedia notes that there is a strong negative correlation between available job openings and suicides, and a strong positive correlation between the number of bankruptcies of small companies and suicides. The economies of rural Japan are generally worse than those of the main cities, so more people are likely to commit suicide as they are more likely to face economic problems.

Age: Age matters because of two reasons. Economic problems such as unemployment or bankruptcy and familial problems such as divorce are more likely to happen to people above 40. The higher the age of the population, the larger the number of people in this “danger zone”. Plus, the main cause of suicide for those aged 60 and over becomes health problems too.

Since young people tend to leave for the major cities for work, the people in rural prefectures tend to be older. This means a proportionally higher number of people in danger of suicide.

_#5: Throwing oneself in front of a trains is a choice not often taken.


And thank goodness! As if the Chuo-sen and Yamanote-sen aren’t delayed often enough!

Now, different countries have different patterns for suicide. The WHO notes that, for example, the USA has a disproportionate rate of suicide with firearms. Other more agricultural countries have high rates of suicide by using pesticide.

These are the most common ways for suicides in Japan. Data is from the Center for Suicide Prevention.


As you can see, by far the most used method of suicide is hanging, with some variation between the genders further down. “Tobikomi” coincidentally comes in at 6th for both genders.

“Tobikomi” literally means “to jump in” so this naturally includes trains. However, this also includes jumping in front of road traffic so when you total things up, committing suicide by jumping in front of a train is highly uncommon.

By the way, according to this article there have apparently been cases of the train companies (in this case JR Kyushu and JR East) taking the families of those who committed suicide to court for damages and lost income. This has most likely reduced the number of people committing suicide in this way, because many people would not want to bring attention and financial grief to their families due to their method of suicide.

Extra: Suicide websites


Aokigahara in Yamanashi – one of the most well known suicide spots in Japan

While doing research for this article I did come across many websites with some information on how to commit suicide. I didn’t manage to find any of the infamous “suicide pact” websites, so maybe they were taken down? But the websites that I did fine kind of boggled my mind.

Take for example this website (in Japanese). The title of the website is literally “The Encyclopedia of Suicide Methods” and it has suicide methods ranked according to criteria on how troublesome it is, how painful it is, how ugly it will be for bystanders and how “impactful” it will be. The description of suicide by jumping from a tall building goes like this:

What I really want you to know is that the minimum height needed is 20m … and another thing that I want you to know is that the ground should be concrete. If it is concrete, it seems that death will be possible in almost all cases … To prevent someone from discovering you immediately and sending you to hospital, somewhere secluded is preferable. Also, do not commit suicide where there are people around. It is not good to involve others and cause trouble for others.

But what boggles my mind is that despite doing all the detail, the website claims that its goal is to “let people know about suicide methods, and not to promote suicide”. The top page of the website also has a long philosophical explanation about how one must think about death to appreciate the wonder of living and stuff like that. But I don’t think I’m the only one here thinking that recommending the heights and floors of the locations to commit suicide is “thinking about death” in order to enjoy life.

This wasn’t the only website that I found boggled my mind. Another here advertises fortune-telling services. After a much less detailed description (compared to the previous site) it says: “before you give up everything, why not reset your future with a fortune telling”.

But it was this website which boggled my mind the most. While this website has lots on information on suicide prevention (hotline numbers, where to get help etc), at the same time it has also information about “how to hang yourself without pain” or “how to freeze yourself to death in Hokkaido” as well as a form to declare one’s intent of suicide.

The webmaster says in a part of his website:

I came with the understanding that “suicides in and of themselves are not bad”. Among all the people who are living, I thought that there ought to be people who “would rather be dead” and that these people ought to have a right to know some “painless ways of suicide”.

He also says that while the website was only about introducing suicide methods at first, he later added the information about prevention so that some people would be able to come to terms with and deal with their problems without killing themselves.

On That Pleasant Note…


Photo by Dom Crossley

Apologies for the morbid topic but I felt that this is a topic that had too many semi-factual stereotypes and myths around it.

I also thought about writing about the cultural / historical background and why Japan is (with reason) called a suicide-tolerant country. But maybe that’s for the next article.

So while Japan does have some issues with suicide, it’s not quite the “suicide-happy” country that many people make it out to be. In fact, it’s been improving, slowly but surely (actually, somewhat quickly if you take a look at those graphs earlier in the article). I hope that I could get you to change your mind a little bit, if you believed in any of these myths too. So what do you think?

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Shinto Tropes for Otaku Folks Fri, 09 May 2014 16:00:29 +0000 Religion influences culture. Nowhere in the world is this more apparent than Japan. Though both Buddhism and Shinto have had significant effects on the Japanese way of life, it’s Shinto that has truly defined and shaped the country. Trying to understand Japanese culture without Shinto is like trying to understand Western culture without Christianity: it simply can’t be done. I once picked up a book on Shinto and, when I finished reading it, whole new worlds in the cartoons and video games I loved so much opened up to me. I’d like to be able to share that feeling with others, if I could, so let’s get to looking at some of this not-so-hidden symbolism.

