Tofugu » History A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Mon, 08 Dec 2014 21:04:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bushido: Way of Total Bullshit Mon, 08 Dec 2014 17:00:23 +0000 The term bushido calls forth ghosts of Japan’s hallowed samurai class.  A class so bent on preserving honor, they’d rather slit their own bellies in ritualistic suicide than live a shamed existence. In The Last Samurai, bushido melds with Nathan Algren’s soul, curing the troubled American of alcoholism, war trauma, and self-loathing.  What powerful medicine!  A reinvigorated, purified Algren turns […]

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The term bushido calls forth ghosts of Japan’s hallowed samurai class.  A class so bent on preserving honor, they’d rather slit their own bellies in ritualistic suicide than live a shamed existence.

In The Last Samurai, bushido melds with Nathan Algren’s soul, curing the troubled American of alcoholism, war trauma, and self-loathing.  What powerful medicine!  A reinvigorated, purified Algren turns his back on his employers to join rebel samurai bent on defending bushido, their dignified honor-code of loyalty, benevolence, etiquette, and self-control.

At least, that’s what popular culture would have us believe.  In reality the term bushido went unrecognized until the early twentieth century, long after Nathan Algren’s fictitious character joined the factual Satsuma Rebellion and years after the ousting of the samurai class.  In all likelihood samurai never even uttered the word.

It may come as an even greater surprise that bushido once received more recognition abroad than in Japan.  In 1900 writer Inazo Nitobe’s published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in English, for the Western audience.  Nitobe subverted fact for an idealized imagining of Japan’s culture and past, infusing Japan’s samurai class with Christian values in hopes of shaping Western interpretations of his country.

Though initially rejected in Japan, Nitobe’s ideology would be embraced by a government driven war machine.  Thanks to its empowering vision of the past, the extreme nationalist movement embraced bushido, exploiting The Soul of Japan to pave Japan’s way to fascism in the buildup to World War II.

And so too The Last Samurai exploits Inazo Nitobe’s depiction of bushido, renewing movie-going audiences’ admiration for a venerable concept and glorified past that never truly existed.  But as bushido’s precarious history proves, the truth often takes a back seat to more fashionable depictions, whether it be to change Western perceptions, fuel a fascist war agenda, or sell movie tickets.

Inazo Nitobe


Photo by あばさー

Born in 1862 in Iwate Prefecture, Inazo Nitobe was just a baby when the final remnants of Japan’s ruling samurai class came to an end.  Despite being of the samurai class themselves, Nitobe’s family remained far removed from the battlefields and warrior culture of old Japan, gaining recognition as pioneers of irrigation and farming techniques.

At age nine Nitobe moved to Tokyo to live with his uncle where he began intensive English study.  A unique subject of study at the time, Nitobe would become fluent in the language.  In Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal, Cameron Hurst writes, “The Christian son of a late Tokugawa samurai… who was educated largely in English at special schools early in the Meiji era, Nitobe… could communicate with foreigners to a degree that even the most ardent exponents of kokusaika (internationalization) today would envy” (511).

In 1877 Nitobe made his way to Hokkaido where he enrolled in Sapporo Agricultural College.  Created under the influence of William S. Clark, a devout Calvinist from New England, the school served to further solidify Nitobe’s commitment to the Christian faith and he joined Clark’s own “Sapporo Band” of Christians (Oshiro).

In Sapporo, Nitobe’s estrangement from the Japanese society, culture and people grew. Japan’s northernmost island remained largely unsettled wilderness and shared few cultural connections with mainland Japan.  “Hokkaido was only just becoming a real part of Japan,” Hurst writes, “so Nitobe was essentially isolated spatially, culturally, religiously, and even linguistically from the currents of Meiji Japan” (512).

Following his graduation from Sapporo Agricultural College, Nitobe began graduate school in Tokyo. Unsatisfied with his studies, in 1884 Nitobe moved to the United States and enrolled in John Hopkins University.  After graduating, the globetrotting Nitobe would bounce around Germany, the United States and Sapporo and even become the under-secretary general of the League of Nations (Samuel Snipes).

Unique to his era, Nitobe’s knowledge of English and Western literature remains impressive even by today’s standards.  Oleg Benesch, author of the in-depth study Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic In Late Meiji Japan writes that Nitobe grew to be “more comfortable in English than Japanese” and eventually “lamented his lack of education in Japanese history and religion” (159).

It was during his time in California that Nitobe penned Bushido: The Soul of Japan. The contrived imagining of the samurai class reshaped Western perceptions of Japan and would eventually come to redefine Japan’s own interpretation of bushido and the samurai class.

Playing Catch-Up: The Meji Restoration


While Nitobe immersed himself in Western religion and culture, the Japanese government continued its own international pursuit – modernization.  Professor Kenichi Ohno of GRIPS explains, “The top national priority was to catch up with the West in every aspect of civilization, i.e. to become a ‘first-class nation’ as quickly as possible” (43).

Years of isolationism meant Japan had fallen behind the world powers in terms of technology and military power. When Commodore Matthew Perry flexed his black ships’ military muscle in the early 1850s, Japan had no alternative but to accept his terms.  In professor Ohno’s words, resulting exposure to foreign technology and culture “shattered their (Japan’s) pride,” making Japanese view their own nation as backward and out of step with the world (43).

Japan’s Meiji government looked to the West not to Westernize per se, but to become a powerful nation on the world stage.  While Nitobe doted over Western culture, the Meiji government devised a three pronged plan for modernization that focused on “industrialization (economic modernization), introducing a national constitution and parliament (political modernization), and external expansion (military modernization)” (Ohno 18).


Photo by World Imaging

Political modernization would bring an end to Japan’s feudal system and therefore its ruling samurai class.  New policies stripped the samurai of privileges and blurred class separation.  Voyages in World History explains: 

The Meji reforms replaced the feudal domains of daimyo with regional prefectures under control of the central government.  Tax collection was centralized to solidify the government’s economic control…  All the old distinctions between samurai and commoners were erased: ‘The samurai abandoned their swords… and non-samurai were allowed to have surnames and ride horses.’ The rice allowances on which samurai families had lived were replaced by modest cash stipends.  Many former samurai had to face the indignity of looking for work. (686)

Meanwhile, by strengthening its military Japan sought to protect its interests and become a player on the world stage.  And Japan’s efforts saw quick results.  Kenichi Ohno writes, “In the military arena, Japan won a war against China in 1894-95 and began to invade Korea (it was later colonized in 1910). Japan also fought a victorious war with the Russian Empire in 1904-05.”  These victories demonstrated Japan’s growing military might and gave the nation a needed confidence boost.  Victory over Russia, a “Western nation,” proved Japan had become global power.  The world took notice.

Class mobility and economic freedoms ushered in by ending the samurai led feudal system spurred Japan’s furious growth.  The Meiji government’s plans had begun to bear fruit.

Nitobe’s Ulterior Motives


Photo by Okinawa Soba

While the Meiji government plotted to strengthen Japan’s presence on the world stage, Nitobe sought to change Westerners’ perceptions of Japan from within.

At the time, Westerners knew little about the formerly isolated nation.  Rumors about Japan – a feudalistic society whose armies relied on swords and bows and arrows – painted the picture of an unsophisticated, archaic island nation.  In From Chivalry to Terrorism Leo Braudy writes, “Before World War I, many in Europe viewed Japan as a warrior society unadulterated by either commerce or the control of civilian politicians, with it’s aristocratic military class still intact” (467).

Nitobe put faith in the power of his pen and began to write.  By simplifying the most eloquent, ideal aspects of Japanese culture into terms the West could relate to, he hoped to paint a new, noble image of Japan.  Writing in English only served to make Nitobe’s contrivance more deliberate.  Maria Navarro and Alison Beeby explain,

The original text (of Nitobe’s book) was written in English, which was not Nitobe’s mother tongue… Writing in a foreign language obliges one to “filter” one’s own emotions and modes of expression…  It allows the writer to express more empathy for the ‘other culture’ (in Nitobe’s case Western culture). Furthermore, one is much more conscious of what one wants to say, or what one wishes to avoid saying, in order to make the work more acceptable for intended readers.

In 1899 Nitobe, “the self-described bridge between Japan and the West” published what would later become his most famous work, a romanticized, Westernized summation of the ideals of Japan’s governing class, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Braudy 467).

Christianity and the Taming of the Samurai


Photo by World Imaging

Bushido: The Soul of Japan represents a synthesis of Japanese culture with Western ideology. Nitobe tames Japan’s samurai class by fusing it with European chivalry and Christian morality.   “I wanted to show…” Nitobe admitted, “that the Japanese are not really so different (from people of the West)” (Benesch 165).  Although it saw release years after the extinction of the samurai, Bushido: The Soul of Japan presents an original idealization and idolization of the samurai class.

