Tofugu » History A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Tue, 04 Aug 2015 00:53:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 4 Foreigners in Traditional Japanese Roles Wed, 29 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs. However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way […]

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When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs.

However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way to make a name for themselves even in traditional jobs in Japan. Despite the worldview that some areas are reserved for native-born Japanese people, these local celebrities have proven otherwise.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners rakugo

Rakugo is a form of Japanese comedic storytelling dating back to the 9th century. It was originally called karukuchi (軽口), meaning “talkative.” But texts describing it have also called it otoshibanashi (落し噺), meaning “falling discourse.” The term rakugo (落語) literally means “fallen words,” and was first used during the Meiji Era.

During a rakugo performance, a lone performer sits onstage and tells a story. And it can last several hours. The only props allowed are a paper fan (扇子) and a small cloth (手拭). Rakugo performers, or Rakugoka, cannot leave the seiza position throughout the entire story. And since rakugo is performed solo, the rakugoka must do all the voices of the characters, including dialogue, with only slight changes in tone and pitch to show who’s speaking. Thus, rakugo has been described by Professor Noriko Watanabe as “a sitcom with one person playing all the parts.”

Rakugo was invented by Buddhist monks as early as the 9th century. Its written tradition can be traced back to the collection of stories Uji Shūi Monogatari. The monks used rakugo as a way to make their sermons seem more interesting and to better relate to their constituents. It eventually spread throughout Japan.

Modern rakugoka must be accepted as apprentices to rakugo masters before they can perform. And there are only two rakugo training centers in Japan. After observing their master and practicing the art, a rakugo apprentice can have their professional debut. They eventually finish their apprenticeship to become a full-fledged rakugoka.

In the history of rakugo, only three foreign rakugoka have been considered true professionals. The first was known as Kairakutei Black. Born Henry James Black in Australia in 1858, he lived in Japan from the time he was three years old. Black started out telling jokes and stories to people outside his father’s publishing company. He became the first foreign rakugoka after a master took a liking to him. Black became a rakugoka against his family’s wishes. He eventually severed all ties and was adopted by a Japanese family and took Japanese nationality. Black died on September 19th, 1923, and is buried in Yokohama Foreign Cemetery.

Bill Crowley is another foreigner who was able to become a professional rakugoka. He was assisted by Katsura Shijaku II, but never became an official apprentice. As a part of the HOE International performing troupe, Crowley worked alongside several other foreign aspiring rakugoka. Crowley was also a pioneer in the field of English-language rakugo, positing that the universality of the experiences described in rakugo stories bolsters its appeal across languages.

Besides Bill Crowley, the only foreign rakugoka currently performing is Katsura Sunshine. Born Gregory Robic in Toronto on April 6th, 1970, Sunshine originally studied classics at the University of Toronto. He came to Japan to study Noh and Kabuki, and worked as an English teacher at Daigakushorin International Language Academy. In 2008, he became an apprentice to Katsura Sanshi (now called Katsura Bunshi VI). Sunshine received his rakugo name in rakugo tradition, taking his master’s last name and a part of his first. He combined the “san” from “Sanshi” with the character for “shine,” pronouncing it “sunshine.” Sunshine debuted in Singapore in 2009, and completed his three-year apprenticeship in November of 2012. Sunshine is the first ever foreign professional rakugoka in the Osaka-based Kamigata tradition. Kairakutei Black was an Edo-style rakugoka.

Sunshine lives in Ise City, where he regularly performs at his own rakugo theater, Ise Kawasaki Kikitei. He also has performed in Singapore, the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, France, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong. Sunshine appears often on Japanese television, and even performs rakugo in English in the West.

Sunshine has remarked that audiences often tell him that they are either amazed by how fluent and native-like his Japanese is, or that his Japanese isn’t nearly good enough for rakugo. So he says that reactions to his performances balance out in the middle.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great sumo

We can’t talk about traditional Japan and not mention sumo. Sumo is one of the oldest Japanese sports, but its exact origins are not clear. One theory is that sumo is the result of influences from other Asian countries. Mongolian wrestling (Bökh), Chinese wrestling (Shuai jiao摔跤), and Korean wrestling (Ssireum씨름), are all similar to sumo, and none has a definitively known creator or creation date. So it is highly possible that one of these other forms of wrestling is the parent sport of sumo.

Another theory is that sumo is based on ancient Shinto rituals. Representatives would wrestle with kami. Defeating the spirit meant a successful harvest was assured. The salt used to purify the ring before a match also has roots in Shintoism. The ring came from the 16th century, when Oda Nobunaga organized a nationwide sumo tournament, requiring an official ring and stands for spectators. Matches were held on the grounds of a shrine or temple until sumo become a professional sport during the Tokugawa period.

The first professional sumo rikishi were actually rōnin, masterless samurai who needed a new form of income. Professional tournaments began in 1684, taking place primarily in Tokyo during the Edo era. But Kansai had its own sumo, with Osaka functioning as Japan’s original sumo capital. In 1926, Osaka sumo merged with Tokyo sumo, and the Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo became the new exclusive venue for sumo matches.

Sumo is still a celebrated sport of Japan, though a series of controversies and scandals concerning hazing, match-fixing, and even murder, have shaken the public’s faith in recent years.

Despite traditional roots, many foreigners have had great success in sumo. Akebono Tarō, born Chad Haaheo Rowan in 1969 in Hawaii, became the first non-Japanese-born wrestler ever to become the yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo. Since then, five other foreigners have become yokozuna, chief among them Hakuhō Shō. Hakuhō was originally known as Mönkhbatyn Dayaajargal, born March 11th, 1985 in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Hakuhō’s father was a darkhan (the equivalent of a yokozuna) in Mongolian wrestling, and even won the silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Despite this, Hakuhō’s father discouraged him from wrestling because he considered his son too small. When he was 15, Hakuhō was invited to come to Japan by Kyokushūzan, another Mongolian sumo. But Hakuhō was only 137 lbs, far too light to be an effective rikishi. Thus, no stable was willing to accept him until Kyokushūzan intervened and convinced the Miyagino stable to take him in. In 2001, Hakuhō made his professional debut in Osaka. Though he lacked real wrestling experience, Hakuhō climbed the ranks and grew bigger and bigger. He eventually reached 6’4” and 346 lbs.

Hakuhō was promoted to ōzeki, the rank just below yokozuna, in March 2006 a few weeks after turning 21. He was the fourth-youngest wrestler to reach ōzeki in modern sumo history. In 2007, Hakuhō became the third ever foreign-born yokozuna after winning two consecutive tournaments, one with a perfect 15-0 record.

Hakuhō is still an active yokozuna. He holds records for the most wins in a calendar year, the most undefeated tournament championships, the second longest winning streak in sumo history, and the second most wins of all time in the top division.

Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi, a former yokozuna himself, has commented that “Nobody can touch Hakuhō… I’d like to see him go for 40 titles. If he keeps going the way he is, that’s a possibility.”


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners enka

Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

Before AKB-48 and Arashi, there was a different kind of music that defined Japan; enka.

The term “enka” was first used to describe a series of “songs” from the Meiji era. These songs were actually political speeches in protest of the Meiji government. But strict laws against political dissent meant that people could not deliver speeches. So they found a loophole by singing their thoughts instead. Thus, enka was born.

As time went on, enka evolved, incorporating both traditional instruments like shakuhachi and shamisen, as well as more modern instruments like violins, guitars, and other percussion.

During the 1940s, jazz became popular in postwar Japan, which helped start the careers of many enka singers. Kasuga Hachirō is considered the first modern enka singer. His 1954 hit “Otomi-san” sold 500,000 copies in six months, and eventually went on to sell over one million copies. Enka’s popularity continued well into the 1990s, even beating out Elvis Presley in Japan. However, with Kasuga’s death in 1991, enka began losing out to more modern music like J-pop.

Younger Japanese people were not impressed by enka, and preferred more Western style music. But during the early 2000s, a new form of “hybrid enka” emerged. This new form is a cross between traditional enka and hip-hop, rap, and rock. Enka suddenly saw a resurgence in popularity.

The first non-Japanese enka singer was Sarbjit Singh Chadha, an Indian man. He released an enka album in 1975 that sold over 150,000 copies. In 2002, Yolanda Tasico became the first enka singer from the Philippines who released several singles in Japan.

In recent years, the most popular foreign enka singer has been Jero, an American. Born Jerome Charles White, Jr. in Pittsburg, PA in 1981, his maternal grandfather was an African-American who met his Japanese wife during his time as a serviceman during WWII. They had a daughter, Harumi, and eventually moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh. Since Jero’s parents divorced when he was young, his grandmother helped raise him. This instilled in him a strong sense of Japanese culture and identity. She was the one who introduced him to enka. He began singing at the age of six, and by the time he was ten he could sing hits by great enka artists.

Jero studied Japanese all throughout high school and college. He moved to Japan after graduating with a degree in information technology from the University of Pittsburgh. He worked as an English teacher and computer engineer, but still wanted to become a professional enka singer. He’d promised his grandmother that he would one day perform at the annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen song show. Unfortunately, she died in 2005, just three years before his single “Umiyuki” was released. It entered the Japanese charts at number 4, cementing Jero as an enka professional, as well as the first black enka singer ever. He won the Best New Artist Award in the 50th Japan Record Awards on December 30th, 2008. He finally fulfilled the promise he made to his grandmother when he performed at the 59th Kōhaku Uta Gassen.

Although his lyrics are those of traditional enka, Jero’s performances are influenced by hip-hop. He wears jerseys, sneakers, and baseball caps instead of the kimono that enka singers usually wear. His traditional lyrics appeal to the nostalgia of older fans, while his modern image appeals to younger fans. Jero tours both in Japan and in the US, bringing enka across the Pacific.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great wave

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings. Their production began in the Edo era, when Japan began urbanization. They primarily depict beautiful women, famous theater actors, sumo wrestlers, and traditional Japanese folk tales. Rather than have a single artist create their own carvings and prints, production of ukiyo-e was often divided into three parts.

  1. A carver who would create the woodblock.
  2. A printer would ink the woodblock and press the image onto paper.
  3. A publisher would finance the operation and distribute the finished products.

Modern ukiyo-e are usually not produced in the traditional woodblock and carving method. Rather they incorporate modern techniques like screen printing, etching, mezzotint, and other multimedia platforms.

Despite the evolution of ukiyo-e production, there is an artist in Japan who continues to use the traditional carving and printing methods. Originally from Toronto, David Bull first became interested in ukiyo-e when he visited a local gallery featuring woodblock prints. He became intrigued with the production process, and moved to Japan in 1986 with his Japanese wife. Bull is self-taught, and learned by studying the works of great ukiyo-e artists from the Edo era.

“My teachers were the long-gone workers from 100 years ago,” Bull said, “and I had to learn everything from scratch.”

Although ukiyo-e production is traditionally done by three people, Bull does everything. He designs, carves, prints, and publishes his own works. His works are made in series, often taking years to complete. His first series, Hyakunin Isshu (one hundred poems from one hundred poets), consists of 100 prints depicting classical Japanese poets, and took him ten years to complete, producing ten prints per year. In recent years, Bull has begun teaching young aspiring artists his techniques in addition to his solo craftsmanship, and operates with others as the Ukiyo-e Heroes production team.

Traditional Jobs in Japan Aren’t Only for the Japanese

traditional jobs in japan for foreigners sumida river hiroshige

Japan has a reputation for being a very insular country, one where a foreigner can never quite feel like they fit in. Some people say that only a native-born Japanese can adequately understand the nuances of Japanese traditions. However, history has proven that you don’t have to be born Japanese to appreciate, and even master, some of Japan’s most ancient and treasured cultural phenomena. Foreigners from other Asian countries and even Westerners who spent the bulk of their lives ignorant of Japanese culture have found their way into Japanese society, and continue to flourish today. Something that is traditionally Japanese doesn’t require a Japanese person to keep it authentic.

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ズバアー! The History of Boxing in Japan Wed, 22 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The noble art. The sweet science. Fisticuffs. Boxing is called by many different names. But what it boils down to in the end is two men stepping into a ring and putting it all on the line. Though boxing is usually thought of as a sport of the west, it has a rich history in Japan […]

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The noble art. The sweet science. Fisticuffs. Boxing is called by many different names. But what it boils down to in the end is two men stepping into a ring and putting it all on the line.

Though boxing is usually thought of as a sport of the west, it has a rich history in Japan as well. From exhibition fights in the Meiji Era to current world champs, boxing has had a powerful role in Japanese culture.

The History of Boxing in Japan Begins


Boxing first came to Japan with the Americans. More specifically, when Commodore Matthew Perry came over to Japan in 1854 for the Convention of Kanagawa. The American sailors boxed onboard their ships to help pass the time. Far from the padded gloves and wrapped gauze of today, boxing back then consisted of two men wrapping their fists in thin strips of leather. There was no real referee, and “matches” were more like glorified sparring.

Yet these spectacles were the first examples of boxing the Japanese had ever seen. The Shōgun ordered an ōzeki-ranked sumo wrestler named Tsunekichi Koyanagi to fight an exhibition match against an American wrestler and boxer. No official documentation exists for the match, but Koyanagi reportedly defeated the Americans. This was Japan’s first taste of boxing, but it didn’t really take off until years later.

In 1921, Yūjirō Watanabe opened The Japan Kentō Club after training in San Francisco for several years. At this point, boxing wasn’t known in Japan as “boxing” (ボクシング). It was called “kentō” (拳闘), which translates to “fist-fighting.” Watanabe later became known as the “Father of Japanese Boxing.” He helped raise some of Japan’s first professional boxers (though there was no real line distinguishing amateur and professional fighters at the time).

In the 1928 Summer Olympics, Japan sent Fuji Okamoto to fight in the Lightweight division and Kintarō Usuda to fight in Welterweight. They were the first Japanese athletes to compete in Olympic boxing.

But the blurred line between professional and amateur boxing was still an issue, particularly in regards to establishing champions. In 1931, the All-Japan Professional Kentō Association was founded to bring more legitimacy to the title of “champion.” It also attempted to establish a true sense of professional boxing distinct from amateur. It was around this time that Tsuneo “Piston” Horiguchi began his rise to fame.

Horiguchi started out at Watanabe’s gym when he was 19, and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. He earned his nickname “Piston” from his unique style of throwing quick alternating straight punches. On May 23rd, 1933, in a stunning upset, Horiguchi defeated the Japanese featherweight champion Kaneo Nakamura by TKO in the second round and seized the title. But in 1935, the Japan Kentō Club was dropped from the Japan Boxing Federation due to political differences, which stripped Horiguchi of his title.

Japanese boxing took its biggest hit from WWII. Able-bodied young men were conscripted into the Japanese army. This meant boxing lost almost all potential new fighters, as well as many active ones. Furthermore, after Pearl Harbor, The Japan Times ceased coverage of sports, pulling boxing’s popularity further down. Boxing did not receive the negative press of other Western sports like baseball. But it still took a significant loss of popularity and fans due to the war. The first post-war Japanese championship boxing match was not held until 1947, more than two years after the war ended.

Japan Takes to the World Stage


Japan was still reeling from WWII years after it ended. The economy was terrible and many cities were in disarray. The Japanese felt robbed of their identity and self-respect. Japan needed boxing now more than ever, and it was to play an integral part of its post-war revitalization.

Every time two men climbed into the ring, putting everything they had on the line, they proved that the Japanese people still had the backbone and spirit of pre-war Japan. It was proof not only to the boxers, but to every Japanese spectator cheering ringside. Boxing made a defeated people feel empowered again.

In 1952, Yoshio Shirai received an offer for a world title match, the first ever in Japan. But Japan lacked an official governing body for boxing, and thus the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) was founded. Less than a month later, Shirai met Dado Marino in the ring. Shirai fought with a smart and slick style, ultimately defeating Marino by unanimous decision. Shirai was crowned the Flyweight champion of the world, as well as the first Japanese boxer ever to become a world champion. In 1954, the JBC was absorbed by the World Boxing Association, assisting in its legitimization and establishing Japan as a credible player in world boxing.

