Tofugu» History A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 Aug 2014 22:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Surviving Karaoke When You Hate It Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:00:30 +0000 I hate karaoke. I don’t mean “hate” like someone says they “hate” tuna after biting into a mystery sandwich and being unhappy with the taste. I mean hate like gagging on that bite of sandwich and then setting fire to it. It’s not a problem with the public performance aspect (which I don’t enjoy, but as a teacher and constant foreigner, I’ve adjusted). I just don’t like to sing. I don’t sing in the shower, in the car, or when I’m alone, unless I’m planning something (more on that later). Heck, I often don’t like it when other people sing, partially because people often don’t realize how tone deaf they are until they sing without a pro acting as their back-up. I know I’m awful, and I have no desire to improve, since I feel singing wouldn’t add anything to my life.

However, karaoke is important to modern Japanese society. You can go to a bar but not drink alcohol in Japan, and that’s okay. Can’t eat a lot of the food at an event because of dietary restrictions? It’s awkward and burdensome, but people will understand and try to make the best of the situation. But refusing to sing? That’s not okay. Japanese people don’t let each other off the hook either. I’ve seen some sincere rejections, not-so-joking dragging of co-workers, and supreme embarrassment of failed karaoke attempts in front of their peers. My first night of karaoke, I never said no, but I attempted the serious, indirect ways of politely declining that usually work for me in every other aspect of Japanese life (and I rarely use those). My protests were flat out rejected, songs were chosen for me or I was pressed to make a decision, and a mic was forced into my hand. Even when the depth of my ineptitude was revealed, I was forced to repeat the task throughout the night.


Of course, as a foreigner, you can probably get away with using your gaijin card as with so many other situations, but don’t do it. As someone who still considers the practice to be a form of cruel an unusual punishment, I’ve recognized quickly that rejecting karaoke is a great way to find yourself alone on weekends. While I wouldn’t say I even do karaoke on a monthly basis, when it happens, there may be weeks where I’m invited to karaoke bars by multiple groups. Like a plague, it comes out of nowhere and spreads rapidly before burning out. While you can sit alone in your “mansion” in quarantine, do you really want to be the only survivor of a non-deadly disease that is somehow able to bring people together? I know I don’t. So for those of you who also hate karaoke but still want to bond with your Japanese friends and co-workers, I present you with this guide, complete with a bit of background information that may help you arm yourself against upcoming outbreaks.

Singing in Japan


Photo by gullevek

I’m not sure how true it is, but it makes sense to me that Alexander Prasol, in his 2010 book Modern Japan: Origins of the Mind: Japanese Mentality and Tradition in Contemporary Life, called Japanese songs “democratic”. Supposedly, they tend to stay away from the soprano and bass ranges, residing in the middle where most people usually sing. This does seem to ring true for the most part since I hear less sour notes when Japanese people sing, especially when they do karaoke to Japanese songs. However it might have more to do with their educational upbringing.

Having witnessed music practice in several schools, I must admit that students are given more instruction for singing than I recall receiving when I sang in a church choir. Japanese school music class was treated with the respect you would expect from any other scholastic field of study when learning from a teacher at school. That is, it wasn’t made to be “fun”. It was a serious endeavor with consequences (mostly in the form of longer performances, a tactic I sincerely wish I was allowed to use while teaching English). Singing is certainly seen as fun to some students, but teachers give feedback and address the class as teachers. My own musical training in school lacked the sort of vigor I’ve witnessed out here and, like my students, I was also expected to perform in front of a crowd. Not all students can exactly read music, but it seems it’s taught in a large enough capacity that my inability to read it was a bit surprising to some Japanese co-workers when they have handed me some sheet music, both for entertainment and school functions.

I’m not going to say Japanese people are musical, but I will say that they utilize music aggressively. For example, instead of having mascots, every Japanese school has their own school anthem. I’m sure some American schools have anthems as well, but I don’t personally recall hearing any. And knowing the school anthem is of utmost importance. The music lessons I’ve sat in on that I described above? Those were mostly for the school anthem. Buddha bless the first year kids, because they really have to practice learning their new anthem quickly! They will sometimes have an extra class for anthem practice, or a music teacher may ask other teachers to cancel classes (or maybe just my classes) so they can get extra practice in.

It’s not just in the schools though. We’re all aware of advertising jingles for big stores, but even small shops have jingles. I thought at first that it was like in the states, but when I’ve asked if a certain store with a jingle was famous or popular, people have told me, “No, they just paid someone to make their song.” Grocery stores, malls, locksmiths. I think the only shops I’ve noticed that don’t consistently have a song playing in the background while I visit them are restaurants, like ramen shops.

While American states have songs, the one I lived in never made use of it, and apparently other people I’ve met felt the same about their home states. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of my state’s song until we had a project in grade school where we had to research various states. Japan’s prefectures, though, are hardcore. They have anthems, and you will learn about them fast. They’re played at city hall, on advertisements, at some events, and yeah, sometimes they’re sung at school.There’s a youtube list with several prefectural anthems, but it’s incomplete, though you can always search for another prefecture’s anthem.

And if you think karaoke is the only example of recreational singing in Japan, think again. Songs are used in classes as “fun” activities, more so than I recall experiencing (probably for the best). I just had a very academic school hold a chorus contest between their various classes. This is the second best school in my prefecture and they took their contest quite seriously, practicing after school instead of doing club activities, sacrificing weekends, and then performing– enthusiastically, for no real prize– at the capital city’s cultural center. These kids, who rarely say “hi” to me when I walk to school with them, became super friendly and suddenly remembered my name.

And it’s not just the kids. I went to private party at a bar and one teacher brought a kind of “game”. This wasn’t a karaoke place, but she had sheet music and divided us into groups. It was a “singing game” where people have different parts and sing at different times. I’ve read about this in Victorian Europe where people were bored and didn’t have other things to do, and my choir did this “for fun” sometimes, but I’ve never had the (dis)pleasure of performing one of these songs in a semi-public space with people I barely knew. Again, my inability to read sheet music confounded my hosts, and my foreigner status did not allow me to get off the hook. The song, in fact, made heavy use of loanwords, so I was fully expected to participate.

If it’s not clear by now, song is serious business out here.

The Start of Karaoke


So, how did karaoke get its start here? It’s truthfully a bit of a mystery. While Wikipedia points to Filipino entertainers, the connection seems thin. Singing with a tape player is different, and having the first patent on a karaoke machine only makes Robert del Rosario a smart businessman. By most accounts, Daisuke Inoue was the first able to prove he created karaoke machines

A musician in his own right, Inuoe was asked to accompany a client on a trip as the musical entertainment. However, due to his work schedule, Inoue simply sent a recording of himself alone with the client and collected the money as a “house musician”. The term karaoke (coming from 空/kara meaning “empty,” and オケ/oke clipped from the loan word for orchestra, オーケストラ) at the time was used for “house musicians,” which explains how it could also fit the torture practice we’re discussing today. At any rate, Inoue, thinking there might be a market for such a device, made a special tape player that played music (for some money, of course), and leased out his machines while providing tapes of popular music for people to sing along to. While del Rosario beat him to the patent, Inoue had enough of a history for us to remember his contribution.

Survival Preparation (Use Your Head!)


Now, the first part of surviving karaoke is planning for it. Like floods or fires, it can strike at any time, though usually assume it’ll come during a party season, such as the end of the year. Not all Japanese people know the history of karaoke, so memorizing the above history might help you buy a little time if you need to stall. It won’t save you though.

First, I’d suggest looking up some classic rock and pop songs and practice them secretly. “Rock and Roll All Night” by KISS, pretty much anything from the Beatles or Michael Jackson, heck, I’ve even seen Metallica songs from the Black Album and Load on some machines! Get familiar with some oldies and try to pick something short and in your vocal range. Johnny Cash would normally be my first pick since I talk more than sing (but without any rhythm). However I’ve sadly learned that not a lot of machines have his songs, and when they do, they’re not ones I usually hear. Jackson and The Beatles will always be available though.

You can also pick pop songs that have been out for maybe 6 months to maybe a year or two. People will not only want to hear you sing these, but will offer to sing them with you. Do it, because at the very least, Japanese people tend to know the melody and will just be happy that you can pronounce things right. There are some issues with this though, since the songs might be more risqué. I had a co-worker who may or may not have understood the meaning of “Bad Romance,” but my male co-worker certainly did, and when I was made to sing Lady Gaga’s part… anyone who knows the lyrics can see why a man singing that part may feel a bit uncomfortable.

As I said, I hate singing, but once in awhile, take one of your practice songs for a spin. Practice once with the song and at least once without. If there’s one thing my music teachers taught me, it was that you are singing worse than you think you are when you sing along with someone else. If you learn you can’t hit certain notes, don’t use that song. If you like karaoke, that’s not a problem, but this guide’s for my fellow haters. Avoid anything that will reveal your dog-like tones.

When picking out songs, I’d also advise you to look for songs with multiple parts, simple choruses (for Japanese), or different singers. You can ask someone to sing with you and give them a part. Most oldies work well for this, so as much as I’d like to do Enter Sandman, I know I’d have to do that all on my own.

Unless your kanji skills are really good or you’ve memorized it, don’t go for a Japanese song! While there is often furigana above the kanji, this isn’t always the case, and can turn that one song you liked as the end theme from Gundam into four and a half minutes of hell. You may impress some people, and that will count for something, but it will most likely get you targeted for more Japanese songs. Good for Japanese practice, but the other side of the coin is that, with some Japanese people, knowing the language makes you less interesting. You won’t get off the hook for singing, but most people want to hear you speak a different language. Being a foreigner and speaking/singing in Japanese is like being magician that’s giving a speech about the evolution of whales. Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s unexpected and maybe even boring to some people. I’d prefer to be less known as people’s personal go-to-gaijin, so I’m fine with that, but if you like your foreigner status and the attention it brings, I’d avoid singing Japanese songs.

Finally, before any outing that may result in karaoke, look up the katakana spelling of your arsenal before hand, and try to memorize it. Especially where I live, I can’t find always find Michael Jackson, but I can find マイケル・ジャクソン. Songs are often in English, but you might not always find your song, so you may need to search for a new one.

Survival Execution (Don’t Lose Your Head!)