Yet Nitobe shapes the concept of bushido around principles of Western culture, not the other way around as might be expected.  Bushido: The Soul of Japan offers a suspicious lack of references to Japanese source material and historical fact.  Instead, the student of English literature relies on Western works and personalities to explain the bushido’s principals.  Nitobe quotes the likes of Mencius, Frederick the Great, Burke, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Shakespeare, James Hamilton and Bismarck – sources that that have no connection to Japan’s history or culture.

In his self-proclaimed formulation of The Soul of Japan, the devout Christian references the Western Bible more than any other sources.  Somehow Nitobe sees Bible quotes as appropriate and satisfactory support for bushido.  “The seeds of the Kingdom (of God) as vouched for and apprehended by the Japanese mind,” Nitobe declares, “blossomed in Bushido.”

Nitobe spends much of the book ascribing bushido to the tenets of Christianity.  Politeness, he quotes Corinthians 313, “suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not, vaunteth not itself” (50).  Bushido’s benevolence, Nitobe explains, is “embodied by the Christian Red Cross movement, the medical treatment of a fallen foe (46).”

Even a quote by Saigo Takamori, the legendary samurai, takes on a Biblical aura.   “Heaven loves me and others with equal love; therefore with the love wherewith though lovest thyself, love others” (78).  Nitobe himself admits, “Some of those sayings reminds us of Christian expostulations, and show us how far in practical morality natural religion can approach the revealed” (78).

Nitobe even goes as far as to paint the samurai as Japan’s heavenly sent forefathers, holy mechanisms that shaped Japan.  “What Japan was she owed to the samurai.  They were not only the flower of the nation, but its root as well.  All the gracious gifts of Heaven flowed through them” (Nitobe 92).

Giving Soul to Suicide and the Sword


Photo by WikiImages

In his taming of the samurai, Nitobe even justifies their most savage attributes – seppuku (also known as harakiri or ritual suicide) and the sword – under the guise of Christian mores.  And it all starts with the soul.

Nitobe declares that in both Western and Japanese custom, the soul is housed in the stomach.  “They (The Bible’s Joseph, David, Isaiah and Jeremiah) all and each endorsed the belief prevalent among the Japanese that in the abdomen was enshrined the soul” (113).

This assertion allows Nitobe to exalt suicide to a holy act, “The highest estimate placed upon honor was ample excuse with many for taking one’s own life,” before challenging Western readers to resist his interpretation, “I dare say that many good Christians, if only they are honest enough, will confess the fascination of, if not positive admiration for, the sublime composure with which Cato, Brutus, Petronius, and a host of other ancient worthies terminated their own earthly existence.” (113-114).

The sword receives similar treatment and Nitobe declares swordsmiths to be artists, not artisans; swords not weapons, but representations of their owners’ souls.   He explains:

The very possession of the dangerous instrument imparts to him (the samurai) a feeling and air of self-respect and responsibility.  ‘He beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 13:4).  What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart – loyalty and honor…  In times of peace .. it is worn with no more use than a crosier by a bishop or a sceptre by a king (132-133).

Nitobe’s skilled manipulation dignifies and venerates even Japan’s most “savage” customs.  The author’s dedication to and knowledge of Christianity and Western culture allowed him to forge a propaganda tool under the guise of historic fact. Nitobe hoped Bushido: The Soul of Japan would change Western opinions of Japan, raising the country’s status in the world’s eyes.

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in The West


Photo by Rob at Houghton

Bushido: The Soul of Japan became a hit with Western readers.  “The slim volume,” Tim Clark writes in The Bushido Code: The Eight Virtues of the Samurai, “went on to become an international bestseller,” influencing some of the era’s most influential men.  Nitobe’s treatise so impressed Teddy Roosevelt that he “bought sixty copies to share with friends” (Perez 280).

Although almost exclusively read by scholars, Nitobe’s influence seeped into the Western conscious.  Braudy writes, “This view of Bushido was an attractive image for Westerners…  Balden-Powell has included bushido as an ideal code of honor in his exhortation to the Boy Scouts.  Parliamentary groups… invoked the samurai as kindred spirit and writers on war preparedness haled up the samurai ethos of the Japanese army as a model to follow” (467).

Nitobe’s account shocked readers by providing a glimpse into an unfamiliar, misunderstood world.  With nothing to offer a counter point, Western readers accepted Bushido: The Soul of Japan as a factual representation of Japanese culture, and it remained the West’s quintessential work on the topic for decades.

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in Japan


Photo by Lx 121

Bushido: The Soul of Japan received a different reaction in Japan.  Although bushido had yet to enter Japan’s mainstream consciousness, scholars’ interpretations of the concept varied and few agreed with Nitobe’s representation.  In fact,”Nitobe stated that he resisted the Japanese translation of his book for years out of fear of what readers might think” (Benesch 157).  Many of those readers attacked Nitobe’s work for its agenda and inaccuracies.

Oleg Benesch explains that most Japanese scholars did not take Nitobe’s work seriously:

At the time of its initial publication, Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul Of Japan received a lukewarm reception from those Japanese who read the English edition.  Tsuda Sokichi wrote a scathing critique in 1901, rejecting Nitobe’s central arguments.  According to Tsuda… the author knew very little about his subject.  Nitobe’s equation of the term bushido with the soul of Japan was flawed, as bushido could only be applied to a single class… Tsuda further chastised Nitobe for not distinguishing between historical periods. (155)

Many of Nitobe’s contemporaries subscribed to an orthodox bushido based 0n Japan’s ancient history.  This purely Japanese form of bushido was seen as unique and superior to any foreign ideology.  Orthodox writer Tetsujiro Inoue went as far as declaring European chivalry as “nothing but woman-worship” and even derided Confucianism as an inferior Chinese import (Benesch 179).  The orthodox school of thought dismissed Nitobe’s”corrupted,” Christianized version of bushido.

To complicate matters, at the time of Bushido: The Soul of Japan’s release,  few Japanese even recognized the term bushido.  In Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai Mamoru Oshii explains, “Bushido was not known among Japanese people…  It appeared in literature, but was not a commonly used word.”

Benesch supports Oshii’s argument:

Indeed, (Bushido: The Soul of Japan) was only the second book-length specific treatment of the subject in modern Japan…  Only four works in the database mention the term before 1895.  The number of publications increases from a total of three in 1899 and 1900 to seven in 1901, six in 1902 and dozens per year from 1903 onward. (153)

Nitobe’s treatise predated bushido as an understandable term and therefore appeared alien to its potential Japanese audience.

To make matters worse, Nitobe’s book romanticized an old fashioned and exploitative class system everyone but the samurai hoped to leave behind.  Accounts of samurai abusing the lower classes run rampant.  Although rare, samurai could lawfully kill members of the lower class (kirisutegomen) for “surliness, discourtesy, and inappropriate conduct” (Cunnigham).

With such inequities, it’s no surprise the lower classes felt no love for Japan’s elite.  Benesch writes, “The disdain most commoners had for the samurai has been described as legendary” (27). Not far removed from the inequities and immobility of the former class structure, the common people had no interest in idolizing or celebrating their former ruling class.

However, Nitobe wrote for Western audiences and therefore never intended for Bushido: The Soul of Japan to be read by Japanese readers.  Nitobe wrote in English, referenced English sources and romanticized facts to satisfy his agenda and influence Western minds.  He did not expect people with critical knowledge on the subject to read his work.  “I did not intend [Bushido: The Soul of Japan] for a Japanese audience,” Nitobe admitted (Benesch 165).

Critique of Inazo Nitobe


Photo by  KoS

Nitobe’s “fear of what (Japanese) readers might think” proved sound when Bushido: The Soul of Japan received heavy criticism in Japan.  However, Nitobe soon found himself under attack as well. Many Japanese scholars accused the author of being unqualified to write on bushido, questioning his expertise on Japanese history and culture.

Unlike the era’s other bushido theorists, Nitobe inhabited the outskirts of his own country and culture. He grew up studying English, sheltered from Japanese culture in Hokkaido.  Nitobe would go on to live abroad, marrying an American woman and dedicating himself to Christianity. Although he eventually returned to Japan and took work as a professor, it was long after Bushido: The Soul of Japan had been written and published. Critics claimed that Nitobe’s alienation from Japanese culture meant he lacked the necessary historical and cultural knowledge to write on an inherently Japanese topic like bushido.

