Tofugu » History A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Mon, 29 Jun 2015 14:08:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ashigaru – Japan’s Overlooked And Underappreciated Warriors Mon, 29 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Samurai get too much credit. Japan’s foot soldiers, the ashigaru, started as nothing more than farmers pulled from the fields to swell a daimyo’s army. Yet as time passed they became a professional fighting force included in the samurai caste. Stories like to depict Japanese wars filled with samurai sword duels. But the truth is that […]

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

The Origins of Ashigaru


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

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

The Shady Years


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

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

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

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

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

An Upwardly Mobile Class


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

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

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

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

Ashigaru and Guns


Photo by PHGCOM

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

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

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

The Ashigaru Who Became Master of Japan


Photo by Victor Lee

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

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

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

The Rise to Samurai


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

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

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

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

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

The Beginnings of the Korean Wave in Japan

Winter Sonata in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winter Sonata Breakdown


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan, Post-Sonata


Photo by Peter Kaminski

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

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

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

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

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

The Winter Sonata in Japan Continues


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is a Butsudan?


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

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

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

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

And that’s where butsudan came from. Right?


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

#1: The Nobility’s Private Buddha Statue Hall


Photo by 663Highland

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

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

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

#2: Soul Shelf


Photo by kani kani

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

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

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

The Spread of Butsudan


Photo by Joe Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Goes in a Butsudan


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

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

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

What Doesn’t Go in a Butsudan


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

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

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

How Much Does a Butsudan Cost?


Photo by Gnsin

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

Niconico Douga’s Butsudan Incident


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Place to Buy Butsudan?


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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


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

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

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

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

Pre-Emoji Emoji

smiley emoji koamoji emoticon

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

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

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

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

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

Made in Japan


Photo by Mytho88

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

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

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

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

Gaining a Foothold


Photo by wackystuff

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

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

The Journey West


Photo by TaylorHerring

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

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

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

Decoding Emoji 


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

There are a ton of Japanese food emoji, like:

  • 🍡 Dango

  • 🍱 Bento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Faces


Photo by Fred Benenson

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

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

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

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

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

Shinto Hell


Photo by Scott Lin

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

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

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

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

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

Buddhist Hell


Photo by Andrew

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

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

flaming hell cock

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

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

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

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

Hellish bureaucracy


Photo by Stuart Rankin

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

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

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

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



Photo by Kinden Kuo

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

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


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

Hell on Earth


Photo by Alkun(岸蓮)

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

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

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

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

Go to Hell(s)

hell yes

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



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

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

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

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



Photo by I’m J.C

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

train station demon

Photo by 蔡阿喵

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

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

Animatronic Hell


Photo by Verity Lane

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

entrance to hell

Photo by Verity Lane

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

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

Yomotsu hirasaka


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

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

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Kappa: Japan’s Aquatic, Cucumber-Loving, Booty-Obsessed Yokai Tue, 16 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The kappa is one of the most famous traditional yokai in modern day Japan. Even if you think you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably encountered a reference at your local sushi bar. Ever wonder why cucumber roll is kappa maki when the word for cucumber is きゅうり? Come with us on a journey through […]

The post Kappa: Japan’s Aquatic, Cucumber-Loving, Booty-Obsessed Yokai appeared first on Tofugu.

The kappa is one of the most famous traditional yokai in modern day Japan. Even if you think you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably encountered a reference at your local sushi bar. Ever wonder why cucumber roll is kappa maki when the word for cucumber is きゅうり? Come with us on a journey through the legend of the kappa. You may never look at that particular menu item the same way again.

Know Your Kappa


As with many creatures both mythical and real, the kappa doesn’t always look exactly the same. But if you encounter a vaguely reptilian creature walking upright or hanging around in a body of water, you may be dealing with a kappa. They’re the size of a small child or large monkey, with humanoid arms and legs. Otherwise they have mostly reptile or amphibian-like qualities. They have webbed digits for swimming and may be scaly or slimy. They’re reminiscent of a giant frog or turtle. Usually they have something like a turtle shell on their back and a beaky sort of snout. Kappa are said to smell fishy, and they’re often a bluish or greenish color.

What will always be distinctive despite these variations is the top of their head. You may momentarily wonder why this creature has the haircut of a European monk, with a frill around its bald spot. Look closer and you’ll see that the “bald spot” is actually a small dish of water. Keep an eye on this, because it will be critical to your upcoming lesson on Defense Against Kappa.

The other most consistent feature of the kappa is its favorite food. They have a fondness for eggplant and for several plants of the cucurbit family: melons, squash, and most especially cucumber. So that cucumber sushi roll isn’t named for its ingredients, but for its most famous devotee.

Where the Kappa Came From


The name “kappa” means “river child,” and it’s often called a “water sprite” in English explanations. Both of these give a much cuter impression than is good for your safety. The regional variations went by many different names, including gawappa, kawatarō, suiko, kawappa, kawako, kawaso… There seems to have been a basic east-west difference at one time. The turtle-shell-bearing kappa came from the east and the kawatarō in the west, which is more hairy and monkeylike. By the nineteenth century the reptilian eastern kappa seems to have edged out his western counterpart. Modern depictions of kappa are usually along those lines. We can be glad for this, because somehow the hair on top of everything else is just too creepy.

Some of the other names for the kappa suggest the animals it might have been partly based on: monkeys, turtles, and the now-extinct Japanese river otter. The river otter was about two feet long and nocturnal, so a glimpse of it standing on its hind legs in the middle of the night, combined in your mind with the features of other creatures that you know frequent the dark watery depths, could indeed make a fearsome monster. The otter certainly seems like a plausible origin for the hairy-but-aquatic kawatarō.

Another suggestion is that the kappa is based on the Japanese giant salamander. As far as I can tell that theory only goes back as far as a 2012 TV show. But having personally seen how aggressively this otherwise slow-moving, globby aquatic creature goes after its food, I find it pretty plausible.

Or maybe the simpler theory is that what people were seeing…. was actually a kappa. You’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Danger: Kappa


Photo by Matt Alt

I think it’s fair to say that the yokai Big Three are kitsune, tanuki and kappa. The first two are basically real animals, and their powers of mayhem are largely based on their shape-shifting abilities. Kitsune and tanuki can pretend to be something or someone else and cause supernatural trouble. Kappa, though, are an entirely different kettle of fish. They don’t correspond precisely to any non-magical animal, and they don’t have to pretend to be something else. They’re dangerous just the way they are.

Kappa live in water and we don’t. Thus gives them an advantage and a weapon, since we can’t breathe the stuff. They’re strong for their size, and can drag people into the water and hold them till they drown. In the old days they would even try to drown horses and cattle despite their difference in size (although they were often less successful than with humans). Children were warned about the kappa to keep them from swimming in dangerous places, and you’ll still see kappa in signs like the one above. The skeptical might even think they were made up for this purpose. In some ways they seem to be an embodiment of the dangerous and dark aspects of water.

Kappa Kink


Kappa are not just strange and dangerous. They’re kind of kinky. They don’t want to drown you just for the hell of it. They go after people because they want your shirikodama (尻子玉). This is a ball that supposedly is found inside the human anus. (The origin of the shirikodama story is said to be from the open anuses of drowning victims. Although this loosening of the sphincter isn’t exclusive to that manner of death.) The kappa supposedly reaches into your butthole with its hand to get this precious item or else – ick – sucks it out. And if that doesn’t kill you, the drowning will.

What is this thing exactly? Some says it’s the human soul. I have to say that if there is such a thing as a soul, that isn’t where I’d choose to keep it. Another idea is that it’s the Buddhist hojo, a sort of onion-shaped jewel that grants wishes (likewise on the the storage location choice for that one). Yet another is that the ball is either actually the liver, or it’s just in the way of getting at the liver, which the kappa is really after.

The kappa’s obsession with our heinies also leads them to hide in toilets and try to stroke women’s buttocks. But if that’s all that happens, you’re getting off easy: there are also tales of them raping women and leaving them pregnant with grotesque children. Most of these are killed at birth, although this tale from The Legends of Tono tells of someone who had a better idea just a bit too late:

A child looking something like a kappa was born into a certain family in Kamigo village. There was no definite proof that it was a kappa’s, but it had bright red skin and a large mouth. It was indeed a disgusting child. Loathing the child and wanting to get rid of it, someone took it to a fork in the road and sat it down. After having walked only a short distance, he realized that he could make money by showing it. He went back, but it was already hiding and was nowhere to be seen.

Defense Against Kappa


The kappa has a couple of weaknesses you can use against it: one, it loses its power if the water bowl on its head is dry, and two, it’s very polite. So if you bow to it, it is compelled to bow back, and there’s the trick. For instance, kappa like to challenge people to sumo matches, and are very strong on land, so it’s bound to be a losing battle. But of course you have to bow before a sumo match, and there you go: the kappa has to bow back, and is rendered powerless when the water in its head dish spills out.

If you want to try to catch a kappa and kill it, your best bet is to use its worst desires against it. In the print above, the guy who’s mooning the river is actually the bait: the idea is to lure the kappa in and catch it when it goes after the guy’s shirikodama. If you’ve got a really brave and/or foolish friend who’s willing to play that role, let us know how it goes.

A few more helpful facts are that kappas dislike gourds, sesame, ginger, and iron. In some places eating a cucumber and then swimming is said to attract kappas to attack, but in others, it’s said to be protective. Check with the locals, I guess, before you try it.

Masters of Gasses


The jewel in our butthole is not the only buttocks-related aspect of the kappa legend. They’re also renowned for something they do with their own behinds: farting. Experts that I consulted had no explanation for why kappa are supposedly so good at farting, so I can only assume it has something to do with their cucumber-heavy diet.

Despite their fondness for their own gas, they don’t care for anyone else’s (more or less how most of us feel, I guess.) You can see this from the print above, where it’s clear that the kappa can toot it out but they can’t take it.

Matt Alt explained to me that this print is an ad for a professional fart entertainer, sometimes called a fartiste (and we are not making this up, there was really such a thing). Apparently if you’re in Japan and you want to convince people you have a talent for flatulence, this is the obvious comparison.

“I think the idea is that this guy’s so good at what he does that he can even beat kappa at their own game,” Alt says. “There’s a famous saying in Japanese, “he no kappa” (“like a kappa farting”) which is kind of used like our “piece of cake!” when someone does something easily.”

You probably won’t have such expert aim as a professional fartiste. But if you’ve got kappa trouble and all else fails: try farting at them.