Photo by syvwlch

So, now you’re at the bar. Somehow, it came down to karaoke. I’m sorry, there’s nothing that can be done. But you’ve prepared for this. Now for some finishing touches.

First, if it’s not too late, don’t get too drunk. I hate karaoke primarily because every karaoke incident I’ve witnessed in the states was terrible and involved drunk people getting “too much” courage and singing something deeply personal and ending up not only proving they are tone deaf, but pouring out bodily fluids from one of many orifices they normally have better control over (only the eyes, if we’re lucky).

Next, act happy. Force it if you have to. I’ve seen natives do this and it probably saves them.This is my biggest weakness but, at the very least if I seem mildly amused, the night goes over well enough. People will see you’re trying your best and will be far more willing to help make things go smoothly for you.

It should go without saying, but compliment everyone else’s singing. As I mentioned, the music teachers here seriously teach music, so I feel the average Japanese person is better equipped for karaoke. It’s also a good way to tackle the “act happy” tactic.

Whenever possible, piggy back off of other people’s songs! It’ll count as your turn. Just say (in English or Japanese), “Should we sing this together?” to any song you might decently know. The other bonus is that it’ll make trying to find the katakana version of your song name a million times easier since someone else probably knows. Also, as I said, whenever you’re singing with someone better than you, you don’t realize how much you suck at singing. Silently thank your friends’ music teachers and do your best to sing loud enough that people know you’re trying, but soft enough to let the pro shine.

Last but not least, in a small karaoke place that doesn’t have private booths, sit by the exit and drink a lot (of water) so you have to go to the bathroom a lot. The less you’re around, the less you’ll be noticed when the good karaoke people are doing their thing. Aim for your “escape” when someone not very good is singing. Everyone will try to help that person (I’ve seen it with others and myself), and often a skilled person will offer to go next to help people’s ears recover. That’s your queue to worship the porcelain god and hope for a short night.

The Rewards for Your Torture


Photo by Derek Gavey

At the end of it all, what does a night of karaoke-induced torture get you? Sadly, invitations to more karaoke. It’s not all bad though. It’s mostly a bonding experience. If you’re clear that you don’t like singing, but do it anyway, you show you’re willingness to be a team player, which is really important out here. You’ll also see what kind of music your co-workers like, who’s in what clique, and naturally learn some juicy gossip as people drink more. I’ve gotten a bit closer to some of the office staff at my school, so that’s been incredibly useful. Teachers later hear from other teachers that I’m willing to do karaoke and, since then, at least one teacher has been super friendly since he found out. I’d honestly prefer to bond over some Marvel vs. Capcom, but I suppose karaoke works well enough.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Bridge Across Time Mon, 18 Aug 2014 16:00:55 +0000 Nagasaki’s Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge) got its name from the way the reflection of its double arches in the river combine with the bridge itself to look like a pair of glasses. In addition to its historical significance as Japan’s first arched stone bridge, it has a personal connection for me. When I studied in Japan, I was not the only Adam in my program, so my bespectacled mug garnered me the nickname “Megane”.


Photo by luckyno3

From the ancient to the modern, Japan has some great bridges. Some of them can provide insight into Japan’s history and culture or reflect archetypes that span cultures. Most often, of course, a bridge symbolizes a connection or transition. So let’s traverse the bridge of time together and see what we can see.

A Bridge Across Worlds


For our first bridge we’ll have to go back, waaaay back, to the beginning. I suppose technically this bridge isn’t even Japanese because, in stories, it existed before Japan did. I’m referring to the floating bridge of heaven (ame no ukihashi). It was from there that the god and goddess, Izanagi and Izanami, stood looking down upon the vast ocean that covered the world. They dipped a jeweled spear into the water, and used it to churn the sea. When they withdrew the spear, the drops of water that fell formed the first land, Onogoroshima. The divine couple then descended from the heavenly bridge to carry on creating.

The floating bridge of heaven can be seen as an example of an axis mundi, a mythological archetype found in many cultures. An axis mundi is what culture sees as the center of the world and/or the connection between heaven and Earth. It’s also often the point of original creation. Examples with which you might be more familiar include Mount Olympus for the Greeks or the tree Yggdrasill for the Norse. The Norse also had Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, which connected Earth and Asgard, the home of the gods. It’s easy to see how many people around the globe have taken the real practical function of bridges and made them symbols of connection between spiritual realms.



Let’s move on to Kyoto’s Gojo Bridge. At some point in the late twelfth century, the warrior monk Benkei decided to park himself on this bridge and let no warrior cross it. He took the weapon from each fallen swordsman that challenged him, and amassed quite the collection, 999 swords to be exact. That thousandth sword proved difficult to acquire, for Benkei finally met his match in a young Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

When Yoshitsune approached the bridge one moonlit night, a legendary fight ensued. The agile Yoshitsune proved too much for Benkei’s strength. Afterwards, Benkei became Yoshitsune’s most loyal retainer. They went on to achieve great victories together during the Genpei War. However, after the war, Yoshitsune’s older brother became convinced that Yoshitsune would betray him, and thus ordered his death. Yoshitsune and Benkei were on the run together for years and, while they were historical figures, there are many tall tales of their adventures. Eventually, Benkei was killed while buying Yoshitsune time to commit seppuku.

In this story the bridge is more of a meeting place than anything, but it could also be viewed as transition from enmity to friendship. The most obvious comparison here is to Robin Hood and Little John. A big, strong guy guarding a bridge is defeated by a smaller, clever guy, and the two become fast friends who together elude the law. One could also draw comparisons between Benkei’s sword collecting to the similar habit of a certain knight of English legend. King Pellinore (aka the Sable Knight) guarded a bridge and hung the shields of his many defeated enemies in a nearby apple tree until he was eventually defeated by a young King Arthur.

The Floating Bridge of Dreams


Our next bridge is not one that can be found on any map. The floating bridge of dreams (yume no ukihashi) can only be found during a night’s slumber. Well, that or a good book. It crops up from time to time in some literature of the Heian and Kamakura periods. Yume no ukihashi was the title of the final chapter of The Tale of Genji. Unlike the other chapter titles in the book, yume no ukihashi was not drawn from the text of the chapter.

This bridge also appeared in a poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) in the Shin kokin wakashu. Fujiwara no Teika was a great scholar and poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura periods. He was also one of six compilers of the Shin kokin wakashu, a collection of poetry, commissioned by his patron, the retired emperor Go-Toba. Here is the poem by Teika:

春の夜の haru no yo A spring night
夢の浮き橋 yume no ukihashi the floating bridge of dreams
とだえして todae shite comes to an end
峰に別るる mine ni wakaruru parting from the peak
横雲の空 yokogumo no sora a sky of cloud banks

Like dreams and poetry, the yume no ukihashi is open to interpretation. Generally, it seems to be another example we can add to the list of Japanese symbols of ephemerality, along with cherry blossoms. Of course symbols of ephemerality are intertwined with ideas of transition, whether they be between dreams and wakefulness or life and death.

The Bridge of Japan


The Floating Bridge of Heaven may have been Japan’s original axis mundi, but at the dawn of the Edo period a new bridge was completed that would come to fill that role in many respects. I speak of the Nihon-bashi (Japan Bridge). With a name like that you know it must be important. The original wooden bridge was finished in 1603, in Edo (modern Tokyo).

The Nihon-bashi marked the eastern end of the Tokaido and Nakasendo roads that connected the old capital, Kyoto, to the new, Edo. Even today, highway signs displaying the distance to Tokyo are actually showing the distance to the Nihon-bashi.


The Nihon-bashi district that built up around its namesake was, from the beginning, a center of activities for merchants. The precursor to today’s Tsukiji fish market was there, and so was the ancestor of Mitsukoshi. In 1673, a kimono shop called Echigoya was founded which one day would become this international chain of department stores.

A Bridge Too Far


Now we must turn to a more somber chapter of history. Hiroshima’s Aioi Bridge was built in 1932. It sat in a fork of the Ota River, its T-shape connecting it to both sides as well as the island that split the river. Unfortunately its unique shape made it easily recognizable from the air, a quality that led it to its choosing as the target for the atomic bomb in 1945.

Ultimately a little off target, the bomb exploded over the nearby Shima Hospital. The bridge was seriously damaged, but survived. It was repaired after the war and remained in use until it was replaced by a replica in 1983. You can still see a piece of the original bridge in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Aioi Bridge can be seen as symbolic of the violent transition from imperial to post-war Japan.

Bridging Regions


Photo by takahito

The islands of Honshu and Hokkaido are connected by tunnel and, although there is a bridge connecting Honshu and Kyushu, it was long preceded by a tunnel. However, when it came to linking Honshu and Shikoku, not just one, but seventeen bridges were built. There are three routes, all seen below.


The first route to be completed was the central one, the Seto-Chuō Expressway, finished in 1988. It consists of six bridges. The eastern route was finished in 1998. It consists of two bridges, including the Akashi- Kaikyō Bridge. At 1,991 meters (6,532 feet) it is the world’s longest suspension bridge. It also has several beautiful illumination options. In 1999, the western route was the last to be finished, and is made up of a whopping nine bridges.

Prior to the construction of these bridges ferries were the only option for traveling between Shikoku and Honshu. Japan has always been a country divided by seas and mountains, isolating small regions. Over time technology has allowed Japan to become more unified, and bridges have been a major part of that. It has been both a blessing and a curse. As Japan became smaller and more opportunities became available, regional dialects and culture were diminished.

Crossing the Next Bridge


Photo by jun560

We’ve come to the end of our bridge across history, but surely there will be many more bridges to come. Whether they span a river, a sea, life and death, or heaven and Earth, bridges will always serve as a great way to get from here to there.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Peace and Japan Part 1: How Japan Got Militarized. Again. Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:00:37 +0000 Some of you who have an interest in Japanese current affairs may know about what the current Liberal Democratic Party has put in place regarding Japan’s armed forces, which allows the right for a collective self defense (more on that later). These have attracted controversy from both within and outside of Japan. There have been large protests and even one person set himself on fire in Shinjuku to show his resolve against the changes. Worldwide media has also picked this up, with some people describing Prime Minister Abe’s “nationalism” (which I find accurate) and Japan’s “militarization” (which I don’t find accurate).

