Tofugu» In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 Aug 2014 22:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Peace and Japan Part 2 – Japan’s Current Military Fri, 22 Aug 2014 16:00:28 +0000 In the first article “Peace and Japan: How The Militarization Of Modern Japan Keeps Marching On“, I explained the constitution, the history behind Japan’s current situation with and how the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) have developed after creation, after the Second World War. This includes their most recent and controversial change, which gives them the right to a collective defense.

But, there is one important thing that we haven’t discussed yet: the Japanese military itself. And, given how the current debate has been framed in the context of regional security fears, it is important to take a closer look at the Japanese military, the capabilities that it has, and what the public thinks about all of these things.

1200px-thumbnail (1)

In terms of my own personal views? I’d say that saying Japan is “militarizing” is highly inaccurate – but for two very contradictory reasons.

First, the word militarizing makes it sound as if Japan is building up stockpiles of weaponry and conscripting people. It is not. Plus, its forces remain constrained in many ways.

Second, the word “militarizing” makes it sound as if Japan is currently a country with a weak military, and that Japan is now ditching its “unarmed ways.” This too is false. Unlike what many people think, Japan already has a very capable military force, thus it is already militarized.

It’s Not Militarizing: The GDP Argument

6073903423_039c462b7c_b (2)

Japanese fighters in flight at Nyutabaru Airbase Aviation Festival

As I mentioned in the previous article, this move towards a “collective self-defense” has not come with a visible increase in the Japanese Defense expenditures. This has been kept at 1% of the GDP, just like it has been for a long, long time. What does 1% mean? Of course, it depends on several variables. Let’s take a look.

1% of a country’s GDP for military is actually really low when compared to other countries. Most spend much more. The CIA puts Japan’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP at 103 in the world, at least in 2012.

Furthermore, this website states that the total number of active military personnel in Japan is around 247,000 people which is number 22 in the world. That still seems rather high, but when you consider it as a proportion of the total population (2.5 persons active in the military per 1000) the number is exceedingly low in the world.

Furthermore, one also has to take into account the type of military Japan possesses. The constitution prohibits the possession of force for purposes of attacking another country. So for example, Japan has a lot of fighter jets but no strategic bombers, etc.

It’s Not Militarizing: The “It Already Is Militarized” Argument

The other side of the coin is that people tend to underestimate the Japanese military and tend to think of Japan as not having a military presence. This is false for a few reasons.


Photo by dragoner_JP

The JS Izumo, which caused controversy after its launch in 2013 due to its alleged resemblance and convertibility to an aircraft carrier

While I did say that Japan does not have a strong offensive capability, a gun is a gun is a gun is a gun. And, to defend oneself militarily, one must shoot at someone else. The point is, while Japan may not have equipment that is explicitly offensive, there is quite a bit of crossover in terms of what is defensive and what is offensive. That is to say, it’s hard to pretend that Japan has zero offensive capability. A lot of what they have for defense can easily become offensive as well.

Secondly, while it is clear that Japan does not spend much and has way fewer people in the military for a country of its size, this does not mean that in absolute terms the Japanese military is not sizable. As noted above, it is, in terms of active personnel, #22 in the entire world. Sizable, but nothing that big and certainly smaller than its neighbors China, North Korea, and South Korea, which are first, fifth, and sixth in the world respectively.

However, 1.0% of the third largest economic power in the world is very clearly a sizable amount. Japan, as of 2013, spends around $50 billion USD on its military each year – roughly 50% more than what South Korea spends. In addition, Japan has the 7th or 8th largest military budget in the world depending on the source. With the above, it is clear that Japan has a sizable, modern and professional military.


Picture of a portion of the US 7th Fleet, based in and stationed in Yokosuka Naval Base

Thirdly, one must also note the sizable number of American forces (38,000 according to the United Forces Japan website) stationed in Japan which certainly hold sizable offensive capabilities. Most of the time, these are stationed in out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations (unless you’re living in Okinawa). However, just one hour from Shinjuku, and entirely within Tokyo prefecture, is Yokota airbase in Fussa city. Similarly, an hour from Yokohama is Yokosuka naval base.

