Tofugu » History http://www.tofugu.com A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Mon, 24 Nov 2014 17:00:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 Rascal’s Secret Plan: the Raccoon Invasion of Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2014/11/21/rascals-secret-plan-raccoon-invasion-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/11/21/rascals-secret-plan-raccoon-invasion-japan/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 17:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=45248 Ah, mother nature. Forests and hills, rivers and oceans, blossoms and bees. Truly, the beauties of the natural world are essential to a happy life. Of course, mother nature has another, harsher side. Storms, droughts, and floods can be deadly. And the world is full of creatures that bite, claw, sting, and poison. Many harmful […]

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Ah, mother nature. Forests and hills, rivers and oceans, blossoms and bees. Truly, the beauties of the natural world are essential to a happy life.

Of course, mother nature has another, harsher side. Storms, droughts, and floods can be deadly. And the world is full of creatures that bite, claw, sting, and poison.

Many harmful natural phenomena can’t be helped; we must simply deal with them as best we can. But then there are problems we humans bring upon ourselves. Messing around with nature has gotten us into big trouble more than once.

Case in point: Raccoons… in Japan.

But they’re so cute!

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

It’s true, they are… and as we shall see, that’s how they ended up in Japan. But first, a bit of an introduction.

There are three species of raccoon in the genus Procyon, but the most well-known and numerous is Procyon lotor, also called the common Raccoon or North American raccoon. That’s what’s usually meant when “raccoon” is used on its own, and that’s the one we’ll be talking about here. In Japanese, raccoons are known as araiguma. (Note that the raccoon dog, or tanuki, is a completely different and indigenous creature of Japan.)

Raccoons are a short-legged, omnivorous mammal of medium size, typically in the 10-20 pound range. Native to most of North America, raccoons have rough coats (colored in various mixtures of grey, brown, and/or black), erect ears, and pointy muzzles. Most distinctively, the raccoon has a dark “mask” over its eyes, as well as dark rings around its tail.

In short, a raccoon looks like this:

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by jmwests

Pretty darn cute. And the cuteness meter rises even higher when they manipulate things with their dexterous front paws, which feature long, furless “fingers.”  The manual dexterity and overall cleverness of the raccoon helps to explain why people might think they would make good pets.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by alasam

Raccoons become dormant in cold weather, for periods of days or months, depending on how cold it gets in whatever region they happen to live. Their diet is quite diverse, encompassing worms, insects, nuts, berries, amphibians, fish, and birds eggs. Raccoons are equally open to catching live prey or scavenging – with the latter option including human refuse.

And therein lies a major problem (from the human perspective, at least). Raccoons absolutely thrive in human settlements. Agile, (relatively) small, intelligent, bold, willing to dine on pretty much anything edible… and willing to live alongside human beings. (Apparently they aren’t too picky about the company they keep.)

Raccoons tear open garbage and knock over compost bins. They damage buildings and gardens. They carry diseases, including rabies and distemper. They even, on rare occasions, attack people and their pets.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by stevehdc

Obviously, none of this is their fault…they’re just being their raccoony selves. But humans often don’t see it that way.

The Invasion

 

So raccoons are cute, but they can also be troublesome neighbors. That’s just dealing with nature, right? After all, raccoons were around long before human beings.

Well, yes… in North America. But elsewhere? Raccoons are indeed found in a few other places, namely Europe (especially Germany), the Caucasus region, and (you guessed it!)…Japan.

The red area on the above map represents the raccoon’s native range. In the blue areas, raccoons are what is known as an “invasive species”. This term denotes an organism that, due to human activity, inhabits a region to which it is not indigenous. “Invasive” also implies that the species has some kind of harmful effect (or at least a major transformative effect) on local ecology; the term “introduced species” is sometimes used to avoid this implication.

Ever since we humans evolved, we’ve been zipping all over the world, with plenty of critters hitching a ride as we go. Sometimes we even bring them along on purpose, as crops, farm animals, or pets. The vast majority of them don’t become invasive. Most species, when introduced to foreign conditions, simply fail to survive in an environment for which they haven’t evolved. A few, however, manage to hang on and consistently reproduce. Some even find themselves at a sudden advantage, often due to lack of natural predators.

An infamous example is the brown rat, originating in China and carried across the world, primarily by seafaring Europeans. The effect was often devastating, notably on bird populations in regions where land predators were hitherto absent, such as remote islands. Indeed, remote islands seem to have experienced the brunt of invasive-species carnage, given their sheer evolutionary isolation.

brown rat

The most famous victim of species invasion may be Australia, whose vegetation has been ravaged by the introduction of rats and rabbits, while native animals have been gobbled up by wildcats and foxes (the latter having been introduced to control the rabbits). Cane toads, which were introduced to control crop-destroying beetles, ended up slurping down crop-beneficial insects, as well as killing off indigenous predators that are poisoned by their toxic secretions when they eat one.
Pretty much every part of the world has its invasive species issues, though. Many native species of fish in the African Great Lakes have been supplanted by introduced fish. The North American Great Lakes struggle with invasive mussels and eels. The storks and small mammals of Florida are being snapped up by released pythons, which are even out-competing alligators for food.

So what about Japan? To start with, mongooses (or “mongeese”, heehee), introduced to control venomous snakes, have been pummelling non-venomous snakes and various wild and agricultural mammals (even goats!). Meanwhile, native fish struggle to dodge the voracious mouths of introduced bass and bluegill. In a 1984 scientific sampling of fish from the moat of the Imperial Palace, 80% of the catch consisted of native species; fifteen years later, a single invasive species (bluegill) had exploded to 90% of the catch. (Someone protect the emperor!)

Photo by kalleboo

Japan also has issues with animals originally imported as pets. Through a combination of escape and deliberate release, several foreign species have come to form wild populations. Hedgehogs, red-eared turtles, and ferrets are three prominent examples. Another is the raccoon.

How Did It Happen?

Rascal: The Japanese Raccoon

This is one of those rare instances where a major environmental change can be traced back to one individual. And, even rarer, a fictional individual. This is Rascal, star of the 1977 Nippon Animation series Rascal the Raccoon (Araiguma Rasukaru).

The series, set in early twentieth-century rural Wisconsin, follows the adventures of a young boy who rescues a baby raccoon orphaned by a hunter. Rascal, as the boy names his new friend, proves a loving companion. Rascal becomes a crucial source of comfort when, not long after his arrival, the boy loses his mother.

In time, however, Rascal’s position within his human family becomes increasingly strained by his emerging wild animal personality. When Rascal is caught snacking on the crops of neighboring farmers, his outdoor ramblings are suddenly reduced to the confines of a pen. As if that weren’t enough, his unhappiness with domesticated life redoubles when he spots a lady raccoon beyond the walls of his well-intended prison. Ultimately, the boy faces a a very difficult, emotional choice…where does Rascal truly belong?

With the massive success of this anime, suddenly everyone wanted a raccoon for a pet. Over the following years, upwards of two thousand raccoons were imported to Japan annually. Apparently algae balls just weren’t cutting it anymore.

Unfortunately, humans don’t have a great track record when it comes to choosing pets. Wild animals that look cute and cuddly aren’t likely to be that way in human hands, or in human homes, and there’s the house-training issue. There might be some exceptional success stories, but for most families, the fantasy of having their very own “Rascal” didn’t work out. Apparently this caught many fans of the anime by surprise, even though Rascal’s unsuitableness as a pet was a central theme.

And that’s how raccoons came to be released into the Japanese wild. It was a pretty sweet deal for the raccoons, too, given that in Japan they lack any significant natural predators. (Their main predators in North America are wolves and coyotes, which don’t exist in Japan, as well as wildcats, which inhabit only a couple of small Japanese islands.) Over the ensuing decades, the raccoon population soared, and Rascal established himself in nearly every part of the country.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by kat+sam

What was good for the raccoons was bad for a range of native species, notably birds (whose eggs, as noted earlier, are a staple of the raccoon diet). In human-inhabited areas, raccoons have been scavenging garbage, damaging crops (notably corn and melon fields), and even attacking pets. They’ve also been tearing up buildings, as they scrabble in and out of their adopted homes (typically attics or basements) which the humans so thoughtfully constructed for them.

Which brings us to perhaps the most infamous raccoon issue in Japan: temple damage. It’s estimated that some 80% of Japan’s temple architecture has experienced some kind of damage from these masked bandits.

Architectural wounds are inflicted as the raccoons climb around, leaving gashes in pillars and walls, and punching holes in roofs and ceilings. As they find themselves snug little corners to sleep in, they tear and pry at anything that stands in their way, be it wood, tile, insulation, pipes, or wires. And they naturally leave lots of little raccoon droppings around, which are inappropriate for most buildings, but especially temples.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by 663highland

The most famous victim of raccoon vandalism may be Byōdō-in, a temple in Kyoto Prefecture, and one of Japan’s most famous and celebrated buildings. Given that Byōdō-in has been standing for over 900 years, you can understand why people were alarmed at the appearance of deep claw marks in the ancient wood. Traps were set, and metal fencing was laid over potential points of entry. It’s a painful irony that the success of one iconic Japanese cultural form (anime) should ultimately lead to the harming of another.

What Can Be Done?

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Charlie Anzman

How do we handle invasive species? Three basic strategies are:

  • damage mitigation
  • reduction (possibly elimination) of the invasive population
  • prevention of further introduction

The first approach is the most immediate. In Japan, as in other raccoony parts of the world, laborious attempts are made at sealing buildings from entry (particularly in the case of historic properties), while garbage is locked away from those dexterous little hands. Fences can help protect crops. But completely securing fields, buildings, and garbage from thousands of small, clever critters is a truly Herculean (Kintaro-ean?) feat.

In terms of controlling raccoon numbers, local governments across Japan have developed varying policies. Some arrange the killing of thousands of raccoons each year, citing population reduction (or even, incredibly optimistically, eradication) as the goal. Such programs find support among many farmers and urbanites, while taking fire from animal rights advocates.

Naturally, prevention is the best strategy of all against invasive species. Tight regulations on shipping and travelling help to avoid inadvertent arrivals, while pet regulations halt the deliberate import of problematic critters. Not surprisingly, it is now illegal to import raccoons to Japan.

It’s also important to look at the cause of Japan’s raccoon importation specifically: a pet craze. Media-driven pet trends are found across the world, a familiar recent example being spurred by the 101 Dalamatians movie remake (and its sequel), which was followed by a sharp increase in unwanted dalmatian puppies turning up in American dog shelters. Resistance to such crazes, which are patently unfair to the animals involved, must be fostered among the general population of all countries.

Rascal’s Lesson

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Harlequeen

In the end, we humans are responsible for introducing thousands of Rascal’s cousins to the mountains and cities of Japan. It seems kind of incredible that today, with all our technology, these furry little rascals continue to evade us so effectively. They’ve moved in, and there’s not that much we can do about it.

We need to take this as a learning experience. Think of all the trouble we could avoid, for animals and for us humans, if we can prevent further “species invasions”. If we wise up, Rascal could become a symbol of a great leap forward in human wisdom and responsibility.

Bonus Wallpapers!

rascalyea-1280
[Desktop – 5120×2880] [Phone – 640×1136]

Sources

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Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap http://www.tofugu.com/2014/11/05/miyagi-3-years-after-3-11-slogan-are-cheap/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/11/05/miyagi-3-years-after-3-11-slogan-are-cheap/#comments Wed, 05 Nov 2014 17:00:06 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44646 It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture. Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How […]

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It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture.

Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How it will be in the future? The rubble may have been cleared, but there is still a lot to do.

Sendai and Matsushima

downtown-sendai

Is this what you would call disaster?

I first set off on a Monday morning on my trip from Sendai, the largest city and population hub for everything in the Tohoku region. Sendai, as you can imagine, shows virtually no signs of the disaster at present. At most there may be temporary housing for refugees but even those aren’t obvious.

The recovery is going well here then, I suppose.

tohoku-university

New buildings at Tohoku University

My friends living in the city have told me that “recovery” has been pumping Sendai full of money. Aside from the reconstruction of damaged buildings, Tohoku University has been getting brand spanking new buildings and central funding. The city is finally going to have a new subway line next year. The Sendai which I arrived to on a Saturday evening was positively bustling. People shopping, young couples hand in hand – not very different from what you might find in Shibuya.

I first headed off to Matsushima, one of Japan’s “Three Views“. Nothing really seems off at all, but it wasn’t that heavily damaged by the Tsunami in the first place. On top of that, as a tourist location, it had to be cleaned up quickly.

park-in-sendai

The recovery is going well here too, it seems.

I boarded the train from Matsushima station towards Ishinomaki, the first major disaster spots I visited.

Matsushima → Ishinomaki

matsushima-field

There is a reality of Japan that most tourists, zipping around with JR Japan passes do not see. Many think that Japan is all convenience with punctual and reliable public transport. That is true! However, forget “convenient” once you’re out of the big cities.

When you get to the more rural parts of Japan, the trains come once every hour or two and often only have one or two carriages. Train stations may often be just an elevated concrete platform. This is the Japan where a car is a must. The majority of people on the trains I saw were students too young to drive and the elderly too old to do so.

ishinomaki-field

The rural landscape in late September Tohoku can be summarized by golden field after golden field. Beautiful, but the crisp chill in the air heralds the coming winter. The rice has just been harvested – you see the hanging bushels strung up on poles. These fields are broken only by the occasional settlement or wooded area.

Ishinomaki

storefronts-in-ishinomaki

How can you bring recovery to what was already sick?

Ishinomaki was one of the worst affected cities by the earthquake. It was – and is – a port city. Aside from the port being entirely destroyed, 3,533 people lost their lives and another 434 are still missing.

In the southern part of the city there is a ridge. If you look at 3.11 disaster pictures, pretty much everything south of it was flattened.

ishinomaki-city-ridge-view

This doesn’t look like a city that was flooded by a tsunami.

A sense of normalcy has been restored to the city. There were no obvious signs of the tsunami aside from the “Ganbarou Ishinomaki” signs near the station. Looking around you can see some buildings which look very new, newer perhaps than what would have been without the disaster. There is some building damage here and there, but you can’t be sure that those aren’t relics of three years ago.

The question is: if the earthquake didn’t damage this city, then what did?

Ishinomaki-empty-stores

Walking around, you notice rows upon rows of closed shutters in the shopping district, and entire streets of unused shop space. On some streets the number of open shops, outnumbered the shoppers. And while I would like to chalk it up as a symptom of Monday afternoon, the Monday afternoons I’ve seen in other places certainly haven’t been half as dead.

IMG_3123

Ishinomaki was already losing residents long before the earthquake. Its population peaked in the 1985 census, after which it began to decline. Between 2005 and 2010, it lost around 6500 residents, or around 4% of its population. Latest statistics indicate a further decline with a loss of more than 10,000 residents between 2010 and 2014.

Look at official statistics and you’ll see that the largest age group in the city are those between 60 and 64 years of age. At the moment, they’re still considered part of the “labor force”, but a few years from now they’ll be part of the heavy inverse population pyramid driving the city into the ground.

ishinomaki-empty-city-streets

Exploring Ishinomaki city center left me with a few questions. Was the decay I saw really due to the disaster or a part of the slow decline that would have happened anyway?

There are two disasters here: the tsunami and the crumbling population. Ishinomaki may have “recovered” from the first, but with second unaddressed, it has transitioned from a free fall to a slow downward glide.

Understand that the Japanese word for recovery is 復興 – a return (復) to prosperity (興). But fundamentally, how can you bring back to prosperity that which has not been prosperous for twenty years?

Ishinomaki → Minami-Sanriku

IMG_3140

Yanaizu BRT station – the train platform can be seen in the background.

