Tofugu » » History A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Kamaboko: A Pureed Fish Cake Fit For Celebration Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great travel piece about it. So that you can further enjoy our experience at the kamaboko museum, I thought we could first learn about this traditional Japanese dish.

What Exactly Is Kamaboko?


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

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


Photo by Takekazu Omi



Photo by gamene

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


Photo by Samson Loo

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

History Of Kamaboko


Photo by netagura

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating With Kamaboko


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

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

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

The Words Delivered From Kamaboko


Photo by kazuh

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

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

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

How To Eat Kamaboko


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

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

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

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The Japanese Name Satou And Its Rise To #1 Wed, 24 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 I’ve written quite a lot about Japanese family names recently. However, simply learning the kanji or pronunciation of names is quite boring, so I thought I’d write an article with the stories behind the most popular family name in Japan. Each name, however, has quite a long story. So today, we’re just going to explore the most popular one: 佐藤 (Satou).

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

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

How 佐藤 (Satou) Became #1


Photo by Emran Kassim

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

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

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


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

佐 + 藤原

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

Job Title Satou

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

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

Regional Name Satou


Photo by no prev

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

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

Randomly Named 佐藤 (Satou)

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

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

What People Named 佐藤 (Satou) Think Of Their Name


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The In-between Island: Tsushima and the Sō Pt 2 Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:00:40 +0000 If you haven’t read Part 1 in this series, make sure to go back and read it, before starting this one. Part 2 will make more sense and you won’t be missing out on all the cool drama, intrigue, cultural faux pas, and international conquest from Part 1!



In 1592 the invasion of Korea began. Ships set sail from northern Kyushu and stopped at Tsushima for final preparations. The Sō, having difficulty raising the 5,000 man quota Hideyoshi placed upon them, impressed a number of Koreans into service. On May 23, 1592, the first division of Hideyoshi’s army landed at Busan, commanded by Konishi Yukinaga and Sō Yoshitoshi. These 18,700 men were later joined by the other divisions, for an army totaling over 158,800. During the early stages of the campaign, the Japanese swiftly cut a swath through the Korean peninsula as they made their way to Seoul, defeating the Koreans at every turn.

Japan’s early success in the campaign could be attributed to a few factors. Firstly, the Japanese armies were more experienced and more efficiently organized than their Korean counterparts. Secondly, the Japanese were also much better equipped than the Koreans. Their melee weapons and armor were of a higher quality than the Koreans’, and more importantly, they possessed firearms.


Photo by alisdair

As mentioned in the last article, during one of the diplomatic missions prior to the war Sō Yoshitoshi had given the Korean king the gift of a musket. To their disadvantage, the Koreans chose not to try and replicate it. Though the Koreans did utilize a few types of cannon, the muskets used by the Japanese allowed for firepower combined with much greater mobility. When Chinese forces later joined the war, their use of muskets greatly enhanced the Koreans’ fighting capacity.



Photo by Feth

The one major advantage held by the Koreans was their navy. Had they been able to bring it to bear early on they might have prevented the advance of the Japanese. Unfortunately Korean politics once again hindered their military. However, after some time a resourceful Korean admiral named Yi Sun Sin was able to strategically bring their navy to bear. He used Korea’s superior ships (particular the famous armored turtle ships) to disrupt the Japanese supply line and occupy their forces long enough for Chinese aid to arrive.

Korea was a tributary state to China, but that relationship generally did not extend to military aid. Nonetheless, on this occasion China did eventually send in troops. Despite their initial successes, after the first year, the Korean campaign became a long, tedious occupation for the Japanese. Many commanders did not wish to remain in Korea, but dared not oppose Hideyoshi, whose power was well consolidated at home in Japan. With Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, his generals were finally free of their obligations and the processes of withdrawal and negotiation began.

A New Order


When Hideyoshi died, Japan was divided between those who supported his family and those who supported the Tokugawa family. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The victorious Tokugawa clan became the ruling family of shoguns for the next 267 years.

Following the battle, they divided the various lords of Japan into three categories, from most privileged to least: shinpan daimyo (those related to the Tokugawa), fudai daimyo (those who allied or fought with the Tokugawa at the time of the Battle of Sekigahara), and tozama daimyo (“outside lords” who fought against them or did not ally with them prior to the battle). The Sō clan did not take a side during the battle, and was thus placed in the third category. Although being an outside lord was a disadvantage, by repairing their relations with Korea, the Sō were still able hold a uniquely powerful position.

Repairing Relations


Photo by blmtduddl

The Sō were able to repair their damaged relationship with Korea rather quickly. Though their first envoy following the war, sent in 1599, never returned, subsequent negotiations fared much better. In 1600, Yoshitoshi, returned 300 Koreans who had been held captive, as a goodwill gesture. Seoul responded by sending representatives to open talks. The Tokugawa tried to distance themselves from Hideyoshi’s invasion, saying they had never sent a single soldier overseas (technically true, though Tokugawa Ieyasu acted as a military advisor to Hideyoshi back home). The Tokugawa sent Yoshitoshi and the monk Genso to Korea on their behalf in 1603, after which several hundred more Korean captives were repatriated. By the following year Tsushima was once again trading (on a limited basis) with Korea.

Between 1601 and 1605 around 5,000 Korean prisoners were returned home. Throughout these negotiations, the Korean court dealt mainly with the Sō family and not the shogunate, once again highlighting the clan’s importance. One of the final conditions for restoring normal relations was official recognition from the “King of Japan,” by which they meant the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Titles were often a sticking point throughout the history of Japanese international diplomacy. “King” was the title by which the Chinese court generally recognized leaders of other large countries (Korea included), but by accepting that title the shogun would also be accepting that his status was lower than that of the Chinese emperor. When the Sō got word of this condition they knew it would be a problem, and they took the risk of forging letters from Ieyasu to the Korean king. It would seem that somehow they were never found out.

In 1609, the Treaty of Kiyu was signed, which allowed for limited trade with the Tokugawa under Sō supervision at Tsushima and Busan. In 1617 formal relations were established. Thus, the Sō recovered from the war, and became stronger than before.

Politics, Parades, and Profits


Photo by PHGCOM

Once again, the Sō clan were gatekeepers of all official trade between Japan and Korea (and a lot more unofficial, but legal trade). Their position became all the more lucrative due to Tokugawa changes in foreign policy. By 1639 the shogunate had closed off most foreign trade. There were a few exceptions. One Dutch ship per year was allowed to dock at the tiny island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. Some Chinese ships were also allowed into Nagasaki. The Satsuma domain traded with the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern day Okinawa). However, Tsushima was the only route for Korean trade.

Another aspect of relations between Korea and Japan was occasional Korean processions to Edo. There were twelve such processions during the Edo period. The first procession in 1607, and the two that followed were at the invitation of the Japanese and included the repatriation of Korean captives from the war. The fourth was a celebration of prosperity, and the fifth a birthday celebration for the shogun. All those that followed were to celebrate the succession of a new shogun. As they say, “Ain’t no party like a shogun succession party.”

Processions departed from Busan, crossed the sea to Tsushima, then Kyushu, where they slowly made their way up to the capital, Edo. There were hundreds of people in the processions, many brightly costumed, playing music and dancing. The processions were quite the sight and attracted many spectators, most of whom would never have seen a foreigner before. Getting a foreign court to pay its respects to the shogun also boosted the prestige of the shogunate and of the Sō family.

Cutting Out the Middlemen


All good things must come to an end, and with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867 and subsequent restoration of the emperor to power, change was on the way. After a bit of shuffling around, Tsushima became a part of Nagasaki prefecture in 1872, which it remains to this day. Like many former daimyo families the Sō were made members of the new peerage kazoku 華族. Under the usual standards, the head of the family should have been made a viscount due to the small income of Tsushima. However, in recognition of Tsushima’s special role in Korean relations, the head of the Sō family was given the higher title of count.

Still, with the introduction of steam ships and later, airplanes, Tsushima’s position became less and less valuable. What exactly became of the Sō family was unclear from my research. One of the last references to the family I found was to Count Sō Takeyuki, who was married by arrangement to Deokhye, the last princess of Korea, in 1931. The marriage was an unhappy one, and they divorced in 1953.


For a few years following World War II, Korea disputed Japan’s control of Tsushima, but then relinquished their claim. It is true that over the centuries the people of Tsushima had adopted a number of customs and a few words from Korea. However, their language had always been Japanese. Their lords had received seals and investiture from the Korean court it’s true, but if that constitutes a claim to the island, then by that logic Korea should belong to China.

Though Tsushima always played both sides to their advantage, they seemed to favor Japan a bit more. If nothing else, the history of Tsushima and its lords attests to the ambiguous nature of national identity in pre-modern East Asia.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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JAPANESE GHOSTS!! Everything You Want to Know Explained by Zack Davisson Thu, 18 Sep 2014 16:00:30 +0000 Ghost stories have been big in Japan for about as long as there’s been Japanese literature. When they were first written down in the Heian period, at the same time as the classic Tale of Genji, there were enough to fill a 33-volume collection. When the first printing press appeared in Japan around 1600, ghost stories were among the best-sellers.

But when it comes to writing about these stories, oddly, a Westerner has dominated this arena. If you go to a Japanese bookstore and ask for a book about ghosts, they’ll hand you the work of Lafcadio Hearn, renowned as the first major interpreter of Japan to the West after it opened to the outside world in the nineteenth century, and author of books including Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things and In Ghostly Japan.

Today, a modern day Lafcadio Hearn is picking up this ghostly torch. Zack Davisson is the author, translator, and folklorist following in Hearn’s footsteps. His book, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost, is coming out in October. Tofugu got the chance to sit down with him and discuss Japanese ghosts, translation, and working for the godfather of horror manga, Mizuki Shigeru.

Q. Your book is based on your blog, which is called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. Can you explain the name of the blog?


Actually, both the blog and the book are based off my Master’s thesis Yūrei: A Study across Time and Media. I did the thesis first at the University of Sheffield, then the blog, and now the book!

The name Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai comes from a parlor game that was popular in Edo period Japan. It translates somewhat poorly as “A Gathering of a Telling of 100 Tales of Kaidan”. The basic way to play was to invite a bunch of friends over, light a hundred candles in a circle, then take turns telling spooky stories. You extinguished one candle with each tale, and the room got gradually dimmer. The tension built. With the final candle, the room was plunged into total darkness. Something was said to be waiting in the dark—the game was also a summoning ritual, you see. In practice, most people wimped out before the final candle. Most games of hyakumonogatari kaidankai ended with the 99th story.

It seemed like the perfect name when I started the blog—basically I was using it as a dumping ground for stories I had translated for my Master’s, and that fit the hyakumonogatari kaidankai theme. I’ve been told numerous times I should have named the blog something else— is hard to say and hard to remember, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. At the time I didn’t give it much thought: I honestly didn’t think anyone else would be reading. Now it’s too late, and I love the name so I am sticking with it!

Q. As you describe it, there were often no plots to these ghost stories, just a description of a weird thing that happened that did not “stink of literature.” So, basically Japanese people have always liked reality TV?

Ha! That is one way of looking at it! But yeah, telling a “true” story, something that actually happened to you, was much more exciting. That’s still true. No one sits around the campfire and swaps movie synopses. You want personal encounters to really freak people out.

And the stories were often short. After I translate them, there is sometimes no more than a paragraph or two, with little plot and lots of variations on the same stories. Like just this weekend, my wife and I were in the woods and we saw a strange flash in the sky. We would tell that at a local gathering, and then the story would pass from mouth-to-mouth and game-to-game, with details getting altered, locations changed, etc… Like modern urban legends.

Q. You say in your book that it’s important to know about Japanese ghosts if you’re interested in Japanese popular culture. Why is that?


It’s an important aspect of Japanese culture and history—more important than most people realize. After all, Japan is the most haunted country on earth. Yūrei are deeply bound into the country’s customs, religion, and entertainment. There is almost no aspect of Japanese culture not touched in some way by ghosts.

Even if you just want to watch some cool horror flicks or anime, or play some games—everything makes more sense when you understand yūrei; when you know the backstory behind the movie monster costume of white kimono, white face, and black hair.

After all, imagine watching a vampire flick without knowing what a vampire was. You wouldn’t have the slightest idea why these dead people sprouted pointed teeth and bit people, or why the heroes kept stabbing wood into them. You need context.

Q. When and how did the consistent description of yūrei begin? You say in your book that it was created as recently as the Edo period, during a renaissance of spooky tales.

In Japan’s prehistory, yūrei were invisible, more like forces of nature without personification. Things changed during the Heian period and contact with China. Yūrei became indistinguishable from human beings.  They could even get married and bear children after death. You can tell stories from the Heian period because they usually have a twist ending of someone being revealed as a yūrei. Probably the most famous of this kind is Botan Dōrō, where a man takes a woman to bed, and finds out later he was sleeping with a corpse.

Then came the Warring States period, which didn’t produce a lot of yūrei tales—people were too busy worrying about being killed for real to bother about ghost stories and horror.  But they made up for it in the Edo period.

During the peace of the Edo period, Japan rediscovered its love for ghosts and the weird. There was a kaidan renaissance, and the first of Japan’s yokai booms where the country became obsessed with the supernatural. That classic look of the yūrei—the white kimono, white face, and black hair, comes from the Edo period kaidan renaissance. It relates directly back to a painting from1750 by the artist Maruyama Okyo, who had a vision one day of his dead love Oyuki. He painted her picture—called The Ghost of Oyuki—which became the template for yūrei that you still see today.