This also means that even if they are not Japanese, Japan has signficant forces stationed on its soil which can use Japan as a staging area in the case of a military conflict. And while Prime Minister Abe says that the US needs Japanese consent for any deployment, the US has already historically used Japan as a basing ground in the Korean war and the Vietnam war.

So What do the Japanese think of their own Military anyway?


Newly selected Japanese officers at a ceremony

Now let’s take a look at public perception? I’ll be addressing the arguments about the constitution etc. in the next part but I’m going to focus on the perceptions of the military here now.

1) The Japanese public has gradually come to accept the defense forces as a being normal.

As you can imagine, Japan after World War II was heavily traumatized, and many blamed the military for the mess that Japan found itself in. This is why especially in the immediate decades after the war, the military was treated with heavy suspicion. In contrast to that, a survey by the Japanese government released in 2012 states that 91.7% of the Japanese population have a positive impression of the JSDF.

That has changed gradually as fears that of Japan being dragged into another conflict were realized. Up until now, no Japanese self-defense forces had been involved in any armed fighting – at most it was involved in back-end support (see previous article) and/or peace keeping operations overseas.


Photo by ChiefHira

Ishinomaki, Miyagi. JSDF forces doing disaster relief in the wake of the 2011 Earthquake/Tsunami disaster.

In addition to this, the Self-Defense Forces also play an important role internally in terms of disaster management. The Self-Defense Forces were deployed to Tohoku after the earthquake / tsunami disaster of 2011 and in that sense, they clearly do play at least some positive role within Japan. It is because of all this that the JSDF has become a gradually accepted part of the nation of Japan.

2) The Japanese public heavily underestimates the strength of their own forces.

This article provides a very good explanation of this – most of the Japanese population (actually I think it’s fair to say most of the world population) views Japan as without a “true” standing army with minimal defenses.

To the typical Japanese person, the JSDF is not an “army” – it is a “self-defence force” and nothing more. And as the article above notes, this underestimation may be a reason for why the Japanese are sometimes bewildered by their neighbours’ complaints about its military power.

3) The self defense forces are not exactly prestigious

As a reflection of the above, the JSDF isn’t exactly prestigious – Japan does not make movies like Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. And while being in the Marines in the US is highly respected and military service considered to be “service to the nation”, there is no equivalent that I know of in Japan.

Wikipedia has a nice write-up about this. Basically, according to the article, the JSDF gets its recruits from poorer rural areas and top university graduates tend to stay the hell away. No doubt the Japanese do thank the JSDF members for their service – it just isn’t as venerated as in some other countries.

All that being said…


Photo by the United States Army

Japanese Self Defence Forces during a visit by an American General

So I’ve taken a look at Japan’s military strength and this idea of “Militarization” that’s floating around. The point is that, in my view, there’s a lot of overestimation going on. This includes current changes (see previous article) and Japan’s actual military strength, which is nothing to scoff at.

Now that you know about the Japanese military and what it has, we will be looking at “who is saying what” about militarization, Article 9, the arguments for and against the Japanese military, as well as some deeper analysis around what people are actually saying about the current changes instituted by the Abe cabinet.

So stay tuned for next week when we wrap things up and learn what’s really going on with Japan’s army and where they will go, perhaps, in the future.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

]]> 3
Surviving Karaoke When You Hate It Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:00:30 +0000 I hate karaoke. I don’t mean “hate” like someone says they “hate” tuna after biting into a mystery sandwich and being unhappy with the taste. I mean hate like gagging on that bite of sandwich and then setting fire to it. It’s not a problem with the public performance aspect (which I don’t enjoy, but as a teacher and constant foreigner, I’ve adjusted). I just don’t like to sing. I don’t sing in the shower, in the car, or when I’m alone, unless I’m planning something (more on that later). Heck, I often don’t like it when other people sing, partially because people often don’t realize how tone deaf they are until they sing without a pro acting as their back-up. I know I’m awful, and I have no desire to improve, since I feel singing wouldn’t add anything to my life.

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


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

Singing in Japan


Photo by gullevek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Start of Karaoke


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

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

Survival Preparation (Use Your Head!)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival Execution (Don’t Lose Your Head!)