Getting Along with Kappa


Kappa are said to be helpful to humans sometimes, although I suspect only when there’s something in it for them. At least it’s possible to make a deal with one in certain circumstances. One odd feature of the kappa is that it supposedly is talented in health care, making salves and medicines and setting broken bones. If you yank off a kappa’s arm (like when it’s sticking it up out of the toilet to fondle you) it knows how to reattach it, if it gets it back in time. They’ve been known to teach someone their medical secrets in return for getting their arm back.

There are shrines to kappa where you can leave cucumbers to appease them. Some are even devoted to kappa who have been helpful to people (probably because once they’ve been nice to us, we better stay on their good side). At Sogenji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, also known as Kappa-dera, the story is that the area was subject to repeated floods till a bunch of kappa helped build flood-control structures. So now they are venerated there. For you skeptics, Sogenji even has a relic to prove it: the mummified hand of an actual kappa. (Check out this video at about 19:25 to see Matt Alt visiting it.)

Talking Kappa


Along with “he no kappa,” there are other sayings and proverbs that involve the kappa. “Kappa no kawanagare” means “even a kappa can drown,” a warning that it’s possible to screw up even the thing you know best. A kappa-hage is a man with bald spot on top of his head. Amagappa (雨合羽 rain-kappa) means raincoat, referring to another weird feature of the kappa: they need to take off their skin to sleep. Without it, they are defenseless and can’t go back into the water.

There’s another story about kappa and raincoats that connects to another familiar reference to the kappa: the famous Kappabashi bridge in Tokyo. Apparently the first Kappabashi bridge was constructed by a raincoat merchant who hired kappa to labor on it. No word if they were the same kappa who built the floodworks honored by Sogenji Temple, but it’s in the same place as that original bridge, so who knows?

Modern Kappa


Like a lot of other yokai, such as the tanuki, kappa are often more cute than scary nowadays. Once a frightening “other,” in the 20th century, stories about the kappa began to use them metaphorically, as stand-ins for humans. By the 1960s, Mizuki Shigeru drew the kappa in Sanpei the Kappa as perfectly adorable, with basically the same face as his (mostly) human friend, and wrote stories where they are mistaken for one another.

Kappa are now used in advertising and as logos in a way that wouldn’t make sense if people still mainly pictured them as a fearsome anus-attacking drowner of humans and livestock. There are cute character goods and local specialties like these buns:


Ironically, now they can even be used to invite you into the onsen, which would have been the worst possible idea in the old days:


Photo by Hector Garcia

In the 1970s, rural revitalization projects and festivals started using the kawaii-ized kappa as a symbol, playing on its association with nature and the disappearing country lifestyle. While it’s still used in signs to warn against swimming, some look more like friendly advice than a threat. They’re also used in posters asking people not to litter and in campaigns to protect the environment, including clean water.


Photo by Hikikomori

Nowadays, it seems like there’s a sense in which the kappa is as much at risk from us as vice versa: once a personification of the dangers of nature, now it’s often used as a symbol of the natural world we need to protect. As Michael Dylan Foster puts it, “A yokai that used to represent the violence and unpredictability of the natural world, and especially water, has now literally become a poster child for the effort to stop the sacrifice of nature.”

Like that quote implies though, nature has a lot to be mad at us for… so if you do run into a kappa, it’s still best to take care, because it might be angry.

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The Secret Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gundam – And Other Stories Tue, 09 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 In August 2014, Japan’s defense ministry announced a new “Space Monitoring Force.” It will utilize personnel from the Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), the country’s air force. This new team is supposed to become active by 2019. Russia beat Japan to the punch by establishing the Aerospace Monitoring Forces (AMF) on April 1, 2015. But in […]

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In August 2014, Japan’s defense ministry announced a new “Space Monitoring Force.” It will utilize personnel from the Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), the country’s air force. This new team is supposed to become active by 2019. Russia beat Japan to the punch by establishing the Aerospace Monitoring Forces (AMF) on April 1, 2015. But in 4 more years, the Japanese space force is bound to be way cooler.

It’s mission: to monitor dangerous space debris orbiting Earth and to protect space satellites from collision, as well as “other attacks.” Because Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party discussed building a real life Gundam in 2012, this new squad might be a part of the secret Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gundam project. The JASDF has battled monsters and extra-terrestrial enemies in many TV shows and movies, so maybe they’re bringing fiction to life. Were these shows suggesting that the JASDF is Japan’s secret weapon?

I don’t think we’ll uncover any classified information. But we can at least look into what JASDF is, its history, its usual activities, and how they appear in TV and film. Let’s blast off!

What Is the Japan Air Self-Defense Force?


The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) is called 航空自衛隊 (Koukuu Jieitai) in Japanese. It is the major aviation arm of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), called 自衛隊 (Jieitai) in Japanese. It handles the defense of Japanese airspace and other aerospace operations and this includes both direct and indirect aggression. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet submitted a package of bills for debate. They’re designed to expand Japan’s military role overseas. The new legislation might change how the SDF operates. But as of now, they’re strictly a defense force. Thus, their slogan is “The Key To Defense, Ready Anytime.”

Although its purpose is to “defend” Japan, most countries consider it a full-fledged air force because it is equipped with many fighter aircraft. As of 2013, it had 769 aircraft in operation. About 350 were fighters.

The JASDF consists of military units and departments that are special departments of the Ministry of Defense. They are supervised by the Air Staff Office, the Chief of Defense, and the Chief of (Air Self-Defense Force) Staff. The highest authority of the JASDF is the Chief of (Air Self-Defense Force) Staff who resides over the Chief of Defense and is in control of the Air Staff Office. Its personnel is estimated at approximately 47,000. The annual budget they received in 2011 was about 1,060,200,000,000 yen.

The History Of Japan Air Self-Defense Force


After WWII, a study began to determine whether Japan required further militarization. It was conducted by those with ties to the Japanese army, such as Yasuyuki Miyoshi, Sadanori Harada, Kazuo Tanikawa, Monjirou Akiyama, Kouji Tanaka and Shigeru Ura.  They believed that Japan must have military preparedness to continue being an independent country. Naturally this preparedness must include an independent air force. They asked for the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force in the creation of the JASDF.

On July 1st, 1954, the Defense Agency replaced the Security Agency and the JASDF was finally established. The Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), called 陸上自衛隊 (Rikujou Jieitai), and the Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), called 海上自衛隊 (Kaijou Jieitai) were successors of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. The JASDF, however, didn’t have a war-era predecessor. Air operations were handled by The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, who both had Air Services.

What Do They Do?


In times of peace, the JASDF’s mission is dealing with foreign aircraft and potentially hostile threats to Japan’s airspace. They set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ ). This is an air defense radius that a country establishes over waters near its shores. Twenty-eight radar sites were built around Japan for the monitoring of the ADIZ. This resulted in Japan’s Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C).

When an unknown plane crosses the ADIZ, a radio transmitter, running at 121.5MHz or 243MHz, sends a warning. Fighter planes scramble to intercept. Objects confirmed by the intercepting jets are reported to the public by the Joint Staff Office (JSO).

In times of emergency, the JASDF will conduct naval strikes, air to ground assaults, and air transport to support the Ground Self-Defense Force and Maritime Self-Defense Force. Since their security policy is strictly defensive, their preparation is meant primarily for air-defense and to protect Japan from ambush attacks. They utilize the F-15J, AEW&C, and patriot missiles for this purpose.

The Real Ability And Cooperation With U.S.


The JASDF boasts state-of-the-art fighter jets, self-defense systems, and the ground-to-air Patriot missiles. Therefore, its actions have been the most politically restricted, more so than the Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces. For example, precision bombing systems in JASDF jets have been disabled and aerial refueling tankers have been grounded.

But based on the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty, the JASDF has been securing and strengthening its coordination with the U.S. Air Force since its establishment. They share cipher machines, privacy telephones, a Tactical Digital Information Link (TADIL), and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems. This enables both the U.S. and Japanese forces to operate in their cooperative strategies. English proficiency among personnel is also considered to be very important to those aged 35 or under. Troops must take a JASDF English Proficiency Test every year.

The number of JASDF aircraft in operation is quite high. The time a given pilot spends practicing is typically over 200 hours per year. There are Japan/U.S. joint maneuvers everyday at a few bases around the country, as well as annual joint maneuvers at Cope North in Guam.

JASDF in Film, TV, and Anime


It sure sounds as though the JASDF is capable of quite a lot. As I mentioned earlier, their abilities have been portrayed in various anime and movies. The JASDF doesn’t usually suffer losses unless it’s from monsters or extra-terrestrial foes. JASDF fighter jets can be seen in the Godzilla film series. Of course, as skilled as they are, they usually don’t fare well against Godzilla’s atomic breath.

The JASDF has recently tried to increase its exposure in anime. In 2003, they created a moe anime called Stratos 4. In this series, a group of pilots are set up in a space comet blaster. Although the anime’s storyline involves the “United Countries,” it seems suspiciously close to the JASDF’s latest space project.

The JASDF helped with the combat scenes in Yukikaze, an anime series that ran from 2003 to 2006. They did the same for scenes in Blood+. It aired the same time as the Gundam series, Saturday at 6pm. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Okay. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But who knows?

Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces sure like Gundam though. They invented a special suit called Advanced Combat Information Equipment System (ACIES), a.k.a “Gundam”, in 2007. It cost 4,300,000,000yen ($4.3 million). The person who started calling it “Gundam” was Yoshitaka Akiyama, Director General of the Technical Research & Development Institute within the Japan Ministry of Defense.

When asked about the Gundam name in an interview with “MAMOR” magazine, he said “I called it Gundam in the sense that we are aiming to invent something like Gundam in the future.”

The interviewer was not satisfied with that answer. So he threw out another question: “You mean, you are considering inventing a giant robot like Mobile Suit Gundam in the future?” The moderator cut off the answer by saying, “I’m afraid we’re not able to talk about our future development projects.”

How suggestive is that?

As some anime fans say, this new project might be “one small step for Gundam.” It will hopefully lead to one giant leap for mankind flying around in awesome mech suits. Although the ACIES research on the initial combat suit was probably terminated in 2012, if it followed the original plan, there might be a secret project to invent a real Gundam still going on. They are very secretive about the future, so I am hoping this conspiracy is true….because it’s very very exciting!!

Up in the sky!


