Tofugu» History A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Surviving Sports Festival Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 In Japan, summer’s end ushers in a nationwide school tradition. Students, teachers, family, and other guests gather for a day of outdoor events known as undoukai (運動会) or sports festival. Undoukai offers something for everyone – some events are taken seriously while others offer light-hearted comic relief. And although a winner is declared at day’s end, undoukai’s true spirit lies beneath its competitive pretenses – one of cooperation.

A (Very) Quick History


Undoukai’s history dates back to the Meiji period, an era of drastic changes in the formerly isolated nation. In his book Sport and Body Politics in Japan, Wolfram Manzenreiter explains, “The history of school sport days in Japan began with the (probably) first undoukai ever staged by Kaigun Heigakuryou in Tsukiji, Tokyo in March 1873.” Manzenreiter credits English Naval Officer Archibald Douglas with introducing the idea (Manzenreiter 52).

The tradition took off from there as Japan pushed to “catch-up” with the west, adapting many western traditions. Ironically Japan’s militarization and its opposition to the West would further solidify undoukai’s place in Japanese culture as an “ideological device used for nationalistic purposes… Marching formations and mass calisthenics demonstrated the result of a disciplinary education that put the body into service of the collective” (53).

Although sports festival’s roots may lie in the west, Japan has made undoukai a uniquely Japanese tradition. Manzenreiter goes as far as declaring, “Undoukai can be viewed as a contemporary extension of older traditions, such as the cherry blossom viewing” (53). And anyone involved in the Japanese school system can attest, the tradition is still going strong.

Surviving Undoukai


Photo by Tamago Moffle

Spending an entire day in Japan’s characteristic mushiatsui (蒸し暑い), or hot and humid, weather warrants proper preparation. But the concept of proper preparation differs by culture. Items considered necessities by native Japanese participants might not be so obvious to an uninitiated foreigner, as I discovered at my first undoukai. Follow this Japanese-centric list to get through the day like a seasoned pro.

  • Hat – Protect your head and eyes from Japan’s merciless sun. Go with a fly fishing hat or a cap with a mullet on the back. Remember, it’s not about making a fashion statement, it’s about survival.
  • Towel/Tenugui – Use it to wipe away the sweat, protect your neck from the sun and dry your hands after washing them. A towel/tenugui is your all-purpose undoukai utility tool. Using a tenugui will earn you bonus points for Japanese cultural recognition.
  • Sports Wear – When Japan holds an event, people prefer to look the part. At undoukai, even the most well-dressed teachers will trade in their dress suits for track suits. The more stuff printed on your outfit, the better, as track jackets covered in logos and advertisements are all the rage. But if your team, homeroom, or school has a custom t-shirt made for the day, be sure to wear that instead!
  • Sports Drink – You can bring water, but people might think you’re crazy. Japan has embraced the sports drink, so if you want to fit in, make it Pocari Sweat, Aquarius or Amino Value. But if sports drinks aren’t your cup of tea, try tea! Barley tea (mugi-cha) is the traditional tea of champions.
  • Bentou Lunch Box – If you don’t have a school provided bentou, bring your own. If possible, bring enough to share. Undoukai’s lunch often becomes a hodgepodge picnic. Make some friends and sample their home-cooking as they (hopefully) enjoy yours. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a family I shared lunch with loved my simple banana bread. Or at least they said they did.


Photo by kunchan
  • A Mat – Straw or plastic, a mat will keep your rear-end dry and dirt-free while giving you a clean place to enjoy your lunch. It’ll also save your spot when you participate in events or head to the little boy’s or girl’s room.
  • Sunblock – When it comes to sun protection, some Japanese people don ninja-like outfits, covering themselves from head to toe. These get-ups prevent sun exposure at a cost; they’re sweltering. To avoid melting in your own personal sauna suit embrace sunblock – or better yet, let it embrace you. Bring the entire bottle just incase you need re-apply at lunchtime. Sunblock is the only non-Japanese-centric item on this list so prepare to receive some awkward looks, especially if your sunblock is coconut scented and has gold sparkles in it – like mine did.

Now that everything’s prepared, we’re ready for the big day!

The Venue


Photo by 不可説

In preparation for undoukai, a school’s undoujou (運動場) or all purpose athletic grounds undergo a painstaking transformation. Days before the event, students and teachers spend hours converting the giant sandy lot into a sports festival wonderland. White chalk lines mark the positions for undoukai’s array of activities. Flags and other decorations create a festive atmosphere. Canopies surround the athletic field and offer spectators protection from the elements. Get to the field early to secure a great spot in the shade with a great view of the action.

Opening Ceremonies


As with most events in Japan, undoukai kicks off with an opening ceremony. Expect a few speeches – by the principal, the student council president, maybe a PTA member and even a city or town official. And be sure to remove your hat for the national anthem and raising of the Japanese flag.

After waiting through the speeches and national anthem, students will spread out for another Japanese tradition – rajio taisou (ラジオ体操) or calisthenics. Watch or join students as they stretch and pose to a cheerful narrator and catchy music. Some schools play modern pop tracks, but nothing beats the traditional piano music.

(Rajio Taisou with some local Tohoku flavor.)

When rajio taisou ends, teams split up and the events begin!

The Events


Photo by Ishikawa Ken

Check the schedule to see the order of events. Along with student events, there are sometimes events for teachers, faculty, and guests – so don’t miss out! This is a non-exhaustive list meant to be a sampling of events. Each school has its own contests and traditions.

Popular undoukai events include:

  • Mukade Kyoso – Like a three-legged race but might involve even more legs.
  • Kumitaiso – Students create various shapes with their bodies (think human pyramids).


Photo by Josh Berglund
  • Tama-ire – Students and guests throw bean bags into an overhead basket.
  • Odori – Students perform various dances ranging from the traditional to recent pop hits.


  • Tsunahiki – A good old-fashioned tug-of-war. There’s often one held for parents/guests as well.
  • Relay – Japan loves a relay and undoukai is no exception. The event is often the most competitive and usually closes out the day.

The Soundtrack


Photo by Arbitrarily0

Undoukai even has its own soundtrack, so expect to listen to music all day long. Every event of every undoukai I’ve ever attended has been accompanied by BGM (Background Music). Sometimes the playlist includes classic tunes, like The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. Other times anime themes rule the day with titles like Dragon Ball’s Chara Hecchara (チャラ・ヘッチャラ) or any of the One Piece themes. Kindergartens love children’s songs, particularly Anpanman’s March. And of course there’s J-pop. Since arriving in Japan seven years ago, AKB48 has been a mainstay of school life – and undoukai is no exception.

Undoukai’s soundtrack provides English teachers a chance to shine. If you’re a teacher try offering some popular English songs to mix things up!

Closing Ceremony


Photo by Taku

After the relay finishes, teams will return to their areas for a break while teachers tally the points. The event ends much as it started, with students and faculty assembled in the middle of the field for (you guessed it!) a closing ceremony. The winning team is announced and awarded a trophy – usually an elaborate flag attached to an even more elaborate staff. Expect more speeches before the Japanese flag is lowered and folded and the event ends…

Or does it?

Although closing ceremony officially ends undoukai, the day is far from over. After the long, exhausting day everyone wants to go home, but no self-respecting attendees do. Instead (almost) everyone, from students to parents to grandparents, helps with the clean-up. Everything – the sports equipment, chairs, canopies, tarps, wires, speakers, and decorations – needs to be dismantled and put away. Once the school field resembles a school field once again, everyone can finally call it a day… Well, except the teachers who might have a closing meeting to attend.

The Spirit of Cooperation Under Competition’s Guise


After experiencing years of sports festivals, the term “undoukai” still inspires images of headband wearing students in gym uniforms sprinting around a track. But if I’ve taken anything away from undoukai – other than an appreciation of barley tea on a hot day – it’s that undoukai isn’t all about competition. Under all the dust and sweat lies a spirit of cooperation.

Undoukai’s preparation alone strengthens bonds among students and faculty who put an enormous amount of time and effort into the event. The month leading up to undoukai is a busy one filled with practices for ceremonies, speeches, dances and other events. Even rajio-taiso is drilled to perfection. Days before the event, field and equipment preparation begins.

Undoukai often expands beyond the school, drawing in its wider social environment (Manzenreiter 52). Manzenreiter wrote, “(Local) residents became chiefly involved in preparation tasks of ‘their’ annual undoukai.” With parents and local organizations lending a hand, undoukai fosters a sense of community within the community. Undoukai provides a chance for former students to visit their alma mater. Local TV coverage allows anyone in the community to experience the event.

At the social level, undoukai creates a situation for students to work with and support peers other than their friends. Teams made up of homerooms, grades, or randomly chosen kids encourage students to work with and cheer for peers they might not otherwise interact with.

Teams, often formed according to grade or homeroom membership, work together preparing flags, shirt designs, dances, and marches. Of course group events like dances, kumitaiso, and tug-of-war foster a cooperative spirit among participants. After all, it’d be impossible to pull off a human pyramid without cooperation! But even individual events like the races promote cooperation and group solidarity through cheering.

To most students, undoukai is simply a fun escape from studying. But the event teaches them to cooperate while representing their homerooms, school, and community – whether they realize it or not. And although points are tallied and a winner is declared, at day’s end everyone is brought a little closer together as teams celebrate their hard fought efforts, win or lose.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Manzenreiter, Wolfram. Sport and Body Politics in Japan. NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
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Top Ten Real Life Kaiju of Japan Thu, 24 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Movies like Pacific Rim and the thankfully-better-than-last-time American Godzilla have been rekindling a love for giant monsters. Kaijū have been igniting the imaginations of children everywhere since dudes in rubber suits first started wailing on other dudes in rubber suits. It’s easy to get swept up in the delight of these movies and their fantastic creatures, but let’s not neglect the real-life kaijū you might see on a trip to Japan. You might not see Godzilla during your travels, but you could very well bump into one of these ten Japanese beasties.

#10: Japanese Spider Crab


Photo by Laika ac

Kaijū Equivalent: Ebirah


Even though Godzilla’s foe, Ebirah, is based on a lobster, you can definitely see the family resemblance.

Japanese spider crabs have the longest leg-span of any living arthropod (the phyla that contains crustaceans, insects, and arachnids) with some specimens reaching up to 3.8 meters. That’s twelve feet of either terrifying spider legs or good eating depending on your level of arachnophobia. They are most common on the southern coasts of Honshū at shallows of 160 feet all the way down to 2,000 feet or more, usually preferring trenches and dark crevices. They typically scavenge the ocean floors for plants, algae, shell fish, or animal carcasses. I suppose it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine them towering over a beach-front village, combing the streets for fleeing citizens to snatch into their claws.

#9: Blue Whale


Photo by anim1755

Kaijū Equivalent: Godzilla


Godzilla might look like a monstrous reptile but his inspiration, or at least the name Gojira (ゴジラ ), came from two quite-non-reptilian sources kujira (クジラ) meaning whale and gorira (ゴリラ) meaning gorilla. Being a gigantic monster that can swim like a whale and walk on land like an ape, he definitely lives up to his namesake. Now I wonder which one he got the atomic breath from?

This one’s a bit of a cop-out, but I would be remiss not to include the largest living animal in the world and the heaviest creature to have ever existed in a list of giant monsters. This monstrous creature has a large range of habitats with subspecies existing in all major oceans. In Japan, these gigantic creatures have inspired awe for a long time—not only are they half of Godzilla but they are the inspiration for many bakekujira (monster whale) myths. In waters near Japan, whaling has decreased their population, but they are still one of the undisputed kings of the deep and a definite contender for the real-life kaijū throne.

#8: Frilled Shark


Photo by OpenCage

Kaijū Equivalent: Zigra


Zigra has a lot in common with the frilled shark. For instance, both are alien lifeforms from distant planets that are infiltrating earth and both are hyperintelligent beings capable of telepathic speech. Okay, fine. It’s because they’re both sharks.

After this we’re done with the deep sea kaijū and we’re setting foot on the dry land. Considering that a common thread of kaijū movies is mutation from prehistoric creatures, I figured a species that can be considered a living fossil would be fair game. The first one to be videotaped alive in approximately all of human history made quite a splash in 2007, no pun intended, when it was captured off the coast of Japan.

He was pretty sickly looking, which makes sense as he was so far from home. These guys like to be deep, deep, underwater. We’re talking 5,150 feet deep, the deepest that a frilled shark has ever been recorded. These remarkable oddities have several things in common with both prehistoric shark species and their modern-day descendants, which makes them quite the living fossil. Despite their rarity to human eyes, these sharks have been given the conservation status of “not threatened” due to their widespread distribution and the presumably large population that is hard to measure in the darkest depths of the sea. Pretty spooky thinking about the kind of things that can hide from us in the ocean; this guy hid for so long we could’ve sworn he was extinct! Due to this creatures serpentine body, some cryptozoologists even posit that there is a larger cousin of this guy nestled in the deep that explains modern-day sightings of sea serpents.

#7: Sika Deer


Kaiju Equivalent: Cowra


Okay, fine, the doofy Ultraman villain Cowra is based on a cow. But look at those cloven hooves, those horns, that fur, and that huggable face! Cowra and the Sika Deer are definitely cut from the same cloth. In fact, Cowra is primarily made of cloth.

Kaijū just means “strange beast”, it doesn’t mean “giant beast”. When it comes to strangeness and quirkiness, these deer can definitely be considered kaijū in their own right. Take into account, for example, that these are some quintessentially Japanese deer. Their English common name comes from the Japanese shika (鹿) meaning deer. They’re so Japanese that, in Japan, they are called simply nihonjika (日本鹿). They used to be common all over Eurasia from Russia to China and back again but, over time, they became extinct everywhere except Japan where they are overly abundant.

Japan, one of the only places in the world that didn’t hunt them for their antler velvet, quickly became the haven of the Sika Deer. These deer outlived their only known predators in Japan, the Japanese wolves, which were extinct by 1905. Unique habitat, no known enemies, sound kaijū-ey enough for ya? Not yet? Okay. Their genus is cervus or “true deer” of which there are now only a handful of species. Not only are they the most Japanese deer they are also among the deeriest of deer.

#6: Amami Rabbit


Kaijū Equivalent: Hanejiro


Hanejiro from the Ultraman Dyna television series is the perfect kaijū counterpart for this tiny rabbit, both of them being adorable and cuddly. Not all kaijū are big and smashy.

This is another kaijū that might take some convincing to be seen as such, but there is something truly remarkable about this living fossil. It is now only found in two small islands, Amami Ooshima and Toku-no-Shima in Kagoshima Prefecture. This rabbit contains many characteristics from Miocene-era fossils of rabbits and hares such as small eyes and a long snout. The Amami rabbit’s appearance is so primitive and distinct from modern day rabbits that, if you happened to see one hopping about, you might not even know what you are looking at.