The Shrine


Photo by Beau Saunders

The Shinto shrine: It’s a sight we’ve seen in every New Year’s episode of every anime EVER. Children run around in their festival clothes, adults stand aside and drink sake, and there is always a fireworks show at the very end. It’s a familiar scene to the Japanese and Japan lovers alike. This place is so much more than just a popular party destination, however. Every piece of the Shinto shrine has a specific spiritual meaning and purpose.

Perhaps one of the most familiar Shinto symbols that can be seen in an animated representation of the shrine is the torii, the big red gate that marks the opening entrance to the shrine grounds. This is of course far from strictly decorative. Shrines are seen to be the place kami (gods/spirits) manifest on earth. This leads to the belief that shrines exist between our living, tangible world and the world of spirits. The torii is supposed to mark that. Kagome’s kidnapping by the centipede beast in InuYasha is a very vivid representation of this gateway. Once beyond the red gate, anything can happen. The rope that hangs off the torii is thought to absorb negative energies and trap them outside the shrine grounds. It’s changed before all major festivals.

Another favorite image from Shinto used in animation is the miko, or Shinto priestess. An example from pop culture, aside from Kagome, would be Rei from Sailor Moon. Her long red pants, white top, and wooden sandals are the customary dress for miko.


She represents the priestesshood quite realistically, as she’s often shown doing chores, handing out souvenirs, using ofuda (charm cards) to banish demons, seeing the future, etc. Well…maybe those last two things don’t happen every day, but aside from that, I think she’d be the perfect representation of the average miko.

Rei’s ofuda themselves are a type of charm card, or fortune, that are sometimes considered to be blessed by particular kami. These are the cards that always seem to be the focal point of trips to the shrine on the average New Year’s Day episode of a given anime. Some people keep them and bring them home to their family shrines. It’s also customary to leave bad fortunes as an offering to the kami to cancel the bad luck.

The Heavy Stuff


Photo by A. Davey

Even though Shinto doesn’t have official public figures, sacred texts, or a worldwide following, there are certain beliefs shared among all the different Shinto practices that give it definition as a religion. These beliefs appear at the forefront of many famous anime and game plots, even more so than visual symbols of Shinto.

One of the most important concepts in Shinto is the concept of misogi, or purification. Typically this is accomplished with water or salt. There’s a lot of importance placed upon the removal of negative energies. Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away makes a not so subtle nod at this concept. Young Chihiro is tasked with tending to the bath house. The whole movie, while a beautiful coming of age story, is at the same time a metaphor for spiritual cleansing. Personally, I think the best example is when the river spirit, assumed to be a “stink spirit”, enters the bath. Upon going through the ritual cleansing, he is able to show his true spiritual power and take on his dragon form.


Of course, this being a river spirit, it could also be pointing to another theme that binds all paths of Shinto together which is a grand awe and respect for nature. The sad irony of Japan is that even its most sacred religion is powerless to stop rapid industrialization. What’s even more ironic is that one of the most influential platforms used to speak against this destruction of Japan’s natural beauty is the gaming and animation industry. To name a few examples:

  • One of the most vital plot developments in Fullmetal Alchemist is the boys’ coming to understand the mantra “One is all, all is one.” While this also speaks to Buddhist traditions rooted in Japan’s culture, it also indicates a sacred reverence for all life, which is key to the animist religion of Shinto.
  • Princess Mononoke shows an aggressive rejection of deforestation, as well as manifestation of kami in the human world. (Sidenote-the word mononoke actually comes from a Shinto context and means crooked or dishonest)
  • The anime/manga series Tokyo Mew Mew (Mew Mew Power in the US) expresses a deep concern over the human race’s foolishness with our natural resources and our disregard for other forms of life. The aliens that appear to take the planet back from the human race could even be seen as divine messengers sent by the kami. The fact that the girls fight using the power of endangered species is also a clear nod at respect for the creation of perceived gods.
  • The Final Fantasy series from SquareEnix has naturalist tones throughout, discussing the great life stream and the possible destruction of the planet at the hands of careless humans.

In his book The Essence of Shinto, Motohisa Yamakage simplifies the concept called seimei seichoku which he calls “the source of Shinto”. He says that the term means clean, happy, right, and honest. He says seimei is representative of a “clean and happy attitude of inner mind” and seichoku as “right action or behavior”, and doing right by others, especially when it comes to being honest and straightforward. In the new game Bravely Default, also from SquareEnix, these attitudes are exemplified in the character Agnès Oblige, who dedicates her entire life to her religion of Crystalism (representative of Shinto, where crystals are symbolic of nature). She does so with a happy attitude and tries her hardest to help others in need.  Furthermore, she never lies in order to protect herself, despite being a wanted woman. She is the very picture of Shinto, and it’s hard to believe this could be any kind of coincidence.