Photo by syvwlch

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rewards for Your Torture


Photo by Derek Gavey

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


]]> 6
Gaki no Tsukai And The Living Legends Of Japanese Comedy Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:00:00 +0000 When I took my first shot at learning Japanese, nothing stuck. I would learn new kanji or grammar, then it would fly out of my head in a week. It took me three months to realize I had to escape my bubble of textbooks and memorization and experience some Japanese in the wild. Unfortunately, I lived across from a cow pasture in South Carolina, so I couldn’t just find some place where people spoke Japanese. Instead, I decided to watch a comedy show called Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende.

In my home office, on the wall, you can find the Hall of Fame for the Best Decisions I Have Ever Made. I keep track of all my best decisions there, on fake plaques printed on A4 paper. Near the very top, just below “Decided Not to Go to Grad School,” you can find “Decided to Watch the Best Comedy Show of All Time and Learned Japanese While Doing It.”

I bet you can guess what show I’m talking about?

What is Gaki no Tsukai?

Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! is a Japanese comedy and variety show which has been running since 1989, producing over a thousand episodes. It has been a massively influential show in Japanese comedy, to the point that the main duo’s Kansai accent and dialect are the unofficial sound of comedy in the country. If you want to become a Japanese comedian, you better learn to talk like you’re from Osaka.

The show’s influence has even creeped just across the Pacific Ocean, with one fantastic Gaki no Tsukai segment called Silent Library being adapted into a full show on MTV. Virtually everyone will tell you that the original was better, but don’t let that stop you from watching Justin Bieber smell a durian. The original product is embedded below:

You can find all sorts of comedy under the Gaki no Tsukai umbrella: from old-fashioned “Who’s on First”-style manzai dialogues to sketches, game shows, cooking segments, public stunts, and the physical comedy that Japan is famous for. Gaki no Tsukai is especially famous for its batsu games: devilish and sometimes intricate scenarios in which one or more of the performers are comically punished for losing a competition, a bet, or just because it’s New Year’s Day. Gaki‘s New Year’s 24 Hours No Laughing specials are hours-long batsu games in which the comedians are forced to endure increasingly bizarre and hilarious scenarios with the caveat that they will be beaten if they laugh out loud.

Here’s a famous segment from one of the 24 Hours No Laughing shows in which returning character Jimmy Onishi does his very best to teach an English lesson. You can see the Gaki no Tsukai cast being constantly pulled away and hit when they laugh.

Just watching the video, I can tell you that I wouldn’t come out of it alive if I were in any one of their shoes.

Studying Japanese With Gaki No Tsukai


Gaki no Tsukai is worth watching for anyone with an interest in comedy, but it’s especially useful for students in the early stages of learning Japanese. There is a vast library of Gaki clips, episodes, and specials online which have been subtitled by fans, allowing anyone to watch and start to absorb the language in-between study periods. And thanks to the habit of the show (and all Japanese television, really) to put a lot of the spoken words on screen in text to highlight punch lines, you can almost match spoken words with Japanese text with English text all at once, which was helpful to me very early on in learning the language.

And because Gaki no Tsukai is largely a physical comedy show, you can make do without subtitles altogether without being afraid that you won’t have any idea what’s going on. Once you get much stronger with your language ability, there is a large and friendly fansubbing community that can help you practice the language as you subtitle clips and episodes on your own (and trust me, you can’t do much worse than some of the translations that are already out there). As you improve in ability, there is a very natural progression of Gaki no Tsukai clips that can help reinforce what you learn when you study, and even start to get your feet wet in the translation world if you are so inclined.

It makes for a step-by-step process:

1. If you’re a complete beginner like I was, watch the show with subtitles between study sessions. Usually, punch lines will be written out in big Japanese text on the screen, so you can practice reading katakana and hiragana, and test your kanji if any simple ones happen to come up. It’s useful to have Japanese spoken words, Japanese text, and English text on screen all at once when you’re just a beginner. If you’re doing it right, your brain should hurt after you’ve watched an episode or two. That means you’re getting some value out of your leisure time.

2. If you know a little bit of the language, be brave and watch the show without English subtitles. Especially if you’ve already seen an episode or two, missing a sentence here or there won’t hurt your enjoyment of this physical comedy-heavy show. I’ve found it important to immerse myself as much as possible as my language skill got better, and this is an easy place to start.