Besides Shirai, another famous Japanese boxers made it big on the world stage: Fighting Harada. Harada won his first match by KO on February 21st, 1960, and went on to win his first twenty fights. In 1962, Harada knocked out Pone Kingpetch to become the world Flyweight champion. He lost the title in a rematch. But he remained in the higher rankings of world boxing for the next few years.

But Harada’s true golden moment came in 1965. Éder Jofre, the man nicknamed “Golden,” had been standing at the top of the boxing world as the world Bantamweight champion, undefeated in 50 fights. Harada and Jofre fought in Nagoya while the entirety of Japan was glued to their TVs, holding their breath. After 15 long rounds, Harada dethroned the king and became the new world champion via a controversial split decision. This was the match Japan had been waiting for. As one sports writer described it, this match “let Japan once more experience fervor.” When Jofre finally retired in 1976, Harada ultimately proved to be the only boxer to ever defeat him.

One of Japan’s favorite boxers came to prominence in the 1970s. Yoko Gushiken, a native Okinawan. He turned pro in 1974 after he found success in the amateur ring, winning the All-Japan High School Tournament. Gushiken won over crowds with his big afro and bushy moustache. He poked holes in his opponents’ defenses and let loose big left straights for the knockout. Gushiken was nicknamed the “Fierce Eagle,” and quickly dominated Japan’s boxing scene. Soon, Gushiken realized that Japan was too small a stage for him, and moved on to challenge the world.

In 1976, Gushiken knocked out Juan Antonio Guzmán in seven rounds, earning his spot as the new world Light Flyweight champion. Gushiken held this title for over four years, winning eight of his thirteen title defenses by knockout. Gushiken experienced his first loss in 1981. Pedro Flores, whom he had narrowly defeated in his last match, requested a rematch, and knocked out Gushiken to seize the title. Gushiken chose to not to return to the ring after this defeat, and retired with 23 wins and only 1 loss.

Modern State of Boxing in Japan


Photo by ramadam karim

The boxing fever that once gripped Japan has subsided in recent years. The post-war grit is a thing of the past, making iconic heroes like Yoshio Shirai and Joe Yabuki vintage goods. But fights are still broadcast on TV. Japan raises world champion boxers each year, Olympic and professional.

One of the most surprising moments in modern Japanese boxing came in 2011, when Nobuhiro Ishida knocked out James Kirkland in one round. Kirkland had been previously undefeated and was using Ishida as a warm-up fight after a long absence. However, Ishida was able to secure three knockdowns in the first round, causing the referee to call the fight. For a Japanese person to secure a knockout over an undefeated American in the upper weight classes was truly an upset. Especially since Ishida had less than a 25% knockout rate going into the fight. The outcome was so unexpected that no interpreter was on hand for the victory interview, forcing Ishida’s trainer to translate with his limited English. The Ring magazine voted the fight as the Upset of the Year.

Pros are not the only ones with exciting news. Japan’s amateur boxing world was also rocked recently during the 2012 Summer Olympics. Satoshi Shimizu experienced a highly controversial match. Shimizu began boxing as a third year in junior high school, and had previously fought in the 2008 Summer Olympics as a Featherweight. After his loss, Shimizu declined offers to go pro, intent on winning an Olympic gold medal. He returned to the Olympics in 2012 as a Bantamweight, since the Featherweight division had been removed from the games. Shimizu faced Magomed Abdulhamidov of Azerbaijan.

Abdulhamidov started out strong, and Shimizu trailed by seven points by the beginning of the third round. During the final round, Shimizu began his counterattack, and he knocked Abdulhamidov down six times. But Abdulhamidov was awarded a 22-17 victory over Shimizu. This led to an immediate protest by fans and Japanese officials alike. It was later revealed that Azerbaijan had transferred $9 million to an organization owned by the AIBA, which oversees and manages Olympic boxing. Sources claimed that an Azerbaijani government minister was paying for his country to receive at least two gold medals. Although an AIBA committee ultimately found the accusations to be spurious, they still overturned the decision and awarded the fight to Shimizu. According to their decision, the referee had made a mistake by not stopping the fight after three consecutive knockdowns.

Where Will the next Great Japanese Boxer Come From?


In addition to the serious athletes, boxing has found popularity with the masses in the form of “boxercise,” a workout based on boxing training and techniques. In boxing gyms across Japan, you can find high school students training side-by-side with salarymen and OLs. Hitting the heavy bag, jumping rope, even getting in the ring and hitting mitts are all effective forms of exercise. Few of these wannabe-Tysons are training with the intention to go pro. But they still come in to the gym with the same tenacity and drive of Rocky hitting a slab of meat.

Although people are more likely to think of karate and kendō when discussing martial arts in Japan, boxing has an undeniable place in Japanese culture, both as a sport and as a source of national inspiration.

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What the Japanese Royal Family Can Learn from Prince William’s Japan Trip Fri, 17 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Britain’s Prince William recently went on his first trip to Japan. He spent three days there, as part of a larger trip that also included a few days in China. The Duke of Cambridge had his own animal rights cause to promote in China, but Japanese politicians had their own agendas for Prince William in […]

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Britain’s Prince William recently went on his first trip to Japan. He spent three days there, as part of a larger trip that also included a few days in China. The Duke of Cambridge had his own animal rights cause to promote in China, but Japanese politicians had their own agendas for Prince William in Japan. It was a chance to highlight their successes, in front of the world to some degree, but primarily for the benefit of the Japanese public.

Of course, Japan has its own royal family, and they fulfill their role in Japanese politics, just as the Windsors do back in the UK. However, having a foreign royal come to visit provides a unique opportunity. Moreover, despite some similarities between the royal institutions of each country, Prince William showed a somewhat different face of royalty to a country that really loves them some royalty.

Royal Roamings


The royals of Japan and the UK have been visiting each other’s countries for quite some time. In 1869, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, became the first European prince to visit Japan. Just one year prior, the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan since 1603 had been overthrown and the emperor restored to power. Alfred had an audience with the newly empowered Emperor Meiji in Tokyo. As Japan became reacquainted with the West during the Meiji period, they didn’t fail to notice some similarities between themselves and the UK Both were island nations with long traditions of monarchy, manners, and tea. Japan was also interested in taking up another British tradition: imperialism, and looked to the British model in forming many of their new institutions. It is important to note that Britain was hardly the only imperial power that Japan drew inspiration from, taking elements from Prussia and France as well.

Over the next few decades there were some visits by princes and such on both sides, and then in 1921 Crown Prince Hirohito became the first of his rank to leave Japan when he went to the UK and other European countries via Singapore. Then relations went sour from the 1920s until the end of World War II. After normalizing relations, then Crown Prince (currently emperor) Akihito attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1971, the emperor himself, Hirohito paid a state visit to the UK, and four years later Queen Elizabeth returned the favor. In 1986 Prince Charles and his wife, Princess Diana, went to Japan, and this visit would be often referenced during Prince William’s recent visit. Emperor Akihito visited the UK in 1998, 2007, and most recently in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Prince William in Japan: Day One

Prince William arrived at Haneda Airport on Thursday, February 26th, where he was greeted by a welcoming crowd despite the rain. The duke’s duchess, Kate, did not join him on this trip, as she was seven months pregnant with their second child. It was a bit of a shame she couldn’t go, as she is quite popular.

Not only has Kate been a quite public figure, appearing at numerous functions and meeting various dignitaries, but she has become known for her fashion as well, not unlike William’s mother. She stands in contrast to Princess Masako, wife of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito, who has had difficulty dealing with public life over the years. She has suffered some emotional distress, and largely stayed out of the public eye since 2002.

Regardless of country, I’m sure being in such a position can often be stressful, but differing cultures and fates have made the situation worse for Princess Masako. Many have speculated that her emotional issues stem from pressure for her to produce a male heir. After six years of marriage, she had a miscarriage in 1999. Then in 2001, she gave birth to a daughter, Aiko. This ignited a lot of public debate over whether or not she could succeed the throne. This would require changing the Imperial Household Law of 1947. The matter was put aside in 2006, when Crown Prince Naruhito’s younger brother, Fumihito and his wife had a son. On the other hand, Kate gave birth to a boy, Prince George, in 2013, just two years into her marriage.

Soon after arriving, Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe took the prince on a boat tour around Tokyo Bay to see some of the places that will host events in the 2020 Olympics.

Later in the day, William went to Hamarikyu Gardens to take part in a tea ceremony, where he was greeted by flag-waving schoolchildren. The gardens date back to the Edo period (1603-1867), and provided a nice setting for William’s first public appearance taking part in traditional Japanese culture. Of course tea, and the formalized serving of tea, is something that both the UK and Japan have long appreciated, but there are some key differences. William was excused from sitting in the usual seiza position (on his knees), and sat on a low stool instead.

Prince William in Japan: Day Two

On Friday, Prince William visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama. The cemetery is dedicated to the approximately 1,700 servicemen from the British Commonwealth (Britain, Canada, Australia, etc.) who died in Japan as prisoners of war during World War II. William offered a wreath and a silent prayer. He also signed the visitors’ register and was shown an album with pictures of his mother, who also visited the cemetery during her final visit to Japan in 1995. His grandmother, the queen, has also paid her respects there.

After the cemetery, William went to a luncheon hosted by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. It was not their first meeting, as the imperial couple met William and his wife in 2012 during the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne.

Later that day, William had tea with Crown Prince Naruhito. Some have noted the contrast in the personalities between the outgoing William and Naruhito. However, once again, some of the blame for what may seem like a colder attitude on Naruhito’s part must surely be laid on the more distant relationship between the imperial family and the Japanese public in general.

Prince William in Japan: Day Three

Saturday began with a visit to NHK studios in Tokyo, where William explored the sets of a historical drama. He was also allowed (persuaded?) to don some samurai costume, including helmet and sword.

Later that day William headed north to visit the Fukushima area with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which I’m sure the government thought would be a great opportunity to show the Japanese people examples of success in their recovery efforts following the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, and to reassure them that the government is still making progress in that area. Apparently some locals weren’t happy about the prince’s visit, feeling they were being used for political ends, when they have been dissatisfied with the same recovery efforts the visit was meant to highlight.

At any rate, most of the coverage has been positive. William and Abe went to an athletic center, in the city of Motomiya, which was opened in 2012 as a safe place for recreation in an area where there is less fear of radiation. William talked to local children and impressed them with his juggling skills. They also participated in a tree planting ceremony to wish for a quick recovery.

In the evening, William and Abe donned yukata (light cotton kimono) at a ryokan (traditional inn) in Koriyama, where they ate a dinner made from local ingredients. Of course this kind of thing is common on state visits, except that in this case using local ingredients from the Fukushima area argues for their safety, a point that both the government and Fukushima farmers are eager to make. After all, if it’s good enough for the prime minister and the crown prince of Britain, it should be good enough for you.

We’ll Never Be Royals . . . But Maybe They Can Be More Like Us


The next day Prince William bid Japan farewell and continued along his travels. So, what can we learn from his trip?

State visits are fairly common, but royal representatives that go between the UK and Japan are a bit special due to the many things their lives have in common, but also due to the many differences, usually stemming from differences in culture.

In both cases, the royals were once considered to have divine right in one form or another, but now they have neither that nor practical authority. In the UK the change came from within, whereas in Japan it was forced upon them from the outside. I think this has led to a lot of lingering ideas about the imperial family in Japan that both remove them from the public and at the same time put more public pressure on them. Perhaps, by seeing the example of William, a royal who is more open and tries to use his influence for good in a number of causes, while at the same time being a bit more down to earth than previous royal generations, Japan might take a closer look at their own relationship with the imperial family, and how it might evolve for the better.

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Ekiben! Japanese Food on Japanese Trains and Beyond Wed, 15 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 In the US, feeding yourself while traveling is pretty much just a chore. Highway rest areas with the same fast food chains all over the country let your fuel yourself and your car at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it a treat. You won’t starve on Amtrak, but you’re better off packing a […]

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In the US, feeding yourself while traveling is pretty much just a chore. Highway rest areas with the same fast food chains all over the country let your fuel yourself and your car at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it a treat. You won’t starve on Amtrak, but you’re better off packing a lunch, and if you take the bus that may be your only option. And airline food – ugh, better not to think about that at all.

When you travel by train in Japan, it’s a different story. Ekiben (駅弁), the bento sold on trains and in train stations, were once a simple necessity for hungry travelers. Modernized in the face of competition from the private auto, now they serve as souvenirs and promotion for local tourism. Now people even flock to buy them when they’re not traveling – for sure something that would never happen with an airline meal.

Come with us on a journey from the first simple rice ball to a wonderland of local delicacies, charming presentations, and delicious, delicious Japanese food.

The First Japanese Train Station Bento Box


It’s clear that train travel started in Japan in 1872, but the beginning of the ekiben is a little harder to pin down. There are various competing theories as to what counts as the first ekiben, as is often the case with an idea whose time has so obviously come. There were trains, there were people, people get hungry. The market was so ready that it almost had to happen in some form, and surely more than one merchant met the need. But who would think to keep precise accounts of who first sold a thing that hadn’t even been defined yet? What’s more, many historical records were lost in the war, so even if they did, they’re long gone now.

The standard narrative gives the honor of being first to a meal that was sold at Utsunomiya station in Tochigi prefecture, consisting of two rice balls in a bamboo wrapper, with pickles. It sold for five sen. One sen is 1/100 of a yen, so that was the equivalent of around 10 dollars in current money, which is about the price of a nice ekiben today.

Competing possibilities for the honor of the first are actually earlier, including meals sold in Osaka and Kobe and 1877 and Ueno Station in 1883, among others.  I wonder if the Utsunomiya station one wins more or less official recognition because apparently we know the exact date it was first sold – July 16, 1885, the opening day of the Japan Railway Tohoku main line. That gives us a precise anniversary to celebrate. Pretty convenient.

Something this good needs more than one excuse for a party, though, and ekiben are also celebrated on another day: April 10 is Ekiben no Hi 駅弁の日, because the Japanese cannot resist a kanji pun. Apparently 弁 looks like a combination of 十 (ten) and the Arabic number 4? Whatever. Any excuse to eat more ekiben, right? This year, April 10 was in fact celebrated as the 130th year of the ekiben by the association for Japan Rail ekiben makers as you can see from this official flyer.

The Ekiben Develops


Photo by 4563_pic

The ekiben quickly began to take on the features that are recognizable today. 1888 saw the first standard ekiben with rice and a bunch of side dishes, sold at Himeji Station. Some sources say the first ekiben to feature local specialties were sushi ekiben sold at Ichinoseki and Kurosawajiri in Iwate beginning in 1890, but whoever started it, the idea took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While travellers didn’t have websites to consult in those days, by 1905 a magazine listed the different ekiben available in different places, and some railway timetables would list the famous ekiben of the region.

In the old days, ekiben vendors carried their wares on a display tray that hung from a strap around their necks. Announcing themselves with a special sales call, they walked along the platform and sold through the windows of the stopped trains.

This charming custom died out when trains became climate-controlled, with windows that didn’t open, as well as schedules that were tighter. Sales have mostly moved to kiosks and to inside the train, but there are still a few places left with old-fashioned platform vendors (here you can see photos from some train stations that still had them in the early to mid 2000s).


Along with local specialties, ekiben incorporate a couple of other features essential to traditional Japanese cuisine. Some feature seasonal foods and are only available at certain times, and always, beautiful presentation is vital. Even when made in large facilities instead of by local cooks, attention is still paid to the presentation and placement of each item. (For example, check out this report of a visit to an ekiben factory.)