Nitobe’s astounding lack of references to Japanese history and literature add weight to this argument.  Bushido: The Soul of Japan remains curiously void of factual backing, becoming a vehicle for Nitobe’s equivocal ramble and yearning for an imaginary past.

The few Japanese references Nitobe made call his integrity into question. For example, although Saigo Takamori did in fact lead the Satsuma Rebellion, the heroic motivations and suicide Nitobe references were embellished to lionize Saigo as the ideal samurai.

To be fair, many of Nitobe’s critics also ignored factual history and cherry picked data for their own interpretations of bushido.

Many writers on bushido, even in the 20th century, tended to propose their own theories without references to, or regard for, the ideas of other commentators on the subject.  Instead, they gradually relied on carefully selected historical sources and narratives to support their theories. (Benesch 116)

However, Nitobe’s contemporaries’ actions don’t excuse his own.  At its core, Bushido: The Soul of Japan presents baseless conjecture while exposing its author’s detachment from Japanese history and culture.  Nitobe forgoes fact while presenting a wonky rambling on a history he does not and can not support.  While proselytizing a universal morality to gain Japan favor in the West, Nitobe fails to prove bushido’s actual existence.

Give Me That New Old-Time Bushido?


Photo by  T0XiC0k82

Popular culture presents bushido as a concrete moral code so intertwined with Japan’s hallowed samurai class that the two appear inseparable.  But in reality the term bushido did not exist until the twentieth century.  In fact, Nitobe, one of the first scholars to embrace bushido, thought he created the term in 1900.

“Terms like budo (the martial way), bushi no michi (the way of the warrior), and yumiya no michi (the way of the bow and arrow) are far more common,” Benesch writes (7). Although these terms prove that warrior ideals had a place in the Japanese consciousness, equating them to bushido would be inaccurate.

The concept bushido came into use during the Meiji era but wouldn’t gain widespread acknowledgment until Meiji’s end.  Despite popular imagery, ancient samurai did not write about or discuss bushido.  Dishonorable acts didn’t end careers and lives as romanticized histories lead us to believe.

That isn’t to say that ancient Japan lacked laws or moral codes – claiming such would be ridiculous.   Rosalind Wiseman puts it best in her book Queen Bees and Wannabes, “We all know what an honor code is.  It’s a set of behavioral standards including discipline, character, fairness, and loyalty for people to uphold and live up to”(Wiseman 191).  From small communities like workplaces and clubs to large institutions like religions and nations, every culture has honor codes and concepts of morality.

But popular representations of bushido, samurai, and ancient Japan depict a clear and strictly enforced code of honor.  To dishonor oneself was to commit spiritual and physical suicide.  Popularized after the samurai class’s demise, books like Bushido: The Soul of Japan and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure help facilitate this myth, making it seem as if samurai lived and acted according to a literal, clearly defined set of rules that never existed.


Photo by Chris 73

Some researchers cite “kakun” (家訓), or family house rules, as the origin of bushido.  “In many cases the kakun were meant to serve as ethical and behavioral guidelines for the sons or heirs of the writers and often reflect concerns regarding the prosperity and the continuity of the clan” (Henry Smith).

Attributing family kakun to an overarching moral code is a leap most researchers don’t take.  Benesch comments, “Bushido receives little or no mention in postwar scholarship on medieval house codes… Evidence indicates that the association of bushido with (kakun) is a product of late Meiji-era interpretations” (8). Passed down from generation to generation kakun varied greatly by family. The scrolls became family heirlooms, not a set of rules to live by.

Early discourse on the subject exposes how vague warrior class values had been.  “An examination of source materials and later scholarship relating to samurai morality does not reveal the existence of a single, broadly-accepted, bushi specific ethical system at any point in pre-modern Japanese history” (Benesch 14).  Besides, warriors focused on victory and survival – battle didn’t lend itself to counterproductive codes of honor.

Any laws or moral codes put into place during the Edo era actually served to tame Japan’s wild, unprincipled warrior class as they moved from the battlefield to desk jobs.  “The samurai were too busy fighting in earlier centuries, and only began to concern themselves with ethics in the relatively peaceful Edo period” (15).

With no battles to wage, the Tokugawa government relegated swords to ornaments of class, the ultimate status symbols.  Samurai became upper-class bureaucrats with leisure time to spend on philosophical pursuits.  Ideas of honor and etiquette frowned upon disloyalty and senseless violence, playing into the Tokugawa government’s strategy to maintain control over a united Japan.

The Honorable Samurai: Fact or Fiction?


Bushido had never existed as an honor code or term in ancient Japan as Bushido: The Soul of Japan implied.  Nitobe’s representation of the samurai class proves itself just as contrived.  Like all human beings, samurai morals varied by individual.

Honorable Warriors?


Photo by Guidod

Historical accounts show that samurai did not follow an honor code, which would have been an impractical obstacle to survival, victory, and comfortable living.  Timon Screech writes “We are talking mythologies. The belief that samurai ever fought to the death does not survive investigation, nor the claim that they made the sacrifice of disembowelment when atonement was required. The motto the way of the samurai is death was invented long after death had ceased to be on most samurai’s minds or a reality in their lives… they were bureaucrats.”

Although depicted as common practice, seppuku was not the mainstay of the samurai as Nitobe depicted. “It hurt too much,” Screech explains.  “Suicide actually took the form of a pretended stab carried out with a wooden sword, or even a paper fan, at which a signaled assistant would sever the head from behind, cleanly and painlessly.”

Benesch writes that seppuku was “limited to hopeless situations in which a defeated warrior was certain to be subjected to torture, a common practice at the time” (16).  Ignoring seppuku’s factual history, writers romanticized the practice and exalted it to the ultimate form of honor.


Photo by Lepidlizard

And what of the sword, the so-called soul of the samurai?  Charles Sharam explains, “Prior to [the Tokugawa era], the samurai were in fact mounted archers who were highly skilled with the bow and arrow, occasionally using other weapons if necessary. For the greater part of their history, the sword was not an important weapon to the samurai.”

Depicted as the antithesis of the sword in modern media, firearms came to represent the abandonment of “samurai values.”  The loud foreign weapons embodied a loud, dirty (literally due to the gunpowder and smoke), dishonorable way of killing from afar.  But what about archery, the samurai’s original weapon of choice?  Though elegant, bows fired projectiles and killed from afar – just like firearms.  Shouldn’t archery be viewed as just as dishonorable as guns?

Furthermore, samurai had the privilege and advantage of mounted combat.  In fact, Oshii theorizes that Miyamoto Mushashi created his legendary niten ichi (二天一), or two sworded technique for better balance and more efficient killing from the saddle. Both the shooting and cutting down of foot-soldiers from a favorable mounted position clashes with the honorable image of the grounded sword fighter popularized by modern depictions of the samurai.

In Bushido: The Soul of Japan Nitobe describes loyalty as the shining attribute of the samurai class.  However, samurai sullied Japanese history with rampant examples of disloyalty.  G. Cameron Hurst III writes:

In fact, one of the most troubling problems of the premodern era is the apparent discrepancy between… codes exhorting the samurai to practice loyalty and the all-too-common incidents of disloyalty which racked medieval Japanese warrior life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most crucial battles in medieval Japan were decided by the defection – that is, the disloyalty – of one or more of the major vassals of the losing general. (517)

And although bushido denounces materialism as a corruptive force, samurai weren’t the epitome of anti-materialism that bushido writers like Nitobe described.  Benesch explains:

Loyalty required payment.  Reciprocity was expected at every stage of the process… and most samurai would have considered their own lives to be considerably more important than the lives of their superiors…  (Furthermore) repeated looting of Kyoto evidenced of a lack of ethics, and the great importance warriors placed on appearance (represented) the antithesis of the popular image of the austere and frugal samurai. (19-21)

Honorable Lifestyles?


Photo by WTCA

Tokugawa ushered in an unprecedented era of peace that forever altered the live’s of Japan’s warrior class.  Many samurai moved from the battlefield to civil service positions.  As society’s upper class, these samurai held cushy positions in the new era’s bureaucracy.  Swords became symbols of status, not battle.  With ample leisure time, these samurai enjoyed hobbies such as tea ceremony and calligraphy.  Others spent time in the pleasure quarters.

While peasants toiled in the fields to feed the nation and pay taxes and merchants struggled to maintain a respectable position in society, the samurai worked desk jobs for rice stipends.  Disposable income afforded samurai the luxuries of materialism and the former warriors became Japan’s most fashionable class.  In other words, samurai represented “the one percent” (actually  six to eight percent according to Don Cunningham) of the Tokugawa era.