Photo by nubobo

Will the JASDF finally fulfill humanity’s destiny by creating giant space robots? Is its space debris defense force the first step in a real life Gundam army? We can hope, but all we know for sure is the current and past JASDF boast some nifty tech and organization. And it’s all to make the impossible possible. It’s to make our dreams come true! If any combat force were to finally make our sci-fi dreams a reality, it would probably be the JASDF.

When I think about this kind of stuff, I always feel super ワクワク (excited) and I can’t help dancing. You too? Then let’s dance all together in hope. Oppa Gundam Style!

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Printed, Painted, and Sculpted Kitties – Cats in Japanese Art Wed, 27 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Cats are an obsession in modern Japan. Most people have heard of cat cafes by now, but did you know there are cat shrines and even cat tourism?  Tama the cat was appointed stationmaster of a Wakayama train station and revived the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists a year. There’s a tourist-magnet island overrun with kitties. February 22 is unofficially […]

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Cats are an obsession in modern Japan. Most people have heard of cat cafes by now, but did you know there are cat shrines and even cat tourism?  Tama the cat was appointed stationmaster of a Wakayama train station and revived the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists a year. There’s a tourist-magnet island overrun with kitties. February 22 is unofficially Cat Day because nyan-nyan (the Japanese “mew-mew”) can also mean “two-two.” If you love your cat too much, you can take lessons in how to cook for it. Go a step further and you can even get your house designed specially to accommodate your feline family. Cats are stars on the Japanese internet: Videos of the Scottish Fold cat Maru (often doing that basic cat thing of being in a box) have hundreds of millions of views. And of course of all the thousands of merchandising characters in Japan, Hello Kitty reigns supreme.

This may all seem like particularly modern craziness, but in reality it’s just the 21st-century version of something that goes way back, as we can see by looking at the history of Japanese art. Whether ink on paper or pixels on a screen, depictions of cats have been popular for as long as cats have been in Japan.

Hello Kitties! How Cats Invaded Japan


Cats may stroll around Japan like they own the place now, but they’re not natives. It’s said they were originally imported from China around the mid-sixth century to keep the mice away from precious Buddhist scrolls. With this kind of first impression, people’s attitudes toward them were positive and maybe even reverent from the start. The first pet cats were rare, so they were kept only by the elite and carefully cherished. Art of the period shows them on leashes and living indoors. Individual cats could be celebrities back then, too. One Heian-era manuscript details the habits and personality of a black cat given as a gift to the Emperor Uda.

Despite positive associations, cats clearly started making trouble from the beginning. The print above illustrates a scene from The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature that’s considered the world’s first novel. A cat sets a major part of the plot in motion when it knocks down a screen. This allows Genji’s nephew to catches a glimpse of its owner, the third princess. He later seduces her (or forces himself on her, depending on which interpretation you read) and she bears an illegitimate son who’s the main character of much of the rest of the book.

In early art, cats are shown living in the lap of luxury. Contrast this with Chinese art of the same period that tended to emphasize their natural hunting ability. But the good times couldn’t last. Eventually cats were cast out of their aristocratic lifestyles to work in the streets and fields like cats everywhere else. In 1602, the government decreed that all cats should be set free to catch rodents that were destroying the silk worm industry.

Life on the loose may have had some downsides, but it enabled the making of more cats. More cats meant more people could get to know cats and start obsessing over them. The rest is history.

Hey, Edo Entrepreneur! Wanna Buy Some Ukiyo-e?

Cats in Japanese Art

Photo by Thornet

In the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Japan stopped making war and started making mass popular culture. People had the time and means for leisure. While they didn’t have the internet, they did have romance theater, trashy literature, and of course, ukiyo-e prints.

Ukiyo-e prints are now delicate and precious works of art displayed in museums, protected under glass in dim light. But ukiyo-e, though extremely sophisticated, was in fact originally a popular art form. These are woodblock prints, not paintings. The whole point is to make a bunch of them to sell.

A merchant class had developed and it had money to spend on non-essentials. To attract those buyers, the subject matter of ukiyo-e was everything fashionable and popular. This included cats.

Cats As They Are


Cats were depicted in many ways in ukiyo-e. One is naturally, precisely capturing their appearance and behavior. Cats chasing and playing with their prey, sleeping in various cute positions, licking themselves, etc. That also includes the ways cats naturally interact with people, as in my favorite above. Those who have lived with cats know how true to life that picture is: a cat treating a human the same way it would treat the back of a sofa or a tree branch. While it seems ridiculously awkward, somehow they find that comfortable.


Wild cats were popular in art too, sometimes depicted by artists who’d never seen them in real life. One way you can tell is by looking at the eyes. House cats have pupils that look like vertical slits when contracted. Lions and tigers don’t – their pupils contact to small circles, just like ours. So if the artist draws a tiger with slit pupils, you can bet he’s never seen a live tiger. For all its apparent ferocity, the print above is really a kitty in a tiger suit.

Cat People


There’s only one thing cuter than cats au naturel: cats in human clothing. In ukiyo-e, cats were frequently depicted as people, walking upright. fully dressed, and engaging in a whole range of human activities. Sometimes these prints are caricature and social commentary, but other times they’re just in fun. In the print above, the cats are performing a traditional Edo acrobatic act of balancing on sticks. But the sticks are pieces of katsuobushi (dried bonito), something cats love to eat.


Cats portraying famous kabuki actors and scenes from equally famous plays became a thing in the mid-19th century when the government banned pictures of actors and courtesans, considering them detrimental to public morals. Artists will always find a way around the rules, of course. In this case cats came to the rescue. Supposedly all of the cats in the print above are recognizable stars of their day. I guess it’s as if someone had ‘shopped cat faces onto a cast photo of Mad Men or some such.


And once you’ve got cats in clothes, why not cat paper dolls? Prints like this one only rarely survive, since children needed to cut them up to play with them.

Bad Kitty


Although cats first arrived in Japan in a revered and religious context, eventually people got to know them better. This inevitably developed more mixed emotions. From torturing dying mice, to knocking things off the dresser in the middle of the night, cats are often not at all nice.


From this meanness came a tradition of cat monsters and horror stories. Of course we see these in art as well. The print above illustrates a scene from a famous story I’ve found called the “Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima and The Cat Monster of Saga.” It was made into a kabuki play called “The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano.” (A story this good can’t have just one title, I guess.)

It starts when Lord Mabeshima puts his retainer Matashichi to death. Matashichi’s mother commits suicide out of despair, and the cat licks the blood from the knife and turns into a bakeneko. Things just get worse from there.

Crazy Cat Man


When it comes to monstrous cats, no one can beat Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This late Edo-period ukiyo-e artist was a master of the violent and frightening. His art still has such an impact that one modern art critic saw a Kuniyoshi print as a child and ran out of the gallery in terror.

Along with this penchant for the creepy, Kuniyoshi was also obsessed with cats. His studio was reportedly overrun by them and visitors would find him working with a cat cuddled up in his kimono. So it’s no surprise that he combined those two interests in scary cat prints like the one above.

As you would expect, though, he also produced plenty of the other kinds of cats. He did the cats in human clothes thing to the hilt. Lots of kabuki actors and parodies of historical figures. Then there were cats as Edo townspeople dancing, carousing, and playing games.


And as you’d expect from someone with a studio full of felines, he also drew cats doing typical cat things, such as these guys below:


The cats above have punny names corresponding to the 53 stations of the Tōkaidō, a favorite theme in non-cat-related art of the time.

In this more realistic vein, he also included one of his own cats in each of his own self-portraits.

I think my favorite, though, is his series of cats positioned to spell out the names of different kinds of fish in kana. In this one, the second character is a bit hard to decipher, but it should help to know that it’s a fish that is the obvious favorite for us at Tofugu:


Cats in the Round


Prints and drawings aren’t the only place we see cats in Japanese art. There are plenty of three-dimensional versions as well. The famous maneki-neko or beckoning cat may not be high art, but it’s a depiction of cats that you’ll see all over Japan. Cats also appear in higher-class knicknacks in the form of netsuke, which include some of the most fabulous animal art to come out of Japan. Netsuke are tiny carvings that were hung at the end of a cord of purse as part of an arrangement for carrying things when wearing traditional garb that lacks pockets.


Photo by catasa

A more modern sculptor who had an interest in cats was Asakura Fumio (1883-1964), sometimes called the father of modern Japanese sculpture. You can see many of his cat sculptures at the Asakura Museum of Sculpture in Yanaka, Tokyo, where his amazing house has been preserved and used to display his work.

His sculptures clearly show the hand of someone who’s observed cats closely. As the story goes, when he was a student he couldn’t afford to pay models. So he’d wander around the streets of Ueno sketching cats. It makes sense he eventually settled in nearby Yanaka, since it’s famous for its street kitties.

Once he was successful enough to build his large home and studio, he kept many cats. There are supposedly many photos of him surrounded by a dozen cats. Apparently he even hired a student to care for them.

While its website shows mostly his sculpture of humans, it’s significant that there’s a cat right there in the museum’s logo. Unfortunately they forbid photography inside the museum and I hesitantly obeyed the rules, so I don’t have photos. But at this link you can see a photo of the master and some of his cats, as well as one of a sculpture of a cat being held by the scruff of its neck. Realistically, he’s not all that thrilled. There’s also a great photo of him with another cat sculpture at the museum website.

Contemporary Cats


Photo by yeowatzup

I had planned to wrap up with article with a section about current artists who are obsessed with cats, but it quickly became clear that researching this topic could take up the entire rest of my life. That said, I can’t leave out this link to a couple of terrific modern cat netsuke. There are also some great prints here…  OK, I really better stop now.

Now go forth onto the Internet and find Japanese cat obsessive media yourself. And if anyone tells you you’re wasting your time looking at cat pictures, share this article to prove that you’re part of a long and honorable tradition.

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The Taming of the Shroom: The Umamitastic World of Japanese Mushrooms Fri, 22 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that […]

The post The Taming of the Shroom: The Umamitastic World of Japanese Mushrooms appeared first on Tofugu.

Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that grows in Japan, but I tried to cover the types you can usually find for sale.  But before we start:

Warning: Do not go foraging for mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing.  That means you have lots of experience learning first-hand from another expert.  There are lots of tasty mushrooms out there, but there are also many that could give you a stomach ache or worse.  The vast majority of us should content ourselves with what’s available in stores.

What are Mushrooms and Why are They So Yummy?