Q. If people have seen even one J-horror flick, they’ve seen the ghost with long hair. What the heck is the deal with the long hair?


Hair—especially woman’s hair—was always thought to possess supernatural powers. Lafcadio Hearn wrote about it in his first Japan book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. But Kabuki theater is really behind the craziness of hair.  Kabuki loves extravagant, wild special effects, and would do all sorts of things with hair. Stage hands would hide under the floor boards and push up hair through the bottom to make it look like yūrei characters were swimming in oceans of hair. Movies are visual, like kabuki, so they picked up that effect and ran with it.

Q. One thing I was surprised to learn from your book was the role of kabuki, where ghost stories were big, and more gore was a plus. To be honest, I always thought of kabuki as one of those tedious classical Japanese entertainments that are only of interest to specialists. But you say it was actually theater for the masses. Tell us a little about ghosts in kabuki.


Oh yeah, Kabuki was completely lowbrow mass entertainment.  During the Edo period, kabuki would have been the equivalent of Saw and Friday the 13th slasher flicks, full of blood and guts and cheap thrills. Kabuki also took those snippets of tales from hyakumonogatari kaidankai and sewed them together into legitimate stories. Kabuki writers introduced plot lines and structure and relationships. But it was always with an eye for thrills. The plays kept getting gorier and gorier until eventually the government had to step in and establish some limits.

It’s weird how that works. In his time, Shakespeare was lowbrow mass entertainment too. The theater was a place for laborers to let off some steam. Now both kabuki and Shakespeare are considered high art, something to be studied and mastered. It makes me wonder what people will think about slasher flicks five hundred years from now. Will we have Jason scholars debating the finer points of the Friday the 13th franchise?

Q. In your book you mention one significant difference between Japanese and western ghost lore: In the west it takes a lot to become a ghost – you need a really good reason to haunt. But in Japan, it’s harder to cross over into death, so even just forgetting to feed the cat is enough. Why?

Well, forgetting to feed the cat might have been artistic license on my part, but the rest is true. Humans aren’t born easily; we need some assistance coming into the world. In Japan, they believe you equally need some assistance getting out. Dying is not easy.

This belief has manifested in several different ways across Japanese history. From the Heian to the Edo periods, it sometimes involved professional “death midwives” called zenchishiki that helped people pass over to death. The belief was that whatever was your last thought at your moment of death, that is what you would become.  So the zenchishiki tried to get people to concentrate on Buddha, and to free their minds of attachments to life. In modern Japan, the belief involves a complicated funeral system of ritual and death anniversaries that can last up to a hundred years before a soul is well and truly settled in the afterlife.

Ritual plays a huge part in things. Anytime there is a series of mass deaths someone will perform a ritual to help ease their passage. At the end of WWII, Nambara Shigeru led The Ceremony to Console the Souls of the Battle Dead and Those Who Died at their Posts in an attempt to pacify the souls of those who died during the war. He was worried that, with Japan’s surrender, the yūrei would feel angry that they had died for nothing.

Q. This book is definitely not all about old fairy tales. You say the dead are very powerful in Japan – and very present, even now. Talk a little about the present effects of these beliefs, which might be seen when visiting Japan or in the popular culture, but are easy to miss.


This was right in my face when I landed in Japan. I arrived right when the country was gearing up for Obon—the Festival of the Dead. That is one of Japan’s most important holidays, with many people taking the entire week off to care for the dead. They go to family gravesites and wash them, they set out food and light candles for the dead so they can find their way home.  It’s something completely confusing if you don’t understand Japan’s relationship with yūrei.

Aside from the big production of Obon, the dead are present in a million little ways. Many homes have a butsudan in the living room, where the recently dead are said to reside. If you see the little Jizo statues all over the place those are usually prayers for dead children. Houses and apartments that are known to be haunted must be officially listed as such. And yūrei who have not been properly tended to is a constant worry. After the 2011 tsunami, you heard all sorts of stories of yūrei. Buddhist priests in the area set up little pop-up exorcism huts to pacify the souls of those killed. It is taken very seriously.

The deeper you get into Japanese culture, the more powerful and personal the connection to yūrei becomes. As an example, when I became serious about my girlfriend in Japan (now my wife), she said I would have to make a formal presentation to her father, and ask for permission to marry her. It didn’t matter that her father was long dead. I paid a formal visit to his grave to express my intentions about his daughter, and asked his blessing.

Q. I have a few questions about details of language, since we are into that here at Tofugu -

Ohhh … that’s going to be tricky! But I’ll do my best!

Q.  Obake or yūrei?

This is the tough one. Basically, obake means changing thing and yūrei translates as dim spirit. But that doesn’t really tell you anything. Over the years the nuances of the words have changed, and ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers about what constitutes an obake and what is a yūrei. For example, in the Meiji period, folklorist Yanagita Kunio said that obake haunt places, while yūrei haunt people. Other folklorists say that obake is more synonymous with yokai and can mean monsters and other phenomenon, while yūrei are specifically the souls of dead humans.

In practice, most Japanese people don’t split hairs over definitions. Freak them out with a ghost, and they are just as likely to shout “obake!” as “yūrei!” Either word does the trick.

Q. Kaidan?


This is my favorite, and a famously tricky word to translate. The most literal possible interpretation of kaidan would be something like “a discussion or passing down of tales of the weird, strange or mysterious”. Personally, I prefer to either use the word as it stands, kaidan, or if I must put it into English I take a page from Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu who called his stories of the supernatural and sublime “weird tales”.

“Weird Tales” invokes both the nostalgia and the nuance of the type of story a reader can expect from kaidan.

Q. The stories in your book often end with “So they say.” Is that just a kaidan thing or a general folktale ending?

That is specific to the 12th century book Konjaku Monogatarishū, which was one of the first important collections of kaidan storytelling. Basically it was a little tagline at the end of each story assuring the reader that it was a true tale, and not something made up.

People translate it in various ways, like “So I heard it said, and so I am relating it to you.”  I prefer the simpler “So they say” version, which makes a nice little punctuation to the story.

Q. Last question about the book: Is it appearing in Japanese? I’d like to think that from now on the booksellers will now be recommending both Lafcadio Hearn and you.


That would be cool! I honestly don’t know about translating the book into other languages. It really depends on how successful the English version is first. And I would love someone to recommend my book and Hearn’s the same breath. I deeply admire Lafcadio Hearn, and am a dedicated fan of his work!

Q. Okay, enough with the ghosts, let’s talk about you: How did you get interested in Japan and in yūrei?

My Japan interest started when I was a little kid—I think about 9 years old—and my mother took me to see Akira Kurosawa’s flick Seven Samurai at the local art theater. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It’s a little embarrassing, but in my 4th grade class photo I’m wearing a shirt that says “Japan” written in kanji. That was in 1981, I think.

My interest in yūrei comes from the same time. I’ve always loved the supernatural and fairy tales. My mother bought me this book series from TimeLife called Enchanted Worlds that was all about world folklore and monsters. The book on ghosts had a story called “The Wife’s Revenge” which was the story of Oiwa from Yotsuya Kaidan.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that my yūrei interest became full-blown. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

Q. You’re translating Mizuki Shigeru’s huge Showa: A History of Japan, published by Drawn and Quarterly, two of which have appeared and the next one is coming out in November. How did this project come about?


There’s actually four volumes in the series. The last volume, Showa 1953-1989: A History of Japan, is scheduled to come out April 2015.

And I don’t know the details about how the project came about, other than how I got involved. I LOVE Mizuki Shigeru’s comics. My wife introduced me to them in Japan, and I quickly became his number one fan and English-language apostle. I had been trying for years to do English translations of his comics. I contacted several publishers, but most either thought Mizuki was too weird for an American audience, or they were interested but couldn’t get the rights.

When I saw Drawn & Quarterly had the license to his works, I basically just wrote them a letter talking about my passion for Mizuki’s work and how much I wanted to translate his comics. I offered to do a test translation to prove I was up for it, and they agreed to that and then hired me based on that.

Q. I’m curious why, of all his work, they chose to publish this – especially because, to be honest, I skip all the battle scenes looking for the next appearance of Nezumi Otoko, which is the sort of stuff he is more known for.

Again, I don’t honestly know. I can guess. Partly, I imagine it is because of the lack of familiarity with Mizuki’s work in the US.  Inside of Japan he is a god—he is Walt Disney-level famous, better known even than Hayao Miyazaki. Internationally, he is incredibly famous as well. His complete works have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, German, and most of the Asian languages. But in English .. nothing. Even people obsessed with Japanese culture have this dead spot where Mizuki is concerned.

So I think from that standpoint his WWII comics, like Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths and Showa: A History of Japan, were safer bets. Comics about WWII have a built in recognition factor, especially when you have the human element where they are created by someone who actually fought in the war.

After all, it is much easier to pitch “Comic book autobiography about WWII by a Japanese soldier who fought in the South Pacific and lost his arm” than “Weird stories about Japanese monsters you have never heard of written and drawn by some old dude you have never heard of.”

At the time I thought it was a strange way to go, but now I see it was for the best. Onward to Our Noble Deaths raised Mizuki’s profile in the West and opened the doors for his other works.

Also, Mizuki is actively involved in what books he allows to be translated or not. He cares very much about his reputation as a scholar and an artist, and wants to be sure that a variety of his work is being showcased. He doesn’t want people to just cherry pick the fun stuff and overlook the things that he is really proud of, the things that might be a little more difficult to grasp.

Personally, I would love to translate his adaptation of Tono Monogatari. That is one of his most brilliant works. And his adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which would just be a hell of a lot of fun. But while I can make suggestions, it isn’t really my call.

Q. You also contributed the yokai glossary to the translation of Kitaro that Drawn and Quarterly published, and I understand you also did some editing and made some important contributions regarding the yokai names and sound effects?


Yep. Kitaro was already translated by the time I came on board, but I did some pick-up work, mainly the sound effects and such. Those are actually some of the most difficult things to translate. Japanese and English useonomatopoeia very differently, and there is no easy way to switch one for the other. Fortunately, I have a lifetime background in reading American comics so I have a mental library that I can pull from. The best part was coming up with the monster’s roar. I wanted something distinctive, so I wrote out a bunch of monster roars to see which one looked the best.

And I did have a hand in the names. The translation gave the yokai English names, so things like “Rat Man” instead of Nezumi Otoko, and “Sand-Throwing Hag” instead of “Sunakake Baba.” I was adamant that the yokai names should be kept in Japanese. I used the argument that no one calls Pikachu “Flash Mouse.” Even small kids deal with Japanese names just fine.

In the end that’s how the Yokai Glossary came about. I won my argument, and wrote up the glossary at the end to explain all the different monsters. That piece of Kitaro isn’t a translation, it’s all me. And it was SO fun to do!

Q. Of course the big crucial question about Kitaro: Do you know if there is going to be more? Or more of his other work that isn’t war related? D&Q also published his Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths – they seem to be obsessed with war stories. I want to see yokai!

The next book up is Hitler, so more war stories. And give the war stories a chance! They are actually very cool! I learned a lot translating Showa: A History of Japan—it’s important history that shouldn’t be forgotten. I’ll never forget what my wife said when she was reading it while I was working on it: “I finally understand why China hates Japan … “

But after Hitler … I can’t really spill the beans yet, but I will say that sometimes we all get exactly what we wanted. Look forward to that.

Q. Probably your most unexpected translation project: Mizuki is actually on Twitter and you translate some of his tweets. How did this get started? Have you ever communicated with him directly?


I just do that for fun—it isn’t an official thing. I think Mizuki is such a fascinating individual, so I like to share him with the English-speaking world. His twitter account is great. It’s almost entirely about what Mizuki is eating. Here you have one of the most famous and respected men in the entire country, and he shares Twitter pics of himself stuffing his face with a McDonald’s hamburger. How could you not want to share that?

And I have met Mizuki only once, at the World Yokai Conference in Kyoto. And that was very brief. No one really speaks to him directly, you usually go through his son, or with a contact at Mizuki Productions. I wrote him a letter when I started work on Showa about how honored I was to be translating his work. He didn’t answer, but I didn’t expect him to. He is 92 years old, after all!

Q. What else are you working on that our readers would be excited about?

Oh, lots! I just finished translating two comics by Satoshi Kon for Dark Horse, OPUS and Seraphim, which he worked on with Mamoru Oshii. Then the comic Wayward just came out from Image, which has met with a phenomenal response. I’m seriously blown away by how excited everyone is. I work on Wayward with Jim Zub, Steve Cummings, John Rauch, and Marshall Dillon, writing back-up essays for Wayward and doing in-depth Yokai Files for the monsters. If you are looking for yokai, that’s something you can’t miss. The pitch is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Japan” but that’s just the surface.

Then I have Hitler to get started on, and after that a few more secret things I can’t talk about yet, both in comics and books. I have a Lafcadio Hearn project I am working on, and something cool with an artist friend that we have been rolling around together. And maybe something with monster cats. But we’ll see.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Long History Of Japanese Names, Part II Wed, 17 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 In the the previous Japanese names article we learned the history of Japanese family names and about the complicated 氏姓 (Uji-Kabane) naming systems. Do you recall my mention of a new naming system, 名字 (Myouji/Azana), used by the samurai? Today we will be focusing our efforts on that particular naming system, which will cover the remainder of Japanese family name history. Are you ready? Okay, let’s set sail for the second part of our journey!