#5: Okinawa Habu


Kaiju Equivalent: Dai Umi Hebi


One of Godzilla’s oldest and most boringly named foes the, literally translated, “big sea snake” has at least two of those three things in common with this Okinawan pit viper. And that’s enough for me.

Habu is a common name given to venomous snakes in Japan, particularly pit vipers. The Okinawan Habu is the largest snake species in Japan and tied with the mamushi for the most venomous. Ranging from 4 to 8 feet long, this snake is several times larger than the Japanese rat snake, which is the largest Japanese snake outside of Okinawa. On islands where these vipers are plentiful, they are commonly collected for making awamori (a traditional Okinawan alcohol similar to sake). The resulting habu sake is often sold with the snake pickled in the bottle for dramatic flair. Snake wines like these were popular in Asia for a long time as folk medicine. Nowadays, they make for one heck of a souvenir. If you are ever in Okinawa and want to buy some of this wine or learn more interesting facts about these bad mamma-jammas, check out the Habu Museum Park.

#4: Ryukyu Flying Fox


Photo by Momotarou2012

Kaijū Equivalent: Kyuranos


Out of all the bat kaijū that have fought Ultraman, Godzilla, and everybody else under the sun, I knew I had to pick Kyuranos. Look at those two. They’re twins!

Whenever the term flying fox gets thrown around, I get excited. Some flying foxes can be as large as medium-sized dogs, so the term flying fox is very apt. If a dog-beast flying on leathery wings isn’t kaijū enough for you I don’t know what is. Unlike Kyuranos, however, the only flesh these guys want to sink their teeth into is that of a pear, or perhaps the occasional insect. Flying foxes are large fruitbats that are considered to be megabats. They are important pollinators in the wilds of Ryukyu where they act as giant fanged hummingbirds. As their cousin in Okinawa is already extinct, it makes sense that these guys are on the conservation list.

#3: Ussuri Brown Bear


Photo by Nzrst1jx

Kaijū Equivalent: King Caesar


Although this king is based on, and mis-translated from, a shiisa—which is more parts dog and lion than bear—this cunning and ferocious Godzilla-peer matches the sheer power and majesty of a brown bear pretty darn well.

The story of the Ussuri brown bear in Japan is probably the closest thing to a giant monster movie that one will encounter in real life. And why not? This ancestor of the grizzly bear can weigh up to 1,400 pounds and is the largest land animal that inhabits Japan. It is currently considered endangered due to loss of habitat, but it was once the terror of Hokkaido. The indigenous Ainu people of Japan worshipped the Ussuri bear because of its strength and vigor. In a festival called Iomante a new-born brown bear would be raised for a few years in an Ainu village while being treated to the finest food and amenities they could provide. The bear was treated like a god. After the bear reached two years of age, they would tie it to a public post in the village and kill it with arrows and clubs—uh…like a god? After the bear was dead they would skin it, distribute the furs and meat, drink the blood for vitality, and use the skull as an ornament of continued worship.

So for those of you keeping track, the Ussuri brown bear has 1. “worshipped by a native population”, and 2. “attack villages and eat people”.

That’s about as kaijū as you can get. From the year 1900 to around 1957, when the bears were more plentiful, they were responsible for 141 deaths and over 300 injuries. The most high-profile event came to be known as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident (3. “have an incident named after you”) where, for five days in 1915, a large brown bear stalked and terrorized the recently-settled Tomamae village in Hokkaido. The bear awoke from hibernation to find people where he was pretty sure he didn’t see people before and then set out return his habitat to normal. He stole grain at first, as if demanding tribute, and then started munching through people like it was going out of style—claiming seven victims across the attack. He even popped in during the pre-funeral rites for the first victims just to rub it in. Experienced hunting parties went after the bear, now nicknamed Kesagake (袈裟懸け) or “diagonal shoulder slash,” his apparent calling card. For days the nearly 9 foot tall and 800 pound bear eluded the hunters, but was eventually brought to justice. The bear even created a redemption story for the son of the mayor of Tomamae village who swore to kill ten bears for every victim of the attack, and ended up overachieving. There have been novels, radio plays, manga, and film adaptations of this story making this kaijū’s legacy come full-circle. These giant beasts have had an intense and blood-soaked history with the Japanese and, though their numbers are now in decline, they can still be considered among the biggest and baddest of Japan’s real-life kaijū.

#2: Japanese Giant Salamander


Photo by Paul Williams

Kaijū Equivalent: Japanese Giant Salamander (Sanshouuo Kaijin)


These giant salamanders are so iconic that their kaijū version is really just themselves. Sure they exaggerated some of the powers like the long sticky tongue and flame breath, but they really weren’t that far off when it comes to the size.

The Japanese giant salamander is one of the true natural wonders of Japan’s rivers and streams. These suckers can grow to sizes of around 5 feet in length and weigh up to 60 pounds. In fact they are the second largest amphibian in the world, the only thing bigger than these guys is their Chinese subspecies. They are so large that they were once fished as a food source by the local people. Now they are protected by law, but it’s bizarre to think of using a salamander as a primary food source when most species would barely qualify as a snack. The Japanese giant salamander remains amphibious for its entire lifespan. Even when these monsters reach adulthood and lose their gills, they are large enough to simply pop their heads above water whenever they want air.

They are carnivorous and nocturnal, so they hide under rocks during the day and at night and will lumber around streams, waiting to suck prey into their mouths. Their eyes are small and underdeveloped and find their prey by using tiny hairs on their body to sense ripples and vibrations in the water. When they catch their meal, they don’t even need to chew. Since they feed underwater, they don’t produce saliva. They do, however, secrete a strong musk as a defense mechanism that has the reputation for smelling like the Japanese pepper plant, thus their Japanese common name oosanshouuo (大山椒魚) or “giant pepper fish.”

Considering their strange lifecycle and features, it’s no wonder they were originally thought of as a fish. They even swim upstream to spawn and males fertilize eggs externally in huge clutches—just like fish. Japanese giant salamanders are a national treasure and have inspired art and folklore since they were first discovered. There’s even speculation that myths about kappas originated out of fear of these watery critters.

#1: Japanese Giant Hornet


Photo by KENPEI

Kaijū Equivalent: Battra


Being mothra’s evil counterpart, Battra is definitely more butterfly-like than hornet-like but he shares a similar color scheme and penchant for villainy that would make the murderous hornets proud.

Finally, the most monstrous beast in all of Japan is the Japanese giant hornet. You might be wondering, why out of all the crazy animals we’ve seen on this list, the number one kaijū is only two inches long. Because it is two inches long! Sporting a two and a half inch wing-span and quarter-inch (or longer) stinger, Japanese giant hornets are a nightmare.

While the venom they inject isn’t the most deadly of hornet venoms, it is quite a lot considering their size. Yes, the Japanese giant hornet has truly earned it’s place as the king of Japanese kaijū.

For starters, they are the deadliest animal in all of Japan. Their stings claim thirty to forty lives every single year, second to them are the venomous snakes that kill five to ten people a year, while the big bears of the highlands only cause between zero and five fatalities. But it’s not just their impact on humans that gives them the kaijū throne, it’s what they do to other bees. When these hornets find themselves displaced in Europe or the Americas, or when Japanese beekeepers use European honeybees in the interest of increasing their yield, those bees better watch their backs. Japanese giant hornets ruthlessly and systematically destroy honeybee hives, it’s just how they roll.

To the poor honeybees, these hornets are like dragons attacking a castle and they waste no time ransacking it. It only takes a handful of hornets to demolish a thriving population of European honeybees. The hornets bite, sting, and use their legs to dismember their prey. This way they can selectively take the best parts for their dinner. Not only that, but when given the chemical signal, they will opportunistically ignore lesser prey to raid larvae, pupae, or the queen’s supply of honey. Giant hornets make unflinchingly conniving nest invaders. The only reason that these guys haven’t wiped out all of the honeybees in Japan (something that they could actually do to the Western world if their populations started booming) is because the Japanese honeybees have co-evolved with the massive predators to develop a very sly countermeasure.

As seen in the video above, it takes an entire hive working together and the sacrifice of a honeybee martyr for these tiny bees to take out just one of the would-be usurpers, but it’s either that or lose the hive. Really, when you think about it, the hornet’s own size and heavy exoskeleton are the things that cause the temperatures to rise to that critical self-cooking level. So, in a way, the only thing that can stop these hornets is themselves. This is the apex predator of the insect kingdom. And let’s have a shout-out to the Japanese honeybees for trying to survive in the face of a killing machine like this. I , for one, welcome our new six-legged kaijū overlords.

Well, there you have it folks. The top ten biggest, toughest, weirdest, and cutest animals that deserve to be considered true-to-life kaijū of Japan.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Three Legs Are Better Than Two: Japanese Soccer and the Legend of Yatagarasu Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000

Here in Japan, the heat and humidity of summer have crept up on us, providing the perfect atmosphere to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup – uchiwa in hand. Despite Samurai Blue’s (as the Japanese national team is often referred to) disappointing early exit, there’s something to take solace in – they still rock the tournament’s most unique and fashionable uniforms.

Okay, that last part is pure opinion. But given the team’s history of distinctive and often quirky jersey designs, I always look forward to the next iteration. In 2006 they featured a cool, light blue wave design. In 2010 a red square highlighted the center collar with an off-blue design of cascading feathers woven into the fabric.

Japan’s 2014 Uniform


Photo by BagoGames

The 2014 uniform did not disappoint, receiving special attention when Adidas collaborated with Nintendo to release a special Pikachu jersey for fans. The blue top features three white stripes on the shoulders, with red trim at the end of the sleeves. The Adidas logo adorns the upper right chest with a white, uniformed Pikachu featured underneath.

A national jersey wouldn’t be complete without the nation flag which sits on the left side of the chest, notably higher than the Adidas logo. The JFA (Japan Football Association) crest sits beneath the flag. And if you look closely, you’ll notice my favorite detail – faint sun-rays emanating from the JFA crest.


Yet despite ever-changing designs, Samurai Blue’s uniform’s most intriguing element has remained constant, returning year after year – the giant crow that dwells within the JFA crest.

Japan’s Crows


Photo by Frankyboy5

Even Pikachu can’t pry the title of The Most Unique Creature on Japan’s National Team Uniform from the claws of the giant crow that has secured it. To the casual observer, a crow might not seem like a fitting representative of Japan. But visitors to Japan, Tokyo in particular, can attest to the formidable presence of the Jungle Crow, a giant variety of the species that inhabit the city.

If the name sounds scary, it’s deservedly so. The Japan Time’s Rowan Hooper explains, “(Jungle Crows) will aggressively defend their favored garbage sites against other crows, and in the breeding season there are often reports of attacks on humans. The population explosion has led to the decline of other bird species, as crows will prey on the nestlings of other species (sometimes attacking with such violence that the nest is destroyed).”

The Texan in Tokyo, Grace Buchele Mineta noted, “I’m not a fan of crows in Tokyo. These huge birds, often 18-23 inches, creep me out, occasionally attack me, and often wreck my garbage.”

I have also fallen victim to Jungle Crow attacks. One dive-bombing bird took swoops at me during my walk to work, forcing me to take the long way home (albeit only a few extra yards).


Which brings us back to the JFA – why choose the Jungle Crow, that wreaks havoc on Japan’s cities, citizenry and garbage, to symbolize the organization?

A better questions is – does a more fitting mascot exist? The big, strong Jungle Crow instills fear in its foes. What’s more, the bird has earned a reputation for its aggressive attack (on humans and other birds) and formidable defense (of its territory) – definitive attributes of a world class soccer team. In reality the Jungle Crow makes the perfect mascot for the JFA and Samurai Blue!

Only those aren’t the reasons the crow was chosen.

In fact, the bird that graces the JFA logo is no ordinary Jungle Crow at all. Close investigation reveals the single detail that separates the JFA crow from the rest of the murder (or horde if you prefer, both mean a group of crows). There it stands – head held high, wings spread, both feet firmly planted on the ground with a soccer ball grasped in its other foot.

Wait, why does this crow have three feet? Because the FFA crow is none other than the legendary Yatagarasu!

The Legend of Yatagarasu


Who or what is Yatagarasu? Kevin Short, a cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University explains,

“According to ancient Japanese Kojiki and Nihonshoki chronicles (the oldest writings in Japan) and Shinto canon, this great crow was sent from heaven (by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu) as a guide for Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato (later called Japan). Based on this account, the appearance of the great bird has traditionally been interpreted by the Japanese as evidence of the divine intervention in human affairs.”

Why does Yatagarasu have three legs? Most theories credit Yatagarasu’s origin to ancient Chinese and Korean legends that feature a similar creature. Katherine Marshall of The Huffington Post asked priests at Kumano Shrine (a shrine dedicated to the bird), who had this to offer, “(The three legs) may represent the three ancient clans that dominated Kumano’s history. Or perhaps the three main virtues of the gods: chi (wisdom), jin (benevolence) and yuu (valor). Then again, the three legs may stand for heaven, earth and mankind (as in the Taoist triad).”

Yatagarasu is a legendary creature and its three legs carry deep symbolism, but what does any of this have to do with soccer?

Why Yatagarasu?


The JFA’s own explanation is not very clear, “The three-legged crow holding a ball is called ‘Yatagarasu’ and represents the god of day, namely, the sun, cited from a classical book of old China.”

A little research uncovered a more detailed explanation. According to Julian Richards of the Wakayama Prefcture website, Yatagarasu honors the most influential man in Japan’s soccer history – Kakunosuke Nakamura (中村覚之助).

Tanabe Kumano of a Kumano News Blog explains, “In 1900… (Nakamura) translated an English book, Association Football. This book was the basis of the introduction of legitimate soccer to Japan in 1902. In the same year, Nakamura established Japan’s first soccer team, the so-called Ashiki Shukyu-bu.” He went on to play and coach soccer, becoming the founding father of the sport in Japan.

But how does Yatagarasu make a fitting symbol for Mr. Nakamura? Julian Richards explains again. “As Nakamura, the so called ‘founder of Japanese soccer,’ is from Nachi Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture, the symbol was based on one of the Gods of Kumano Grand Shrine in the same town.”

Although the Nakamura connection is the most widely cited reason for the logo, it’s not he only one. Yatagarasu’s reputation as a guide may have helped inspire the JFA’s choice. Katherine Marshal elaborates, “A sign at the (Kumano) shrine notes that the Japanese soccer association has adopted the crow as its mascot to make sure the ball finds its way into the goal. Helping those who are lost to find a path is the essence.”

Yatagarasu, Still Guiding After All These Years


Photo by m-louis

Although an ordinary Jungle Crow would make the perfect soccer mascot for Japan, Yatagarasu, the heaven sent, three-legged bird is far more fitting. It represents one of Japan’s most important and influential people to the sport – Kakunosuke Nakamura. Furthermore, Yatagarasu helps guide the ball to the net as it had guided Emperor Jimmu in ancient times.

And Yatagarasu still guides people today. The JFA logo guided me to aspects of Japanese culture and history I never would have discovered otherwise.