3. And if you’re really starting to know your stuff, Gaki no Tsukai is a friendly place to dip your toes into the world of translation. There is a huge community of people who watch subtitled Gaki no Tsukai content online, and in a show with 1,213 episodes, there is always more material to translate. By either learning to subtitle video yourself or working with another fan who wants to be a timer, you can start to subtitle Gaki clips and publish them online, trying out all the joys and pains of translation before turning it into a paying gig.

Introducing The Comedians

The core cast of Gaki no Tsukai is comprised of two separate comedy duos and… another guy. “Downtown” are the senior duo who introduce the show and have been with it from the start. “Cocorico” are a duo who joined in 1997, and Yamasaki Hosei (who recently changed his name to Tsukitei Hosei) is the solo act.


hamada-masatoshiHamada Masatoshi

Hamada is what is known in the Japanese comedy world as the tsukkomi. In the Anglo-American comedy world, this is what’s known as the “straight man.” Not the full-on no-jokes straight man a la Zeppo Marx, but the dominant, smart member of the comedy duo with Matsumoto.

It’s all based around the core interaction of Japanese comedy that you might recognize from any other video game, comic, or movie with elements of comic relief: Matsumoto is the funny man, so he acts like an idiot. Hamada is the straight man, so he yells at Matsumoto and hits him for being so stupid. Hamada plays a sadistic, mean, and almost evil character that is perfectly matched to Matsumoto’s goofier nature.

Among Hamada’s running gags: He always gets stuck wearing women’s clothes, and the other members of the group take every opportunity they can to compare him to a gorilla. He’s also… not a great artist.

matsumoto-hitoshiMatsumoto Hitoshi

Matsumoto is the elder statesman of Japanese comedy and the boke to Hamada’s tsukkomi. He’s taller than Hamada, he’s balder, and while he has the same temper, he doesn’t have the mean streak to back it up. He’s the funny man, and in the few times that the comedy isn’t physical, he tends to land the punch lines. Recently, Matsumoto has started a career in directing and writing movies, including two that made it Stateside in limited release: Big Man Japan and R100.


tanaka-naokiTanaka Naoki

Cocorico (sometimes spelled “Coq au rico”) are a much younger duo, and while their characters within Gaki no Tsukai aren’t so fleshed out as Downtown, they still play huge roles throughout the show. Tanaka is the boke and he’s a tall, thin, gentle-hearted guy who is perhaps best known for dropping immediately to the ground whenever he’s even remotely startled.

endo-shozoEndo Shozo – Endo is the tsukkomi, but despite being the more serious member of the duo, most of his running gags on Gaki no Tsukai revolve around his being kind of an airhead. Sometimes the team will make him read something full of slightly obscure kanji just to watch him try to figure them out.

He’s also punished on the show for his semi-scandalous private life, and his ex-wife (the singer Chiaki) is often brought on to the show to create awkward situations for him.

Some other guy named Hosei

hoseiYamasaki or Tsukitei Hosei

Yamasaki recently changed his name to Tsukitei just to make things difficult for someone trying to write a Gaki no Tsukai intro piece, but more importantly he’s the chubby underdog of the group. His punch lines never land and he seems to always take more physical abuse than anyone else, but he’s visibly trying his hardest to live up to the comedy standards of the others around him.

Yamasaki isn’t actually an unfunny comedian by any means, but he plays one on TV, and his character is supposed to be bad at his comedy job. In the last seven or so of Gaki no Tsukai’s New Year’s specials, some sort of unfortunate mix-up or other gets Yamasaki viciously slapped by the pro wrestler Masahiro Chono, one of the most popular running gags in the show for the way that Yamasaki tries desperately to escape his punishment.

Now Go Watch It!

Now you should be ready to dive into the hundreds of online clips of Gaki no Tsukai and start to love Japanese comedy. And if you’re like me, you’ll move on to Lincoln, and Million Kazokuand on and on, looking for that next comedy fix until you’re desperately walking into another DVD store, looking for a rakugo scene you’ve never watched before while knowing you won’t find it. You’ll be living in a batsu game of your own creation, and there’s no escape.

Until that happens to you, though, I’d like to provide you with some of my favorite Gaki No Tsukai clips to watch.

Matsumoto’s Pie Hell” is one of my favorite moments from the show. After losing a bet on the Japan Series, Hamada and the rest of the team subject Matsumoto to a full simulated day of pie attacks. Matsumoto must do everything the narrator tells him to do and pretend this is just a normal day, without reacting to the constant barrage of pies.