The final binding concept I’d like to address (though there are certainly more in the Shinto faith) is that of “one spirit, four souls”. There have been entire books written about this subject, but I’d like to at least introduce the idea. The one spirit is known as ichirei, which represents a single consciousness. The four souls, or shikon, represent the different parts of consciousness. There are two souls that connect to our physical world and stay behind after a person dies known as aramitama (wild or untamed soul) and nigimitama (harmonious soul). Then there are the hidden souls known as sachimitama (happy soul) and kushimitama (roughly translated, this is the psychic soul) and these are the souls that join the world of the kami at death.

Again we see how shows such as InuYasha really are deeply rooted in Shinto. The jewel that Kagome was enlisted to protect is known as the Shikon Jewel.


It is made clear that this is a sacred artifact, but when we realize it actually represents the four parts that make up a whole person’s existence, we see just how important it really is. Another place this concept can be found is in the popular PS2 title Devil Summoner from Atlus. It includes four devil characters named after the four souls. Their character design makes them representative of the aspects listed above.

The Kami Themselves

Finally, actual kami are honored with representations in many different anime and games. The game Okami actually stars a representation of Japan’s most sacred deity, Amaterasu, the sun goddess. A summoning spell for wind damage in Bravely Default is named Susano-o for the Shinto god of storms.


Shinigami, death spirits of Shinto, have been recreated in countless places (Death Note, Full Moon O Sagashite, and Bleach, to name a few).


One of the most blatantly obvious references to Shinto in video games is actually very familiar to a lot of young people in America. If you look at the story of how the Hoenn region in Pokemon was created, it is incredibly similar to the Shinto creation myth.

And They’ll Keep On Coming


Photo by JapanDave

This is of course not an exhaustive guide to all the references to Shinto in anime and video games. These are just some of the more obvious examples. And of course, there’s a whole lot more to Shinto than I could ever fit into just one article. I personally think it’s a very interesting and beautiful religion, worth studying in itself even for people who aren’t that interested in Japanese animation and gaming. What kind of connections have you guys noticed?

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You Will Never Starve If You Can Eat Thu, 08 May 2014 16:00:53 +0000 Two grains of rice clung to her pale cheek as she lowered her chopsticks and the now finished bowl of Gyudon.* Having unceremoniously downed her breakfast, the woman appeared contented.

“Excuse me! Can I have a second serving please?”
“Yes, ma’am.”

The male populated counter stared, taken aback, and then, applauded. The woman equally surprised by their response tilted a bow, her lips curling into a smile.

This scene from the film Moteki (2011) stresses an underlying concept often overlooked by those outside Japanese culture: ownership of eating.

Sure, many countries celebrate victorious eaters. There are contests for nearly every cuisine. Some challenges are public, while others are quietly participated. Television shows promote such gluttony and yet nothing will prepare a first timer to sit a proper food challenge.

Most articles focus on the spectacle in lieu of the philosophy behind great eating. Is it any wonder why, when seated before a single gyoza the size of one’s head or a basin of ramen fashioned into a bowl? The novelty is distracting.

Living To Eat Or Eating To Live


While the uninitiated and more often hungry will segregate Japanese cuisine into two basic camps: quality and quantity, neither is exclusive of the other, and both can be attached to a benefit-cost ratio. Except of course when the meal is free. In perishing one’s appetite as a contestant in hopes of gaining a free meal, pocketing a few thousand yen, or simply to enjoying the fuss, the Eater will quickly confront their inner philosopher: does one live to eat or eat to live?

Everyone outside of stuffing his or her face beyond reason can never truly understand. As spectators, they may applaud challenge and challenger, but it is that moment, the one that reaches beyond third helpings, in which the Eater must decide what they really believe.

That sense of shared life, common to the Japanese experience, cannot be claimed in this matter. One must go it alone. Enter the fighting spirit.

“From the next day on, everyone ordered second and third helpings and the general air of lassitude lifted from the entire sesshin.‡ With that, the jikijitsu told us that we had finally worked up some of the fighting spirit required for the most important sesshin of the year.”§ Teaching and Learning in Japan

Zen Buddhism encourages portioning up. Outside of professional eating (competition, sumo), Japan is little known for its substantial portion sizes. Yet, all-you-can-eat buffets are numerous, in every style of cuisine and in every city throughout Japan. They are relevant. This does not include the random challenges that dole out cash prizes with their walls covered in polaroids and the chance for localized fame. I am convinced that Western societies are fed so little Japanese food that their minds are decidedly biased in the belief that Japanese food is expensive, the people are terribly skinny, and small portion size must be the rule.

However, this author has witnessed the most petite of office ladies consume no less than eight donuts in one sitting at the neighborhood Mister Donut.† Being a lunch hour, this was theoretically a timed competition. Something is going on here, and not for the greater good.

Eating For Your Future Self


Q: When you are hungry and anxious, what do you eat?
A: Comfort food.
Q: And how much comfort food do you eat?
A: Enough.