Researching and writing about Yatagarasu also served as a reminder – the World Cup supersedes sport as a celebration of countries and cultures. Most team’s colors, uniforms and logos hold some cultural significance. Yatagarasu has left me wondering, why does France’s uniform features a rooster? And what’s up with the Dutch lion?

There’s still a lot to be learned from the World Cup… when we’re not glued to the TV enjoying the beautiful game.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How The Ainu Do Mythology: A Primer Mon, 21 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 I have kind of an interest in the Ainu, one of Japan’s original inhabitants. As someone who is mixed (like many modern Ainu) but looks just different enough to stand out, I have a vague idea of what it’s like to be seen as an outsider in my home country. I’m not a Native American though, so it’s not nearly as bad, but like the Ainu, my father’s culture is largely viewed by my home country for how it was centuries ago, not what it’s like today. However, I also understand the power of that attraction. I find that mythology is, at the very least, a good way to introduce some of the bare basics of a different culture and its beliefs. Like the gaming displays in your favorite electronics store, I hope that sharing just a little mythology with fellow Tofugu readers will awaken a thirst for greater knowledge and investment in other cultures (but without charging you for it!).

A Quick Overview of the Ainu


Photo by seriykotik

So for those who aren’t sure who the Ainu are, I’d like to quote Nick’s article on Traveling to Hokkaido:

In a quick history overview, the Ainu are an indigenous group of people in Japan with rather mysterious origins. While they initially inhabited a large part of northern Japan, they were gradually pushed north by the Japanese, eventually limited exclusively to Hokkaido. After the Meiji Restoration (1867), Hokkaido was annexed by the Japanese and the Ainu were forcefully assimilated and their language and culture was largely destroyed. Only very recently, beginning in the early 1990s, have the remaining descendants of the Ainu gained significant ground in the revival of their language and culture.

Odd as it may sound, I actually originally found Tofugu, not because of its focus on Japanese culture, but to cross check another article I read. I was looking for Japanese words with Ainu origins, and Tofugu didn’t disappoint. I was surprised that, at the time, the article was fairly new, and that there were other articles about the Ainu as well. Finding information on the Ainu isn’t all that easy, especially in English. In fact, there’s a certain museum in Japan that focuses on different ethnicities from around the world, and one of the very few displays that is only in Japanese is the Ainu display. Apparently, even though displays on African, Australian, and Mezzo-American tribes were bilingually displayed, the curators said that they wouldn’t display other materials in English because it would show linguistic favoritism.

The Ainu in Japan are rarely talked about, to the point where if I mention them in Japanese, I have to also talk about Hokkaido, beards, and bears before people realize that, yes, some foreigners know about the people who inhabited these lands before the Wajin (term for Japanese people usually used to differentiate between them and other ethnicities living in Japan). Textbooks make very little mention of them, and my students seem to know more about the hardships of black people in America than… well, anything that has to do with Ainu culture. In fact, I’ve had schools that take students on their class trips to Hokkaido but don’t bother to visit anything Ainu related.

This is one of the reasons I really started to read Tofugu. There is a decent collection of related Ainu articles. There is an overview on who the Ainu are and a good article on reviving the Ainu spirit, while other articles, like about Japan and bears, will often include references to the traditionally bearded northerners. There’s nothing in our Tofugu handbooks that require this, we’ve just got some wise writers that I’ll simply piggy back off of while I try to add a little something more.

Part of this is because, well, a lot of western information about the Ainu is based off of very old texts, mostly by John Batchelor, a missionary who wrote a whole lot about the Ainu (though there are some ethnocentric ideas present in texts one has to wrestle with as well). If it’s not Batchelor, it’s Kyousuke Kindaichi, a Japanese linguist who made some foreign friends and trained or worked with other influential Ainu researchers. The best place I’ve personally visited to find information on the Ainu is the Ainu Culture Center in Tokyo which has a rather full library of English texts for those who want to continue doing research on the Ainu but can’t find any authentic informants. What you’ll quickly find, though, is that many books reference texts made around the early 1900s, of which the culture center has copies of for your reading and researching pleasure (and yes, Batchelor and Kindaichi’s names will come up in those texts unless you’re reading something written by them). However, it is because these texts are so old that I have a bit more interest in Ainu mythology and wish to share what I’ve learned.

Ainu Mythology 101


Photo by davidooms

Unlike a lot of the raw culture books, Ainu mythology personally feels more alive and aware of itself. I must admit that I’ve gotten some help from Verity Lane who actually is lucky enough to live in Hokkaido and talk to Ainu people. Perhaps if enough people beg her, we’ll be fortunate enough to have an advanced Ainu mythology article sometime in the future!

Now, because the Ainu language had no system of writing prior to contact with the Japanese, myths were handed down orally. Recent projects, such as Project Okikirmui and Project Uepeker, are trying to keep the Ainu spirit alive and international. If you like video games, there’s a little game that has a lot of Ainu mythology in it. I’d like to think that for those interested in a modern use of Ainu mythology, Ms. Byrne’s article will provide some insight and use of things I’ll be discussing.

However, my best friend for this article is Donald L. Philippi’s 1979 book “Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans.” Not only is it one of the bigger collections of English Ainu mythology that I’ve been able to find (sadly not available at the Tokyo Ainu Culture Center), but it contains a wonderful introduction that explains some of the themes, structures, and linguistics details used in Ainu mythology, building on both research done by the above mentioned researchers as well as their students. If this is starting to sound like your English Literature classes, good. We need some context first, because diving right into some myths will certainly reveal patterns and habits, but hopefully some explanations will allow you to appreciate them more.

First is first person. While this isn’t always true (at least, when I’ve read some of the more modern translations that don’t give the original Ainu language glossary for me to research), most Ainu myths are told in first person. While men tell stories too, it’s often a female shaman speaking for the dead or the gods, uttering their tale as she is possessed by them. When the tale is in first person, we often can’t tell who the speaker is, or even their gender. It is revealed through the story, and at times, may even shift to another speaker, causing the listener to once again figure out who exactly is speaking. Luckily, the last line or two are spoken as the shamaness, naming who the spirit or god was who told the tale.

It’s important to note genders here because Ainu women had their own culture and practices that were kept apart, even secret, from men, such as stitching family patterns on the inside of girdles. Because these were shamanesses, and because many early researchers were males, we’ve lost some information to the ages, so female informants and translators such as Chiri Yukie have been invaluable.

It is important to know about this idea of the possessed narrator because these tales aren’t just for humans, but sometimes meant for gods or animals. For example, while humans don’t have claws or fur, we have words (well, and the ability to make art and wine). If a human wants or needs something, they can’t just take it, especially not by force, but must ask for it. While other spirits and animals can sometimes use human speech, it’s not as powerful as our own. In fact, human speech for the Ainu can literally cause pain or change the mind of the gods. If an animal or god needs help, it is through a human, like the shamaness, that they can gain access to our power. Gods do have their own abilities (I mean, what’s a godess good for if she can’t act on her own?), but our words have a different kind of strength that the gods fear at times, envy at others. It’s our unique powers that attract the gods and spirits to the human world. When our words fail, there are inau, a kind of carved prayer stick, and… well, millet wine. The gods love that stuff. Combining words with wine and sticks may sound like a bad idea, but it seems to work everytime in Ainu mythology.

Kamui moshir, which means “land of the gods,” will come up from time to time, especially when compared to ainu moshir, or “land of the humans.” Don’t think of this so much as heaven and earth but the same place, accessible to different beings. The gods very much walk among humans, but we can’t always see them. However, they are very human-ish. That is, the gods have their own homes, clothes, taste in food, and even prayers. Just the same, because humans apparently smell bad, they do travel in disguise and don’t want to be discovered.

One thing that many people know about the Ainu is that there’s a sort of bear worship. However, much like the Native Americans, there were various groups of Ainu, and the bear wasn’t the main god for everyone. A group by the sea might worship the orca, or another might worship the owl. Bear worship is simply known the best because its followers are the majority now. In some ways, I feel one could argue that Kamui Fuchi, the hearth goddess, is one of the main gods in Ainu mythology. Prayers to the gods are often delivered at the hearth in an Ainu home because the hearth goddess transmits messages between the world of humans and the world of spirits. Want to send a little wine to the gods? Give it to Kamui Fuchi. Thanking a deer for providing your family with meat and fur? Again, talk to Kamui Fuchi. There’s a reason why the bear sacrifice ceremony, iyomante, involves visiting the hearth a few times. How can you send a little god home without telling his friends to start a party and then later sending a thank you offering?


Ainu myths aren’t purely myth though. The Okhotsk culture wasn’t really something discussed or researched until the 1930s, but had been present as other people separate from the Ainu in various myths. Tales that bring up the making of pottery in very old myths hint at the Ainu’s possible connection to the Jomon, ignored for awhile in favor of outlandish theories that the Ainu were a lost tribe of caucasians. It’s important to remember this, since these myths really do show what Ainu society was like, which can be difficult to do in a society that didn’t keep written records.

One such way we can see this is through formulaic expressions. While kamui (meaning “god/ess” or “divine”) comes up often in these expressions, such as kamui katkemat (divine lady) or kamui ranke tam (god given sword), there’s a lot of kane, meaning metal. Those studying Japanese might be a little surprised by that one, but the word isn’t Ainu in origin. Because the Ainu were hunter-gatherers, they never mastered metal working, so they often traded for iron made goods. For this reason, kane kosonte doesn’t literally mean “metal robes” but is meant to express that the robes are strong, sturdy, and made of the best materials. Literally translating that from Ainu would certainly be confusing if you didn’t take the culture into account!

We can also gain insight from the role of women in these myths. While men fight physically, women will also participate in battles, often as a shamaness with her own powers, but she is often as brave as the men in her stories. In fact, you will sometimes have a woman doing battle in the sky while a man is in a different battle on the ground, both taking place at the same time and showing how the woman is matching the man in her battle prowess. This is just one example of how the Ainu use parallelisms in their myths, not just for artistic purposes, but to illustrate important comparisons.


Sadly, part of this emphasis on formulaic expressions carried over to the Ainu themselves. The stories had their own sort of grammar not used in everyday life, and there were certain phrases that the narrators themselves could no longer explain but had simply memorized from their teachers.

Finally, remember that Ainu myths were songs. Literally, songs, with their own melodies and burdens with improvised lyrics. These songs were so intense that the speaker would sometimes lay down while performing. Reading these myths removes them from their context in a big way, similar to adapting an improv-comedy routine into a written joke. It can be done, but to various degrees of success. Add to it that there’s few people who speak the language, and it becomes a bit more difficult to convey just how out of place a written myth is for the Ainu, but due to historical circumstances and cultural differences, this is the situation we find ourselves in.

The Ainu and the Fox: A Modern-English Retelling of an Ainu Myth


Photo by mushimizu

So one of the great parts of mythology is that, as the stories are passed down, they change. They’re adapted for a new audience, a new time, a new people. It’s why comic book heroes’ backgrounds change every other decade and why we’ve got a Spider-Man reboot (ignoring that whole thing about the director and cast not wanting to come back for a fourth movie). There are some Ainu myths you can find online, but to make things a little easier, we’re going to retell the myth of “The Ainu and the Fox” based on the version by Shigeru Kayano, translated into English by Deborah Davidson and Noriyoshi Owaki, which was originally recorded in 1973 and told by Nepki Nabesawa in Biratori, Saruba, Hokkaido. There are other adaptions you can find, but this one is the Tofugu version. While it doesn’t have all the elements discussed in our primer, it hopefully has enough to give you a small idea of what you might expect should you ever go out and read other Ainu myths:

I am an Ainu who once lived in South West Hokkaido, in Usakumai near Lake Shikotsu. In my day, there were plenty of wild deer and bears roaming the mountains. Whenever I wanted meat, I had to go hunting in the mountains with my bow and arrows. After each hunt I shared the meat with the other villagers. We lived as a family, and smoked a lot of meat to eat later.

When fall came, the river filled with salmon heading upriver to spawn. Many fellow Ainu came to the river then. Not just our neighbors, but Ainu even from distant villages like Piratori, which you now call Biratori, came to catch salmon and preserve them for winter food. We humans were not the only ones to come for the salmon, but also bears and foxes. We all lived peacefully together, and my father would also leave fish for the crows. Their share was one fish for every ten we caught, and my father lay them out with the skin cut for the crows to eat, and so we did not get in each other’s way.

Life with my family was good. As time went on, people began to call me “grandpa.” My strength left me, so I no longer went into the mountains to hunt. I stayed at home and made tools and wood carvings for my family and village. It was a good life

One night, after carving late into the night as I usually had done, I wrapped myself in soft fur blankets and slowly fell asleep. However, at once, I heard a voice coming froma distance. At once, I heard a voice coming from nearby. I wondered who would be up at such an hour. I listened hard, but the voice was silent. Again I put my head on my pillow and wrapped myself in soft fur blankets. Again I heard the distant voice. Again I heard the nearby voice.

How was it far but close? My curiosity got the best of me, so I quietly got up, trying not to wake my family, and went outside. The moon was bright and lit the land for quite a ways. Slowly and softly I moved towards the voice. It was always nearby, and always so far away, as if from another world.

Eventually I saw was a fox. A normal fox, I thought, but this fox could speak our language, the human language. I listened carefully and discovered that it was making a charanke, a passionate argument we use to persuade), but his was a claim against the Ainu people!

“Ainu people! Listen up! The Ainu didn’t make the salmon! The foxes didn’t either, but it was the gods who made the salmon, and the god and goddess of this river, the Ishikari river, Pipirinnoekuru and Pipirinoemat, are the ones who decide how many salmon should swim up the river, so that the Ainu, the bears, and the foxes can all have their share to eat. However, this afternoon, I took one, just one salmon from the myriad salmon you Ainu had caught from our shared river. You know that gods won’t let us starve but will provide us all what we need! Still, one of you became so angry at me that he shouted at me, using the cruelest words there are in your language. The pain was so great that I felt like I was being attacked by horrible black flames.”

“And that’s not all! That man then prayed to the god of water and the god of the mountains, asking them both to banish us foxes from the land we share with you Ainu. He asked the gods to send us foxes far away to a place of barren hills, where there are no trees, nor grass or birds.”

With tears in his eyes, the fox called out, “I can’t stay silent. If the gods only hear his side of the story, they will think he is right, and we foxes won’t be able to live here any more. If something isn’t done, we foxes are doomed! Listen you gods! Listen you Ainu! Hear my story! Help us!”

The fox’s words touched me. He was right about what he had said. The salmon aren’t food only for the Ainu. The gods provide them for other creatures too, so when morning came, I gathered the villagers together and told them about the fox’s charanke. I called out the man who had insulted the fox and sternly lectured him. We carved many inau to help make our apology stronger, offered much millet wine to show our sincerity, and solemnly apologized to the fox god.

The other gods also heard our apology and decided not to banish the foxes, but to let them stay with us in Ainu Moshir, the Land of the Ainu.