The trip to Minami-Sanriku involved more small trains that come once every hour or so. I had to switch at Yanaizu to a “Bus Rapid Transport” system which has replaced the destroyed portion of the Kesennuma Line.

JR East has not announced any plans to rebuild the train track. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. It’s not worth it.

Railways, trains and stations are expensive to build and buy and, even if they did rebuild the train line, would there be anyone to use it? Or would it be one of those lines causing huge losses like those that JR Hokkaido operates?

The buses are comfortable enough. A train ride would have been smoother and probably faster, but beggars and tsunami victims outside big cities can’t be choosers.

Minami-Sanriku

minami-sanriku-empty-parking-lot

If Ishinomaki’s city center felt only whispers of the disaster, Minami-Sanriku was screaming Tsunami all over. The answer to the disaster seems simple. Rebuild what was destroyed.

And there is a lot to rebuild.

lonely-building-in-minami-sanriku

There’s nothing but wild grass and a few skyscrapers in the majority of the area. The shops that do exist are operating out of angular temporary buildings. Among the flat land there’s the building pictured above though. Am I the only one who sees the parallel between this and the Nuclear Dome in Hiroshima?

slow-reconstruction-in-minami-sanriku

Aside from this, there is grass and grass and grass and construction vehicles rushing around doing reconstruction work which I couldn’t see anywhere. In some sense, it seems like they’ve tried to wipe away any reminders of the disaster by clearing the rubble. To me that just made the scene even more poignant. The debris would make the scene that of what was, now the lack of it smells of what had been.

You can see things in the area, some not very obvious, that have not been cleared yet. For one, they’ve entirely cleared any traces of the former train tracks and what used to be the main train station of Minami Sanriku, Shizukawa station. But they haven’t been able to clear it off Google Maps.

minami-sanriku-google-maps

Below is what Google Maps led me to.

abandoned-train-tracks-in-minami-sanriku

the-lonely-building-in-minami-sanriku

This used to be the station.

broken-down-construction-equipment

And this, perhaps is the most symbolic thing I saw in Minami Sanriku. Interpret it as you wish.

The population left in Minami-Sanriku is still trying to live their lives and have the same Japanese hospitality as everywhere else. Living and working in housing which resembles containers, there was a clear sense of perseverance and the Japanese sense of enduring with dignity.

Maybe it was the encroaching twilight, but there were wisps of despair all around. Three years after the earthquake and the future is still up in the air, tossed between the very tall grass, waving in the wind.

Recovery?

ishinomaki-high-school

“A step towards the future, Ishinomaki; The breath of hope, Ishinomaki” – Ishinomaki High School.

After March 11, 2011, a few slogans became prevalent in Japan: がんばろう日本! (Work Hard Japan!), it’s sister slogans of がんばろう 東北!(Work hard Tohoku!), 絆 (kizuna, human bonds) because the disaster jolted Japan into (re)appreciating their loved ones and lastly, the aforementioned 復興 or recovery.

No doubt the Japanese have endured the crisis well with minimal chaos. But whether they’re actually working hard, or more importantly, effectively, to recover from the disaster is a different question. “Recovery” remains heavily uneven and, for some places, there may be no going back.

Because it isn’t as simple as recovery and ganbarou. It isn’t as simple as kizuna. To the disaster victims getting bashed online and Minami-Sanriku citizens visiting sparkling Sendai, the aforementioned slogans probably sound cheap.

But there are realities to deal with and loud unspoken questions: how much longer until things return to normal? How “normal” can “normal” possibly get? And more cynically, is returning to normal even worth it?

Bonus Wallpapers!

excavator-5120
[Phone – 640×1136]

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The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/30/the-skeletal-structure-of-japanese-horror-fiction/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/30/the-skeletal-structure-of-japanese-horror-fiction/#comments Thu, 30 Oct 2014 16:00:36 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=45707 Mankind has been telling scary stories ever since we decided to start telling stories at all. It only makes sense—a lot of scary crap happens in life. The horror genre was born from folklore and oral tradition that explored death, sadness, and the unexplained, and grew into a contemporary form of entertainment with a host […]

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Mankind has been telling scary stories ever since we decided to start telling stories at all. It only makes sensea lot of scary crap happens in life. The horror genre was born from folklore and oral tradition that explored death, sadness, and the unexplained, and grew into a contemporary form of entertainment with a host of exemplary graphic novels, literature, games, and film.

Japan ,of course, developed its own tradition of creepy tales entirely independently from the rest of the world. One of the amazing things about Japanese horror is that even with its direct link to traditional folklore and culture, it has proven incredibly popular outside of its country of origin. Japanese horror films, like Ringu and Ju-On: the Grudge, essentially jump-started a love for Asian horror cinema outside of Japan. They prompted Hollywood remakes and they captured the dark imaginations of movie-goers across the globe.

Every last aspect of a classical Japanese horror story’s construction, from structure, to mechanics, to themes and motifs, are integral to the unique sensibilities that have made J-horror so famously eerie. It’s easy to forget how important story structure is to an effective narrative, but the simple details of plot organization and structure determine just about everything that a viewer experiences in a story. In this article, the first of a series about this topic that is so near and dear to my horror-loving heart, I aim to illuminate how plot structure and organization, the blood-soaked backbone of story, contribute to the uniqueness and resonance of Japanese horror.

Visualizing Stories in Japan and the West

junji-ito

The first thing we need to do is look at the differences in storytelling between the Japanese and Western models. This is the sort of thing that is much easier to do visually by using some established narrative diagramming. One of the tools for visualizing how stories are organized is story grammar which is a (sometimes) simple model that displays the ways that a story’s basic structural components interact to further the plot to a resolution. Think of it as a more nuanced version of the model that is taught in primary school.

To understand how Japanese story grammar is different from the Western model, let’s take a look at the story grammar that a typical Western folk tale might follow, as diagrammed by storytelling scholar Utako Matsuyama:

Figure 1

figure by Utako Matsuyama

In a Western story the plot is moved forward by the character’s goals. Bits of story, called episodes, are steered by subgoals that the protagonist needs to accomplish in order to conquer his or her main goal and the successes or failures of that character in meeting those goals determine the outcome. Take “Cinderella” as an example of this Western model of storytelling, she has a clearly defined goal: Go to the ball to hit on the prince. The plot progresses as she encounters opposition to that.

Can a Japanese model of storytelling really be that much more complicated?

figure-2-storytelling

figure by Utako Matsuyama

Instead of having goals and subgoals that carry the plot from beginning to end, the classical Japanese story grammar is guided by a series of actions and reactions that lead a character to a thematically significant resolution. Causality, rather than conflict, is the vehicle in this type of storytelling. These stories move based on character actions (or often actions outside of the control of the characters) and the motivations are often irrelevant or not elaborated upon. Matsuyama posits that the lack of a goal structure is due to the traditional Buddhist value of eliminating worldly desires, which is in direct contrast with the very goal-oriented ideas of the West. Japanese protagonists tend to be unmotivated by an initial goal in the interest of making them more classically “good” in a Buddhist sense.

These types of stories tend to follow one of two paths: a simple action-and-reaction structure, or a complex action-and-reaction structure. In a simple-reaction story, the character’s own actions and the universe’s reactions to them drive the story to a conclusion that may or may not have anything to do with character goals. The complex-reaction path is where character goals come into play. Unlike the West, however, it isn’t the protagonist’s goals that drive the story it is the antagonist’s. In these stories, a “bad” character has a goal path that comes into direct conflict with the protagonist, setting events into motion that lead to an ending.

Utako Matsuyama has developed a mock-up of the archetypal Japanese folk tale to illustrate the complex-reaction story structure:

“The typical plot would be as follows: the main character is an honest and kind person who happens to help a trapped animal, helpless jizo [statue], or hungry god.”

Note, that this wasn’t the character’s goal, it just “happens” to occur. This is the initial action that sets the story in motion.

“Following that event, many good things happen to him.”

The reaction.

“Then, a bad person, usually the good person’s neighbor, sees the good person’s fortune and tries to get the same luck.”

Here is the complex reaction, the introduction of another character that has a strong, motivating goal. The end result being that the bad character will get his comeuppance and the good character will continue to blissfully be good and austere.

“The ending at the story level is that honesty and kindness are rewarded virtues.”

This leads us to the second significant difference between Japanese and Western story grammar: the conclusion. The Japanese story grammar ends with “events and/or emphasis,” whereas the more western model ends with a “resolution.” What that effectively means is that some Japanese narratives don’t need to have a resolution, heavily based on plot events and tying up loose ends. A Japanese story can potentially conclude with plot events or it can end with “emphasis” which is to say that it just ends. The resolution in this case is an emphasis of the virtues or ideas displayed in the story. The nearest Western equivalent that comes to mind is an Aesopian fable that ends with pronounced belief-based morals, or something weird like “The Sopranos” series finale (spoiler alert).

The Grammar of Japanese Horror

one-missed-call

Now you know more than you ever wanted about the structure of folk tales (unless you’re into that sort of thing). But how does this contribute to horror stories in Japan? Since horror stories originated directly from folklore, much of Japanese horror has a similar structure with a lack of goal paths for protagonists and the use of an action-reaction model for plotting.

The lack of a goal structure works for horror because, to be an effective horror protagonist, the viewers must sympathize and be able to imagine themselves in the plight of that character. Relatability is the reason that so many J-horror protagonists are ‘everyday high school/college students’ that just want to live normal lives. These characters don’t typically have a strong goal that sets events into motion, rather a series of actions and reactions begins to unfold around them that puts these characters in peril.

The action and reaction model of plot also works wonders for horror, because it creates a sense of helplessness in being subjected to an uncaring reality. For a grisly example of this model we can point to movies in the notorious Guinea Pig series of films. Known for having such realistic effects for blood and gore, an FBI investigation was conducted to determine if they weren’t just snuff films. The first two movies in the series have no plot besides the kidnapping, drugging, torture, and dismemberment of innocent females. These short films are purely driven by actions and reactions and end without any form of proper resolution beyond an “emphasis” on the terrifying things just seen by the audience.

Taken together, these two key ingredients of Japanese story structure give you the essential recipe for typical Japanese horror fiction. An initial action starts the character’s journey. It will either be something they do themselves, like watching a cursed video tape, or moving into an apartment with an upstairs leak. Or else it will be an action by someone (or something) else that directly affects them, like being selected for a dark government program. This initial action will cause them to either become subject to the whims of an outside entity that has a goal of causing them harm, like a vengeful ghost or a deranged killer (consider this the complex-reaction model), or else the reactions beyond their control build up and threaten to consume them, like a curse, disease, or delirium (consider this the simple-reaction model).

So much of Japanese horror fiction follows this basic structure that, if you start looking for it, you might begin to see it everywhere.

Kishōtenketsu and Horror Without Conflict

fatal-frame

The components that make the recipe for Japanese horror so complex and eerie are the same components that make Japanese scary stories more likely to be told in ways that defy the traditional three-act structure often seen in the West. In the three-act structure, a problem or conflict appears early on, it reaches a tense climax, and is finally resolved. While this style can work for horror stories (and there are some good examples where it does) there is another model of development that is often employed for great effect with horror stories. That style is called kishōtenketsu (起承転結).

In Japan, kishōtenketsu is a very common way of structuring stories, poems, and even arguments (more on that in another article). To summarize, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure that contains an introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結). Here’s how it plays out: act one introduces the topic, setting, characters etc. Act two elaborates on this information. Act three, the main event when it comes to horror stories, introduces a major twist that changes the way all the information is perceived. Finally, act four concludes by reconciling what you learned from the first two sections with shocking new information in the third.

Since kishōtenketsu revolves around this twist in the third act, it is not well-suited for describing conflict like the Western three-act model. Instead it conveys discovery and a change of perspective that has far reaching consequences. This works for horror especially well, because, if what you discover in the third act is a little scary, it makes everything else scary by association.

The Worldwide Resonance of Japanese Horror

disney-ghost-hitchhikers

Photo by Mark Willard

One of the reasons that Japanese horror has been able to make such a smooth and influential transition to the West and other parts of Asia, is because of the similarity of the Japanese kishōtenketsu style to how horror stories are told elsewhere. There is something very intuitive about having horror stories that operate on a twist ending. I mean, it may sound obvious, but finding out some scary information tends to make people scared, and even more so when you thought everything was okay just before the reveal.

Scary folk tales and urban legends from around the world have used the kishotenketsu model without calling it that. It’s likely that you have heard urban legends that follow the kishōtenketsu model to a T. Take for instance “The Licked Hand” or “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” If you haven’t heard these already, and they are pretty popular especially around Halloween. Click the links above and give them a read. When you get back I’ll show you how they fit into the kishōtenketsu mold.

The Licked Hand

Intro (起): A young girl is home alone with only her pet dog for comfort.

Development (承): She hears on the news of an escaped convict and becomes frightened. She is too scared to go to sleep without letting the dog lick her hand from beneath her bed.

Twist (転): When she awakes she discovers that her dog is dead and has been the entire night.

Conclusion (結): She finds the words “HUMANS CAN LICK TOO” written in blood.

 The Vanishing Hitchhiker

Intro (起): A young man is driving home in the rain late one night.

Development (承): He stops for a young, beautiful woman that is motioning for a ride and offers to take her home.

Twist (転): When he arrives at the woman’s house he discovers that the woman has disappeared from his car.

Conclusion (結): He knocks on the door of the woman’s house and is informed by an older gentlemen that the woman was his daughter who died four years ago on this very night, still trying to get home.

In stories like these, the twist changes the paradigm and makes the prior events scary, when before they were innocuous. The conclusion answers the questions raised by the twist in a way that situates the story’s plot. Scary folklore like this permeates many cultures outside of Japan and they form the baseline for how these cultures understand horror. The worldwide popularity of Japanese horror can possibly be explained by the fact that the Japanese approach to horror may have transitioned more easily to other cultures than love stories or action stories would if told in the same style.

Only Clawing at the Surface…

kuniyoshi-witch-and-skeleton

Japanese storytellers are markedly innovative and subversive. New ways to tell stories are constantly popping up in books and in cinema, but even contemporary horror stories often show a deep connection to the folkloric tradition of storytelling in Japan. I hope I’ve been able to show that some of the very basic things about story construction can carry a lot of weight.

Please join me next time as I discuss the mechanics of Japanese horror stories, focusing on the use of atmosphere and emotion. For now, I’ve taken up enough of your timeyou should be watching scary Japanese movies! Happy Halloween!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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References:

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Over a Thousand Years of Service: Japan’s Oldest Businesses Reign Supreme(ly Old) http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/28/over-a-thousand-years-of-service-japans-oldest-businesses-reign-supremely-old/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/28/over-a-thousand-years-of-service-japans-oldest-businesses-reign-supremely-old/#comments Tue, 28 Oct 2014 16:00:30 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44383 Businesses die like anything else. I used to give joke directions to a house where I lived that involved a whole sequence of useless instructions like “turn left where the dry cleaner used to be.” If you’ve lived in the same place long enough, you can probably do the same. I can’t begin to count […]

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Businesses die like anything else. I used to give joke directions to a house where I lived that involved a whole sequence of useless instructions like “turn left where the dry cleaner used to be.” If you’ve lived in the same place long enough, you can probably do the same. I can’t begin to count the number of places where I used to shop that have gone to the great strip mall in the sky, or the number of restaurant dishes I find myself craving that I’ll never be able to have again. No surprise, I guess, when the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies today is just 15 years.

But a few businesses in the world have managed to hang in there for a mind-bogglingly long time, and a lot of them are in Japan. In America, we tend to think it’s impressive if a building is two hundred years old; we’d never expect that building to house the same hotel or restaurant that it did when it opened. But in Japan, there are 3,146 companies that are over 200 years old, and  21,000 companies that are over 100 years old. You can stay at a hotel that’s been in business since 705 and buy candy that’s been made at the same shop since the 16th century. There are also companies that have been owned by the same family since the day they opened, and one on that list may be familiar, because you can buy their products even if you don’t live in Japan.