What’s in a 名字?


名字 means family name in Japanese and in modern times is pronounced “Myouji”. In the past, it was pronounced “Naazana”, which is believe to be a type of 字 (Azana in Japanese / Zì in Chinese), which was a formal nickname, of sorts. Historically in China, people had three elements to their name: 姓 or 氏 (family name), 諱 or 名 (First name – a.k.a. “true name”), and this 字 (Formal Nickname).

If you’re wondering why there would be a formal nickname, here is a brief explanation:

Since it was customary in ancient China to avoid calling a person of nobility or a deceased person by their (諱 or 名) true name, an 字 (Azana) was formally given to adult men and used instead of their given name. Originally, there was a difference between the kanji 諱 (Imina) and 名 (Na). The former was used for the dead and the latter was for the living. Later on, imina started being used for the living as well, but it was still the name a person had in death, so calling a man by his imina was considered extremely rude. All people practiced that courtesy, except the parents of that person, or that person’s lord/monarch/sovereign. Other than those few exceptions, people used another name, an 字 (azana), to refer to someone.

That custom was introduced by China to the other kanji using countries of Eastern Asia, including Japan.

The Beginning Of the 名字


As mentioned in the previous names article, after the Ritsuryo code began, 氏姓 (Uji-Kabane) gradually faded from use as family lineage and status became more important than the social status of the clan as a whole. During that time, 名字 (Naazana) started being used to distinguish the smaller groups within separate clans. For example, even if two people belonged to the clan 藤原 (Fujiwara), different levels of power and influence existed between the different lineages, such as the 藤原北家 (Fujiwarahokke) and the 藤原式家 (Fujiwarashikike). Moreover, even among the same lineage, some factions were born under influential lineages, such as the 道長 (Michinaga)-line and 頼通 (Yorimichi)-line inside the 藤原北家 (Fujiwarahokke). The names that people began using to differentiate themselves from others in the same clan are believed to have been namesakes from the places in which they were born.

When naazana began being used, it was called 号 (Gou) and was actually only used for one generation, meaning that it was not passed on to children. However, people eventually came to realize that calling a family by their actual family name was very practical. Thus, in the late Heian period, the naazana started being passed down to descendants as well. Different from the Chinese usage of official nicknames, which were used as replacements for first names, in Japan naazana were official nicknames used to replace a family name. There was an official nickname for first names in Japan, called 通称 (Tsuushou) which were used by the Samurai, but nobles just continued using their 諱 (Imina), which was their true first name. (By the way, the word nickname nowadays in Japan is pronounced as あだな (Adana) which is believed to have come from 字 (Azana).

Samurai And Their 名字


In the meantime, the Ritsuryo system collapsed and Samurai groups (known as 武士団/bushidan) started forming in order to manage the manors of noblemen, or even to protect the lands and assets that they had earned for themselves. In order to claim the right to own such lands, those samurai groups started using the land name as their naazana alongside their ujikabane, or clan name. In time, these naazana started being passed on to family members as well.

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333 AD) as the regions held by Samurai groups expanded, some powerful samurai groups found themselves in control of multiple territories. At the time, many samurai started dividing their assets to distribute to their children. Even if an illegitimate child inherited a territory from the family that it was not originally from, they changed their naazana to the name of the territory. Furthermore, they cultivated new lands and the overall area that was inhabited increased. Once they settled down in a particular place, they started using the name of the region as their family name. This caused the number of naazana used by the samurai to increase.

And, just as a reminder, they still had ujikabane at this time, too. For example, 新田義貞 (Nitta Yoshisada) and 脇屋義助 (Wakiya Yoshisuke) are brothers. Although they both have different naazana – 新田 (Nitta) and 脇谷 (Wakiya), their ujikabane was 源 (Minamoto). So their official names were 源義貞 (Minamoto-no-Yoshisada) and 源義助 (Minamoto-no-Yoshisuke). Since the ujikabane name was still considered to be their official name, it started being called 本姓 (Honsei), meaning true family name, around the Kamakura period.

Maybe you picked up on this already, but when a true family name was provided by the emperor, they added a の (no) between the official clan name and their first name. This way of reading them has been the same since the ujikabane system began. In other words, someone was only allowed to add the “no” in between their names if it was provided by the emperor. The naazana that people gave themselves, the ones that derived from the region they lived in, were not permitted this distinction.

名字 Comes To The Forefront

As stated above, samurai had official nicknames. Unlike the nobles, they tended to use that rather than their actual first names. Because of this, samurai had four parts to their name: a true family name (their clan root), and official family lineage name, an official nickname for their first name, and a first name.

When the Edo period came about (1603-1808 AD), the ways in which a true family name was used became very limited. They only used it on the occasion when they formally received an official rank by the emperor. They barely used it in their daily lives, though. So, the naazana that people used in that time began functioning in much the same way that our family names function today. During this period, the kanji 苗字 (myouji) assumed the role that the kanji 名字 used to serve because 苗 better signified the idea of a family blood line.

Since naazana were not names given by the emperor, anybody could have one, including commoners. This was true until the Edo Shogunate decided to disallow common people from having naazana, except for a few prominent families. Therefore, commoners entered another long period in which they were only allowed to have a first name.

Family Names In Meiji Period


For a while, the Meiji Government followed the Edo Shogunate’s ruling regarding myouji, yet their decisiveness on many policies often swayed. In 1868 the Meiji government decided to revoke the names that only a select group of commoners were allowed to have and banned them from having family names. In the same year, they also banned the Shogunate from bestowing family names to feudal lords or other people under their influence. This was done was to prove a point to the Shogunate. After this, they again allowed the policy to be open to interpretation and informed commoners that the government could issue them family names if they were to render their services to them.

When the Boshin War between the Shogunate and Meiji Governement ended in July of 1869, lands and people were returned to the Emperor. Accordingly, they reverted back to the former system of family naming, going from 苗字/名字 (Myouji) to 氏姓 (Ujikabane/Shisei) a.k.a. 本姓 (Honsei) . However, most of the people who were originally part of nobility became 藤原 (Fujiwara) and most of the people who were originally part of the samurai became 源 (Minamoto). Amazingly, 86.4% of Japanese family names became one of four names: 源 (Minamoto), 平 (Taira), 藤原 (Fujiwara), or 橘 (Tachibana). This system was not at all practical and it also didn’t fit with the times. It was revoked very quickly.

Establishing The Modern Legislation

In 1870, being led by the Ministry of Finance who was trying to modernize Japan, the policy for family names started to change course. The 平民苗字許可令 (Heiminmyoujikyokarei), which was a law allowing commoners to have family names, was officially announced on September 19. However, a lot of people were very suspicious of the law. It’s said that a common belief at the time was that they might have to pay tax if they decided to use a family name. As a result, very few people opted to have a family name. Monks also refused the policy claiming that by entering into priesthood they didn’t need a family name. Because of that, a law called 住職僧侶名字必称義務令 (Juushokusouryomyoujihisshougimurei), which forced monks to have a family name, was enforced in 1872.

Even after that, common people still hesitated to use family names. In response, the government created another law, 平民苗字必称義務令 (heiminmyoujihisshougimurei), which forced everyone to have family names and that went into effect February 13th, 1875. Due to having a family name being a kind of “duty”, we now have a “Family Name Day” in Japan (苗字制定記念日/Myoujiseiteikinenbi), which means “Commemoration Day for the establishment of family names.” Of course, this is celebrated on February 13th each year.

Between the two laws above, there were also some other changes to family name policy. For example in 1871, another law called 姓尸不称令 (Seishifushourei), was issued which banned the use of ujikabane, aka honsei. All the terminology was very confusing too, so they categorized 本姓 (Honsei) as “姓 (Sei)”, 氏 (Uji/Shi) and 名 (Naazana/Myouji) as “苗字(Myouji)”, and lastly, 姓 (Kabana) as “尸 (Shi).”

Furthermore, according to 太政官布告 (Daijoukanfukoku), which means Proclamation by the Grand Council of State, legally registered names became very difficult to have changed. Because of that, people questioned the government about the right to change their wife’s family name after marriage. Changing a woman’s family name to that of her husband’s family name was tradition at the time. In 1876, in response to this debate, the Daijoukanshirei decided that wives and husbands must keep their own family name and it can’t be changed following marriage. The system of husbands and wives keeping separate family names lasted until the 明治民法 (Meijiminpou – Meiji Civil Code) was enforced in 1898. At long last, we have reached the system of family naming that is used today.

The kanji for Myouji was 苗字, but after the simplification of the Japanese writing system following WWII, 苗 didn’t find itself on the new list of kanji, and 名字 became the popular usage. However, all four kanji 名字, 苗字, 氏, and 姓 are still used to indicate family names today. For example, as a legal term 氏 is used since it’s used in the Family Registration Act by the Ministry of Justice. In the education system, 名字 is used since the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science decided to use it. In fortune telling, usually 姓 is used as a family name.

And Here We Are

Before the Meiji period, some people had family names passed on from their ancestors and others adopted the same family name as the most influential regional family. So entire communities actually shared the same name, but they did not share the same blood. After the Meiji period, people were suddenly forced to legally resister their family name. Some of them changed their traditional family names to one they favored, while others just made up their own names. Among those that were created, some of them were simply taken from a historically famous family, whose origins date back to ancient Japanese, so even if you encounter someone with a family name of a seemingly ancient past, it’s very likely that there are no blood ties.

Anyways, that right there is the long and complicated history of Japanese family names. Now that you know about it, it becomes no surprise that such a vast variety of names exist. I presume it’s very difficult to read or memorize Japanese family names for many of you, but don’t fret. It’s actually the same for us, native of Japanese. Just remember common family names and make an effort to remember the more unique ones whenever you come across someone with one. Before starting out on this article, I had no idea how long and rich the history of Japanese names was, but I’m certainly happy to have researched it. I found it fascinating and I hope you did too.

Do any of you have an interesting story that follows your family name, or its meaning? If you do, please share your story in the comments. Thank you!

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The Island Inbetween: Tsushima and the Sō Family Mon, 15 Sep 2014 16:00:55 +0000 You may have never heard of the island of Tsushima, but for hundreds of years it was the door between Japan and Korea. Tsushima’s location was ideal for international trade, situated roughly fifty kilometers from the Korean peninsula and one-hundred and forty-seven kilometers from the Kyushu port of Hakata (today’s Fukuoka). For over four centuries, that trade was controlled by the ruling samurai family of Tsushima, the 宗.


Beginning in 1392, the Sō acted as intermediaries between the Korean court and Japan’s Ashikaga shogunate. In much the same way that Japan at some times in history sent missions to China, exchanging gifts and engaging in trade, so too did the Sō send missions to Korea. From the Korean point of view this made Tsushima a tributary of their court, just as Korea was a tributary of China. Whether or not the Sō viewed the relationship in that way is unclear, but they were at least content to let Korea continue to think so. Typical items imported from Korea included skins, ginseng, honey, and cotton cloth.

Pirates and Peace


During the feudal period piracy was a problem. Though many pirates that plagued Korea and China did not come from Japan, some did, and they were called wakō 倭寇 (“Japanese pirates”) by their victims. In 1419, Korea sent a force of 17,285 men to Tsushima to eliminate a pirate base there. The Sō convinced them to leave when their mission was over, and restored relations with Korea. From that time, Korea left the responsibility for controlling such piracy in the hands of the Japanese. The Koreans also realized that while protocol might force them to deal with the Ashikaga shogunate, the piracy problem was better directed to the Sō. This is indicative of just how little authority the Ashikaga had left. By 1467 Japan had fallen into samurai civil war that would last for a century.


The Koreans managed to reduce piracy by legitimizing trade with not only the Sō and other Japanese daimyo, but with pirate leaders as well. In fact, the line between larger pirate fleets and those of lords was often quite blurred. On the Chinese tributary model, the Koreans endowed these leaders with titles and copper seals, and made trade agreements. The Sō benefited greatly from this system, becoming the channel through which all official Korean-Japanese trade passed. All ships on their way to Korea were required to stop at checkpoints on Tsushima, and any ship caught without the proper paperwork from the Sō were considered pirates. The Sō themselves were usually allowed to send fifty ships per year, received a large stipend from the Korean court, and were able to levy duties and fees on the ships and goods that came through Tsushima’s ports. This went on uninhibited until the 1580s when the unifier and leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (c. 1536-1598) planned to invade the mainland. It’s easy to see why the Sō were unhappy with this.

Sō Much for Diplomacy


The reasoning behind Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decision to invade the mainland remains unclear. His ultimate goal was China, but the “easiest” way to China was through Korea. To begin with, Hideyoshi tried a diplomatic approach, hoping that Korea would join him in his conquest of China. However, Hideyoshi’s attempts were not particularly tactful, beginning with a letter sent in 1587 requiring Korea’s submission and the dispatch of a “tribute mission” to Japan. This message was sent via Tsushima daimyo, Sō Yoshishige (1532-1588), who softened the tone of the message as much as possible into a request for a “goodwill mission.” Knowing that the message was still likely to incense the Koreans and wishing to distance his family from it, Yoshihige did not deliver the message personally.