Does that sound familiar? Guilty. Now let us back up to the beginning. In reference to Moteki, I left out a crucial element as to why the woman was eating so voraciously. Why was she famished? Why did it matter? You see, the woman was overcoming her shame of the previous night. Her eating, while impressive, was both comfort and demonstration of resolve. In other words, the men’s cheers brought the woman into a state of awareness, which she otherwise may have simply ignored. Instead, she claimed the very fighting spirit she had subconsciously initiated through her self-imposed food challenge and thus, wholly owned the moment.

If one watches Japanese Dramas or films, it is not uncommon to witness so-called “extra portion” scenes, similar to the one cited. And more times than not, that second helping is emotionally connected to an outstanding internal conflict the character must satisfy. As a Western viewer, I might dismiss this bellying up as merely a moment of comfort binging. As a Japanese viewer, I will see this as an act of consequence, or a first step in a new direction. So with the determination of eating one’s self into a brighter future, comes consciousness. The substitutionary extra portion represents a future, accomplished self.

Finding My Own Fighting Spirit


Photo by JD Hancock

Extra portions, baikingus, all-you-can-eats, and any other form of massive over consumption seems to counter one significant Japanese holding: modesty. Surely all of that eating could be nothing less than immodest? I needed to investigate firsthand.

It was going to be a burger challenge, I’d decided. And upon completion of my mission, an award of $300US would be graciously delivered to my grimy ham-fists. All I had to do was sit the entire meal, eat a burger, swallow some fries, polish off a portion of mashed potatoes, consume a few brownies and wash it down with a Coke. Simple.

I had the fighting spirit, and just to be double certain of victory, I researched how one might prepare. The answer was drinking lots of soup to expand the stomach. I had three days to train. The day of the challenge had arrived. I ate an egg on toast for breakfast. I was ready.

Approaching the small diner with two friends in tow, I retrieved my invitation. Many challenges require advanced booking, and as our party took to our awaiting table, a wall of Instax photos welcomed us.

Now I was presented a release waiver to sign. This was getting heart attack serious by the moment. My gut said it was ready, so I put down my mark and out came the feast. My eyes widened in fear when the 1 kilogram burger patty covered in a stack of cheese, lettuce and tomato placed between a singular artisan loaf was set before me. This platter was encircled with a moat of French fries and topped with brownies so high that my fighting spirit turned to my fearless stomach for encouragement. Then came the 800 grams of mashed potatoes in the form of the Matterhorn. And don’t forget the Coke, all 1.8L of it.

Now Is Not The Time To PANIC


Photo by gwaar

In the meantime, a small line had formed. These fans sought photo ops. Not with me, but the colossus before me, and who was I to deny them? Every peace-signing spectator now contented, I was given the rules: no getting up, no sharing. The official engaged the stopwatch, and I began. I had 45 minutes to destroy the place.

Tearing the burger down, I focused on the meat first. Is there such a thing as 50% lean? Those bastards! That was it, I vowed to shame everyone and burn the place to the ground, humiliate their families, and call it a day. Working through my strategy, I focused. I was making serious progress, and then, I hit that wall: the choice between pride and death or living to fight another day.

I turned to my supporters knowing the cause was lost. Gesturing with the international sign for cut it out, my mouth continued its current task. One companion looked me squarely in the face and said, “Giving up?” I nodded. “Thank goodness, now we can eat your fries.”

At the end, we had a party, but I was not celebrating. Surely I had been cheated. I did everything right, only to fail. And when I asked the venue owner if anyone had actually beaten the challenge, he laughed with a resounding, “No.”

Taking It All Back


Photo by Osamu Kaneko

Later in the week, I continued to dwell on my stunted performance with thoughts of, “If I only…,” or, “I should have…” and, “It would have been better if…” In some sense I was shamed, not for the experience, but because my fighting spirit left me so quickly. I was owned by the moment, the absolute opposite of what I wished to be writing about now. Taking lunch at one of the local ramen shops, I gracefully slurped my usual at the counter. Looking about, familiar faces itadakimasu-ed.¶ They were respecting the food, and then it hit me. Ownership of eating was not about completing the challenge. It was about accepting it. With that, I set down my bowl and spirited, “Extra portion please!”

When thinking about Japanese food, what comes to mind first: Portion size? Quality? Aesthetic? Taste? Perhaps it’s the balance thereof. Might I suggest trying an “extra portion” scene for yourself. You won’t regret it.


* Gyudon (牛丼): beef and onion, simmered in soy sauce based broth on rice.
† Baikingu (バイキング): a buffet or smorgasbord often all-you-can-eat or all-you-can-pile.
‡ Sesshin (接心): a period of intensive meditation (zazen) in a Zen monastery.
§ Jikijitsu (直日): the overseer in charge of every movement of the monks coming to sit zazen in the zendo (meditation hall) within a Japanese Zen monastery.
¶ Itadakimasu (いただきます): traditional Japanese expression of giving thanks before a meal.