Remember this, modern Ainu, modern men. The fish of the sea, fruit on the trees, and water of the river are not just for you and me. They should be shared with all the other animals. We must live together.

These were the final words of an Ainu elder before he died.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Karuta! Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Nintendo has been a household name in the world over for the last 30 years, and their Pokemon franchise took the world by storm in the 90s. But did you know that the multimedia Nintendo empire started out as a humble karuta company in 1889? That’s right, not 1989, 1889. Long before Mario and Princess Peach’s torrid love affair began, there was a type of Japanese playing cards called karuta (かるた or カルタ). Oddly enough, mastering karuta requires some of the same skills as mastering your average video game–a combination of lightning reflexes, memorization, and lots of time to waste. And for the Japanese language learner, karuta also offers the perfect blend of procrastination and productivity, a way to work and play at same time.

Clam Shells + Portuguese Sailors = Karuta


Photo by Scott S

Karuta, as it exists today, is the hybrid descendent of 12th century clam shells and 16th century Portuguese sailors. During the Heian period (794-1185), Kyoto aristocrats whiled away the hours with pastimes like writing elaborate poetry (read: passing gossipy notes back and forth that happened to be written in meter) and playing kai-awase (買い合わせ), a “shell-matching” game. The inner surfaces of clam or oyster shells were painted with matching scenes and/or poetry, a set of shells were laid face down, and players competed to see who could match the greatest number of shells in the shortest amount of time.


Photo by Sudare

Karuta’s second ancestor arrived through the port of Nagasaki in the mid-1500s. Here Portuguese sailors introduced the resident samurai class to European playing cards that they called carta. As filtered through Japanese ears, carta became karuta. During the ensuing Edo period (1600-1868), karuta fully evolved from a foreign Portuguese import into a distinct Japanese custom, combining traditional kai-awase gameplay with the European paper card medium. Although painstakingly hand-painted at first, before long karuta were being mass-produced via cutting-edge woodblock print technology. Now people from all walks of life could afford to buy their own deck, and oysters once destined to become kai-awase could breathe a sigh of relief.

How To Play


In order to get your game on, you’ll need to buy, borrow, or make your very own karuta deck (there’ll be more on that later). The standard way to play requires a “reader” or “caller” and two or more players. In any karuta deck there are two types of cards:


yomifuda (読み札): “reading cards” with written information on them

torifuda (取り札): “grabbing cards” with pictures and/or written language on them

Note: each yomifuda has a corresponding torifuda

Once armed with your deck of choice, you’re ready to play:

  1. Spread all the torifuda face up on a flat surface between the players.
  2. The “reader” randomly draws a yomifuda from the deck and reads it aloud.
  3. Players race each other to determine which torifuda corresponds to the yomifuda clue and then to touch/grab/claim the correct card first.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until no cards remain.
  5. Whichever player has the most cards wins!

Competitive Karuta


Now if you’re a casual gamer like me, you’ll probably be satisfied with the low-stress version of karuta described above. But if you’re the masochistic sort who likes their recreational activities to induce stress, you might want to try your hand at kyogi karuta (競技カルタ), or competitive karuta. Sure, a paper cut might be the most severe injury you can receive in a match, but competitive karuta is no joke. You’d be surprised at how intense the last few rounds can get–two formerly unassuming obaasan can morph into fierce warrior women before your eyes! The televised matches remind me of competitive poker–and strangely enough, karuta used to be a popular form of gambling.

The official karuta deck used in competition is also the most common (and/or popular): the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, with 200 cards per deck (100 torifuda and 100 yomifuda). Each yomifuda showcases a complete waka poem (also known as tanka, a form requiring 31 syllables to be arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) along with an illustration of the poet who wrote it. The corresponding torifuda list only the second half of the poem (the final 7-7 lines). (There’ll be more about this deck and others below.)

In competitive karuta, 50 randomly selected torifuda are split 50-50 between two competitors. Before the game begins, each player arranges his or her 25 cards face-up on his or her territory in any one of a number of strategic positions. A fifteen minute period is provided in order to memorize the position of his or her own (and his or her opponent’s) cards and a two minute period is reserved for players to practice striking at cards. When time’s up, the reader opens the game by chanting a poem that doesn’t appear in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu deck. After that, the action starts–the reader sings out the first lines of the first poem while the players scramble to identify and then claim the torifuda card containing that poem’s last few lines.

This is where cat-like reflexes and a memory built like a computer’s hard drive come in handy. The keys to mastering competitive karuta are memorizing all 100 poems and honing hand-eye coordination, so that 1) within the first few syllabes of the yomifuda you know exactly which card you need and 2) the instant you’ve identified your target you’re able to swipe it. Watch these pros in action for an idea of just how competitive competitive karuta can be:

Since the mid-Meiji era, large-scale kyogi karuta competitions have taken place on a national level. The All-Japan Karuta Association (established in 1957) currently sets the standard for the official rules and format of kyogi karuta. The rules are more complicated than you might think–see for yourself here: English Kyogi Karuta Handbook. The media covers many of the tournaments sponsored by the AJKA, particularly the New Year’s national championship held every January at Omi Shrine in Shiga Prefecture. This is where the AJKA crowns the male and female Grand Champions as Queen (クイーン) and Master (meijin 名人). And as if that wasn’t hyperbolic enough, seven-time Grand Champions are bestowed with the title of Eternal Master (eiseimeijin 永世名人) or Eternal Queen (eiseikuin 永世クイーン). Just imagine how that would look on your resume.


Photo by 47 News

If you think you have what it takes, there’s a budding international tournament you can set your sights on. The first one was held in 2012 and competitors from the US, China, South Korea, and New Zealand showed up to show each other up. Hurry up and snag your trophies while you can, before they add karuta to the Olympics and everyone and their okaasan start competing for the glory.

That said, don’t worry if you feel unprepared to compete on the world stage. There are lots of levels on which to enjoy karuta. For over a century, a rousing game of karuta has been a staple of New Year’s celebrations in Japan. It can be enjoyed year-round at community centers (where members often create and use their own karuta with local scenes) or high school and college clubs devoted to studying and playing karuta. Karuta’s even made it into the curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education–studying and playing karuta is one of its recommended teaching materials. Karuta is also a media darling–there’s Karuta Queen, an NHK drama, and Chihayafuru, a wildly popular manga (and then anime) series that follows a school girl who takes up kyogi karuta.

Varieties of Karuta


Whether you want to brush up on your classical Japanese poetry, finally memorize the names and location of all 47 Japanese prefectures, or gain a questionably useful but unquestionably entertaining knowledge of traditional Japanese monsters, there’s a karuta deck for you. To give you a sense of the variety out there, here’s a sampling of some of the most popular and/or common karuta decks I’ve come across:

Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (百人一首かるた)


This is the most widely known and popular version of karuta, probably due to the fact that it’s the variety used in competition. This deck is based on a famed poetry anthology of the same name (which literally translates to “100 people, 1 poem”), a collection representing both male and female poets from the 7th through the 13th century. The 100 poems featured in Hyakunin Isshu Karuta are the same 100 poems selected and compiled by poet and court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the early 13th century. This is a great way to exercise your classical Japanese skillz, also known as kobun (check out Rochelle’s thorough and thoroughly awesome Introduction to Kobun Series if you need a primer.).



Poem by Koukamonin no Bettou
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
For but one night’s sake,
Short as is a node of reed
Grown in Naniwa bay,
Must I, henceforth, long for him
With my whole heart, till life’s close?


Poem by Sosei Hoshi
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
Just because she said,
“In a moment I will come,”
I’ve awaited her
E’en until the moon of dawn,
In the long month, hath appeared.

Iroha-garuta (いろはがるた)


This is the second most widely known and popular version of karuta, and it’s also more widely accessible than its poetic counterpart. Often used in conjunction with teaching children the hiragana syllabary, Iroha-garuta feature 48 proverbs (kotowaza). The proverbs vary according to the set but, in all cases, the full proverbs appear on 48 yomifuda while a corresponding picture and a kana with the first syllable of the proverb appear on 48 torifuda. While 48 might seem like an arbitrary number, it’s based on the number of hiragana syllables–each of the syllables is represented by a proverb beginning with that syllable. However, since no words begin with “n” in Japanese, the custom is to replace the “n” with the character kyo (京) for “capital” as a nod to the game’s origins in Kyoto.



Inu mo arukeba bou ni ataru (“A dog that walks around will find a stick”)


Issun saki wa yami (“An inch ahead is pitch-black”)

Obake Karuta (お化けかるた):


Photo by Kotonoca

These “monster” (obake お化け) karuta were created and popularized during the Edo period but remained common through the 1910s-20s. Charmingly creepy illustrations of 48 bakemono (monsters) from Japanese folklore slither, slink, and skulk on the faces of the torifuda cards, along with an accompanying hiragana character in the corner signifying the creature’s initial syllable. Clues to identify the monster appear on the yomifuda that correspond to each ghoulie, ghostie, and long-legged beastie. Hmm, a Japanese card game about monsters…sound familiar? It’s hard not to see Obake karuta as the grandaddy of modern phenomena like Pokemon and Yo-kai Watch.



Photo by Yomi Kikase

Obake names from left to right: Nopperabo, Rokurokubi, Karakasa, and Hitotsume Kozo

Regional Karuta (hougen karuta and kyodo karuta 方言かるた and 郷土かるた)


Photo by Sanzo Kuame

Tired of speaking plain-old, run-of-the-mill Japanese all the time? Want to know more about the unique and fascinating regions of Japan’s islands? Regional dialect karuta (hougen karuta) can arm you with the words and phrases you need to sound native whether you’re in Hokkaido, Osaka , Kyoto, or Aomori. And regional history cards (kyodo karuta) can introduce you to the local events, specialties, and historic sties of areas as far flung as Gunma (Jomo Karuta) and Hokkaido (Hokkaido no Meisho or “Famous Places in Hokkaido”). Tokyo’s not the only game in town!


Photo by Katoko

Translation of tsuppe (Hokkaido dialect): to tsuppe suru is to put a piece of tissue in your nose when you have a nosebleed


Translations of cards from left to right: “Gunma Prefecture, shaped like a crane in flight”; “The hot springs of Ikaho, among the best in Japan”

National Karuta


Karuta like Todofuken karuta (都道府県かるた) and Nipponichi karuta (日本一かるた) both fit under this category, since they represent all of Japan’s various regions in a single deck. Playing with Todofuken karuta can help you memorize the shape and characteristics of all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, while Nipponichi karuta will introduce you to a traditional folk craft from each of Japan’s prefectures via poems inscribed on the yomifuda. These decks are a great way to bust the myth of Japanese homogeneity and learn more about Japan’s internal cultural diversity–Nagasaki is not Gunma, just like Maine isn’t Alabama.



Nipponichi karuta: Here we have an homage to Nara’s luxury socks on the left and the tairyoubata (大量端) banners of Chiba symbolizing great catches on the right.


Todofuken karuta: Two sides of the pair of cards featuring Hokkaido (in this set, the torifuda and yomifuda are double-sided in order to pack in as much info as possible)

Shakespeare Karuta (シェイクスピアかるた)


This one’s a bit of a wild card. Similarly to Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, this Shakesperean variety features a poetic verse on the yomifuda and the last few lines of that verse on the torifuda. The twist, of course, is that Shakespeare’s Old English has been transformed into modern Japanese. If you’re a translation dork like me, this is the kind of stuff that gets you going–the opportunity to see how familiar English phrases like “To be or not to be” and “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” become retrofitted to an entirely different language and culture.


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hyakunin Isshu is almost like the original Monopoly, and like Monopoly with its twenty million variations, the karuta industry endlessly generates new variations on its centuries-old theme.

How to Catch ’Em All


Photo by Gilgongo

One of the best things about picking up karuta as a hobby is that it doesn’t have to break the bank. I picked up my first deck on a whim for 500 yen (roughly $5) at Daiso in Harajuku (a popular “100 yen store”). That doesn’t mean you can’t drop a small fortune, though–a single reproduction of the famed Ogata Korin Hyakunin Isshu set, elegantly hand-printed and highlighted with fine gold foil, goes for around 1,100,000 yen (roughly $11,000).

Though I haven’t yet been myself, the Okuno Karuta Store, established in 1921 and located in the Kanda-Jinbocho district of Tokyo, promises to be a karuta pilgrimage worth taking. On the first floor, the Okuno family sells a ridiculous array of karuta, including over 30 decks exclusive to the store as well as antique, hand-painted sets dating to the Meiji era. Having been in business for almost a century, the Okuno Karuta owners have curated some stunning collections over the years. These collections can be seen on the second floor (added in 2009), now the home of a minis-museum dedicated to traditional Japanese games with displays rotating on a monthly basis.


If you can’t afford to ship yourself to Japan and back again, you can always get karuta shipped to you instead. Online stores like Punipuni Japan, Rakuten, Japan’s, River Whale, and Discovery Creative all offer a wide selection of affordable karuta (including all the varieties listed above) for international shipment. And if you’re cramming for a test, head over to Gakken, a company that specializes in explicitly educational karuta–practice your Japanese while you memorize world geography or the elements of the periodic table.

If you’re not satisfied with the available decks, you can buy a stack of blank karuta cards (sold on Rakuten) to make your very own set on the topic of your choice. On the other hand, if it’s the cost that’s got you down, you can always use cut up your own blank card stock to create your own custom deck or recreate an established one.

Last but definitely not least, you can print out free downloadable karuta decks on sites like Happy Lilac and Nifty Kids–see for a Hyakunin Isshu set or for Iroha-garuta.

Get Your Game On


Photo by fdecomite

You might be thinking, “Alright, this could be funbut I don’t have anyone to play with!” Never fear! You’re not alone in your quest to master karuta on your own. A number of sets come with a CD-ROM that stands in for a reader, calling out the yomifuda for you so you can concentrate on grabbing those torifuda. The same principle works if you play via app (here’s just one version:

Another option (my personal favorite) is to just do the reading yourself. And hey, taking on both reader and player roles gives you the most language learning bang for your buck–combining reading, pronunciation, and listening practice. Just record yourself reading each of the cards as a separate audio file, import those files into a folder on iTunes, and let them play on Random mode to act as the reader while you play in real time as the player.

Whatever way you choose to play–solo or group, casual or competitive, IRL or online–you’ll be flexing your Japanese muscles, beefing up your knowledge of the deck’s topic, and exercising your memory all at the same time. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a single deck of cards. So take a break from some other time wasters and give karuta a try–you’ll never become an Eternal Master by playing online solitaire, that’s for sure.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Takarazuka’s Crossdressing Starlets: Better Than Real Men? Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:00:57 +0000 The Takarazuka Revue is a unique Japanese all-female theater company that has gained incredible popularity since it was founded nearly one hundred years ago. With over one thousand performances each year and an audience of two and a half million, including people who come from all over the world, The Takarazuka Revue is one of the largest theater companies in the world. A single-gendered troupe of such incredible popularity is a unique phenomenon, though Japan is no stranger to gender bending in theater performance. The traditional theater Kabuki has been restricted to men only since 1629, with males playing female roles.