In short, I feel as though Japan is heading in a nationalist direction. But, it must be laid clear what this change means and what it does not. This idea of “militarization” also strikes me as very strange because it makes it sound as if Japan is Costa Rica without a professional army, which it already has. This article is going to try to explain the whole history, background and development of Japan’s military – and clarify some things about the current changes (or mess depending on your point of view) in Japan.

The Constitution


Original Copy of the Constitution of Japan with original signatories
Image from the National Archives of Japan

Firstly, all of the problems and controversies regarding the armed forces in Japan need to be taken in light of Article 9 of the Japanese postwar constitution (established 1947) – which states:

“ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Nationalist groups say that the constitution is fundamentally not valid given how the constitution was “forced” on the Japanese people by the occupying/American forces but that’s an entirely different debate and mess. As you can see from the above, there is a problem with ambiguity.

Does the constitution prohibit all forms of armed forces and “war potential”? Or does it prohibit “war potential” only when it is used “as a means of settling international disputes”? And if so, where does one draw the lines between what conforms with such a condition and what does not?

These are ambiguities which have surfaced and resurfaced every time there’s a debate about the military in Japan. But the fact is that from the defeat of Japan things have changed massively. Aside from the legal debate which is perfectly open to interpretation, one has to look at how it has been interpreted and how that interpretation has changed.

History Timeline

I’ll make things easy and do a timeline-ish thing detailing the major events concerning the history of Japan.

1947 – Post-war (Showa) Constitution Adapted

  • At this point Japan has no army and the constitution is interpreted as prohibiting one.

1950 – Start of Korean War


Transport ship leaves Yokohama for America, carrying the first Korean War dead
Image originally taken by C.K. Rose and can be accessed here.

  • Japan and the US start to get jittery on how Japan is virtually defenseless. Not only are there allied forces in Korea, but there was also the possibility of a communist victory on the Korean peninsula.
  • Creation of the lightly armed National Police Reserve.

1954 – Promulgation of the Law of the Self Defense Forces

  • National Police Reserve reorganized into the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) with the Land Self-Defense Forces, Naval Self-Defense Forces and Air Self-Defense Forces clearly demarcated.
  • Interpretation of Constitution: That self-defense actions and having a minimum force for this are legal but that, for example, the “right to join a war (交戦権) involving attacking an enemy is not”.

1959 – Sunakawa Incident

  • Tokyo regional court rules that American forces on Japanese soil was illegal.
  • Supreme Court of Japan overturns the decision saying that the 9th article of the constitution is applicable to Japanese forces but not to foreign (American) forces in Japan which have offensive capabilities.

1960 – Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan


Anti-US-Japan Security Treaty Protesters in 1960
Photo in commons here

  • Basically, an amending of a treaty first signed in 1952. Both parties agree to help each other however Japan is not allowed to send forces to the US in the case of an attack due to article 9.
  • Also allowed the US to place bases in Japan.
  • Massive student and left-wing protests with more than 100 thousand surrounding parliament.
  • Cabinet resigns to “take responsibility” but the treaty goes through.

1960s-1980s - The above set the tone for the next few decades as Japan and the Japanese government avoids contentious military issues and focuses on the economy. Some points to take note on:

  • Japan has kept, with few exceptions, a cap on military spending at 1% of GDP per year.
  • The principle adopted is the pretty much holding the minimum amount of power and using it at the lowest possible level to ensure Japan’s defense – It has also created and followed its set of “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” – Not making any, not having any, and not importing any. (American troops on Japanese soil are a different issue)
  • As WWII draws even further away, the JSDF become more and more accepted.

1992 – Peacekeeping Operation Cooperation Law passed


Ground JSDF in Indonesia, 2006
Image by Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces

  • Law passed allowing the dispatch of the JSDF to peacekeeping / humanitarian operations after increasing questions about Japan’s contribution to the international community – JSDF dispatched to Cambodia in same year.
  • Marks a clear departure from the only-in-Japan policy of the JSDF.

2001 – Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan

  • Naval JSDF dispatched to Indian Ocean to assist supply operations – the first deployment of the JSDF at a time of war (even though it was not directly involved in it).

2014 – Further change of Interpretation of Constitution

  • Abe Cabinet changes interpretation to such that a “collective self defense” is allowed (explained later).

What Can We Say From This

A few clear and obvious patterns can be seen here:

1) In the beginning there were legal challenges regarding the very existence of the armed forces and the military was viewed extremely suspiciously by the public.

2) As time went on the status quo became more and more accepted. Firstly because memories of the war were dimming, but also perhaps because the JSDF was helping society through disaster relief, etc.

3) Legally, the boundaries of what the JSDF can do has been widened gradually, culminating in the current controversy.

What does the current change mean?

So what does this “collective self defense” mean then?

Video on the protests against the changes to the interpretation

Before the current change, Japan considered coming to the aid of an ally an act which Japan had the right to do, but which would exceed the definition of “minimal use of force necessary for Japan’s defense”. In a more concrete fashion, if Japan were to be attacked by X country, America would have every right (and obligation) to come to Japan’s aid militarily. However, if America were to be attacked by X country, Japan would not be able to intervene militarily to aid America because that would be using Japan’s military force in an excessive way and not for the benefit of Japan’s defense.

The Abe cabinet has changed this interpretation to say that yes, it is within the “minimal use of force necessary for Japan’s defense” to send military forces in aid to an ally which has been attacked. In explanation, this is what the prime minister said in Parliament: (my translation)

“A condition for the use of the right to collective defense is that Japan, or a close ally of Japan, is attacked militarily. Furthermore, this must pose a danger to the Japanese people. The right to collective defense is a last resort, and shall be used with the minimum amount of force necessary [...] The right to collective defense is, in the end, a means to protect the Japanese people and thus, it cannot be used to protect the citizenry of other countries even if our countries have close relations. Furthermore, we maintain our stance of exclusive defense (senshu boei) – pre-emptive strikes are not permitted.”

So if we are to believe his word (whether he is believable or not depends on the person) there are these criteria (which are certainly subjective and up to interpretation) which must be fulfilled before the right can be used.

So what does it not mean then?


Ministry of Defense, Japan

What it does not mean, however, is that Japan would be able to attack a sovereign country by itself or launch an attack on another country in the name of self defense. Nor does it mean that Japan will be able to join another country in a preemptive strike, nor an invasion or another country. Supply support assisting other countries (as can be seen in the case of Afghanistan in 2001) seems to be perfectly fine though. But it does not mean a “rearming” of Japan because there haven’t been any clear reports of an increase in military spending – the limit of 1.0% of GDP seems to have been kept steady, so far.

Article 9 of the constitution still remains in effect and has not been repealed, even though the current prime minister would probably have done so if he could. Unfortunately for him, a change in the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both the lower house of parliament (which he has), the upper house of parliament (which he does not), and a national referendum. And according to surveys, the public is both opposed to the current move toward allowing the right to collective defense, and certainly even more to the revision of article 9 as a whole.

So until that is changed, Japan’s military policy is legally restricted by the constitution even though, as we can see, that is liable to reinterpretation.

Regarding the next part

There are lots of things which this article hasn’t covered – the stuff I’ve covered here are pretty much more of the logistics and the history behind the JSDF. There is much more to the subject, but I’ll be continuing that in another article (coming out next week). This one will look directly at the JSDF, what the public thinks about it, and whether or not Japan really is “militarizing” or not.

Stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Ryukyu King And His Fantastic 1-Year-Long Parade Wed, 13 Aug 2014 16:00:32 +0000 Everyone loves a parade. If you’ve spent time in Japan maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see a festival parade, but today I want to talk about a different sort of parade. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate instituted a system of alternate attendance (sankin kotai), whereby the lords of Japan’s various domains were required to spend alternate years in their home domain and in the capital, Edo.

Sankin Kotai


This system of alternate attendance was designed as a way for the shogunate to control the various daimyo (lords). Spending half of one’s time in Edo made it harder to plot against the shogun. As further assurance, a lord’s wife and heir were required to remain in Edo.

There was also a more subtle, but very effective form of control at play in the alternate attendance system. Lords had to maintain a residence in Edo. Also, a lord had to travel back and forth from Edo every year, but he had to do so in a style befitting his station. This meant very lavish and expensive processions of hundreds of retainers and servants. Lords whose domains were far from Edo had to make stops along the way, paying for food and lodging for their retinue. All the expense incurred by these processions made it much more difficult for a daimyo to raise enough troops to threaten the shogunate.

The processions in general were quite interesting, but today we’re going to focus on one domain’s in particular. Satsuma domain, in southern Kyushu, basically corresponded to today’s Kagoshima Prefecture and their processions had something unique. In 1609, Satsuma conquered the Ryukyu Kingdom (today’s Okinawa Prefecture), a country with its own culture, language, and history. They left the Ryukyuan monarchy in place, but forced them to pay tribute to Satsuma. Sometimes, they also took part in Satsuma’s processions to Edo.

The Route


The processions to Edo (Edo nobori) fell into two categories: those to show respect for a new shogun (keiga-shi), and those sent upon the succession of a new Ryukyuan king (shaon-shi). There were seventeen such processions from 1644 to 1850. The round trip took roughly a year. They left Ryukyu for Satsuma where they joined with the Shimazu procession and continued to Osaka via the Sedo Inland Sea, then along the Yodogawa to Fushimi, where they proceeded on foot along the Tōkaidō to Edo.

The first three processions went all the way to Nikko to pay tribute to the shogunate’s deified founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but thereafter did so at a branch shrine in Edo. Having a foreign kingdom pay tribute to the shogunate in this way, not only in subservience, but at times almost like religious pilgrims, added to the Tokugawas’ image within Japan, if not abroad.


Photo by Kentaro Ohno

The processions may have enhanced the prestige of the shogunate, but they were of great political usage to the Shimazu clan as well. Satsuma was the only domain in Japan to rule over a foreign country, and the processions were an excellent way of reminding the shogunate and anyone else of this. On occasion the Shimazu were able to use their relationship with Ryukyu as leverage with the shogunate. In 1710 Shimazu Yoshitaka used it to convince the shogunate to promote his court rank. He argued that Ryukyu was second only to Korea in the Chinese tributary system, and as such he needed to be raised to a rank suitable for dealing with the Ryukyuan king.