But not all samurai enjoyed life in the upper class.  Low status samurai made small stipends that barely afforded daily living.  Bound by the Tokugawa era’s strict laws that forbade outside unemployment, some of these samurai renounced their status to become artisans or farmers (Cunningham).

Still other Tokugawa era samurai could not find employment.  These vagrants often turned to dishonorable acts.  As Don Cunningham explains in Taiho-jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai, “Facing unemployment and an ill-defined role within their new society, many samurai resorted to criminal activities, disobedience, and defiance” (Cunningham).  With few prospects and mounting frustrations, these samurai dressed and spoke flamboyantly, harassed lower classes, joined gangs, and brawled in the streets.

Whether elite civil servants or unemployed ruffians, Tokugawa era samurai did little to reinforce Nitobe’s depictions of an honor-bound class that set a high moral standard for other classes to aspire to.

Honorable Interpretations?


Photo by World Imaging

The loss of status ushered in by the Meiji government did not please those samurai accustomed to the Tokugawa system.  Benesch states, “The samurai found their social status increasingly challenged by economically powerful commoners, some of whom were also purchasing or receiving samurai privileges such as the right to wear swords” (24).  Rendered useless in an age of peace even the sword, “the soul” and symbol of the samurai had lost meaning.  New class mobility allowed the uppity lower classes to challenge the samurai in both wealth and status.

As the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 proves, the changes pushed some samurai to take action.  “Gradually eliminating their stipends and special status…  created a large group of disgruntled shizoku (samurai), a number of whom gathered around Saigo Takamori and instigated rebellion.”

Romanticized histories like Bushido: The Soul of Japan and The Last Samurai, depict Saigo as a defender of truth, honor, and the purity of the warrior’s code.  In truth, holdouts from a bygone era rebelled, attempting to preserve their status and cushy way of life that included rice stipends, property, and nepotism.  Professor Ohno points out:

The previous samurai class, now deprived of their rice salary… were particularly unhappy with the new government which was established, ironically by young samurai…  Silk and tea found huge markets, soaring prices enriched farmers.  Enriched farmers bought Western clothes.  The merchant class grew, particularly in Yokohama… Inflation soared (and) samurai and urban populations suffered. (41-43)


Photo by Diogo151

Low ranking and unemployed samurai, many of whom pushed for changes, saw the Meiji era as a change for the better.  A weakened class structure meant poor or unemployed samurai could seek fortune elsewhere.  The abolition of the heredity system allowed for mobility.  Suddenly those in high positions found incentive to work hard.  Although a minority, Saigo and other top ranking samurai had the most to lose and rebelled as a result.

Lucky for Nitobe, honor is in the eye of the beholder, a concept open to interpretation.  For example Nitobe cites The 47 Ronin Story as the ultimate example of loyalty, but others interpret it as a cowardly sneak attack.  Japan celebrates Miyamoto Musashi as its most skilled sword-fighter, yet he arrived late to duels and “dishonorably” sneak-attacked opponents.  Nitobe describes the Satsuma Rebellion as a battle of honor, not a rebellion driven by the preservation of class status.

Although Nitobe and his fellow writers lament the corruption and destruction of bushido by modernity, the concept never existed as they describe.  Samurai were not the loyal, honorable, bastions of bushido that they have come to represent.  Charles Sharam writes in The Samurai: Myth Versus Reality, “Samurai were a superfluous burden on Japanese civilization… that contributed little to society but drained a considerable amount of wealth. That said, their elimination in the years of the Meiji Restoration was most definitely warranted for the betterment of the nation.”

Fascism – Nitobe’s Unintended Consequence


Just decades after ousting the samurai, the Japanese government would find a new use for its former ruling class.  Despite military victories abroad, Japanese officials felt troops lacked confidence and fighting spirit.  Bushido’s image of honorable samurai fighting to the death provided the solution (Oshii).  The ideology that changed the West’s perception of Japan would now serve to fuel fascism and the Japanese war machine.  

According to Nitobe, Japan came from a long line of honorable, brave, and capable warriors that could be extended to all classes.  He wrote, “In manifold ways has bushido filtered down from the social class where it originated, and acted as leaven among the masses, furnishing a moral standard for the whole people” (Nitobe ).

Trickle down bushido meant even the lowliest citizen could aspire to and attain the glory and honor of a samurai.   The warrior spirit was ingrained in the Japanese soul.  By taking bushido mainstream, the Japanese government looked to boost its soldiers’ and citizens’ confidence by applying the ideology among its military and citizenry.


Photo by:  PawełMM

Furthermore, bushido justified Japan’s imperialistic cause by demonstrating Japan’s moral and cultural superiority to other nations.  Bushido writer Suzuki Chikara “felt that both Western and Chinese thought were alien to Japan, and that the nation would have to focus on its own ‘true spirit’ and promote ‘national spirit-ism'” (Benesch 101).  Like America’s Manifest Destiny and the religious zealotry that fueled the crusades, romanticized bushido served to motivate and rationalize Japan’s imperialist agenda.

Now that it had found an ideology, the Japanese government had to make bushido “leaven among the masses” or moving propaganda.  “Civilization and Enlightenment” and “Rich Nation, Strong Army” became wartime slogans.  The nationalized education system streamlined curriculums to spread government rhetoric and foster an enlightened, battle-ready citizenry.

The national curriculum changed history to fit government agendas.  “The Edo-period texts that showed the greatest nostalgia for pre-Tokugawa conditions were carefully selected, condensed, and edited to purge them of those elements which ran counter to the national project in the early twentieth century” (Benesch 21).

Mandatory texts romanticized past events and personalities.  According to Oshii, “False images were created out of government necessity.”  Thanks to the government’s agenda, unfamiliar entities like bushido, Hagakure and Miyamoto Musashi entered the mainstream conscious.


Photo by PawełMM

Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan gained popularity in prewar Japan thanks to its ideology and romanticism of the past.  Nitobe declares, “Yamato Damashii, the soul of Japan, ultimately came to express the Volksgeist of the Island Realm” (27).  Defined as the spirit of the people, Hitler embraced Volksgeist for his own fascist agenda (Griffen 255).  Like bushido, Volksgeist celebrated its country’s folk history, cultural heritage and race.  These unrealistic nostalgias for the past sowed the seeds of fascism that would lead to the unspeakable violence and tragedies surrounding World War II.

Bushido would find its ultimate embodiment in kamikaze pilots and foot-soldiers who “honorably” sacrificed themselves for their country.  “Although some Japanese were taken prisoner,” David Powers of BBC writes, “most fought until they were killed or committed suicide.”  As these soldiers’ government issued volumes of Hagakure taught, “Only a samurai prepared and willing to die at any moment can devote himself fully to his lord.”

Nitobe’s Legacy


Although he had never intended it, Nitobe’s fanciful idealization of Japan’s past had obvious fascist implications.  In an eerie prediction of what was to come, Bushido: The Soul of Japan states,

Discipline in self-control can easily go too far.  It can well repress the genial current of the soul.  It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities.  It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or habituate affections. (110)

Both Nitobe and the imperialist government subverted the truth and exploited Japan’s past for their own ulterior motives.  Thanks to Nitobe, Japan’s ancient soldiers and bureaucrats became honorable, spiritual warriors.  More concerned with loyalty, benevolence, etiquette, and self-control than victory, monetary gains or rank in society, the samurai became a paradigm for readers to aspire to.

But history is ever-changing.  True events fade from memory and years of interpretation’s tincture, both intended and unintended, shape modern understandings of the past.  Blurred mixtures of fact, opinion and fantasy enter mainstream consciousness and gain acceptance as “true” history.

Did Saigo Takamori really commit seppuku at the Satsuma Rebellion’s end?   Did Davy Crockett really fight to his death at the Alamo, or was he executed upon surrender as some historians believe?  Was the Satsuma Rebellion a battle for virtue or for status?  Was the Boston Tea Party a rebellion against unfair taxation or wealthy American merchants fighting to maintain their monopoly over tea?  And what about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree?  And his wooden teeth?

While the truth may never be known or agreed upon, it’s important to question the events and the motivations behind our so-called histories.  In Japan’s case, government manipulated histories, including a glorified samurai class and bushido code, became propaganda that helped inspire a fanatical war machine.

Society often looks for answers to our present problems in the past.  Like the current Tea Party movement’s misinformed exploitation of America’s past, Nitobe’s bushido created a yearning for the unsubstantiated simplicity and purity of a bygone era.