When we talk about presentation, that includes the box and wrapping as well as the food itself. These are not your supermarket/conbini bento in plastic trays. Not to knock conbini bento, which are one of my favorite things, but one way ekiben compete with these cheaper options is with souvenir containers and attractive packaging. Fun containers include the shinkansen above, and my favorite, this octopus jar:


Photo by Linda Lombardi

Ekiben in more conventional boxes are covered in wrappers that feature a fantastic variety of Japanese art and graphic design. Many give you an idea of the food inside, with elegant drawings of fish or produce. Others commemorate occasions – for example, there was a special ekiben at Tokyo Station for the 1964 Olympics. And some include historical or folkloric figures and famous sites. This one from Ueno Station features the station facade and the statue in Ueno Park depicting Saigō Takamori, often called the last samurai, and his faithful dog:


Photo by Luke Lai

Pop culture characters get into it too. For the full experience of that sort of thing, watch someone buy an Anpanman ekiben and eat it on an Anpanman-themed train:

And then you can spend hours on this site navigating one guy’s collection of over 6000 ekiben wrappers, some going back to the 1900s, and some, if he bought the actual meal himself, with photos of the contents as well.

The Ekiben Rises, Falls, and Rises Again


Photo by Luke Lai

During World War Two, ekiben were affected by rationing, with limited rice supplemented by sweet potato or noodles and fancy wrappers replaced by plain paper, sometimes with patriotic slogans. One famous Japanese dish came out of this period. Ikameshi, squid stuffed with rice, was invented by an ekiben vendor in Hokkaido using small squid that weren’t otherwise being made use of. Stuffing the squid with the rice and simmering the result made a small amount of rice into a more satisfying meal.

After the war in the 1950s, there was a travel boom, and with the rise in popularity of TV, interest in ekiben was spurred by a 1973 drama based on a manga about a guy who travels around Japan to try them. These decades were the golden age of ekiben. Consumption rose from about two million boxes per week in the late 1970s to twelve million boxes daily in the mid 1980s.

Times changed though as private car ownership became more common and flying became more popular as a way to travel. Ekiben purchases dropped, and 1987-2008 saw a 50% decline in the number of ekiben makers. To save their companies, new ideas were needed. Some of these were technological, like self-heating boxes, but even more attention seems to have been given to promotion. Maybe the most brilliant realization was that if people weren’t taking the train as much, what we needed was ekiben minus the eki. The first department store ekiben festival took place in 1966, and in two weeks sold 400,000 ekiben of 200 different kinds from all over the country. Now, instead of the train taking you to sample local specialties, the local specialties came to you, at least for a couple weeks out of the year.

Ekiben Today


Photo by かがみ~

While some say ekiben have seen better days, they really don’t seem to be doing all that badly. They are keeping up with the times with anime-themed products to catch the attention of young people for whom ekiben don’t have the nostalgia value, like a Naruto ekiben, offered in the home prefecture of the original manga’s creator. Or this one (that I really want) with both nostalgia and kid appeal, a souvenir Kitaro ekiben.

Since that first department store ekiben festival, more stores started holding them, and I’ve even been to an ekiben matsuri at a Mitsuwa market in the US. You can still go to the biggest and most famous annual ekiben matsuri at Keio Department Store in Shinjuku where over 200 varieties are sold. There are cooking demonstrations and special theme events, such as a recent Abandoned Railway Line Ekiben Project that recreated the ekiben of train lines that have been shut down.

But those department store festivals only last a couple of weeks. What if you’re in Japan at the wrong time? Never fear! Now you can head for the new, permanent ekiben matsuri street in the renovated Tokyo Station, where you can choose from 170 different ekiben from all over the country. The three most popular are reportedly a self-heating grilled beef tongue bento from Sendai, a chirashi bento with lots of egg omelet from Niigata, and a beef on rice bento from Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, which is famous for its beef. That’s a lot of culinary geography you can cover without even getting on the train.

But try to do it the old school way at least once. There’s nothing more quintessentially Japanese than eating your ekiben while looking out the window of a train. You may weep at the memory next time you’re served an airline meal, but it’s worth it.

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Making the Best of Roppongi’s Split Personality Wed, 08 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Although its name means “six trees,” it might as well be called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Located near the center of Minato Ward, between Shinbashi and Shibuya, Roppongi’s (六本木) one square kilometer is jam packed with business, culture, and entertainment with a touch of debauchery. Home to businesses and national embassies, Roppongi puts on serious airs during the day. But once the […]

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Although its name means “six trees,” it might as well be called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Located near the center of Minato Ward, between Shinbashi and Shibuya, Roppongi’s (六本木) one square kilometer is jam packed with business, culture, and entertainment with a touch of debauchery.

Home to businesses and national embassies, Roppongi puts on serious airs during the day. But once the sun sets it transforms, unleashing the pleasure-seeking beast within. Despite all the fun offered by Roppongi’s nightlife, it also holds its share of danger. However, with proper precaution, visitors can avoid the fangs and enjoy Tokyo’s famed entertainment district.

The Legend of “Six Trees”


Photo by Σ64

Roppongi’s “Six Tree” moniker has no certain explanation, though two theories prevail.

Mukashi mukashi, or long ago in the pre-Edo era, farmers and wood collectors frequented the area’s forests to gather lumber and kindling. The region became well known for six types of trees that flourished there. According to this legend, Roppongi gained its name from those, now forgotten, six species of tree (Cooper).

Another theory tells of six daimyo (governor) families that resided in the district. During the Edo era, the Tokugawa shogunate forced regional daimyos’ children and wives to live near the Edo capital (modern day Tokyo). The virtual hostage situation forced daimyo stationed throughout Japan to tread carefully and remain loyal to Tokugawa. Legend has it that each of Roppongi’s six resident daimyo families had names ending with 木 or “tree.” Roppongi was named after these “six trees.”

Regardless of the name’s origin, both legends paint Roppongi as a remote, unsettled region. Roppongi would remain off the beaten path until 1626, when the area’s monks hosted the cremation ceremony of shogun Hidetada’s late wife (Cooper). The lavish ceremony brought capital to the monks, who reinvested their newfound wealth in the area.

Roppongi’s transformation began with the construction of new temples and lodging. Word of the ceremony and the new construction attracted people to the area. Houses and shops grew into a community that would be named Roppongi (Cooper).

Henshin (Transform)!


Photo by Morio

As time passed Roppongi grew in population and reputation. In 1894, the Japan-China War brought Roppongi’s first military presence. Imperial Japanese Army personnel sparked business growth, particularly in the entertainment industries.

The trend of military influence continued on after WWII, when US military personnel made the area home. “Many Japanese-owned restaurants, pool halls, bars, and brothels catered to US military personnel but were also often frequented by Japanese customers” (wiki). The international flavor Roppongi inherited during the post war era continues today.

Roppongi flourished with Japan’s post war economic growth. Businessmen and celebrities flush with bubble economy cash frequented its bars and clubs. Richard Smart of CNN notes, “By the time the 1980s bubble burst, Roppongi was cemented in local imagination as a center for debauchery, perhaps only rivaled by Shinjuku’s notorious Kabukicho district” (Smart).

Japan’s economic collapse hit Roppongi hard. As the cash flow slowed, people had fewer reasons and less means to party. Many Roppongi businesses, bars, and clubs went bankrupt, underwent name and ownership changes, or disappeared altogether (Smart).

Real-estate investor Minori Mori described  post bubble Roppongi as a “hodgepodge of cheaply built post-war buildings” that had fallen into disrepair (Sposato). Roppongi owes its rebirth to Mori whose investments and vision, like the monks hundreds of years earlier, transformed its physical and economic landscape.

Hello Roppongi Hills!

is roppongi safe

The Japanese government hoped to rebuild or renew city areas by easing building and investment restrictions through its 1986 “urban renaissance”policies. The economic collapse postponed or terminated many of these projects, but the turn of the century’s economic revival brought an “urban renaissance” (Shima, et al).

An ISOCARP report explains,

Urban Renaissance Special Measure Law then went into force in 2002 and, under this law, Priority Urban Development Areas were selected… In the areas, various incentives, like deregulation of urban planning, financial support, are provided to encourage private investment.

Roppongi represented one of the most densely populated areas chosen for renewal. Local support coupled with the vision and investment strategies of Minoru Mori, “whose entrepreneurial risk-taking helped transform the central Tokyo skyline and which set him apart within Japan’s staid real-estate world,” triggered Roppongi’s remarkable transformation (Sposato).

The Mori website explains, “Our aim was the creation of a new Tokyo cultural center, where humanity, culture, interaction and vision could flourish.” Completed in 2003, the Roppongi Hills complex takes up about 24 acres, boasting a 54-story main building, over 200 shops and restaurants, and serves as Japan’s headquarters for Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers.

Roppongi’s Multiple Personalities


Photo by Grueslayer

Although Shibuya Crossing and Tokyo Tower offer Tokyo’s most recognizable images, they can’t top Roppongi’s unique reputation. The area radiates a surreal vibe, offering an eclectic mix of the serious (businesses, embassies), the lighthearted (chique art and party culture) and the dangerous (gangs and crime). Welcome to Tokyo’s Thunderdome.

All Business

is roppongi safe

Photo by jon

On the serious side, Roppongi touts several convention centers, embassies and the Tokyo Metropolitan Offices. The urban renewal project attracted many businesses. Mori Company made its home in Roppongi’s rebuilt district. The Pokemon Company made its headquarters there. Other corporate presences include Ferrari Japan, Genco, Yahoo! Japan, Google Japan, TV Asahi, Goldman Sacs, State Street, and Corning Incorporated. Several law firms are also headquartered in Roppongi (Wikipedia).

The Art Side


Photo by Ihateanarchists

Roppongi serves as a hotbed for art and culture too. Museums and convention centers, like Mori Art Museum and Mori Arts Center Gallery, host a variety of exhibits. There are also big events, like Roppongi Art Night which “has been turning the eponymous Tokyo district into a sprawling exhibition, taking over not only its art galleries and museums” (Sunda).

There’s an education and cultural center called Academy Hills. Roppongi Hills Arena provides an outdoor facility for live events and performances. And TOHO Cinemas Roppongi Hills shows domestic and international films. Despite its famed nightlife, Roppongi offers many daytime attractions for those with a taste for culture.

Party Hard

is roppongi safe

Photo by dat’

Despite all it has to offer, Roppongi is most famous for its nighttime entertainment. This reputation is  a well earned one. After all, Roppongi became famous for its nightlife with the arrival of the imperial army in the late 1800s, long before it transformed into a corporate and cultural hub. The hedonism continued to thrive during the American occupation and the bubble economy.

Roppongi’s restaurants, clubs and bars carry on its night-life legacy. Hostess clubs, love hotels and other borderline illegal attractions give Roppongi its edge. But gangs, drugs and other crimes have given it a precarious reputation.

The Darkside


Photo by karendesuyo

The fun of Roppongi nights comes with a threat of danger. So visitors to the area should be cautious. “Japanese police statistics show Roppongi leads violent crime rates in Tokyo” (Gittler). Many crimes, including assaults, worker exploitation, and drug deals remain insider problems. Most victims include gang members, business owners, workers and police officers.

However some crimes specifically target regular customers and foreign tourists. Protect yourself by learning about the nature of the crimes and how to prevent them.

Drink Spiking


Photo by

Cases of spiked drinks have have become so frequent, the US Embassy has issued several warnings regarding the situation.

Typically, the victim unknowingly drinks a beverage that has been secretly mixed with a drug that renders the victim unconscious for several hours, during which time large sums of money are charged to the victim’s credit card or the card is stolen outright. Victims sometimes regain consciousness in the bar or club, while at other times the victim awakens on the street (USEmbassy).

Spiked drinks target foreign customers because communication difficulties make reporting and pursuing prosecution difficult and problematic.

Due to the nature of serving drinks at a bar, club or restaurant, avoiding spiked drinks can be tricky. If possible, explore bars with an acquaintance familiar with the area. Having someone fluent in Japanese help. Going in a large group can make drink spiking problematic for the establishment, especially if there’s a designated non-drinker to keep an eye on the situation.

Male Vicitms


Photo by Danny Choo

Although everyone should take caution, there are some cons aimed more at men. Hostess clubs and other pleasure services have a reputation for taking advantage of male customers, usually overcharging them.

Hosts and hostesses aim to drive up tabs and help their establishments. Bills that include a companion’s drinks and other expenses surprise unprepared, unknowing patrons. But this is normal.

Some establishments use more sinister tactics, like overcharging for items or adding “spurious” or fake charges to the bill (Gittler). Beware of any place where attractive men or women join you for foods and drinks, particularly when they pressure you to continue ordering.

Pushy Owners and Staff


Photo by Anna Lee

Image from Vice: Boyfriends for Hire in Japan

To make matters worse, Roppongi’s foreign business owners and staff can be pushier and more forceful than their Japanese counterparts. Keiji “Duke” Oda, regional director of a citizen group, patrols streets and neighborhoods to deter crime. He notes,

Many foreign nationals in quasi-gangs work for bars as touts and doormen to attract customers, he said, adding that the competitive pressure on them can make them dangerous. Visitors should be very clear when dealing with them if they don’t want to go to their bar… but never argue. (Gittler)

News stories and editorials say that foreign doormen are particularly aggressive. Use extra caution when approached by non-Japanese people in Roppongi. From my experience the best tactic is to ignore them and walk away.

Stumbling Into Trouble


Photo by shiranai

Oda also mentions the danger of stumbling upon drug deals and gang activities. Since these situations usually don’t take place in the open, visitors can avoid them by sticking to the main-streets. Steer clear of back-alleys and side-streets to lower the chances of dangerous encounters.

Is Roppongi Safe?


Photo by Laitr Keiows

When The Japan Times asked “people on the street” to describe Roppongi in one word, answers ranged from “pockets,” to “nightlife,” to plain “crazy.” But only one word occurred repeatedly – “schizophrenic.”

Roppongi’s personality changes throughout the day and quickly at night. This ever evolving nature frustrated author Roman Cybiwsky who coined the term “Roppongi frustration” to describe his inability to come up with a consistent image of the area (xvi).

Natsumi Suzuki had similar feelings. The 26 year old chef explains, “Roppongi is a place with no single personality. It has two – or more – sides. It is multi-faced in so many ways… It is a great place to go and a dangerous place to go, depending on when you visit.”

Roppongi’s popularity endures thanks to its ability to go with the flow and satisfy an eclectic mix of interests. From the corporate to the cultural and pleasure seeking, Roppongi offers a bit of everything.

But part of that “schizophrenic” mix is an alluring danger that adds to Roppongi’s thrills. The growing trend of drink-spiking has caused alarm, particularly for foreign tourists who are likely to fall victim. Other crimes like overcharging, theft, and assault are also on the rise.

But by staying informed and vigilant, visitors can party with Roppongi’s Dr Jekyll, while avoiding its dangerous Mr Hyde.

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Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko Mon, 06 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you were a wee one, did you dream of being a doctor or a lawyer when you grew up? Or maybe something even more ambitious like an astronaut? How about a shamaness-queen? Almost 2000 years ago, Queen Himiko of Yamatai raised the bar for women everywhere when she was crowned high priestess and supreme […]

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When you were a wee one, did you dream of being a doctor or a lawyer when you grew up? Or maybe something even more ambitious like an astronaut? How about a shamaness-queen? Almost 2000 years ago, Queen Himiko of Yamatai raised the bar for women everywhere when she was crowned high priestess and supreme ruler of her kingdom. As the political and religious leader of the proto-Japanese federation of Yamatai, she was beloved at home for her peaceful rule and respected abroad for her diplomatic savvy.