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Learning To Drive In Japan Tue, 06 May 2014 16:00:39 +0000 I came to Japan not knowing how to drive. I thought I was coming to Japan, land of superb trains. Actually, I was coming to Hokkaido, land of trains delayed by snow and deer. I made it through two years without a car, but eventually I had to admit I needed to drive to survive in the Japanese countryside.

Getting Started With The ‘Heart of the Spirit of Driving Safety’


In some ways, getting into driving school was the hardest part. This was a small town driving school. They’d never had a foreign pupil and no one spoke any English beyond the word “car.” The terrifying boss of the school had to agree to admit me first. He spoke grumbly old man Japanese, which I’ve never had much luck understanding. At the first meeting he said that it would be difficult. What he meant was, “No.” I chose to ignore this with a smile and say, “Ganbarimasu,” (I’ll do my best) a lot.

One of his concerns, though, made me realize that driving school in Japan would be very different from driving school back home in the UK.

“I am worried that you will not be able to understand the heart of the spirit of driving safety,” the boss said.

I wasn’t really sure what to say to that. The heart of the spirit of driving safety? I’m fairly sure something so poetic wasn’t on the syllabus back home.

I was admitted to the driving school after three visits of proving myself worthy. My first real task didn’t go well. I had to do a survey to find out what sort of driver I was likely to be. I had to draw dozens of circles and count lines. Then there were 50 psychological questions (Are you easily distracted? Do you often feel murderous rage? etc.) answered on a ‘Yes’ – ‘Sometimes’ – ‘No’ scale. My fiancé, whose Japanese is much more fluent than mine, came with me. He helped translate the questions.

“Can you tell where voices are coming from?”

“Yes,” I answered confidently.

The instructor administering the test looked at me, shocked. “Really?”

“Yes. I’m sure,” I said.

“Oh wait,” my boyfriend said, taking another look at the question, “It says,”Do you hear voices out of nowhere?” Sorry.”

“Ah! No, no, no!” I frantically tried to explain that I wasn’t mentally unbalanced.

I left the driving school feeling disheartened. Maybe the scary boss had been right. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to learn to drive in Japan. But I’d already paid my money, and there was no refund. Learning to drive in Japan is not cheap, just under 300,000 Yen. That’s around $3,000 US.

Taking To The Road (Eventually)


Photo by eric molina

I was paired with an instructor who was notorious for his constant gesturing. The other instructors liked to do impressions of him. It was true that his gestures were unusually elaborate, but that was perfect for me. Even if I couldn’t understand what “makikomikakunin” meant, I was able to gather the meaning as my instructor swung his whole body round and pointed from his eyes to the rear left window. After the rocky start, the actual driving lessons were much smoother. The instructors were all very friendly and forgiving.

I spent the first two months driving round a practice course in an old converted taxi car. The course had traffic lights, a hill, a railway crossing, a huge metal wall to imitate the banks of snow that pile up in a Hokkaido winter, and a series of tight corners called “The Crank.” I drove round and round that course for weeks, each lesson practicing a set of maneuvers that eventually built into the test material.

There was nothing spontaneous about the test. I had practiced it many times and memorized the route I would take. It was possible to fail this test, but the odds were stacked in your favor. It was the same as the English exams teachers I knew made for students by giving them the same questions they had already studied in class. I wasn’t expected to use my own judgment. The judgment had been made already. I just had to follow it.

This was rather jarring coming from the UK education system, but I quickly saw it from the student’s point of view. It was relaxing. I didn’t have to think. I just had to reproduce the same actions I had been shown.

This was just the first test, the one that allowed me to get my permit to practice on the real roads. The practice course was actually quite a good system. It allowed me to get to grips with the controls without worrying about traffic.

Once I passed the practice course test, I was given a permit to go out on the roads. I had to check this permit out from the driving school each time I went to practice. This meant I couldn’t do any practice with friends outside the driving school, even though technically it is allowed. Without that piece of paper permitting me, my practice hours were limited to those with the driving school. This is standard in Japanese driving schools, so don’t expect to get any extra practice done in your own time if you learn through a school.

Practicing for the test on the real roads was just a repeat of the system on the practice course, except with the extra hazard of other drivers. Anyone who has driven in Japan, especially Hokkaido, knows that is no small problem. I quickly learned not to imitate the driving of those around me or risk a rebuke from my instructor. I practiced the routes and maneuvers over and over, which I was finally tested on, much the same way I had been tested on the practice course. Decision making didn’t come into it.

Super 80s Drag Racing



As well as the practical part, there were theory lessons. The driving school classroom looked like the classrooms I taught in, green blackboard, spaced out desks and chairs, and a lectern. There was a creepy doll strapped into a child seat in the corner. Sometimes there were a few other people in the class and sometimes it was just me. You could do the modules in any order.