Instead, it was delivered by a retainer of the Sō, Yutani Yasuhiro, whose diplomatic skills were lacking. As he made his way up the Korean peninsula to the court in Seoul Yasuhiro loudly demanded the best room in every inn. Furthermore, when some men assembled with their spears along the roadside, a long-standing custom meant to display Korea’s military power, Yasuhiro laughed at the shortness of their weapons. Finally, while dining at Sangju, “Yasuhiro commented on his host’s gray hair, wondering why a man who had never seen battle, but whiled away the hours with music and dancing girls, would ever turn gray.”

Needless to say, the mission was a complete diplomatic failure. Hideyoshi was so angered that he ordered the execution of Yasuhiro and his family. Unfortunately, Sō Yoshishige was also unable to escape Hideyoshi’s wrath. He was relieved of his position as lord of Tsushima, which was then bestowed upon his adopted son, Sō Yoshitoshi (1568-1615). Yoshitoshi was also the son-in-law of one of Hideyoshi’s top generals, and thus deemed more trustworthy.

A Fresh Approach


Sō Yoshitoshi was only twenty when he was sent to deliver a letter from Hideyoshi to the Korean court and request that they send envoys to Japan. He was described by Yu Sŏngnyong (1542-1607), Korean prime minister, as “young, sharp, and ruthless.” Because of this “the Japanese who accompanied him were very afraid of him.” The Koreans requested the extradition of some of their countrymen who had traitorously helped pirates before fleeing the country and getting captured by the Japanese. Yoshitoshi did not object, and had a dozen captives delivered. The king was pleased with this response, and rewarded Yoshitoshi with a horse from the royal stables and a large banquet, and eventually envoys left with Yoshitoshi in April of 1590.

Before departing, Yoshitoshi presented the Korean court with the parting gifts of two peacocks, a spear, a sword, and the first musket to come into Korean possession. Why the Koreans chose not to attempt to replicate the musket was unclear. It was unfortunate; as such firearms would come to be vital assets to the Japanese forces during the war to come. As Yoshitoshi and the Korean envoys made their way to Hideyoshi’s court they stopped at Tsushima, Yoshitoshi’s home.


Yoshitoshi insulted his guests by arriving late to a banquet, and by riding his palanquin all the way to the steps of the hall, rather than getting out at the gate. Yoshitoshi apologized by decapitating his palanquin bearers and presenting their heads to his guests. It was unclear whether Yoshitoshi committed this faux pas intentionally or accidentally. Most likely this was a cultural difference and Yoshitoshi had unknowingly made a mistake. Whatever the cause of the incident, Yoshitoshi was quick to rectify it. The episode shows how seriously Yoshitoshi took his family’s relations with the Korean court. He was probably even more careful considering that he was bringing the envoys to Hideyoshi, himself a man not above ordering the execution of those who failed him.

The Final Straw


Photo by soul_flow

Unfortunately, Hideyoshi was not the most diplomatic individual, and the meeting that followed reflected this. The envoys were impressed with neither the simple meal they were given, nor the lack of decorum. They were even less impressed when Hideyoshi left the room and returned carrying his infant son, who proceeded to urinate on Hideyoshi. With that unceremonious ending, the audience which the Korean envoys had crossed the straits and then waited a further five months for, concluded. They did not even receive the letter from Hideyoshi they had been sent to acquire. For this, the envoys were forced to wait for some time. When Hideyoshi’s letter did arrive, the envoys were disturbed by its content.

“My object is to enter China, to spread the customs of our country to the four hundred and more provinces of that nation, and to establish there the government of our imperial city even unto all the ages. As your country has taken the lead and visited Japan, thus displaying deference, you need have no anxiety…On the day I enter China, I shall be leading my soldiers and shall review my military headquarters; then we shall renew our alliance. My wish is nothing other than that my name be known throughout the three countries [of Japan, China, and India].”

Though the envoys wanted a revised and rewritten letter, eventually they were convinced to return to Korea with the one they had been given. At the time there were two major political factions within the Korean court, each of the two envoys belonged to a different one, and unfortunately they let their alliances dictate their reports to the court. One advised that Hideyoshi was a serious threat, the other that he was not to be feared. The latter opinion was favored, and as a result little was done to build up Korea’s defenses. King Sonjo sent a reply to Hideyoshi declining to help any invasion of China and chastising him for such a reckless plan.
Sō Yoshitoshi tried three more times to convince Korea to allow the Japanese passage to China, but was unsuccessful. Soon the invasion of Korea was underway.

Next time! Invasion, reconciliation, peace, and an end to the role of the Sō as gatekeepers.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Tracing the History of Japan’s Mythical Lion Dogs Thu, 11 Sep 2014 16:00:46 +0000 If you’ve ever been to a shrine in Japan, odds are you’ve seen a pair of dog-like lions flanking the entrance. If you’ve been to Okinawa you’ve seen them just about everywhere. In fact you can see some variation on these creatures in China, Korea, Myanmar, Tibet, and other East Asian countries, or even at Chinese restaurants in the West. They are variously known in English as lions, dogs, lion dogs, Fu dogs or Foo dogs. In Japan they are called koma-inu, and in Okinawa they are shīsā. All these different names beg the question, “What exactly are they?”

Canine or Feline?


Photo by jpellgen

I’ll refrain from thrashing about the shrubbery and say right away that these animals are in fact lions. How then, did they come to be called dogs by some? We’ll come to that momentarily, but first we must look to India. There are also ancient lion statues in Middle Eastern countries, but India is the surest place to begin the lion statues’ path to Japan, for it seems to have moved along with the Buddhist faith.


Photo by Yann

Lions appeared in Indian temple art and, as early as the third century, showed up in Chinese Buddhist art. In those times, the lion was a symbolic protector of the dharma (the teachings of Buddha). “If it’s good enough for Buddha, it’s good enough for the emperor,” may have been the line of thought, for, over time, they also became protectors of imperial gates.

Here the history seems to become a bit unclear. The Chinese word for lion (statues included) is shi 獅 or shishi 獅子, but there was another creature that appeared in China at around the same time called the xiezhi 獬豸. At some point between the third and seventh centuries, paired stone xiezhi also made their way to Korea, where the name was pronounced haetae or haechi. The haechi appears very lion-like, but often has a scaly body, a small horn on its head, and sometimes small wings.


By the Nara period (710-794), lion guardians had come to Japan as well. I found nothing to indicate whether the original source of their introduction was China or Korea. Early on, they were usually made of wood and only used indoors. In the ninth century, a change occurred, and the pair came to consist of one open-mouthed lion (shishi 獅子) and one close-mouthed, horn-bearing, dog-like koma-inu狛犬. The name koma-inu itself means “Korean dog.” Given the name and its horn, it would seem that the koma-inu, at least, came from the Korean haechi. By the fourteenth century the horn disappeared, and both animals of the pair came to be known as koma-inu. At the same time, people started making them in stone and using them outdoors.


Photo by 663highland

Again, the history seems to be vague, and I found no sources to solidly confirm how koma-inu came to be ubiquitous at shrine entrances. This is only me theorizing, but I think it likely that lion guardians may have initially been associated with Buddhist temples. I say this because of the lions’ Buddhist associations in China, and the early Korean influences on Japanese lions (Buddhism having been introduced to Japan from Korea in 552 CE). If this was the case, the shift from temples to shrines could be explained by the fact that they often shared grounds and, in trying to spread the faith, Buddhists often drew parallels between characters and symbols of their religion and those found in Japan’s native beliefs.

You may be wondering if anyone in pre-modern Japan had ever seen a real lion. It’s a long way from the savannah, but there are Asiatic lions as well. Although their range is quite small today, prior to the nineteenth century they could be found throughout Persia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and much of India. Captive lions were also known in China. I was unable to find any sources confirming or denying the presence of captive lions in Japan. However, during the Tokugawa periods, exotic animals were sometimes featured as part of festivals, so there is a possibility. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the vast, vast majority of Japanese people had never seen a real lion prior to the modern age.

Open Wide and Say あ


When seen in pairs, both in Japan and Okinawa, one lion usually has its mouth open while the other’s is shut. It’s no coincidence, but rather Buddhist symbolism. The open mouth is meant to be forming the sound “a” あ, while the closed mouth is forming the sound “un” うん. Combined, they form the word a-un, the Japanese rendition of the Indian word om ॐ. Originating in Hinduism and adopted by Buddhism, om’s meaning seems somewhat vague at times, but is sometimes described as the name of God or the sound of the vibration of the universe. At least in Japan, “a” and “un” are also symbolic of beginnings and endings, in the same way that Western countries use alpha and omega.  It’s also sometimes said that the open-mouthed animal is male, while the other is female.

Popular Protector


Photo by Shigeru-a24

In Japan lion statues are a fixture on shrine grounds, but seldom seen elsewhere. On the other hand, anyone who has been to Okinawa will know you can’t swing a cat without hitting a lion, though you probably wouldn’t want to do that. I’m sure the cat wouldn’t appreciate it, and the lion might take offense at your mistreatment of his cousin. That said, lion statues are omnipresent in Okinawa.

In Okinawa lion statues are known as shīsā, meaning lion. They are made of a variety of materials, though the signature regional choice is red clay. They can be found not only at areas of special spiritual significance, but on the roofs or at the entrances of homes and businesses. It’s also easy to acquire your own shīsā, as statues of all sizes are nearly ubiquitous among souvenir shops.

Living Legend


Is it a bird? A plane? No . . . It’s Shisa-man! They may not be faster than a speeding bullet, in fact they’re usually quite stationary, but a shīsā’s powers are nothing to be trifled with. Here are two legends of shīsā heroism:

A Chinese envoy brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. Meanwhile, at Naha bay, the village of Madanbashi was being terrorized by a sea dragon that ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, when suddenly the dragon attacked. All the people ran and hid. The local priestess had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent a boy to tell him. The king faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded throughout the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail. He couldn’t move, and eventually died.

At Tomimori Village in the far southern part of Okinawa, there were often many fires. The people of the area sought out a Feng Shui master, to ask him why there were so many fires. He believed they were because of the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese, and suggested that the townspeople build a stone shisa to face the mountain. They did so, and thus have protected their village from fire ever since.

Clashing Kaiju


Shīsā also feature in some much more modern stories. King Shīsāキングシーサー, a giant monster based on a shīsā, first appeared in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla in 1974, and again in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. In the English dub his name was changed to King Caesar, which seems a bit redundant. In his first appearance, King Shīsā was a benevolent protector of humanity, but had been sleeping inside a mountain in Okinawa for a long time. When Godzilla alone cannot defeat his robotic doppleganger, the human heroes of the film awaken the ancient King Shīsā with a very non-ancient sounding song. Then King Shīsā and Godzilla team up to pound Mechagodzilla. In Godzilla: Final Wars, King Shīsā fights against Godzilla, but since he was being controlled by aliens we won’t hold it against him.  In these movies, King Shīsā favors close combat, although he does have the ability to redirect an opponent’s energy attacks.

King of the Beasts


Photo by Wall Gobetz

Though a lot of their past remains unclear, guardian lions are fascinating. Although there are tons of koma-inu to be seen at shrines across Japan I’m sad to say that I haven’t seen them utilized much in modern pop culture. Maybe some of you out there know of some examples of which I’m unaware. On the other hand, the Okinawan shīsā is very much a living symbol, so at least this overlooked legend has a happy home in Ryukyu.


Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Long History Of Japanese Names, Part I Wed, 10 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 In modern times, there are 4 ways to write/say family names in Japanese:

  1. 氏 (shi)
  2. 姓 (sei)
  3. 名字 (myouji)
  4. 苗字 (myouji)

But why are there so many and what are the differences? In order to get the answer, you simply have to learn its history.

Actually, I wrote a very brief history of this in an earlier “names” article: The History Of How “Cow Poop” Became A Real-Life Japanese Family Name. But, considering that many Tofugu readers are very studious, I thought you might want to learn more of the details. Even to me, someone from Japan, the history was quite surprising. It’s a long history, so I hope that this won’t quench all of your daily thirst to learn.

Japanese Family Names In Ancient Times – Uji


Photo by Shig ISO

In ancient times, perhaps around the Yayoi Period (300BC-300AD), Japan had a system of clans (氏族/shizoku). Each clan was made up of people that were related to each other by blood, marriage, or a common ancestor. At that time, people used their clan names as a family name, which was called 氏 (uji). This stemmed from occupations or natural features of their region.

In this clan system, the head of the clan was called 氏の上 (Ujinokami) and he lead the main constituents of the clan called the 氏人 (Ujibito). The Ujibito ruled over a subordinate class called the 部民 (Benotami) or the 奴婢 (Nuhi).

There has been a lot of research effort put forth in finding Japan’s oldest family name and there are various opinions as to which one it is. However, definitive proof of a specific name and when it started being used is yet to be uncovered.

So, we move on.

Yamato Kingdom and Ujikabane system



During the Kofun period (AD 250 to 538), powerful clan leaders and their families (called 豪族/gouzoku) started to emerge. Small kingdoms, each ruled by a different clan, were established. One of the most powerful, the Yamato, ended up developing a union between each state following many years of warfare.