Again, during the Tenpō era (1830-1844) the Shimazu daimyo was promoted after making the following argument: “as for maintaining control over Ryukyu, although it is indeed a small country, because it has diplomatic relationship with Qing, it places great value on matters such as court rank. . . . [Low court rank would] raise doubts and lead to numerous obstacles (samatage) in governing [Ryukyu].”

The Crowds


The Shimazu tried to enhance the prestige of the Ryukyuans by giving fancier titles to the king and procession envoys in 1712. In 1726 they began to have all Ryukyuans participating in the processions wear Chinese-style robes, whereas only the highest officials had done so before. The music played during processions was called rujigaku 路次楽, and was heavily influenced by classical Chinese music. This sort of exoticism only added to the attraction of the processions, which were observed along their route by many Japanese of all classes. The procession of 1832 attracted particularly large audiences :

The Ryukyuan tribute mission [raichō 来朝]. . . arrived at the [Osaka] mansion and warehouses of Satsuma on the twentieth. . . . On both sides [of the river] great numbers of spectators, both male and female, flocked to see, and even floated boats out into the middle of the river [for a better view], clogging the channel. . . . On the twenty-fourth, when they went upriver by boat from the [Satsuma] mansion to Fushimi, it was just the same. It is said that the spectators were lined up along the river all the way to Fushimi. And what is more, at Fushimi and at Daigo, Imperial Princes, [members of] the Regent’s House, and the senior courtiers were pleased to appear [and watch]. It is even said that the Lord Sentō [the Retired Emperor Kōkaku] secretly made a royal progress [to watch].


It was no different as the procession made its way to Edo, where Matsuura Seizan, the daimyo of Hirado rented a house with a good view near the Satsuma mansion for the day to watch the sight, which he stated attracted numbers “surely neither greater nor fewer than for the regular Sannō and Kanda festivals,” the two largest regular public events in the city. Seizan recorded the experience as follows:

There was no one in any of the shops; they simply left their goods [untended]. . . . Along the route were male and female, young and old, both commoners and samurai. The lines of people were endless, and never gave out, all the way to Ueno. . . . The people were as blades of grass on a mountainside in spring; so many heads they were as grains of sand on a beach. . . . It was as if the dykes had burst and the water had begun to gush forth from the breach.

They were not the only ones watching. Also among the crowd was the popular author, Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848). Years earlier, in 1811 he wrote the novel Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki, the latter half of which was set in Ryukyu. It told the tale of Minamoto Tametomo, a warrior defeated in the Hōgen Disturbance (1156) who fled, eventually making his way to Ryukyu, where he married a princess, brought order to the fighting lords, and fathered Shunten, the first Ryukyuan king.


The book was illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who also produced a short series of prints, “Eight Views of Ryukyu.” Bakin was not the first to present the theory of Tametomo as the progenitor of the Ryukyuan monarchy. The first known version of this story was written by a Japanese monk named Taichu shortly after Satsuma’s invasion in 1609. In 1650 it became a part of the Ryukyuan prime minister Shō Shōken’s history of the kingdom, Chūzan seikan. It may seem that Bakin and Hokusai were downplaying the differences between the Japanese and Ryukyuans, and there is an element of that. Still, Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki included many stories that may have been made intentionally strange. Neither man had ever been to Ryukyu, their only exposure to Ryukyu through the processions and books, so there was a strong element of the exotic.









In an era where very few Japanese people had ever been to Ryukyu, or seen a Ryukyuan person, it’s easy to see how the processions and the art inspired by them would have shaped their perceptions. They generally painted a picture of a people that may have some connection to Japan, but were still exotic and outsiders. These perceptions would echo through time, affecting modern relations between Okinawa and the rest of Japan.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Asato, Susumu, et. al., Okinawa-ken no Rekishi. (Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 2004).
  • Kamiya, Nobuyuki. “Edo-nobori.” Shin Ryūkyūshi, kinsei hen, Vol. 2, pp 11-36. (Naha: Ryūkyū Shinpōsha, 1989).
  • Kerr, George H.. Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (Rutland: Tuttle, 1958)
  • Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 1999).
  • Ronald P. Toby. “Carnival of the Aliens. Korean Embassies in Edo-Period Art and Popular Culture.” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1986).
  • “Koten Ongaku.” Okinawa daihyakka jiten. Vol. 2. Edited by Okinawa daihyakka jiten kankō jimukyoku. (Naha: Okinawa taimususha, 1983)
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The Social History of Ramen Mon, 11 Aug 2014 16:00:52 +0000 When I say Japanese food, the first thing you think of is probably sushi. And the second thing? These days, it’s likely to be ramen. Everyone’s familiar with the ubiquitous instant kind, and the real thing – stock simmered for hours, hand-made noodles, regional variations – is catching on in the US and becoming a foodie obsession. But ramen hasn’t always been so central to Japanese cuisine, as I found when I read a fascinating recent book.

The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, by George Solt, is written by a serious academic historian (who confesses to preferring soba, despite having clearly spent a crazy amount of time thinking about ramen) and published by an academic press. What’s a college professor doing writing about noodles? Well, it turns out that the story of ramen is a tale of Japanese history and culture in ways I could never have imagined. Let me take you on a tour of some of the highlights, and perhaps you’ll be tempted to delve into the entire book as well.

The Birth Of Ramen


Ramen is complicated, and its history is messy.

Although ramen is now an iconic Japanese dish, it’s actually an immigrant, and the names originally used for it made that perfectly clear. Chūka soba and Shina soba both basically mean “Chinese noodles” but have very different connotations. Chūka soba became the most-used term after World War II and is having something of a revival. It replaced shina soba as the political connotations of “shina” became controversial, since it was the word used for China when Japan was an imperialist power in Asia. But there’s no dish in China that closely resembles today’s Japanese ramen, so the story is much more complicated than a simple borrowing.

Solt presents three main origin myths about ramen, and what he calls “The first and most imaginative” comes from a book published in 1987. It credits a legendary feudal lord, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, as the first to eat ramen in the 1660s. This is based on a historical record of a Chinese refugee giving him advice on what to add to his udon soup to make it tastier, including garlic, green onions, and ginger.


Photo by James Callan

It’s unclear, to say the least, how much the modified udon soup resembled modern ramen, and in any case there’s no direct historical connection – no one can argue that that soup gradually developed into the dish eaten today. However, the Ramen Museum of Yokohama popularized this story, and Solt attributes its appeal to the fact that it places the origin of ramen far back in Japanese history at a time when – as we’ll see later – ramen is acquiring its modern symbolism as a quintessentially Japanese food.

The second and more plausible story associates ramen with the opening of Japan to the outside world in the late nineteenth century. Port cities like Yokohama and Kobe attracted Chinese as well as westerners, who brought with them a noodle soup called laa-mien, handmade noodles in a light chicken broth. Japanese called the dish Nankin soba (Nanjing noodles) after the capitol of China. This soup didn’t have toppings and was eaten at the end of the meal instead of being a meal in itself, so again, it’s hardly identical to the ramen of today. But it does seem to have a far more legit claim to being a predecessor: the Yokohama version inspired Tokyo pushcart peddlers who started selling noodle soup in the old Ueno and Asakusa neighborhoods of Tokyo in the early twentieth century.


Photo by Jeff Laitila

The third tale is similar to the second, but attributes the invention to a single person, which always makes a more satisfying story. In 1910, a shop called Rai-Rai Ken opened in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. The owner, Ozaki Kenichi, had been a customs agent in Yokohama, but the soup he served wasn’t the unadorned nineteenth century version: it sounds like it would be familiar to anyone who’s eaten ramen lately:

Rai-Rai Ken incorporated a soy sauce–based seasoning sauce and served its noodle soup, referred to as Shina soba, with chāshū (roasted pork), naruto (fish-meal cake), boiled spinach, and nori (seaweed)—ingredients that together would form the model for authentic Tokyo-style ramen.

The Young Adulthood Of Ramen


Photo by jamesjustin

Solt argues that it wasn’t enough to invent a recipe – the product had to have a customer base, basically, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was the right food at the right time, as Japan was becoming more industrialized and urbanized. Instead of living in rural areas where they grew and prepared their own food, more and more people had jobs in the cities and made money to eat in restaurants. Ramen wasn’t a hand-made artisinal delight in those days – the attraction was largely speed and calories:

When making Shina soba, cooks prepared a pot of soup base and a bowl of flavoring sauce to serve an entire day’s worth of customers, leaving only the boiling of the noodles and reconstituting of the soup to be left for when the orders were placed.

The short amount of time necessary to prepare and consume the noodle soup, and its heartiness compared to Japanese soba (which did not include meat in the broth or as a topping), also fit the dietary needs and lifestyles of urban Japanese workers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ramen was also one of the first industrialized foods – a mechanical noodle-making machine was in general use by the late 1910s. At this point it was definitely still seen as foreign  – it was largely eaten in cafes (kissaten) and Western-style eateries, as well as Chinese restaurants and street stands – and this was a point in its favor. Foreign food was regarded as more healthful and nourishing than traditional Japanese food, a theme that we’ll see recurring later on, because it had more meat, wheat, oils, and fats.

That sounds crazy to us now, but remember that for most of history, people have had to worry less about being fat and more about starving to death. For workers who’d moved to the city from rural areas where they had to scrape as many calories as they could from the earth with their own two hands, the idea no doubt made perfect sense. So this period of ramen’s history is intimately tied up with Japan’s starting to develop into a modern, urbanized, industrial nation, turning away in some senses from its traditional past:

As Japan became industrialized and more urbanized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese restaurants and movie theaters gradually replaced the buckwheat noodle (soba) stands and comical storytelling (rakugo) performances that had previously dominated the cityscape. In this manner, ramen production and consumption became an integral component of modern urban life.