The revue is not only unique because of its fame, which is on the same level as Broadway musicals in the United States, but also because of its unique stylistic elements. The women in the troupe are split into two categories, otokoyaku, who play men’s roles, and musumeyaku, who play women’s roles. Once these roles are decided, the actresses specialize in that role and almost never switch from one to the other.

Becoming Takarazuka


The goal is not to trick the audience into believing that the otokoyaku are men, but to present an idealized male character through a woman’s body. The productions are almost always romantic, glamorous musicals, and thus attract a mostly female audience. They are generally Western-style musicals, with costumes and music very similar to American Broadway musicals. Although they often stage adaptations of Western plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Gone with the Wind, they are even more glitzy and extravagant than their Western counterparts. It is as if they took the idea and exaggerated it. For an American like me, it is a strange sight to see the actresses with their blonde hair and eye-exaggerating makeup.

The Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1914, in the small Takarazuka City near Osaka, for which the group was named. The founder, Kobayashi Ichizou was a railway tycoon, and his original intent was to increase the use of his new railway by attracting people to Takarazuka City and making it a leisure location. Kobayashi created the revue’s motto, which still endures today: Kiyoku, Tadashiku, Utsukushiku (Purity, Integrity, Grace). The company currently has five troupes with about eighty performers each: The Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and Cosmos Troupes, which all perform both in the Takarazuka Grand Theatre located in Takarazuka City and the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre, as well as going on tour both in Japan and abroad. The company has in-house playwrights, costume designers, stage art directors, music composers, and orchestras.

The audition to be accepted into Takarazuka is extremely competitive, with fewer than one in twenty girls passing each year. Originally they accepted girls in their early teens, but now only girls aged fifteen to eighteen may apply. After passing the audition, the girls attend the Takarazuka Music School for two years where they receive rigorous instruction not only in performing arts, but also in how to become disciplined in everyday life. The school is renowned for its strictness; for example, first year students must get up in the early hours of the morning and clean the school from top to bottom in complete silence. Furthermore, there is an even more controlling aspect of Takarazuka: the actresses must remain unmarried until they retire from the group, and in fact are not permitted to date or even have interaction with outside men.

The “Dream Factory”


The characters that the otokoyaku try to create are heroic figures, masculine enough to seem strong and supportive, but gentle enough to be romantic and loving. This is not meant to seem realistic by any means, but to portray an ideal, impossible man that will delight the hearts of the audience. As a foil to the otokoyaku, the musumeyaku portray exaggeratedly feminine women, who therefore make the male characters seem more masculine by comparison. The otokoyaku train their voices to reach low octaves, attempting for a husky tone, while the musumeyaku practice an unnaturally high tone. Beyond that, the Japanese language also provides a way to set them apart from each other, as they can use gendered language to an extreme that most Japanese people don’t use in their day-to-day speech.

Before I went for my year abroad in Tokyo, I had heard about Takarazuka and was intrigued. During my time there, I saw two shows at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre and I found myself enraptured by their performances. There was a Disneyland-esque feeling of a fantasy land being brought into the real world. Indeed, Takarazuka is sometimes called a “Dream Factory.” The otokoyaku held a particular mesmerizing appeal.

One Takarazuka show I saw while I was in Tokyo was The Rose of Versailles, the company’s most famous play. Based on a classic manga series of the same name, it follows the story of Oscar, a female who is raised as a male because her father needed a son. This show adds another delightful layer of gender confusion, and throughout the years there has been discussion about what kind of actress should play Oscar; the actresses who play females, the musumeyaku, or the actresses who play males, the otokoyaku? Generally they choose an otokoyaku, who then ironically plays a more feminine character than usual, a woman pretending to be a man rather than a pure male character. This is further complicated by her romantic relationship with her male friend and companion, Andre. This is my favorite scene, in which a young Andre is introduced to Oscar, who immediately challenges him to a sword fight. You then get to see them grow up together in a few flashes of theater magic:

The advance tickets were sold out for this show within hours of becoming available, but there were also limited same-day at the door tickets. I stood in line with some hardcore fans from 6:00 am to 10:00 am in the freezing winter cold in order to secure these tickets.


Luckily my friends and I could take turns to run to the local convenience store to buy hand warmer packets. During that time I was bemused to observe fan club members, dressed in identical scarves and shirts, standing in a line outside the theater and waiting patiently for hours until their favorite actress arrived so that they could hand her gifts and letters. The clubs will perform this ritual both before shows and after, simply to have that moment of contact with their favorite star.

The Takarazuka Fanclub


Almost all of the star actresses have one or more specialized fan clubs, where dedicated fans take on almost a cult-like tendency as they support their favorite actress. The Takarazuka official fan club, Takarazuka Tomonokai (Takarazuka Friends’ Society), was founded in 1934 and is a general club for any Takarazuka fan. But almost all of the stars have their own personal fan clubs. The top stars often have more than a thousand loyal fan club members. Although the group was originally intended to appeal to families and to young girls, the typical fans today are usually middle aged married women.

Club activities include writing letters together, discussing theater, and staging their own plays. Letters to the actresses typically contain compliments, requests for advice on personal problems, gentle criticism of the star’s latest performance, or may sometimes even contain love confessions or sexual content. While the newer fans can only have contact with their favorite actress through those letters and fleeting moments outside the theater, long time fans will perform duties such as chauffeuring her to and from the theater, preparing meals for her, and in some cases even providing financial support.

When attending a Kabuki performance, I saw two otokoyaku accompanied by two fans sitting in the most expensive seats, no doubt purchased as a gift by the fans. How did I know they were otokoyaku? Even outside the theater, they dress in a particular style that is fashionable and sleek and androgynous. They also have a particular aura, such that one could practically feel their presence in the room. The rest of the audience also seemed keenly aware of their presence, but they were guarded the entire time by their adoring fans. My friends and I noticed them immediately, and since we were up in the balcony we spent the entire intermission peering down at them with our binoculars.

How Do You Categorize Them?


Quote from a fan of Takarazuka:

Japanese men are boring, so of course women love Takarazuka. The husbands work so hard that they have no time for their wives, and Takarazuka is a place for wives to go that doesn’t threaten their husbands. At Takarazuka, women can express the emotion they can’t show their coldhearted husbands. Takarazuka never disappoints them. (Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan).

Because Takarazuka fans seem so passionate about their favorite actresses, Western scholars who study Takarazuka often describe it as a “lesbian” phenomenon, while Japanese scholars, fans, and actresses alike insist that there is no romantic attraction at work. Instead they explain the bond as a sisterly bond, with younger fans and actresses acting as the adoring imouto(younger sister) and the older ones acting as the wise, protecting oneesama (older sister). In fact they often use these words to describe each other. But as many fans of anime and manga have no doubt noticed, this kind of relationship can seem very romantic to an outside eye. And in some ways, it is romantic.

Even so, there is no way to call Takarazuka fans lesbians. They do not fit into Western ideas of romance and sexuality, where one must fall into one of several neat categories. They exist somewhere in between, and while Americans might try to figure out the exact nature of the relationship, Japanese Takarazuka fans are perfectly content to leave that question unasked, and to enjoy their hobby with no shame.

When an answer can’t be nailed down, sometimes we have to let that question go and enjoy the uncertainty.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Understanding The Ways That Japan Tells Time Tue, 15 Jul 2014 16:00:50 +0000 Can someone tell me what year it is? 2014? Wait. What system are you using? It’s obviously Heisei 26 right now, the 26th year of the current emperor’s reign. Sure, you could use the Gregorian calendar, but that’s not the way Japan does it. The native Japanese calendar is utilized, nearly interchangeably, with our Western one. In fact, the native Japanese calendar, or “the nengō naming system”, is the official dating system still used in Japan today. The Japanese government and most businesses continue to date things using this method.

We now know that the date is Heisei 26 because it’s the current emperor’s 26th year in power. But, I bet you’ve heard of some of the other era names too. Showa? Meiji? Taisho? Genroku? Anything sound familiar here? If not, that’s fine – you’ll be getting plenty of exposure to them from here on out.

Made in China


Photo by: Jonathan Corbet

Like many other conventions in Japan, the nengō system of naming the periods by the reigns of emperors was imported from China. Originally, this was one of the many ways Japan tried to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the various Chinese dynasties. There was one big difference, though. In Japan, there has only been one single “dynasty.” The imperial rule has arguably been the same since the beginning of their history. In China, however, there is something called the “Mandate of Heaven,” which basically says that if there is an unjust guy on the throne, the heavens will make sure he is overthrown and a better ruler can take over. Smart of the Japanese imperial family to leave this little tidbit out of the Japanese emperor rulebook.

While Japan didn’t really understand the concept of different families ruling, they did understand the need to legitimize the succession of the imperial heirs. Since the start of recorded history there have been numerous methods of keeping the same bloodline going. From inter-marriage, female empresses, and the inclusion of distant relatives, the Japanese imperial family has worked very hard over centuries to continue their only dynasty. With all of the work they were doing to keep the same family at the top, creating a distraction from unpleasant events seemed like a good solution.

Pretty Names Made People Forget the Bad Stuff


After China’s Han Dynasty (205BC – 220AD), the Han Emperor began attaching names onto the years in which emperors ruled. In English, we call these attachments “reign titles”. These reign titles were not the names of the emperors, but rather descriptors of what the emperors wanted their reign to be associated with, such as Jianyuan (establishing the first) or Jianzhongjingguo (establishing middle, peaceful country). By 645AD Japan’s Emperor Kōtoku adopted this custom. Japan called their reign titles nengō (年号). For anyone who is confused by that kanji, don’t think of the 号 as a number, think of it as a name. That will clear things up for you.

The very first nengō was Taika (大化) which started in 645AD with Emperor Kōtoku. So we would call 648AD the “third year of Taika,” rather than the “third year of Kōtoku.” This is the same as calling 1989 the “first year of Heisei” (or the last year of Showa if it’s early January).

Emperors in Japan would give these names to the periods of their reign and they were not limited to just one. Some, like Emperor Go-Daigo had as many as eight different reign titles. Some of them would even have more than one in a single year. Nengō were meant to signify a change, new beginnings, and good things. Although this is a wonderfully artistic way to do things, for someone who is unfamiliar with these types of naming conventions, it can make things overly complicated.

For those wondering what kind of event would cause one of these names to change, it could literally be anything.

Many of these nengō are not so important that you will instantly know when or who they are referring to. However, if you are studying a certain period, you may notice that a particular name is used frequently in reference to it. For example, maybe you’re looking up the forty-seven Ronin (Try and stay away from the Keanu Reeves one) and you keep seeing Genroku (元禄) everywhere.


What is that anyway? Well Genroku was the nengō Emperor Higashiyama gave to the first years of his reign. So from 1688 to 1704, we call it the Genroku Period (元禄時代). The first year to every new emperor’s rule would get a name and this emperor was certainly optimistic about the start of his. Genroku basically means “the origin of happiness.”

However, even with such a nice name picked out, the Genroku period was plagued with huge fires and violence. Finally, after the Great Genroku Earthquake, the reign title was changed to Hōei (宝永) which means “eternally prosperous.”  This was the new beginning the people of Japan needed. This was going to be a great, successful time! (Then there was another earthquake less than four years later.)

Luckily for us, emperors were limited to one name after the Meiji restoration, which is why, although there were 63 years in the Showa period, we only have one name for it. Also, notice that the emperor’s posthumous name and the nengō for their period are the same. So if you know who the Taishō Emperor (大正天皇) is, you know his nengō was Taisho (大正). It’s certainly much easier than it once was.

Made up of Heaven and Earth


Photo by: Tranpan23

Now that you know all about how the emperors name things, let’s complicate it!

Once more we have something that came from China – but this time it was adopted completely, no extra complications. That’s good, right? We call it the “Sexagenary Cycle,” and it’s made up of the “Ten Heavenly Stems” and the “Twelve Earthly Branches,” which you can see in the picture above.  Here is a list of all the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, respectively:

Heavenly Stems:

甲 – kō / kinoe
乙 – otsu / kinoto
丙 – hei / hinoe
丁 – tei / hinoto
戊 – bo / tsuchinoe
己 – ki / tsuchinoto
庚 – kō / kanoe
辛 – shin / kanoto
壬 – jin / mizunoe
癸 – ki / mizunoto

Earthly Branches:

子 – shi / ne
丑 – chū / ushi
寅 – in / tora
卯 – bō / u
辰 – shin / tatsu
巳 – shi / mi
午 – go / uma
未 – mi (or) bi / hitsuji
申 – shin / saru
酉 – yū / tori
戌 – jutsu / inu
亥 – gai / i

If the Earthly Branches look familiar to you, it is because they are the same characters used for the Chinese Zodiac and they are also used in the solar calendar in Japan – but let’s not get distracted by that right now.

The order they are in is set (don’t mix them up!) and there are sixty possible combinations of Heavenly Stem + Earthly Branch. The first combination is 甲子, then it goes 乙丑, 丙寅, 丁卯, and so on taking the next from each respective row. When you reach the end of the Heavenly stems, just go back to the beginning and you end up with 甲戌, until you have all 60 and end up back at the start. Each one of these combinations is a cycle.

If you’re wondering how to read them, they can be with either the on’yomi or the kun’yomi, so no worries. Usually how you say it only depends on context, but you shouldn’t sound super weird either way. If you want to say 2014 you can choose to say kōgo or kinoeuma for 甲午.

The great thing about these cycles is that China, Korea, and Japan all use it the same way, meaning that no matter where you go in these three countries it should remain consistent, unlike the nengō, which are different based on which country you’re in. This is important because this system is used all throughout East Asia to name important events in history. It also can be used to compare nengō dated events and the sexagenary cycle. For example, let’s look at the Japanese invasions of Korea:


In Korea the first invasion is called the Imjin Waeran. Imjin (壬辰) being the sexagenary cycle year of 1592, the year it began. This same event is called the Bunroku no eki (文禄の役) in Japan. Bunroku (文禄) was the nengō that started under Emperor Go-Yōzei that same year.

In modern times these two systems are still being used. Postcards, art, signs, and really anything that might need a date on it. They can be used to date something without having to use any numerals at all, and gives whatever they’re on an artsy, old-timey feel.

Here is an example: it is currently 2014, which means it’s the 26th year of Heisei, or 平成26. But, by combining the nengō and the cycle name, it can be written as平成甲午. You may pick out a postcard at the top of Mt. Fuji and notice those characters somewhere on the front of the picture. Years from now, when your grandkids ask when you were there, you can look at at that date and say, “Ah! 2014!”