As Yamato’s sphere of influence expanded, more clans pledged themselves to the Yamato. This resulted in more people working for the Imperial Court. Since there were so many people doing imperial things hanging around, we see the increasing need for the Yamato king to distinguish the status of each clan. Not all clans were created equal, you see. Some clans, for example, supported the Yamato from early on, while others jumped on the bandwagon later. To show the difference between the clans, they created a system known as the 氏姓制度 (Ujikabane-seido/ Shisei-seido).

Under this system, the Yamato Kingdom would choose a clan name (氏/uji) for each clan, as well as a 姓 (kabane), which is understood to be an inherited aristocratic title attached to an uji name. These were given to nobles living in the capital and to the most powerful clans subordinate to the Yamato rule. Thus, the 氏姓 (Uji-kabane/Shi-sei), which combines the uji and the kabane, became the means to classify different groups in the Yamato kingdom.

As a side note, the emperor was the one who designated the Uji-Kabane for each clan, so the Emperor’s family did not require one. The Imperial family in Japan didn’t have a family name back then, and it is a custom that remains even today.

Examples Of Ancient Uji-Kabane

The three most common 姓 (kabane) were

  1. 臣 (Omi)
  2. 連 (Muraji)
  3. 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko)

(Just to give you an idea of how this would work, if I were given the kabane “Omi”, I would then be known as Mami Suzuki-Omi.)

臣 (omi) and 連 (muraji) were the titles given to those of the highest status. Both were reserved for the most powerful clans, but there existed a fundamental difference between omi and muraji. Omi was given to the long time supporters of the Yamato clan, such as the 葛城 (Katsuragi), 春日 (Kasuga), 蘇我 (Soga), 巨勢  (Kose), 紀 (Ki), 平群 (Heguri), 波多 (Hata), 阿部 (Abe) and 穂積 (Hozumi) clans. Muraji, on the other hand, were given to the clans associated with particular occupations, such as the 大伴 (Ootomo), 物部 (Mononobe), 中臣 (Nakatomi), 土師 (Haji), 弓削 (Yuge) and the 尾張 (Owari). The most powerful clans with 臣 (Omi) were called 大臣 (Oomi). The same holds true for muraji as well. 連 (Muraji) would become 大連 (Oomuraji), but only for the top in their class.

The step below 連 (Muraji) was 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko), and this kabane was given to clans that were 司 (Tsukasa), aka the administration in governmental offices. Families such as 秦 (Hata), 東漢 (Yamatonoaya), 西文 (Kawachinofumi), 服部 (Hattori), 矢集 (Yazume), 犬養 (Inukai), 舂米 (Tsukishine), or 倭文 (Shitori) are included in this list. Of these clans, the first three were 帰化氏族 (Kika-shizoku), which means clans from other countries that had been naturalized as Japanese citizens.

Some of the above 氏 (uji) are not used anymore, but some do remain as family names today. Did you recognize any? However, it is still possible to encounter someone with one that is no longer used because somebody in their family at some point decided to change their name to one of those ancient uji names. So be aware that just because they have that name doesn’t mean that they share the long family roots of that ancient family.

Transition In The Uji-Kabane System


As some of you may have already realized, there was a major defect in this system. Just think about for a moment. What if a lot more people started working for the Imperial Court and each person worked at a different position? They would need assign some marker of identification not just to each clan, but to each individual, right? In order to solve the problem, Shotoku Taishi established 冠位十二階 (Kani-Juuni-Kai), which means the twelve level cap and rank system, in 604 AD. Despite having already given a kabane to each clan, titles in the new system were given to individuals depending on their political position within the Imperial Court.

Since the new system didn’t end the Uji-kabane system, the introduction of it just further complicated matters because now they had more titles to deal with. After the Taika Reformation in 646 AD, Japan united as a nation under the Ritsuryo codes, and soon afterward the Imperial Edict “甲子の宣” (Katsushi no Sen) was issued. This edict reduced the 12 ranks down to just 3, which were 大氏 (Oouji), 小氏 (Kouji), and 伴造 (Tomonomiytatsuko). The purpose of those ranks was to clarify which clan (Uji) belonged to which rank. It was a combination of the new and old systems. It additionally decreed a ban on having multiple uji. For example, there was a person whose uji was 蘇我石川 (Soga+Ishikawa), so at this time they were forced to decide to become either 蘇我 (Soga) or 石川(Ishikawa). It may have simplified the system a little bit, but complications still persisted.

The Royals And Nobles Raise Their Heads


In the meantime, the Jinshin Revolt broke out in 672 AD following the death of Emperor Tenji who had originally designated his brother Prince Oama as his successor, only to later have second thoughts in favor of his son Prince Otomo. In the process of the violence caused by fractional rivalries, Otomo killed himself less than one year after acquiring reign. His uncle Oama then succeeded the throne as Emperor Tenmu.

Tenmu wanted to set the nobles apart from the powerful local clans, as well as organize the Uji-Kabane system, so in 684 AD he reformed the Uji-Kabane system into a system of eight 姓 (Kabane) called 八色の姓 (Yakusa-no-Kabane). At the time, he added 4 new 姓 (Kabane) , which were 真人 (Mahito) for the royals and 朝臣 (Ason/Asomi), 宿禰 (Sukune), and 忌寸 (Imiki) for the nobles. He then kept only three of the originals: 臣 (Omi), 連 (Muraji), and 稲置 (Inagi) for the local clans. As you can see, the powerful臣 (Omi) and 連 (Muraji) of the time were kicked off of their pedestal, so to speak. They found themselves demoted under this new system of royals and nobles. In 701 AD, it was even decided that those first four Kabane were to be granted certain privileges under the Taiho Code and the power of the clans became even weaker.

What About Family Names Of Common People?


While the system regarding those of higher status was being restructured, so too was the system for the common people of Yamato Kingdom. These people were known as the 部民 (Bemin). A family registration system called the 庚午年籍 (Kougonenjaku) was introduced in 670 AD followed by another family registration system called the 庚寅年籍 (Kouinnenjaku) in 690 AD. Everyone was successfully registered and clan names and ancestral titles were given to the people. In other words, the Uji-Kabane system had expanded to the general public and uji and kabane became a way to reveal one’s social standing in the hierarchy of the state.

However, it was later realized by examining the existing registration book in 702 AD, there were still many people without Uji-Kabane. The Nara period started in 710 AD, and it took 47 years for the government to finally decide to never register people without given them an Uji-Kabane. But by 757 AD all citizens were officially registered with an Uji-Kabane of their own. Hooray! Sadly, this joy was short-lived. As the clans began to devolve into individual households, family lineage and status became more important than the social status of the clan as a whole. This caused the Uji-Kabane system to gradually fade from use.

Collapse Of The Uji-Kabane System


In the 9th Century, during the Heian period, 藤原朝臣 (Fujiwara-Ason) became the strongest clan under the regency. Furthermore, some emperors started giving Uji-Kabane to family members who were leaving the Imperial family. For example, Emperor Kanmu (737-806 AD) gave them the name 平朝臣 (Taira-Ason) to some family and the Emperor Seiwa gave his family members the name 源朝臣 (Minamoto-Ason). For these reasons, the Uji-Kabane system under the Ritsuryo code started to fall apart as a system of appointing particular names to individuals with certain skills emerged. Kabane became decidedly useless, and the family registry system under the Ritsuryo Code began to fade as well.

In the 10th century, some powerful local clans even became vassals of the influential nobles and changed their names. By doing so, they brought dishonor to the original clan names and ancestral titles. This act became quite commonplace and was called 冒名仮蔭 (Boumei-kain), which means “misrepresentation of one’s clan name and ancestral title”. On top of that, specific family lineages became fixed due to their type of business or trade. This brought about the movement towards changing uji after marriage and what one’s newly acquired name would be dependent on the new family’s business. (Before then, a person’s Uji was passed on to blood relatives and marriage didn’t change that.)

At that point, the variety of clan names in Japan began to dwindle and certain names became much more common, such as 源 (Minamoto), 平 (Taira), 藤原 (Fujiwara), 橘 (Tachibana), 紀 (Ki), 菅原 (Sugawara), 大江 (Ooe), 中原 (Nakahara), 坂上 (Sakanoue), 賀茂 (Kamo), 小野 (Ono), 惟宗 (Koremune), 清原 (Kiyohara), and so on. Because of that, there was an incredible upsurge in the number of families that shared the same name, especially the powerful 藤原 Fujiwara family. This occurred so often for such a time that they soon needed yet ANOTHER NAME to distinguish one family from the next. Hence, the nobles continued using uji names and Samurai families started using new names called 名字 (Azana/Myouji). As for the kabane, it continued on merely, perhaps, because it existed before. In regards to its actual function, well, it was barely upheld as a public naming system until its demise in the beginning of the Meiji Period when the government created a law called 姓尸不称令 (seishifushourei).

Fortunately for you, the fascinating history of Japanese family names is incredibly long and continues passed this point, but unfortunately it will have to wait until the next article. Just so you know, the above names may seem to be very old, but most of those in the last paragraph are still used in Japan today, so familiarizing yourself with them might be useful. Anyways, you are all so studious that I’m sure that you will come back next week to learn more about the history of Japanese family names. Until next time! Mata ne!

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Kitsune: The Real and Fantastic Japanese Fox Tue, 09 Sep 2014 16:00:45 +0000 In every culture there are beliefs about animals that are so basic, we don’t even quite realize that they are folklore. In English we talk about the lazy pig and the wise owl, even though most of us have never met one personally, and have no way of knowing whether swine are really shiftless or owls actually have a lick of common sense. It just seems to go without saying that that’s the way they are.

But then you encounter animals in another culture and it’s not so obvious. You don’t have to be interested in Japan for very long before you stop and wonder: What’s up with all the foxes? Are they good, are they bad, why are they so important, and why are they in my udon?

The fox (kitsune) plays a role in Japanese culture that’s unusually rich and complicated. Beliefs that developed when people lived much closer to nature persist in stories, festivals, and language. Even in these rational times, the fox has a magical aura that still lingers.

Fox of the Gods


Photo by St Stev

All foxes have supernatural power. There are good and bad foxes. The Inari-fox is good, and the bad foxes are afraid of the Inari-fox. – Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, 1894

If you’ve ever been a tourist in Japan you’ve seen statues of foxes at Shinto shrines. It’s a little odd from an American perspective, where animals are not much involved in religion, except maybe those cows and camels admiring Baby Jesus in nativity scenes. Surely the Japanese don’t worship foxes?

No, not exactly, although it kind of depends on who you ask, as we’ll get to later. When you see those foxes, you’re at a shrine dedicated to the god Inari, who’s worshipped everywhere from tiny roadside shrines to major tourist destinations like the famed Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. More than a third of the recorded shrines in Japan are Inari shrines and, aside from the fox statues, the obvious symbol that indicates “Inari shrine” is red torii gates.


Entire books have been written on the varied meaning and significance of Inari, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that this god is connected to rice. Given the importance of rice in Japan, Inari is obviously a big deal. Often people pray to this god for business prosperity – perhaps, as the early Western Japanologist Lafcadio Hearn observed, because all wealth in the old days was counted in measures of rice.


OK, but what’s the fox got to do with it? The fox is associated with Inari as a symbol, a messenger, a servant, or maybe more. Whatever it is, now it’s impossible to tease the two apart, although no one’s quite sure how this connection arose – the earliest historical records of Inari worship, before the tenth or eleventh century, don’t mention anything about foxes.

The simplest explanation seems to be that rodents eat rice, foxes eat rodents, so foxes could have been seen as protectors of rice. But some of the associated beliefs have no such rational explanation. Take the fact that worshippers at an Inari shrine will commonly make an offering of abura-age, those thin slices of fried tofu with sweet soy sauce flavoring.  It’s supposedly the favorite food of foxes. That’s why udon with fried tofu topping is called kitsune udon, and fried tofu pockets stuffed with sushi rice is inari-zushi.


Photo by Jeremy Keith

Foxes are naturally carnivores, so this is pretty odd. There’s no agreed-upon explanation for this belief, and again, no clear historical record of how the tradition developed. Animals do sometimes like foods they’d never get in nature – dogs are crazy about peanut butter, for example, and cats love tuna despite the fact that they hate to get near the water. But this one doesn’t stand up to empirical testing: one author writing a book about Inari was told by a priest that he saw a TV program where a fox was offered meat, fish, and fried tofu, and – no surprise, really – tofu was the animal’s last choice.

The Goblin Fox


But only aged and wise foxes have power to act as people for a prolonged time; incidentally, age and wisdom do not imply benevolence.
-U. A. Casal, The Goblin Fox and Badger, 1959

Though foxes are associated with a powerful deity, they’re also believed to have less benevolent counterparts. Yokai is a class of strange beings that has no real translation into English, and includes everything from household objects that come alive to, evil children offering you tofu, to long-nosed winged humanoid demons. And the kitsune fox demon is part of the yokai. The stories about their powers are strange and varied, involving everything from odd human behavior to unusual weather.

Fox Illusions


Kitsune can make themselves appear to be humans, usually with mischief – or worse – in mind. A fox might pose as a distressed woman traveller or a monk on a pilgrimage and, after a kindly villager is convinced to take it in, the next morning the villager finds that all his food and valuables have been stolen. To add insult to injury, the kitsune may shave his head bald. Much nastier, though, foxes were said to use these abilities to tempt people to go places where they were likely to get killed.