Himiko (also known as Pimiko) is not just any old badass chick in Japanese history. She holds the distinct honor of being the first badass chick in Japanese history. In fact, she’s the first named and confirmed (male or female) figure in Japanese history, period. Most people on earth who lived and died during the 3rd century have been rendered anonymous by temporal and cultural distance. But not Himiko. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of Education and Sciences, 99% of Japanese schoolchildren recognize and can identify her. Like Oprah or Madonna, Himiko’s on a first name basis with the Japanese general public. Meanwhile, she continues to fuel intense debate among amateurs and scholars alike concerning the exact location of her kingdom, a debate that more or less hinges on the location of her grave.

Before Japan Was Japan


Photo by Saigen Jiro

Himiko’s reign roughly spanned the first half of the 3rd century, long before the Japanese islands were the single political entity that we now call Japan. Rather, the archipelago was scattered with hundreds of “countries” or clan-nations linked into regional confederations. Agricultural communes had started giving way to diversified kingdoms. Political power became increasingly consolidated and social status increasingly stratified. Historians and archeologists often refer to these decades as a “transitional era” between the Yayoi (300BC-300AD) and Kofun (250-538AD) periods—hence the overlap in dates.

What qualified someone to rule one of these emerging kingdoms? Well, it helped if you were on speaking terms with the gods, or at least could convince other people that you were. As in many other ancient (and not so ancient) societies, religious authority was linked to spiritual authority in 3rd century Japan. Luckily for Himiko, female shamans were highly regarded in the folk religion and proto-Shintoism of the time, considered to be capable of banishing pesky malignant spirits on the one hand and speaking on behalf of divine spirits on the other. Since women had equal access to the spiritual realm, they also had access to the political realm. So far from being the shamaness-queen, Himiko was likely one of many shamaness-queens.


Another quirky characteristic of the times lent its name to the Kofun Period. At their most basic, kofun are big piles of dirt. Impressively big piles of dirt shaped like keyholes. First constructed in the mid-3rd century, these large earthen mounds served as mausoleums for deceased rulers. They began to appear in the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region and then spread throughout the archipelago in tandem with the increasing dominance of the Yamato clan. Over 5,200 have been identified so far in a variety of standardized shapes and uniformly staggering sizes. Himiko may have received one of the first such burials. Stay tuned for more about that.

“Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”


The little we know about the life and times of Himiko has been gleaned from a combination of written Chinese (and Korean) histories along with archeological verification. Before the Japanese began to record their own history, the Chinese did everyone the favor of writing some of it for them. The History of the Kingdom of Wei (297 AD) stands alone as the first written source about Japan. However, at that time Chinese historians relegated information about the “Land of Wa” (their name for Japan) and its peoples to the flattering “Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians” section of their histories, almost as an afterthought. At any rate, it’s got lots of juicy information about Himiko and her kingdom. Later Chinese dynastic histories reiterated and confirmed the information included in this first history, and the oldest surviving Korean text (Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms, 1145 AD) briefly describes Himiko’s relationship with the Korean peninsula. Collectively, this is what they can tell us:

During the second half of the 2nd century (ca. 147-190 AD), the lack of a capable leader plunged the Land of Wa into political turmoil and violent upheaval. Finally, in 190 AD the unmarried shamaness Himiko was chosen by the people to rule. Installed in a palace with armed guards and watch towers, she was served by “1,000” female attendants while her “brother” acted as a medium of communication, transmitting her instructions and pronouncements to the outside world. After ascending to the throne, Himiko went on to restore order and maintain peace like a boss for the next 50 or 60 years.

In addition to upholding her religious duties, Himiko presided over more than 100 “countries” that acknowledged her as their ruler. But she didn’t just stay in her own backyard. On behalf of the entire federation of Yamatai, Himiko dispatched diplomatic missions to China at least four times during her reign. In recognition of her legitimacy, the Chinese Wei Dynasty bestowed upon her the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei” along with a nifty golden seal and over 100 ceremonial bronze mirrors. I know that might not seem very exciting now, but back then mirrors were THE ULTIMATE status symbol. A decent stash of mirrors could turn you into the coolest kid on the block.

Unfortunately, the party couldn’t last forever. In 248, Queen Himiko died. Some uppity dude reportedly attempted to succeed the throne in the wake of Himiko’s death, but his reign was heavily resisted and short-lived. According to Chinese sources, order was restored again only once the 13-year-old Queen Iyo took the throne—who just so happened to be a relative of Himiko. I guess badassery ran in the family.

But that’s not all. In Himiko’s honor “a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter” and 100 of her attendants, um, euphemistically “followed her to the grave.” The aforementioned “great mound” was almost certainly one of the first kofun ever erected. Just a few years ago in 2009, a group of Japanese archeologists claimed that they had identified Himiko’s tomb as the Hashihaka Kofun in Sakurai City near Nara. Radiocarbon-dated artifacts found on the periphery of the Hashihaka Kofun date to between 240 and 260 AD. In other words, the time of Himiko’s death. Unfortunately, the Imperial Household Agency has designated Hashihaka a royal tomb and thereby forbids further excavation, so we may never know with certainty.

Himiko’s Legacy: From Hero to Zero and Back


Truth be told, Himiko didn’t have much of a legacy until the late Edo period (1600-1868). How did such badassery go unrecognized for so long? Well, in large part this is because she was conspicuously snubbed in the first Japanese texts, the mythic Kojiki (712) and the mytho-history Nihongi (720). Neither Himiko nor her kingdom are mentioned in either, despite the fact that the writers of the Nihongi clearly reference and cite the Chinese histories where she appears. Did they just skip those pages or something? Scholars attribute this blindness to the fact that the 8th century Japanese ruling house was consciously emulating patriarchal Chinese ideals and institutions. And this ideological framework didn’t leave much room for the existence of shamaness-queens. Meanwhile, the Japanese adoption of Buddhism and Confucianism didn’t do much to elevate the status of women, either. So in the interest of looking cool by Chinese standards, the Japanese court just decided to pretend Himiko and her ilk hadn’t existed.

Luckily, she wasn’t permanently erased. Queen Himiko and her kingdom of Yamatai resurfaced during the Edo period with the work of philosopher-statesman Arai Hakuseki and scholar Motoori Norinaga. Between the two of them, they started one of the oldest and most heated controversies in Japanese scholarship: where was Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai? Hakuseki rejected the Japanese histories as inaccurate, threw his weight behind the veracity of the Chinese records, and claimed that Himiko’s country of Yamatai had been in the heart of Japan—the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region known as the Kinai Plain. Norinaga, on the other hand, rejected the Chinese histories as inaccurate, upheld the veracity of the Japanese histories, and went so far as to claim that Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai had merely fooled the Chinese government into thinking that they were the ruling clan.

Norinaga’s view became dominant throughout the ensuing decades from the Meiji era through the end of World War II. During this time questions about Himiko’s kingdom became tangled with the nationalist-imperialist politics of the day. With the emperor enshrined as divine, rejecting the ancient Japanese histories could be viewed as an attack on the imperial system in general—and some historians who refused to conform lost everything at the hands of censorship laws. One such professor was Naka Michiyo, who from 1878 until the end of his life continually criticized the chronology of the ancient histories and disproved Norinaga’s claims about Yamatai.

In the post-war era, historians and archeologists picked up where Naka Michiyo left off, digging into the ancient texts as well as various archeological sites. Between 1955 and 1964, a series of archeological discoveries ignited the debate about the location of Yamatai—including the excavation of a tomb near Kyoto with numerous bronze mirrors possibly dating from the 3rd century. The 1960s through the early 1970s witnessed what the media proclaimed as a “Yamatai boom” as the debate became a national obsession ping-ponging between claims for Kyushu and the Kinai. Suddenly everyone was clamoring to claim Himiko.

Himiko Today: Town Mascot, Role Model, X-Rated Fantasy?


Photo by geraldford

In life Himiko was a religious and political leader. In death she’s become just about everything else. As a historical figure, she’s turned out to be remarkably pliable, probably because so little is known about her and the little that is known about her creates such fertile soil for the imagination. As a result, she’s been repurposed and repackaged in all sorts of ways. For example…

Thanks to the debate over the location of Yamatai, several cities in Japan claim her as a sort of town mascot. In Kyushu, there are statues of her outside Kanzaki Station, near Miyazaki Takachiho Gorge, and on the grounds of the Himiko Shrine in Hayato.

The city of Yoshinogari holds an annual bonfire festival that climaxes with the appearance of a costumed “Himiko” and a Kyushu brewery released “Himiko Fantasia” shochu.

Over in the Kinai region, Sakurai City (where Hashihaka Kofun is located) features Himiko on signs, online, and in person (well, at least a person in a mascot costume). City leaders have created online Himiko-themed anime shorts, and there’s a municipal webpage devoted to her called “Himiko-chan’s Page.”

As a role model Himiko can symbolize female power, innate occult abilities, national origins, and even good eating habits. No kidding, she’s the poster girl for a school campaign that urges students “to chew your food as thoroughly Queen Himiko did” in order to improve digestion and tooth health.

You can even be crowned “Queen Himiko” by participating in one of a number of Queen Himiko Contests, which are more or less beauty pageants. Women 18 and older are eligible to compete for a substantial cash prize on the basis of their charm and appearance—which is a bit depressing when you consider Queen Himiko’s historical worth probably had nothing to do with her ability to put on eyeliner.

Sakurai City Mascot

Himiko has also served as the inspiration for characters in numerous films, novels, manga, anime, and video games. A powerful and dignified Himiko rules with authority and grace in the 1967 bestseller “Maboroshi no Yamatotaikoku.” The 2008 film version of the book starred a venerated Japanese actress as Himiko, and her image in the role was selected for a set of commemorative stamps by the Japanese government.

And then for something entirely different, an irresponsibly promiscuous, Himiko meets her downfall in the 1974 film drama “Himiko” directed by Masahiro Shinoda.

In addition to a symbol of female power (whether for good or ill), Himiko has also been used as a tool for political critique. The first book of manga maven Osamu Tezuka’s acclaimed Phoenix series depicts a vain, power-hungry Himiko as the first of many vain, power-hungry rulers throughout Japanese, and world history—“power leads to corruption” being the main theme that Tezuka pursues throughout the rest of the series. And one of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s political cartoons features Himiko in order to argue for changing the imperial succession laws to allow for the throning of an empress.

Himiko pops up all over the place. A Himiko clone appears in the manga Afterschool Charisma and in the anime Shangri-la. The 2013 Tomb Raider video game reboot features a menacing Himiko as its primary antagonist. The Legend of Himiko encompasses an anime, manga, and video game series that appeals to pre-teen girl power sensibilities. And for the 18+ set, Taniguchi Chika’s erotic manga series aimed at women stars none other than Queen Himiko in various X-rated adventures. So whether you’re looking for a despotic villain, a role model, a symbol of national or local identity, a naïve shrine attendant, or a sexual fantasy, there’s a Himiko out there for you.

What’s So Great About Queen Himiko?


Photo by 皇なつき

Himiko ruled a kingdom 2000 years ago, fuels a bunch of debate about said kingdom, and continues to get a lot of face time in modern Japan in the form of statues and stamps and just about everything else. As impressive as all that is, what makes Himiko noteworthy is that she wasn’t unique in her time. In the earliest periods of Japanese history, women more generally had public authority, economic power, and spiritual prestige. The historical figure Himiko is merely representative of the heights of the political and religious leadership that women in Japan held prior to the importation of Chinese, Buddhist, and Confucian ideology. And even after these patriarchal influences first took root, it was many decades (centuries, even) before ideology and practice fully merged (if indeed they ever did).

In other words, Himiko was not an anomaly. She was merely the first notable ancestor of a strong tradition of female religious leaders (a la miko priestesses in Shinto) and political leaders (a la empresses) in Japanese history. Over time women’s roles may have devolved from active initiators to assistants in both spiritual and secular realms. But Himiko serves as a shining example that symbolically reflects the many other (now anonymous) women who were also leaders in their communities.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ・ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile]


  • “History of the Kingdom of Wei (Wei zhi) ca. 297 C.E.” Translated by Tsunoda Ryusaku (Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600; 2001)
  • “Gendered Interpretations of Female Rule: The Case of Himiko, Ruler of Yamatai” by Akiko Yoshie, Hitomi Tonomura, and Azumi Ann Takata (U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal; 2013)
  • Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850 by Karl Friday (2012)
  • “In Pursuit of Himiko: Postwar Archaeology and the Location of Yamatai” by Walter Edwards (Monumenta Nipponica; Spring 1996)
  • “Rebranding Himiko, the Shaman Queen of Ancient History” by Laura Miller (Mechademia; 2014)

The post Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko appeared first on Tofugu.

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Anime’s Great Deception – The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons Wed, 01 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Even as a child, I sensed something different about cartoons like Robotech and Voltron. Compared to other shows, they struck me as serious, dramatic and stylish. Each episode contributed to a longer narrative and when something changed, it remained that way for the rest of the series. The straight-lined art affected me me in a way other cartoons’ softer, rounded styles never did. Something […]

The post Anime’s Great Deception – The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons appeared first on Tofugu.

Even as a child, I sensed something different about cartoons like Robotech and Voltron. Compared to other shows, they struck me as serious, dramatic and stylish. Each episode contributed to a longer narrative and when something changed, it remained that way for the rest of the series. The straight-lined art affected me me in a way other cartoons’ softer, rounded styles never did.

Something was different, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.

At the time I didn’t know these cartoons came from Japan, where they had different titles, and occasionally different narratives. I didn’t know that one day I’d become a fan of the medium, a style of cartoon called anime.

Anime differed from standard Western cartoons. Back then anime fans would tell you, Japanese anime is better. Cartoons are “kids’ stuff.” With complicated stories, deep character development and themes fit for adults, anime eschews the label of cartoon and makes claims on being a higher art-form.

Of course anime’s visuals fuel its purported pedigree. Fans laud anime for its detailed art, style and fluid animation. Wait… fluid animation?!

嘘つき! (Uso tsuki! Liar!)

In reality, what set anime apart from other styles is its deliberate lack of fluidity and use of limited-animation. By ignoring the era’s animation standards, animation studio Mushi Pro revolutionized the medium.

And by taking advantage of two factors – television’s access to Japanese households and the popular manga series Astro Boy – Mushi Pro created both Japan’s first anime as well as its first anime boom. Mushi Pro’s ingenuity created a controversial style of animation that lacked animation and this deceptive style and marketing tradition continues today.

Anime’s Success Ingredient 1: Television

Image from Always Sanchōme no Yūhi

Television’s proliferation in Japanese households provided the access anime needed to reach its audience.

Japan’s post-war era saw furious physical reconstruction and economic growth. Mass and personal transportation made commuting possible and helped cities grow. With a rebuilt infrastructure, Japan’s economic boom hit full swing.

After prices leveled out and necessities became readily available, households had more spending money than ever before. Affordable commodities like refrigerators, rice cookers and washing machines made life more comfortable. The economic growth continued.

For the first time, average people could afford the extravagant. Television ownership boomed. “In 1960, 55 percent of households owned a TV set, by 1964, TV ownership had grown to 95 percent, owing… to the crown prince’s televised wedding in 1959 and the 1964 Olympics” (Steinberg). Widespread TV ownership gave broadcasters access to nearly every household and allowed the country’s first anime series to take Japan by storm.

Anime’s Success Ingredient 2: Astro Boy

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Image from Astro Boy

As we learned in Michael Richey’s Anime Before It Was ‘Anime’, Japanese animation dates back to the early 1900’s. But pre-war productions are best described as cartoons, not anime. Richey explains, “Anime, as we all know it now, began with Osamu Tezuka’s style and production methods and everyone in Japan following his lead.”

Prior to Osamu’s Astro Boy (鉄腕アトム, Tetsuwan Atomu), animation occupied a marginal position in Japan’s cultural consciousness. Japanese studios faced limitations that made competition with foreign studios impossible. Meager budgets meant Japanese studios faced an uphill battle against foreign features’ financing, sound and color (Hu).

Although the need for wartime propaganda fueled the production of pro-war cartoons like Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945), the war effort, government censorship and widespread destruction stifled Japan’s manga and animation industries.