Modern Calculators Make It All Easier


Photo by: Sean McEntee

The cycles are also assigned to months and days but they come up much less often than they do with years. There is a mathematical calculation to find out what year is assigned to what cycle, but remember, Japan did not start using the solar calendar until the Meiji period, so if you decide to do some math you need to base it before or after Meiji.

Here is an example. To determine the sign for 1977 you will follow this guide:

1. 1977 – 3 = 1974
2. 1974 ÷ 60 = 32 (If you end up with a fraction, simply drop it.)
3. 1974 – (60 x 32) = 54
4. The 54th pairing in the Sexagenary cycle will then give you 丁巳. That’s 1977.

If you’re math-shy like I am, you can always search online to see what the date you want to know was called. If you want an even easier method you can use this nifty calculator called NengoCalc.


“Oh hey, I was born on a Wednesday!”

I know, I know. It says nengō, not cycles, but it can help with both! This tool can help you find out the nengō for any year from 598 to 2008. Not only will it provide you with the Japanese and Western dates, but it will also give you the sexagenary cycle year and day too. It even tells you what day of the week it was. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the hang of it, but it’s a great way to find the names you need in a hurry.

You never know when being familiar with these naming systems will come in handy. You may encounter a beautiful painting when you’re studying abroad in Japan. You can see the artists signature in red in the corner, but there are no visible dates. How do you know which Tanaka painted this possible masterpiece? Well odds are they have the nengō and the cycle on there instead. This is the case with some of the postcards you see at tourist spots today. If you’re in Japan around New Year’s, you may also see something like this:


Photo by: Akira Kawamura

This lists the year with both the nengō and the sexagenary cycle: 平成二十五年癸巳歳. More simply, this was 2013. You may also notice the earthly branch 巳, being from the Chinese Zodiac, also tells us that this is the year of the snake. (Thus, the flowery snake in the picture.)

The government in Japan also still uses this system of dating on official paperwork, though it is less common that you would be able to see this in your day to day life.

While it’d take a lot of time, sweat, and effort to memorize all these nengō and sexagenary combinations, at least you now know how to look them up, convert them, and seem like you know what’s going on. Who knows? It may just come in handy some day!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Meet the Ogasawara Islands! Wed, 09 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Ah, Tokyo, that shining island paradise. Turquoise waters. Palm trees and coconuts. Grass skirts and piña coladas.

What’s that you say? These images don’t leap to mind when I say “Tokyo”?

Well, to be fair, grass skirts haven’t really caught on across most of the city (alas). But the administrative area known as the Tokyo Metropolis actually includes several collections of islands, many of which lie hundreds of miles from the Japanese mainland.


Photo by Froschmann

Why am I telling you this? Because I happen to be one of those lucky island groups, basking in the subtropical Pacific sun. I have several names, but people usually call me the Ogasawara Islands or Bonin Islands. Nice to meet you! Let me tell you about myself.

My Specs


Photo by Telim tor

I consist of about 30 small islands, lying some 500 miles south of the mainland. I have a voluptuous figure, hilly and heavily forested. My temperature averages a balmy 23°C (73°F), with a typical range of about 18-28°C (64-82°F) throughout the year.

I have a fiery disposition. That’s because I’m made up of volcanic islands (aka oceanic islands), composed of lava eruptions from the sea floor. Just last year, in fact, I added a new island to my collection: Niijima. Don’t touch, it’s still piping hot!

I have many pets, including various birds, bats, and reptiles. I also provide a home for over 2000 humans. They live mainly on my two largest islands: Chichiijima (“Father Island”), the biggest, and Hahajima (“Mother Island”).

But hey, a picture’s worth a thousand words so…what’s a 360 degree panorama worth?

My Animal Friends


Photo by Froschmann

Remote islands like me tend to host endemic species; that is, species that are unique to a given area, because they evolved in isolation and couldn’t spread elsewhere. I have an exceptional proportion of endemic species, including 40% of my plants, 80% of my birds, and 90% of my land snails. (Bet you’re jealous of whoever had the job of cataloguing my species of land snails.)

I’m so blessed with endemic species that I’m known as the “Galapagos of the Orient”. My most famous endemic species may be the cuddly Bonin flying fox (aka Bonin fruit bat)…

…and the adorable Bonin petrel.


Unfortunately, many of my creatures are under threat, thanks to my humans (the most troublesome pet of all). You know how humans can be, cutting down forests and introducing invasive species. The introduction of rats, for instance, decimated many of my birds. (Seriously, humans? You couldn’t leave the rats behind?)

And yet, for all the trouble they cause, humans are worth having around. They’re incredibly resourceful, adventurous, and expressive. They aren’t nearly as cute as bats or petrels, but you get used to them.

My First Humans


Way, way back in the stone age, I adopted my first set of humans. These early seafarers crafted sophisticated stone tools and canoes, as well as many works of pottery.

Culturally speaking, my stone age people combined elements from the Japanese mainland with Polynesian features, as illustrated by the designs of their ceramics and fishing gear. So even way back then, I was quite the cultural melting pot! They were great sailors and fishers, zipping around my islands in large outrigger canoes, which could be rowed or sailed.

Sometime during the first millennium AD, however, my humans disappeared. I really don’t know why. I anguished over it for a long time, wondering if I had offended them somehow. Maybe I was devoting too much attention to my land snails?

Then, just when I had nearly forgotten all about humans, they came back.

Return of the Humans


One of Japan’s best-known features is its high degree of ethnic homogeneity (though not so high as is often thought). Due to the pioneering spirit of diverse peoples, I am a glaring exception to this rule.

I’m not sure which humans first spotted me in modern times. It was likely the Japanese, though it might have been early Spanish explorers. At any rate, I was officially claimed (humans have such nerve!) by the Japanese in the sixteenth century. Japan was really caught up in this whole “isolationism” thing, though, and never even called me afterwards, let alone visited me.

The traditional account holds that my human discoverer was the samurai Ogasawara Sadayori, hence my Japanese name. Incidentally, my other most-used name, “Bonin”, apparently derives from the Japanese word for “no people”. As you will see, this latter name is totally outdated.

Not until the nineteenth century did any humans actually come to live on me again. My first modern settlers were a motley crew, hailing from various Western, African, and Polynesian countries, and speaking about 20 languages in all. Due to a high proportion of English-speaking immigrants, a common tongue emerged in the form of pidgin English, rooted in multiple English dialects (including British, American, and Hawaiian) and influenced by various European and Austronesian languages.


The Japanese were quite surprised when they noticed that settlers had arrived on my shores, dubbing them the “westerner islanders”. Then, as modern Japan emerged from the ashes of feudalism in the 1870s, they finally got around to reclaiming me (after making me wait all those centuries!). To be fair, they didn’t mess around this time. Thousands of Japanese settlers arrived, and international support was successfully garnered for their territorial claim, thwarting those of Britain and the United States.

By the mid-twentieth century, I was happily nurturing some 7000 humans, spread over a dozen of my islands. Given the sheer number of arrivals from Japan, the lingua franca was heavily influenced by the Japanese language. Cultures mashed together in wonderful ways, and the benefits of modernization trickled in. Times were good.

But they didn’t last. Soon, I faced the most unpleasant experience of all my thousands of years.

War, What is it Good For?


Sometimes humans don’t get along so well. I witnessed this first-hand in World War II, given that I was a key strategic position for control of the Pacific. First there was an immense military buildup upon my islands, followed by many battles, Iwo Jima being the best known. My cliffs still bear the scars of exploding shells, and my waters house the skeletons of sunken war vessels. Most of my population was evacuated to mainland Japan.


After the war, island residents were allowed to return…but only those of American or European descent. (For those who lack experience with humans: no, I am not kidding. They really do discriminate horribly against one another based on slight genetic differences.) Only with the end of American occupation in the 1960s were my ethnically Japanese humans able to return.

The Sun Will Come Up


Photo by Froschmann

Fortunately, those grim days are behind me. Things are much better now.

Unlike most remote islands, my population has actually swelled by some 500 people so far this century. This is partly due to immigration by people looking to become fishermen, as well as retired Japanese folks searching for an island paradise to spend their golden years.

A ferry, the Ogasawara Maru, runs constantly between me and mainland Japan, completing a trip every few days. In addition to tourists, the ferry drops off supplies from the mainland and picks up loads of fish and shellfish. For my humans, the Ogasawara Maru is the main link to the outside world. They sometimes talk about building an airport, though I’m not sure the idea will ever get enough support.


Photo by Si-take

Naturally, tourism flourishes in all pursuits sea-related. Diving, snorkeling, whale watching, fishing, surfing, and kayaking are all popular activities around my islands.

Tourists also love my unique cultural experience. Just as in stone age times, my islands boast a complex melding of many traditions, Japanese and Polynesian prominent among them. One famous example is Nanyou Odori (“South Pacific Dance”), in which Hawaiian dancing meets Japanese instruments, such as taiko drums!

Goodbye! Sayōnara! Aloha!


Well, I hope you found me interesting, perhaps even interesting enough to come for a visit. While humans can be difficult to manage, I have a good feeling about you…I’m confident you won’t make any trouble. If you do come out to see me, though, please don’t bring any critters along…we don’t want a repeat of the rat escapade.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • “Bonin Islands”, Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • “English on the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands”, by Daniel Long.
  • “Oceania in the 21st Century”, by St John’s School, Guam.
  • “Prehistoric Marine Resource Use in the Indo-Pacific Regions”, by Rintaro Ono.
  • “Restoring the Oceanic Island Ecosystem: Impact and Management of Invasive Alien Species in the Bonin Islands”, by Isamu Okochi and Kazuto Kawakami.


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Rice: The Crop That Sparked the Tokugawa Miracle Wed, 02 Jul 2014 16:00:36 +0000 It’s that glorious grainy excellence that let’s you know you’re eating an authentic Japanese meal. I’m talking of course about rice. At tables all across Japan, this sticky libation is a staple of the evening, afternoon, and, in some cases, morning meal. It’s so common that it’s easy to assume it’s always been a major part of Japanese life. Considering the crop’s history in Japan dates back 2500 years, that wouldn’t be an unfair assumption to make. However, there was a time when rice was more than just a staple at the table; it was the only thing standing between peasant families and a life spent entirely in hard labor.

In the Beginning, There Was Rice


Photo by Janine

Well, not the very beginning, but close enough to it. Archaeologists have placed the “birth place” of rice in the Yangzi region of China at about 7,000 years ago. The crop is believed to have arrived in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu at the tail end of the Jomon period (about 400 BC). It then slowly became popular throughout the rest of the islands. It doesn’t appear that rice was ever intended by the ancient peoples to be a staple in the Japanese diet but, as we will see, that attitude has changed quite a bit. Really, rice has been a part of Japan for so long, one could say it’s ingrained in their culture.

Peasants, Daimyo, and Samurai (Oh My!)


Fast forward about two thousand years to the Tokugawa period. Life in Tokugawa Japan went something like this (at least at the start of the period): If you were powerful, it was hard. If you were powerless, it was harder. At this point in Japan’s history, the country was completely isolated from outside influence, so even in the seventeenth century, feudalism was alive and well. The nation was separated into a couple hundred of state-like units called hans. Each han was ruled by a daimyo who pretty much had supremacy in that area. Under Tokugawa law, daimyos were required to build a residence in their respective han. However, they were also required to have a second house in Edo where their first wife and first son were required to live. On alternating years, daimyo would march with as many samurai as they could afford to take and move to Edo. They were also required to have a third house built in Kyoto. All of these were strategic decisions made by the Japanese government in order to prevent civil war and to keep even the wealthiest poor enough to rely on the Tokugawa shogunate.

As many restrictions as the daimyo and samurai were subjected to, there was still one group that had it worse. As my history instructor once put it, the peasants of Tokugawa Japan lived in “well regulated concentration camps” and it was the goal of those in power to make sure they “could neither live nor die”. Just as with the daimyos, the state was preventing any kind of uprising from the peasant class by ensuring they lived in constant poverty. Really, they did nothing but farm. All day. That might be kind of cool if we were talking about Harvest Moon, but we’re not. Their lives were nothing but back breaking labor. It was even against the law for them or their families to enjoy sake or tea.


The reason they had to work so hard was because, much like any economy, the working man was the backbone of Tokugawa Japan. The peasant population was responsible for providing the daimyo with funding for his trips to Edo, the food and living stipends of the samurai, as well as a flat tax for their use of the land. That’s quite a heavy price for one group of people to pay, even if they did make up the majority of the population at the time. However, it’s actually the taxes themselves that allowed the peasants to break out of this cycle of struggle.

Flat Tax = Cash Stacks


At some point the peasants got fed up with that whole constant poverty thing and decided to try to start making some real money. Some brilliant soul (whose name history has forgotten) realized that a flat tax rate would allow for plenty of surplus. Farmers began growing FAR more rice than they needed, so that when the time came to send the rice to Osaka that would pay their taxes, they had plenty left over. It would have been fine to stop there and simply have more money to work with in their community, but if nothing else, the Japanese are innovative. Instead of being content with the amount of surplus they were able to produce with their old farming methods, they used the extra money to research and develop more effective farming methods, thus allowing even greater surplus! One of the discoveries they made was the role of fertilizer in agriculture. On farms in castle towns (towns where daimyo lived), peasants would use their own daimyo’s excrement as fertilizer. Gross, but effective. They also made their own natural pesticides using whale oil.

All of these innovations meant a huge spike in the amount of rice each farming unit was able to grow. The arable land in each village as well as the population nearly doubled. This led to one last innovation, which was the introduction of commercialized agriculture. They could start growing things to sell as luxury items rather than just what was needed to maintain a substantial diet. They began to produce cotton, hemp, silk, and opium. However, none of these were the top-selling commercial crop in Tokugawa Japan. It was rice! Rice could be used in the production of sake, which has been in high demand in Japan since it’s invention. Through commercialized agriculture, peasants were able to become far richer than the samurai, despite being considered part of the lower class. It was an amazing rags-to-riches story.

Into the Future


Photo by Les Taylor

The accumulation of wealth by peasants continued throughout the Tokugawa period. This caused a lot of panic among the higher-ups. The peace and stability found in the Tokugawa period was largely dependent upon everyone knowing their place and not making attempts at social mobility. Obviously, things weren’t going to continue smoothly this way. Even though the peasants were making more money, samurai stipends didn’t increase to meet the resulting inflation, so naturally there was some unrest. Also, many richer peasant families began making deals with poorer families to combine their farms. This meant that some peasants were beginning to live like feudal lords themselves. The emperor took notice and declared that peasants ought to remember their place and live the simple life they were born into. By this time, though, it was too late. The economic boom had already come, and there was no stopping it. It was in this strong economic state that Japan entered the Meiji restoration. Japan’s isolation was over and it was becoming an economic force to be reckoned with.