The fox isn’t the only animal yokai that can shape-shift, but they have a special predilection for appearing as a beautiful woman in order to deceive human men. Oddly, in this case they don’t always have bad intentions. As Lafcadio Hearn tells it:

The fox does not always appear in the guise of a woman for evil purposes. There are several stories, and one really pretty play, about a fox who took the shape of a beautiful woman, and married a man, and bore him children—all out of gratitude for some favour received—the happiness of the family being only disturbed by some odd carnivorous propensities on the part of the offspring.

Looking like something else is only half of it, though. Kitsune can orchestrate full virtual-reality experiences, making people think they’re in houses that don’t exist or experiencing an earthquake that isn’t really happening. As they kept up with modern technology, foxes were said to make phantom trains run on the earliest railroads, disguise themselves as cars, and deliver fake telegrams. Belief in this ability was so strong that Hearn tells of peasants who would assume that a truly strange experience was a fox-illusion rather than trusting their own eyes:

The most interesting and valuable witness of the stupendous eruption of Bandai-San in 1888—which blew the huge volcano to pieces and devastated an area of twenty-seven square miles, levelling forests, turning rivers from their courses, and burying numbers of villages with all their inhabitants—was an old peasant who had watched the whole cataclysm from a neighbouring peak as unconcernedly as if he had been looking at a drama. He saw a black column of ashes and steam rise to the height of twenty thousand feet and spread out at its summit in the shape of an umbrella, blotting out the sun. Then he felt a strange rain pouring upon him, hotter than the water of a bath. Then all became black; and he felt the mountain beneath him shaking to its roots, and heard a crash of thunders that seemed like the sound of the breaking of a world. But he remained quite still until everything was over. He had made up his mind not to be afraid—deeming that all he saw and heard was delusion wrought by the witchcraft of a fox.

Putting the two abilities for illusions together, a fox may pose as a beautiful woman and lure a man to her remote, luxurious home for a night of passion. But when he wakes up the next morning alone, he is lying in a graveyard, with the leftovers of his sumptuous meal revealed to be a pile of rotting leaves and worse.



Being deceived by a fox is bad enough, but being possessed by one sounds far more unpleasant. Foxes were said to possess people for a variety of reasons. They might want revenge for some offense, ranging from killing its cub to disturbing its afternoon nap. They might want something done for them that requires manipulation, like having a little shrine built to it, or getting one of its favorite foods like fried tofu or red rice.

The effects could be quite nasty – pain, madness, hysteria, running naked through the streets, collapsing, and frothing at the mouth. But in other cases, the result was simply behavior that was inappropriate or odd: using bad language, throwing money around like a millionaire, barking or yipping, behaving violently, or spitting.  One scholar described a particular sort of fox that would cause the possessed person to barge into houses and annoy sick people, blurt out secrets, and mess up silkworm colonies.

Many of those are things that people would probably not do voluntarily, and today the victims would likely be sent for mental health treatment rather than exorcism. But in other cases, you have to wonder if fox-possession was sometimes a handy excuse: there were alleged victims who ate a whole lot of fried tofu and other favorite foods and insisted it was the fox that was the glutton.

Fire and Water


The marriages of foxes (to each other, rather than unsuspecting humans) are said to account for two odd natural phenomena. One is kitsune-bi (狐火,  meaning “fox-fire”). This is what’s called will o’ the wisp in English – mysterious flickering lights seen at night in natural areas like forests and especially wet places like bogs and marshes.

Sometimes a large outbreak of this phenomenon would look a like long procession of flickering lanterns. These reminded people of a traditional wedding ceremony where the bride was escorted to her new home by an entourage carrying lamps, so were said to be the wedding celebrations of foxes. There’s never been any accepted scientific explanation of the will o’ the wisp, and the processions always disappeared when people tried to get near and find out for sure, so who’s to say they weren’t?


Foxfire is only rarely seen today, maybe because natural areas aren’t what they used to be, maybe because foxes were tired of the paparazzi trying to get close to them. So nowadays “fox’s wedding” more commonly has another meaning: They’re thought to be holding their weddings on days when it’s raining out of a clear blue sky, what we much more boringly call in English a sunshower.

How Not to be Fooled


For one thing, a spook-fox will always emit a certain luminosity, and even on the darkest night his human shape will stand out so clearly that the colour of the hair and the pattern of the kimono is plainly discernible at the distance of some six feet. Hair and pattern show up as if a fire were glowing beneath them! Usually, also, the face of the human apparition is unnaturally long.
-The Goblin Fox and Badger

Fortunately, there are ways to tell that a person is really a fox in disguise. The tail is a weak point – reflections in a mirror or pool of water may show a tail, and young foxes who are less experienced at the illusions may have trouble concealing their tails. Shadows may also reveal their true nature – a shadow falling on water shows the true shape of the fox.

Another trouble foxes have – which is maybe the only thing here that makes perfect logical sense  – is speaking convincingly like a human. Hearn writes:

A fox cannot pronounce a whole word, but a part only—as “Nish . . . Sa. . .” for “Nishida-San”; “degoz . . .” for “degozarimasu, or “uch . . . de . .?” for “uchi desuka?”

Supposedly “moshi-moshi” was a particularly difficult tongue-twister for them, so unless you want to be mistaken for a fox, make sure you never say “moshi” just once.

But the best defense against foxes is to have a dog. Foxes are said to be terrified of dogs because dogs aren’t fooled by illusions. They will bark and let everyone know what’s up, sometimes even causing the fox to lose its human form. Dogs were also even used in cures for possession: Smear fish paste all over the victim and have a dog lick it off. The fox will be so repulsed that it will leave the person’s body. (And who could blame it?)  Less disgusting approaches include protecting against possession by carrying a dog tooth or writing the kanji for “dog” on a child’s forehead.

It’s not a bad idea to be nice to foxes if you can, because they can be grateful (and given everything they are capable of, you probably would rather have them on your side). They’ll even bring little gifts, as best they can. Lafcadio Hearn tells of a man who saw a fox being chased by dogs, and chased the dogs away with his umbrella:

On the following evening he heard some one knock at his door, and on opening the to saw a very pretty girl standing there, who said to him: “Last night I should have died but for your august kindness. I know not how to thank you enough: this is only a pitiable little present. And she laid a small bundle at his feet and went away. He opened the bundle and found two beautiful ducks and two pieces of silver money—those long, heavy, leaf-shaped pieces of money—each worth ten or twelve dollars— such as are now eagerly sought for by collectors of antique things. After a little while, one of the coins changed before his eyes into a piece of grass; the other was always good.

If you see a pure white fox, that’s the good Inari fox, so you don’t need to worry. (Except… if a yokai fox can make itself look like a human woman, wouldn’t it be even easier to simply change color? That hasn’t happened in any of the stories I’ve read, but now I’ve gone and given them the idea, so proceed with caution.)

Foxes in the Family


Being nice to foxes is one thing, but having too close a relationship with them is definitely not worth the price. It was once believed that certain families owned foxes, and in return for being fed, the foxes would use their supernatural powers to the owner’s benefit. That sounds like a great deal, but apparently not so much. For some reason they usually came in large numbers – seventy-five was typical –  so feeding them was a huge expense. And, being foxes, they weren’t particularly trustworthy servants, so they’d often do things that got their owners in trouble, like stealing.

The real problem, though, was that reputed fox-owners were ostracized by the rest of society. Hearn wrote of the effects in the late nineteenth century:

Intermarriage with a fox-possessing family is out of the question; and many a beautiful and accomplished girl in Izumo cannot secure a husband because of the popular belief that her family harbours foxes.It affects the value of real estate in Izumo to the amount of hundreds of thousands. The land of a family supposed to have foxes cannot be sold at a fair price. People are afraid to buy it; for it is believed the foxes may ruin the new proprietor.

Amazingly, as late as the 1950s there was a case in Shimane, where fox belief was particularly strong, of a couple committing double suicide when they were forbidden to marry because girl came from a fox-owning family.

The Fox in Real Life


The fox has played such a big role in the imaginative life of Japanese people, one has to wonder why. What relationship did people have with this animal long ago? The fox isn’t a predator that we needed to fear, we didn’t eat it, and it didn’t compete with us for food. Perhaps it played a role keeping down pests in rice fields, but could that have developed into such a complex and sort of contradictory body of beliefs?

Maybe it’s a mistake to assume the reasons have to be practical ones. The fox is an unusual canine, more like a cat in many ways – solitary rather than social, a solo stealth hunter of prey much smaller than itself. Other similarities to cats include claws that partially retract, eyes that reflect light at night, and behaviors when stalking prey and in response to threats. There’s also the oddity that it has such a bright-colored coat rather than the inconspicuous coloring more useful for a predator.

People who lived closer to wildlife, who had more of a chance to observe this animal, would surely have noticed these features. Perhaps it’s not going too far to imagine that this double catlike-doglike nature influenced the legends of the fox’s shapeshifting and trickster nature.


Photo by e_monk

The red fox is found in more places than any other wild canine, living all over the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic circle and the steppes of Asia to Central America and the north of Africa, and Japan isn’t the only place where it became part of the language and folklore, with similar connotations. Where Japan has shapeshifting fox wives, we have “foxy” as a term for a seductive woman, and “vixen” (which means female fox) has been used since medieval times to refer to a woman who’s attractive but not very nice.  The fox is a trickster figure in the folklore of some Native American peoples, and also associated with fire in some. In English “outfox” means to trick or outwit. All over the world, it seems, people read the same sorts of meanings into the behavior of this animal.

Another reason the fox is associated with cunning and trickiness may be its ability to live among us without being seen. In Hokkaido, where they’ve got their own subspecies of red fox, it’s used as a symbol of unspoiled nature. Which of course means tons of awesome souvenirs:


But in a world where there’s so little unspoiled nature that tourist boards use it as a selling point, foxes know better than to stick to the wild. They’ve always thrived where humans are committing agriculture – after all, that’s the whole association between Inari, rice, and foxes. And their natural preference for edge environments – places where woodland and more open space meet – means that by building suburbs where there were once dense forests, we’ve actually created fox habitats.


Photo by Tats Shibata

So there may be foxes closer to you than you think, but magical or not, better to keep away as best you can, especially from those Hokkaido foxes. They carry a nasty parasite, a kind of tapeworm called echinococcus that can actually be fatal to humans. That’s another kind of possession you really don’t want to mess with.

Good Fox/Bad Fox/Real Fox


Photo by Stefan

So far we’ve mostly looked at the relationship of the different sort of foxes, real and less real, to humans. But how do they relate to one another? As some of your Facebook friends say, it’s complicated.

There are other gods to whom a particular animal is sacred and symbolic, but for some reason the Inari/fox connection is different. Hearn noticed this in the nineteenth century, and didn’t much care for it:

Indeed, the old conception of the Deity of Rice-fields has been overshadowed and almost effaced among the lowest classes by a weird cult totally foreign to the spirit of pure Shinto—the Fox-cult. The worship of the retainer has almost replaced the worship of the god.

Did people really think they were worshipping a fox? Do they still believe this today? The scholar Karen Smyers, while writing a book about the worship of Inari, tried to figure this out, and the answer she came up with seems to be “it depends on who you ask.”

On the one hand, the priests that she interviewed all said basically, “heck no, no way!” The party line was that the fox was a messenger of the god only. But the mere fact that there has to be a party line, and that priests have to put effort into discouraging the alternative, has to mean something.


Smyers thinks that the official view is probably pretty recent, going back to the Meiji period, when there was an attempt to purge Shinto of its animistic elements, as part of the push to make Japan a Westernized nation. This attempt clearly didn’t take as far as the average worshipper went.  Talking to devotees, she discovered that some did see Inari as a fox, although they differed on whether the god was benevolent or terrifying. The priests had to deal with this belief all the time, and in some stories, seem resigned to it:

One day a man brought two dusty old fox statues to an Inari shrine to be burned with other retired sacred paraphernalia and rather loudly announced that he had been worshiping them as Inari. The priest grimaced, explain in a rather curt fashion that Inari was not a fox, but said that he should have a prayer service anyway.

The yokai foxes get mixed up with the religious side as well. In the old days, cases of fox-possession were brought to Inari shrines to be cured, although the priests insisted Inari had nothing to do with it. The connection between yokai foxes and fire also rears its head: Oji Shrine is associated with fire prevention, and a fox saved Daitsuji Temple in Nagahama from a fire and people still offer her fried tofu in thanks.

Real foxes were also seen to have a connection to Inari shrines. Shrines were sometimes built over a fox den, or where a wild fox had done something odd or useful. Police worshipped at one built in 1923 in Kobe, where a fox had unearthed the weapon in a murder case. Live foxes were fed offerings of fried tofu at shrines, and in some places, they still are.

And Inari was sometimes considered responsible for the behavior of real foxes: one Edo-period story tells of a boy who went to an Inari shine and beat on it with sticks and yelled at it because a fox had stolen his chicken. The fox reportedly returned the chicken, and although it seems doubtful it would have been in a useful condition, sometimes it’s the principle of the thing, you know?

The Fox Today


Photo by Mariko Kato

As the real fox has adapted to modern life, so do the folkloric ones. Authors of fiction and manga and anime put their own spin on kitsune, and some of these can even make their way into tradition. Multiple tails are traditionally a sign of great magical power, but a blogger who researched the now-common idea that the number of tails increases with age and rank concluded that it probably originated in a modern fantasy series.