After the war, Japan’s movie studios looked to beautiful animation from abroad for inspiration. Fully-animated features from China and the US provided the blueprint. Instead of forging their own path, Toei, Toho and other Japanese studios sought to imitate their foreign rivals.

As a result, Japan’s studios produced theatrical features. Despite Japan’s intense post-war recovery, animation remained too time consuming and too cost prohibitive for television. But Astro Boy‘s 1963 debut changed everything.

“Manga god” Tezuka Osamu aimed to do the impossible and conquer the television market. His animation company Mushi Pro ignored the era’s animation philosophies, goals and influences. When all was said and done, Mushi Pro’s Astro Boy anime rocketed to popularity and sparked a paradigm shift in Japan’s animation industry.

Forging a New Path

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Image from Sakigake! Cromartie High School

In the West “anime” means “animation from Japan.”, a Western anime and manga databasing site, refuses to list a series unless it’s Japanese (to the chagrin of Avatar: the Last Airbender fans).

However, the average Japanese person considers all forms of animation to be “anime,” regardless of style or country of origin. I’ve even heard live action series like Kamen Rider, Metal Heroes and Super Sentai referred to as “anime” in conversation.

But industry insiders and purists (Hayao Miyazaki for example) define “anime” as a “limited-animation” style popularized by Japanese studios. Envisioned by Tezuka Osamu, limited-animation techniques lowered production costs while speeding up the production process, making animation feasible for television broadcast.

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

The full animation made famous by Disney and embraced by Japan’s studios used too many cels (the transparent sheets artists drew and painted images onto, then layered and photographed to make a frame of animation), required too large a staff and took too much time to make its production suitable or even possible for TV.

However, Osamu realized animation need not be fluid or fully animated to be enjoyed by audiences. After all, by flashing still images in rapid succession, even live action films create a flase illusion of motion.

Film theorist Christian Metz explains,

Motion… is always perceived as real. Since motion is never a tangible thing… there is no difference between the perception of motion in everyday life and the perception of motion onscreen. (Steinberg)

Mushi Pro, Osamu’s studio, developed a style of “moving manga” noted for its “limited” animation. Associate animation professor at Kyoto Seika University Nobuyuki Tsugata writes, “From the start Tezuka… intentionally created anime, not animation.” (Steinberg)

As the first television anime, Astro Boy reused cels, relied on visual and audio tricks and used fewer frames of animation to create an illusion of full motion.

Mushi Pro’s Yamamoto Eiichi explained, “In the end we completely did away with the techniques of full-animation. Then we adopted the completely new technique of making the manga frame the basis for the shot, moving only a section of this frame.” (Steinberg)

Audiences loved the result. Astro Boy became the first official “anime” and gave birth to the popular, marketable style than continued through the likes of Tetsujin-28Neon Genesis Evangelion, and onward.

The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Photo from Giovanni’s Island

Through Astro Boy, Mushi Pro created a style of animation that relied on stillness, giving their anime a specific style and nuanced definition. Nobuyuki Tsugata explains the result,

Anime is an animation form that 1) is cel based 2) uses various time and labor saving devices that give it a lower cel count… and 3) has a strong tendency toward the development of complex human relationships, stories and worlds. (Steinberg)

Marc Steinberg adds three tenets to the list, 4) anime is organized around distribution outlets (like TV and DVD) 5) it is character-centric 6) it is inherently transmedial.”

Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghlibli, rejects anime’s style and techniques. In The Anime Machine, Thomas LaMarre recalls how Studio Ghibli documentaries and exhibitions

almost completely exclude those forms of Japanese animation that commonly fall under the rubric anime. Clearly the goal… is to shore up a lineage of Japanese animation (called manga film) that stands in contrast to anime.

By refusing to call his films “anime,” Miyazaki draws a definitive line between anime and other forms of animation (Steinberg).

Limited-Animation’s Definitive Techniques

making naruto

What techniques made Astro Boy, the first televised anime possible, and why? Some sped up production. Others cut costs. Although each technique served a convenient purpose, the following techniques created anime’s appealing and striking style.

1) Three Frame Shooting

Full-animation features twelve to eighteen unique images per second. The result is smooth, fluid, “life-like” motion. Limited-animation uses significantly fewer frames. On average, anime studios employ eight images per second, but fewer frames can be used (Steinberg).

Mushi Production staff “got away with only fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred drawings per twenty-five minute episode… The same program length done in full-animation would require around ten times that, or eighteen thousand drawings.” (Steinberg)

Although less fluid, anime maintained the illusion of motion. Three-frame shooting cut production costs and time and became an anime standard.

2) Stop-Images

In cases of location and crowd shots or facial close-ups, Mushi Pro employed a single, still image.By blocking or obscuring a character’s mouth, animators even utilize stop-images in scenes where characters speak. When cast among the rhythm of other shots, accompanied by music, sound-effects or narration, the image’s stillness goes unnoticed.

3) Pull cels

When a character or object crosses the frame at a fixed distance, animators found redrawing or fully-animating the image redundant.

Instead, animators move the single animation cel across the background. One cel does the work of many, saving time and money. Although the character or object appears to move, it is a still image. Once again animators create motion despite a lack of true, fluid animation.

4) Repetition

The technique of repetition relies on the reuse of cels or animated sequences within a single sequence. For example, a running character maybe reuse the same “running” cels several times while the background scrolls to create the illusion.

5) Sectioning

In sectioning, parts of a shot are animated while others are stop-images. In the picture above, Astro Boy’s body is a single, fixed cel. His arm is a separate image that the animators manipulate to create motion.

6) Cel Banking

Cel banking involves reusing the same animation cels and therefore same animated sequence (Steinberg). For example, a single Astro Boy flying sequence might be reused throughout the series’ production. When cel banked sequences are viewed in succession, the trick becomes obvious. But disguising their reuse with rhythm or different backgrounds creates the illusion of original movement despite repeated viewings.

6) Lip-Synching

Through lip-synching, mouth cels are animated over a static face. Audiences focus on the mouth and dialogue while ignoring the still image. Short shot length and rhythm hide the fact that only the mouth moves. Just as face cels could be banked and reused, animators used these mouth animations again and again.

8) Short Shot Length

Short shots and editing rhythm don’t give audiences time to realize images lack animation. Quick cuts create rhythm and hide static images, creating the illusion of animation.

9) Special Effects Layers

Special effects layers are cels placed over a still image to create onscreen effects without full-animation. Beads of sweat dripping down a character’s face, tears, rain, the sparkle of an eye, and the pulse of a vein all create the illusion of animation. Effects appear and move as a pull cel (sweat rolling down a face) or in repetition (falling rain).

10) Camera Movement

Camera techniques also help fake movement. Pulling away, zooming in, panning across a shot, or fading in or out creates a sensation of movement without actual animation. Animators couple the shots with narrative or other sounds to further distract viewers and complete the illusion.

Mushi Pro did not invent these techniques. The studio’s influences include animated television commercials, Hanna Barbera cartoons, and Japanese traditional theater. But Mushi Pro mixed old techniques with the new and created a stylized form of animation fit for television production.

The Virtues of Limited-Animation


Limited-animation succeeded by decreasing production time and costs – two factors vital for television broadcasting. Here’s how.

The reuse of animation cels lowered costs by decreasing the need for supplies like blank cels and paint. Animators spent less time drawing and coloring since limited-animation used fewer unique images. These factors allowed studios to meet television’s high paced production.

Studios based anime series off of preexisting manga which meant staff spent less time and effort on development since plots, story boards and dialogue had already been planned out. Basing anime on manga also provided pre-established exposure and fan-bases that original series lacked.

For a full-animation production, high level artists spent countless hours drawing and redrawing characters frame by frame. The costly process consumed time and resources. By utilizing techniques that saved time and money, limited-animation streamlined the animation process with industrial efficiency.

Limited-animation removed some of the artistry from the production process. Studios outsourced episodes and in-between animation cels to other studios or unskilled labor. The strategy allowed for faster, cheaper production. Although the practice has come under fire, outsourcing has been a common practice since the dawn of anime. In fact, Mushi Pro outsourced production of the original Astro Boy series, relying on Studio Zero and P Production to produce some episodes (Brubaker).

By ignoring the animation industry’s original goals, Mushi Pro’s Astro Boy proved animation could be produced for television. From its reuse of animation cels to its reliance on manga and outsourcing, limited-animation makes production faster, cheaper, and more efficient.

Limited-Animation’s Unlimited Style

Image from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Limited-animation’s time and cost cutting techniques lead, whether intentional or not, to anime’s definitive style. Marc Steinberg explains,

Unlike the full-animation of Disney, limited-animation relies on the minimization of movement, the extensive use of still images and unique rhythms of movement and immobility… We must think of limited-animation not in terms of immobility but rather in terms of the very mobility of the still image… a different kind of movement or dynamism.

Limited-animation’s lack of movement empowered static images; anime’s style struck audiences in ways full-animation never did:

Instead of (creating) fluid cinematic movement across the screen or within a world, limited-animation allows bodies to leap from field to field, from image to image, and even from medium to medium. (Lamarre)

In other words, limited-animation’s deliberate cuts and rhythm of images creates sensations absent from traditional fluid animation. While full-animation can be beautiful and breathtaking, limited-animation trills viewers with stylized editing, bold still-shots, cool poses and dramatic effects.

Image from Dragon Ball Z

Moreover, static images make characters recognizable by their silhouette or trademark poses. Limited-animation favors character and graphic design over actual animation.Thomas LaMarre explains,

As limited-animation deemphasized full-animation of characters, it increasingly stressed character design, and the degree of detail and the density of information became as important as line, implied depth, and implied mass… Limited-animation tends toward the production of “soulful bodies,” that is, bodies where spiritual, emotional, or psychological qualities appear inscribed on the surface.

Character details, like hair styles, outfits, and accessories, allow viewers to draw conclusions about characters with just a glance. The trend of character design and reliance on superficial imagery like cat ears and eye patches has fueled the moe (萌え, pronounced [mo.e]) boom.

Image from Astro Boy (live action)

Anime reproduces manga in ways live action cannot. Animation studios recreate a manga’s style, angles and at times exact panels for their animated versions. Marc Steinberg writes, “The same character, in the same drawing style and in the same poses, now inhabited manga and anime alike – not to mention the other media forms to which the character image migrated.”

Image from Bakemonogatari

Limited-animation’s inherent style created striking, recognizable and stylized imagery. Anime series recreated manga in ways live action and fully-animated productions did not. And so limited-animation’s limits became the style’s greatest strength!

Synergy: A Marketing Dream Come True

Image from Gintama

Limited-animation lends itself to “synergy” or a “product mix” between media and consumerism (Lomash). Television anime reaches a wide audience and creates new fan-bases for pre-established manga and characters. Fans take pride in supporting their beloved series through consumption. Anime’s market synergy crosses mediums including film, games, music, figures and accessories.

Anime’s still images offer potent marketing synergy. Character silhouettes warrant instant recognition and cheap reproduction (Harvey). Character poses, logos (like One Piece‘s logos) and other trademark characteristics (official straw hats) lend themselves to brand recognition. Steinberg states,

The dynamic immobility of the image and centrality of the character are also what have allowed anime to forge connections with toys, stickers, chocolates and other media-commodities, developing the media mix and its modes of consumption that are so essential to anime’s own commercial success – and survival.

Anime-inspired products allow characters to inhabit fans’ everyday lives. Steinberg recalled the success of Astro Boy sticker campaigns, “The Atomu image was suddenly able to accompany young fans in all areas of their lives, always there to remind them of their favorite character and his narrative world.”

By purchasing merchandise, fans gained ownership and grew closer to a series. Character goods gave added value to everyday objects. With the addition of a character image or logo, boring commodities like notebooks, pencils and toothbrushes become special. Applicable items like stickers and patches mean fans can customize and synergize anything (Steinberg)

Fans’ love for marketable characters proved more profitable than the love for intangible narratives and stories. Since the Astro Boy boom, popular anime characters have come to saturate Japan, inundating all facets of life.

Would “Anime” By Any Other Name Look as Sweet?

To some, anime’s popularity and marketing synergy pale in the face of “low quality” animation. Full-animation purists, like the old Toei Studios and Miyazaki, resisted the new wave of Japanese animation. Their features feature the full movement of characters. These studios took honor and pride in smooth, fluid animation. They sought to “produce the ‘illusion of life.” (Steinberg)

Astro Boy‘s popularity shocked them all. Astro Boy and its successors flaunted their lack of realism. Animation critic Joji Hayashi contends, “limited-animation does not try to hide from the spectator the fact that it is an unreal image.” (Steinberg) Although anime’s techniques create an illusion of motion, it does not try to emulate reality as full-animation does.

The debate continues today. Miyazaki and other full-animation purists connect animation to reality. In a recent interview Miyazaki bemoaned the current state of anime. Otaku are ruining the industry, he said, by creating stylized and therefore unrealistic character driven works.

But animation expert Roger Noake counters,

There is a danger in confusing full-animation with good animation. At its best it can be excellent. But if full-animation is used as the norm by which all other animation is judged, this can promote a cruel and narrow attitude (Hu).

Not all full-animation is “good.” At times full-animation looks so real it becomes surreal, even unnatural and awkward. In extreme cases like rotoscoping, a technique of tracing live film footage, the resulting movement is so fluid that it can actually be distracting.

Beauty Lies in the Perception of the Beholder

Image from Astro Boy

Although limited-animation may not better represent reality, it may better represent our perception of reality: the way humans observe, process and remember information.

Do we notice and process every detail in everyday life? Selective attention theorists say no. “Individuals have a tendency to orient themselves toward, or process information from only one part of the environment with the exclusion of other parts. “(Beneli)

In fact, human perception didn’t develop to create photographic representations of the surrounding world. Daniel Simmon explains,

The goal of vision isn’t to build a photograph…of the world in your mind… The goal of vision is to make sense of the meaning of the world around you.”

This quote suggests limited-animation’s lack of motion and details eases our understanding of characters, narratives, and themes. Although full-animation mimics reality in detail and fluidity, limited-animation tunes into human perception by focusing on the raw, concentrated meaning of the world around us; albeit fictitious, animated worlds.

The Grand Illusion

But does that even matter? Dismissing any animation does a disservice to the medium. Who says animation has to be fluid? Or realistic? Or entertaining? (Oh right, Miyazaki does.) Animation’s greatest strength lies in its lack of rules, versatility and in its ability to tackle an endless variety of subject matter.

When live-action faced technological limits, animation broke the shackles of filming reality. Unlike those films, animation made anything imaginable possible. And when full-animation’s limits hindered television production, Tezuka Osamu and Mushi Pro had the insight to create animation by eliminating animation. Their methods for producing cheaper anime at a fast pace became the industry standard and the striking style has gained a fanbase around the world.

Researching this article has proven a double-edged sword. Although I loved learning about the animation process, I will never view anime the same way again. The knowledge has highlighted moments of pull-cels, sectioning and reuse have received highlights. Instead of enjoying the illusion, I notice techniques.

Yet my newfound sensitivity makes little difference; anime’s striking style, great characters and cool narratives overcome all. Despite acknowledging the deception, I can’t help but enjoy and appreciate it. As Marc Steinberg says, a book, comic or DVD has almost no value as an object: “Value is in the consumption, the enjoyment.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


  • Allain, Paul. The Art of Stillness: The Theatre Practice of Tadashi Suzuki.
  • Beneli, Iris. Selective Attention and Arousal
  • Brubaker, Charles. The Lost Astro Boy Episode.
  • Harvey, Chris. Silhouette 64 Success Secrets
  • Hollingworth, Andrew. “Visual Memory for Natural Scenes: Evidence from Change Detection and Visual Search.” Visual Cognition 14.4-8 (2006): 781-807.
  • Hu, Tze-yue G. Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building.
  • LaMarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation.
  • Lomash, Sukul, and P. K. Mishra. Business Policy and Strategic Management.
  • Richie, Donald, and Paul Schrader. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos.
  • Say, Allen. Kamishibai Man.
  • Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan.
  • Wikipedians. Anime and Manga.