The “5 Rangers” clip below is a positively ancient Gaki sketch about a Super Sentai or Power Rangers team who fail to coordinate their outfits for the day. It’s a simple premise that has led to maybe a few dozen segments on the show, but I laugh every single time. This segment predates Cocorico and Yamasaki, but you should start with the original before you fast forward a decade or two.

The “Kiki” series is one of my favorite segments from the show, in which the cast taste something blindfolded, then try to pick it out from a table of alternate brands of the same thing. You can see them taste-test curry, instant miso soup, and even cigarettes and beer, but you should start with the first Kiki game: canned coffee.

And Gaki no Tsukai has another fantastic food segment called “Absolutely Tasty,” in which the cast cook some, uh, inventive food items along a common theme then try them out together. The finished products can range anywhere from delicious recipes you’ll want to try at home to horrifying, borderline inedible creations.

Before Gaki did 24 Hour No Laughing games every year, they had a different endurance challenge: A 24 hour game of tag. While the cast were trying to sleep, men would occasionally burst into the room and start chasing them down, with whoever is caught being subjected to some kind of punishment. In this clip, it’s a Scorpion Death Lock wrestling move, but Tanaka has a special strategy for avoiding it.

I couldn’t get away without including what I will politely call “The Butt Game.” This used to show up on those “weird Japan” shows and websites, and you’ll see why shortly. Matsumoto and Yamasaki work together to answer trivia questions. If they get one wrong, the producers’ three quarters-naked butts get moved inches closer to their face. The highest of stakes.

In this clip, the team try to order Napolitan, the Japanese pasta dish, using similar-sounding words, starting with “Napoleon” and working all the way down to “Tamori-san.” If they receive what they ordered, they win.

This clip introduces you to Heipo, a popular side character who is afraid of absolutely everything. The comedians take turns scaring him with increasingly simple techniques.

I couldn’t possibly link enough videos to show you the depth and breadth of Gaki laughs out there, but this is a start. So do what I did years ago: Pull up a chair and a laptop to watch the show, and maybe some headphones so you don’t bother the people around you, and a second, smaller laptop with open on it, and a bag of kettle corn, and some kind of wipe to get the kettle corn off your hands before you touch your keyboard, and enjoy Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende. And maybe you’ll learn something while you do.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

]]> 14
A Bridge Across Time Mon, 18 Aug 2014 16:00:55 +0000 Nagasaki’s Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge) got its name from the way the reflection of its double arches in the river combine with the bridge itself to look like a pair of glasses. In addition to its historical significance as Japan’s first arched stone bridge, it has a personal connection for me. When I studied in Japan, I was not the only Adam in my program, so my bespectacled mug garnered me the nickname “Megane”.


Photo by luckyno3

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

A Bridge Across Worlds


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

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



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

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

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

The Floating Bridge of Dreams


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

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

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

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

The Bridge of Japan


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

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


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

A Bridge Too Far


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

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

Bridging Regions


Photo by takahito

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


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

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

Crossing the Next Bridge


Photo by jun560

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


]]> 4
Peace and Japan Part 1: How Japan Got Militarized. Again. Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:00:37 +0000 Some of you who have an interest in Japanese current affairs may know about what the current Liberal Democratic Party has put in place regarding Japan’s armed forces, which allows the right for a collective self defense (more on that later). These have attracted controversy from both within and outside of Japan. There have been large protests and even one person set himself on fire in Shinjuku to show his resolve against the changes. Worldwide media has also picked this up, with some people describing Prime Minister Abe’s “nationalism” (which I find accurate) and Japan’s “militarization” (which I don’t find accurate).

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

The Constitution


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

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

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

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

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

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

History Timeline

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

1947 – Post-war (Showa) Constitution Adapted

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

1950 – Start of Korean War


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

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

1954 – Promulgation of the Law of the Self Defense Forces

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

1959 – Sunakawa Incident

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

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


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

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

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

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

1992 – Peacekeeping Operation Cooperation Law passed


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

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

2001 – Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan

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

2014 – Further change of Interpretation of Constitution

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

What Can We Say From This

A few clear and obvious patterns can be seen here:

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

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

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

What does the current change mean?