Festivals persist, such as one at Oji in Kita, Tokyo, once supposedly a site where kitsune-bi was often seen, and where tradition said that foxes from all over the region gathered on New Year’s Eve. Now, people from all over gather in fox masks for a parade.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Lafcadio Hearn predicted that western education would eradicate belief in the supernatural qualities of foxes. That hadn’t happened by the 1950s, when one folklorist had no trouble finding believers, although even in those days it was often one of those things that happened to the friend of a friend:

They openly admit their fear of being bewitched. Nobody is ashamed of it, and if an uncomprehending foreigner laughs at the superstition, examples are immediately forthcoming of “well-authenticated” cases, or at least of people who knew people whose friend was once fooled by a fox.


Photo by Mariko Kato

By the 1990s when Karen Smyers was doing her research, people would tell her about things that happened to their grandparents, or that happened to them as children, not contemporary stories. She wondered sometimes if their answers were basically edited for her as a foreigner, though, and found that people seemed to be uncomfortable with the notion that she was hanging out with so much fox stuff:

Japanese people regard this kind of talk as old fashioned and superstitious. But the figure of the fox still retains some of its sacred and dangerous aura- at least to judge by the comments I heard when I talked to people about my research or showed them my extensive collection of fox statues. The idea that I was in such close touch with all those foxes seemed to make otherwise rational people rather nervous.

Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s probably best to be careful, as she found from her own experience when writing the part of her book about how foxes have modernized their methods over history:

I never heard of any computer-related mischief of foxes, but surely they are working on it.*

*While working on the final revisions of this text, I deleted this sentence as somewhat gratuitous – and soon thereafter lost the entire chapter and the backups as well.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. 1894.  Fox-related sections of this book available at this link:
  • U. A. Casal, The Goblin Fox and Badger and Other Witch Animals of Japan, Folklore Studies, Vol. 18 (1959), l959%29l8%3Cl%3ATGFABA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M
  • Nozaki, Kiyoshi. Kitsune: Japan’s fox of mystery, romance and humor. Hokuseido Press, Japan. 1961.
  • Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (Japan Library Classics) Routledge, 1999
  • The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Workship. December 1, University of Hawaii Press, 1998
  • J David Henry, Red fox: The Catlike Canine (Smithsonian Nature Book) 1996
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Top 10 REAL Pokemon You Can Find in Japan! Thu, 04 Sep 2014 16:00:46 +0000

I think everyone has wished Pokemon were real at some point in time, and being a fan of the colorful and powerful roster of pocket monsters can make it easy to forget the majesty of our mundane world’s animal kingdom. If you’ve read my kaijū article then you already know the creatures inhabiting Japan’s oceans, streams, highlands, and forests can be just as impressive as the creatures that roam its movies and television shows. However, kaijū aren’t the only iconic monsters in Japanese pop culture, and those ten beasties aren’t the only unique and amazing animals native to Japan. Check out ten more amazing critters that could pass as the real-world equivalents of the most fun and profitable (gotta buy ‘em all) monsters from Japan.

10: Giant Isopod


Pocket Equivalent: Kabuto


Kabuto is based off of the living fossil the horseshoe crab, however, giant isopods are also giant deep-sea crustaceans so they have more than a few things in common with this fossil Pokemon.

The giant isopod is one of the largest arthropods in the world. They can be found all over the Pacific from Japan to the Americas, but they really have a following in Japan where people are more willing to think of them as “grotesque cute” and want to design cell-phone cases and plushies in their likeness. In the U.S. we just make horror films out of them, which makes sense, since these little guys are full-on carnivorous and can survive for four years without eating—just waiting for the perfect catch to gorge themselves on.

9. Japanese Serow


Photo by Quadell

Pocket Equivalent: Gogoat


These two are basically identical sans the wreathe of shrubbery. Though I don’t know how the on-average 70 pound Serow would handle being ridden around Lumiose City.

Once thought to be a deer (but actually much closer related to cattle or goats) the Japanese serow is an iconic Japanese animal and considered a living “National Treasure of the Forest.” They were once hunted to near extinction, but their populations have sprung back up in the woodlands of Northern Honshu, thanks to some timely conservation efforts. These majestic little guys are featured on postage stamps, good luck charms, postcards, and much more. They have been known to the Japanese since prehistory and are considered so close to the Japanese identity that when in 1972 China gifted a Giant Panda to the Japanese government they reciprocated with a gift of two serows.

8: Pika


Pocket Equivalent: Pikachu


Ahh yes, the poster-child of Pokemon. What better to compare to this tiny electrical dynamo than something that bears more than half of its name.

Native to the rocky mountainsides of northern Europe, Asia, and the Americas, pikas are a type of lagomorph, the order that contains rabbits and hares, and are considered an early evolutionary stepping stone on the path to the long-eared, fluffy-tailed varieties that we all know and love.  Some people have posited that the pika was the inspiration for Pokemon’s iconic Pikachu. While this may be true to an extent, the reality is more likely that the name is a portmanteau of two Japanese onomatopoeia, pikapika (ピカピカ)for electrical sparks and chuu (チュー) for a mouse’s squeak. Don’t tell that to fans of the pika theory though.

7: Japanese Flying Squirrels


Photo by Unknown

Pocket Equivalent: Emolga


To keep moving forward the theme of electrical rodents we have another match-up of creatures that would be almost identical if it weren’t for the lack of electrogenerative properties. C’mon scientists, get on your A-game. Eels can already conduct electricity give this power to various fluffy animals already, you have the technology!

I have a lot of admiration for the tenacious animals like bats and flying squirrels that didn’t let being born a mammal keep them out of the skies. There are two main species of flying squirrels in Japan and parts of both were probably used as the inspiration behind this cousin of Pikachu. The Japanese giant flying squirrel or musasabi can make glides of up to 525 feet and can be over a foot long! And that’s not including their long fluffy tails which stabilize them during flight and typically about double their length. The other species is the Japanese dwarf flying squirrel or nihon momonga (Emolga’s likely name-sake) that  can only reach a maximum height of eight inches. While the momonga might not be able to generate electricity, they definitely possess weaponized levels of cuteness. Just take a look here! 

6: Tanuki


Photo by 663Highland

Pocket Equivalent: Zigzagoon


This is the complete opposite of the usual match-up in that the tanuki will most likely be more immediately  iconic than zigzagoon. Tanuki are very ubiquitous in Japan for their relationship with traditional art and folklore (and their much storied testicles). I doubt Zigzagoon has that in common with the tanuki but it definitely has the raccoon thing going for it.

Tanuki () in Japanese folklore have access to many more superpowers than your average pocket monster. They have access to possession, transformation, magical testicles, granting good luck, and high alcohol tolerance. They were even once considered sovereigns of the entire natural realm. It has even been said of the Tanuki that while “the fox has seven disguises,  the tanuki has eight (狐七化け、狸八化け).” Asserting that, although they are less malicious than kitsune, they have even more tricks up their sleeves. The real-life animal however is more similar to Zigzagoon in that it looks and acts like something between a dog, a raccoon, and a badger.

5: Japanese Macaque


Photo by Yblieb

Pocket Equivalent: Mankey


Mankey is essentially a distilled chibi version of the Japanese macaque: White frosty fur, fleshy pink faces/noses,  and prehensile tails. I’m pretty sure Mankeys wouldn’t  pass up an evening at a hot spring either.

The Japanese macaque, sometimes colloquially called snow monkeys because of their preferred habitat, are another very iconic Japanese creature. They are one of the only primates native to Japan and the only non-human primate that can tolerate living as far north as they do. Because of this they can be found on the majority of Japanese islands with large habitat distributions in Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyushū. They also have a unique place in Japanese folklore from the zodiac, to fairy tales, to famous nicknames of Nobunaga’s samurai.

4: Asian Black Bear


Photo by Guérin Nicolas

Pocket Equivalent: Ursaring


Big fluffy ursine monstrosities with symbols on the lighter patches of fur on their chest. There is almost no contesting that Ursaring was based off of these Eurasian bears.

This is the smaller of the two bear species that inhabit the mountains of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku. Despite their cuteness and their diet of mostly vegetation, they have been known to act aggressively toward humans for territorial reasons and general grouchiness. They are prominent in the folklore of the Japanese mountain highlands, where it is said the white patch on their chest fur is from a silk-wrapped amulet gifted to them by the kami of the mountains.

3: Whale Shark


Photo by Zac Wolf

Pocket Equivalent: Kyogre


Kyogre is a legendary Pokemon and the whale shark is a pretty legendary ocean fish. They have a very similar aesthetic, but the fact is the 14 foot Pokemon with dominion over the world’s oceans is still dwarfed by the 40 foot whale shark.

The whale shark, though it isn’t a whale and doesn’t really look like a shark, is an absolute giant of the sea. The tremendous shark is a filter-feeder, so imagine a giant nurse shark. They are the world’s largest living species of fish and the largest non-whale animal on the planet. They have a reputation for being very friendly to SCUBA divers. That, coupled with their strangely adorable qualities, has made them something of a cuteness icon in Japan. The Osaka aquarium, Kaiyukan, and the Okinawan Churaumi Aquarium have both featured these sharks as spotlight attractions.

2: Japanese Pheasant


Photo by Alpsdake

Pocket Equivalent: Unfezant


The Japanese pheasant was absolutely the inspiration for this Pokemon. Everything from the name to the color scheme supports this. Since this pheasant is the National bird of Japan, it was probably only a matter of time until it was immortalized as a Pokemon.

At first glance, it may seems unceremonious for such a common animal to be included in a list of fantastic creatures, but that sort of thinking goes against the very nature of Pokemon. Some Pokemon are very mundane. Heck, some of them are inanimate objects! These iridescent game birds have absolutely earned their place as an iconic Japanese animal. These pheasants have coexisted  with the Japanese people since ancient times. They were given as dowry or as celebratory gifts for marriage and because of this they have been used in classical Japanese poetry as a symbol of love and devotion to one’s family. A very simple, but evocative animal.

1: Shiba Inu


Pocket Equivalent: Ninetales


While the many amazing dog breeds of Japan may be more dog than fox—and are certainly lacking a few tails. They do tend to match the storied history and majesty of this Pokemon that is based on  an iconic Japanese beast of myth.

The Shiba Inu is the smallest variety of the six original Spitz dog breeds of Japan. The larger ones being the AkitaKishu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kai Ken. Many of these breeds are considered among the very few ancient dog breeds to still exist. In Japan, this pedigree stretching from the 3rd century BC has led to the creation of domesticated creatures with agility, friendliness, and loyalty that inspires movies and manga.

All of these dog breeds encapsulate the true nature of what Pokemon really stands for: the ability to forge a connection with an animal companion that grow with you, fight for you, and become a lifelong companion.  More so than any other of the amazing animals that inhabit Japan, these dogs are not only iconic, they are also readily available to be raised and trained. If you feel like putting the time and energy into adopting one of these breeds yourself, you would find a very real way to discover the rewards of being a Pokemon trainer.

Linnaean Taxonomy! I Choose You!


In short, the wild kingdom of Japan has as many beautiful and engrossing animals as even the richest anime/video game universes. Japan might not have electrically charged rodents (yet), but it does have more than its fair share of spectacular wild-life.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Road to Understanding Japanese Pottery Mon, 01 Sep 2014 16:00:39 +0000 Hearing someone say “pottery!” might not inspire quite the same degree of excitement as “new Nintendo system!” or “free beer!”. But before you leave this page in search of Nintendo and/or beer related articles, why not give pottery a chance? It’s actually a pretty fascinating subject, what with all the possibilities of shape, texture, and colour, and with examples surviving all the way back to the stone age.


Photo by Chris 73

No country features a more profound, widespread appreciation for the art of pottery than Japan. This is due primarily to the tea ceremony, a core component of Japanese identity. The implements of this ceremony are accorded high aesthetic status; so if you happen to be a teacup, Japan is the place to be. Teacups are like rock stars there, man.

Why Pottery Rocks


Photo by Daderot

Broadly speaking, pottery (aka ceramics) denotes anything made of baked clay. One of humanity’s earliest and most crucial inventions, pottery allowed settled societies to store food and water, and it sure made eating and drinking a lot less messy.

Works of pottery are often one of the chief surviving physical remnants of historic cultures. And since pottery is often painted and/or sculpted, it gives us a glimpse into the aesthetic values of long-vanished peoples. All around the world, wherever settled life developed, ceramic shards have been excavated…fragments of ancient imaginations.

Pottery survives in abundance because it’s just so darn durable. Though easily broken, pottery shards are highly resistant to disintegration, allowing modern archaeologists to put humpty together again. Painted designs upon pottery surfaces are also quite resilient, provided they were added before the baking process.

It’s kind of ironic that pottery, with its inherent delicacy, turns out to be among the most ruggedly enduring of human creations. Remember the fable about the oak tree and the reed? The mighty oak was blown over by a strong wind, while the seemingly fragile reed simply bent and weathered the storm. So it is with pottery, which endures the centuries in shard form, while murals and statues crumble away.

Baby, You so Fine


Photo by Fg2

A fundamental distinction may be drawn between “fine art”, the creation of purely aesthetic works, and “applied art”, the crafting of aesthetically pleasing practical objects. Today, society widely recognizes the importance of both for quality of life. In addition to movies and TV shows (two principal contemporary forms of fine art), our modern society yearns for well-designed cars, appliances, and websites (especially this one). So it was for historic societies; only instead of coding html, they made clay pots.