The Dark Days


Photo by Hikosaemon

In the 1940s, the war changed everything. At first ramen essentially disappeared, a victim of rationing and of the idea that this was no time for frivolous luxuries like eating out. Food shortages persisted after the war ended in 1945, and Solt says that the years between between 1944 and 1947 were the worst period of hunger in Japan’s modern history. He quotes a scholar of Japanese food born in 1937 writing of his memories of that period:

From 1944 on, even in the countryside, the athletic grounds of local schools were converted into sweet potato fields. And we ate every part of the sweet potato plant, from the leaf to the tip of the root. We also ate every part of the kabocha we grew, including the seeds and skin. For protein, we ate beetles, beetle larvae, and other insects that we found at the roots of the plants we picked, which we roasted or mashed. Even in the countryside, food was scarce.

After the war ended, thousands of black markets including food stands sprang up, despite being technically illegal (the US occupation authorities continued both food rationing and a ban on outdoor food sellers). Because rice was hard to come by and wheat was being imported from the US, many foods based on wheat were popular – ramen, as well as yakisoba, gyōza, and okonomiyaki. Also heavy with garlic and oil, these were referred to as “stamina” foods, a term still in use today.

The dependence on U.S.-imported wheat flour as a substitute for rice during and after the American occupation set the stage for a couple of changes. One was that a generation grew up eating foods like bread, with the result that these are now a standard part of the Japanese diet. The other is that ramen took on an almost mythic status as the food that nourished people in a time of great hunger and despair.

Solt says that nowadays in retrospect that memory contributes to ramen’s positive image, but at the actual time people felt rather differently. Popular culture such as radio and film used ramen as a symbol of the still-desperate times – an indication that a character can’t afford to eat anything more expensive – and to highlight class differences and the growing generation gap in dining habits, since for older people the association with hearty food for laborers still clung to the dish. Here’s one example from a movie Bangiku (Late chrysanthemums), released in 1954.

One of the four main characters is a single mother who must part with her only daughter, who is soon to be married and move away with her new husband. In one of the central scenes of the film, the daughter decides to treat her mother to a meal before she leaves, taking her to a Chinese eatery. The mother, though appreciative, reminds her daughter that this is the first time the daughter has treated her to a meal. As the two silently eat Chūka soba together, the daughter’s marked enthusiasm for the dish and the mother’s disdain symbolize the vastness of the generation gap. The scene makes it evident that to a middle-aged mother from a middle-class background in Japan at the time, ramen still could not be eaten without a sense of embarrassment.

The Boom Years


As Japan’s economy boomed in the period from 1955–73, ramen boomed too. Tokyo in the early 1960s was building venues for the 1964 Olympics as well as development inspired by it, including major transportation projects like new subways, the shinkansen, and five new expressways. Vast construction projects required vast numbers of construction workers who ate vast numbers of bowls of ramen, and it also became a staple for students and young people who had grown up eating more wheat and meat.

In this period of rapid social change there’s way too much going on to cover in a short article (there’s a reason why Solt had to write a whole book) including the invention and popularization of instant ramen, a subject that will definitely have to wait for a post on its own.


Photo by jepster

But one thing I can’t leave out that I found quite surprising was the continuing development of the idea that Western foods – including wheat in particular – were healthier. The Ministry of Health and Welfare actively promoted this idea and nutrition scientists happily jumped on the bandwagon. Some of this promotion and “science” took the rather odd form of attributing cultural differences and Western superiority – which apparently went without saying – to the difference in diet. Here’s one authority’s argument:

The character [seikaku] of rice-eating peoples and the character of wheat-eating peoples are naturally different , where the former believe that people eat because they exist, while the latter believe that people exist because they eat. Each of these are the result of the types of food that they eat, and while the former are resigned and passive, the latter are progressive and active. . . . [Because of the tasty and satisfying nature of rice,] peoples who eat rice easily become accustomed to that way of living, and they lose their will to be active. . . . [People who consume wheat ] find that it alone does not taste good, which makes them desire more than what they already have, motivating them to become active and providing the initiative for them to achieve progress, and the result is that they move in the direction of wanting other types of foods… The need to turn the wheat into wheat flour and then to combine it with other foods such as meat and dairy products has led to many innovations that together have produced the wheat-flour based food culture of today. . . . The relative ease of the rice-based dietary lifestyle naturally leads people to move away from things such as reason [wake], thought [shikō], and contrivance [kōan]. Scientific experimentation and development do not advance in such a context.

That passage is laughable today, but others verge on shocking. Here’s another nutritionist:

Parents who feed their children solely white rice are dooming them to a life of idiocy. . . . When one eats rice, one’s brain gets worse. When one compares Japanese to Westerners, one finds that the former has an approximately twenty percent weaker mind than the latter. This is evident from the fact that few Japanese have received the Nobel Prize. . . . Japan ought to completely abolish its rice paddies and aim for a full bread diet.

This author’s work became the basis of a pamphlet by wheat producers who, not mincing any words, used the title “Eating Rice Makes You Stupid.”

Ramen Against The Man


Photo by Owen Lin

While the government and scientists were pushing a wheat-based diet, ramen in particular was still associated with poverty and struggle in popular culture, but things were beginning to change. With more money around to be spent, ramen developed from a cheap pushcart product into something you ate at a moderately priced restaurant. And at the same time that instant ramen – the most industrialized food possible – was becoming popular, we see what could be considered the first hints of the modern hand-crafted ramen movement. In the 1970s, something that was all the rage – at least according to the media at the time – was the datsu-sara, “salaryman escapee.” These were men who left successful careers to become self-employed – farmers, say, or ramen cooks.

As someone who has written for newspapers, I can tell you that the general rule is that you only need to find three of something for an editor to call it a trend. But one newspaper even ran a weekly “Datsu-sara Report,” so if they could find enough material for that, maybe it really was a Thing. In any case, in this context, running a ramen shop was seen as the kind of work that provided a degree of independence and creativity that wasn’t possible in a corporate environment. This romanticization of the ramen maker is the start of an entirely new symbolism around ramen.

Ramen Becomes Trendy


Photo by Aaron Webb

In the 1980s, ramen started to become almost as much a fashion item as a food. The traditional pushcarts were disappearing and the Chinese restaurants and diners that used to sell it were declining, replaced by the specialty ramen shop with a more limited menu and a higher price. The manual workers who were its old customer base were also fewer in number, and now the stereotypical ramen eater started to be the young urban consumer who was labelled with the term Shinjinrui, “new breed.”


Rather than fuel for hard physical work, for many ramen starts to become basically a hobby. The phenomenon of waiting in line for hours at a special ramen shop became common enough that people who did it were given a name, “rāmen gyōretsu.” The 80s also saw the start of the obsession with special regional varieties of ramen and fans who would travel to far-away places especially to taste a new kind they’d read about. And by the 1990s, he says:

ramen chefs were appearing on television, writing philosophical treatises, and achieving celebrity status in Japanese popular culture, while their fans were building museums and Internet forums.

Ramen Turns Japanese


Photo by ibtekn

Given its birth as a foreign import, and the central role that foreign wheat plays in the dish, it’s odd that ramen would become a symbol of traditional Japan, but that’s exactly what happened. The new customers had been born after the period of war and post-war hardship, so its older associations were purely nostalgic – a comfort food that seemed native in contrast to elegant European gourmet cuisine. Shops stopped having names and decor with Chinese associations – no more red and white noren – and the chefs began to dress differently:

In the late 1990s and 2000s, however, younger ramen chefs, inspired primarily by Kawahara Shigemi, founder of the ramen shop Ippūdō, started to wear Japanese Buddhist work clothing, known as samue. Usually worn by Japanese potters and other practitioners of traditional arts, the samue, usually in purple or black, was worn by craftsmen in eighteenth-century Japan… The new clothing suggested that the ramen maker was now considered a Japanese craftsman with a Zen Buddhist sensibility rather than a Chinese food chef.

And now, instead of western food being argued to produce superior people, apparently some started using ramen to argue it was the other way around, to the extent that it caused a backlash in some quarters: one newspaper article headlined a section on the ramen boom, “The Frightening Situation Where Plain Old Ramen Becomes the Basis for ‘Theories of Japanese Superiority.”


Photo by leesean

And this brings us to where we are today, where ramen shops are now appearing in fashionable cities all over the world, presenting what’s seen as a quintessentially Japanese dish:

[Ramen] has gained a reputation as a relatively affordable, youthful, and fashionable representation of Japanese food culture, unlike sushi, which has very different symbolic baggage. Ramen is now an important component of both official and unofficial attempts at remaking “Japan” as a consumer brand for foreigners.

The artisanal hand-made type of ramen and its cultural baggage fits perfectly into modern culinary obsessions – an earthy, authentic, hand-made comfort food. And at the same time, instant ramen has taken over the world even more – did you know that Mexicans buy one billion servings annually? But if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to read the book yourself.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Lords of Kumamoto: Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa Wed, 06 Aug 2014 16:00:15 +0000 Last fall I visited Kumamoto Castle. Though mostly a reconstruction, it’s impressive nonetheless. There is currently a regular live show on the castle grounds, in which actors dressed as famous samurai stage mock fights and deliver stirring speeches to dramatic music. Chief among them was Kato Kiyomasa, lord of Kumamoto Castle. Entertaining though it was, I couldn’t help but think, “If the real Kato Kiyomasa were here, he would despise this.”

Kato Kiyomasa was an uncompromising military man. However, his family’s reign in Kumamoto only lasted two generations. They were replaced by the Hosokawa family, who ruled there throughout the remainder of the Edo period. Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa lords had vastly different views on how a warrior should live, one uncompromisingly militaristic and the other a balance of war and art.

The Demon General


Let’s look at our first representative in this debate, the uber-aggressive and finely-bearded Kato Kiyomasa (1561-1611). He was the son of a blacksmith, born near Nagoya. Kiyomasa first rose to prominence thanks to his accomplishments fighting for Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Battle of Shizugatake (1583), and became known as one of the “Seven Spears of Shizugatake.”


Kiyomasa fought in Hideyoshi’s 1586 conquest of Kyushu. Two years later, Hideyoshi awarded half of Higo Domain (including Kumamoto) to Kato Kiyomasa, and the other half to Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600). Yukinaga was a Christian convert, while Kiyomasa was a staunch follower of Nichiren Buddhism. The two hated each other.


Kiyomasa also played a large role in Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea (1592-1598), commanding one of two vanguard divisions. The other division of the initial invasion was led by none other than his least favorite neighbor, Konishi Yukinaga. Despite their antagonism, the invasion was quite successful at first.