As The Last Samurai proves, Nitobe’s legacy lives on.  Accurate or not, his simplified idealization of bushido and the samurai still garners the world’s admiration.  And as long as it does, popular culture will follow in the footsteps of both Inazo Nitobe and the Japanese government, exploiting their mythical image for its own motives – consumer’s hard earned cash.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Benesch, Oleg.  Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic In Late Meiji Japan
  • Braudy, Leo. From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
  • Cunningham, Don. Taiho-jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai. Boston: Tuttle Pub., 2004. Print.
  • Griffin, Roger, and Matthew Feldman. Fascism: Critical Concepts in Political Science. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hansen, Valerie, and Kenneth Robert. Curtis. Voyages in World History. Second Ed. Print.
  • Hurst, Cameron G. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushido Ideal.”Philosophy East and West 40.4 (1990): 511. Web.
  • Miyamoto Musashi: Souken Ni Haseru Yume. Dir. Mizuho Nishikubo. Prod. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. By Mamoru Oshii. Production I.G., 2009. DVD.
  • Navarro, María Teresa Rodríguez, and Allison Beeby. Self-Censorship and Censorship in Nitobe Inazo, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, and Four Translations of the Work. TTR : Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction 23.2 (2010): 53.
  • Oshiro, George M. “Nitobe Inazo and the Sapporo Band.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34.1 (2007): 99-126. Nazan Institute for Religion and Culture.
  • Perez, Louis G. Japan at War: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013. Print.
  • Powers, David. Japan, No Surrender in WWII. BBC.
  • Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Crown, 2002.

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Beauty is in the Language of the Beholder Thu, 04 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Is a rose in full bloom beautiful? How about a decaying flower losing its petals? Are straight teeth or crooked teeth more aesthetically pleasing? Would you rather put a gilded porcelain vase or a warped, weathered piece of pottery in the middle of your living room? Photo by: mout1234 That depends on your sense of aesthetics. […]

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Is a rose in full bloom beautiful? How about a decaying flower losing its petals? Are straight teeth or crooked teeth more aesthetically pleasing? Would you rather put a gilded porcelain vase or a warped, weathered piece of pottery in the middle of your living room?


Photo by: mout1234

That depends on your sense of aesthetics. Beauty might seem like a self-explanatory concept but it’s actually remarkably malleable and culturally variable. Humans like pretty things, but they don’t always agree on what qualifies as pretty. Heck, Western academies invented a whole branch of philosophy known as aesthetics just so they could argue with each other about the nature, creation, and appreciation of beauty. And just about every language comes equipped with a vocabulary of aesthetic concepts, a verbal set (or sets) of standards that a culture uses to appraise beauty.


Japanese, of course, is no exception. Biishiki (美意識) refers to one’s sense of beauty, and the word is the closest Japanese relative to the English word “aesthetics.” However, rather than a philosophy reserved almost solely for the fine arts, biishiki as a concept is much more integrated with all realms of life. There are a slew of aesthetic concepts that fall under this linguistic umbrella, but I’m going to introduce just 7 manifestations of biishiki in this article. Aesthetic vocabulary words in any language are like mini-solar systems, where a single word acts like the gravity gluing together a constellation of related ideas that it keeps in orbit. These little words can mean so much thanks to their decades and even centuries of usage, as layer upon layer of meaning accumulated around a select few phonetic symbols.


Without further ado, let’s begin our (roughly chronological) tour of some key Japanese aesthetic concepts.

Miyabi (雅 / みやび)


…a spray of plum blossoms, the elusive perfume of a rare wood, the delicate blending of colors in a robe…A man might first be attracted to a woman by catching a glimpse of her sleeve, carelessly but elegantly draped from a carriage window, or by seeing a note in her calligraphy, or by hearing her play a lute one night in the dark. Later, the lovers would exchange letters and poems, often attached to a spray of the flower suitable for the season.

– Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600

In a word, miyabi can be translated as “courtliness.” The court in question here refers to the aristocratic court of the Heian period (794-1185) that fostered this aesthetic ideal. Related to the word miyako (都), or “capital,” miyabi is all about refinement and elegance—and in the Heian period, the capital of Japan was the capital of miyabi. Cultivating miyabi entails 1) eliminating all vulgarities, absurdities, crudities, and roughness, and 2) polishing appearances and/or manners to the most graceful possible level. In addition to objects and experiences, people can also be endowed with miyabi—the miyabi individual is cultured, dignified, and strongly adheres to decorum.


Photo by: s.yume

Miyabi’s hold over the Japanese cultural imagination had a limiting effect as well as a generative one, since it often prevented the direct expression of “cruder” emotions or unsavory aspects of life. Because really, just how many poems about moon-viewing can you write before you want to stick a calligraphy brush in your eye? Luckily, miyabi is no longer the final word on artistic merit, but it will forever have a place in Japanese culture.


Photo by: Aurelio Asiain

Surprisingly, the miyabi aesthetic ideals of the Heian elites filtered down into the subsequently ruling military class, and from there diffused into the populace at large. As East Asian scholar William de Bary observes about the presence of miyabi in modern Japan, the “love of conventionally admired sights of nature is genuine, not a pose, and it extends to all classes. The annually renewed excitement over cherry blossoms or reddening maples or first snow is an important element of the Japanese year. A letter that failed to open with mention of these sights of nature would strike the recipient as being curiously insensitive.” Furthermore, the continued preference for indirect expression in modern Japanese can be traced to miyabi.


Aware/Mono no Aware (哀れ・物の哀れ)


Photo by: Gideon Davidson

The blossoms of the Japanese cherry trees are intrinsically no more beautiful than those of, say, the pear or the apple tree: they are more highly valued because of their transience, since they usually begin to fall within a week of their first appearing. It is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the wistful feeling of mono no aware in the viewer.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥

Kyou nitemo
kyou natsukashi ya

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto

-Haiku By Matsuo Basho

Aware has come a long way in the last thousand years. Many, many moons ago, back at the beginning of the same Heian period that brought you the hit aesthetic concept miyabi, aware functioned as an exclamation of surprise or delight like “oh!” or “ah!” But by the year 1200 aware had gone from a simple “oh!” to a complex emotion. Gradually the word came to be tinted with sadness, an expression of gentle sorrow upon seeing a sight both achingly beautiful and woefully temporary.


Photo by: T.Kiya

In the 18th century aware went through another growth spurt. The groundbreaking scholar Motoori Norinaga expanded and expounded upon the notion of aware as a foundational aspect of Japanese culture in his literary love letter to The Tale of Genji. In his writings, Motoori used the phrase mono no aware (variously translated as “the pathos of things,” “empathy toward things,” and “the ahhness of things”). He argued that this concept went beyond mere sadness and joy and instead signified “a profound sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence in general.” (From “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”)

Whether it’s called aware or mono no aware, the pathos, empathy, or “ahh-ness” inherent in the concept encompasses a Buddhist awareness of the transient and ephemeral nature of all things, with an accompanying sadness or wistfulness at their passing, as well as a heightened appreciation for their momentary beauty. Deep stuff! In other words, aware is a kind of reverse nostalgia, an aching for the present from the perspective of the future. Aware still inhabits the arts and daily life, finding expression equally in the acclaimed films of Yasujiro Ozu and the annual custom of hanami. And the word has even come full circle as a conversational exclamation, albeit in a more depressing vein. To gasp “aware!” now means something along the lines of “how wretched” or “how pitiful!”


Photo by: sunnywinds*

Yugen (幽玄)


Photo by: Roger Andrés

…it may be comprehended by the mind, but it cannot be expressed in words…its quality may be suggested by the sight of a thin cloud veiling the moon or by autumn mist swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside…

- Shotetsu monogatari in Zoku gunsho ruiju

Of all the aesthetics in this article, yugen might be the trickiest one to pin down. The term made its first appearance in Chinese philosophy texts where it signified “dark” or “mysterious.” From the early 13th century through the 15th century, yugen accumulated layers of connotations until it became the marker for a subtly profound, gracefully remote, and deeply mysterious beauty.


Photo by: MIKI Yoshihito

One of the two founders of the Noh theater, Zeami, esteemed yugen as the highest possible artistic ideal, and made lasting contributions to its conception. Zeami’s writings, almost as obscure and inscrutable as yugen itself, describe yugen as a beauty that leaves empty space for the audience’s imagination to fill in, as an aesthetic that prefers allusiveness over explicitness and completeness.

Or as William de Bary describes its effect: “Although the gesture is in itself beautiful, it is the gateway to something beyond as well, as the hand points to depths as profound as the viewer is seeing. It is a symbol not of any one object or conception but of an eternal region, an eternal silence.”

Well, then. I’ll just let the eternal silence speak for itself.