A mushroom is, of course, a fungus.  More specifically, it is the fleshy, fruiting body of a fungus.  All mushroom are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.  Mushrooms sometimes usually have stems and caps, and typically have gills.  Those are the little frills you see on the underside of a mushroom’s cap.  Those gills produce spores that, in turn, produce more fungi.  The mushroom is connected to more fungal structure embedded in its food source, whether that be the soil, a tree, or something else.

A big factor in the flavor of many mushrooms is their umami.  Umami basically means “deliciousness,” but was applied by scientist, Ikeda Kikunae, to mean a sort of rich, savory flavor.  Ikeda was studying the science behind the flavor, and discovered that glutamate was the cause.  Ikeda mainly used kombu dashi for his studies, and subsequent studies also looked at dried bonito flakes.  However, in 1957, Kuninaka Akira discovered that the ribonucleotide GMP found in shiitake mushrooms also gave an umami flavor.  Based on that research he later discovered that when ingredients rich in glutamate are combined with those with ribonucleotides, the resulting umami is stronger than each individual part.

Buna-shimeji (Hypsizygus tessellatus)


Photo by Andy

Buna-shimeji are fairly small mushrooms with white, long, often-curved stems and tan caps.  They taste bitter when raw, but this is replaced with a nutty flavor when cooked.  They have a firm, slightly crunchy texture.  They are good for most recipes.

Enokitake (Flammulina velutipes)


Photo by Wendell Smith

Enoki mushrooms are named after the tree on which they grow, which is known as the Chinese hackberry in English.  However, they also grow on other trees, like mulberry and persimmon trees.  In the supermarket, they are easily recognizable as dense clumps of small, white mushrooms with long, slender stems.  Cultivated enoki are grown in a dark, carbon dioxide-rich environment to keep them white and encourage long stem growth, respectively.  Wild enoki tend to be dark brown, with shorter, thicker stems.

Enoki don’t have a strong flavor, so they probably aren’t the best mushroom to take center stage in a dish.  They do have a relative crispness to them.  For these reasons, plus their small size, they are often used in soups and stews.  They could also be used in some side dishes or salads.

Eringi (Pleurotus eryngii)


Photo by David Loong

Eringi have many names in the West, perhaps most common being the King Oyster Mushroom.  Unlike most of the fungi in this article, it is not native to Japan. It was mass cultivated there in the early 1990s and has become quite popular since.  Eringi are rather large, with long, thick, meaty white stems, and relatively small tan caps.  They don’t have a lot of flavor raw, but when cooked the umami comes forward.  I find them particularly good when grilled.  Keep it simple and cook them over flame or in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.

Magic Mushrooms


Photo by Scott Darbey

Some mushrooms can have psychedelic effects on those who consume them.  There are a number of such mushrooms, but the most popular by far are from the genus Psilocybe.  They cause hallucinations due to two different chemicals: psilocybin and psilocin.

Japan is a country that tends to take drugs quite seriously (apart from alcohol and tobacco), so it’s surprising that before 2002 magic mushrooms were legal.  You could buy them in head shops, and apparently even in vending machines.  In 2002 they were made illegal, perhaps because of the World Cup that was played in Japan that year.  It’s thought that Japanese leaders changed the law in anticipation of an influx of foreign fans getting high and causing trouble.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)


Photo by Brain Lioila

Maitake translates to “dancing mushroom.”  They don’t look like your stereotypical mushrooms.  They grow in a dense cluster and the stems flow into the frond-like caps, giving the whole cluster an appearance something like a head of cabbage.  The clusters can get quite large: over 40 kilograms (100 pounds)!  They have a woody, smoky flavor, but it isn’t as meaty as some other mushrooms.  They can be used in stir frying, simmering, roasting and other applications.

Matsutake (Tricholoma mastutake)


Photo by 挪威 企鵝

Matsutake form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain tree species, most notably the Japanese Red Pine, hence the name matsutake (“pine mushroom”).  Matustake have long, thick stems and knob-like brown caps.  Due to the difficulty in finding them, they are quite expensive.  The average price is about $90 per kilogram, but matsutake found in Japan at the beginning of the season can go for up to $2,000 per kilogram!  Matsutake grown in the U.S. can be had for a much lower price sometimes.  If you get the chance to try them, one of the best ways to show off their flavor is in a simple rice bowl dish (matsutake gohan).

Nameko (Pholiota nameko)


Nameko are small and amber-brown.  They have a nutty flavor and a thin layer of gelatin on their caps, which forms a sort of glaze when cooking with them.  They are often used in miso soup, nabemono, and stir-fries.


Photo by Akiko Ogata

Long popular in Japanese cuisine, nameko have recently gained notoriety in another field.  A trilogy of smart phone games called “Nameko Saibai Kit,” has become quite popular.  The goal of the game is to raise various types of anthropomorphic cartoon nameko.  Of course, with popularity comes merchandise, and you can find plenty of stuff featuring these cute little mushrooms.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)


Photo by tup wanders

Shiitake are named after the tree on whose dead logs they commonly grow, the Castanopsis cuspidate.  Shiitake is probably the most popular Japanese mushroom, both at home and abroad.  Who knows how long people have been collecting them in Japan, but somewhere along the line they discovered a method for cultivating them.  A shiitake bearing log would be placed next to freshly cut logs, allowing the fungus to spread to all of them.  They even found that damaging the bark of the new logs would improve the efficiency of mushroom multiplication.


Photo by Brian Liloia

It’s easy to see why shiitake are so popular, as they are both flavorsome and versatile.  When cooked, they are aromatic and have a nice rich, woody flavor.  Due to this and their chewy, dense texture they make a great meat substitute.  Shiitake can also be bought dried, which actually intensifies their flavor and adds a bit of smokiness.  The applications of shiitake are many and varied, from stir fries to grilling, from simmering to soups and nabemono (and that’s just in Japanese cuisine).  I love making a shiitake nimono: simmering the mushrooms in dashi and soy sauce until the liquid reduces to almost nothing.  You’ll have a bowl full of concentrated umami.

Kinoko no Yama


Photo by Robyn Lee

Okay, so obviously these aren’t real mushrooms.  However, they have been a popular snack ever since Meiji launched them in 1975.  Their part milk, part dark chocolate caps sit atop crunchy biscuit stems, and make for an excellent combo.  No list of Japanese mushrooms is complete without them.

Mushroom Medicine


Photo by dbaronoss

Some mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.  For example, the fungus from maitake has long been used in China and Japan for enhancing the immune system.  Modern research has indicated that the entire maitake may be useful in this regard.  In addition, a 2009 study by Sloan-Kettering showed it to have anti-tumor effects.  It may also have hypoglycemic effects.

Shiitake mushrooms have also shown some promise in the fighting both cancer and viruses, but studies have not been conclusive.  Still, as long as you’re enjoying some mushroom cooking, it’s nice to think they might be helping you too.

How to Choose and Store Your Mushrooms


Photo by Chiot’s Run

When selecting mushrooms at the store they should be dry, but not withered.  If they come plastic-wrapped, look out for condensation.  When storing them, sealing them in a paper bag is a good way to keep them from getting too wet or dry.  If you keep them in a plastic-wrapped tub, poking a few holes in the plastic is a good idea.  At any rate, you should use them within a few days.

You shouldn’t wash them until you’re about to use them.  Some say they shouldn’t be washed at all for fear of waterlogging them. Brush them instead.  A brush is fine, but time consuming, so a light wash should be fine.  If you don’t see any dirt on them, there shouldn’t be a need for either.

Let’s Put a Cap On This


Photo by Wendell Smith

What more is there to say?  Mushrooms are some tasty and versatile fungi.  Go forth and try as many kinds, in as many ways as possible!

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Have a Rice Day! Rice Cooker History, Features, Futures, and More Fri, 15 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.” He was right. I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my […]

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My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.”

He was right.

I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my cooking ways.

Although I had had a rice cooker at my disposal upon arrival in my Japanese apartment, I felt reluctant to use it. The kanji labeled buttons intimidated me. It did not appear intuitive.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I worried. What was the worst that could happen? My rice turns to porridge? It took a visit from my brother to teach me the wise ways of the rice cooker.

Measure the rice. Dump it in. Wash it. Measure the water. Dump it in. Press the big red button. Go enjoy life until you hear “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Enjoy perfect rice every-time.

But that’s not all. New models push the limits of the term “rice cooker.” Equipped with features like magnetic fields, fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence, and with cooking versatility ranging from stew to bread, today’s rice cookers are the go-to kitchen appliance.

So forget the microwave and give your gas bill a break. Join us as we compare models and features and decide which rice cooker is best for you. If you’re still feeling reluctant, don’t be (like I was). Learn to stop worrying and love the rice cooker.

A Grainy History

Photo by TANAKA Juuyoh

Sometimes referred to as “denshi jaa” (電子ジャー) or “suihanki” (炊飯器) rice cookers were born out 0f Japan’s post-war revival. Before then, people cooked rice on kamado, large stoves made to accompany giant pots.

The nature of these stoves made controlling temperatures tricky and cooking delicious rice difficult. A short lyric attempted to make up for the lack of technology at the time. Kids Web Japan describes the old rhyme:

Hajime choro choro, naka pappa, butsu butsu iu koro hi o hiite, instructs the cook to begin at low heat, then increase the heat, and then lower the heat again when the inside of the pot begins to bubble.

The post-war period left companies scrambling for new commodities. With cash scarce, rice was also accepted as payment. War factories closed down and left Japan with plenty of electricity but few ways to utilize it. These two factors would soon lead to a rice cooking revolution.

At the time Sony focused on modifying and repairing radios built to strict wartime specifications (like limited stations), but looked to expand. How could they take advantage of the electrical productivity of a rice-fed nation like Japan?

The (first) electric rice cooker, made by merely interlocking aluminum electrodes which were connected to the bottom of a wooden tub, was a primitive product. The result depended heavily on the kind of rice used and the weight of the water. Tasty rice was a rarity, as the rice cooker produced mostly undercooked or overcooked rice. It was a memorable first failure.(Sony)

But Sony wasn’t the only company dreaming of a convenient rice cooking apparatus and thanks to competition, the quality of rice cookers improved. According to Kids Web Japan, Toshiba would release the first commercially successful rice cooker in 1955.

After much trial and error, the company came up with a method called “double-pot indirect cooking,” in which a cup of water was poured into the outer pot, and the machine automatically turned off when all of this water evaporated, signaling that the rice was ready. (Kidswebjapan)

Because of how they drastically altered the standard of living for households in the 1950’s, Japan dubbed the refrigerator, television and washing machine The Three Treasures. The rice cooker could have easily been declared the fourth. The convenient appliance became a cultural mainstay, offering safely cooked, delicious rice while rendering the more dangerous, inconsistent kamado obsolete.