The invasion later stagnated due to Korean naval campaigns and Chinese intervention. The Japanese settled in and built many forts and castles to solidify their position. Kiyomasa designed and oversaw the construction of several, skills he would later use to greatly expand Kumamoto Castle to the form we know now.


Oh, and in his down time, he hunted tigers. Yeah. Tigers.


After Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 the invasion ended, and conflict between Toyotomi and Tokugawa supporters began. Kiyomasa did not participate in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara (1600), but sided with the Tokugawa and fought Toyotomi allies in Kyushu. For his support, the victorious Tokugawa awarded him the remaining half of Higo, which Kiyomasa governed until he died of illness in 1611.

The Hosokawa


In 1632, Kato Kiyomasa’s heir Tadahiro was arrested for conspiring against the shogun and Higo was confiscated from the Kato family. It was given to Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641). In contrast to the humble beginnings of the Kato, the Hosokawa were a family with a long history of status, influence, and culture. Descended from the Minamoto, through the Ashikaga, the Hosokawa could claim the blood of two shogun families in their veins. They held many prominent positions and, over time, governed in Shikoku, Kinai, Kokura, and lastly, Kumamoto. This clan reigned in a vastly different way than Kiyomasa.

Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646), fought his first battle at age fifteen and in in many campaigns thereafter, including Hideyoshi’s conquest of Kyushu. His heir, Hosokawa Tadatoshi participated in the suppression of the Shimabara Revolt (1637-38).

Way of the Warrior


Photo by Tranletuhan

Let’s broach the subject of bushido 武士道. Usually translated as the “way of the warrior,” people today generally think of it as a code of ethics followed by the samurai, kind of like chivalry among European knights. The term is hundreds of years old, but appears only rarely until the modern era. It is, for the most part, a term that people of the modern age have projected back on the past.

However, that’s not to say that some samurai didn’t have strong opinions about how a warrior should live his life. Kato Kiyomasa was one such samurai, and he wrote a set of precepts outlining his thoughts on the ideal warrior lifestyle. Since it’s a short document, I have quoted it in full. You may notice that the word bushido does appear, but since I was unable to find the original text, I am relying on William Scott Wilson’s translation. I don’t know if the word bushido actually appears in the original.

“The Precepts of Kato Kiyomasa”


Photo by Dreamcat115


One should not be negligent in the way of the retainer. One should rise at four in the morning, practice sword technique, eat one’s meal, and train with the bow, the gun, and the horse. For a well developed retainer, he should become even more so.
If one should want diversions, he should make them such outdoor pastimes such as falconing, deer hunting and wrestling.

For clothing, anything between cotton and natural silk will do. A man who squanders money for clothing and brings his household finances into disorder is fit for punishment. Generally one should further himself with armor that is appropriate for his social position, sustain his retainers, and use his money for martial affairs.

When associating with one’s ordinary companions, one should limit the meeting to one guest and one host, and the meal should consist of plain brown rice. When practicing the martial arts, however, one may meet with many people.

As for the decorum at the time of a campaign, one must be mindful that he is a samurai. A person who loves beautification where it is unnecessary is fit for punishment.

The practice of Noh Drama is absolutely forbidden. When one unsheathes his sword, he has cutting a person down on his mind. Thus, as all things are born from being placed in one’s heart, a samurai who practices dancing, which is outside of the martial arts, should be ordered to commit seppuku.

One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. Reading Chinese poetry, linked verse, and waka is forbidden. One will surely become womanized if he gives his heart knowledge of such elegant and delicate refinements. Having been born into the house of a warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die

If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus, it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one’s mind well.

The above conditions should be adhered to night and day. If there is anyone who finds these conditions difficult to fulfill, he should be dismissed, an investigation should be quickly carried out, it should be signed and sealed that he was unable to mature in the Way of Manhood, and he should be driven out. To this, there is no doubt


Kato Kazuenokami Kiyomasa

Hosokawa, Rennaisance Clan


In an approach nearly the absolute opposite of Kato Kiyomasa, Hosokawa Tadaoki was accomplished not only in matters of war, but also of peace. He was a seasoned warrior, with plenty of experience on the front lines. He was well versed in the designing of castles, and responsible for some innovations in armor.


Sword mountings made by Tadaoki

He was one of the closest students of Sen no Rikyu, developer of the tea ceremony, and a tea master in his own right. He was also a poet, a painter, and a master of lacquer ware.

An eggplant shaped sake flask created by Tadaoki

After his son was given Higo Domain, Tadaoki retired there, at Yatsushiro Castle. During his retirement he commissioned the creation of the Kouda-yaki style of ceramics.

Modern kouda-yaki cup

Hosokawa Tadatoshi continued the family tradition of balancing martial and peaceful pursuits. He was an avid swordsman, proficient in the Yagyu Shinkage style. He also became well acquainted with the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, a friendship that highlighted his balanced approached to samuraihood. The two initially met at a poetry circle in Kyoto. Musashi’s prowess in dueling and the arts interested Tadatoshi. Eventually, Musashi entered his service, and wrote The Thirty-Five Articles of the Martial Arts at his behest.


Tadatoshi also designed the Suizenji Jojū-en, a garden in Kumamoto. It was originally a tea retreat, the location chosen for its clean spring water. Much of the garden was designed to replicate the fifty-three post stations of the Tokaido, the road from Kyoto to Edo. The easiest example to spot is the mini Mt. Fuji, seen above.

The Sword? The Brush? Both?


Kato Kiyomasa and his opinions could be seen as a reflection of his time. The chaos of constant war allowed lowborn men such as him to rise in status, and his obsession with martial pursuits served him well. However, as the wars drew to an end, it was the attitudes exemplified by the Hosokawa that took hold with the warrior class during the peace of the Tokugawa era. With little fighting to be done, bureaucrats were needed more than soldiers. At the same time, samurai continued to train for battle, and dojo culture flourished. Two attitudes indicative of the Sengoku Period and Edo Period, respectively. And both housed within the mighty walls of Kumamoto Castle.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu, Gateway to Japan.
  • Kent: Global Oriental Ltd., 2009
  • Matsumoto, Sumio; Itakasu, Kazuko; Kudo, Kei’ichi; Ikai, Takaaki. Kumamoto-ken no rekishi.
  • Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1999.
  • Swope, Kenneth M. A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War.
  • Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2009.
  • Wilson, William Scott. Ideals of the Samurai.
  • Ohara Publications, 1982.
  • Wilson, William Scott. The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.
  • Shambhala Publications, 2013.
  • “Hosoakawa Tadaoki.”
  • “Hosokawa Tadatoshi.”
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A Crash Course in Japanese Poetry Tue, 05 Aug 2014 16:00:12 +0000 I remember reading Japanese poetry for the first time in the second grade. Don’t ask why it stuck with me; I just remember reading a haiku by Matsuo Bashō and thinking it was awesome. I remembered it well enough that I sought out Bashō’s poetry as I grew older. Along with video games, I attribute Bashō with fomenting an early interest in Japan for me.

Here’s the lesson: if a seven-year-old can read and enjoy Japanese poetry, so can you. I consider the appreciation of Japanese poetry to be like an onion: there are many, many layers to it. The outmost layer is simply reading Japanese poetry in translation and enjoying it as it is. At its deepest core, enjoyment is reading it in the original Japanese, with deep knowledge of the range and breadth of both Japanese and Chinese poetry (Japanese poetry is full of references to Chinese poetry and other Japanese poetry).

My goal here is to give you a very broad overview of the history of Japanese poetry and a crash course in its terminology. I’ll leave plenty of space for the poetry itself, which I believe is the best way to show you how great it is. In fact, if you’re not interested in learning what the types of poetry are called (“Terminology” below) and when they were written (“History” below), just skip on down to the poetry section. Enjoy!



Traditional Japanese poetry comes in many highly technical forms. You’ve probably all heard of haiku, but there are many more types of Japanese poetry. The most significant are the chōka, tanka, renga, haikai, renku, hokku, and haiku.

The chōka and tanka are both forms of waka. In a nutshell, the chōka is a long waka, and the tanka is a short waka. Over time, the tanka became much more popular; as a result, waka and tanka are sometimes used interchangably.

According to the amazing Princeton Companion to Japanese Literature: the renga is made up of linked stanzas of tanka, “joined in sequence so that each made an integral poetic unit with its predecessor . . . but without semantic connection with any other stanza in the sequence made of such alterations.” It probably won’t surprise you to learn that there were crazy complex rules as to what kinds of stanzas went in what order, and a single renga might be written by as many as three different poets.

The haikai is a relaxed form of renga (originally with light-hearted themes as well), and renku is the modern name for haikai. The hokku is the opening stanza of a renga or haikai with three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. If you’re familiar with haiku, that structure will sound mighty familiar. In fact, the haiku developed out of the hokku – but the concept of the haiku as a freestanding form wasn’t developed until the late 1800s. Yes, this means that Bashō, who is generally thought of as the greatest haiku poet, didn’t technically write any haiku, since they didn’t exist when he was around. Bashō wrote a lot of hokku though!

There’s a lot more depth, meaning, and technical differences between all of these terms – and plenty of terms that I left out. But having some idea about these is a good place to start.



There seems to be little consensus among scholars as to how Japanese poetry should be historically divided and classified, except that there is old poetry and modern poetry. So, even if I wanted to give you a detailed, blow-by-blow diatribe on the eras of Japanese poetry, I’d be hard-pressed to do so without parsing a lot of sources. Instead, I’ve touched here on some of the more important works and players and tried to provide some broad context in the process.

The earliest Japanese poetry was part of an oral tradition and is almost entirely lost. And even once the Japanese started writing stuff down, a lot of the early emphasis was on poetry in Chinese (“kanshi”). The first major written collection of Japanese poetry (in Japanese) is found in the Kojiki, dated 712 C.E. The bulk of the Kojiki is devoted to stories about the gods and Japanese rulers. Eight years later, the Nihon Shoki was produced; it too focused on gods and rulers. These early compositions also recorded some poems and songs that had been passed down orally.