Photo by: 55Laney69

Jo-ha-kyu (序破急)


Photo by: Wally Gobetz

…I often ask a group of actors to sit in a circle, close their eyes, and clap their hands together, while trying to keep the sound in unison. No leader, no pre-fixed rhythm. Every time, once the group has come together, the clapping will start to imperceptibly speed up until a climax is reached. Then it will slow down again (though not as slow as the original starting point), and once more start to speed up until it reaches a second climax. And so on…This is an organic rhythm which can easily be observed in the body’s build-up to sexual orgasm. Almost any rhythmic physical activity will tend to follow this pattern if left to itself.

-The Invisible Actor by Yoshi Oida


These three stages of sprout, flower, and fruit, are, as I said, the jo-ha-kyu of training throughout your life.

- Zeami: Performance Notes by Zeami

Sprout, flower, and fruit? Literally, the compound jo-ha-kyu means “beginning, scattering, rushing.” As an aesthetic concept describing temporal and/or spatial movement, jo-ha-kyu originated from the three-part structure (the jo, ha, and kyu) of bugaku court music and dance (practiced by elites since the Heian period). Rather than a “beginning, middle, and end” or a “witch’s hat” plot model, jo-ha-kyu is a cyclical structure that gives shape to performances that lack a single climax or clear sectional divisions.


Photo by: Pinky-san

Jo begins slowly, engaging in exploration and building expectation. Ha speeds things up, the unfolding and then scattering of an idea. Kyu dissolves rapidly into the original pace, a culmination of the ha and then a reincarnation as jo. Jo-ha-kyu usually runs through multiple cycles, so that the cumulative effect is of an undulating wave, like the ocean repeatedly crashing on a shoreline—rippling, surging, and cresting, over and over again. To see and hear how this works, check out this video:

For a while, jo-ha-kyu existed only in the bugaku music and dance that accompanied it. However, during the Muromachi period (1337-1573) the concept was adapted and incorporated into a wide variety of performance mediums that survive even in modern Japan–from the tea ceremony to kendo to Noh theater. Along with our dark and mysterious friend yugen, Zeami made jo-ha-kyu of central concern to Noh theater. He further argued that the structure expressed the universal pattern of movement of all things, the very rhythm of the universe–from the sexual cycle to the setting of the sun.


Photo by: Christian Kaden

Wabi-sabi (侘び寂び)

beauty is in the language temple

Photo by: Synn Wang

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration…

- Essays in idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko, selected by William de Bary to Convey sabi

Hana mo momiji mo
Ura no tomaya no
Aki no yugure

Looking about
Neither flowers
Nor scarlet leaves.
A bayside reed hovel
In the autumn dusk.

– Fujiwara no Teika’s Poems, selected by Takeno Joo to convey wabi

Though they’re basically conjoined twins now, wabi and sabi weren’t always attached at the hyphen. Wabi or wabishii was once relegated to describe things wretched, dreary, and shabby. Meanwhile, sabi or sabishii was the adjective of choice for desolate, old, and lonely things. Around the 14th century, both words got a makeover. Wabi gained the positive or at least neutral connotations of natural, simple, humble, asymmetric. And sabi evolved into graceful, fleeting, aged, weathered. These fuzzy little linguistic caterpillars turned into butterflies, or at least moths.


Photo by: Snake Cats

Over time the revamped individual meanings of wabi and sabi overlapped and converged into the unified aesthetic of wabi-sabi. The humble and the aged, the natural and the fleeting—far from being disparaged, or merely accepted, things endowed with these qualities came to be outright celebrated. Not to mention that wabi-sabi had Zen Buddhism on its side, since both word and religion encouraged the appreciation of transience and imperfection in nature, humanity, and man-made objects.


Photo by: gullevek

As an ironic side-note, the definitionally humble wabi-sabi became so prized that it also became obscenely expensive. During the Muromachi period, large amounts of time and money were spent to acquire and produce flawed, aged objects—objects that now lie in laser-secured glass cases in museums around the world and fetch outrageous sums at auction. Though I suppose that’s not a far cry from the phenomenon of “distressed” designer jeans with ludicrously expensively pre-ripped knees…

beauty-is-in-the-language Christian Kaden cup

Photo by: Christian Kaden

Shibui (渋い)


Photo by: Tzong-Lin Tsai

…as a critical term, the Japanese use the word in innumerable aspects of their everyday lives. “That’s a shibui color, isn’t it”; “a shibui performance”’ “he has a shibui voice”; “her dress is shibui”; and so on. Just as there is shibui material, so there are shibui houses. A sumo wrestler may have a shibui style and so even, may a baseball player…the concept of shibui implies an outlook which is practical, devoid of frills, and unassuming, one which acts as circumstances require, simply and without fuss…neither flashy, nor yet dull…

True beauty lies in its ability to share intimately in one’s daily life; in its practical usefulness and its simple efficiency; in its rich human touch; in its ability to create just this kind of healthy relationship…Compared with this, the beauty for its own sake which the word “beauty” usually refers to, even though originally a product of everyday life, has gradually become divorced from life…

– The World of Shibui by Michiaki Kawakita

During the Muromachi period, poor little shibui meant nothing more than “astringent” or “bitter,” the antonym of “sweet.” It was a word to describe an unripe persimmon, not a pretty thing. Shibui is still a word to describe an unripe persimmon, but ever since the Edo period (1603-1868) it’s also been a signifier of minimalist beauty–of the understated, subdued, and restrained.


Photo by: Christian Kaden

The burgeoning commoner class of the Edo era transformed shibui from a literal taste into an aesthetic taste that reflected the virtues of their own songs, fashions, and craftsmanship. On that basis, the shibui forgoes unnecessary frills and rejects the artificially ornamental in favor of overall simplicity and subtle detail.


Photo by: 挪威 企鵝

From the elegantly austere geometry of Edo-period textiles to the sleekly refined design of modern Japanese electronics, shibui has been and continues to be highly influential in Japan. And even if the word itself hasn’t become common international currency, shibui does seem to be traveling abroad. The growing global presence and popularity of Japanese retail outlets like Uniqlo and Muji (selling shibui clothing and shibui home goods respectively) suggests that 17th century Japanese commoners would be quite pleased if they somehow time-traveled to the 21st century.


Photo by: Tony & Wayne

Iki (粋)


…Iki developed in a social context in which one found no faces blackened by the sun, no tough palms or stout, strong-jointed fingers, no conversations shouted in broad dialect. The rough behavior that might accompany tilling, logging, fishing, or salt making was entirely out of place. Indeed, any activity taking place in fields, forests, or waters—activities in which efforts were directed at the nonhuman—were incompatible with iki. Iki emerged entirely from the subtle tensions in human relationships…an aesthetic of the metropolis…the realm of possibility, a realm in which relations between people maintain a subtle vibrating tension, appearing and vanishing, at once weak and impassioned, both intimate and distant.

- Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868 By Matsunosuke Nishiyama


Photo by: Mami H.Gibbs

One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from west to east, while the girl, intending to send a special-delivery letter, was walking from east to west, but along the same narrow street in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. They passed each other in the very center of the street. The faintest gleam of their lost memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts. Each felt a rumbling in their chest. And they knew:

She is the 100% perfect girl for me.

He is the 100% perfect boy for me.

But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of fouteen years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd.

A sad story, don’t you think?

Yes, that’s it, that is what I should have said to her.

– “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” By Murakami Haruki

Basically, iki was cool before “cool” was cool. Like shibui, iki emerged from Edo period urban culture, particularly from the burgeoning brothel and theater districts. The essence of iki is the essence of urbanity, an effortlessly stylish and unpretentious chic that is both alluring and aloof.


According to Edo period historian Matsunosuke Nishiyama, the three main ingredients of iki were: 1) hari, a “straightforward, coolly gallant manner,” 2) bitai, a “flirtatious allure and light coquettishness,” and 3) akanuke, an “unpretentious air…an unconcerned, unassuming character.” Iki can broadly apply to someone’s persona (of either gender) as well as to experiences and to man-made phenomena like films, urban landscapes, and fashion.

After the Edo period came to an end, iki faded out of cultural consciousness until the 1930s, when Kuki Shuzo re-popularized the concept with his influential philosophical tract, The Structure of Iki. Since then iki’s been alive and well. Heavily urbanized modern Japan serves up iki everywhere from Murakami Haruki’s writing (often cited as an embodiment of iki) to the “host clubs” that populate entertainment quarters (and deliberately cultivate an iki atmosphere for their female clientele).