Fuzzy Logic, A.I. and Rice Cookers of the Future

Photo by Alex Shultz

Competition between brands meant rice cookers would continue to improve. For example, “in 1960, the first rice cookers that could keep rice warm after it was cooked went on sale, as did some models with timers.”(Kidswebjapan)

Rice cooker technology continues to march into the future, cooking rice faster while bringing out the best taste. Old machines relied on simple mechanical settings, ignoring factors that are now considered like air pressure, weight, temperature and planetary alignment (okay, maybe not the last one).

Technological advancements have even made direct heating obsolete. Induction heating or “IH” (for those in-the-know) became the industry standard.

Here’s how an IH cooker works. An electric current is passed through coils around the pot. This produces a magnetic field, which in turn produces an electric current in the pot’s metal. Metal heats up when an electric current runs through it, so the entire pot quickly rises to a high temperature and cooks the rice evenly. (Kidswebjapan)

The next wave of machines incorporated computer chips and fuzzy logic. As  explains,

Fuzzy logic has to do with mathematical sets, or groups of items known as elements. In most mathematical sets, an element either belongs to the set or it doesn’t. For example, a sparrow would belong to a set of birds, but a bat wouldn’t. In fuzzy logic, though, elements can belong to sets in varying degrees. So since a bat has wings, it might belong to a set of birds — but only to a certain extent. Fuzzy logic is basically a way to program machines so they look at the world in a more human way, with degrees of truth.

Fuzzy logic allows rice cooker to make “judgement calls” based on collected data and rewards its owners with consistently delicious rice, despite life’s variables.

So what does the future of rice cookers hold? Perhaps we only have to look to sci-fi films, like The Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey or Rojin Z for scary but delectable predictions. For example, Jordan Shapiro of Forbes contacted Zojirushi, the premier rice cooker producer, about their new lines of A.I. rice cookers. He reported,

 Zojirushi tells me that (its rice cooker) learns from each cooking experience so as to adjust to your cooking idiosyncrasies. I didn’t ask, so I’m not sure what rice cooking behaviors it “learns” from, but I imagine it could adjust to variables that may stay constant for each particular user: i.e. different brands of rice, the moisture in your climate, the particular chemistry of your water.

I’m hoping for a “smart” rice cooker I could control with a phone app. Or at least a talking rice cooker, similar to HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey that could create well balanced meals on its own. “Dave, your rice is ready. Please eat before it gets cold.”

Rice Cooker Features

Photo by esPose de


Rice cookers come in various shapes and sizes. Choose a model that best fits your lifestyle. If you’re single, the smaller the better, no need for a family-sized behemoth. But if you have a family or plan on hosting parties, go big!

Choosing the Best Pot

Even the cooking pots vary. Some have chemically treated, nonstick surfaces to make cleaning easy. Aluminum is also a popular option. But if you want to avoid those surfaces, for their purported health detriments, go with a more natural option like steel or clay.

Programming and Settings

Of course, some rice cookers boast more features than others. Even those made strictly for cooking rice often feature multiple rice cooking settings. Making brown rice? Hit “brown.” Feeling under the weather and need some kayu rice porridge? Hit the special button. A clock and timer add to a cooker’s convenience. Other models even feature digital screens for detailed options and settings.


Why mention it twice? Because a timer is a rice cooker’s must-have feature. Set it before you go to bed to have fresh rice in the morning. Set it when you head off to work to have fresh rice waiting when you get home.

Multipurpose Versatility

Rice cookers now take cooking convenience to the next level and smash the excuse, “I don’t have time to cook.” You can steam some veggies, broccoli or barbecue some meat and have a healthy, fresh, affordable home cooked meal in minutes. And with some rice cookers, you can cook it all at the same time in the same appliance!

If you want to cook more than rice, you could take your chances with a standard “rice only” model, but its cooking settings and rice-centric fuzzy-logic might make for over cooked, mushy meals. But don’t fret, many of today’s “rice” cookers accommodate multipurpose needs. Special cooking settings make cooking soups, stews and even steaming vegetables and meats as easy as the push of a button.

Some rice cookers feature special steaming trays. Others double as crock pots and pressure cookers. With the help of a timer you can prepare all of your ingredients in the morning, set the timer and have a well balanced scrumptious meal waiting for you when you get home.

One of my current models, the Vitaclay 2-in-1 Rice N’ Slow Cooker, has special settings for making stew and soup (I can smell the tomato and chicken stew stewing as I write!).

Charm Points

On top of all of the shapes, sizes and technological advancements and features, rice cookers also feature charm. Although I love my Vitaclay, my Zojirushi takes the prize for charm.

For one, it has a convenient, self winding plug that stores internally and never gets in the way. There’s also a removable container to catch spill water from the lid. But best of all, the Zojirushi plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” when the rice is done.

The rice cooker universe is surprisingly vast. Please examine all the options (and read the next section) before buying one!

Rice Cooker Battle!

Photo by Eric Hunt

Now that we’ve covered the appliance’s history, technology and features it’s time to look at specific models. Which will come out on  top? You be the judge!

Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18

The Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18 is the top-of-the-line, rice connoisseur’s model.  The giant (15.4 x 10.1 x 8.6 inches, 13 pounds) NP-NVC10/18 flashes some bling in its a “platinum infused nonstick coating.” Apparently this coating makes for the best rice which is the NP-NVC10/18’s goal.

The model features both fuzzy-logic and AI and takes pressure into account. Settings allow users to make the rice as soft or hard as they prefer, and rice can even be toasted and crispy with the NP-NVC10/18’s “scorch” setting. The clock and timer means you can have your preferred style of rice when you want it.

The top of the line, this rice cooker comes in sizes and price ranges to match. If rice cookers equalled street cred, MC’s would be rhyming about the NP-NVC10/18 instead of spinners and medallions. Although it lacks versatility in terms of cooking foods other than rice, if you want awesome rice prepared nearly any way (brown, gabba brown, scorched, umami, sushi rice, or porridge), the NP-NVC10/18 is the model for you.

Panasonic SR-DE103 (13 X10 X8)

The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a well balanced model with a few extra features at a great price. Fuzzy logic helps the SR-DE103 alter the cooking time to net delicious rice every time. Although its choices in rice cooking settings pale in comparison to the NP-NVC10/18, it features a steam tray and steam and cake push-button settings that give it the edge in versatility. It’s also more compact (13 X10 X8 inches), making it easier to store.

With a timer that lets you have rice when you want it the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers what’s expected of a traditional rice cooker with a few convenient features. Priced under $100, the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers a high end cooker at a more affordable price.

Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer

The Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer offers easy, one button controls (white rice, brown rice, keep warm and steam). It comes in various sizes so you can choose one that suits your needs.

Like the Panasonic SR-DE103, the Aroma Digital features a black nonstick coated aluminum cooking pot. It also has a special “steam” setting that allows users to steam vegetables in the fitted tray while cooking rice. Take advantage of the timer to have balanced meals ready when you need them!

What’s the difference between the Aroma Digital and Panasonic SR-DE103? Size, shape and material. The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a rectangular plastic box. The Aroma Digital is a round, crock-pot styled rice cooker with a stainless steel shell (8.7 x 8.5 x 9.3 inches for the 8-cup model).

VitaClay VF7700-6 Chef

VitaClay’s claim to fame is its clay pot; a natural, stick-free alternative to most rice cooker pots’ artificial coatings. Although I love the clay pot, it can be a double edged sword. If you tend to drop things, the breakable clay pot might prove problematic. Although extra pots can be purchased online, it’ll cost you. But for the sure-handed readers out there, the clay pot is easy to clean and won’t pell after prolonged use like non-stick coated pots do. It also presents a nice aesthetic when it’s carried to the dining room table!

The VF7700-6 Chef encourages experimentation; its stew and soup settings work well in preparing curries, sauces, as well as ANY types of soups and stews. My only gripe is its lack of a steam tray. Like the Aroma Digital Rice Cooker, the VitaClay comes in a crock-pot styled shape.

Aroma Simply Stainless

As the Japanese-English phrase goes, sometimes “Simple is best.” And in the case of the Aroma Simply Stainless, it’s cheap too. This no-nonsense model features a lid, pot and plastic casing. A bare bones rice cooker, Aroma’s Simply Stainless line comes in three sizes and one touch simplicity. The pot is made from surgical-grade 304 stainless steel, so it’s a great option for those looking to avoid aluminum and chemically coated surfaces. The pot also boasts the ability to cook soups, stews, chili and oatmeal.

Although some reviews complain about steam and water spurting from the hole on the lid, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Want a no-fuss, affordable and tiny rice cooker? The Aroma Simply Stainless is your best bet!

Not Just for White Rice Anymore

Photo by Rich

When I first arrived in Japan I asked a Japanese acquaintance, “Can I cook brown rice in my rice cooker?”

“Oh… you better not,” she warned.

Japanese take their white rice very seriously, and I’ve heard the myth repeated time and time again, “Rice Cookers are for white rice.” But nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve cooked brown rice, beans, and even fish and vegetables in a rice cooker only meant for rice. Slight odors and staining of the white plastic shell proved to be the only downsides.

Whether cooked through induction heating, fuzzy logic, or artificial intelligence, at its very core a rice cooker is a heated pot. Like some of the models mentioned above, many rice cookers are moving to multi-functionality. And taking advantage of these features can be simple and fun.

A simple Youtube search reveals all sorts of things that can be cooked in a rice cooker – from various types of rice to pasta, eggs, pancakes, cake and bread. Resources to help you become a cooking everything-other-than-rice rice-cooker master.

Karate Rice

A site offering tips on how to prepare the perfect rice as well as various rice-based dishes, Karate Rice proves anyone can cook for themselves. I recommend the “Japanese Sweet Potato and Rice” and “Rice Chili Stew.” Add extra garlic and cumin to the stew to give it more zing!

Ariel Knutson’s 21 Surprising Things You Can Make in a Rice Cooker

A less traditional collection of recipes that often abandons the rice altogether. Although Mac and Cheese is always popular, I love the Vegetable Frittata as a quick, well balanced meal. Just looking at the “Tofu and Asparagus’s” deep green asparagus, soft brown tofu cubes and rich broth made my mouth water.