Seriously Traditional Inns

japans-oldest-companies-hoshi-ryokan

Photo by Namazu-Tron

When you get into researching the history of companies with record lifespans, you find that there are a lot of arguments about how you count what’s oldest and even what counts as being in business. But there’s one fact that seems to be agreed upon: the oldest hotels in the world are in Japan.

The first guest checked in to Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Yamanashi in 705. That’s not a typo – the inn was really founded over a thousand years before the United States was even considered a country. It’s recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest hotel. The same family has run the place for 52 generations, and some of the staff also pass their jobs down to their children.

Just like the old claim to fame that “George Washington Slept Here,” the inn mentions some of its most famous customers on its web page, though they predate George by quite a bit. For example, in 752, Kouken, the 46th Emperor, was reputedly cured of an illness by bathing in the local spring water, and Tokugawa Ieyasu slept here twice! (For those of you who aren’t up to speed on your important shoguns, in the late 16th century he was founder of the last line of shoguns to rule before the Meiji restoration.)

japans-oldest-companies-Spa_bath_at_Hoshi_Ryokan

Close behind, Houshi Ryokan has been in business since 718, and for 46 generations has been run by the same family, with each proprietor taking the name Zengoro Houshi. Many people dream of starting a business, and that’s how this one started, but probably not in the way you’d think. Not only is this company old, it claims that its origins are divine. In 717, Buddhist priest Taicho hiked up the sacred mountain Hakusan, and the deity of the mountain appeared to him in a dream. The deity instructed him to go to the village of Awasu, where the people didn’t know that they were sitting right on top of a hot spring with wondrous healing powers. Taicho ordered his disciple Garyo Houshi to build an inn while he went off to meditate and achieve satori.

Oddly, although these places have been around for a thousand years, apparently there’s been very recent contention for the title of oldest. Houshi’s website says they were recognized as such in 1994 and you’ll find references indicating that as recently as 2006, they still held the title. It must be pretty shocking to wake up one morning to find that you’re not the oldest hotel anymore. What did the staff at Keiunkan do, go back to the 8th century in a time machine?

Another hotel that’s said to go back to 717 is Kinosaki Onsen Ryokan Senennoyu-koman in Hyogo, Kinki prefecture. Another dream business with a somewhat divine origin, its founder, Gonnokami Hiuke, dreamt about four Gods who told him he needed to live there from that point onward to protect his descendants. He built a shrine to those gods, and those descendants founded Kinosaki Onsen.

Former, Disputed, and Elusive Contenders

japans-oldest-companies-construction-company

Photo by jpellgen

You’ll see some other contenders on lists of the oldest companies, but some of them have issues, including the one that for a long time headed the list.

The saddest story is that of the Kongou Gumi construction company, a builder of Buddhist temples. Founded in 587, for an incredibly long time they were world’s oldest, continuously operating family business. A recent president attributed their longevity partly to their flexibility in passing responsibility down the family line: rather than always choosing the oldest son, leadership would go to the one best suited for the job. Sometimes it wasn’t even a son – they used the common Japanese practice of adopting son-in-laws to keep the family name going, and the 38th leader was actually a woman (Imagine that!).

Unfortunately, age doesn’t always mean wisdom, and in 2006 the management found themselves in excessive debt, including investments made during the 1980s real estate bubble. They were acquired by Takamatsu, a large Japanese construction firm, and while you can still get a temple built by them, they are now a subsidiary, not an independent company.

Then there’s Ikenobo Kadokaia, which has been around since 587. The problem is that not everyone agrees this is a “company,” as the BBC puts it: “However, its stated purpose is the promotion of traditional floral arranging, which is not necessarily commercial in nature.” Basically, the argument is that if you start including organizations and associations and universities, it’s a different list. That makes sense to me, so I’m counting this one out.

And although we can’t tell you much about them because somehow they’ve managed to keep going this long without getting a lot of press, we should probably give a shout-out to Tech Kaihatsu, a machinery firm which started as a smithy in 760, and Genda Shigyo, which has been making paper goods since 771.

All in the Family

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Photo by Captain76

Japan is also a country with a strong tradition of handing businesses down in the family.  There’s an international organization, Les Hénokiens, a fraternity of companies that are at least 200 years old and have stayed in the control of one family to the present day. Its oldest current member is the Houshi Ryokan – an honor that passed to them after the sad swallowing-up of the Kongou Gumi construction company. There are some other impressive Japanese members as well.

Akafuku is a tea house and confectionary that’s been serving pilgrims to Ise Grand Shrine since 1707. They make a red bean paste mochi in a wavy shape meant to symbolize the waters of the Isuzu River, “with the three ridges in the sweet bean paste representing the clear water that flows through the river, and the white mochi depicting the pebbles that lie on the riverbed.”

japans-oldest-companies-akafuku

Photo by: ajari

In their version of “George Washington Ate Here,” they tell the story of how in 1911, the Empress Meiji heard of the reputation of their mochi, and wanted to try some. Apparently concerned that the empress was too posh to eat something made with the brown sugar they’d always used, they made it with white sugar for the first time. I guess they knew their customer, because she ordered it repeatedly, and afterwards the owner celebrated May 19th as “Homare-Bi (Day of Honor),” commemorating the day they first sent rice cakes to the Empress.

Another member of Les Hénokiens is Okaya, a trading company that started as a hardware store in Nagoya in 1669. Which I’m sure is very fascinating, but it’s hard for them to compete for the interest of this writer in the company of sweet shops and of the next member on the list, which is also the one most of you have probably heard of: Gekkeikan Sake.

japans-oldest-companies-sake

Photo by Christian Kaden

As far as I can tell, this the only company on this list whose product you can buy overseas. I have to confess, in my house, we have long been sake snobs. The only kanji my husband can read are the characters for daiginjo (大吟醸) denoting the highest grade of sake. And since Gekkeikan is the brand you can buy at any crummy liquor store (they have 25% of the US sake market) I’ve never thought much of it. But they’ve been in business since 1637, and they claim to base their corporate philosophy on “Quality, Creativity, and Humanity,” and who can argue with that? So maybe I should reconsider.

Last, but very much not least, is the confectionery Toraya. There’s no record of when they first opened, but they were already doing a booming business in Kyoto in the 1600s. They opened a store in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, where they are now headquartered, in 1869, when the capital also moved there.

This last category is the most interesting one to me, because it taught me a cultural lesson about something I now realize is kind of a recurring theme. You often see dramas and movies where one of the central conflicts is between parents who were planning to hand down a business to their child who wants to go pursue a different dream. In the context of the kind of family business longevity we see in this article, this is surely a much bigger deal than it seemed from my American point of view. And you see the more subtle point in fiction as well – where there’s a child who has gone off to do something instead of taking over the business, and the parent who is okay with it. That’s a bit of character development that will be more meaningful to me now, and hopefully to you too.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[5120×2880] ∙ [2560×1440] ∙ [1280×720]

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Dealing with Disaster: Three Years After Fukushima http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/22/dealing-with-disaster-three-years-after-fukushima/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/22/dealing-with-disaster-three-years-after-fukushima/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 16:00:59 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44543 Living in Tokyo, I don’t hear much about Fukushima’s disaster recovery. Three years after the disaster, Tohoku’s recovery only directly affects me through little donation boxes supermarkets and drug stores. The actual situation in Tohoku however is rocky. To find out more, I took a little trip last month to the area to get a firsthand […]

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Living in Tokyo, I don’t hear much about Fukushima’s disaster recovery. Three years after the disaster, Tohoku’s recovery only directly affects me through little donation boxes supermarkets and drug stores.

The actual situation in Tohoku however is rocky. To find out more, I took a little trip last month to the area to get a firsthand view of the so-called “recovery”.

Bear in mind that the 2011 disaster is actually a collection of two disasters affecting different parts of Tohoku. The first is the earthquake and tsunami which has caused damage particularly to the coastal areas of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima. The second is the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, which had the greatest effect within Fukushima prefecture, resulting in forced evacuation areas due to nuclear radiation.

The first will be addressed in a different post. This article will deal with the second.

During my trip, I stopped over at a city in southeast Fukushima prefecture, Iwaki city, and through it I hope to raise the question: How much has Japan really recovered from the nuclear crisis in Fukushima?

Iwaki, Fukushima

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View of the city from the station.

I myself arrived in Iwaki on a bright Saturday. I was expecting a lively mid-sized city. After all, Iwaki is the largest city in Fukushima prefecture in terms of population. It turns out it’s the largest in size as well and thus the population is spread thin.

Iwaki itself suffered from the earthquake. After Sendai, it had the second largest number of destroyed homes (40,000) and about 400 dead from landslides and the tsunami. While it originally had a direct link to Sendai through the Joban line of JR East, the nuclear radiation exclusion zone cut it in half. Train commuters now must take a long detour through the west using infrequent trains (about once every two hours) through central Fukushima prefecture to head northward.

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Signboard at Mito-station, south of Iwaki. The blanked out part probably says “Sendai”.

You wouldn’t know any of this if you just stumbled into the city by mistake. The area around Iwaki station is tranquil and pristine with many 5 story buildings. Walk 10 minutes away from the station and you’ll arrive at rows of houses with 2 stories with only small signs of urban decay.

Social Friction

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Photo by Daisuke TSUDA

Example of temporary housing for disaster victims.

Iwaki is one of the cities with the highest number of disaster evacuees in the nation. There is temporary housing within 20 minutes’ walk from the station. As of last year, the city was sheltering around 24,000 refugees from the disaster areas. These refugees mainly come from the evacuated area north of Iwaki, which is within the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactor.

Three years after the disaster, some Iwaki residents feel the refugees have overstayed their welcome. Below I have translated a number of comments from Iwaki netizens on Twitter:

“The people living in the temporary housing are living in luxury. They’re getting money. They’re getting money if they don’t work so some go on overseas holidays or even buy expensive cars. They get rebates at convenience stores so they shop there. The convenience stores are crowded and with the population increasing, traffic congestion is getting worse. Iwaki citizens have no such privileges.”

“Like, the refugee-samas ride and crash expensive cars which they have never tried before and that is why there’s always traffic jams. I just wish they’d stop it! “

“This I can say this without any hesitation. There are some people suffering in the temporary housing but a majority are getting money without working; their children who see the adults not working become dysfunctional hikikomoris living through the internet and become useless people spending their time on Niconico douga”.

This has been reported on by NHK, Huffington Post Japan and Japan Times in English. The major complaints are that the influx of refugees has caused a shortage of doctors, an increase in rent prices, and traffic. Actually it seems that, at least on the internet, all sorts of stuff is being blamed on the disaster survivors.

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“Disaster Victims get Lost!”

 Things have gotten so bad, that there has even been anti-refugee graffiti, as seen above. This photo was taken in 2012 so you can be sure that the problem has been around for at least two years already. With a large portion of the evacuated municipalities still under quarantine and the slow recovery for those which evacuation orders have been rescinded, tensions are likely to continue mounting.

Fates of the Survivors

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Photo by Steve Herman

Namie Town, deserted immediately after the disaster. Even now, staying overnight is forbidden in all areas of the town.

A large number of refugees still can’t go home. A further number can only go back home on day trips. In these areas, staying overnight has been forbidden due to elevated levels of radiation. For some lucky ones, the evacuation orders have been rescinded. But the choice to return home isn’t as obvious or easy as you may think.

Let’s take the example of Kawauchi village, to the immediate north of Iwaki. The eastern part of the village is within 20 km of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. But as of the 25th last month, the majority of the evacuation orders have been rescinded and only a small part of the village is still under quarantine.

Nonetheless, the population has not returned. NHK reported that out of 2758 people registered with the village, only 1476 have returned. The returnees have been mostly elderly – the young have not been returning as willingly.

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Photo by Roger Jolly

Photo of decontamination works in Kawashima, 2012

NHK explains that there are three main reasons for the lack of young returnees. Firstly, fears about the radiation certainly remain. Secondly, education is a concern. Kawauchi’s high school students tended to commute to high schools in the towns to the east. Those are now ghost towns due to the radioactivity exclusion zone. The alternative has children take one hour bus rides to schools in the west – not very practical for anyone involved.

The third reason is financial. Many people in the area formerly worked in other towns to the East. NHK reports that 500 villagers lost their jobs due to the quarantine. The village is trying to attract new companies to provide jobs. However, it has so far only been able to attract 100 new job, many among these being low-paying, barely above minimum-wage positions. The NHK gives the example of a position in an agricultural factory which only pays 700 yen.

If you found yourself in their position, and had been living somewhere else for perhaps a year, would you choose to return?

Problems with Nuclear Energy

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Photo by Energy.Gov

Mihama Nuclear Reactor

The debate about Fukushima in the English media revolves around the pro vs. anti nuclear power debate. In Japan, however, where domestic power sources are scarce, another question is being asked: can the
country survive without nuclear power?

You can imagine how this looks. On one hand, energy prices have been sky high since the reactors were shut down and the business world is unhappy. On the other hand, Fukushima stands as a constant reminder of the dangers of nuclear energy. But there is another dimension here: Who exactly is for and against restarting the reactors?

You would think that the residents of towns and villages which host nuclear reactors who oppose the restarting the most. After all, it is them who have the most to lose. However, they also have the most to gain. The construction of nuclear power plants has often been linked with generous aid from electrical companies, and the nuclear power plants themselves do provide something highly in demand to rural Japan – jobs.

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Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant in 1999, 12 years before the accident.

This is why, instead of opposing the restart of the nuclear reactors, cities hosting them actually support it. The opposition comes from neighboring cities and towns who don’t gain as much from the economics of nuclear power but still have much to lose. NHK reports that the percentage supporting the restarting of power plants is above 50% for municipalities with nuclear plants and is clearly weaker in surrounding towns.

At the moment it is only the reactor’s hosting municipality which has to give permission for restart once they are certified “safe” by the authorities. With the government wanting to restart ASAP, Japan’s success in balancing the economic livelihood of people, responsibility, and safety remains to be seen.

Moving Forward

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Photo by Steve Herman

Namie Town village returning to their shop in the day, April 2011.

Clearly, Fukushima prefecture has a long way to go. Decontamination is still in progress at a speed which many criticize as unsatisfactory. There is even a question as to whether the areas closest to the reactors will become the Japanese Chernobyl.

Next, we will be looking at the situation in the tsunami disaster areas – which offers a different set of problems. Things are going to be more personal in the next article. Unlike Fukushima, I’ve been able to visit some of the directly affected areas. And it is a very different situation on the ground.

Please do take a look!

Further Reading:

  • Link to synopsis of NHK Mito report.
  • Explanation about the compensation given to municipalities which host nuclear plants.
  • Transcript of NHK online report on the differences in support and opposition towards the restarting of the reactors

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

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Shunga: Japan’s Ancient Erotica http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/21/shunga-japans-ancient-erotica/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/21/shunga-japans-ancient-erotica/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:00:34 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44409 Vending machines selling school girl’s panties?  Grown men reading pornographic comics in public?  Gender segregated train-cars to protect women from gropers? Ear-cleaning parlors with very happy-endings?  With situations like these making headlines, it comes as no surprise that Japan has earned a reputation for perverted culture. My first foray into the world of anime left me with a similar […]

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Vending machines selling school girl’s panties?  Grown men reading pornographic comics in public?  Gender segregated train-cars to protect women from gropers? Ear-cleaning parlors with very happy-endings?  With situations like these making headlines, it comes as no surprise that Japan has earned a reputation for perverted culture.