Photo by: Héctor García

Roses Are Dead, Violets Are Too


Photo by: Randy Woolsey

For every biishiki term I covered, there’s a dozen I had to leave out. So if this sampling’s got you hungry for more, there’s plenty to choose from. Check out this article for coverage of the kawaii craze (an aesthetic concept that arose in the 1970s) or pick up a copy of Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader by Nancy G. Hume for a general (but thorough!) overview. That said, even the seven concepts I did cover have a whole lot more to offer. I chose them because they’re particularly meaty and foundational to Japanese culture, but that also meant that I had to leave quite a bit out. After all, there are entire books worth of material in multiple languages dedicated to just about every one of them. So if one of the above biishiki particularly strikes your fancy, you can be assured I only scratched the surface.


Photo by: Thomas

You know when you learn a new word and then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere? Whether you’re super into traditional Japanese screen paintings, dream of touring famous sites in Kyoto, want to try your hand at learning kendo or tea ceremony, or get invited to take part in a hanami picnic, you’ll start seeing biishiki popping up everywhere. Even if you’re just walking around your own backyard in the dead of winter, or using a particularly well-designed object—you’ll start seeing wabi-sabi and shibui where you would have seen nothing particular before. At least that’s how I felt when I first learned about all these concepts. They’re each like a pair of glasses that can uniquely frame and filter the world around you, giving definition and shape to previously blurry surroundings. Suddenly, decaying flowers can be just as beautiful as blooming ones—and now you don’t have to worry about watering them regularly.


Photo by: Stuart Brown

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Megane Culture: Japan’s Love Affair with Glasses Mon, 01 Dec 2014 17:00:31 +0000 Glasses. I choose to wear glasses. I own contact lenses, and I can finance laser eye surgery, yet I still choose glasses. Glasses just make sense. Perhaps if my profession deemed eyewear to be an obstacle, say skydiving or kite surfing or something requiring me to bare my eyes, I would reconsider. As it is, […]

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Glasses. I choose to wear glasses. I own contact lenses, and I can finance laser eye surgery, yet I still choose glasses. Glasses just make sense. Perhaps if my profession deemed eyewear to be an obstacle, say skydiving or kite surfing or something requiring me to bare my eyes, I would reconsider. As it is, I go without, or is that go with? Glasses are me, and in Japan, while not my defining trait, the word megane 眼鏡 (glasses) is often used to describe men and women who wear them.

Me-ga-ne-kun!” Yo-yo wagged her finger as she playfully tried to dissuade me from entering the fifth optical shop on our itinerary. Donning a lensless pair, her eyelashes extended beyond the frames. She batted her eyes, pouting, “No more today? I’m hungry.” Crossing an arm, she pointed to her chin.

For every Meganekun there are three Meganekko メガネっ娘, and she is that glasses wearing girl! Going ten notches further than her masculine juxtaposition is a pleasant, bookish, clever class representative, the hall monitor, the prefect minding the shop. This isn’t just some kind of anime trope. It’s real, in the work place, at school, and on the street. Meganekko isn’t the hot secretary or naughty librarian. She is not playing coy. Unfortunately, what this also means is that glasses are often thought to be her most attractive trait, or rather, what her glasses symbolize. Taking Meganekko’s glasses away rarely ends well. Why? Because she needs them.

Necessities Of War

In 1549 the Society of Jesus founded in Spain sent missionary Francisco St. Xavier to Japan. Taking possession of the many gifts the Jesuit brought, the Japanese also acquired eyeglasses for the first time. It was only later in the 17th century that Japanese artisans began polishing natural quartz into ophthalmic lenses. Later in the century, glass was substituted for quartz. And it was at this time Japanese “gem-artists” (opticians) began designing frames with ergonomics in mind.

“During this 17th century, the Japanese excelled in string spectacles, added the midline nasal projection bridge, and reserved the largest spectacles for the nobility.” – Spectacles in Japan

From early optics to today’s modern form, Japan reveals itself in its pursuit of adaptation, quality, and aesthetic. In 1873 the Japanese government sponsored Matsugoro Asakura to study optical manufacturing in Austria. Having returned to Japan in 1875, Asakura began building a lens making factory. By 1883, his son, Kametaro Asakura produced Japan’s first multi-element photographic lens. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) saw the importation of high powered Carl Zeiss (German) binoculars which highlighted the strategic necessity of quality optics. This military need created a rush toward domestic development as well as the beginning of many well-known Japanese manufacturers.

1911 – Fujii Bros. import German fabrication equipment and Zeiss measuring instruments to manufacture quality optics.
1914 – World War I begins.
1915 – Optical glass supplies from Germany interrupted.
1917 – Fujii joins with the Tokyo Keiki Seisaku Sho (Tokyo Measuring Instrument Works – metal fabricators), and Iwaki Glass, (also Mitsubishi, who provided investment funds), to form Nippon Kogaku (Nikon), for the purpose of manufacturing optical munitions.
1918 – Nippon Kogaku exported over 15,000 prism binoculars (in 18 models) to England, France, America, and Russia.
1918 – World War I ends.
1919 – Asahi Kogaku (Pentax) begins manufacturing ophthalmic lenses.
1919 – Takachiho Seisaku Sho (Olympus) founded.
1921 – German scientists and engineers brought to Nippon Kogaku for redesign.
1928 – Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoka (Minolta) founded.
1930s – Nippon Kogaku develops highly effective field reticle binoculars.
1933 – Seiki Kogaku Kenku Sho (Canon) founded.
1934 – Fuji Photo Film Co. founded.
1938 – Fuji begins producing optical glass.
1939 – World War II begins.
1939 – Nippon Kogaku ramps up production with 25,000 employees and 25 factories.
1942 – Minolta commissioned by Japanese Navy to manufacture optical glass.
1945 – World War II ends.

Pushing Technology

With significant history behind the lens, no reader should be left in doubt as to Japanese competence in the field of visual acuity. If the timeline demonstrates that, “necessity is the mother of invention,” then I will note that war is the invention of necessity. As with the need for precision glass optics in military use, advancement of plastics can also be attributed to the munitions industry with their innovations in both lens and frame materials. Recent military lens technology, such as Trivex, has led to dramatic improvements in material clarity, strength, and weight. Further redefining the optics industry, Japanese manufacturers Hoya and Seiko have begun using digital eye mapping technology, otherwise known as Wavefront (the same technology utilized for laser eye surgery), in creating precision tuned High Definition eyeglasses.


As a rule, dispensation of corrective lenses throughout Japan is much less regulated than in the Western world, which significantly cuts down on cost. In addition to the fierce competition that exists between retail outlets, these savings are passed directly to the consumer. So let it be argued that any trip to Japan would be remiss if one were to forego a visit to one of the many optical dispensaries.

The first thing that hits a customer when entering a Japanese optometry is the sheer number of quality frames. They carry everything from the super chic to the overtly funky. Just as one might compare 100-yen shops in Japan to those dollar stores abroad, there exists a lopsidedness. Part of the equation is the relative distance of Japan from their foreign subsidiaries, this, in addition to the vast number of domestic competitors, creates a win-win scenario for shoppers.

Eye wear is strictly personal and one of the first and last things people will remember when they interact with someone who wears them. So of course, choosing the right pairs isn’t science, it’s inevitable.

Now one may argue that online retailers are cheaper, and I concede, they are a third of the cost compared to brick and mortar shops in Japan. But the cost argument is finite. There is no comparison when online retailers are put up against every other measure. Online quality cannot stand to brick and mortar businesses when it comes to immediacy. And let’s not start into the whole branding debacle. One of the nicest things about Japanese optical is the huge selection of unbranded frames.

Technically Speaking

In the future, everyone wears glasses. Sure, you’ve heard of Google Glass, but have you heard of Jin’s Meme? Recently, I was listening to a program featuring Nicholas Negroponte (founder of MIT Media Lab), a man who predicted the widespread use of touchscreen tech in a Ted Talk from 1984. Yeah, okay, one might say that Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek (1966), was perhaps the first to actually visualize the touchscreen on screen. None the less, the Japanese optometry chain Jin’s is siding with Negroponte’s outstanding futurist prediction: the proliferation of eye tracking technology.

So what do these glasses do? They watch you. Essentially, it’s all about bio feedback. Negroponte sees these devices as the next leap, acting as a kind of virtual assistant, something like the Operating System in the film Her (2013). When excited, our pupils dilate. When tired, our blinks weaken.

“Based on changes in eye movement, JINS MEME is able to determine levels of mental and physical tiredness, which many people are unable to notice on their own. Recovery rates from tiredness in humans drop dramatically once a certain threshold is crossed. JINS MEME can detect and alert you to those levels before reaching that point, providing a new kind of management tool for preventing tiredness from accumulating and for improving work efficiency.” – Jin’s Meme

Bury Me Wearing Glasses

There is something smart about future spectacles, something narcissistic, and something definitely cool. Before this future, Japanese optical shops are it, the best, perchance the definers of worldwide style and precision.