The Rice of Life


It’s interesting to see how rice has become, in a way, the identity of Japan. Without it, sushi would be a very different dish, some major deities would not have been honored, restaurants would not have been founded, and, perhaps most importantly, Japan may not have gained the economic means to become a world power. The introduction of commercialized agriculture, as we have seen, allowed for a larger population and thus, more people in the Japanese workforce. A strong workforce creates a strong economy. Not only that, but it meant more people were buying luxury items and therefore the economy was spurred in that regard. None of this would have been possible were it not for the simple rice plant. Honestly, imagining Japan without rice means imagining a world without many of the modern comforts we enjoy from Japan, or at least a world where those things weren’t invented until much, much later.

So, tell me, are you going to hug a rice plant today?

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Evolution of Karate Fri, 27 Jun 2014 16:00:59 +0000 Karate stands alongside the likes of judo, kendo, and sumo as one of Japan’s most famous martial arts. However, as Karate Kid II taught us, karate was born in Okinawa. Not only that, but it was born in a time when Okinawa wasn’t part of Japan and had its own culture and language. Over many decades, karate evolved from an Okinawan fighting style, to a Japanese martial art, to a global sport. Before diving into the history of karate I should point out some problems with researching the history of any martial art. Often things were not passed down in writing and, like a game of telephone, details tended to change from person to person. Vagueness, secretiveness, and exaggeration were not uncommon in martial arts schools either.

What’s in a Name?


Photo by PhiLiP

Today karate is written with the kanji 空手, which means “empty hand.” Originally it was written 唐手, which means “Chinese hand,” and could be read as karate or tode.

Before there was tode or karate, there was an Okinawan fighting style called simply ti or “hand”. A lot of ti’s history remains unknown, but it was the blending of ti and Chinese boxing in the nineteenth century that created karate. From the late fourteenth century to the 1870s, Okinawa was the center of an island nation called the Ryukyu Kingdom which had a strong relationship with China. Chinese boxing eventually became part of their cultural exchange. Fuzhou, in the southern province of Fujian, was the main port of call for Ryukyuans and the influence of Fujian’s martial arts can be seen in karate.


This is how most early karate masters dressed for their day jobs.

“Wait a minute!” I hear some of you say. “I heard karate was created by Okinawan peasants to fight their Japanese overlords, who had disarmed them.” This is a common and persistent myth, but wrong on three counts. Firstly, not all Okinawans were weaponless. In 1609 the Satsuma domain of southern Japan successfully invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom. Satsuma kept the invasion a secret from China to maintain Sino-Ryukyuan relations, and took a piece of their trade in yearly tribute. It’s true that Satsuma did put laws concerning weapons in place, but the Ryukyuans had already been heavily regulating weapon ownership for a long time. Still, even during the period of Satsuma dominance some Ryukyuans were allowed weapons on the job.

Secondly, karate was not developed by peasants, but mainly by members of the aristocracy. Aristocrats had the time and energy to train outside of work, and sometimes the means to travel to China to learn. These were luxuries that peasants rarely had.

Thirdly, after the invasion, there was never any known organized resistance or plots to overthrow Satsuma. Though many Ryukyuans may have disliked Satsuma and dreamed of an independent country, there was a lot of cultural exchange between them. Again, martial arts were a part of that exchange.

The Chinese Connection

Miyagi Chojun teaching students in an unknown year.

One of the earliest known karate masters was Matsumura Sokon (c.1809-1901). As a member of the aristocracy, he served as bodyguard to the last three Ryukyuan kings. He also traveled to Fuzhou and Satsuma as an envoy, where he trained in Chinese boxing and Jigen-ryu swordsmanship respectively. Among his students were many influential masters who went on to found their own schools, including Itosu Anko, Kyan Chotoku, Azato Anko, and Funakoshi Gichin. Goju-ryu is one of the karate styles in which the Chinese influence can be seen most clearly. When he was a young man, Higaonna Kanryo (1853-1917) traveled to Fuzhou, where he learned Chinese boxing from a man he called Ryu Ryu Ko before returning to Okinawa to teach. Ryu Ryu Ko’s true identity remains debatable, but it’s thought he was a master of the White Crane style and that several other karate masters trained under him.

One of Higaonna’s students, Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953), accompanied a Chinese friend to China in 1915 hoping to find Ryu Ryu Ko. Unfortunately, after arriving in Fuzhou, they were told Ryu Ryu Ko had already passed away. Upon returning to Okinawa, Higaonna, his master, also died and Miyagi began teaching himself. He founded the style that came to be known as Goju-ryu, a name taken from one of Miyagi’s favorite lines in a Chinese boxing manual: go-ju don-tosu “hard-soft, exhale-inhale.” The Chinese friend who had accompanied Miyagi to China was named Gokenki, a tea merchant and White Crane master in his own right, who resided in Okinawa. As I said earlier, Chinese influence is particularly evident in Goju-ryu, and a lot of that influence seems to be from White Crane. If you have some time to kill, check out this documentary comparing the two styles.

If you’re pressed for time, check out the video below. It’s a demonstration of the form Sanchin, a staple of Goju-ryu, also found in other karate styles and White Crane. The first two fighters are White Crane masters, while the third represents Uechi-ryu karate, and the last represents Goju-ryu karate.



In 1879 Japan officially annexed Okinawa, dissolved the Ryukyu Kingdom, and established Okinawa prefecture. Many Okinawans, especially members of the old aristocracy, were against this, but there was little they could do. At the same moment Japan was promising opportunity, it looked down on Okinawans as second-class citizens. Okinawans attempted assimilation, changing their culture, dress, and even their names, favoring the Japanese language over their own.

Karate practice in the courtyard of the defunct Shuri Castle Karate also began to Japanize. It was during that Imperial period that many common features of modern karate were introduced. Students doing drills in line and shouting were Japanese additions. The familiar white uniforms and colored belts were borrowed from judo of this time.

Funakoshi Gichin

Though he was not alone, the lion’s share of credit for bringing karate to Japan went to Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957). Funakoshi was also born into the Ryukyuan aristocracy and trained mainly under Itosu Anko and Asato Anko, though he learned from a number of others as well. He initially worked as a school teacher and moved to Japan in 1922 to spread karate. In 1939 he founded the Shotokan dojo in Tokyo. Shotokan went on to become one of the most popular karate styles in the world, although it is also one of the most sport-like styles of karate, something which Funakoshi himself disapproved. Funakoshi simplified many of the karate forms, and introduced some new basic forms for easier learning. He also changed many of their Okinawan names to more Japanese ones. In some cases it was merely changing the pronunciation of the same kanji. For example, 平安 was pronounced “pinan” in Okinawan, but “heian” in Japanese. In other cases he made completely new names. The Okinawan “naifanchi” 内歩進, became “tekki” 鉄騎. Funakoshi is also responsible for the modern “empty hand” way of writing karate. He may have thought the old “Chinese hand” name would not appeal to the Japanese public, as there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment at the time. In his autobiography, he stated that the character “empty” seemed to fit because it implied a way that wasn’t tethered to any physical object.

Post-War Karate and Globalization


Photo by George Lane

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the final battles of World War II, and also a long and bloody one. In addition to the many soldiers who died, over 100,000 civilians, one-third of Okinawa’s population were killed. After the war, the U.S. retained control of Okinawa until 1972. It was and still is the site of the vast majority of American bases and soldiers in Japan. In addition, during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Okinawa became a popular layover point for the military. With the heavy U.S. military presence, many karate masters began to teach G.I.s. In turn, many of those soldiers returned to America and set up schools themselves, leading to a global spread of karate. This was given a further boost by the popularity of martial arts movies in the 1970s. Though many were kung fu movies from Hong Kong, there were a lot of Japanese martial arts movies as well.


The poster above is from a film based on the life of Oyama Masutatsu, possibly the toughest dude ever. The Kyokushin style that he founded influenced the creation of the K-1 kickboxing league which, in turn, was part of the development of the mixed martial arts that are so popular today.

Karate’s Future


Karate was a multicultural experiment from the beginning and that is true of it now more than ever. There are a myriad of schools across the planet. Some adhere to Okinawan tradition to varying degrees, while others are more modern. Karate is thought of as a method of self-defense, an art, and a sport, sometimes all at once. However one thinks of it, karate has never been static. It has always been progressing, and will surely continue to do so.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Bishop, Mark, Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1999.
  • Funakoshi, Gichin, Karate-do: My Way of Life. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1981.
  • Kerr, George, Okinawa, the History of an Island People. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1958.
  • Smits, Gregory, “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 37-3-10, September 13, 2010.

Further Reading

This article only scratches the surface of karate’s fascinating history . Check it out yourself, but always with a grain of salt. Mark Bishop’s book (above) is a great place to start.

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Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 6: Old Kana Thu, 26 Jun 2014 16:00:33 +0000 Finally, you can translate The Tale of Genji from the original! But can you read it out loud without confusing your Japanese-speaking friends? It would be strange, after all, if you didn’t read「今日」 as「 きょう」, despite the fact that it was spelled as「けふ」in older texts.

If  the けふ >  きょう reading doesn’t make sense, consider that languages change. Important sounds change, but writing takes a while to catch up to the new sounds, or sometimes it never does. You know these transformations occur because I just spelled the word “know” with a ‘k’, yet there’s no ‘k’ in its pronunciation. There used to be! A long, long time ago.

In this post, I’ll focus on two important sides of the same coin, which you’ll use to purchase meaning in the Classics:

  1. How to phonetically read Classical Japanese kana and
  2. how this knowledge helps you decipher Kobun texts

In Japanese, this system of sound conversion is called “Rekishi-tekina kanadzukai” (歴史的な仮名遣い), or “historical kana usage”. I’ll assume you’ve read the other Kobun posts (introverbsjodoushiadjectives, and honorifics), but even if you haven’t, you’ll learn cool skills, like how to read old-timey hiragana signs in Japanese.

English Mirror


Before you can use Old Kana rules, you need to know why they’re beneficial. By looking at more familiar English – specifically, Middle English — you’ll see why.

Read the stanza below from William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (from the 1300′s). If you’re strict with your “suspension of disbelief”, this could ruin certain time travel movies for you; I don’t remember Timeline characters having babel fish or translator microbes, and the script didn’t sound like this:

“In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes
Wente wide in this world wondres to here…” (Langland)

You can listen to that stanza, read with accurate Middle English sounds in this video:

Here’s my interpretation just based on reading and listening:

In a summer season, when soft was the sun
I shop(?) me into shrouds as I a sheep(?) were
In habit as a hermit, unholy of works
Went wide in this world wonders to here

The question marks are beside words I couldn’t make sense of, but made a stab at based on my Modern English. Want to see how close I got to a reasonable translation?

“In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit’s unholy in works,
And went wide in the world wonders to hear” (Attwater)

Notice the words that don’t resemble our modern vocabulary. This exercise should give you a taste of the comprehension scale a Japanese native speaker approaches their own Classics with. historical kana usage rules help you do to Kobun texts what I did to the “Piers Plowman” stanza. In other words, you’ll be reading funny Kobun spellings, filling it in with your Modern Japanese knowledge, and coming to quicker conclusions about the Classical texts you read.

Kobun Rules

Don’t let the word ‘rules’ scare you. These aren’t rules for you to follow; they’re rules the sounds have followed, leaving a trail of bread crumbs from, say, an old ふ in the Kobun word 給ふ  to an う in the Modern 給う.

Watch the above video to hear what I mean.

Unfamiliar Faces


Photo by yamayadori

ゐ/ヰ and ゑ/ヱ are characters that are not used in Modern Japanese (except to invoke Shakespearean, old-timey language), but they crop up in the Classics.  The hiragana ゐ and katakana ヰ represented the sound ‘wi’ but the words written with ゐ/ヰ evolved simply into an い (look back at the Piers Plowman video; English ‘hear’ used to sound way different, and was spelled differently, too).

The same is true for ゑ/ヱ, which used to be ‘ye’ (or even ‘we’), and is responsible for “Ebisu” sometimes being romanized as “Yebisu”.

If you would read ゑ/ヱ as え, you could discern what a Classic story is talking about based on your Modern Japanese vocabulary. For example, what comes to mind if you read こゑ below as “koe”? Let me help with the other vocabulary; 祇園精舎 (gion-shouja) is a temple name, and 鐘 (kane) means “bell”.


Probably, you thought of the most common “koe” you hear in Japanese, and that’s “voice”. “Voice of the Gion Temple Bell”? Close enough; koe had a few other meanings, including 音色 (neiro), the quality, or “color,” of a sound. So it’s a metaphorical sense of ‘voice’ in that clause.

If you had read こゑ as “koye” instead of “koe”, you might have missed this clue and had to go searching through a Kogo-jiten. We do that enough already, so you can see how sound rules make the process faster  and easier.

Magic Particles


Moving away from unamiliar characters, を is a kana you know best as the direct object marker in Modern Japanese. But in Kobun texts, this was common in many other places where the ‘o’ sound could appear, mostly at the beginning of a word. In the Nara period, the pronunciations of を and お were consistent and starkly different (wo and o). But the を pronunciation began wobbling in the Heian period. Here’s an example of the Kobun を acting unexpectedly:

と兄(いろせ)といづれか愛(は)しき」(From the Kojiki)

That を? It’s actually 「男」- “boy / man”, which could also be hiragana’d in the slightly more familiar 「をとこ」way, but also as 「をのこ」. You just need to read these を’s as お.

Also, you learned at the beginning of your Japanese education that は (wa) and へ (e) aren’t pronounced the way they’re written, so you’ve already been using modern pronunciation for tricky, archiac spellings!

Small Things


This Kobun rule of thumb will help you with words like しずか (“quiet”) and 味 (aji; “flavor”):

Read づ as ず and ぢ as .

There are a lot of words that have changed their spelling in this way, like 水 (みづ → みず),  何れ (いづれ → いずれ), 閉(と)ぢる → とじる, and 紅葉 (もみぢ → もみじ).

If you look at the photo above, you can see that this train station post has on the side the location: Ochanomizu. Yet, the hiragana  is “Ochiyanomidzu.” I described the づ → ず rule, but it’s also worth mentioning that small characters weren’t really a thing way back when; hence, おちゃ is written as おちや. Little y-sounds (や、ゆ、よ) and small つ’s (such as in あった) will often be rendered as the standard-sized hiragana in Kobun texts, so try sounding things each way for clues.

Tenko, or stage directions


Photo by Ralph Daily

Below you’ll find bulleted lists of Tenko -”change of call”. These have to be practiced and memorized, but the bright side is that they’re straight-forward.

On the left is a Kobun word, and the sound change formula you should remember is on the right of the semicolon. In the formula, the left is the Kobun kana, while the right is how you read it:

  • かは (かわ);ha → wa
  • ひたひ (ひたい);hi → i
  • たまふ (たまう);hu → u
  • まへ (まえ);he → e
  • おほす (おおす);ho → o
  • らむ (らん); mu → n

The Tenko rules above are for the middle of words, so 我 is still “ware”, and 昔 still “mukashi”.