My first foray into the world of anime left me with a similar impression.  At that time, action, comedy, and even children’s anime vhs tapes shared shelf-space with hentai titles.  I’d feel embarrassed looking past cartoon breasts and butts big enough to make Sir MixALot blush to find what I wanted.  Finally I’d spot Goku throwing a fireball next to a sailor-suited girl being molested by aliens, an R-18 sticker (un)cleverly affixed over her private bits.

Although Japan might get a raw deal when it comes to perversion, it’s not a recent development.  In fact, Japan has a long, rich history of erotic images.  The roots of pornographic manga and anime can be traced all the way back to the Edo era, during the shunga (or erotic woodblock printing) boom.

Recent lifts on shunga bans have opened the floodgates, allowing greater understand of the true meaning, uses, themes, and lasting impact of shunga.  But recent exhibits have refueled an age-old debate – what separates art from obscenity?

What Are Shunga?

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The term shunga (春画) literally translates into “spring picture” but has little to do with the season, describing erotic prints that gained popularity during the Edo era.  Examples of shunga range from subtle adult situations to grossly – in both senses of the word – explicit imagery, and cover an array of subjects and themes.

Although shunga originated during the Heian period (794 to 1192 A.D.), a lack of technology made copying images painstaking and expensive.  As a result only the upper-classes had the luxury of owning pieces of art, shunga or otherwise.

The Edo era (1603 and 1868) saw the advent of woodblock printing which allowed for the mass production of quality images.  Through this technique artists carved images into wooden blocks which were coated with ink and pressed onto paper, leaving a print.   As technology improved, the mass production of images lead to greater availability, lower prices and therefore wider distribution of prints.

woodblock-ready-to-make-print

Photo by: David Monniaux

Chances are you have already seen what many consider the world’s most famous woodblock print in The Great Wave by Hokusai.  It may come as a surprise that such a renowned artist also gained notoriety for pornography. Many famous woodblock artists dabbled in shunga and Hokusai is no exception.

However artists weren’t in search of notoriety. Tim Clark, curator of a shunga exhibition at The British Museum explains, “We can be pretty sure that everybody in Japanese society, from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson used and enjoyed shunga.”  High demand for erotic prints meant shunga outsold other genres and artists simply migrated to the most profitable market.

Edo, the capital city at the time, became the shunga boom’s epicenter.  In Masterclass: Understanding Shunga: A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art Majella Munro writes, “No indulgence or pleasure was unavailable within (Edo’s) precincts… from brothels to… huge quantities of porn, guidebooks, and other marketing paraphernalia”(p13).

Of course the images drove shunga’s popularity.  In his book Sex and the Floating World, Timon Screech explains, “Shunga… are rarely stories, and in most instances a page can reasonably stand alone.”  The scarcity of narrative driven shunga suggests plot took low priority on shunga customers’ lists.

Shunga’s Uses

shunga-books-on-display

Photo by: Bruno Cordioli

Why did Edo-era people buy shunga?  In Sex and the Floating World, Timon Screech gives the topic thorough investigation and the reasons range from the logical to the absurd.

Let’s start with the absurd – some shunga owners believed the erotic prints brought good luck.  Warriors carried the prints, convinced they warded off death.  In a sword carrying culture forged in the deadly violence of war, a society that continues to buy protection amulets today (probably of the non-erotic variety, though I’ve never opened one to find out), people tried anything to escape death’s cold grip.

As if that weren’t enough, shunga were also rumored to prevent fires.  Ota Nanpo, one shunga owner wrote, “If you collect these types of book, you will save yourself from destruction by fire” (Screech).  Combustable building materials and the use of fire as a source of heat and light made fires a constant problem in ancient Japan.  In a time predating fire insurance, responsible homeowners bought the next best thing – shunga.

Kunisada-An-Erotic-Guide-to-the-Bedchamber

One logical claim is that some owners used shunga as sexual guidebooks.  Luke Malone of vocative.com explains, “More detailed shunga were often used as sex guides and given as gifts to children from wealthy families.”  The erotic prints made perfect educational gifts for young people unpracticed in the arts of pleasure or old dogs looking to learn new tricks.

However, Screech believes the most common reason behind shunga’s widespread ownership and popularity is also the most obvious – the prints served as a source of self-pleasure.  He writes, “Erotica were intended for those who, as a result of constraints of time or finance, or their ethical stance, were unable to go (to the pleasure districts) often.”

It’s no coincidence that Edo, a “City of Bachelors” became the center of printing during the shunga boom.  Tokugawa law, which separated husbands from their wives and lovers, helped justify and popularize the ownership and use of shunga among both sexes.  Travel was difficult, couples could go months without reuniting.

Shunga helped separated couples pass the time (wink, wink) and provided a cheap and reusable alternative to the expensive red-light districts and pleasure quarters.  Screech writes, “Shunga ownership might be excused as only for interim use until the next authentic bout (of sex).”

Shunga’s Themes

Good Old-Fashioned Love

spring-pasttimes-shunga

Despite what those anime vhs covers of my youth led me to expect, most shunga depict affectionate love-making.  Ruth Styles of Dailymail.co.uk writes, “Most of the images, although explicit, are loving – even tender – and show the pleasure being shared out between men and women in equal measure.”

With Japan’s reputation for perversion, the affection these prints depict may come as a surprise.  Most shunga depict physical love between husbands and wives – or at least consenting adults.  But these tame depictions take a backseat to the striking, memorable impressions left by the less frequent, but more extreme shunga.

Fashion’s Finest

four-seasons-kunisida-shunga

Today’s viewers might assume the throes of passion left little time to undress, as many of shunga’s subjects remain fully clothed.   But at the time, flashy attire flaunted wealth and gained popularity with prostitutes and actors, giving fashion a “sexual power” that made it a shunga staple (Screech).  Japanvisitor.com writes, “It was the fine silks and sumptuous clothes of the geisha that made them the stuff of men’s dreams.”  Partially clothed bodies proved to be more provocative than the fully nude, so most shunga feature partially or even fully clothed subjects.

Homoerotic Over and Undertones

Moronobu-shunga

Heterosexual couples represented the norm in shunga, but they weren’t the rule.  Screech points out that during the Edo period, “‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not fixed, distinct human types, rather they were understood as activities.”

Furthermore, nanshoku, or “traditional male love,” remained an enduring facet of Japanese society and Japan accepted homoerotic themes that would have otherwise been been dismissed as immoral by most Western culture at the time.

Gender Ambiguities

homosexuality-in-japan

Shunga’s art style makes differentiating the sexes no easy task.  “In shunga, male and female bodies appear virtually identical other than the genitals” (Screech).  The differentiation of Shunga’s male and female faces and bodies is made even more difficult by the subjects’ ambiguous, tumbleweed-like bodily entanglements.

The prominence of fashion added to the confusion.  Worn by both sexes, kimonos tended to hide bodily features and add to shunga’s rampant gender ambiguities.

To further complicate matters, cross-dressing actors and prostitutes also made their way into shunga.  Screech points out, “Indeed, Westerners routinely mistook the attractive boys (wakashu) for girls, as do many modern viewers.”

Onstage, adolescent boys played girl’s roles with great feminine effect. As evidence of nanshoku’s popularity, “boy prostitutes of the Edo period commonly dressed as girls” (Screech).  Shunga’s style and the era’s attitudes rendered gender identification in shunga difficult and ultimately unimportant.

The Depiction of Genitalia

Yet shunga provide an easy way (or should it be two easy ways?) to discern gender ambiguities through their depiction of male and female genitalia.  Many shunga feature shocking, at times grotesquely enlarged genitals.

In most cases, neither sex outshined the other – male and female subjects received equal embellishments and exaggerations.

Voyeurism

In what may have been an effort to the lighten guilt of viewers, voyeurism played a major role in shunga.  Most of the scenes took place indoors or surrounded by natural barriers, providing ample cover for naughty onlookers.  Viewers can ogle the images alongside third-parties depicted as men, women, children and even animals.

Screech explains, “By investing in the gaze in some other, non-human or humanoid form, artists could provide a point of entry into the picture for any viewer.”  When enjoying a print, a commoner might identify with the lower class peeping-tom looking in on a upperclass couple.  Conversely, the upperclass couple would identify with the subjects of the action.

Plot and Parody

Suzuki-Harunobu-Sexual-Misconduct-shunga

Although plot-driven shunga collections may have been rare, they did exist.  At times artists depicted or parodied scenes from the era’s popular stories, including The 47 RoninHakkenden: The Dog Warriors and even The Tale of Genji.  Screech cites a poem reacting to the eroticization of Genji:

Even Genji
can be poison
to young minds

Jippensha Ikku’s travel tale, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, inspired a whole series of travel prints by legendary woodblock artist Hiroshige in The Fifty-three Stations of the Toukaidou (Screech).  Screech writes, “The entire preface to the book is a series of sexual puns, in this case nanshoku ones.”

Some shunga featured limerick-like poems.  The British Museum’s Tim Clark gives one example from Kitagawa Utamaro’s print Poem of the Pillow:

Its beak caught firmly in the clamshell,
the snipe cannot fly away,
on an autumn evening.

Other shunga featured animal puns, helping to excuse animal voyeurs – some more exotic than others.  Screech describes one exotic case, “Camels were called rakuda, which sounded like the casual expletive ‘raku da!’ (feels comfy).”

Even Enma, the lord of hell becomes a victim of parody.  In Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Gary P. Leupp describes one instance where Enma is so moved by a nanshoku painting that, “he immediately falls in love with the image and, in his excitement, tumbles down from his thrown…  The king of hell at once declares his determination to leave the netherworld for Japan, where he will seek out the actor and ‘share his pillow” (87).

Encounters of the Unique Kind

But shunga’s unique encounters didn’t end with camels or King Enma.  Japan’s colorful array of beasts, monsters and youkai also got in on the act.  Screech explains, “Folklore had it that some beasts (including tengu, kappa, even transforming males foxes) kidnapped human males for sexual pleasure.”

Once again Hokusai inked the most famous example in The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a picture depicting a woman making love with two octopuses in what many consider the birth of “tentacle porn.”

Although most early shunga depict consensual encounters, some later examples take a darker tone.  “Actual rape becomes a shunga fetish,” Screech writes, “either by friends and relatives or by burglars and cut-throats.”

Even the human body can morphs and become the aggressor.  “In Kunisada’s use of the homunculus in his New Tale of the Welling Waters of 1827, Beanman must draw his sword to fight off a monster vagina that threatens to engulf him until, quelled, it surrenders to his bidding” (Screech).

Some of shunga’s unique encounters avoided the dark and extraordinary for more inquisitive tones.  The limited number of foreigners in Japan sparked curiosity and inspired some artists to depict non-Japanese subjects.  Ruth Styles explains, “And while most shunga do focus on ordinary Japanese people, the odd Dutch or Portuguese adventurer sometimes creeps in.”

Lasting Influence

hentai-manga-store

Photo by: Ignis

Have shunga left a lasting legacy?

I think I experienced one aspect of it as an innocent youth at the video shop.  Ancient shunga prove Japan’s interest in pornographic art – be it comics, cartoons or ancient shunga – is nothing new.

Industry giants feel the same way.  Luke Malone writes, “Toshio Maeda (widely considered to be the grandfather of erotic manga)… sees (erotic manga) as the modern iteration of an important cultural tradition (i.e. shunga).”

Calling hentai manga a “remnant” of shunga seems like an appropriate description.  Perhaps today’s tentacle, monster, demon, alien and robot pornography can be traced back to the days of anything-goes erotic prints.  Even Japan’s lolita and wakashu fetishes might find a root in shunga’s younger boy and girl subjects.

But shunga’s legacy need not be limited to extremes.  Most prints celebrated more subdued themes, like loving sex between consenting adults.  And these themes also enjoy continued popularity in Japan’s modern erotica.  They just don’t make headlines.

Perhaps Japan’s modern erotic media – including manga, anime, movies, video games – would not be socially acceptable or even legal today if it weren’t for the path blazed by Edo era shunga.

Obscenity?  Art?  Or Both?

peter-paul-rubens

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and time has been kind to peoples’ perceptions of shunga. Many of today’s viewers admire the prints as works of art.  Distinguished museums in the west, like The British Museum, have held popular exhibitions celebrating the medium.

Yet shunga continue to be considered obscene in Japan, their country of origin.

The recent arrest of the “vagina artist” Megumi Igarashi has helped stoked the debate – what separates art from obscenity?  Police arrested Ms. Igarashi, also known as Rokudenashi-ko (“A No-Good Girl”), for distributing 3d data for the replication of her vagina for artistic purposes.  The No-Good Girl’s art included a “no-good” kayak modeled after her vagina.

She presented her case at a press conference (video presented by The Japan Times):

I was charged with the crime of distributing obscene data…  The way that this word, ‘obscenity’ has been attached to the vagina makes it seem like some remote, unfamiliar object…  In Japan there is a tradition of festivals that celebrate sexual organs, and yet we also have this notion of obscenity.  I think my arrest was a symptom of this distorted notion of sexuality that exists in this country.

But it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, Western taboos shaped Japan’s attitudes and laws dealing with sex and nudity.  In her essay Shunga in the Meji Era: The End of a Tradtion? Rosina Buckland explains, “From 1872 onwards, the government undertook to regulate and control prostitution more strictly, as part of its project to “civilize” Japan in the view of Western nations.”  Laws banning shunga soon followed.

Despite its reputation for perversion, Japan takes a conservative stance when it comes to sexuality.  And although headline making situations exist, they do not represent the norm.  Tim Clark remarks, “Somehow ironically, (shunga) are more explicit than today’s Japanese pornography laws would allow.”  Strict laws outlaw displaying genitalia in media – a common element of Edo-era shunga.

In all likelihood, few Edo-era people purchased shunga for their artistic value.  During an era devoid of magazines, video, and the internet, shunga represented the equivalent of modern day pornography.  So it’s understandable that Japanese law considered shunga obscene.

Yet if few people question non-erotic woodblock prints’ validity as art, isn’t it hypocritical to treat their erotic counterparts differently?  After all both use the same method of production and depict imagery popular of the time period.

Is Ms. Igarashi’s kayak obscenity or art?  Should she have the right to make it and display it?  Should fans have the right to see it?  Where do we draw the line?  And who has the right to answer these questions, particularly when it comes to policies that affect others?

Perhaps American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it best in the Jacobellis v. Ohio obscenity case when he said, “I know it (obscenity) when I see it.”  Individuals define obscenity by their own opinions and values – there is no clearcut definition.  And as we have seen in the case of shunga, one person’s art may be another person’s obscenity.

But one fact cannot be denied – art or not, shunga hold value as unique cultural artifacts.  And we can learn a lot from these primary sources that offer a peek into Edo era attitudes, interests, people and bedrooms.

One thing’s for sure, I’ll never look at hentai reading commuters on the train the same way again.  I might even sit a little bit closer to them.  They are not perverts, but misunderstood, safety-conscious citizens; heroes willing to tarnish their own images to protect themselves and everyone in the vicinity from fire.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×1600] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources

 

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Japanese Legal Loopholes: How Japan Looks Innocent While Breaking the Law http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/16/japanese-legal-loopholes-how-japan-looks-innocent-while-breaking-the-law/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/16/japanese-legal-loopholes-how-japan-looks-innocent-while-breaking-the-law/#comments Thu, 16 Oct 2014 16:00:37 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42849 One of the big questions I asked myself while in Japan was “why?” Just “why.” Not the usual, little “why’s” that accompany a trip to a foreign nation like, “why are squatty potties so hard to use?” Rather, I couldn’t help being bombarded by bigger, more legalistic “why’s.” Why in a country where prostitution was […]

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One of the big questions I asked myself while in Japan was “why?” Just “why.” Not the usual, little “why’s” that accompany a trip to a foreign nation like, “why are squatty potties so hard to use?” Rather, I couldn’t help being bombarded by bigger, more legalistic “why’s.” Why in a country where prostitution was illegal did I see signs and brochures for places like the “Love Action Club,” with catalogs of girls to choose from and a probably-quite-sketchy number you could call? Why, in a country where underage drinking is outlawed, are you almost never asked to verify your age?