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Ashigaru – Japan’s Overlooked And Underappreciated Warriors Mon, 29 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Samurai get too much credit. Japan’s foot soldiers, the ashigaru, started as nothing more than farmers pulled from the fields to swell a daimyo’s army. Yet as time passed they became a professional fighting force included in the samurai caste. Stories like to depict Japanese wars filled with samurai sword duels. But the truth is that […]

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Samurai get too much credit. Japan’s foot soldiers, the ashigaru, started as nothing more than farmers pulled from the fields to swell a daimyo’s army. Yet as time passed they became a professional fighting force included in the samurai caste. Stories like to depict Japanese wars filled with samurai sword duels. But the truth is that samurai themselves lamented the rise of “ashigaru warfare” as the humble foot soldier stole their thunder.

The Origins of Ashigaru


Ashigaru were foot soldiers that made up an extremely large but historically silent part of ancient Japan’s armies. Understanding them, though, first requires a look into the origins of samurai. The image most of the world has actually comes from the final, dying days of the warrior class. It was only after Japan was unified and its civil wars ended that samurai became master swordsman. In the earliest days of Japanese warfare, samurai served primarily as mounted archers. The earliest accounts don’t even mention swords, but instead judge samurai by how well they could use a bow.

War on foot was primarily carried out by conscripted farmers. They were an untrained bunch, though, and the weapons they used were either farming tools or those looted off dead samurai. Not considered soldiers so much as fodder, they were neither outfitted nor paid. Compensation came in the form of loot, which turned out to be substantial. Being an ashigaru proved far more lucrative than being a simple farmer. This led to large numbers of vagabond fighters tagging along with samurai armies.

The Shady Years


Peasants quickly realized that fighting wars could make them wealthier than working the land, and many simply give up farming to become full time fighters. Another kind of ashigaru was born, one who prowled the edges of the battlefield joining whichever side seemed more likely to win. They were mercenaries, unreliable and unruly. Their rate of enlistment was as high as their rate of desertion. Many of them didn’t even know where they were or which side they were on. As long as it was the winning side and there was money to be made, it didn’t matter.

This unscrupulous brawler gave the ashigaru a shady image, which was cemented when they burned down the area that was to become Kyoto during the Onin War. They were branded as a dangerous, almost criminal element. Samurai tolerated them only because they were necessary for war. This is why we never hear about them except in the background of tales about samurai. Japanese writers were more interested in writing about the noble warrior class than peasant mercenaries.

But Japanese warfare was heating up and ashigaru had become proto-soldiers. The samurai were always a well-trained fighting force, but once large numbers of ashigaru mercenaries entered the fray, warfare intensified. The ashigaru were now semi-professional, and somewhat competent in a variety of weapons. One of which, the uchigatana, would help forge samurai into what they later became.

Early accounts had samurai battles being private duels that moved through a series of weapons and ended in hand to hand brawling. While these stories were certainly exaggerated, what we can clearly see was that they didn’t have any special preference for swords. Katana actually evolved from an ashigaru weapon called an uchigatana. It was essentially a cheap, disposable katana. Uchigatana were worn like the typical katana we know today, at the hip. So they could be both drawn and used to strike in the same motion.

Samurai, meanwhile, had been using a different type of sword called a tachi, which was worn on the back. Drawing and striking required two separate motions. As Japanese warfare began to become more fierce, samurai needed a faster sword. They quickly adopted the ashigaru uchigatana, which later evolved into “the soul of the samurai.”

An Upwardly Mobile Class


As daimyo’s campaigns became increasingly lengthy, victory didn’t favor the bold, but the rich. Wealthier rulers grew even more powerful because they had enough resources to keep men both at war and at home tilling the fields. The transformation of ashigaru from vagabond to professional soldier began when rulers started preferring full-time soldiers to seasonal ones..

As daimyo relied more and more on ashigaru, they began outfitting them with better weapons. Most notably, they were trained in the use of bows so they could meet an enemy’s calvary charge with a volley of fire. But now that bows were in the hands of commoners, the image of samurai as elite archers disappeared. It was much to the dismay of many samurai philosophers, who called the change of tactics “ashigaru warfare.”

Another weapon ashigaru had in common with the samurai was the spear. Samurai actually fought with spears long before they even touched their swords. They were actually told not to have a favored weapon, since they would have to rely on many throughout a battle. There is evidence that at times even the upper ranks of samurai fell to a skilled ashigaru spearman, who likely received a promotion to samurai upon presenting his master with their head. Ashigaru spear units were particularly prevalent due to the cheapness and effectiveness of the weapon.

Since ashigaru were using the same weapons as samurai, they started receiving some of the same extensive training. The fighting prowess of some ashigaru became so well regarded that the more elite members even served on daimyos’ personal guard. Their skills rapidly closed in on and at times even surpassed the samurai. One famed general boasted that he could make 10 ashigaru fight like 100 samurai. These ashigaru commanders were called “ashigaru taicho.” Despite having command over mere commoners, they were listed among the elite of Japan’s generals. Ashigaru came not only to be recognized as valuable assets of war, but the first step for commoners wanting to become full-fledged samurai.

Ashigaru and Guns


Photo by PHGCOM

The samurai hated guns. The rifles Japan had received from abroad offended Japan’s warrior class. The idea that anyone, even a lowly peasant, could kill a fully-trained samurai with only the twitch of a finger was an insult. Even the bow was preferred to guns since it took years of training to master. Guns, on the other hand, took only a few days to learn.

But daimyo saw the potential of guns, and were more concerned with securing victories then cultivating their servants’ honor. They quickly absorbed firearms into their armies. Given the samurai’s hatred of the “crude” weapon, when guns were introduced to Japan they were deemed peasant fare, and largely placed in the hands of the ashigaru.

To say firearms were the deciding factor in ending Japan’s seemingly endless civil wars would be an overstatement. But without them it isn’t likely Oda Nobunaga would have been able to put down his rivals to succeed in unifying Japan. They played a key role in his battle against rival daimyo Takeda Shingen’s feared calvary force. Their battle was a turning point for the ambitious, young Nobunaga’s quest for power. He had incorporated firearm-equipped ashigaru into his front lines, who met the mounted charge of Takeda’s samurai with a volley of rifle fire. It broke the Takeda charge, allowing Nobunaga’s forces to eventually win the battle, but also making rifle-wielding ashigaru a critical part of the fighting.

The Ashigaru Who Became Master of Japan


Photo by Victor Lee

The most notable ashigaru was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from humble peasantry to become the undisputed master of Japan. Hideyoshi was the adopted son of an ashigaru under Oda Nobunaga, the unifier of Japan. Though it’s somewhat disputed, it’s said that Hideyoshi was Nobunaga’s sandal bearer. Regardless of his exact position, though, he rose to become one of Nobunaga’s generals after a series of successes.

After his master’s death, Hideyoshi supported his grandson’s succession, though he was actually only grabbing power for himself. After a series of conflicts he eventually succeeded in putting down his rivals, and assumed Nobunaga’s place as the master of Japan. Although the system wasn’t designed to allow peasantry to climb to the very height of political and military power, it happened. Being an ashigaru was the one avenue that the son of a farmer could become the most powerful man in Japan. All it took was talent, a lot of ambition, and a little political scheming.

At this point, though, things changed for the ashigaru. Hideyoshi feared another commoner rising to take his place one day, so he kicked the ladder out from under any potential usurpers by freezing Japan’s class system. The result, though, was that any fighting man was now considered a samurai. Under Hideyoshi, ashigaru had officially joined the warrior class. Though there were different ranks that determined benefits like like pay and land ownership, as time elapsed, there was no distinguishing between ashigaru and higher ranks of samurai. The line separating them had grown too thin.

The Rise to Samurai


While samurai get all the glory, the ashigaru were fighting alongside them from the very beginning. Centuries of battle had transformed them from conscripted farmers into fighters of, at times, equal skill. Eventually, it came to the point it is now. When we say the word “samurai,” we don’t realize that we’re also saying “ashigaru.”

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The Epic Diplomacy of Winter Sonata in Japan Fri, 26 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of. Politically, […]

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It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of.

Politically, Japan and Korea are still at a stand-off, disputing island territories, bemoaning past colonization, and inflating their nationalistic tendencies. The recent China-Japan-Korea talks are attempting to put bandages on historical wounds. Many were surprised that the meeting was planned at all.

Yet, culture-wise, Korea is making waves all over Asia, especially Japan. Where traditional politics failed, Korean pop culture has succeeded. K-dramas have persuaded Japanese people to take an interest in Korean history and culture. This “Korean Wave” all started with a love story and an actor named Bae Yon Joon.

The Beginnings of the Korean Wave in Japan

Winter Sonata in Japan

After a devastating civil war and rough transition into democracy, South Korea wanted to boost its economy . Through various government-aided plans, Korea began developing its soft power in the forms of technology and pop culture. The country was very successful, exploding in popularity in all of Asia and even as far as Iran and France. Yet, Japan still wasn’t on board. There were two reasons for this:

  1. The aforementioned frostiness between the two.
  2. Japan was not interested in Asian pop culture. They aligned themselves more with Western pop culture and found their fix with American, French, and Italian imports. They just weren’t interested in the rest of Asia.

Japan didn’t want what Korea was selling and, conversely, Korea wasn’t selling. Winter Sonata, in particular, was actually aimed at the Filipino audience.

On top of this, Korea’s grudge against Japan gave them no incentive to market to them. Their wartime past led to Korea banning all forms of Japanese pop culture until 1998. They wouldn’t even allow children to use Japanese mechanical pencils.

Despite all this, Winter Sonata was released in Japan. And it took off big time. Yoon Suk Ho, director of the drama, was stunned. Japan had a nationwide crush on the male lead. Japanese women were suddenly convinced that Korean men make good boyfriends. Interest in Korean culture and history spiked.

It was so popular that it even got adapted into an anime, manga, and two separate musicals. The anime was voiced by the original cast (in Korean) with Japanese subtitles. Later a Japanese version voiced with Japanese actors was made. A musical adaptation toured throughout Japan in cities like Tokyo, Sapporo, and Osaka before heading to Korea. For the 10th year anniversary, a new musical was created by prominent Korean musical theatre stars and composers, renewing the Winter Sonata fervor.

Bae Yon Joon, the male lead and superhunk from Winter Sonata, created a $2.3 billion rise in business between Japan and South Korea. Tourism from Japan to Korea rose 40 percent. Even the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi said, “I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yon-sama.”  You know you’re popular when a PM wants to be like you.

The Winter Sonata Breakdown


To understand why Winter Sonata was a success in Japan, you have to know the plot. Japan took an interest in Korean culture and Korean family politics because of how vital family structure is to the Korean household. Japan has a similar family structure, a familiarity which helped the show succeed. Seeing Koreans place importance on values that Japanese people also hold dear highlighted the similarities between the two cultures.

Furthermore, the romance in Winter Sonata is chaste, with only 2 kisses (closed-mouth!) in the whole series. The drama centers around the idea of a first love. Many claim that Winter Sonata’s nostalgia factor led to its popularity with middle-aged Japanese housewives.

The Bae Yon Joon character was also pivotal for the show’s success. He was seen as manly, yet sensitive and caring. He had deep affection for his love interest and respect for his mother, but was also intelligent and successful in his career.

Below is a spoiler-laden synopsis for those who want to better understand the story’s effect on Japan without sitting through 20+ hours of show:

Jun-Sang (played by Bae Yon Joon), the main character, moves to a rural city in South Korea. He is a talented, introverted student and is welcomed by his classmates. His mother refuses to tell him about his biological father and he begins to to have an identity crisis.

Jun-Sang develops a friendship with his classmate Yu-Jin. The friendship soon turns into…romance! Suddenly, Jun-Sang gets into a terrible accident, suffering brain-damage and memory loss. His mother, upset by the pain her son has suffered, takes him to a psychologist who erases the memories of his painful childhood. She renames him Lee Min-Hyeong, telling everyone that Jun-Sang passed away. They move to the United States and Min-Hyeong becomes a successful architect.

Min-Hyeong’s work takes him back to Korea where Yu-Jin sees him on the street, thus igniting the feelings of her first love. Min-Hyeong has no memory of his life in Korea and therefore doesn’t recognize Yu-Jin. This sets up the rest of the drama and suspense, as Min-Hyeong recovers his childhood memories and falls back in love with Yu-Jin.

Japan, Post-Sonata


Photo by Peter Kaminski

After Winter Sonata, the Korean Wave, which was already going strong in the rest of Asia, finally took off in Japan. Interest in Korean restaurants boomed. Travel to Korea from Japan increased. Winter Sonata’s filming locations enjoyed special attention, of course. Korean language schools received record numbers of members. There was an estimated $4 billion increase in trade between Japan and Korea. More and more Korean celebrities became famous in Japan, a market that is usually off-limits to foreign talent.

Kpop groups like Big Band and 2NE1 gained superstar status. Dramas like Coffee Prince, Brilliant Legacy, and You’re Beautiful followed Winter Sonata’s legacy and became hit TV shows.

However, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, nationalism took root in Japan. Korean pop culture began disappearing from the mainstream. Although the programs and hype had fallen to a whisper, fans remained.  The Korean Wave became a niche interest amidst the nationalist movement. The Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute only further riled up the nationalism within Japan and Korea, thrusting politics upon celebrities and placing Korean idols in an awkward position. Either they distance themselves from the dispute and anger their Korean fans (and “betray” their roots) or side with Korea and Dokdo and no longer be marketable in Japan. Seriously, no win-win situation. World War II disputes (especially the heated topic of comfort women) flared up again, raising tempers and reigniting decades-old tension. Anti-Korean protests took place outside Fuji TV station and there was a decrease in the availability of Korean programming. The Korean wave seemed to slow to a mere trickle.

But after a few years lying low, the wave began to surge anew. In 2014, a Korean drama went primetime in Japan for the first time. Iris broke out of K-drama’s daytime TV status, and competed with primetime Japanese shows.

Just a few months ago on April 22, 2015, KCON The Korean Wave Fest was held in Japan with over 15,000 in attendance. This is the first time such a large celebration of Korean culture was held in Japan. The audience, primarily young people, celebrated Korean food, cosmetics, fashion, tech, and industry. Fans took part in mini dance competitions, copying idols’ iconic dance videos. Attendees learned Hangeul (the Korean writing system) to make signs for their favorite stars. Fans were even allowed to leave letters and notes in boxes for performers.

The Winter Sonata in Japan Continues


The cultural exchange between Japan and Korea has done wonders for the relationship between the two. A decade ago, Korea had just fully lifted the import of Japanese products. Now they are hosting a Korean culture convention in Japan with thousands of attendees. Healthy tourism, business, and entertainment trade continues to strengthen the soft power of their relationship.

The Korean Wave is not just about pop culture and trading fandoms. It influenced the politics and attitudes of entire countries. Most importantly it improved the relationship of two nations whose animosity seemed too deep to overcome. Such wonderfully positive things springing from middle-aged Japanese women and their crush on a hunky actor.

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What Is a Butsudan? And Why Are People Paying $630,000 for Them? Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan (仏壇) is for you. A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more […]

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Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan (仏壇) is for you.

A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more elaborate and elegant, designs.

The inside is what makes the butsudan so special. It houses a religious icon, namely a Buddhist statue or image. The name-tablets of one’s ancestors are harmoniously positioned alongside it. A plethora of religious items called butsugu are also arranged inside.

The butsudan is actually unique to Japan. No other Buddhist countries partake in this practice (except some Mongolians). Because there are so many temples in other Asian countries, people don’t need to make altars in their homes.