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

Video on the protests against the changes to the interpretation

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

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

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

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

So what does it not mean then?


Ministry of Defense, Japan

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

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

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

Regarding the next part

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

Stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


]]> 9
Let’s All Get NAKED! Onsen and Body Image Thu, 14 Aug 2014 16:00:58 +0000 There’s nothing better than slipping into a hot bath. You feel your muscles relax. The cares of the day float away on a cloud of steam. A butt-naked Oba-chan (old woman) is staring at you… wait! What?!

Does that seem like one of those dreams that turns into a nightmare where you’ve forgotten your clothes? Well, you could see onsen, Japanese communal baths, that way, but you’d be missing out. Not only missing out on a relaxing experience, but also missing out on something that could profoundly change how you view yourself.

Before we plunge into the onsen, let me come clean about this article. What I’ve written here is based entirely on my own personal experience in onsen and of my own body. I’m not claiming any authority beyond that of personal experience. I recognize that who and what I am has influenced this. I’m a woman. From talking to guys, it seems that women can sometimes have more positive experiences in onsen than foreign men, who sometimes come under close scrutiny in one particular area.

This Towel Isn’t Big Enough For The One Of Me!


The first time I went to an onsen I was terrified. A Japanese friend had suggested we go to an onsen hotel in the next town over. I agreed, but all the way there I was tense with fear. Would I disgust the other people in the baths with my terrible foreignness and cultural faux pas? I was also carrying all the baggage of my own culture’s attitude to nakedness. Like a lot of people, I had a lot of hang ups about getting naked in front of other people. These were twofold. First was a sort of general feeling that nakedness was wrong. This came from my primary school days, a time when all the girls herded into a changing room before swimming lessons and I perfected the “knicker-twist”. (This is a method of putting on a swimsuit over one’s underwear and then removing said underwear in one complicated twisty movement.) The aim was always to avoid having anyone, even our peers, see us naked for even a moment.

The second hang up was a sense that my own body was unacceptable. I was intimately familiar with my own body’s flaws; the orange peel cellulite, the width of my hips, the wobble of my upper arms, the way my hair either made me look like a member of a 90s boy band or a wet cat. That first time in the onsen, when I was handed a narrow towel, I thought, “There’s no way I can cover all my flaws up with this little thing.”

My friend was so excited though. She’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. I didn’t want to let her down by refusing to go to the onsen. I gritted my teeth and undressed, putting my clothes in the basket provided. I tried to cover up as much of my front as I could. Through the door I found a steam filled room with set of individual showers. I followed my friend’s lead and settled myself on the short stool in front of one of the showers. With great reluctance I put my towel on the small shelf in front of me and began to wash myself. I kept my head down, not wanting to see anyone else’s nakedness or their reactions to mine.

Washed, I grabbed my towel again. I tried to shield myself with it as we headed to the onsen pools. Again, I had to let go of my precious modesty covering as I slipped into the water. I was so conscious of myself. I tried to angle my body so that nothing showed. My friend didn’t seem to notice. She floated with a peaceful expression. I tried to relax too, but it was difficult. Even the gloriously warm water and the beautiful view of stars overhead couldn’t free me from my own self consciousness.

Now contrast that description of visiting an onsen with this one, three years later. A couple of weeks ago I visited an onsen with a two of my friends. I stripped off and put my clothes into the basket, chatting as I did so. At the showers I grabbed soap and shampoo from my own little onsen basket, lathered myself up and rinsed myself clean. We headed for the pools. I had already used my towel to tie up my hair, making no effort to hide myself. In the rotemburo (outside bath) we chatted and laughed. It was a hot bath and at one point I sat on the edge, with just my legs in the water. I felt the cool night air on my skin. I felt happy.

What took me from a nervous, self-conscious girl to a relaxed, happy woman?
Oba-chan butts. Seeing so many Oba-chan butts.

OK, it’s a little more complicated than that. But after that first nerve wracking onsen experience I didn’t stop going to onsen. At first, there were times when visiting onsen was unavoidable, when it was the only bathing option at English camp, or to wash off sweat after snowboarding. But soon I actually started seeking out onsen. Each time I visited, I became more comfortable with my own and others’ nudity. Once I let my preconceptions about nakedness go, I realized what a rare and wonderful space the onsen is.