Each lesson had the same format. You watched a video. (The highlight was the wonderfully awful movie about drag racing remorse which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s and was played on VHS.) Then the instructor went through the same material in the textbook for the last 15 minutes. I had three textbooks. Two were in Japanese. My third one was a bilingual textbook that had all the same material, in Japanese on one page and English on the other. Without that textbook I would have been lost. I highlighted the heck out of it.

There were two true or false multiple choice tests, one to get the road permit and one to get the full license. I found the best way to answer the questions was to think of what I had seen drivers doing in my town and write the exact opposite. I was surprised to learn that many driving behaviors I’d seen (parking next to an intersection, idling your car in a parking lot etc.) are forbidden. There was also one question you would only find in Japan. Question: You can drive while wearing geta (Japanese wooden sandals) – true or false? (Answer at the end)

Becoming A Crash Test Dummy


Photo by greg westfall

There were also a few lessons that broke the pattern. All drivers in Japan have to take a first aid course. This is an excellent idea in theory. However, after seeing the lackluster and uncorrected performance of the other students doing CPR on the mannequin, I didn’t feel very reassured.

Another unusual lesson was to show us the danger of not wearing a seat belt. Three other students and I were taken out to a sketchy shed at the rear of the driving school. There we got into a car that was lifted up on hydraulic ramps then rolled down a short track to smash into a bumper. It was the world’s shortest and least fun roller-coaster. The impact as we rolled at about 7km/h was surprisingly painful, even with seatbelts. Afterwards we had write an essay about our experience.

Japanese Education Style Is On Your Side

Apart from that essay, I kept expecting to be asked questions, or to prove I understood. However, all the theoretical instruction was one way. The instructor instructed. We listened. Anyone who’s spent time in a normal Japanese High School classroom will recognise the system. Again, it was relaxing, in a way. I didn’t have to worry about making a fool of myself in my dodgy Japanese. However, at the same time it was intellectually frustrating. It was easy to fall into the trap of not listening. Anything I missed would no doubt be repeated again, or I could just look it up myself later. I saw more than one fellow student taking a nap. It didn’t matter if you listened diligently or slept, the result would be the same. You’d get the stamp on your timesheet showing you had attended that module. Noticing this, I realized why it could be so hard to motivate students who grow up learning in this way. What was the point in paying attention? The result would be the same. The same things that frustrated me in Japanese High School classes worked in my favor at driving school, letting me hide the times I didn’t understand. As long as I passed the tests at the end, it didn’t matter.

Was It Worth It?


After two practical tests, dozens of practice theory tests, two real theory tests (in English), five eye tests (including one where I was so surprised to be asked for an output that I forgot the Japanese and English for ‘red’) and one trip to the testing center where I sat the final theory test, I got my license.

However, I still didn’t feel like I had enough driving experience. It took several months of driving on quiet roads and practicing making my own decisions to build up confidence. Despite that, I am glad that I learned to drive in Japan. People often talk about wanting authentic Japanese experiences. Driving school isn’t glamourous, but it is authenticly Japanese in good ways and bad. Finally, the scary boss proudly told me I had understood the heart of the spirit of driving safety, (even though I’m still not sure what it is exactly). I now feel more confident doing things in Japanese and the freedom driving has given me is wonderful.

So You Want To Learn To Drive In Japan?

If you have a license back home then you are in luck! Japan has license exchange agreements with many countries. You can swap your license for a Japanese one with very little fuss (though Americans have to take a short test). If like me however, you’ve never been behind the wheel before, don’t worry, learning to drive in Japan is far from impossible!

Things you will need:

  • Some Japanese language skills: Although you really don’t have to be fluent, you do have to have reasonable comprehension ability. You’ll pick up driving vocabulary quickly, so don’t worry about that too much. Not all prefectures have English language theory tests. If you are more confident in your Japanese reading skills you may be able to pass the tests in Japanese because you can practically memorize the questions before you take the test.
  • Time: Doing it part-time in evenings and weekends took me four months. If your schedule is more flexible you could do it in three. If you have the time, some driving schools run two week start-to-finish residential courses.
  • Money: Learning to drive in Japan is not cheap. The fee will probably be around 200,000-300,000 yen. Learning automatic is cheaper than manual. Textbooks and tests also costs money, though some driving schools include this in the price.
  • Your Alien/Residence Card
  • Your inkan (personal seal)
  • Your glasses if you wear glasses
  • Your prescription if you wear glasses
  • Your health insurance card
  • Application form from the driving school
  • Patience: Learning to drive will entangle you in some classic Japanese red tape. It is a good idea to go with a Japanese friend the first time. This will help smooth your entry into the school.

As a final note, if you are from a country that has a license exchange agreement with Japan, most also work the other way round (check with your home country or state’s licensing body). So if you learn to drive in Japan, you can take that skill with you when you go home!

(Answer: False – You may not drive while wearing geta!)