Wait a minute. There are a lot temples in Japan too! Why do Japanese people need an altar in their own homes? When did this custom start? Let’s uncover the mystery of the Japanese butsudan.

What Is a Butsudan?


The butsudan actually has its origins in ancient India. Practitioners of early Buddhism made a platforms of mud and venerated gods there. It wasn’t long before roofs were added to shelter the platforms from rain and wind. It’s said that this is the origin of temples.

Buddhism eventually made its way to Japan via China, where it took off.

On March 27, 685, the Japanese Emperor Tenmu issued an edict. It stated that each family in every country (pretty presumptious of him, eh?) must make a Buddhist altar that holds a statue of Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures and conduct prayer and memorial services in front of it.

The 27th day of each month was designated as “Butsudan Day” by the Zen-Nihon-Shuukyou-Yougu-Kyoudoukumiai (全日本宗教用具協同組合), which literally means “Japan’s Religious Utensil Dealer Cooperative.”

And that’s where butsudan came from. Right?


The current butsudan is not directly descended from the above-mentioned imperial edict. So how did the current butsudan come to be? There are actually two theories.

#1: The Nobility’s Private Buddha Statue Hall


Photo by 663Highland

Some of the nobility had their own 持仏堂 (jubitsudou). This a private place where a Buddha statue and ancestor tablets were kept. During the Nara period, the arrangement of items was set up in a small building outside of the house. However, it only began to be placed inside the house during the Heian period.

For example, Fujiwara-no-Yorimichi (藤原頼通, 992 – 1074) had Byoudouin-Hououdou (平等院鳳凰堂, Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple). Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1368-1394) had Rokuonji (鹿苑寺, Kinkakuji temple). These massive complexes acted as their own personal jibutsudou.

According to famed historian Takeda Choshu (竹田聴洲, 1916 – 1980), the above mentioned jibutsudou was  eventually made into the smaller butsuma (仏間), which means “a room for Buddha.” It was further reduced into what we now know to be a butsudan, so that it could be put indoors.

#2: Soul Shelf


Photo by kani kani

Tamadana (魂棚) literally means a soul shelf. In practice, it is an altar to greet spirits of ancestors and the recently deceased during Obon. While its shape varies by region and period, one example is a board affixed to four upright corner pillars made of bamboo or wood. With this image in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that people often used tea tables instead.

The father of native Japanese folklorists, Yanagida Kunio (柳田國男, 1875 – 1962), claims that the tamadana birthed the modern bustudan. It transitioned from its temporary Bon festival usage to a place of permanent installation and eventually became the butsudan.

Although there are two theories, the first theory is regarded as the more likely of the two.

The Spread of Butsudan


Photo by Joe Jones

In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1537), the eighth head of Hongan-ji temple was named Rennyo (蓮如).  He restored the Jodo Shinshu sect and gave his followers scrolls with the script namuamidabutsu (南無阿弥陀仏), which is an homage to the Buddha of infinite light and life. He encouraged them to enshrine the scrolls in their own butsudan.

When they made their own butsudan, they imitated what was found in the head temple of their respective sect and made it out of gold. This paved the way for the current kin-butsudan, which literally means golden butsudan.

The Jodo Shinshu sect set many standard rules regarding the butsudan. Even now, the sect says the principal image of a butsudan should be a hanging scroll acquired from the head temple of a family’s ancestral temple.

Eventually, butsudan spread outside the Jodo Shinshu sect as family mortuary tablets became common.

In the Edo period, the Shogunate created a system called terauke-seido (寺請制度 ) in which a Buddhist temples certified people as members of their temple. This new system forced individuals to choose a specific temple for their family and support it. To demonstrate membership to the temple, each family had to install a household butsudan for morning and evening worship. Additionally, they were asked to invite a family temple priest to hold memorial services to commemorate the anniversaries of their ancestors’ deaths.

This custom became widespread among commoners and the butsudan became an integral part of Japanese family life.

What Goes in a Butsudan


The arrangement and types of items in and around the butsudan vary depending on sect and the size of butsudan.

A butsudan usually has doors with an embellishment of a temple gate and three stairs. The highest stair is called shumidan (須弥壇) and is reserved for the most important butsudan item, specifically a Buddha statue. The area above shumidan is called kyuuden (宮殿) and is considered the holy place. It is the area within the butsudan that must be occupied by the Buddha statue, which tipically rests on the shumidan. Alternatively there could be an image of Buddha placed on the back wall of the butsudan, occupying the holy place.

An accompanying statue or image of Buddha is placed on one side of the butsudan and the founder of the respective sect is placed on the other side. There is a vast array of items (butsugu) that could be placed in the butsudan. But it would take up a lot of space in this article, so I’ll skip those today.

What Doesn’t Go in a Butsudan


While there are many things inside a butsudan, there are also some things that don’t belong.

“Officially,” photographs should not be placed inside. Neither should certificates, trophies, or lottery tickets because a butsudan is not a place to expect benefits. Despite this, many people put these things in their butsudan. In fact, my family in Japan places stuff like this in their butsudan all the time.

I once asked my mom why we place things like that in our butsudan, and she said it was to let our ancestors know how we are doing. Although I’m not sure if my ancestors can actually see that stuff, I guess it can’t be completely wrong since the butsudan is used to pray to your ancestors anyway.

How Much Does a Butsudan Cost?


Photo by Gnsin

According to research conducted by いい仏壇.com in June, 2011, most people pay between 100,000 to 500,000 yen for their butsudan (about US $1,000 – $5,000). While not the majority, a staggering 20% people paid over 500,000 yen for theirs. Even more impressive is that 1.2% of the people paid over 2,000,000 yen.

Niconico Douga’s Butsudan Incident


Considering only one percent of people pay more than 2 million yen for a butsudan, 63 million yen seems completely ludicrous!

Someone on Niconico Douga, a Japanese video sharing website, bought a butsudan for 63,000,000 yen (about $630,000)!

This incident occurred on August 7, 2008. It went for a price never before seen. Before this, the product which made the most money on the Niconico Douga online market was Hatsune Miku vocaloid software which sold for 28,900,000 yen. Of course, this is an aggregated price of everyone who ever bought that product, so naturally it would be that high.

The butsudan not only broke the record and doubled that number, it did it with one sale. Everyone thought that the overpriced butsudan was a joke. More surprisingly, the exact same butsudan was sold again the next day for the same price!  This, of course, became huge news.

Niconico market only counted it as a sale after the product was shipped. This was to make sure it wasn’t a fake order. Letting the time lapse on the site’s cancelation/shipping agreement makes this a possibility.

Once it was shipped, the sale of those two butsudans was finalized.

On August 11, one more was sold, as well as a 62,000,000 yen butsudan. On August 15, another one was sold. The world never ceases to amaze.

However, on August 18, the butsudan shop which originally posted the butsudan in question, announced they filed a police report about fake orders. They wanted to identify the criminal and demand compensation. The following day, two more 63,000,000 yen butsudan were sold. The butsudan posting was deleted on August, 24th. It seems likely that they could have all been fake orders, but nobody knows if every single one was. It’s possible that some of them were jokes and others, likely fewer, were real. At any rate, even if one was real, buying such an expensive item online is pretty ridiculous.

Best Place to Buy Butsudan?


No matter the price of the butsudan, buying one online is pretty crazy. We’re talking artisan craftsmanship here. These things are gorgeous and ornate. Not something you really want shipped in a box.

There are lots of places to buy butsudan in Japan. But probably the most unique is in Kanagawa. You can buy butsudan in a drive-thru. No, マクド didn’t start selling butsudan. This is a real place where you can shop for butsudan from your car.

I went there to explore this unique butsudanery (not a real word, but it sounds nice). Check out the travel post later this week. Until then…

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • 国史大辞典編集委員会 『国史大辞典』第7巻、吉川弘文館、1986年
  • 日本歴史大辞典編集委員会 『日本歴史大辞典』第5巻、河出書房新社、1985年
  • 「お仏壇とは」(鎌倉新書サイト)
  • いい仏壇.com
  • ニコニコ大百科
  • Niconico Market Listings


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Emoji – Japan’s Talking Pictures Thu, 18 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Confession: I am an emoji hipster. Before your mom was sending you grinning emoji or that cute boy was texting you heart-eyes emoji, my study abroad friends and I were using our 2009-era SoftBank phones to send each other long, complicated rows of emoji, most of which involved the poop emoji. (As one does.) But […]

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Confession: I am an emoji hipster. Before your mom was sending you grinning emoji or that cute boy was texting you heart-eyes emoji, my study abroad friends and I were using our 2009-era SoftBank phones to send each other long, complicated rows of emoji, most of which involved the poop emoji. (As one does.)

But emoji aren’t just for anyone with a smartphone these days. Moby Dick has been translated into emoji. The March 2015 issue of Wired featured emoji on the cover. Coca-Cola has put emoji in their URLs as part of an advertising campaign. Emoji are even being presented in court cases as evidence. Earlier this year, a man was charged with running an online black-market. During the trial, his lawyer argued that the emoji in his client’s text messages were legitimate pieces of evidence. The judge agreed.

Obviously, emoji have arrived and people like me get to be dreadful snoots about it. Though emoji have come from Japan visually intact, the cultural meanings behind them have been lost or given new, Western meanings. So before I begin writing this entire article using emoji alone (don’t tempt me), let’s look back to find patient zero. Let’s see if we can shine a spotlight on the sorta secret history of emoji. (And explain why Drake’s “praying hands/high-five” emoji tattoo doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.)

Pre-Emoji Emoji

smiley emoji koamoji emoticon

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you’re familiar with kaomoji (顔文字), which literally means “face letters.” (Like how emoji or 絵文字 can be translated as “picture letters.”)

Kaomoji and the West’s emoticons primarily sprung out of a need to more clearly communicate emotional intent on early web forums and message boards. As any denizen of the internet knows, a winky face can mean the difference between a sarcastic quip and a straight-faced insult.

Emoticons first hit the scene on Sept. 19, 1982 thanks to Scott E. Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He suggested using :-) as a “joke marker” after someone posted a fake mercury spill message and other message board users mistakenly thought it was serious. The rest is, as they say, history. ;)

The origin of kaomoji is much murkier, though the general consensus seems to be that the first kaomoji (^_^) appeared a few years later in 1986 on a Japanese forum. Unlike emoticons, kaomoji can be seen as an extension of Japan’s kawaii or cute culture, and are heavily influenced by manga and anime, focusing more on the eyes than the mouth and incorporating things like apostrophized sweat drops and slash-marked blushing.

(Psst – And if you want to bone up on your kaomoji and impress or irritate your friends, Tofugu has a disturbingly comprehensive kaomoji guide!)

Made in Japan


Photo by Mytho88

Although Japan’s big cellphone companies, like Docomo and SoftBank, are currently facing some stiff competition from Apple and other Western companies, back in the ’90s, business was booming and Japan was at the forefront of cellphone technology. Internet access and large color screens were already standard features long before Apple got into the mobile phone game. As cellphone usage exploded in Japan, kaomoji naturally made the jump, too. Just like on message boards in days of old, kaomoji were used to garnish conversation and make emotional intent more obvious and clear. This is, of course, is especially important in a language like Japanese, where so much meaning is gleaned from context rather than exactly what’s being said.

In 1998, Shigetaka Kurita was part of the Docomo team working on i-mode. i-mode would become Japan’s most widespread mobile Internet platform and push the nation’s cell phone tech ahead of the rest of the world. Docomo had previously introduced the idea of emoji – sort of.

In the mid-90s, Docomo had added a heart symbol to its pagers. The favorable reaction from high school-aged customers didn’t go unnoticed. Sure, people could text each other kaomoji with their cellphones. But Kurita figured there had to be a simpler, more straightforward way to express emotion via text message.

Not being a designer (yet being told to design the emoji anyway), Kurita looked to manga for inspiration. Manga artists use sweat drops, waterfalls of tears, and heart eyes to make their characters’ emotions larger than life. Kurita used these same cues when creating the first set of emoji (176 12×12-pixel characters). Kurita thought Docomo’s various cellphone manufacturers might polish up his emoji designs. Instead they ended up using his work as-is, which Kurita admits isn’t the most sveltely designed. But it didn’t matter. Emoji took off. 

Gaining a Foothold


Photo by wackystuff

There was just one problem (for Docomo, at least). They couldn’t copyright Kurita’s emoji set, because each emoji was such a small amount of pixels. Competitors like J-Phone (which later became SoftBank) took the concept of emoji and ran with it, adding more and more emoji to their products. But Docomo emojis only worked on Docomo phones and J-Phone emojis only worked on J-Phone… phones. If a Docomo user tried to send a smiling cat emoji to a J-Phone user, that user would only see a hot mess.

Still, emoji were incredibly popular, unseating their more complex kaomoji cousins. It didn’t take long for emoji to start sneaking into other text spaces, like MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger (remember those?). As Apple turned to the Japanese market, they wisely gave the people what they wanted with their iOS 2.2 update in 2008: emoji.

The Journey West


Photo by TaylorHerring

Japanese iPhone users finally had their emoji. But if you were anywhere else in the world or weren’t sure how to mess around with your iPhone settings, no emoji for you. Still, the floodgates had already opened and there was no going back. Especially once emoji were incorporated into the Unicode Consortium in 2010.

Unicode is an international encoding standard for displaying characters on phones and computers. It’s basically the Esperanto of computing languages and scripts. By bringing emoji into the fold, Docomo and J-Phone users could start exchanging emoji. Even better, once emoji were added to Unicode, Apple introduced emoji as a standard international keyboard option a year later, giving emoji its true international debut.

There’s only one person who wasn’t a fan: Scott Fahlman, the guy who invented emoticons. He stands by his opinion that emoji are ugly and undermine using one’s own creativity to express themselves online. (Personally, I think he’s just jealous there’s no poop emoticon.)

Decoding Emoji 


Even though emoji’s code has been universalized, so that they can be unleashed indiscriminately across platforms, the meaning behind each emoji doesn’t always make the jump as successfully. Because the emoji we all know and love were intended for a Japanese audience, things can get a little lost in translation.

There are a ton of Japanese food emoji, like:

  • 🍡 Dango

  • 🍱 Bento

Their meanings are fairly obvious, but some are a tad subtler.

  • 🙆 Like the girl holding her hands above her head? Typically, it’s used to denote excitement or awe (or ballet, I suppose). But in Japan, making a circle with your arms means “OK” or “correct.”

Then there are the emoji whose slightly more scandalous meanings have been lost entirely.

  • 👯 Those dancing girls in black leotards that are usually used as a shorthand for “best friends” are actually Japan’s version of Playboy bunnies.

  • 🏩 I nearly choked the first time someone sent me the love hotel emoji. They must have thought it was just another emoji for hospital or “get well soon.”

Where we don’t see meaning, we inevitably make our own.

  • 💁 The girl holding her palm up can mean, “how may I help you?” in one culture. In another it’s a sassy hair flip.

  • 🙏 Two palms pressed together can mean a prayer to the Almighty or begging someone’s forgiveness. (Though an argument could be made that those two interpretations are oddly similar.) Some even see it as a high-five.

Emoji’s original purpose may have been to clear up miscommunication. But culture is its own language and it’s not always a universal one.

Making Faces


Photo by Fred Benenson

Emoji clearly aren’t going away any time soon. More have been recently added to the iPhone catalogue, mostly to give users more racial options when it comes to their “girl getting haircut” and “old lady” emoji. But in the same way that message board users in Japan adapted the West’s emoticons into more culturally relevant (and let’s face it, way cuter) kaomoji, Western smartphone users have taken emoji and grafted on their own cultural meanings.

Shigetaka Kurita probably never imagined or intended emoji to be used in a mosaic-style New Yorker cover. Or for the word “emoji” to enter the Oxford Dictionary. Or for Twitter users to reimagine famous works of art as lines of emoji. But people are always going to bring their own culture and creativity to the table, making emoji more than the sum of their pixels. And that’s pretty 👍.