The offers all sorts of articles aimed at dedicated dog lovers. It even features a recipe for dog food (though I’m considering trying it as people food) made in a rice cooker. Instead of cooking with a dog, cook for a dog!

The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook

With the subtitle, 250 No-Fail Recipes for Pilafs, Risottos, Polenta, Chilis, Soups, Porridges, Puddings, and More, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman’s book puts cooking within reach of even the most inept household chefs.

Learn to make risotto, chunky or smooth applesauce, tapioca pudding, and hot breakfast cereals. Although I haven’t run into any problems myself, reviewers say this book nets the best results with fuzzy-logic models.

Bask in the Glory of Well Cooked Rice!

More versatile than the name implies, rice-cookers are clean, safe, and super convenient! After not using one for most of my life, aside from the refrigerator it has become the most used appliance in my kitchen. I don’t even own a microwave, toaster or oven anymore and have no plans on investing in any of them. Don’t get me wrong, the rice cooker can’t outperform those appliances, but for me it’s an acceptable alternative.

Rice cookers make cooking easy.  Timers and extra features can make cooking convenient for even the busiest of people. Best of all, it’s easy to make healthy, well balanced meals. Plus experimenting with new recipes is fun and (usually) rewarding.

If you have a rice cooker to recommend or recipes or recipe websites, please comment below. Happy rice (and everything else) cooking to all!

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Kata and Kiai in Martial and Other Arts Wed, 13 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Hi-yah!  A stoic martial arts hero dramatically works his way through a series of deadly techniques handed down from generation to generation, punctuated by a fearsome shout.  It’s a familiar scene to any martial arts film buff, but what is the reality?  Both kata 型 (forms) and kiai 気合 (shouts) are a part of many […]

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Hi-yah!  A stoic martial arts hero dramatically works his way through a series of deadly techniques handed down from generation to generation, punctuated by a fearsome shout.  It’s a familiar scene to any martial arts film buff, but what is the reality?  Both kata 型 (forms) and kiai 気合 (shouts) are a part of many martial arts.  However, there’s often an air of mystique built up around both, so let’s have a go at separating fact from fiction.  There is practical thought behind these traditions, and we’ll see how their usefulness has spread outside of the dojo.

Form and Function


Learning through repetition and rote memorization has long been a favored method in East Asia, and kata are an extension of this.  By practicing the same series of movements again and again one builds muscle memory, so that, eventually, one can perform the technique well without conscious thought.  These concepts traveled from China to Japan and over time kata came to be used in martial arts like karate, kendo, aikido, and judo, to name a few.  There’s often an aura of antiquity around kata.  Whether explicitly expressed or not, there’s a feeling that masters have been handing down these forms for centuries.  The truth (as usual) is a bit more complicated.

Take karate for example.  It began as a blend of Okinawan and Chinese fighting styles.  Although it may go back farther, no one has been able to reliably trace karate any earlier than the early nineteenth century.  A lot of the exact Chinese connections have been lost, but it is possible to trace a few kata to their Chinese antecedents.  For example, the kata Sanchin can be traced to the Fujian White Crane Style, beyond a reasonable doubt, but that would still put its origins at about the mid to late eighteenth century.  There are many kata like this; ones that are old, but probably not ancient in the way people imagine.  Others are less than a century old.  Most of the masters responsible for bringing karate from Okinawa to the rest of Japan (and then the world) lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  To bring their art to a much larger audience, some of them invented new kata.  Some of these broke down or simplified older kata, while others were more original.  Likewise, most of the kata in judo were created by founder Kano Jigoro during the 20th century.

Non-Combative Kata


Photo by Todd Fong

There are also kata among non-martial Japanese traditions.  When studying abroad in Fukuoka a few years ago, I took a course on tea ceremony, part of which was learning to perform a bit of it ourselves.  Having some prior experience in karate, I began to notice that the routine of the tea ceremony was quite similar to practicing a kata.  In both cases, you build technique and muscle memory through repetition with strict attention to detail.  As you hone your skills there is room for the individual to shine through, to adapt the form to yourself without losing that which makes it the form. But you must learn the rules before you can bend them.  I voiced these sentiments in class and my tea sensei was inclined to agree.  Indeed, kata are part of training in both the tea ceremony and in kabuki, as well.

Kata For the 21st Century


Though kata can be a way to preserve knowledge, they are also a way to sharpen skills, whether for fighting, pouring a cup of tea, or writing computer code.  That’s right, kata have found a place in the digital world.  Programmer and author, Dave Thomas (no, not the Wendy’s guy), probably coined the term “code kata.”  These code kata are basically code writing exercises or problems that can be practiced repeatedly with the goal of improving one’s programming skills.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about programming, so I can’t really comment on the details or effectiveness of these exercises, but I think it’s really cool that people are attempting to apply the concept to new skills.  I imagine there are other skills for which kata could be a useful learning method.

All About the Shout


Photo by cenefil_

At its most basic the kiai is a shout, usually given in conjunction with executing an attack, such as a punch or kick.  A proper kiai originates in the diaphragm, not the throat, and emanates as a loud shout, with the shouter expelling as much air from their lungs as possible.  What sound your kiai makes doesn’t matter much, and there is a lot of individual variation, but there are some trends among different arts.  The kiai of most unarmed styles like karate tend to be short and sharp, while those in sword arts like kendo tend to be much longer. In fact, in kendo, the kiai is deemed so important that in a match points will not be awarded to a successful strike if there is no accompanying kiai.

Why kiai at all though?  Well, there are several practical reasons.

Firstly, doing kiai when practicing kata can help develop the proper coordination of movement and breathing, which is important in maximizing the efficiency of your movement and not tiring yourself out as quickly.  For this purpose making a sound is not strictly necessary, but doing so during a kata just emphasizes the point.  Secondly, getting all the air out of yourself voluntarily when you strike makes you less vulnerable to getting it knocked of you by a counterattack, which is much less pleasant.  For a similar reason, those who do jujutsu or judo are trained to kiai at the point of impact when they take a fall, and I can tell you from experience that it works pretty well.  Thirdly, a kiai can have the effect of intimidating an opponent.

However, some have taken this last possibility to an unbelievable level.  There has been much discussion over the existence and nature of ki 気 (the ki in kiai).  Perhaps the best translation is “energy,” but much like this English word, ki can be used in a variety of situations.  Trying to briefly define energy in a way that covers all of its possible uses is not so easy.  However, that does not necessitate the mystification of either word.  Having some experience in martial arts and in studying ancient Japanese and Chinese texts, in my opinion, most of the uses of the word ki within the martial arts/medical fields are related to breathing, physical/mental effort, blood circulation, biomechanics, perhaps bioelectricity, or some combination of the above. But all of these have been put under the blanket term ki.  Therefore, many of the things ascribed to ki are explicable through science.  In the cases where ki is credited with something supernatural, I would approach that with just as much skepticism as I would someone who claims to read auras or see ghosts.

Legends of Dubiousness


There are a number of stories of martial arts masters able to employ the kiai in a near superhuman manner.  However, there is plenty of exaggeration in the martial arts world, so it’s best to take such stories with shaker of salt.  Funakoshi Gichin was the master perhaps most responsible for popularizing karate throughout Japan, and then the world.  In his memoir he dismisses claims of karate masters who can pierce through human flesh with their fingertips, saying that no amount of training will allow a person to exceed the bounds of human ability, but shortly thereafter he relates a story that arouses skepticism in me for those same reasons.

The story goes that well-known karate master Matsumura Sokon was challenged to a match by an engraver, who also happened to be skilled in karate.  The engraver tried to attack Matsumura twice, but each time was immobilized by the latter’s gaze alone.  The confused engraver realized he had lost, but was determined to finish the match to save face.  He attacked, but Matsumura gave a “great cry that sounded to the engraver like a thunderbolt,” and finding himself unable to move, the engraver made a final feeble attempt before falling to the ground.

A Lot of Hot Air


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You may think such fantastic stories are a thing of the past, something that could only exist in a time before smartphone cameras and such, but no. There are still individuals purporting to be kiai masters with abilities beyond our perception.  Some of these people claim to be able to attack someone without touching them, in a Jedi-like manner.  I will admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude when I see videos of people demonstrating to these kiai masters ample evidence to the contrary.  I give you Exhibit A, in which an MMA fighter takes up a kiai master’s offer of 5,000 dollars to anyone who can beat him.

As satisfying as that was, I think I like Exhibit B even better. Here we take a look at kiai master, George Dillman.

I think my favorite part of this video is watching Dillman jump through hoops trying to explain away the failure of his technique on a nonbeliever.  From his reaction, it seems that he is not cynically trying to fool his students, but believes in his own ki abilities.  Others who have analyzed dojos like this one, have theorized that they may be examples of both self-delusion in the master and a form of mass-delusion among the students.

Back to Reality


Kata are great for developing technique, and if one analyzes them, the sequences can tell you some useful things for an actual fight, but to jump in the ring and start doing a kata from beginning to end is ridiculous (I’m looking at you “Karate Kid 3”).  Also, keep in mind that although they are a useful training tool, they are not the end-all, be-all of martial arts.  Likewise, they are practical uses for kiai, just not anything that would qualify you for the X-Men.  There are many reasons to do martial arts, but if practicality is of any concern to you, it’s good to keep your romanticism in check and think about what you are doing.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) Fri, 08 May 2015 13:01:33 +0000 If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a […]

The post 25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) appeared first on Tofugu.

If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a foreign country, after all. It’s important to do your research.

I’ve put together a list of pros and cons for going on JET. By pulling from my own experience, as well as the experience of many other JETs, I think I’ve come up with a pretty thorough resource. I hope it helps you to make a good decision for you.

A Note

This article is intended for those interested in the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. JET also employs CIRs (Coordinator of International Relations) who work in Boards of Education and government offices. However, the CIR position requires at least N2 level Japanese and accounts for only 10% of JET participants. Less than 1% of JET participants are SEAs (Sports Exchange Advisors). ALTs make up 90%. All this to say, our focus will be on becoming an ALT in the JET Program.

Tangible Benefits


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Free Trip to Japan

JET brings foreign people to Japan, so the plane ticket seems to go without saying. As “basic” as this sounds, it’s actually a perk JET has over other ALT programs. Most private ALT companies expect you to pay your own way into the country.

Be aware that flying with JET means you must return to the same airport you departed from. Aside from this it’s a free round trip international flight (with 1 to 5 years in between). A nice perk not offered by many other programs.