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10 Ways To Be A Better “Gaijin” Thu, 01 May 2014 16:00:33 +0000 At this year’s graduation banquet for teachers, I was placed with the rejects: the night school teachers. In Japan, being a night school teacher is almost a punishment. The teachers are usually very young or… well, very strange. Maybe that’s why my friend, who sadly hasn’t passed her “lifetime employment” test at 32, was moved there from her day-time teaching post.

No matter, since the night school teachers who are in attendance are rather nice. I’ve met a few of these teachers before while chatting to my friend in her office, or at “second” or “third” parties, but a new face decided it was time to introduce himself. He asked the usual questions people ask foreigners, such as “What is difficult about life in Japan?” and “What food do you miss from your home?”

As usual, answers were unexpected.

“I’ve been to Japan several times before, so the only difficult thing for me is the school working culture.”

“I eat a variety of different foods in America. The only thing I miss is being able to find good Chinese food so close to China.”

This surprised him, but mostly in a good way.

He was especially surprised to hear that I don’t spend much time with other foreigners but prefer to hang out with Japanese while in Japan. I explained to him that I want to spend time with Japanese because I can spend time with Americans at home. I told him I should speak in Japanese because, well, I am living in Japan, right? Isn’t that normally what you do when you move abroad? When I admitted that I don’t like onsen because Japanese people want to stare at my genitals, he laughs, but I say I understand that Japanese are just curious. “You are not like other foreigners. Ii hito desu!” (You’re a good person)

When I talk to other gaijin, I get the feeling they don’t have similar experiences, even the ones who are fluent in Japanese.

“No one talks to me,”

“I have to start any kind of interaction,”

“Japanese only stick to their own groups.”

A lot of the complaints I hear are the same, and some are quite valid, but many people seem to miss some things that may just seem obvious to someone who comes from a culturally mixed background (like me). Here’s a few things I’ve learned.

1. Keep Most Complaints Out of the Work Place.


Photo by Michiel2005

Don’t always discuss them with other people living in Japan, discuss them with the people back home! Unless it’s a problem that you think is easy to fix and worth fighting for, only bring up something that’s funny. For example, when I was talking to the night school teacher about trying to find a good Chinese place, I mentioned the kimchi many Japanese-Chinese places serve. Japanese know it’s Korean, so they’ll laugh too.

2. Learn to Assimilate a Bit.


Photo by the_jetboy

If Chewbacca came to your hometown and started insulting your mother’s cooking because it wasn’t Wookie enough, you’d think he was a jerk, right? Well, if you’re the one expecting Japanese people to change just because you’ve arrived, you’re the hairy jerk now.

Think about what people say in your home country. “Why do we let so many foreigners in when they can’t even speak the language?” “Foreigners are killing this country!” “If you can’t speak English, go home!” That’s you now. You may think English makes the world go round, but it doesn’t. Most people will never honestly need to use English. Other cultures have survived for thousands of years before you came. Tourism may help Japan, but it doesn’t rely on it. While you may have a way of getting things to work, Japan has been functioning for a few thousand years without you and has done just fine.

You don’t need to fully become Japanese, but don’t always rely on your “gaijin card” (I’ll explain that a bit later). Wear colored shirts to work if you want, but not polos. Learn some polite phrases and body language. Use the common greetings, ask for some situational phrases, and just keep trying all that “weird” Japanese stuff that makes you feel like a bull in a china shop. Just like a Japanese person trying to give you a firm handshake rather than their usual weak ones, it’ll really be appreciated.

3. Don’t Rely on Your “Gaijin Card”


Photo by strikeal

For those who have never been to Japan, let me explain: any time you do something silly, stupid, confusing, rude, or that just stands out in a that attracts attention, you can just say (in English or Japanese), “Sorry, I’m not Japanese / I’m a foreigner!” It’s never failed me, even with police (though I’ve also never tried it with anything serious like, say, murder). You’ll get a lecture at worse and maybe have to pay for whatever you broke/ate/forgot to pay for, and even that is rare in my experience. Japanese people in general will tolerate your ignorance.

This is similar to two, but with a twist: insist that you try to do something the “correct” Japanese way if you feel like you’re getting special treatment. People will offer you many chances to use the gajin card (“It’s ok, you’re foreign!”) but don’t always accept it. You’ll still get away with whatever mistake you made because Japanese people are usually super nice, but the fact that you show interest in doing things the Japanese way will get you some respect.

4. Greet People You See Everyday


Photo by Chuck Hagel

I’ve done this in Kyoto during a month stay there and while living in far reaches of Kanto (well outside of Tokyo). I’ve gotten kids to stop staring at me and warmly greet me. I’ve turned mean looking old guys into friendly ojiisan. For people from a small town, they might be doing this already and not realizing how much of an advantage it probably gives them over “unfriendly” foreigners. Just give it a shot. Worse case scenario is that you get the kids to stop staring.