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Go to (Japanese) Hells! Wed, 17 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 If someone tells you to go to hell, book your flight to Japan. There are plenty of hells to chose from! Different religious and folklore traditions combined with Japan’s natural volcanic activity have created some fascinating, if terrifying, visions of the afterlife. Let’s take a look, if you’re brave enough. Shinto Hell Photo by Scott […]

The post Go to (Japanese) Hells! appeared first on Tofugu.

If someone tells you to go to hell, book your flight to Japan. There are plenty of hells to chose from! Different religious and folklore traditions combined with Japan’s natural volcanic activity have created some fascinating, if terrifying, visions of the afterlife. Let’s take a look, if you’re brave enough.

Shinto Hell


Photo by Scott Lin

Let’s start our tour of Japanese hells with the hell of Japan’s native Shinto religion. 黄泉の国 Yomi-no-Kuni is the Shinto underworld as described in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest chronicle and source for many Shinto beliefs across the centuries. Yomi-no-Kuni, sometimes called simply Yomi, is a place that has more in common with the Ancient Greek or Roman ideas of the afterlife than Christian or Buddhist hells. Early translations of the Kojiki in English used the word “Hades” for Yomi-no-Kuni. 黄泉 Yomi literally means ‘yellow springs’ and the characters are also used in China to describe Huángquán, the Chinese realm of the dead. The characters 黄泉 are also used in some Japanese Christian texts to refer to Christian hell.

Shinto hell isn’t a very hellish hell. There’s no fire, or torture. Yomi is not very well defined beyond being a shadowy land of the dead, but it is thought to be under the ground as it is the third in a triad of realms described in the Kojiki. Takamahara 高天原 was a heavenly realm, located in the sky and Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni 葦原の中つ国 was located on earth. Yomi-no-Kuni was ruled over by Izanami, one of the creator gods of Japanese mythology.

The main tale involving Yomi in the Kojiki is about Izanagi, the other creator god trying to rescue Izanami after her death. Izanagi went to Yomi to find his counterpart goddess Izanami, who had died. At first she hid from him, telling him that she could not leave because she had eaten the food of the underworld (anyone with familiar with Greek mythology will see the parallels with Persephone here.) Izanagi persisted and wouldn’t leave Izanami. She told him she would ask to leave, but that he must not look at her.

Izanagi promised not to, but quickly broke his promise while she was sleeping. He set his comb on fire (as one does) to see through the shadows of Yomi. When he saw Izanami’s rotting, maggot-infested flesh he flipped out and ran away from Izanami and Yomi. Izanami woke up and was not impressed by her consort’s reaction and broken promise. She sent Yomotsu-shikome 黄泉醜女, the hags of the underworld, to chase him. When Izanagi escaped the hags, Izanami also sent Raijin, Shinto gods of thunder after him before joining in the chase herself.

Despite her efforts, Izanagi escaped from Yomi-no-Kuni and sealed up the entrance with a boulder. Izanami was pretty ticked off to say the least and she shouted from behind the boulder that she would end the life of 1000 people every day as long as Izanagi stayed away from her. Izanagi replied that he would give life to 150,000 people everyday. He then declared Yomi-no-Kuni a defiled and unpure land. This fits in with the general Shinto belief that anything connected with death is unclean and impure – for instance, many people have Shinto weddings, but Buddhist funerals. Shinto prefers to deal with life. Buddishm on the other hand…

Buddhist Hell


Photo by Andrew

地獄 Jigoku, Buddhist hell, is a lot more hellish than Shinto hell. It’s got your demons and your fire and all the punishment you might expect. When I first came across the idea of Buddhist hell, I was surprised. I had always thought of Buddhism as a peaceful religion that believed in reincarnation after death. We have to keep in mind that there are a lot of different Buddhist sects in Japan and across the world. Some of them teach that there is a sliding scale of reincarnation. If you live a good life, you will be reincarnated into a better life until you reach Nirvana. However, there’s the other end of the scale too: If you live a life that is not worthy of reincarnation, you might find yourself in one of the Buddhist hells.

Buddhist hells are depicted in jigoku-zōshi 地獄草紙, hell scrolls. If you want to see some examples, you can find them in the Tokyo National Museum and the Nara National Museum. These scrolls were made in the 12th Century, towards the end of the Heian period. They depict through pictures and writing the inventively unpleasant hells awaiting you after death if you don’t live a good Buddhist life. On the Nara scroll, apart from the eight main hells, there are also sixteen lesser hells; The Black Sand Cloud, Excrement, The Five Prongs, Starvation, Searing Thirst, Pus and Blood, The Single Bronze Cauldron, Many Bronze Cauldrons, The Iron Mortar, Measures, The Flaming Cock, The River of Ashes, The Grinder, Sword Leaves, Foxes and Wolves, and Freezing Ice. The names tell you exactly what you are getting. For example, the hell of The Flaming Cock has a giant fire breathing chicken. Very straightforward, if terrifying.

flaming hell cock

So although Jigoku is considered one location, it is subdivided into many different hells. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many hells there are, with some counts putting the number at 64,000 and others at eight. The scrolls seem to generally agree on eight (sometimes sixteen – eight hot, eight cold) major hells, but these can be subdivided into more specific hells. The Tokyo scroll, for example, depicts four subdivisions of the major Hell of Cloud, Fire, and Mist. In Pure Land Buddhism the eight main hells are:

1. Toukatsu Jigoku – The Reviving Hell
2. Kokujou Jigoku – The Hell of Black Rope
3. Shugou Jigoku – The Crushing Hell
4. Kyoukan Jigoku – The Screaming Hell
5. Dai-kyoukan Jigoku – The Hell of Great Screaming (and you thought the screaming hell was bad.)
6. Jounetsu Jigoku – The Burning Hell
7. Dai-jounetsu Jigoku – The Great Burning Hell
8. Mugen Jigoku – The Hell of Unending Suffering

Different hells are reserved for different crimes. So if you commit murder (including the murder of animals) then you’ll end up in the Reviving Hell where Oni will beat you to death, only for you to be revived and killed all over again. (And you though the reviving hell sounded like a good one.) But if you are a murderer and a lecher and an alcoholic, you’ll be sent to the Screaming Hell to be roasted and boiled.

By this point you’re probably losing track of all the hells. And I haven’t even touched on Meido, the afterlife stage that comes before hell, that will have to wait for another time. Don’t worry though, the hells have a well organised bureaucracy to make sure you end up exactly where you belong.

Hellish bureaucracy


Photo by Stuart Rankin

Let’s start at the top with the King of Hell. King Enma 閻魔王 rules over the Buddhist hells. He is the Japanese counterpart of Yama, the King of Hell found in sects of Buddhism across East Asia, including China. He was originally an import from Hindu beliefs. Enma is ingrained in Japanese culture, with parents even telling their children 嘘をつけばと閻魔さまに舌を抜かれる。(If you lie, Lord Enma will pull out your tongue.)

King Enma doesn’t have time to look after all those hells personally, so he delegates. This belief was heavily influenced by Chinese Buddhism’s tradition of the Ten Courts of Hell, where each court was presided over by a different King. As I mentioned before, ending up in Jigoku was not an eternal damnation. These courts are how you can escape hell and return to the cycle of reincarnation.

The trials are held after a certain length of time has passed after death and are each presided over by a different king. After 100 days, you are tried by King Byoudou. If you fail this trail, your next chance comes one year after you died, in the court of King Toshi. If you fail again, then you have to wait until the two year mark, then again for the six year anniversary of your death, and then the twelfth anniversary if you fail that trial. The final trial occurs 32 years after you died.

At this point you might be asking what you can do to speed your exit from hell. Well, it depends on a combination of your own conduct and repentance and the prayers of your family. Memorial services are sometimes held on each of these anniversary dates to help a deceased family member in their trails. You can read more about these memorial services in Tofugu’s recent interview with a Buddhist monk.



Photo by Kinden Kuo

With all the kings busy in court, those sinners won’t torture themselves. That’s where Oni 鬼 come in to do the dirty work.

Oni is often translated as demon, and the word is a pretty good fit. Oni do the hands-on jobs in hell, whether it’s tearing people with their claws, filling a sinner’s stomach with metal balls, or roasting people over pits of fire. Despite these rather terrible actions, oni have a more ambiguous place in Japanese culture than you might imagine. They also appear in folklore, in stories such as Momotaro, where they are less hellish and more like ogres or trolls. They are easily recognisable by their horns, spiked clubs, and wild hair, and while they come in all different colours, the most common are red and blue, often in a pair. While these oni are almost always cast as the bad guys, they aren’t the terrifying demons from Buddhist hells scrolls. Oni appear in lots of media meant for children. They also lend their name to the Japanese version of hide-and-seek, 隠れ鬼 kakure oni.


One of the most common traditions that features oni is mamemaki at Setsubun. Setsubun 節分 is the festival of the changing seasons in Spring and mamemaki began in the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573). Originally it was the job of the toshiotoko 年男, a male member of the family born in the corresponding zodiac year, to throw roasted soybeans, called 福豆 fukumame (lucky beans) outside the house. These days the tradition continues with kids throwing soybeans (or sometimes chocolates) and shouting “鬼は外! 福は内!” Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! “Demons get out! Luck come in!” The tradition often involves an adult dressing up in an oni mask and lots of screaming kindergarteners. The masks are usually pretty cute and the Setsubun oni are far from the Jigoku oni in terms of terror.

Hell on Earth


Photo by Alkun(岸蓮)

Hells have been a fertile ground for Japanese art for a long time and they are certainly not restricted only to religious works. The Hell Scrolls themselves are beautiful if disturbing pieces of art. Author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote a story called Hell Screen 地獄変 about a painter who tortures his apprentices so that he can complete a masterful depiction of hell based on their suffering.

The 1960 movie Jigoku (English Title: The Sinners in Hell) was unique among horror films of its time due to its graphic and gory depictions of hell. Tales of murder, adultery, revenge and deceit are all twisted together and pretty much the whole cast gets their comeuppance. The film was the last one made by Shintoho Studio and critics of the time joked that the movie killed the studio and took it to hell.

Buddhist hell continues to influence Japanese art, albeit often in a lighter mood these days. Hōzuki no Reitetsu 鬼灯の冷徹 is a manga and anime about a demon working for Enma the King of Hell. It’s a comedy that plays on many specific Japanese tropes, such as the story of Momotaro. Central to the plot is the different levels of hell and the bureaucracy required to keep them all running smoothly. The focus is firmly on the demons, not the sinners. After reading this article you might not think hell is much of a laughing matter, but if you can get through the thick Japanese cultural references, Hōzuki no Reitetsu is pretty funny.

You can find references to Shinto hell in pop-culture too. The gateway between Yomi and our world, yomotsu hirasaka, gives its name to a location in the video game Persona 4 and a ninja technique in Naruto. The manga Kamisama Hajimemashita uses Yomi-No-Kuni as a setting in a way that is closer to its traditional depiction as an underworld.

Go to Hell(s)

hell yes

If you want to visit hells in Japan, you’re in luck! You have a quite a few choices. It might seem strange to think of hell as a tourist destinations, but they are very popular. Most are centred around volcanic activity, and when you see boiling mud, geysers and the extraordinary colours of the rocks, it’s easy to see why people think these places are hellish.



One of the most famous hell sights is Beppu in Ōita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. While the Beppu hells are mostly a tourist attraction, complete with Japanese stamp rally and rather depressing small zoos, they do have religious significance for some visitors.

Human beings need to experience hell in this life at least once, to empty themselves of superfluous accumulations, to reflect on their past conduct, and to contemplate the path ahead. For this important purpose, I highly recommend a visit to Beppu to witness the many aspects of hell. Only those who have been through hell and lived to recount the experience, are worthy to be called real human beings. –Writer and Buddhist priest Kon Toukou

If you see Beppu as hell on earth, then a visit there would make you think twice about your conduct in this life. The hot springs of the Beppu hells are far hotter than most hot springs you can visit in Japan. If you mistook them for onsen hot springs and tried to take a bath, you would have a very bad time.

I can’t really recommend the hells at Beppu to visitors, not because of the hells themselves, but because of the industry surrounding them. If you don’t like seeing sad animals in cages, give Beppu’s hells a miss, or at least the ones with animals.



Photo by I’m J.C

I can however, recommend another hell – Noboribetsu 登別. Noboribetsu is located in Hokkaido, about an hour from Sapporo by train. It’s claim to hellishness lies in the Jigokudani, or Hell Valley. This area of blasted volcanic activity, with steam and sulphurous smells rising from the rock, certainly looks hellish. It is one of the Japanese Ministry of Environment’s top 100 fragrant landscapes, even though the fragrance isn’t all that pleasant! The real attraction is the town of Noboribetsu-onsen, 登別温泉. It is one of Japan’s top hot spring resorts and the largest one in Hokkaido. You can safely skip the bear park which is located someway out of town. As well as having numerous onsen and hotels, Noboribetsu is also relentlessly hell and oni themed. There are 11 oni statues in Noboribetsu, including the Business Demon, the Romance Demon, and the Train Station Welcome Demon.

train station demon

Photo by 蔡阿喵

The shops in Noboribetsu sell oni in every imaginable form. The town even has a unique way of celebrating Setsubun and mamemaki. Instead of chanting, “Oni wa soto!” (Demon’s get out!) the residents chant “Oni wa uchi!” (Demons come in!) because it is thanks to oni and their hellish association that the town prospers. Another highlight is the shrine to King Enma. Depending on what time you visit, he will either show you his kindly or his angry face.

If you want the full hell experience, go for the Jigoku Matsuri, or Hell Festival, which is held in late August. All the fun of a Japanese festival, but with added oni! The festival celebrates the opening of the door to hell, which is supposedly located in Noboribetsu. You might not think this would be a cause for celebration, but it’s no stranger than many of Japan’s other festivals!

Animatronic Hell


Photo by Verity Lane

The town of Kurume in Kyushu is largely unremarkable, apart from the fact it has a giant 62 meter tall statue of Kanon towering over it. The Jibo Kanon statue is inside the Naritasan temple grounds. It is a place of pilgrimage for women who have lost or aborted babies. It’s not just impressive to look at, but you can also go inside. If you climb up inside the white concrete statue you will find images depicting Buddha interceding on the behalf of unborn children until at the top there is a shrine showing them in heaven. However, if you go down into the basement, you’ll find animatronic hell. Here is the entrance:

entrance to hell

Photo by Verity Lane

You can get an idea of what’s coming from the charming skull and bones decor. Punishments described in the hell scrolls are recreated in moving models of demons torturing people. As you walk through they are activated and begin their grisly actions. Photography is not allowed inside, but I’m not sure I’d want to share the images with you anyway. When I visited, a family was there at the same time. At first the little boy was excited to go in, but by the end he was crying and screaming that he wanted to leave.

After your walk through animatronic hell, you emerge into a scene of Buddha surrounded by peaceful animals in a garden. The message is clear: be a good Buddhist or you’ll end up in hell. This experience changed my view of Buddhism in Japan and made me want to investigate the ideas behind Buddhist hell. If you are in the area, I think it’s worth a visit, but it’s not for those who are easily creeped out by demonic mannequins.

Yomotsu hirasaka


If you want to visit Shinto hell, Yomi-No-Kuni, you’ll have to take a trip to what used be called Izumo Province, but is now the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture. The entrance, known as Yomotsu hirasaka 黄泉津平坂, is found there, but you won’t be able to get in. Remember how Izanagi sealed it with a huge boulder? Well that pretty much cut off Yomi-no-Kuni as a pre-deceased tourist destination. You can still visit the Shinto Shrine there though. It is a gloomy place, but that seems appropriate.

In Japan you can find hells to suit all kinds of tastes, from comedies and cute oni to geological and artistic marvels that make you reconsider your life. I think Japanese hell is worth a visit, though hopefully just as a day trip.

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