It seemed to me that several laws in Japan are only very loosely enforced. I started to think that maybe Japan was posturingshowing the world that these laws existed and meeting the standards expected of them on the world stagebut to the native (and sometimes foreigners) there are pretty obvious areas where these laws are simply not enforced. Many governments, and Japan in particular, have a system in place for following their rules to the letter of the law, but will abuse specific wording or create exceptions to allow certain behaviors to slip through the cracks unchallenged. These loopholes seem to inform quite a few areas of Japanese life, so I wanted to dive into a few of the different types of loopholes and attempt to analyze the “why” of it all.

Types of Loopholes

uzumaki-manga

It’s probably too ambitious to attempt to look at all the myriad ways any one government may attempt to skirt laws, so I’m just going to point out some of the major ones in some of the most widely noticeable categories. If any of you fine, upstanding, Tofugu-loving folks would post other observed loopholes or personal anecdotes in the comments, that would be a great way to increase our understanding. That said, this is what I found:

Alcohol Loopholes

japanese-beer-case1

To understand that a double-standard exists with Japan’s enforcement of alcohol, one must compare it to their handling of another controlled substance, firearms. Gun control is so heavily monitored and enforced in Japan that it is almost baffling to a Westerner, especially when compared to the culturally more lax attitude to alcohol and tobacco. We can see that these cultural differences really do inform regulation: So in the United States, whose Constitution contains a “Right to Bear Arms,” firearm control is deemphasized. In Japanese culture, which stresses the importance of drinking between coworkers to seal business deals and foster bonds, it follows naturally that drinking laws would be similarly deemphasized. In Japan, where herds of salarymen stumble home each night, a law that penalizes people for being drunk in public would simply not work as it may in other societies. These are not yet loopholes, however. These are cultural differences in the creation of laws. The loopholes arise when dealing with a consequence of these cultural differences: underage drinking.

To quote a very relevant 2013 article by Koichi (go read it!), “the Japanese underage drinking law came into effect in 1922. It has been ignored ever since.” In 1922, when faced with the evidence that underage drinking was hazardous and being newly opened up to a global stage that had already made that behavior illegal (and, shoot, the U.S. was even in the middle of an outright alcohol prohibition), Japan caved to the pressure and implemented a similar law of their own. However, it wasn’t long before the Japanese underage drinking law became so unenforced that it really only existed on paper and not in practice. The Japanese law as written did not put any restrictions or penalties in place for vendors, machine or otherwise, that sold to underage persons. Nothing really changed.

Whaling Loopholes

whale-meat-poster

Japan’s loophole with whaling is the only loophole on this list that circumvents international law and as such has been heavily criticized by the global community. To understand why, we need to discuss the history of the law that Japan is evading: the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling. Around the late 1970s, the anti-whaling movement was beginning to pick up steam around the world. Eventually these pressures bubbled into an international treaty that set out to ban all whaling, only allowing two exemptions: scientific whaling done for research, and aboriginal-subsistence whaling (for Inuits or other native groups that wouldn’t be able to adequately meet their food needs without the traditional food source). With whaling being an important part of native food and culture in Japan, there was a desire domestically to fight this legislation. Japan, along with Norway, Peru, and Russia (other countries with a significant degree of commercial whaling) launched formal objections to the moratorium. It wasn’t until the US threatened to reduce the Japanese fishing quota within American waters that Japan accepted the moratorium. In 1988, when the US reduced the Japanese fishing quota anyway (sort of a dick move), the Japanese were left to decide what to do in response. It was around this time they opted to employ something they had begun to get very good at usingloopholes.

The Japanese government started issuing ‘Scientific Whaling Permits’ left and right to allow their whaling to be carried out under the guise of lethal scientific research so that they could still meet the provisions of the moratorium. However, the way the whaling was handled did not significantly differentiate it from earlier commercial whaling practices; the meat is still sold to certain fishmongers and finds itself in classy Japanese restaurants after the “research” is conducted. Even in the cases where actual research is carried out, it is not often published in reputable scientific journals and would usually be a more feasible experiment if tagging and catch-and-release strategies were conducted instead of lethal harvesting. Not only that, but the research results typically revolve around how to increase the efficiency of whaling or to convince the global community to remove the moratorium. Seems legit.

Gambling Loopholes

japanese-pachinko-parlor

Betting on casino games, slot machines, mobile games, sports, and any other form of gambling with direct cash winnings is outlawed by chapter 23 of Japan’s criminal code. However, the law specifically builds in a handful of exceptions in order for some money to be made in the ridiculously lucrative gambling industry. For example, betting on horse races and certain motor sports is specifically exempted by the law. Additionally, prefectures and big cities can still sell lottery tickets and hold a variety of lottery events with direct cash payments without violating the law. However, for the most part this law is upheld to the letter. Yeah, that’s right, gambling is actually illegal in Japan. I guess that explains the absence of traditional casinos (for now). But still you wouldn’t think of gambling as illegal when looking at the prevalence of pachinko parlors. Surely, pachinko counts as a form of gambling, right? Not according to Japanese law, and trust me it has taken a fair amount of time and finagling for pachinko to reach the loophole-filled status that it currently enjoys.

Owning and operating a pachinko parlor isn’t illegal. Like the aforementioned horse racing, it has been specifically exempted by the law for significant cultural and historical purposes. The only thing that would make it illegal would be if there were direct cash payouts on site, and that’s exactly how pachinko proprietors skirt this law. At the parlors themselves, people will pay to sit down and play pachinko and their winnings are given to them in the form of gold tokens, metal balls, or something else innocuous. At the parlors, there are prize counters that contain all kinds of kitschy prizes like rice cookers, jewelry, handbags, chocolates, cigarettes, TVs, DVD players, etc. At first glance, the whole system just looks like a glorified version Chuck E. Cheese. The appeal is that you can simply exchange your winnings for a receipt at the prize counter instead of an awkward prize. You can then take that receipt to a winnings desk outside of the premises and turn it in for cash. These exchange stations are usually right next door and owned and operated by the same people as the pachinko parlor. Yet, because they didn’t give you a direct cash payout on site, and you actually had to walk a couple feet, there is zero infraction in the eyes of the law. Everyone involved in pachinko, including law enforcement, parlor employees, and most players are aware of exactly how this system works and how it skirts the laws. But they acknowledge that it’s basically just a legal way to gamble while following Japanese penal code.

Prostitution Loopholes

japanese-prostitution

Considering the tradition of mizuage among geisha, sexuality has played a major role in Japanese society. Prostitution in Japan was even a state-sponsored activity, with the government licensing and monitoring brothels until 1946 when this practice was banned. After the ban, prostitutes were no longer given guaranteed national contracts, but prostitution was still legal and widely practiced. Many brothels would use cafes or other legitimate businesses as fronts. Pressures from the domestic lobbying group, “The National Federation of the Brothel Trade,” which offered money and free brothel trips to politicians, made it very difficult for reform to reach the Japanese sex trade. It wasn’t until twelve years later in 1958 that the Anti-Prostitution Law was passed and actively enforced. With prostitution outlawed, it took many creative loopholes to keep brothels in operation.

The specific language of the Anti-Prostitution Law only forbids “vaginal sex in exchange for money”, which renders other sex acts permissible. Two of the most common modern variations on Japan’s brothels are fashion health (ファッションヘルス) facilities and soaplands (ソープランド). Fashion Health centers are typically advertised as massage parlors, but they offer much more than just massages. As a matter of fact, the only thing they can’t offer is vaginal sexual intercourse. In this case, the letter of the law is upheld.

Soaplands are merely advertised as locations where patrons will be bathed by partners of their choice. However, they offer much of the same services as brothels. In fact, they can often go a bit further and circumvent the prostitution law for their clients. This is where the most elaborate exploitation of a loophole can be seen. The specific wording of the law forbids only, “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment.” The key word here being: “unspecified.” Many soaplands, and a handful of other sexual services, have been able to operate legally in Japan by making the claim that the sexual act is being exchanged between people who have become acquainted and are no longer “unspecified”.

“Is it nonsense to deem that the couple fell in love while massaging at a soapland? Yes. But that is how things have operated inside the Japanese legal framework for over five decades,” says Kansai University professor Yoshikazu Nagai, who has extensively studied the modern Japanese sex industry.

These industries are well-regulated in Japan, they must report to police to register as one of the following designations: soaplands, fashion health massage parlors, call-girl businesses, strip clubs, love hotels, and adult shops, and are legally bound to only operate in the capacity of the category they choose. However, that doesn’t stop many of these industries from abusing the wording of the legislation which makes it impossible to criminalize these forms of prostitution. The semantic arguments have become so institutionalized that prostitution in many cases is essentially legal.

Child Pornography Loopholes

downstairs-into-a-dangerous-place

Okay, here it is: we’re going to get a little heavy here. There’s no doubt that Japan really values the aesthetic of cuteness and that this naturally translates to the aesthetic of youth (It’s also a bit of a chicken/egg situation). In Japan, youth is beauty. This is why foreign models chosen to represent Japanese companies often need to fit a certain standard of youthful beauty that requires them to be between the ages of 13 to 16. It’s the reason yaeba teeth are popular, and it is the reason that the lolicon genre and fandom exist. For the unaware, lolicon is typically defined as “discourse or media in Japan focusing on the attraction to young or prepubescent girls.” We’ll add that this type of media is typically in the form of drawn or animated depictions of sexualized prepubescent girls as real-life depictions may violate Article 7 of the Japanese constitution that criminalizes the production of child pornography that was ratified in 1999 (They dragged their feet on that one). In Japan, possession and production of explicitly sexual cartoon lolicon is legal, although still contentious. It’s legal in Japan. No loopholes there. However, it gets a little blurrier when discussing non-simulated child pornography.

After 1999 child pornography was outlawed, but only on the following grounds, “production, transport, import and export, as well as possession of child pornography for the aforementioned purposes.” It became illegal to make and sell child pornography internationally. However, there were absolutely no consequences to those that owned it. None. They had simply to prove that they owned it for personal reasons and had no intention to produce, transport, import, or export it, and the law couldn’t touch them. It wasn’t until Wednesday, June 18th, of the year 2014 (I’m not even kidding) that Japanese lawmakers bowed to international pressures and passed a law making the mere possession of child pornography a crime that could result in a year in jail or an up to $10,000 fine. This, of course, left lolicon depictions untouched as they are considered important both economically and for freedom of expression. Has Japan finally moved closer to the international standard for regulating child pornography? The law provides Japanese citizens a year to dispose of any child pornography they possess before risking any prosecution. In this age of technological mass communication and information duplication, that is a pretty lenient loophole. It’s as if Japan doesn’t really want to prosecute child pornographers, instead providing a gentle slap on the wrist and saying, “Hey, you might want to get rid of that.”

Another blatant loophole that continues to blur enforcement of this law is media featuring Japanese junior idols, child models that usually start between the ages of 13 and 15. While the above types of child pornography are largely distributed in hushed tones and on the dark corners of the internet, junior idol magazines, photo books, and videos, can be purchased in legitimate storefronts across Japan. When I was in Osaka, I saw a shelf full of junior idol DVDs, mostly suggestive swimsuit modeling, that was literally across the aisle from shelves of hardcore hentai and sex toys. It’s extremely hard to imagine that those DVDs were being sold for an artistic purpose and not a pornographic one. There have been prosecutions of production companies whose junior models have crossed the vaguely defined line between child modeling and child pornography, resulting in several videos being removed from Amazon.jp’s online store. This is a start, but it hasn’t even slowed down the multimillion dollar junior idol industry.

About That “Why” Question

kill-me-baby-anime-question-mark-confused

Now that I’ve brought up this diverse list of loopholes in the Japanese government, you, dear reader, should have a few “why’s” in your mind as well. Many of the questions raised by this pattern of loophole flouting in Japanese politics do not have easy answers. Some have argued that the loopholes are exploited by the Japanese public and it is the ineffectiveness of the Japanese government’s enforcement of laws that allows loopholes to thrive. However, Japanese law enforcement seems to institutionalize and actively allow many of these loopholes, so I think differently. I speculate that one of the main reasons for this abundance of loopholes isn’t ineffective enforcement or even political corruption (though parts of it can certainly seem symptomatic). It seems to me that what Japan is really after is preservation of the status quo.

From whaling, to prostitution , to a lax drinking culture, to pachinko parlors, to retaining the legality of lolicon, the exceptions are typically made simply to maintain things as they have always been. In fact, it is my belief that many of the laws that these loopholes circumvent would not have been ratified if it weren’t for the intense pressure from the global community. Japan wants to appear as if it is matching expectations of behavior and etiquette with the Western world, while still enjoying certain behaviors that, while deemed inappropriate elsewhere, are considered core to the Japanese way of life.

These loopholes in laws serve a very similar role domestically. Instead of appeasing the moral sensibilities of those overseas, these laws can also appease Japanese citizens by assuring them that legislation has been passed that will protect them from problems like prostitution and underage drinking, when in reality nothing is truly being enforced. For instance, take this short anecdote from fellow Tofugu writer, Verity Lane:

“the prefecture knew that teachers were working too many hours, and they were being criticized. So they shortened the day by 10 minutes. The previous start time was 8:00. Now it’s 8:10. However, the schools didn’t change the time of the morning meeting (at 8:10) so teachers have to be in school by 8:00 anyway. Nothing changed, but there’s some proof that the prefecture ‘did something’ if anyone criticizes them about working hours again.”

This is a simple example, but it is very telling because it supports this observable pattern of many Japanese regulations making changes on paper, but not truly enforcing them, or else building in exemptions that render the law meaningless. It isn’t my purpose to deem whether these actions are ethical or unethical, but merely to bring this interesting idea to the forefront. I really look foreword to hearing the discussions and comments that this article will elicit. Have you observed these patterns in Japanese society? Where do you see other loopholes? And, let us not forget, why?

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources:

  • http://www.icap.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=tMW8of1JAgU%3D&tabid=199
  • http://www.cgeorgemuller.com/summary.htm
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Japan
  • http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120815-the-big-business-of-japans-pachinko-parlours
  • http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/consumer-electronics/gaming/the-secret-life-of-pachinko
  • http://neojaponisme.com/2008/11/17/why-japan-needed-prostitution/
  • http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2008/05/27/reference/law-bends-over-backward-to-allow-fuzoku/#.VCmnn8uM2Ul
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akasen
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Japan
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junior_idol
  • http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/17/world/asia/japan-child-porn-law/index.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_pornography_laws_in_Japan

 

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The Standard of Japanese Female Beauty: Ono no Komachi and the Akita Bijin http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/10/the-standard-of-japanese-female-beauty-ono-no-komachi-and-the-akita-bijin/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/10/the-standard-of-japanese-female-beauty-ono-no-komachi-and-the-akita-bijin/#comments Fri, 10 Oct 2014 16:00:52 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=43890 Ono no Komachi 小野小町 was a poet of unparalleled beauty and renown. Not only was she one of the most famous and well respected poets of the early Heian Period 平安時代, the golden age of Japanese poetry, but the rumor and awe surrounding her beauty has left its mark on Japan to the present day. A […]

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Ono no Komachi 小野小町 was a poet of unparalleled beauty and renown. Not only was she one of the most famous and well respected poets of the early Heian Period 平安時代, the golden age of Japanese poetry, but the rumor and awe surrounding her beauty has left its mark on Japan to the present day.