These are the other Tenko trends:

  • くわかく  (かかく);kuwa /guwa → ka, ga
  • あふぎ>扇 (おうぎ);a + u → ō; verbs with the a + u vowel ending are an exception (like 給ふ, read as 給う in modern)
  • じふじ> 十時 (じゅうじ);iu → yuu
  • けふ > 今日 (きょう);eu →  yō
  • きやうだい>兄弟 (きょうだい);iya → yō(pronounce the Kobun hiragana for that word; it’s almost like a southern accent)

Sound rules make the song below pretty interesting. The original melody uses modern Japanese lyrics, but the musical group likes to make Kobun-esque cover songs. In doing so, “koe” (声) became archaic “koye”, but the jodoushi らむ is still pronounced らん.

There might be an explanation for the discrepancy, but I haven’t found one. Whatever the reasoning, it’s fun to listen to the song and see what other oddities or consistencies it has compared to typical historical kana usage.



Cover of Matsuyama’s 1895 “Kyoto Guidebook of Famous Places and Art

Nobody was born knowing the English alphabet; someone taught you how letters represent sounds. Think back to that learning process. Rules like ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ are inaccurate but often helpful. The Japanese sound rules for historical kana usage aren’t accurate 100% of the time, either, but they should make Kobun a little less confusing and empower you on any quest to better understand the Japanese language.

I focused on concepts that I struggled with, but there are clumpier presentations, like “Wakatta zo!” at Yotsuya If you want more details or history, Jim Breen’s site mentions some of each. As always, I’d love to hear your questions and any Kobun or kana experiences!


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Omamori: Protecting Yourself in Little Ways Wed, 25 Jun 2014 16:00:32 +0000 If you’ve visited Japan you might have seen them tied to a child’s backpack or dangling from a car’s rear-view mirror. You might have seen them in anime. If you’ve been to a Shinto Shrine or Buddhist Temple you might have seen dozens of them, small bags in jewel colours lined up in rows, for sale. But what are these things? They are omamori, a Japanese folk tradition that is intertwined with Japan’s two major religions, and still very visible today.

It’s difficult to translate omamori (お守り) directly as they don’t have a clear equivalent in the English speaking world. You can think of them as portable personal protection amulets or charms. Mamori (守り) means protect, and the O (お) is a honourable prefix. They are a little like the Japanese equivalent of a lucky rabbit’s foot or a four leaf clover. Unlike those though, omamori also come not only in general “lucky” versions, but in a whole range of specific forms, from “cooking skill improvement” to “job hunting”.

Shinto, Buddhism and Omamori


Photo by Alan

The connection between omamori, Shinto and Buddhism is quite complicated – whoooo syncretism! The two religions overlapped and intermingled in Japan until they were separated legally in 1868. Omamori came out of a fusion of Buddhist amulet tradition, such as ones that are still popular in Thailand today, and Shinto charms, such as ofuda. Omamori in their current form became popular during the Tokugawa period in the 17th century. Today omamori can be bought at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Omamori can act as a physical prayer for a mini-miracle as well as being an offering to a shrine or temple. The sale of omamori helps support shrines and temples.

In Shinto, the power of the omamori comes from the enshrined kami, goshintai 御神体. Buddhist omamori draw their power from a gohonzon 御本尊 (Buddhist image). Also, for a shrine or temple’s omamori to be popular, it should have an engi 縁起 or story of a numinous or miraculous occurrence at or near the site. For example, Sensei Temple in Asakusa, which claims to sell the most omamori in Japan each year, has an engi about a golden dragon who came out of the sea to bask in the sun at the site of the temple. I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to get an omamori there!

There is another component to the power of an omamori. That’s you! You can’t just buy an omamori and expect all of your problems to be solved. They serve to encourage and support you in your efforts. Indeed, there is one sect of Buddhism, Jōdo Shinshū, which doesn’t use omamori because you are supposed to give your fate and devotion entirely to Amida, while omamori expect you to contribute something to your own wellbeing.

Types of Omamori


Photo by Peter Theony

There are two main types of omamori. The first are talismans, which are rectangular and the most popular kind of omamori. These gain their power from words written on paper or wood. The words could be the name of the shrine, or a section from a sutra, or some other powerful words. The wood or paper is then sealed inside a cloth bag.

An important note: never open the cloth to see what is inside! It is disrespectful and the omamori will lose its power. Omamori draw some of their power from the concept of the power of enclosed places. The covering of the omamori encloses the sacred words and so puts them in a separate realm where they can be effective, much as Shinto shrines are set within a separate space marked by torii gates.


Photo by sepia salax

The second type are the morphic omamori. This means they are made in the shape of something. The traditional forms are the bottle gourd, the bell, and the mallet. Of these, the bottle gourd may be the oldest, appearing in many ancient folk tales as a symbol of health, vitality, and immortality. Each has ceremonial links to objects used in Shinto practices. Some shrines have very famous orphic omamori, such as the fox omamori at Inari shrines. Another common kind of morphic omamori are zodiac animals.

Modern Omamori



Photo by Meredith P.

Though their origins lie far back in Japan’s folk traditions, omamori are very much a part of modern Japanese culture. There’s even an omamori vending machine at Zenkoji Temple, Nagano. You can also find many omamori with cute characters on them. Some of these aren’t sold at shrines or temples, but just regular souvenir shops. Some Shinto and Buddhist organisations disapprove of this dilution of omamori. Others happily sell character omamori. My local shrine sells Rilakkuma omamori alongside the more traditional ones. You could even see the popularity of phone straps in Japan as a non-religious extension of omamori culture.


In the past, making omamori was a duty of the laywomen of the parish or Miko, the shrine maidens. These days most omamori are made in factories in Tokyo, Osaka or China, though they are still blessed by priests. However, some shrines continue to make their own omamori on site, such as Koganji Temple in Tokyo and the Grand Shrine at Ise.

How do I Choose an Omamori?


Photo by FrANK.H.^

With such a wide variety of omamori available, selecting the right omamori can be tricky. While some of the bigger shrines and temples will have descriptions in English, this is rare outside the big tourist hot spots. The first time I bought an omamori, I spent a long time looking at my local shrine’s website to work out which one I should get.

Although both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have no problem with non-adherents buying their omamori, remember they are more than just a simple souvenir. Omamori should be treated with respect. Part of this respect is making sure you’re not just picking the one you think is cutest, but choosing the one you need. Buying a childbirth omamori for your boyfriend, or a recovery from alcoholism omamori for your teetotaling great aunt is not very appropriate.

Omamori Buyer’s Guide


Photo by Sting Shen

But worry not! I’ve put together this guide to sort your anzens from your anzans. Different shrines have different styles of omamori and there may be some variation in the kanji. However, if you tell the attendants what you are looking for they will be able to help you.

Type of Omamori: Happiness

Japanese name: shiawase 幸せ (しあわせ)


Photo by Verity Lane

Let’s start off with a very cheerful omamori. These are meant to help you achieve happiness in life. Yay happiness!

Type of Omamori: Traffic Safety

Japanese name: kōtsū anzen 交通安全 (こうつうあんぜん)


Photo by Verity Lane

Originally to protect travellers, these are now the most popular type of omamori. They provide protection for drivers and vehicles. Recently traffic safety omamori stickers have become popular and are often sold in a set with a more traditional omamori. Makes a great gift for anyone who commutes a lot, or is a novice driver.

Type of Omamori: Romance

Japanese name: enmusubi 縁結び (えんむすび)


Photo by Chris Chan

There are two kinds of romance omamori. The first is for people seeking love. Get this omamori if you are longing for a partner. The second kind are for people in relationships who wish to stay together strongly. The way to tell these apart is that the first kind are usually sold singly, while the second kind are sold in pairs. Some shrines sell only one enmusubi omamori and the difference is simply whether you are buying one or two. A pair make a great gift for yourself and your significant other, or for newlyweds. Buying one is fine for yourself, but buying one as a gift for someone else could be a bit insulting, unless they asked you to pick one up for them.

Type of Omamori: Safe Childbirth

Japanese name: anzan 安産 (あんざん)


Photo by Wally Gobetz

This is for expectant mothers to have a safe and easy pregnancy and childbirth. If you know someone who is going to push another human being out of themselves soon (so hardcore), then you could get them one of these.

Type of Omamori: Avoidance of Evil

Japanese name: yakuyoke 厄除け (やくよけ)


This and the kaiun (see below) are probably the closest thing to general good luck omamori. They approach things from slightly different angles. This wards off evil. Buying these for yourself and others is a good idea. Everyone likes avoiding evil!

Type of Omamori: Good Fortune

Japanese name: kaiun 開運 (かいうん)


This is the more positive of the general good luck omamori and is probably the closest to a “lucky charm” of all the omamori. It draws luck to you. Again, it’s suitable for everyone. Who doesn’t like a little extra luck?

Type of Omamori: Education

Japanese name: gakugyō-jōju 学業成就 (がくぎょうじょうじゅ)


These are very popular omamori for students. They are meant to help both in studying and in passing examinations. I’ve often seen them tucked into student’s pencil cases, or being clutched just before a big exam. Parents often buy them for their children. If someone you know is studying hard in school or university, this would be a great thing to give them.

Type of Omamori: Good Health

Japanese name: kenkō 健康 (けんこう)

If omamori offer personal protection, then there can be few things more personal to protect than your health. These omamori are intended to be preventative and help keep you in good health.

Type of Omamori: Get Well Soon

Japanese name: byouki heyu 病気平癒鵜 (びょうきへゆ)

While kenkō omamori (above) encourage you to stay healthy, the byouki heyu omamori are to help you recover from sickness. They would make an excellent get well soon gift.

Type of Omamori: Prosperity

Japanese name: shōbai hanjō 商売繁盛 (しょうばいはんじょう)


Photo by Yuki Yaginuma

If you want your business venture to go well, or if you want to protect your financial affairs, then this is the omamori for you. Yellow is a colour associated with money, so look out for yellow omamori as well as owls, whose name (fukurō) sounds like the Japanese word for good fortune 福 fuku.

Those are the most common types of omamori. They are the ones you’re most likely to find at most shrines and temples. However, shrines are also responsive to the needs of local inhabitants. My local shrine has an omamori dedicated to fishing boat safety because my town is a fishing port. Some shrines, such as Aso Shrine in Kyushu, take surveys of locals asking about their concerns. If enough people have a problem, then an omamori will be produced to act on it. There are some shrines that sell over 70 different types, each dealing with a different problem. For example, the Konpira Shrine in Shikoku offers 77 kinds of omamori, ranging from winning elections to water purification. The world of omamori is vast and varied!

Unusual Omomori

Here are a few of the more unusual ones. You could find some of these at many different places across Japan, while others are found at only one shrine.

Type of Omamori: Digital Security

Japanese name: jōhō anzen kigan 情報安全祈願 (じょうほうあんぜんきがん)


Photo by Rye Nakaya

This omamori comes in the form of a blessed memory card. It helps you protect your digital information and keeps your technology working smoothly, proving that omamori are a living Japanese tradition, not just ancient superstition. It can be found at Denden-gu, a shrine to the spirit of telecommunications in Kyoto

Type of Omamori: Safety from Bears

Japanese name: kumajo 熊除 (くまじょ)


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

If you like hiking and want a little divine protection from Japan’s bears to go along with your other precautions, then you could get an omamori to protect you from them.

Type of Omamori: Pet Safety

Japanese name: Pet Omamori ペットお守り (ペットおまもり)


Photo by anko.gaku_ula

Humans aren’t the only ones who need a little help now and then. You can pick up an omamori to protect your furry, fluffy, feathery and scaly friends too.

Other unusual omamori include:

What to Do with an Omamori


Photo by A Shino

So you’ve bought your omamori. Now, what to do with it? The important thing about omamori is that they are personal and portable. So for it to work best, you should attach it to something appropriate.


For example, traffic safety omamori are often seen dangling from the rear view mirror, or attached to car keys. Form and function go together harmoniously in most omamori. Those intended to be attached to things have the appropriate attachment (for example a traffic safety omamori might have a key ring attachment or a suction cup so you can stick it to your windscreen.) Card type omamori are sized to be tucked into your wallet. They tend to be ones associated with wealth and business, so a wallet seems like a good place for them.

Another common sight is a safety omamori attached to a child’s backpack to protect them on the walk to school. A student might keep a study omamori in a pencil case, or hold it in their pocket during an exam .

Carry your omamori however feels right for you. As with many aspects of Shinto practice, many Japanese people often do not consider too deeply why they believe in the power of omamori. “Omamori work because omamori work” is about as much explanation as you are likely to get. The elusive nature of Shinto makes it at once fascinating and frustrating to try to understand.

How to Dispose of an Omamori


Photo by Cam Switzer

Omamori have a limited lifespan. They are usually considered only effective for one year, or until they become damaged. If something bad happened to the omamori, it breaks or gets destroyed, then it’s doing its job. Especially with migawari omamori, (身代わりお守り) which acts as a “scapegoat”, the thinking goes that the bad things happen to the omamori and not to you. Omamori should be replaced every year because otherwise they will absorb too much bad luck or run out of spiritual power. This ties in with Shinto beliefs about the importance of renewal. For a religion that tears down and rebuilds its most important shrine every 20 years, replacing a little omamori every year doesn’t seem like such an inconvenience.

You shouldn’t just chuck it in the trash. That’s considered disrespectful. Instead, you should take it back to a Shinto shrine, ideally the same one you bought it from. At larger shrines, especially at busy times like New Year, there might even be a disposal box or an omamori conveyor belt to take your used charm to be ritually purified and burned in a ceremony. Otherwise, just return the omamori to a shrine or temple attendant. They’ll know what to do. You can pick up a new omamori while you’re there.

If you don’t live in Japan, all this can seem rather daunting. Popping down to a shrine isn’t that easy. There is a Shinto shrine in America that will dispose of your omamori properly if you mail it to them. However, don’t get too worried about omamori disposal. Plenty of Japanese people keep them for longer than a year. One of my high school students still has the study omamori his mother gave him on his first day of elementary school. Some are even passed down in families. So if you want to keep your omamori, go ahead.

Omamori as Souvenirs


Photo by Lee Tzung-Tze

You don’t have to feel shy about buying an omamori. The shrine or temple attendants will likely be happy that you are interested in them. They don’t carry a heavy weight of religious demand. By buying one, you aren’t declaring your allegiance to Shinto or Buddhism to the exclusion of any other religion. Unlike many religions, both modern Shinto and Buddhism in Japan are generally comfortable with other religious practitioners participating, just as they coexist alongside each other, often sharing the same grounds.

Omamori feed the human need to look beyond ourselves for solutions to our difficulties, while still encouraging us to do our best. They are more like a booster than a total solution. When things are tough, it feels good to hold an omamori in your hand and hope for things to get better.

As such, omamori make great souvenirs. Japanese people also usually buy omamori as gifts. An omamori is a beautiful piece of Japanese culture, but it also expresses your wishes for the wellbeing of the person you give it to. What better souvenir of your trip to Japan could there be?

Bonus Wallpapers!

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