I’m not obsessed, I’m a connoisseur. So what if I own more glasses than I do shoes? Some pairs I’ve had for ages, favorites, simply replacing lenses as needed. Most times I’m being absent minded and I break them. Other times, they’ve saved me from peril. Thankfully, I’m never far from replacements. And there’s something quaint about shopping for necessity. Remember that thing I said about war?

Purchasing eyeglasses in Japan is much the same as it is around the world: find a frame, supply your prescription, choose your lenses, and pay the cashier. Don’t have a prescription? No problem, it’s included in the price. Don’t want a new prescription, but forgot your current one? No problem, the shop will pull your prescription from your current lenses. The real treat about purchasing eyeglasses in Japan is the sheer volume of style. Eyeglasses are all at once elegant, practical, and fun. Try them on, bring a friend and take a chance on something so totally not you. There is nothing wrong with an alter ego or two.

I’ve returned to the shop; it’s an hour later. The clerk pulls my newly minted glasses from their case while I sit before her. She opens each arm and I lean forward allowing her to position them upon my face. She delicately lifts the frames by the temples to judge their fit before retrieving them to make a slight adjustment. We do this a few times, and I’m smiling. Yo-yo faces away, her legs crossed. She maintains a masterful blank stare as the clerk grants me a final, wicked grin confirming everything I already knew.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop – 1280×720] ・ [Desktop – 5120×2880] ・ [Mobile – 640×1136]


Note: All photos taken by the author.

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Rascal’s Secret Plan: the Raccoon Invasion of Japan Fri, 21 Nov 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Ah, mother nature. Forests and hills, rivers and oceans, blossoms and bees. Truly, the beauties of the natural world are essential to a happy life. Of course, mother nature has another, harsher side. Storms, droughts, and floods can be deadly. And the world is full of creatures that bite, claw, sting, and poison. Many harmful […]

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

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

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

Case in point: Raccoons… in Japan.

But they’re so cute!

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

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

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

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

In short, a raccoon looks like this:

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by jmwests

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

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by alasam

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

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

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

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by stevehdc

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

The Invasion


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

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

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

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

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

brown rat

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

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

Photo by kalleboo

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

How Did It Happen?

Rascal: The Japanese Raccoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by kat+sam

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

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

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

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by 663highland

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

What Can Be Done?

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Charlie Anzman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rascal’s Lesson

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Harlequeen

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

Sendai and Matsushima


Is this what you would call disaster?

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

The recovery is going well here then, I suppose.


New buildings at Tohoku University

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

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


The recovery is going well here too, it seems.

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

Matsushima → Ishinomaki


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

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


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



How can you bring recovery to what was already sick?

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

Ishinomaki → Minami-Sanriku


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

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

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

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

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



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

And there is a lot to rebuild.


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


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

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


Below is what Google Maps led me to.



This used to be the station.


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]

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

The post The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction appeared first on Tofugu.

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

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

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

Visualizing Stories in Japan and the West


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

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

Figure 1

figure by Utako Matsuyama

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

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


figure by Utako Matsuyama

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reaction.

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

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

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

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

The Grammar of Japanese Horror


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

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

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

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

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

Kishōtenketsu and Horror Without Conflict


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

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

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

The Worldwide Resonance of Japanese Horror


Photo by Mark Willard

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

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

The Licked Hand

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

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

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

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

 The Vanishing Hitchhiker

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

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

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

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

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

Only Clawing at the Surface…


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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Over a Thousand Years of Service: Japan’s Oldest Businesses Reign Supreme(ly Old) Tue, 28 Oct 2014 16:00:30 +0000 Businesses die like anything else. I used to give joke directions to a house where I lived that involved a whole sequence of useless instructions like “turn left where the dry cleaner used to be.” If you’ve lived in the same place long enough, you can probably do the same. I can’t begin to count […]

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

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

Seriously Traditional Inns


Photo by Namazu-Tron

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

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

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


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

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

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

Former, Disputed, and Elusive Contenders


Photo by jpellgen

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

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

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

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

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

All in the Family


Photo by Captain76

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

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


Photo by: ajari

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

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


Photo by Christian Kaden

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iwaki, Fukushima


View of the city from the station.

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

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


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

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

Social Friction


Photo by Daisuke TSUDA

Example of temporary housing for disaster victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Disaster Victims get Lost!”

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

Fates of the Survivors


Photo by Steve Herman

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

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

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

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


Photo by Roger Jolly

Photo of decontamination works in Kawashima, 2012

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

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

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

Problems with Nuclear Energy


Photo by Energy.Gov

Mihama Nuclear Reactor

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

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

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


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

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

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

Moving Forward


Photo by Steve Herman

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

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

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

Please do take a look!

Further Reading:

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

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

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

What Are Shunga?


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

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

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


Photo by: David Monniaux

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

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

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

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

Shunga’s Uses


Photo by: Bruno Cordioli

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Shunga’s Themes

Good Old-Fashioned Love


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

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

Fashion’s Finest


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

Homoerotic Over and Undertones


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

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

Gender Ambiguities


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

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

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

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

The Depiction of Genitalia

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

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


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

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

Plot and Parody


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

Even Genji
can be poison
to young minds

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

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

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

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

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

Encounters of the Unique Kind

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

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

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

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

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

Lasting Influence


Photo by: Ignis

Have shunga left a lasting legacy?

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

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

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

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

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

Obscenity?  Art?  Or Both?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280×1600] ∙ [2560×1600]



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Japanese Legal Loopholes: How Japan Looks Innocent While Breaking the Law Thu, 16 Oct 2014 16:00:37 +0000 One of the big questions I asked myself while in Japan was “why?” Just “why.” Not the usual, little “why’s” that accompany a trip to a foreign nation like, “why are squatty potties so hard to use?” Rather, I couldn’t help being bombarded by bigger, more legalistic “why’s.” Why in a country where prostitution was […]

The post Japanese Legal Loopholes: How Japan Looks Innocent While Breaking the Law appeared first on Tofugu.

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

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

Types of Loopholes


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

Alcohol Loopholes


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

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

Whaling Loopholes


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

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

Gambling Loopholes


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

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

Prostitution Loopholes


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

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

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

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

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

Child Pornography Loopholes


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

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

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

About That “Why” Question


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

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

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

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

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

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The Standard of Japanese Female Beauty: Ono no Komachi and the Akita Bijin Fri, 10 Oct 2014 16:00:52 +0000 Ono no Komachi 小野小町 was a poet of unparalleled beauty and renown. Not only was she one of the most famous and well respected poets of the early Heian Period 平安時代, the golden age of Japanese poetry, but the rumor and awe surrounding her beauty has left its mark on Japan to the present day. A […]

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

A Legend is Born in Tohoku


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

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

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

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

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

Poetry and Heartache


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

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

Here are five of my personal favorites:

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

Nureba yo hito no
Yume to shiriseba
Samezaramashi o

Utatane ni
Koishiki hito o
Miteshi yori
Yume cho mono wa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Standards of the Akita Bijin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater Keeps the Legacy Alive


Photo by lensonjapa

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

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

Komachi Branding

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

Akita Komachi Rice


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

Komachi Shinkansen


Photo by Norio Nakayama

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

Komachi Hot Spring and Hotel


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

A Parade of Beautiful Women


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

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


1. 花の色はうつりにけりないたづらに

2. いとせめて恋しきときはうばたまの

3. 思いつゝ寝ればや人の見えつらん

4. ちはやぶる神もみばさば立ちさわぎ

5. わびぬれば身をうき草の根をたえて

6. 色も春もなつかしきかな蛙なく

7. 面影のかわらで年のつもれかし

Quiet Retirement


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

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Yakan Chuugaku: The Japanese Night Time Junior High Where The Uneducated Learn To Read Good Wed, 08 Oct 2014 16:00:51 +0000 In recent years, many people from different countries have been coming to Japan. Their reasons for studying Japanese are as various as their backgrounds. Due to this diversity, local governments have begun shifting their attention of language education to a wider age-range of non-native speakers, since these people aren’t all school-aged students, after all. However, […]

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

How To Get Into A Yakan-Chuugaku


Photo by gwaar

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

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

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

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

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

A Night School Junior High History Class

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

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

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

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

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

The Curriculum Of Junior High Night School


Photo by gwaar

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

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

Problems Awaiting Solution


Photo by takomabibelot

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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