And then, less than fifty years later, came the Man’yōshū, the book of “Ten Thousand Leaves”, whose last datable poem was penned around 759. It is the oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry. The Man’yōshū is huge (20 volumes) and its poems span almost two centuries (sometime around 600 C.E. to 759 C.E.). Unlike later collections, the Man’yōshū wasn’t organized very rigidly and, although we think of it as a Japanese collection, it contained some Chinese-language poetry and prose as well. Many of its poems were anonymous, ostensibly written by frontier guards and other normal folk. But the poems that were written by non-scholars were generally rewritten by the formal scholars and poets whose work makes up much of the Man’yōshū. The Man’yōshū was hugely influential on subsequent generations of Japanese writers and poets, and it remains one of the most important works of Japanese literature.

In the early 10th century, the Kokinshū, a collection of waka, was commissioned and completed. Like the Man’yōshū, the Kokinshū included poems spanning several centuries. Unlike the Man’yōshū, the Kokinshū was rigidly organized by topic, a theme that would have a huge impact on subsequent poetry in Japan. Organization was taken seriously at all levels; for example, the love poems were ordered in such a way “to show the presumed process of a courtly love affair.” (Princeton Companion)

Around the same time as the Kokinshū, a number of female writers rose to prominence in Japan. Fujiwara Michitsuna’s mother (“The Gossamer Years”), Murasaki Shikibu (“The Tale of Genji”), Sei Shōnagon (“The Pillow Book”), Izumi Shikibu, and Sugawara Takasue no Musume (“The Sarashina Diary”) were among the many prominent female writers of the time. Although these women primarily wrote prose, poetry was an integral part of most of their works. Poetry compilations of the time include many of their poems.

A bit later, in the 12th century, the Buddhist monk Saigyō wrote waka that would have an enormous impact on Bashō and other subsequent Japanese writers. In the early 13th century, the Shinkokinshū was compiled and published. Like the Kokinshū, it has twenty books and almost two thousand poems. Its poems span hundreds of years, some dating back to the time of the Man’yōshū. The renga, which had existed for hundreds of years, evolved into its own distinct style around this time.

The next major event in Japanese poetry came in the 17th century, when the haikai became extremely popular, in large part due to the work of Matsuo Bashō. Bashō was a prolific writer and traveler who wrote hokku, haibun (a style that combines prose and poetry), and other forms of poetry and prose. I believe the Princeton Companion’s entry on Bashō says it better than I can:

In an age of political rigidity and control, [Bashō’s] sense of time, suffering, and death led him to combine – with a skill no other lyric poet has shown – the high and the low, the objective with the subjective, the commonplace with the tragic. . . . Much of our knowledge of our world and ourselves may be derived from his writing.

After Japan opened to the West in the 19th century, Japanese poetry underwent a transformation as a result of the influence of Western poetry. More freeform styles of poetry began appearing, and the more traditional styles underwent their own transformations. Many Japanese poets who wrote after World War II are labeled as “post-war”, although newer poetry is frequently labeled as simply “modern.”

The Good Stuff


And now for the actual poetry! The original Japanese is provided when possible and poems are ordered chronologically by birth date of author.

On the Death of the Emperor Temmu by Empress Jitō (645-702), from Women Poets of Japan

Even flaming fire
can be snatched up, smothered
and carried in a bag.
Why then can’t I
meet my dead lord again?

Untitled by Kakinomoto Hitomaro (d. 708-715), from One Hundred Poems from the Japanese

Kamo yama no
My girl is waiting for me

Iwane shi makeru
And does not know

Ware wo kamo
That my body will stay here

Shira ni to imo ga Machitsutsu aramu
On the rocks of Mount Kamo.

Man’yōshū, XIX: 4290 by Ōtomo Yakamochi (718-785), from Japanese Court Poetry

Haru no no ni
Now it is spring –

Kasumi tanabiki
And across the moors the haze

Stretches heavily –

Kono yūkage ni
And within these rays at sunset,

Uguisu naku mo.
A warbler fills the radiant mist with song.

Man’yōshū, XIV: 3570 by Anonymous, from Japanese Court Poetry

Ashi no ha ni
I shall miss you most

Yūgiri tachite
When twilight brings the rising mists

Kamo ga ne no
To hang upon the reeds

Samuki yūbe shi
And as the evening darkens cold

Na oba shinuban.
With mallards’ cries across the marsh.

Kokinshū, XVII: 879 by Ariwara Narihira (818-893), from Japanese Court Poetry

Ōkata wa
Lovely as it is,

Tsuki o mo medeji
The moon will never win my praise –

Kore zo kono
No, not such a thing,

Tsumoreba hito no
Whose accumulated splendors heap

Oi to naru mono.
The burden of old age on man.

Untitled by Ono no Komachi (833-857), from Women Poets of Japan

He does not come.
Tonight in the dark of the moon
I wake wanting him.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart chars.

Untitled by Murasaki Shikibu (974-1031), from Women Poets of Japan

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.

Untitled by Saigyō (1118-1190), from A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature

Gazing at them,
these blossoms have grown
so much a part of me,
to part with them when they fall
seems bitter indeed!

Shinkokinshū, IV: 361 by Jakuren (d. 1202), from Japanese Court Poetry

Sabishisa wa
Loneliness –

Sono iro to shi mo
The essential color of a beauty

Not to be defined:

Maki tatsu yama no
Over the dark evergreens, the dusk

Aki no yūgure.
That gathers on far autumn hills.

Untitled by Bashō (1644-1694), from Basho: The Complete Haiku

nozarashi o
weather beaten

kokoro ni kaze no
wind pierces my body

shimu mi kana
to my heart

Untitled by Bashō (1644-1694), from Basho: The Complete Haiku

yagate shinu
soon to die

keshiki wa miezu
yet showing no sign

semi no koe
the cicada’s voice

Untitled by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), from A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature

Beneath the bright
Cherry blossoms
None are indeed
Utter strangers.

Untitled by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), from The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature

mihotoko mo
Buddha too –

tobira o akete
he’s opened his altar doors,

suzumi kana
cooling off

The Oyster Shell by Kambara Ariake (1876-1952), from The Poetry of Living Japan

An oyster in his shell
Lives in a boundless sea,
Alone, precarious, limited,
How miserable his thoughts . . .

Unseeing and unhelped,
He sleeps behind a sheltering rock.
But in his wakeful moments he must sense
The ebb and flow of the infinite deep.

Though the turning tide at dawn
May flood in to its height,
The oyster’s being, destined to decay,
Is tied to a narrow shell.

The evening star, so luminous,
Turns the waves to crests of corn:
Us it reminds of a distant dove –
Of what avail to him?

How sad a fate! Profound, unbearable,
The music of the ocean
Still confounds him day and night.
He closes tight his narrow home.

But on that day of storm
When woods along the sea are shattered,
How shall it survive – the oyster shell,
His shelter, left to die a destined death?

Late Autumn by Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942), from The Poetry of Living Japan

The train was passing overhead,
And my thoughts meandered into the shade.
Looking back, I was surprised to find
How my heart was at rest!
Streets were strewn with the autumn sun’s last rays,
Traffic crowded the highway.
Does my life exist at all?
Yet in the window of a humble house,
Along a back street where the smoke still hung,
Purple hollyhocks were blooming.

Untitled by Katsura Nobuko (1914-2004), from A Long Rainy Season

My mother’s soul
viewing the plum blossoms,
returning at night.

Untitled by Itami Kimiko (b. 1925), from A Long Rainy Season

What lives in the lake
filled with a blue
that has no name?

Concerning Obscenity by Shuntarō Tanikawa (b. 1931), from The Selected Poems of Shuntarō Tanikawa

No matter how pornographic a movie
it can’t be as obscene
as a couple in love.
If love is something human
obscenity too is something human.
Lawrence, Miller, Rodin,
Picasso, Utamaro, the Manyō poets:
were they ever afraid of obscenity?
It is not a movie that is obscene
we are the ones basically obscene
warmly, gently, vigorously,
and with such ugliness and shame –
we are obscene
days and nights obscene
with nothing else, obscene.

Final Thoughts


I suspect most of us have felt the sting of unrequited love. From reading her poem above, I know that Ono no Komachi once felt the same pain: “My heart chars.” Like the other poems I chose, these words speak to me in a profound way, despite being written well over a thousand years ago by a woman from a culture very, very different from my own. This to me is the true beauty of poetry: its ability to reach across time and space to touch those who read it. Likewise, I hope you enjoyed the poetry here, and that some of it spoke to you as well. If you are interested in learning more, seek out some of the books from the bibliography – they’re all great.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Miner, Earl; Odagiri, Hiroko; and Morrell, Robert E. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas. A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature. New York: Kodansha International, 1988.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth and Atsumi, Ikuko. Women Poets of Japan. New York: New Directions Books, 1977.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. New York: New Directions Books, 1964.
  • Brower, Robert and Miner, Earl. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961.
  • Reichhold, Jane. Basho: The Complete Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas and Gessel, Van C. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Ninomiya, Takamichi and Enright, D.J. The Poetry of Living Japan. New York: Grove Press, 1957.
  • Lowitz, Leza; Aoyama, Miyuki; and Tomioka, Akemi. A Long Rainy Season. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
  • Wright, Harold. The Selected Poems of Shuntarō Tanikawa. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.
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Namahage – Akita’s New Year’s Ogres Mon, 04 Aug 2014 16:00:39 +0000 泣く子はいねがぁ / “Are there any crybabies here?” may not be something you want to hear shouted through your door on New Year’s Eve, but the people of Akita Prefecture, specifically Oga Peninsula, feel differently. The Namahage / なまはげ, a Japanese demon, similar to a mix between Santa Claus and the Krampus, are yearly visitors for many people living in North-Western Honshu.

Five years ago, while studying at a school in Akita, I found myself face to face with these Namahage, on the streets, in stores, really everywhere I turned, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were and where they came from. Eventually, I ended up at a museum dedicated to them and realized there is a lot more than meets the eye.

Scaring Children for Centuries


Photo by Evan Blaser

We know traditions surrounding the Namahage have been around since at least the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) because they were mentioned in a book by travel writer Masumi Sugae during this period, but it is likely they have been around longer than that.