A Legend is Born in Tohoku

ono-no-komachi-woodblock-pring

It is widely accepted that Ono no Komachi was born in Akita Prefecture 秋田県, when it was still known as Dewa 出羽国, in what is now Yuzawa City 湯沢市 around 834 AD. Her father Yoshisada was (most likely) the lord of Dewa at the time and sent his daughter to Heian-kyō 平安京 (modern day Kyoto). She was around twelve or thirteen when she went to serve in the Imperial Court. It is rumored that she had an older sister who was also sent to Kyoto, but she never reached the level of fame that her little sister attained.

During the Heian Period the Imperial Court was all about aesthetics. The two most significant were Miyabi 雅 (Refinement/Elegance/Courtliness) and Mono no aware 物の哀れ (Sensitivity). The former meant the removal of all things vulgar or absurd, and the latter was the ability to be moved by nature, a melancholy over the impermanence of things in this world.

For someone to be considered attractive in the Heian period they needed to be both refined, elegant, and sensitive. They expressed these qualities mainly through poetry. Poems were the primary form of communication between those at court, men wrote poems to men, women to other women, and of course, lovers and married couples wrote poems to one another.

Poetry competitions were held regularly, and the most sensitive poem that referenced proper seasonal and older poetic tropes would bring renown to its writer. Genji’s (of the Tale of Genji) charm came from his ability to feel, and his expression of those feelings through poetry. Heian aesthetic was also expressed through the way people dressed. Women had to wear long robes called jūnihitoe 十二単, or twelve layer robes. They were extremely complicated, colorful kimono that had numerous layers and could weigh almost forty-five pounds. The more layers, the more impressive. You certainly couldn’t put them on by yourself.

All of these qualities defined what beauty was to the Japanese nobility.

Poetry and Heartache

ono-no-komachi-at-heian-court

Ono no Komachi had all of these qualities and she excelled in the world of the Heian court. While she was known for her skills at the koto, calligraphy, singing, and dancing, it was her poetry that brought her the most attention. She wrote mainly about love, and the poems she wrote to her many lovers actually help us to know when she was at court. Her most famous relationship was with Fukakusa no Shosho 深草少将. Her poetry is full of longing, heartache, and emotional intensity and the waka 和歌 style that people were using at the time fit her own perfectly.

As a side note: having many lovers was in no way considered to be a bad thing at this time. Men and women often had more than one lover, but that didn’t make the emotional strain when someone you had feelings for moved on to someone else hurt any less. Please do not mistake Ono no Komachi for some kind of concubine or anything out of the ordinary.

Here are five of my personal favorites:

Ima wa tote
Ware ni shigure no
Furiyukeba
Koto no ha sae zo
Utsuroinikeru

Omoitsutsu
Nureba yo hito no
Mietsuran
Yume to shiriseba
Samezaramashi o

Utatane ni
Koishiki hito o
Miteshi yori
Yume cho mono wa
Tanomisometeki

Ito semete
Koishiki toki wa
Mubatama no
Yoru no koromo o
Kaeshite zo kiru

Hito ni awan
Tsuki no naki ni wa
Omoiokite
Mune hashiribi ni
Kokoro yakeori

Now is the time
You think to leave me,
I am growing older
Your promises too
Are leaves of turning colors.

Was it that I fell asleep
Longing for him
That he appeared?
Had I known it was a dream
I should not have awakened.

In a doze I saw
The one I am longing for;
Since then
I have come to rely
On my dreams

When I long for him
Oppressed by the thoughts I have,
I wear my robe,
Jet black as the night,
Turned inside out.

On a moonless night
When I will not meet him,
I lie awake longing for him, my mind aflame
My heart burns amidst
The leaping fire in my breast

Even in translation, her passion seems to pulse through the page. Her poetry is so highly regarded that she is listed among the Rokkasen 六歌仙 (Japanese Poetry Immortals), as well as in the introduction to the Kokin Wakashū 古今和歌集 (also known as the Kokinshū), which contains the only surviving works by Ono no Komachi. She is also one of the Sanjūrokkasen 三十六歌仙 (the Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry) and the Nyōbōsanjūrokkasen 女房三十六歌仙 (Thirty-six Immortal Lady Poets).

Her poetry and her ability to fit within the aesthetic world of the Heian court were amazing. But what exactly is it that makes her so important? She’s had an even bigger impact on Japan than many people realize, especially in how people look at her supposed birthplace, present day Akita Prefecture.

Beauty Standards of the Akita Bijin

heian-women-in-ancient-japan

From left to right: Ono no Komachi, Sotoori-hime, The Third Princess (Onna San No Miya/Nyōsan).

You may have heard the term Akita Bijin 秋田美人 before in Japan. It’s a term used for really beautiful women from Akita prefecture, and some other parts of Tohoku. There is a certain something that young women from that area seem to have, and when people talk about their ideal woman, or who the most beautiful women are in Japan, Akita Bijin may come up.

Here are the qualities an Akita Bijin is said to have:

  • white/pale skin
  • round face
  • straight brow
  • double eyelids
  • small nose
  • small mouth with full lips

This concept of beauty and the traits involved are all rumored to be qualities that Ono no Komachi had. She was the ideal, a perfect woman who came from far away to the capital to serve in court and her beauty was what everyone longed for.

Today you can hear people saying how good the rice in Akita is. “It’s so good for your skin,” they say. And the water is so fresh up there, drinking and soaking in it makes your skin so smooth and white. These were all things I heard firsthand when I told people I was going to Akita to study. So was it these natural resources that gave Ono no Komachi and other women their beauty? Water and rice?

There are other theories. This pale complexion is more likely from the fact that it snows in the Tohoku region. A lot. The summers are fairly short and the winters are excruciatingly long. This means that people aren’t getting a lot of sunlight, so of course they’re going to be pale compared to someone from Kyoto. In the 1960s, studies were done by a physician in Yuzawa City, measuring the whiteness of women’s skin. He found that a mix of the climate and geological environment were what made their skin so white. According to this study, 29.6% is the “whiteness” of Akita Bijins, while the Japanese average is 22.0%. Apparently this is a noticeable difference.

While the rice and the water may help, seeing as they’re actually pretty tasty, as well as the lack of sunlight, it’s more likely that Ono no Komachi’s legacy is the cause. Her looks were enhanced by her sensitivities and her poetry. Her pale skin and soft round face may have become popular more so because of her ability to fit within the aesthetic of the Heian court, than her looks themselves being attractive. In other words, the idea that her features were beautiful were a result, not a cause.

Theater Keeps the Legacy Alive

kabuki-child-play

Photo by lensonjapa

Writers have been using Ono no Komachi as their personification of beauty and poetic skill for over one thousand years. She has been used as the subject of seven Noh plays: Sotoba Komachi 卒塔婆小町Sekidera Komachi 関寺小町Ōmu Komachi 鸚鵡小町Sōshi Arai Komachi 草紙洗小町, Kayoi Komachi 小町, Amagoi Komachi 雨乞小町, and Kiyomizu Komachi 清水小町. Sometimes she appears as an old woman, destitute and lamenting over her former glory as a poet in court. Other times she comes back as the ghost of the beautiful woman she was, appearing to people and reciting her poetry. In every case she is remembered for her great beauty and masterful poetry. She also appears in four Kabuki plays: Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Aeki no To 積恋雪関扉, Saruhodoni koi non omoni 去程恋重荷, Rokkasen Sugata no Irodori 六歌仙容彩, and Waka no Toku Amagoi Komachi 和歌徳雨乞小町.

She also appeared in a manga that started in 2010 called Chōyaku Hyakunin isshu: Uta Koi 超訳百人一首 うた恋い, which is still being published. It’s all about, you guessed it, poetry exchanged between Heian nobility and love. The anime aired in 2012.

Komachi Branding

If you add Komachi to a product, it instantly becomes more marketable and hints at elegance.

Akita Komachi Rice

akita-bijin-rice

This rice not only takes Ono no Komachi’s namesake, but companies use her image for marketing as well. It’s easy to see how people think that the rice is what makes the girls of Akita so pretty when they use this kind of imagery. This rice isn’t what gave the original Ono no Komachi her beauty though, as this strain of rice didn’t exist before the 1980s.

Komachi Shinkansen

akita-bijin-ono-no-komachi-train

Photo by Norio Nakayama

Created in 1997, the Komachi Shinkansen runs from Tokyo to Akita. The name was voted on by the public, second and third place were Obako おばこ and Tazawa たざわ respectively. The train was upgraded in 2013 and is one of the best ways to travel to Akita without flying directly to their airport.

Komachi Hot Spring and Hotel

akita-bijin-ono-no-komachi-hot-springs-onsen

What better way to pamper yourself than in a hotel that has a bunch of hot springs. That Akita water is sure you make your skin soft and bouncy, just like Ono no Komachi. They don’t just have one big communal hot spring, mind you. They have huge public baths, seven open air baths, a mist sauna, and a sauna theater! They also have a theater called the Komachi Theater where different theater troupes put on performances. Check our their website for more.

A Parade of Beautiful Women

akita-bijin-ono-no-komachi-parade

She wouldn’t be a proper Japanese legend if she didn’t have her own festival! The Komachi Festival is held every year in her hometown of present day Yuzawa City’s Ono District on the second Sunday of June.

The festival involves seven girls picked from Yuzawa City who dress in traditional clothing and dedicate seven of Ono no Komachi’s poems at a shrine bearing her own name, Komachi-do. Below is an example of the seven poems that are dedicated:

七小町娘の朗詠歌

1. 花の色はうつりにけりないたづらに
我が見世にふるながめせしまに

2. いとせめて恋しきときはうばたまの
夜の衣をかえしてぞ着る

3. 思いつゝ寝ればや人の見えつらん
夢と知りせば党めざらましを

4. ちはやぶる神もみばさば立ちさわぎ
天の戸川の樋口あけたまえ

5. わびぬれば身をうき草の根をたえて
誘う水あらばいなんとぞ思ふ

6. 色も春もなつかしきかな蛙なく
井手のわたりの山吹の花

7. 面影のかわらで年のつもれかし
たとひ命にかぎりありとも

Quiet Retirement

akita-bijin-ono-no-komachi-old-age

Ono no Komachi left court and returned to Yuzawa when she was in her mid-thirties and no one really knows what happened from there. While some plays suggest that she met old age in a state of poverty and slight madness over her lost loves, most scholars believe this to be false. There are grave sites dedicated to her dotted throughout Japan so no one really knows her true burial site either. They can be found in Miyagi, Fukushima, Shiga, Okayama, and Ibaraki prefectures, to name a few. There are even two in Kyoto. Regardless of where she went, she probably spent her remaining years in peace, unaware of her impact on the world of poetry and Japanese perceptions of beauty.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources

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Yakan Chuugaku: The Japanese Night Time Junior High Where The Uneducated Learn To Read Good http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/08/yakan-chuugaku-the-japanese-night-time-junior-high-where-the-uneducated-learn-to-read-good/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/08/yakan-chuugaku-the-japanese-night-time-junior-high-where-the-uneducated-learn-to-read-good/#comments Wed, 08 Oct 2014 16:00:51 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42131 In recent years, many people from different countries have been coming to Japan. Their reasons for studying Japanese are as various as their backgrounds. Due to this diversity, local governments have begun shifting their attention of language education to a wider age-range of non-native speakers, since these people aren’t all school-aged students, after all. However, […]

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In recent years, many people from different countries have been coming to Japan. Their reasons for studying Japanese are as various as their backgrounds. Due to this diversity, local governments have begun shifting their attention of language education to a wider age-range of non-native speakers, since these people aren’t all school-aged students, after all. However, there are still some learners that manage to slip from the clutches of even these education systems. Japanese Junior High Night Schools, or 夜間中学 (yakan-chuugaku), have been picking up the slack. They have actually been accepting these non-native students since after WWII, and the number of non-Japanese students in these classes has been rapidly increasing in recent years. In fact, now approximately 70% of the students are non-Japanese! Today, we’ll be learning about these nocturnal classrooms.

How To Get Into A Yakan-Chuugaku

yakanchuugaku2

Photo by gwaar

Yakan-chuugaku are public junior high night schools designed for those who were not able to complete their compulsory education. In Japan, compulsory education laws require six years of elementary and three years of junior high school. Although the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has just started discussions over a new system (which would unify elementary and junior high), one thing would remain the same: compulsory education will be 9 years with every child being required to complete this if they are between the ages of six (five in the new system) and fifteen.

Reality, however, is often quite different. Approximately one million people were unable to graduate due to many reasons, including poverty, mental illness, and even issues related to one’s own nationality. Those people are the individuals who get targeted by the junior high night schools.

While everyone who attends school in Japan should be sure to check their local requirements, as a general example I’ve cited the enrollment requirements for this type of school in Tokyo:

People who meet the following conditions are eligible to join a yakan-chuugaku:
1. Have not graduated from either elementary school or junior high school.
2. Living or working in Tokyo.
3. Must be 15 years of age or older.

The number of these schools is not adequate yet either. There are only 36 of these schools nationwide. 8 in Tokyo, 1 in Chiba, 6 in Kanagwa, 1 in Aichi, 11 in Osaka, 1 in Kyoto, 3 in Nara, 3 in Hyogo, and 2 in Hiroshima. Since they don’t exist in many prefectures, some people have to give up on getting fundamental education. Therefore, there is a movement towards trying to establish junior high night schools in every prefecture throughout Japan.

A Night School Junior High History Class

After WWII, poor children who could not attend classes during regular hours due to family responsibilities / work claimed their right to learn. In accordance with such a demand, schoolteachers temporarily organized an evening class for these students in Osaka in 1947, and that was the start of the junior high night school.

After that, the number of schools increased as well as the number of students. However, after the number of students peaked to over 5,000 in 1955, it decreased markedly because Japanese living standards improved and the educational infrastructure was better developed. Following this situation, the Japanese Administrative Management Agency even recommended that the Ministry of Education (now the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) should end junior high night school classes as soon as possible, though it never actually happened.

Around this time, the age range of the students in these schools began expanding. It was originally opened for students that were of junior high school age, thus the name “junior high night school”. Yet, it was concluded that they should extend the right to attend these schools to those who missed school because of the war, or financial problems. This extension was also provided to the Korean people who had come to Japan and were so busy making a living that they were not able to go to school during working hours.

But, the number of Korean students began to fall in 1974. Instead, the number of Japanese orphans in China who had returned to Japan started increasing, especially starting in 1978 following the Japan-China Treaty of Peace And Friendship. Chinese students at the night schools reached 2,772 in 1980, and they continued as the majority group for a while.

In 1990, a law called “immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act” was established. This law made it easier for people that descended from Japanese expatriates, or 日系人 (Nikkeijin), to enter Japan. This caused the descendants of Japanese families from countries in South America, such as Brazil, Peru, and Argentina to increase in population. This resulted in more of these people registering for junior high night school, with student attendance reaching 3,424 in 1999.

The Curriculum Of Junior High Night School

yuukanchuugaku

Photo by gwaar

Students can enter the school anytime as long as they meet the requirements, although it’s difficult for non-Japanese students to obtain proof that they have not graduated from an elementary school or junior high school already, and therefore the qualification exam is not that rigorous.

Once they enter a school, it’s designed so that every student will study the entire junior high school curriculum. So, some schools have Japanese language classes for those who are not fluent in Japanese yet. Students are usually classified by their Japanese ability, age, and their purpose of studying. The classes cover everything from basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to all the other junior high school subjects. There are 4 classes in a typical day and each class is usually 40 minutes. The subjects covered in a regular class are usually Japanese, math, social science, science, English, music, art, health and physical education, industrial arts and home economics. The subjects of a Japanese language class are Japanese, music, physical education, art, industrial arts and home economics, and homeroom activities. Depending on the classroom you belong to, the allotment of the subjects above can differ as well. For example, a class with younger aged people tends to have a similar curriculum to that of a daytime school, whereas the classes with elderly people tend to focus more on studying Japanese.