Job in Japan

One of the most stressful situations in life is finding a job. It’s doubly stressful when paired with moving your life to a new country and culture.

It’s possible to move to Japan without a job and find one once you get there. But consider the vast expense of moving to Japan. Then finding a place to live, and the costs associated. Finally add job searching.

You’ll probably find an English teaching job, but not having one set up beforehand adds a countdown to zero monies. Stress like that is the last thing you need while job searching.

Depending on the company, some ALT staffing agencies may not always have your best interest in mind. Their job is primarily to make money by keeping the Board of Education happy. This is not always the case, but keep it in mind when looking at alternatives to JET. JET places you in a job with the intention of keeping you there. Things will go wrong (we’ll get to that later), but at least the JET Program isn’t trying to make things difficult for you.

The fact that JET offers you employment in Japan may go without saying. But considering what it’s like to move across the globe without a job helps put into perspective what a major benefit this is.

Getting Set up

You’re flown to Japan and given a job. On top of that, JET sets you up with an apartment, a visa, a residence record, and a residence card. Most other English teaching programs should help with this as well, in varying degrees. However if you are coming to Japan on your own, all of these things rest on you.

Even with a good deal of Japanese under your belt, navigating the bureacracy required to secure an apartment, put the utilities in your name, set up a cell phone plan, get a visa, and register your residency would be daunting. Having a supervisor to get you on your feet in a matter of days relieves a lot of that hassle.


JET sets you up with your living situation. This is a big deal considering how different home set-up in Japan is, compared to other countries. In most cases, you’ll take over your predecessor’s home, which diminishes the startup fees normally required for new apartments. This isn’t a guarantee though. You may need to have up to six times your monthly rent to pay in key money and other fees. Super expensive, but that’s just how apartments in Japan work.

Your JET apartment may not be a dream home, but it’s your own place in Japan. In most cases, it’s fully furnished and partially subsidized, though it could be only one of these or neither. You are free to leave and find your own apartment at your own expense (which is very possible, given the generous JET salary). Follow this guide if you take that route.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of having a place set up for you before you arrive. It’s a big stress reliever and a great way to feel that Japan is your home as soon as you land.

Lots of Support

You have a lot of bosses with varying degrees of power to help you. If one boss is not helpful, at least you have other avenues to explore when solving problems. Not all bosses help with the same things, so in certain situations, you’ll need to approach a certain boss.

School Supervisor (担当者)

This person will be your main go-to supervisor at school. They will be a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) who works at your school, a day-to-day coworker and one you will work with in class. You can go to them with school issues, classroom issues, Japanese culture issues, etiquette issues, and sometimes even issues outside of work.

Vice Principal

The Vice Principal is a supervisor as well and can help with a lot of things, but usually only when your School Supervisor directs you there. These are usually issues that the School Supervisor can’t handle on their own, thus they move up the chain of command.


The Principal is definitely your boss. If it’s a situation the Vice Principal can’t handle, it’s on to the Principal. Realistically, you won’t handle issues with Principal at all, if ever.

Board of Education or Prefectural Office Supervisor

CLAIR refers to this supervisor as your “supervisor”. Like, this is the supervisor for your JET contract and your number one go-to boss in just about every situation.

This person is someone who works at the office of your contracting organization. Your supervisor will be in charge of setting you up in your apartment, setting up utilities, registering you at all local government offices, registering you for health insurance, dealing with repairs in your apartment, opening your bank account, helping you find a doctor, giving you permission to take time off, evaluating your performance, helping you in case of emergency, and helping you to recontract to stay on JET at the end of each year.

Prefectural Advisor (PA)

You will most likely have two Prefectural Advisors (PA). These people are JET Program participants who work closely with the contracting organizations and Prefectural government. Their job is to confidentially counsel you in all issues you have on JET, including issues with your contracting organization. Because PAs are still performing their duties as JET participants, they have a more relatable perspective and may be able to mediate between you and your contracting organization. Bear in mind that PAs have limited power and may not be able to solve your problem. But no matter what, it’s nice to have an advocate who can be in your corner, even if the outcome doesn’t develop the way you like.


After publishing this article, I learned that CLAIR had effectively removed the PA position from JET’s support network last year. PAs still exist, but they are barred from offering counseling or mediating in any way. I don’t know why the PA position is still in place if it’s been stripped of ability to act. The other supports are still in place, but the Prefectural Advisor was one of the most helpful and important sources of official support. The Association for JET (AJET) compiled a study on JET participants’ reactions to this change and presented it to CLAIR, MOFA, MEXT, and MIC. You can read it here. Hopefully this will turn things around, but we’ll see.

If you do go on JET, I would recommend you supplement the loss of PA support with other support organizations like the AJET Peer Support Group or the Tokyo English Life Line. They won’t be able to mediate with your contracting organization like PAs did, but at least they’ll be able to provide the counseling aspect.


JET Program pay is very generous. The pay scale goes like this:

  • 1st year JETs – ¥3,360,000/yr
  • 2nd year JETs – ¥3,600,000/yr
  • 3rd year JETs – ¥3,900,000/yr
  • 4th and 5th year JETs – ¥3,960,000/yr

This is more than enough to pay rent, pay bills, buy meals, spend money, save money, and go on trips. You’re not only given the experience of living in Japan, but also the means to enjoy it!

Generally speaking, JET is the highest paying ALT gig there is, unless you join a company that has a pay scale in which your raises would eventually exceed ¥3,960,000 a year. However, this might take a few years of teaching, which would be a great goal for those wanting to live in Japan long term. But as far as starting salaries for ALT work go, JET can’t be beat.

Tax Exemption for 2 Years

On top of the high pay, you will most likely be tax exempt for the first two years. Many countries, including the U.S., have a tax treaty with Japan, wherein the money you earn for the first two years on JET is tax free. Check with your home country’s tax authority to find out if you qualify. You will still need to file taxes with your home country and your local Japanese government, but that’s a small price for two years of tax free pay.

Pay off Debts with That Money

Many JETs use their income situation as an opportunity to pay off student loans or other debts. This is a huge benefit considering the amount of time it usually takes people to pay off debts. You could pay off those student loans in 4 years rather than 30, and still having money to spend on vacations.

Many Insurances

As a member of the JET Program, you are automatically enrolled in 3 insurance plans to cover you in most imaginable cases. Many private ALT staffing companies try to get out of enrolling their employees into the National Health Insurance Program by claiming employees’ total work time per week as 29.5 hours. In reality ALTs in those companies work closer to 40.

With JET, you are enrolled in the mandatory National Health Insurance Program and two others as well. And all without any paperwork required. Below is a breakdown of the healthcare you would receive:

  • The National Health Insurance Program is the social healthcare program. The majority of Japan is enrolled and nearly every Japanese doctor accepts it. This plan covers 70% of your medical expenses, which includes doctor visits, treatment, medical supplies, operations, hospitalization, nursing, and transportation. Dependents are also covered under this plan and receive all the same benefits of the beneficiary. Dependent care differs in that they must pay 20% of hospitalization costs and 30% of out-patient care.
  • JET Accident Insurance covers whatever National Health Insurance doesn’t. Use it if it’s a situation you wouldn’t want to pay for out of pocket. It also covers you for up to one month at a time outside of Japan, in case you want to go on vacation or visit your home country.
  • Employment Insurance is your contribution to the Japanese unemployment fund. This allows you to collect unemployment if you remain in the country after JET and are unemployed for a time. This is an invaluable safety net for those who wish to reside in Japan long term and need to look for a job after JET.

Pension Fund (for retirement or unable to work due to injury)

Everyone working in Japan is required to put money away in the National Pension. It’s like America’s Social Security, except you get back the money you put in. This is used in case you are too ill to work, you die and need to leave money to family, or you retire in Japan. In the event you leave Japan without doing any of these things, you can apply for a refund of the majority of what you put in after you return to your home country.


JET offers an incredible amount of time off, especially when compared with your Japanese co workers. The exact amount you get depends on what your contracting organization allows. The numbers below should be a close estimate to what you will get:

  • Vacation Days – 12-20 per year
  • Sick Days – 5-10 per year
  • Special Days – If you are a prefectural ALT, you may be entitled to a compensatory holiday (だいきゅう, 代休) if the number of work days in a month exceeds the number stated in your contract.

Language Practice

JET gives you an invaluable chance to take textbook Japanese and temper it into real, working fluency. Whether you know a lot or a little, it will get practiced into a smooth buttery flow. And studying on JET means real world application, which smashes the learnings into your brain.

Is it possible to live in Japan and not learn any Japanese? Definitely. But Japan offers so many opportunities for immersion that it’s the best place to reach benchmarks of fluency.

The JET Program Japanese Language Course

CLAIR offers its own Japanese Language Course to all JET participants free of charge. The course is split between Beginner/Intermediate Courses and the Translation and Interpretation Courses. You have to test into the Translation and Interpretation Courses, but the Beginner/Intermediate Courses are open as soon as you start JET.

In years past, the JET Program Japanese Language Course was administered with textbooks and CDs mailed to your contracting organization. However, in recent years it has become an online e-learning course.

You can read what JETs say about the course here. It may not ultimately be the best course for studying Japanese, but it’s worth trying. It teaches grammar and vocab based on situations you may encounter on JET and it’s free. If anything, it at least shows CLAIR’s pro-activeness in caring for your development.

International Work Experience

The ALT Job, which has its pros and cons, does offer a lot of opportunity to hone skills which look good on a resume. Chief among these is “international work experience,” which hiring managers love. To employers this usually means, adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to work with various personalities. If you know how to highlight this on a resume and in an interview, it can be the career strengthener you need to land a better job.


Enkai are one of the best perks of the job. You pay some money and go to a party with all your teachers. Eating and drinking ensues. You can only experience this by working in Japan, as enkai are only for those “in the group”. No spouses or family allowed.

Tatemae gets pushed to the side at these parties and you see a side of your co workers that you won’t see at school. After the fun, there’s more fun. Most enkai continue at the 二次会 (second party).

Enkai are fantastic and exclusive experience. Go to as many as you can.


Yay! Sitting in chairs and listening! There’s not a whole ton of training involved on JET (see sections below), but you are offered some. There are several orientations before leaving for JET, one in Tokyo upon arrival, one before you finish JET, and in the middle of every year.

The Skill Development Conferences were the ones I found most helpful. They are conducted by host prefectures and all ALTs in the prefecture attend with one JTE from their school. This means open discussions and workshops with one of your JTEs, and getting to hear from other ALT/JTE teams from the region. Results will vary, but the potential is definitely there.