These ogres have some pretty basic goals, at least in their current iteration. On New Year’s Eve they come down from the mountains, parade around the streets with knives held high, burst into homes, and check to see if the children have been behaving during the past year.  The main things the Namahage look for are laziness, being a crybaby, and not listening to your parents. The point is, don’t be a brat.

As long as you’ve been good, and your parents offer the Namahage some food and sake, they will supposedly protect your home from natural disasters, sickness, and promote good crops. They aren’t all bad.

To some, especially the kids, this may seem pretty scary, traumatic even. But for parents and the young men playing the part of the Namahage, it’s a light-hearted, symbolic tradition that has been continued and protected for generations.

The Origins of the Namahage


Photo by Teppei Hayashi

There are a few different stories floating around about how the Namahage came to be, the most popular being the folk tale of “The 999 Stone Steps”. In this tale, the Chinese Han Emperor sent five ogres, or oni, to steal crops and young women from the villages of the Oga Peninsula, in the present day Akita Prefecture. The villagers managed to trick the oni into accepting a bet: The oni could have every young woman in their villages if they could build a one thousand step stone staircase up to the temple at the top of a nearby mountain in one night. The oni were pretty greedy, so of course they accepted. The ogres were about to start putting down the one thousandth step when a villager, pretending to be a rooster, crowed as if the sun were coming up. The oni thought they had failed and angrily marched back up the mountain and left the stairs incomplete with 999 stairs.

Other legends suggest they were people from other countries who drifted ashore, or were traveling to Japan and landed on the coast of the Oga Peninsula. These people were startling to the native Japanese and spoke languages they didn’t understand, thus becoming demons in the eyes of the natives.

They also could have been representatives of the god said to live at the top of a mountain in Oga. Or perhaps they were simply mountain priests who would come down to the villages of Oga to pray, and whose outfits were so fearsome from mountain living that they looked like demons.

Whatever the story, Namahage are pretty scary looking. Over time, the legends surrounding them changed to the point where they don’t play too much of a part in the events surrounding them today.

How to Become a Namahage


Photo by Kanegen

Usually, to become a Namahage you need to be a young man who grew up in Akita Prefecture, tormented in your childhood by Namahage. Then, once you reach the right age and show interest, you can take your turn either at one of the larger festivals or simply parade around your hometown, going to pre-planned homes. Rumor has it, you also have to be a virgin to get the part, but I can’t seem to confirm this. Many Namahage are also skilled taiko drummers and perform throughout the year – playing in full costume and sneering at little kids in the crowds.

If you’re able to visit one of the Namahage Museums located in the Oga Peninsula, you’ll be able to dress like one and take pictures. Here is the essential gear every good ogre needs:


Photo by: kota i

  • men – the distinctive mask, which can be made of anything from wood, paper mache, or even plastic. These masks vary based on where in Akita they are from, and some have some pretty distinctive styles. The ones based in Oga are the most common style.
  • ケデ kede – a straw coat/cloak. Sometimes translated as a raincoat.
  • ハバキ habaki – straw shin guards.
  • わらぐつ waragutsu – straw snow boots. It snows pretty heavily in Akita during the winter so having a way to safely traipse through the snow is important for any ogre.
  • 出刃包丁 deba-bōchō – a large knife, usually made of wood and painted to look like a cleaver.
  • 御幣 gohei – wooden wands, the same ones you see used in shinto rituals.

Once you have it all on, congratulations! You are now a menacing Namahage. But to really start your night as a fearsome ogre, you need to eat first.

The Path of the Namahage


Photo by Yasuhiro_S

Before the men dressed as Namahage go off to put the local kids in their places, there is a small ceremony. They sit before an offering of traditional Oga foods and drink sake. They then visit the local shrine (the most famous being the Shinzan Shrine) and drink sake there before stomping around outside. The stomping may seem like some kind of intimidation tactic but it’s actually a form of purification. Considering this is a Shinto tradition, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there is some method of purification involved. Along the same lines, Namahage do not go to any houses that had a birth or death in the family that past year. Those are both events associated with defilement in the Shinto tradition.

The Namahage of Oga usually have a normal human with them to announce their arrival. Or they’ll have a  Namahage leader who announces them instead. They stomp at the entrance (7 times when entering, 5 times before being served food and sake, 3 times before leaving) and grab whatever children are in the house. While this does tend to cause screams of こわい! and tears from the younger kids, after the Namahage make sure they’ve been good, they bless them for the upcoming year. If you were a bad kid, meaning your parents tell the Namahage you were bad, then they will try to drag you out into the snow, but it usually doesn’t get that far. Generally, they just lean down with their masks in the kid’s face and make loud noises. According to the current legend, they’re trying to take you up to the mountain, where you’ll never be seen again. A pretty terrifying concept, and you can bet the little ones know that’s what could happen, which explains the crying.

Once they’re done terrorizing, asking questions, and growling, the Namahage expect an offering and, like many folk tales in Japan, this isn’t out of the ordinary. But there are particular foods that you are supposed to serve, in order to keep your kids safe.


Photo by Kristen Dexter

Once again, there is sake involved, which helps the men in their costumes to keep from feeling too cold, since this does take place in winter. They are presented with traditional food, shown in the picture above. After the Namahage leave, the people of the Oga Peninsula are able to look at the New Year as a fresh start. It’s kind of like their kids’ bad attitudes are gone and they can move toward a better, new year. When the Namahage have visited all the houses, they go back to the shrine, tie their grass cloaks around the pillars, go in once more, and head home.

Visit the Namahage Year Round!


Photo by: Iwao

If you’re really interested in Namahage but aren’t in the area at the right time of year, the Namahage Museum located in the Oga Peninsula is open year-round. It is a bit out of the way, an hour and a half car ride away from Akita Airport and even longer if you take the train and a taxi, but for only 500 yen for adults and 250 for students, it may be worth the trip.

Within the museum, there is a theater which screens a Namahage documentary, a room dedicated to the history of Oga, a sizeable exhibit displaying many different kinds of Namahage, as well as a costume booth where you can dress up as one yourself.


Photo by Kristen Dexter

For a bit more money you can walk over to the Shinzan Folklore Museum and watch a twenty minute performance held between men and some Namahage. The banter between the men and the Namahage is meant to be humorous, (you can find a description of it in English here), but if you have children in your group, you may be distracted by their reactions. The parents tend to chuckle, but if screaming kids aren’t appealing, then you should probably just stick to the main museum. If you’re interested you can simply watch this recording. (Don’t worry, the museum promotes taking lots of pictures and videos.) It shows the entire performance, without focusing on little kids crying.

If you’re like the parents in Akita who think crying children are hilarious, here is one with some terrified little kids.

The Sedo Festival – なまはげ柴灯祭り


Photo by: Hildgrim

If you are already in the area, or are planning a trip, every year on the second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of February the Sedo Festival is held at the Shinzan Shrine in Oga City. This large Shinto festival involves music, dance, performances, and lots of nervous children with their parents. Don’t worry, there are people of every age that attend the festival, so even if you don’t have your own kids to scare, you won’t be out of place.

At the end of the festival, all of the Namahage performers make their way down the mountain (usually through snow) with torches held high, and walk around the large shrine so you can get up close and take pictures with them. Then the priests of the shrine offer them goma-mochi (mochi roasted on the fires at the shrine) and the Namahage return to the mountains. (Or back to a room to change out of their sweaty costumes.)

If the trip up to the mountains is too expensive or too far, the power of the internet can help with that! Here is a taste of the Sedo Festival:

Namahage Everywhere

Namahage traditions are deeply ingrained in the culture of Akita Prefecture, and you can’t live or even visit there without seeing Namahage versions of everything.


Photo by: Iwao

There are statues…


Photo by Kristen Dexter



Photo by Kristen Dexter



And of course, Namahage Hello Kitty!

In 1978, the Namahage of Oga were officially designated as a “significant intangible folk cultural asset of the country.” This was a pretty big deal, since Oga certainly isn’t the only place in Japan to have their own demonic folklore, and, in the scope of Japan, it is a pretty small place.

Remember, if you ever find yourself in Akita Prefecture, keep your eyes open and you’ll be sure to see some Namahage for yourself. Just make sure you’ve been good this year, or you’ll regret it.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

A (Very) Quick History


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

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

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

Surviving Undoukai


Photo by Tamago Moffle

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

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


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

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

The Venue


Photo by 不可説

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

Opening Ceremonies


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

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

(Rajio Taisou with some local Tohoku flavor.)

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

The Events


Photo by Ishikawa Ken

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

Popular undoukai events include:

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


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


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

The Soundtrack


Photo by Arbitrarily0

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

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

Closing Ceremony


Photo by Taku

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

Or does it?

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

The Spirit of Cooperation Under Competition’s Guise


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

#10: Japanese Spider Crab


Photo by Laika ac

Kaijū Equivalent: Ebirah


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

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

#9: Blue Whale


Photo by anim1755

Kaijū Equivalent: Godzilla


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

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

#8: Frilled Shark


Photo by OpenCage

Kaijū Equivalent: Zigra


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

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

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

#7: Sika Deer


Kaiju Equivalent: Cowra


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

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

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

#6: Amami Rabbit


Kaijū Equivalent: Hanejiro


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

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

#5: Okinawa Habu


Kaiju Equivalent: Dai Umi Hebi


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

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

#4: Ryukyu Flying Fox


Photo by Momotarou2012

Kaijū Equivalent: Kyuranos


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

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

#3: Ussuri Brown Bear


Photo by Nzrst1jx

Kaijū Equivalent: King Caesar


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

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

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

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

#2: Japanese Giant Salamander


Photo by Paul Williams

Kaijū Equivalent: Japanese Giant Salamander (Sanshouuo Kaijin)


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

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

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

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

#1: Japanese Giant Hornet


Photo by KENPEI

Kaijū Equivalent: Battra


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

Japan’s 2014 Uniform


Photo by BagoGames

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

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


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

Japan’s Crows


Photo by Frankyboy5

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Legend of Yatagarasu


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

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

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

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

Why Yatagarasu?


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

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

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

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

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

Yatagarasu, Still Guiding After All These Years


Photo by m-louis

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

A Quick Overview of the Ainu


Photo by seriykotik

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ainu Mythology 101


Photo by davidooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Photo by mushimizu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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