Problems Awaiting Solution

immigrants

Photo by takomabibelot

Unlike education for children, the syllabus or learning objective of the education in junior high night schools is different depending on each learner, especially so for different generations. Even among the younger generations, those who are aiming at the next stage of education are more studious than others who are just there for the credits. There are also many more children who are here simply because of their parents’ jobs, so they are only interested in learning Japanese for daily conversation and show no interest in other subjects.

The situations of each student also varies greatly. Some students have opes of getting a job (or getting a better job) after graduating, whereas others are already working, or are living on welfare. Some students show up late every day, or have a lot of absences, due to their jobs or health conditions. It makes continuing their education very difficult. In addition, there are many different native languages to think about, lifestyles, and core values due to all the different home countries that these students come from. A teacher has to come up with ways for many different people to understand one subject. Sometimes personal curriculums have to be made, so it’s a tough job to have.

Since Japan is globalizing, we can expect the variety of students to increase in these junior high night schools as well. Perhaps this will cause more issues in these schools, and make it harder for these students to learn (not to mention harder for these teachers to teach), but all in all maybe it’s a good thing. It shows that Japan is becoming more diverse, even if it’s slowly, and as this increases it will force the government to come up with new solutions for these people.

Because it’s difficult to understand what these teachers, and students, go through, I found someone who teaches at one of these schools and interviewed her. We’ll be publishing that next week, so stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

cheatingobaachan-700
[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources:

  • 松崎運之助(1979)『夜間中学』白石書店
  • 原田明子(2003a)「夜間中学に在籍する日本語学習者の言語習得管理―学習環境とインターアクション行動の分析から―」 早稲田大学大学院 修士論文
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education

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Hell’s Bells: Gamers Steer Animal Crossing up a Silent Hill http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/03/hells-bells-gamers-steer-animal-crossing-up-a-silent-hill/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/03/hells-bells-gamers-steer-animal-crossing-up-a-silent-hill/#comments Fri, 03 Oct 2014 16:00:55 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44450 There’s no wrong way to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which, depending on the kind of person you are, can be extremely frustrating or tremendously liberating. In this Nintendo 3DS game, you are the new mayor and it’s your job to develop your town, but what that means exactly is largely up to you. You […]

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There’s no wrong way to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which, depending on the kind of person you are, can be extremely frustrating or tremendously liberating. In this Nintendo 3DS game, you are the new mayor and it’s your job to develop your town, but what that means exactly is largely up to you. You can spend your time paying off your debt to loan shark Tom Nook, collecting bugs, funding public works projects, filling your house entirely with toilets, and on and on.

But, if ambition levels are really high, your sunny town with its cutesy animal villagers can be transformed into a desolate nightmare where murder and mayhem run rampant. Really. At least, that’s what a growing number of Japanese players are doing. But their creations aren’t just towns with creepy atmospheres and gory garnish. These players are using Animal Crossing as a medium for telling unique narratives that borrow extensively from the Japanese horror genre.

We’ll take a tour through three of these creeptastic towns, dissecting their cultural elements and unearthing their Japanese horror roots. And don’t worry—you can hold my hand if you get scared.

Enter Diablo

animal-crossing-diablo-town

What’s cool about Animal Crossing: New Leaf is that it allows players to visit each other’s towns in “dreams” i.e. players explore what are essentially snapshots of other Animal Crossing towns using the 3DS’ Wi-Fi capabilities. They can interact with characters and objects, but they can’t permanently alter anything. (So sorry, you don’t get to maniacally level someone else’s trees.)

When your avatar “dreams” of the Japanese nightmare town でぃあぶる (Diablo), you arrive in your pajamas and are free to explore Diablo’s every nook and cranny, but the horror story to be uncovered here primarily takes place inside two large buildings. The first is modestly decorated with a number of small bedrooms. Canvases are set up everywhere you turn: This is some kind of artists’ retreat. But as you walk from room to room, you notice everyone’s been painting the same dark forest over and over. Look a little closer and you see a small, red-hooded figure in these paintings. She gets closer and closer in each painting, until finally she escapes her canvas confines entirely.

The red-hooded figure appears in the form of a smiling, red-hooded doll who sits behind the unsuspecting painters, ax lying on the floor nearby. One artist is missing, having left only a bloodied bed behind in his room and a painting of a red-hooded girl walking back through the forest. Look over the shoulder of one of the only still-surviving artists and you’ll see his half-finished painting of the same forest.

The other house in Diablo is where you’ll find the artist who summoned this evil red-hooded girl, either to curse her fellow artists or, if the high-quality art crammed inside her house is a clue, gain amazing artistic abilities for her own. (When you talk to her, she also laughs suspiciously. Never trust a suspicious katakana laugh.)

The creator of Diablo does lighten the mood with a weird joke, though. Walk around town long enough and you’ll run into Sanji. He’s the well-dressed cook and womanizer from One Piece, Japan’s best-selling manga and anime series about pirates. So there’s that.

Psyching You Out

the-ring-movie

Diablo’s narrative structure is simpler and its gore lighter than most of the other Animal Crossing nightmare towns I’ve ventured through, but I think that’s what makes it such a great example of suspense and psychological horror—two of contemporary Japanese horror’s biggest calling cards.

After the hyper-gore and violence of ’80s horror movies like the Guinea Pig film series, one of which was mistaken for a genuine snuff film by Charlie Sheen who then reported the filmmakers to the FBI (really!), the ’90s saw a stylistic shift in J-horror. Jay McRoy, author of Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Cinema, specifically points to Tsuruta Norio’s Scary True Stories as influencing many of the big names in the J-horror genre. (Instead of blood and guts, Norio went the other way and focused on disturbing creepiness, like ghostly figures with long black hair.)

Although there’s no typical black-haired vengeful ghost in Diablo, I think this nightmare town fits alongside movies like Ring and One Missed Call. Much like the characters in these movies, who must survive cursed videotapes and phones, the painters of Diablo are faced with canvases that a malevolent force uses to find and kill them. And the evil spirits in all these stories aren’t being too picky, acting as more of an apocalyptic force of evil. These horror stories aren’t about the individual being psychologically tortured per se; they’re more about the threat society itself is under from this unstoppable, wide-reaching attack – and they don’t need a lot of gore to get their point across. If you know what you’re doing a TV full of static or a half-finished painting of a forest is all you need to put your audience on edge.

The Animal Cannibals

animal-crossing-hitokui-town

At first blush, ひとくい (Hitokui) seems like a throwback to American horror film classics, like Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hitokui means “cannibalism,” after all, and when you wander into the basement of the town restaurant filled with cleavers in puddles of blood and empty baby cribs, it’s clear the chef (named Ed Gein) has been cooking with some unusual ingredients. (Every building in Hitokui is designed this way, with the ground floor appearing normal, almost eerily so, and basements and second floors acting as plot twists or scary reveals.)

But the on-the-nose town name proves to be semi-false advertising the deeper you go, and Hitokui’s narrative quickly reveals its classic Japanese horror roots. For example, when you wander into one of the buildings south of the town square, you find yourself at a Japanese funeral, complete with registry book, incense and floor cushions. There’s even a large bonfire downstairs where a cremation might be taking place later. Shide (Shinto paper amulets) cover the walls in many of the rooms, some of which are dripping with blood…

But maybe the most mysterious room in this building is upstairs, where the figure of a woman is using an old-fashioned spinning wheel. There are also four incense burners, four floor cushions, and four wardrobes in the room with her. (Four is associated with death in Japan, since both “four” and “death” can be pronounced the same way. Since there’s so much death in this room with her, she’s probably intended to be a ghost.) All of that, combined with the samurai suit in another room, makes me think the creator of Hitokui is referencing the “Black Hair” short from the 1965 horror anthology film Kwaidan (based on Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese horror stories.)

“Black Hair” is the story of a samurai, who leaves his wife for another, and when he realizes his first wife is his true love some time later, he comes back to find her toiling away at her loom. They happily reunite and spend the evening together, but when morning arrives, he wakes up to discover he’s lying next to her lifeless, rotting body. She’s been dead for months. Yikes.

The mastermind behind Hitokui is thematically prepping us for the final house in town, where things take a sharper turn toward the macabre. Outside, there’s a guy walking around with his head wrapped in bandages, who says, “にがさない…” which means, “There’s no escape…” Step inside the house itself and you see it’s set up like a doctor’s waiting room, but hidden behind the bookcase is a lab full of grotesque experiments.

Upstairs is a completely red room, which could be a nod to the Japanese urban legend about an Internet pop-up ad that references a red room before its viewer dies. (Those pop-up ads are the worst!) Most notable in this particular red room, besides all the kid toys, is the bloody outline of a body on the bed. Kodokushi or “lonely death” is the Japanese word for when a person dies alone, but isn’t discovered for a long time, leaving an outline behind once their body is removed.

And finally, in the basement is the figure of a bride imprisoned behind large stone pillars. Her prison is furnished nicely enough, and even includes a baby crib. Outside her cage is a stool for a visitor and on your way back out, it’s easy to spot the security camera fixed on her.

Vengeful Ghosts

lantern-obake

Despite its name, to me, Hitokui isn’t about cannibalism at all. Rather, it’s telling that most traditional of Japanese stories: a ghost story.

Ghosts are everywhere in Japanese literature and art, and they’ve been popular subjects pretty much no matter how far back in Japanese history you go. But ghosts are part of everyday life in Japan, too, from the yearly Obon Festival to small Jizo statues. There are different kinds of Japanese ghosts, but the ones most recognizable to Japanese and foreigner alike are yurei: pale women dressed in white with long black hair. Their modus operandi has changed over the course of history, but typically, they’re out for revenge, having been wronged in their lives or in the manner of their deaths.

And a typical yurei is depicted in Hitokui – remember the portrait of the deceased at the funeral? She has long black hair and ghostly pale skin. (She’s also crying bloody tears…) And besides the more obvious fact that there are a few skeletons buried in town and one of the characters you can interact with asks “What’s that behind you?” as though seeing a ghost, you are also given two outfits to choose between when you first arrive in town: a police officer’s uniform or a bridal gown. Not only does this add a cool “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” feel to Hitokui, but it is also as though you yourself are passing through Hitokui as a ghost. (Perhaps Hitokui’s law enforcement was killed while investigating the town’s mysteries and perhaps the bridal gown once belonged to the yurei herself – you’re playing as a shadow of what she once was.) Also there’s the nature of Animal Crossing’s Dream Suite itself – you can travel to and exist in these towns, but you can’t affect change.

Although not an exact retelling by any means, in my view, Hitokui is putting the Animal Crossing spin on the most famous of Japanese ghost stories: the story of Oiwa. The tale goes that Oiwa was married to a man named Iemon and together they had a child. One day, Iemon falls in love with another woman, but to be with her, he knows he needs to get rid of his current wife and kid. He tries poisoning Oiwa at first, but when that only manages to disfigure her, he kills Oiwa and their child outright. Naturally, Oiwa comes back to haunt him.

In this retelling, Oiwa is the deceased bride, whose funeral we see, whose child’s red bedroom we know once contained a body (presumably the kid’s), and who is now imprisoned in the basement of her old house. As a spin on the Oiwa story, there are hints that she might have been summoned to Hitokui, rather than appeared on her own (there’s a Satanic-esque sacrifice scene in the town church), but I do wonder if it’s not that Oiwa appeared as a yurei to punish her homicidal husband. Perhaps, a greater evil was summoned to combat her, but then once she was contained, this new evil didn’t leave and instead reigns over the town, perhaps cooking up the villagers in the local restaurant basement?

The Infamous Aika

animal-crossing-aika-town

Aika was the very first Animal Crossing nightmare town I heard about and its name inevitably gets invoked in pretty much any conversation about nightmare towns. Anecdotally, I would say it’s generally considered the gold standard and “The One” to check out.

So what’s going down in Aika town? Well, it’s really vague. (And in an interview with Nintendo Dream, the creator of Aika says she isn’t telling.)

Unlike other nightmare towns, Aika is very much designed to guide you through the town in a specific way. On the side of the river where you first appear, everything is Animal Crossing perfection. Roses bloom and golden fruit grows on all the trees. There’s only one house on this side of the river, and when you go in, you see what looks like a pretty happy family celebrating a little girl’s birthday. You figure out quickly that this little girl is Aika herself and when you talk to her she says: “おかあさん だいすき” or “I love you, Mommy.”

But then you cross the bridge to the other side of town and it’s a whole new setting. Rotting garbage litters the ground and all the grass is dead. When you see Aika again, she mixes up hiragana and katakana in her “I love you, Mommy” spiel. (And when you see her two more times after that, her speech continues to disturbingly worsen.) Inside the buildings themselves are pretty odd and abstract rooms, like one in which rows of dolls sit at a banquet and another that depicts the Genesis story (i.e. Adam and Eve) from the Bible.

The final house is identical to the first house we saw (the one with Aika’s birthday part), but now everyone is gone and garbage covers the floor. The TV is on, but it’s static. The grandfather clock’s hands point to 4 o’clock. Aika’s childish portraits of her family have everyone scrawled out in black except her. And if you walk down to the beach outside, you’ll find a pair of yellow shoes at the water’s edge. (In Japan, it’s common for people who are committing suicide, to take their shoes off and place them neatly together, the idea being that they’re crossing a threshold: from life to death.)

Getting Down with the Kaidan

Japanese-lanterns-in-nara

I’ll admit, I’m not entirely sure what story is being told through Aika. I do think that the town is meant to represent Aika’s psyche rather than a physical town, that Aika had a troubled relationship with her mother, and that due to some horrible event, Aika’s entire family including herself was killed. The town of Aika goes deeper than Diablo (where you’re just a hapless witness) and Hitokui (where you’re an observing ghost), because in Aika, you’re becoming a part of the yurei herself.

I mentioned before that Aika seems to get the most buzz out of all the other nightmare towns, and I imagine it’s probably because the story being told is both detailed and vague, personal and distant. People want to see Aika for themselves and read about everyone else’s widely varying Aika theories, not to mention share their own. Little do they know that in some ways, they’re playing Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or A Gathering of 100 Weird Tales, a Japanese story-telling game that can be traced back to as early as the 1600s.

The rules of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai are pretty simple. A group gathers and places one hundred lit candles in a circle. Each person takes turns telling a scary story, then extinguishes a candle at the story’s end. As more stories are told, the light fades and darkness gathers. Supposedly, once the last candle is extinguished, whatever terrible thing is lurking in the shadows will spring forth.

Enter Sandman

animal-crossing-horror-town-address

Aika, Hitokui, Diablo and all the other Animal Crossing nightmare towns shared online remind me of this old Japanese game. The point isn’t to figure out the “truth” behind Aika, say, but to come back with a spooky story to tell your friends. People swap these nightmare town stories back and forth across various websites, seeing who can tell the scariest one, and how many candle flames can go out before the game ends.

But, as Levar Burton would say, “you don’t have to take my word for it!” If you’d like to explore these towns for yourself and come up with your own theories and observations, their town dream codes are:

Diablo: 3200-0330-2755
Hitokui: 2600-1856-4772
Aika: 2600-0218-7298

If you don’t have a way to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, there are plenty of YouTube videos featuring these three nightmare towns (and many, many more).

But if you’ve ventured into New Leaf nightmare towns before, tell me how you’ve interpreted these places. That way, we can continue the Japanese tradition of gathering darkness.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources:

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Kamaboko: A Pureed Fish Cake Fit For Celebration http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/01/kamaboko-a-pureed-fish-cake-fit-for-celebration/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/01/kamaboko-a-pureed-fish-cake-fit-for-celebration/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42120 What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great […]

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What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great travel piece about it. So that you can further enjoy our experience at the kamaboko museum, I thought we could first learn about this traditional Japanese dish.