Are you convinced that pottery is cool yet? I don’t see how you couldn’t be, given that I just compared it to a computer language. So now that you’re all ceram-excited (sorry[P.S. I'm not sorry]), it’s time to look at pottery styles throughout Japanese history. Don’t worry, I’m not going to torture you with thirty-seven distinct stylistic periods. I’m going to torture you with four.

It’s Early Days Yet


Photo by Takuma-sa

While Japanese ceramics now stand among the world’s most famous and celebrated traditions, they took a while to find their voice. The classic, iconic Japanese pottery style (known as “wabi-sabi”; more on that later) wouldn’t mature until the beginning of the shogunate period (ca. 1200-1870). Thus, all the millennia leading up to this development may be grouped as a vast “early period”.

The oldest Japanese pottery of all is that of the hunter-gatherer Jōmon culture, which inhabited Japan ca. 10,500-300 BC. The name “Jōmon”, meaning “cord-patterned”, is derived from this culture’s fondness for decorating pottery with patterns of lines (by pressing cords into the wet clay). This was probably done, at least originally, to imitate the textures of woven baskets.


Photo by sailko


Photo by sailko


Photo by sailko

The centuries following the Jōmon period witnessed the rise of agriculture (rice cultivation), metal casting (first bronze, then iron), and eventually a unified Japanese civilization. Technological advances arrived from China, often via Korea.Throughout history, young civilizations have generally been heavily influenced by elder neighbours; after all, why reinvent the wheel (or the kanji)? Japan’s story is a typical one, progressing from an “absorption phase” of heavy external influence to an “independent phase”, in which borrowed elements are adapted to indigenous culture. The magnitude of Chinese and Korean influence is readily observed in Japanese pottery, which resembles mainland styles for many centuries.

Want some proof? Check out these three works from China…



Photo by Ismoon


Photo by 乌拉跨氪

…and these three from pre-shogunate Japan.


Photo by PHG


Photo by Daderot


Photo by sailko

The most renowned cultural period of pre-shogunate Japan is the Heian age (ca. 800-1200), during which mainland influence peaked, then finally began to ebb. Meanwhile, the rise of independent, distinctively Japanese forms of art began en masse. Pottery’s golden age gleamed on the horizon.

Classic Cool


Classic Japanese ceramics, which matured and flowered in the early shogunate period, are guided by the aesthetic of “wabi-sabi”. This approach, which reflects the ideals of Zen Buddhism, embraces simplicity, naturalness, aging, and irregularity. The centrality of wabi-sabi to traditional Japanese art has been described as equivalent to that of Greek classicism in the West.

So what does this mean for pottery? We’re talking plain, irregular shapes. We’re talking cracks, burns, and pits. We’re talking haphazard arrangements of colours.

These effects were achieved with several techniques. Vessels were moulded manually, instead of being precisely shaped on a potter’s wheel. Baking was conducted at relatively low temperatures, thereby avoiding the glassy, polished look of high-temperature ceramics. Instead of being allowed to cool gradually, hot vessels were removed from the kiln and plunged into straw or water, causing such effects as warping, crackles, and distorted colours.


Photo in public domain

The final product, shaped by natural processes rather than precise human guidance, is the embodiment of wabi-sabi.

The golden age of Japanese pottery is often dated to the sixteenth century, when the Japanese tea ceremony really took off. The primary figure in the rise and refinement of this ceremony, Sen Rikyū, was pivotal in the establishment of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Rikyū oversaw the development of “raku ware” tea bowls, which are often considered the pinnacle of classic Japanese ceramics.

The two photos below, as well as the two above, are all examples of raku ware. (And so is the photo in the introduction…I just couldn’t get enough!)



Wabi-sabi vessels were originally restricted to a “natural look”, in which textures and colours were left to develop on their own. Eventually, some wabi-sabi artists experimented with altering these effects through manual intervention, resulting in a sort of “controlled natural look”. Some artists went even further, adding painted designs.

Pretty Colours

After centuries of simplicity and restraint, who could blame potters for wanting to splash some colour around? This was the central focus of pottery during the Edo period (17th-19th c). Smooth, precisely shaped vessels were painted in crisp, vibrant designs, often on a white background. This sort of pottery became technically possible with the adoption of advanced kiln technology from Korea.


Photo by Daderot



Photo by Daderot

Mind you, the rugged wabi-sabi style certainly didn’t disappear. It just simmered on the back burner while artists revelled in the glassy, brightly painted ceramic styles that the mainlanders had hogged for so long. A couple of wabi-sabi-ish ceramics from the Edo period are featured here.

Back to Basics


Modern Japanese ceramics, like modern art around the world, comes in a dizzying variety of styles, both old and new. Yet the most consistent thread has been revival of the classic wabi-sabi tradition. The central figure of this revival was Yanagi Sōetsu, an early twentieth-century artist who championed the simple ceramics found in typical Japanese homes.

The photo above of the interior of Sōetsu’s house, provides a glimpse into his aesthetic philosophy.

Naturally, the fancier side of Japanese pottery also continued to flourish in the modern period. Kitaōji Rosanjin, also of the early twentieth century, may be the most famous name in this area. Here we see a highly-decorated Rosanjin bowl.

Cooldown Time


Photo by A.Davey

So, was I right? Did you find pottery to be a fascinating subject? (If not, at least be Japanese-polite and pretend you did.)

In Japan, the art of pottery achieved exceptional heights. In a land of sublime scroll paintings and transcendent haiku, one might not expect simple functional objects to have received such loving attention. And yet they did.

The respect accorded to the humble tea bowl reflects a profoundly enlightened outlook. Life is so much hoopy-er when we take the time to appreciate all forms of beauty, and to pour them into every part of our lives. Even the part when we are just sitting quietly, sipping tea.

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  • “Japanese Art”, Columbia Encylopedia.
  • Encylopedia Britannica: “Japanese Art”, “Jomon Culture”, “Raku ware”, “Yayoi Culture”
  • “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.” Koren, Leonard. Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
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The Rice Ball Wed, 27 Aug 2014 16:00:59 +0000 A 52-year-old resident was found dead in his Kitakyushu home. While investigating the man’s death, officials discovered a journal. The man was starving, and in his final entry he penned:

“3 a.m. This human being hasn’t eaten in 10 days but is still alive…I want to eat rice. I want to eat a rice ball.”

Headlines swept across Japan in Fall 2007. Perhaps society failed him. Maybe he was proud. Either or, this man died for lack of food. The incident stirred national debate, and not for the mere fact that the man had starved. It was that he had died in hope of eating onigiri.

What Is In A Word?


Onigiri is a word with vague origins at best. A Japanese sushi chef, part of my extended family, often teased me saying that onigiri was not actually O-nigiri (お握り) [a grasp of rice], but Oni-giri (鬼義理) [demon-obligation]. As a child, this creepy humor freaked me out, not because I was superstitious, but because he actually believed it. Having a shrine devoted to Inari, the kami of rice within his bar, he hoped to find supernatural stipulation.

Later I discovered that Japanese was more often about the spelling rather than enunciation. And for someone who has watched The Scripps National Spelling Bee, the importance of word origin is sacrosanct to spelling. Is it cliché then, that many Japanese people routinely ask English speakers, “How to spell?”

Japanese is little different, as countless observations reveal Japanese people slashing the air with extended index fingers as they form words in their mind’s eye to understand word meaning through character identification. My ojisan understood this principle, clapping his hands and bowing his head before a pillar of rice and burning incense.

The Symbol Of Japan At Its Center


Photo by tamakisono

Searching the web, the onslaught of posts dedicated to the rice ball is astounding. There are endless pages chronicling preparation, from rice selection to nori wrapping, yet there is scant information in regards to onigiri’s origin and innovation. What is documented, are wisps of history. In the 17th century, samurai consumed onigiri as battlefield-ready meals. 11th century Japanese writings casually mention rice ball consumption as a picnicking item.

“Rice balls for the retainers were set out in the garden.” The Diary of Lady Murasaki (c. 973-c. 1020)

And not so ironically, that same right-leaning uncle proclaimed onigiri as Japan’s first fast food. I laughed when he said this, but not aloud. He had a habit of claiming Japanese firsts of all sorts. Then he withdrew an old American pocketknife. Cutting through one of the rice balls he had set before me, he asked, “What do you see?”

I crinkled my nose as I spoke, “Umeboshi (pickled plum) and rice, doi!” This was apparently not, the answer. I was not a persnickety child, but the doi had my 8-year-old cousin in stitches.

Denying my youthful absurdity, her father wiped the blade upon his apron, folded and placed the knife upon the glass counter between us. He asked rhetorically if I knew the story of his knife. I did not answer. So he calmly turned the plate as he spoke, “I see a rising sun through a field of cherry blossoms.”

My cousin cupped her hands around my ear. “Hinomaru.”*

Development To Modern Form


Photo by tanaka_juuyoh
  • 300BC to AD250 (Yayoi Period) Chimaki—Glutinous (sticky) rice wrapped in bamboo leaves introduced from Mainland.
  • 250 to 538 (Kofun Period) Glutinous rice pervades.
  • 538 to 710 (Asuka Period) Glutinous rice pervades.
  • 710 to 794 (Nara Period) Pre-chopsticks, the sticky rice “ball” gains popularity.
  • 794 to 1185 (Heian Period) Tonjiki—Glutinous rice shaped into snack sized squares emerge.
  • 1185 to 1333 (Kamakura Period) Glutinous rice persists.
  • 1333 to 1336 (Kenmu Restoration) Glutinous rice persists.
  • 1337 to 1573 (Muromachi Period) Hard earthenware is introduced from Korea. Non-glutinous (Japonica) rice supersedes sticky rice as dietary staple. Nori introduced as wrapping.

From this point, the popularity of Japonica rice outpaced sticky rice. It was only in the 1980’s when the development of automated rice ball machines solidified the ubiquitous triangle shape into the minds of the masses.

The Experts Remain Divided


Photo by wordridden

Some foodie scholars argue that Korea’s Jumuk Bap predates all other iterations of rice ball. Chinese claims are refuted by demonstrating their refusal to eat cooled rice for several centuries prior to onigiri. Yet one thing is undisputed: the modern day Japanese rice ball is the standard bearer in proliferation, quality and variety. It is onigiri that the world thinks of when speaking about the rice ball.

Through the wild expansion of Family Mart in Southeast Asia, to the quaint Mussubi restaurant in Paris, to the flourishing Western adoption of Japanese food, there is but one sort of rice ball to be found: onigiri.

In lieu of the above-mentioned, the one outstanding, often overlooked fact, proving once and for all that onigiri is and will remain Japan’s greatest food innovation, are the Japanese themselves. This is a circumstance in which the people define a food, not the other way around.

Saying Rice Means Eating It


Photo by mujitra

Time to hit the streets, and by streets I mean immediate Japanese friends, family and co-workers. I posed the question: What makes onigiri especially Japanese?

Everyone had an opinion, with most answers embedded in nostalgia. They remembered school field trips when mom had packed simple salted onigiri within their boxed lunches. Another shared the story of summiting Mount Fuji, and the well-deserved mountain top treat our uncle prepared the night before. There were those who reminisced on the time separated from their families while on business or at school and the comfort they felt biting into a store bought onigiri being so far away from home.

The irony was that it did not matter if the onigiri was good or bad. When asked, all of my respondents seemed rather unimpressed with the onigiri they recounted. My cousin who shared her story of eating a rice ball atop Fujisan said that the onigiri was mediocre at best, “The nori wasn’t kept separate so it was soggy, and the rice was a bit dry.” But her fondness for the memory will always be associated to that rice ball.

I understood this sentiment, often associating events, people and places with food. My delight in expressly refrigerated German chocolate cake is ever connected to my sixteenth birthday. I often reminisce about barefooted Swedish summers when eating strawberries. And then, there’s my association with onigiri.

When I think of the rice ball, I remember picnics with my family, the lack of extravagance and the simplicity of sharing onigiris prepared by my mother. The rice ball is profoundly Japanese in its design and consumption. All of the people I spoke with remembered events, because that event involved onigiri. In the rice ball’s singularity, it is a transcendental food. Everyone can relate to the humble onigiri and in turn, to each other.

Sentimental Rice


Photo by sparklig

Onigiri holds this nostalgic place in the hearts of most Japanese I know. No matter their story or association, the rice ball always signifies that moment of pause, an absolute moment of self-reflection. This was the key to unlocking their nostalgia; that no matter what one was doing, be it in good company or alone, in joy or in sorrow, the onigiri transported their minds to tranquility.

“Yeah, it’s just a ball of rice, but…” my friend Yo-yo would say with a sidelong glance, “Rice is life.” She reflected on her own grandmother’s wartime struggle to source enough grains in a week to make a single rice ball. “That was a real treat. You should see her face when she tells it, my grandma’s delight in such simplicity. I cannot imagine sharing onigiri, let alone splitting it four ways.” Yo-yo smiled serenely from some far-off place.

I understood her. The nostalgia enraptures us as we stand before the hum of an open cooler. The distant memory of sweeping up grains of rice to this moment’s no want for lack of choice grants us pause. A battalion of perfect pre-made triangles are stocked and color-coded in every variety imaginable. We do not purchase any, but take comfort in knowing they are there.


*Hinomaru – Flag of Japan AKA “Circle of the Sun”

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