5. Share Your Culture


Someone out there is probably thinking, “But you just told me to assimilate!” To them, I say, “I said learn to assimilate a bit.” No matter how sincere or honest a person is, one thing that will always be a factor in the reason people talk to you is because you’re different. Welcome to my life! Embrace your differentness without pushing it on others. You can do things your way and people can appreciate them, just don’t be overly aggressive about it. Don’t do the “this is how it’s done in the rest of the world” thing (which, unless you’re really well traveled, only tends to make you look foolish).

Share something small that might be similar to a Japanese custom. It blows minds and earns international respect. For example, Japanese people are surprised I can use chopsticks. I simply mention how my hometown has many Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, so when my classmates’ parents made food for school events, we ate with chopsticks. Minds blown, level increases, +5 to respect.

6. Embrace Omiyage Culture


Photo by Jacob Ehnmark

You’ll quickly notice that when Japanese people come back from a trip, even a short one, that they bring back some little snack for you and your co-workers. This is omiyage culture, and you really should take advantage of it. This is especially true if you’ve been hired by JET because, to be blunt, we’re paid better than other teaching assistants. Don’t do the young person’s thing where you only buy something for friends. At the very least, get a bunch of cheap senbei for everyone at work (everyone).

People will remember this. They will be a bit kinder to you, repay you, maybe even befriend you. No, really, I’ve got several guys giving me much nicer omiyage when they return from a trip. If you’re shy or not sure how omiyage work, ask your supervisor or another Japanese friend for advice, or ask them to help you pass out omiyage. The extra face time you get (or positive word of mouth that spreads from other Japanese) will help make your life easier. Really, bribes get you everywhere.

7. Don’t Say “No” to Spending Time with Co-Workers.


Photo by Kim Ahlstrom

Unless you honestly have plans that are super important or can’t afford it, don’t say no to outings. You know what most people tell me they dislike about foreigners they worked with in the past? The foreigners never spent time with co-workers outside of work. I’ve had several teachers say that the most important thing foreign teachers can do to make work life easier is to spend time outside of work with other teachers.

Even those work parties count, and you are seen are genuinely anti-social if you don’t attend them. If you have something else you’re planning to do, try to reschedule that event. If you can’t, get help explaining your situation and ask to please be invited another time (unless you can give them a specific time/place you can join in on the activity). You may not get a second invite if you reject the first one. I’ve done this one time and I still regret it. I’ve seen others who have done it multiple times and then they leave Japan without any new foreign connections. Seems like quite a waste to me. This is your opportunity to become a part of “the group” so don’t squander it.

8. Restrain Your Drinking Habits


Photo by zenjiro

Japanese get drunk, but in my experience, losing all inhibition and vomiting is the sign of a problem person, even in Japan. Don’t get too loud or too crazy. Only push slightly further than other Japanese do in loudness or bawdiness if you’re the partying type. While people will pretend they forget everything that happens the next day, they won’t. Trust me.

9. Try to Rely On Others


Photo by Betsy Weber

This is the one I personally hate the most. I could honestly write a whole article on it (and I will), but let me try to keep it short here: rely on other people.

Ask for small favors once in awhile. Even small things like asking how to read some kanji will make Japanese people feel you’re friendly and approachable. They’ll have an easier time talking to you, maybe even want to befriend you. Exchanging favors, especially outside of work, is really how to make friends with Japanese in my experience. Small gifts of food work too. Really, don’t be afraid to “bribe”!

Now, remember how I said not to complain about work? If you’re the type that has trouble holding that back, if you follow some of this advice, you’ll be around when people start whining about your boss. Add something, but be indirect. If someone has a similar problem, they’ll either work harder on fixing it or at least offer you moral support. Relying on others really does help build social bridges.

10. Try to be Independent


Photo anko.gaku_ula

I know, it’s confusing compared to #9, but the idea is that you also don’t want to make a nuisance of yourself. You can surprise people, especially if you’re a guy and, say, show that you can cook on your own by bringing home-made bento or giving hand made food to co-workers. If you’re a lady that’s not afraid to move a cicada outside when students or teachers panic, that leaves a good impression too!

Ask for help sometimes, especially at the start, but doing things on your own, especially in a public way, earns respect. If you can pick up a new skill, like fixing printer errors or mastering the system for getting CDs from the office supply staff without help, Japanese people will feel like you’re becoming a part of their society. Rather than needing to help you, they will want to help. I prefer to be independent myself, but there are times I need help. At first, there were some people who I could tell didn’t want to help me, and there are still a few like that (mostly people who recently transferred to my schools). However, once I’ve earned their respect, I can get help for things I didn’t even know I needed to do anyway (like getting a ride to a party I didn’t know existed).

Obviously this advice is more of a guide than hard rules, and your mileage may very, but let me put it to you this way: I’ve had people tell me that the guy I replaced didn’t participate in a lot of the things I’ve done. He was very un-Japanese, not so friendly, and was seen as lacking personality. The foreigners who knew him, at worse, said he reminded them of their younger brother, in that he could be annoying but meant well. While not a bad person, he did the things expected of foreigners and missed out. At worst, do you want to be remembered as a strange foreigner or a little brother?

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