What Exactly Is Kamaboko?

kamaboko

Photo by Hajime NAKANO

Simply put, kamaboko is a variety of Japanese fish cake. It’s made from the meat of several kinds of fresh fish or reprocessed pureed white fish called surimi. It’s actually not all that hard to make, either. Fresh fish is mashed into a paste, some seasoning is added, and then it is formed and cooked. IT’s usually formed into a loaf-like shape, and then steamed on wooden boards until fully cooked and firm. It can actually be formed into many other shapes and sizes as well, and can also be cooked by boiling, broiling, or deep-frying it. It can be served chilled, in a noodle dish, in a hot soup (such as oden), or in a variety of other delicious ways.

kamaboko-deepfried

Photo by Takekazu Omi

kamaboko-ozoni

kamaboko-bento

Photo by gamene

In fact, if you are familiar with fake crab meat, often used in “California Rolls”, you may have had a type of kamaboko. This type of kamaboko is called kani-kama in Japan, which is an abbreviation of kani (crab) and kamaboko.

kani-kama

Photo by Samson Loo

Despite its delicious taste, it’s full of health benefits as well. It contains very little fat, relatively large amounts of nutrients, and a very large amount of well-balanced proteins. kamaboko includes a well-balanced array of amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids. A study conducted by Tokyo University’s Department of Food Science and Technology also found kamaboko to have anti-oxidative effects.

History Of Kamaboko

kamaboko-history

Photo by netagura

It’s unknown when exactly kamaboko was first made in history, but the first known record of it is in picture form found in a tome from the Heian period. With detailed sketches, the book, called 類聚雑要抄 (ruijuu-zatsuyoushou), primarily depicts the furnishings and costumes of nobility for traditional ceremonies and events. There is also an illustration of kamaboko placed on a bamboo skewer, which was served when 藤原忠実 (Fujiwara-no-tadazane) held a feast to celebrate his moving to a new house in 1115 AD. Discovering the year in which Fujiwara-no-tadazane moved into his new house gave Japan the idea for Kamaboko Day, which is now held on November 15. Get it? 1115AD = 11-15, November 15!

As it’s depicted in the book, early kamaboko was wrapped around the end of a bamboo stick. It’s said the name became 蒲鉾 (kama-boko), which literally means cattail-spear, because the look of it is resembles the head of the cattail (plant), which is called 蒲 (Gama) in Japanese. Speaking of cats, the early kamaboko was made from freshwater catfish, whereas nowadays it’s made from saltwater fish.

The Edo period was when kamaboko on a cedar plank appeared. In order to distinguish the two types of kamaboko, people started calling the original tube-shaped kamaboko 竹輪蒲鉾 (chikuwa-kamaboko), which literally means bamboo ring kamaboko and called the loaf-shaped one 板蒲鉾 (ita-kamaboko), which literally means plank kamaboko. Eventually, the name kamaboko fell off from the chikuwa version and that tube-shaped one was simply called chikuwa, whereas the loaf-shaped one took the name kamaboko.

The oldest remaining kamaboko company in Japan is 美濃屋吉兵衛商店 (Minoya-Kichibee-Shouten) and was established around 1550 AD. It is located near Odawara station in Kanagawa Prefecture. When Shoko and I visited the museum, we didn’t do a large enough preliminary investigation into Kamaboko and we missed this place as a result. My apologies!

There were also some distinctive differences between the kamaboko from the Kansai area (Western Japan including Kyoto and Osaka) and the Kanto area (Eastern Japan including Tokyo). In Kanto, kamaboko was steamed. In Kansai, it was grilled after being steamed. It’s believed that this difference arose because the main cities on Kansai (Kyoto and Osaka) were far from the sea, so they grilled it for preservation purposes. A well known saying “江戸は蒸し、京坂は焼き” (Edo wa mushi, Keihan wa yaki), meaning “Edo (now Tokyo) is steamed and Keihan (Kyoto and Osaka) is grilled” found its origins as a result of this difference. This phrase characterizes the stereotypical cooking styles of the two regions still practiced today. Kamaboko isn’t the only dish that follows that cooking trend – check out the regional differences in these products’ eels.

Celebrating With Kamaboko

kamaboko-celebration

In early kamaboko history, white fish was very expensive and kamaboko was considered a feast. Thus, it was used as a special gift or the type of food served at celebratory feasts. It is said that kamaboko was the favorite food of 豊臣秀頼 (Toyotomi Hideyori), who was the son and designated successor of 豊臣秀吉 (Toyotomi Hideyoshi), the general who first united all of Japan. It was also served as the final meal of 織田信長 (Oda Nobunaga), one of the three unifiers of pre-modern Japan, before he was killed by the 本能寺の変 (Honnō-ji no hen – the Honnō-ji Incident) in 1582.

In Samurai custom, the sea bream was considered as a bringer of good luck because it had a beautiful red color, which was thought to be a lucky color. Sea Bream was rare, had elegant taste, and its name 鯛 (tai) was a play on the word めでたい (medetai), which means happy or joyous. Therefore, the sea bream became essential for wedding celebrations, but only to those who could afford it. When a real fish was too expensive to buy, a picture or an imitation fish would be substituted in its place, and 細工蒲鉾 (saiku-kamaboko) or 飾り蒲鉾 (kazari-kamaboko), which means decorative kamaboko, was used for this. This custom can still be seen in several places throughout Japan.

For example, in Toyoama prefecture, people who are invited to join the wedding ceremony are given a big, decorative kamaboko shaped like a sea bream, a crane, a tortoise (a symbol of longevity) or Mt. Fuji. Then, when they return home, they cut it up and hand it out to their neighbors to inform them of the marriage. If it’s in the shape of a sea bream, a family gives away the head and body parts and keeps the tail as their own.

The Words Delivered From Kamaboko

kamaboko-shape

Photo by kazuh

Due to kamaboko’s large role in Japanese culture, there are various words in the Japanese language that are derived from kamaboko.

For example, we say 蒲鉾型 (kamaboko-gata) or “kamaboko-shaped”, to describe anything that is D-shaped. The arch-like barracks in military garrisons are sometimes called 蒲鉾兵舎 (kamaboko-heisha), which means Kamaboko barracks, as well. We also call the security vehicles of riot police Kamaboko because the style of the original riot police vehicles were similarly shaped. When you go bowling, if the oil used to make the lane more slippery is too thick in the middle and thin on the sides, it’s called 蒲鉾型レーン (kamaboko-gata-reen), which means kamaboko-shaped lane.

Or, there is the word かまとと (kamatoto), which means a girl who pretends to be sweet and innocent. This word was made up for this type of woman, especially a prostitute in from the Edo period, who would ask questions like, “Is this fish?” (fish is toto in old Japanese / sakana in current Japanese) while pointing at kamaboko and thus pretending that she knew nothing about the world. In the world of sumo, escaping from practice was also called kamaboko. Imagine a sumo wrestler trying to sneak out of camp, and while trying to avoid being seen, needing to put his back up against a wall – this conjured images of kamaboko on a cedar plank.

How To Eat Kamaboko

kamaboko-food

The Suzuhiro Museum we visited explained that the thickness and the temperature of kamaboko are important for getting the maximum taste out of it. When you eat kamaboko by itself, 12mm of thickness is ideal for enjoying the texture and flavor of the fish. When you want to use it as an ingredient, but still want a bit of its texture, you can thinly slice it. For example, if you slice it to 3mm, it can be a substitute for BACON! If you want to retain a lot of its flavor, cut it to around 15mm thick and add it to salad or other dishes.

The other important factor is temperature. Since it contains a lot of proteins, which can easily be denatured by heat, when you heat kamaboko in the wrong way it loses its nice texture and becomes quite hard. So, eating it at a cool temperature is the best, but if you really want to heat it, just heat up its surface at high heat very quickly and make sure the heat doesn’t make its way to the center of the kamaboko.

There is lot more to explore regarding kamaboko, especially in its ability to decorate food, but I’ll save that for the next time because I’m hungry for kamaboko, so I’ll need to begin my kamaboko hunt.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Japanese Name Satou And Its Rise To #1 http://www.tofugu.com/2014/09/24/the-japanese-name-satou-and-its-rise-to-1/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/09/24/the-japanese-name-satou-and-its-rise-to-1/#comments Wed, 24 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42206 I’ve written quite a lot about Japanese family names recently. However, simply learning the kanji or pronunciation of names is quite boring, so I thought I’d write an article with the stories behind the most popular family name in Japan. Each name, however, has quite a long story. So today, we’re just going to explore […]

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I’ve written quite a lot about Japanese family names recently. However, simply learning the kanji or pronunciation of names is quite boring, so I thought I’d write an article with the stories behind the most popular family name in Japan. Each name, however, has quite a long story. So today, we’re just going to explore the most popular one: 佐藤 (Satou).

You will learn not only what the root of Satou is and how it became the most popular in Japan, but also what people with the family name Satou think about their name as well as their experiences with their family name. Please note that learning the history of Japanese family names is essential to fully understand the stories in this article, so I suggest that you read the previous articles first.

If you are not that picky, or have read all the other articles already, then we are all set to go. Let’s talk about Satoooouuuu!

How 佐藤 (Satou) Became #1

number-one

Photo by Emran Kassim

The most popular family name in Japan is Satou. You’ve probably gathered that already. According to 名字由来net, around 2,055,000 Japanese people have this family name. Its most common way of reading it is さとう (satou), but there are others as well, such as さどう (Sadou), さとお (Satoo), さと (Sato), さいとう (Saitou), そとう (Sotou), さふじ (Safuji), and さとを (Satoo). Confusing, right? Welcome to Japanese names, I guess.

Satou used to be the second most popular name in Japan, but once computers started being used, more samples were able to be collected and this name was proven to be the most common. When people had to collect the samples manually, it must have been very difficult to gather and keep all of this information in an accurate way. Is it possible that a whole prefecture could have been missed? The name Satou is found in its highest concentration in rural Tohoku, in Northeastern Japan. When looking at the most popular name in each prefecture, it usually comprises 1-3% of the population. However, the name Satou in the Tohoku region (specifically Akita and yamagata Prefecture) is comprised of approximately 7% of the population. Why is it so surprisingly high? To reveal this mystery, we have to take a look into the roots of the name.

The Origin Of 佐藤 (Satou) Actually Begins As Another Name?

fujiwara-flute

The origin of 佐藤 (Satou) is actually found in another family name: 藤原氏 (Fujiwara-shi). As explained in the family name history article, an incredible number of people used 藤原 (Fujiwara) in the Heian period. It was inconvenient to call everyone Mr. Fujiwara, so people started making their own more distinctive family names by combining 藤原 (Fujiwara) with the name of the region they lived in or their occupation. 佐藤 (Satou) was one of them. In other words, it can be dismantled like this:

佐藤
佐 + 藤原

If that’s the case, what is this 佐 kanji? Actually, there are two meanings for 佐, and one is a job title and the other a regional name.

Job Title Satou

Let’s learn the roots of the job title first. Under the Ritsuryo Code in Japan, there were 4 main types of job titles in the provincial government: Kami, Suke, Jou, and Sakan. For some reason, each provincial office used different kanji for these titles, and 佐 was used in some offices for the position called Suke. Therefore, a person with the name Fujiwara at this position used “佐藤 (Satou)” as their name.

There was also a governmental post called 左衛門尉 (Saemonnojou) at the time, and a person with the name Fujiwara at this position combined 左 + 藤原 and named themselves 佐藤 (Satou).

Regional Name Satou

sano

Photo by no prev

As a regional name, there are several places tied to 佐. The most well known of these places is 佐野 (Sano) in Tochigi prefecture. A Fujiwara who lived here combined 佐 with 藤原 and called themselves 佐藤 (Satou). This place is also known for the legend in which 藤原秀郷 (Fujiwara no Hidesato) killed a giant centipede. It’s said that one of his grandchildren, named 左衛門尉公清 (Saemonnojou Kinkiyo), was the first person to use the name 佐藤 (Satou). His descendants all worked for the Imperial Court until 佐藤義清 (Satou Norikiyo) suddenly left the house to become a monk at the age of 23. He turned into quite the famous poet and renamed himself Saigyo Hoshi, but he ruined his family. Although his younger brother inherited the name 佐藤 (Satou), the lineage sank into history and became an unrecognized family.

The reason why so many 佐藤 (Satou) are in the Tohoku area is said to be due to 奥州藤原氏 (Oushuu Fujiwara-shi), a.k.a. the Northern Fujiwara. Oushuu Fujiwara-shi was a Japanese noble family that ruled the Tohoku region of Japan from the 12th to the 13th centuries as if it were their own realm. Some of the descendants that remained in the area are still known as Satou. Also, the Satou that were the descendants of the Oushuu Fujiwara-shi family based out of the 信夫 (Shinobu) region (currently Fukushima City in Fukushima prefecture) were so many in number that they needed to be called 信夫佐藤 (Shinobu-Satou). The Fujiwara family that lived in 佐渡 (Sado) in Niigata prefecture also started calling themselves 佐藤 (Satou). As you can see there are a lot of regional origins for the name Satou, but this doesn’t even scrape the surface. There are so many more (though you’ll just have to imagine them now).

Randomly Named 佐藤 (Satou)

Despite the the many various forms of Satou that there are today, not all of them came from the Heian Period. In Japan, people who didn’t have a family name during the Meiji era were forced to decide on their family name. At that time, Satou was one of the most commonly selected names.

So, whether it was from job titles and regional references, or just a bunch of people choosing Satou because they weren’t sure what to pick, Satou became the most popular Japanese family name of all time. With so many people having the same family name (who aren’t even related by blood), what do they think of their name? Are they proud? Let’s find out.

What People Named 佐藤 (Satou) Think Of Their Name

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According to みんなの苗字あるある (minnanomyoujiaruaru), people whose family name is 佐藤 (Satou) are proud that their name is the most popular in Japan, but they also encounter problems due to the fact that there are so many.

Since there is usually more than one Satou at school, most of them were distinguished by being called by something other than their family name. Many of them agree that being called by their first name is the best, but sometimes we are called 佐藤-A (Satou-A) or 佐藤-B (Satou-B). What’s worse is that people often distinguish us in ways like 頭良い方の佐藤 (Atamayoihouno Satou), which means “Smarter Satou” and “Not the Smarter Satou”, or 格好いい方の佐藤 (Kakkoiihouno Satou), which means “The Handsome Satou” and “Not the Handsome Satou”.

Many Satou have also experienced hearing someone shout, “Hey! Satou!” and when they turned around to respond, “Yeah?” they realized it was intended for a different Satou. Due the frequency that this happens, some Satou say that when they hear their name, they’ll wait to respond for a moment just to see be certain.

As some of you Japanese learners have probably already realized, 佐藤 (Satou) is the same pronunciation as sugar 砂糖 (Satou) in Japanese. Therefore, Satou people tend to be made fun of with puns on the word sugar. Some Satou say that they learned how to deal with other really lame jokes directed at them because of this. Speaking of puns, since the number 310 (San-tou) sounds similar to Satou, some 佐藤 (Satou) are very happy whenever they find the number alignment.

So, it’s all been about Satou today. I’m certain that the Japanese family name Satou has been carved into your memory by now. My family name is 鈴木 (Suzuki) used to be the most common name in Japan before computers messed everything up. So, I’m a little jealous of Satou now. Perhaps to make up for it I may explore the story behind Suzuki’s origins, but we’ll see. Until then, I’ll keep talking about how “sweet” the name Satou is.

What is the most common name in your country and what is the story behind it? Have you met someone named 佐藤 (Satou) before? Whatever you may have that relates to 佐藤 (Satou), please leave it as a comments below! Thank you and bye for now.

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