The CLAIR Grant for TEFL Certification

CLAIR offers grants for JETs to get Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification. This is great if you want to teach English in foreign countries as a career or want to get better at your job as an ALT. More info here.

A TEFL Certification will allow you to get better teaching jobs in Japan, including universities. Other countries in which English is not the native language open up as well. If you love your job as an ALT and want to travel Japan or the world, a TEFL Certification can help you achieve that goal.

Alumni Network

JET only lasts five years, so you will need to find another job at some point. This is where the JET Alumni Association (or JETAA) can be a big help. There are 52 chapters in 15 countries totaling over 25,000 members. No matter where you end up after JET, there should be a (relatively) nearby support base built in. Not only does this help with reverse culture shock, but JET Alumni are always eager to help a former JET get adjusted to their new home, whether it be in finding a new job or anything else.


Your contracting organization will most likely supply you with a bicycle while on JET. Maybe not, but 90% of the time you will get a bike. Hey kid! You wanna free bike? Why would you say no?

Foothold in the Country for Living Long Term

For those wanting to live in Japan long-term, this might be the number one reason to go on JET. You can get to Japan and live for a year or two while networking, job searching, and getting acclimated to your new life. Starting a career in a new country is difficult enough without having to blaze your own trail. JET gives you a solid base from which to start your career advancement operation.

Intangible Benefits


A Chance to Live on Your Own in a Foreign Country

It goes without saying that living in Japan is different than visiting. You’ll experience Japan as a relative insider, seeing both good and bad aspects of culture, society, religion, government, and daily life. You will also be largely on your own forcing you to become more resilient in a shorter amount of time than you might in your own country.

Dealing with Culture Shock (Initially Bad, Long Term Good)

Culture shock is a personal disorientation experienced when moving to new countries or environments. While on JET you will be forced to deal with it in varying degrees. This may not sound like a benefit, but it can be if dealt with correctly. If you can gain perspective and adjust in some ways, you’ll find it easier to cope during other transitional times. Not fun but certainly beneficial.

Learning More About Your Own Culture

Yes, I did say your own culture. Learning about and interacting with Japanese culture has the funny side effect of teaching you about your own. When confused or frustrated by the way things are done in Japan, eventually you’ll start to examine why those things bother you. This usually leads to an examination of your own values and/or the values of your home country. With a lot of these experiences and thinkings compounding on one another, you eventually gain a broader perspective of your own culture and why it functions the way it does.

Experience All Four Seasons in Japan

Recently in the Tofugu office, we had a fun argument about which season was the best. I said fall, while Koichi said winter, and Kristen said summer. Seasons in Japan are all wonderful (though fall is definitely the best). This is not so much due to weather, but rather the interesting and exciting ways Japan celebrates each season. Sakura viewing in spring, matsuris galore in summer, momiji hikes in the fall, and nabe at the kotatsu in winter. Living in Japan year round enables you to experience each season and discover reasons to love each one.

The People

It’s great to talk about mountains, temples, shrines, arcades, and konbinis. But none of these amazing Japanese things would exist without Japanese people to create them. The people you will meet in Japan are the best part of the experience.

A lot of guide books and travel sites say things like, “Japanese people are polite, kind, and hospitable.” I’m not arguing that but you’ll meet all kinds of characters that fall in line with and defy the stereotypes. There’s no telling what you’ll encounter when dealing with the cocktail of personalities that is humanity.

You’ll certainly always remember places you went and things you did, but people are what make experiences into adventures.

The Horcrux Effect

A fellow JET friend of mine likened her leaving Japan to a Horcrux from Harry Potter. For the uninitiated (muggles), a Horcrux is something a wizard can use to split their soul and attach a piece of it to an object, thus anchoring that piece of them to a certain place. This is the best description I’ve heard for living in and leaving places.

We all leave pieces of ourselves in the various places we’ve called home, and this is no different when living in Japan. When you leave, there are people, places, and memories that you’ll hold dearly. I’m not sure whether or not to call this a benefit. But it’s definitely a feeling, though bittersweet, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Reasons Not to Go on JET


Photo by tokyoform

After reading the lists above, you may get the impression that JET is a perfectly positive organization offering a perfectly positive experience. Of course, this is not true or possible. JET has its share of pitfalls, miscommunications, and downright crappy situations. Some of these are due to Japanese culture and society conflicting with a JET participant’s worldview (ie. Culture Shock), while others may be administrative problems caused by JET or the Japanese school system itself. Below is an overview of cons to consider before jumping into JET with both feet.

Every Situation is Different (thus you can’t prepare for it)

This was the previous mantra of the JET Program, sometimes abbreviated as ESID. Though CLAIR no longer officially supports this catchphrase, it’s still a fact of life on JET. The organization is so large and sends ALTs to such disparate locales, it’s impossible for them to predict what will happen to you when and how. On some levels this is understandable, but it came to the point that CLAIR and other JET entities used this idea to deny responsibility or take action when there was a legitimate issue. While it’s encouraging to see this motto dropped, it’s probably still ingrained in the wiring of the organization.

In reality, JET and CLAIR are not god-like entities that can swing the hammer down any time a JET is in trouble. Part of the point of the program is being on your own in Japanese society. So you are, in essence, signing up for an experience in which the powers that send you have very little ability to help after you are deployed. You may have a great school with attentive students, or a difficult school full of street toughs. You may get Japanese co-workers who are thoughtful and caring, or indifferent and rude. You may get housed in a large 2 bedroom home or a tiny shoebox. More than likely, you’ll get a mix of good and bad elements to your JET experience (ie. Good teachers, bad students. Small home, close to train station, etc). JET drops you directly into Japanese life and Japanese life, like life anywhere, is complicated.

Culture Shock

Just a few sections up, I talked about the benefits of culture shock, but to get the benefits one must go through some real sucky times.

Most will go through culture shock and come out on the other end just fine. But it can be detrimental if you have a predisposition to depression or are in the middle of dealing with a tough life situation. It’s best to deal with those things first, learn some coping strategies, and then try coming to Japan. Adjusting to Japanese life takes some mental preparedness, so it’s best to defer if you aren’t ready.

Training Sucks

Rather, training in Japan is different. Japanese work culture is one of on the job training, wherein you jump in and learn the ropes as you go. If you’re coming from a Western country, you may be more used to being trained in what to do before being sent to do the job.

Neither approach is right necessarily, but going from one to the other can be frustrating. This is explained best in this article by Rochelle Kopp. In Japanese culture, training is seen as something that develops the self and therefore should be done on one’s own time. Thus, you should be ready to jump into your new job and roll with the punches until you get the hang of it.

You’ll Most Likely Get Put in the Inaka

The majority of JET participants are placed in the countryside of Japan (called “inaka” in Japanese). This could be a pro or con depending on your preferences. In general, inaka life means living far from train stations, having only a few shops in your town, being one of the only foreigners in your area, needing a car, and not having a whole lot to do after work. There is a lot of charm to living in the inaka, but we’re focusing on the negative here, so let’s not get too chipper.

Medical Situations

Japanese medical practice is a whole issue that is best covered in this article. The Japanese medical system will provide you with the care you need, though you may bump into a number of nuances and roadblocks that give you pause. Certain procedures that are common in the West may not be in Japan. Certain medications you are used to may not be available. Doctors are gods among men who cannot be questioned. The language barrier can feel especially daunting when it comes to medical Japanese. All in all, you will be fine in the Japanese medical system and you won’t pay much thanks to all your insurances (see above sections). But unfamiliarity with Japanese medical processes and the differences in medical practices may cause some frustration.

The Japanese School System Takes Some Getting Used To

Just as the Japanese medical system takes getting used to, so does the Japanese school system. The difference here is that the majority of your time on JET will be spent in this system.

Understanding the Japanese School System would take an entire article in itself, but the main things to remember are:

  • Kids are the center of the school, not the teachers: Kids stay in their homerooms and teachers go to them. This gives the students a sense that the classroom is their turf.
  • The school school is a group and that group must がんばります together: This is more of a dynamic of Japanese work culture, but the basic idea is that the group has to work together, and that means individual needs may get marginalized.
  • Japanese school is test focused: Japanese students have one goal: to get into a good college. To do this, they need to pass an entrance exam. And to get accepted to take the exam, they need to graduate from a good high school. And to graduate from a good high school, they need to test into a good high school. And to do all these things, Japanese students need to be good at taking tests. This can mean that some or most of the English lessons you teach have very little practical application.

These are just a few examples, but hopefully they should give you a good idea of how different the Japanese school system may feel.

You Are a Public Servant, Not Simply a Teacher

This means that you are bound by the same rules and obligations of other full-time government employees. As a public servant you may be asked to attend functions at the last minute, work on weekends, or stay late. Most schools choose not to ask their ALTs to do these things, but it is in your contract so be aware that your school or Board of Education has the right to rope you into a lot of extra work any time they choose.

The Answer to Some Questions Is “Just Do It Because That’s the Way It’s Done”.

In the West, we usually want to know why we are doing something before we do it. In Japan sometimes reasons may not be given as to why you need to do something.

For example, a friend of mine asked his Japanese neighbor about paying the NHK man who asks for money door-to-door.

The NHK is a government run public broadcasting service funded partly by the public. Instead of running telethons, the NHK simply goes door-to-door and insists on payment. As a person with a TV that receives NHK (all TVs in Japan do by default), you are expected to pay for the channel.

My friend told his Japanese neighbor that he didn’t pay the NHK man because he doesn’t watch NHK. The neighbor responded in shock. “You must pay the NHK man!”

When my friend asked why, the neighbor replied, “Because that’s what you do!” The real answer is that payment is required by law, but to the Japanese neighbor that wasn’t the issue. You just do it because you do it.

Several of your “why” questions on JET may be answered with “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because that’s the way it’s done.” This is especially frustrating when your questions are about things more serious than paying for public television.



Photo by skyseeker

JET is without a doubt a worthwhile program with a lot of flaws. There’s much to consider when deciding whether or not the JET Program is for you. You’ll want to talk it over with family and friends, make your own pros and cons list based on your life situation, and think about overall career goals. Keep in mind that life on JET is an adventure, and adventures are not constant excitement or good times. There’s a lot rough patches, boring spots, and downright frustrating obstacles. But peppered in there will be joys and ultimate rewards. An adventure is always a gamble, but hopefully worth it in the end.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The post 25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) appeared first on Tofugu.

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