The Naked Truth


We are constantly exposed to women’s bodies. But almost all of these bodies are ones that have been chosen by some arbiters of what is hot and what is not and then often retouched, creating impossible standards of beauty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, candid pictures of celebrities in magazines have every flaw ringed and pointed out. It’s not surprising that this affects women’s views of themselves.

Onsen were the first places where I saw actual women’s bodies without photoshopping or judgment. These were bodies that weren’t being displayed to sell me something or to titillate. They were just being people, relaxing and chatting as usual, except they were naked. All of the bodies had “flaws,” but only compared to the impossible perfection that exists in the media. There were broad women, skinny women, women whose bodies had cesarean scars, women who didn’t shave, women who did shave, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, women whose breasts showed the signs of nursing children, all kinds of women. But what they looked like didn’t matter. They weren’t there to be looked at or to look. They were there to enjoy the onsen. Once I realized that, I found that I could enjoy the onsen too.

I carried this positive thought out of the onsen and into my daily life. I began to think of my body in terms of “doing” things, not how it appeared. My body is my tool for doing what I want to do, from climbing a mountain to writing this article. My fingers are moving across the keyboard because I have a body that lets me type. I feel more connected and thankful for the body I have.

Only Oba-chans Know The Secret


I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day. Actually we were at the onsen. (After three years it doesn’t seem strange to have a chat while relaxing naked in a bath in the open air.) She is gorgeous in a totally unjapanese way, with many of the features that Japanese people associate with foreigners, blonde hair, blue eyes and curves. She was the one who made me realize about the “grass is always greener” aspect of onsen for both Japanese and Non-Japanese women. Japanese women told her how she was their ideal; while for many non-Japanese women Japanese women’s slenderness and elegance can seem like an ideal. We all want what we can’t have. Living in Japan as a non-Japanese woman sometimes made me feel like Godzilla lumbering through my city. This always hit me worst when I went shopping for clothes. Skirts that would be reasonable on a Japanese girl are scandalous on me. Someone once asked me if I’d ever bought a bra in Japan and I just laughed. But we have to recognize that the flipside exists too. Just the other day a female student said to me, “Sensei, give me your oppai (breasts).” If you take the lesson of the onsen in the wrong way, envying the way others look, it could make this “grass is always greener” thinking worse.

Because for all that I’ve found onsen liberating, they don’t seem to have solved the problems of body image in Japan for Japanese women. 29% of Japanese women in their 20s are underweight. This statistic is being blamed on Japanese media, with celebrities and models having increasingly slender frames. Women diet and skip meals to try to attain similar weights.

Perhaps this has something to do with the demographics that enjoy onsen. In my experience it’s rare to see young women in the onsen. The main groups who seem to visit are ladies of retirement age and mothers with young children. Young women most at risk of body image problems likely don’t have the time to spend at onsen as they are working the hours expected of Japanese workers. The young people who would, according to society’s expectations, have the least reason to worry about their bodies are too busy to enjoy the onsen, while the oba-chans have plenty of time to learn the secret that there’s nothing to worry about, no matter how wrinkly you get.

Let’s All Get Naked!


Photo by Ben Beikse

I have a friend who lived in Japan for over a year, but never went to the onsen. Sometimes she would come with us, but she’d just sit in the changing room, fully clothed, while the rest of us enjoyed the hot water. She didn’t feel comfortable enough in herself to enter the onsen. It seemed like a tragic irony that going in the onsen would probably have helped her overcome the anxieties that kept her from going in the onsen in the first place. Don’t let yourself be kept from something so good for you!

There are so many wonderful onsen in Japan, from Dogo Onsen that the baths in Spirited Away are based on, to free onsen deep in the mountains, to the kitschy fun of Oodeo Onsen in Odaiba, Tokyo. I’d really recommend trying an onsen if you are visiting Japan. If you are lucky enough to be here for a long time, you can visit lots! Don’t let embarrassment hold you back from something wonderful that’s not only good for your skin, but good for your mind too!

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

]]> 63
The Ryukyu King And His Fantastic 1-Year-Long Parade Wed, 13 Aug 2014 16:00:32 +0000 Everyone loves a parade. If you’ve spent time in Japan maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see a festival parade, but today I want to talk about a different sort of parade. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate instituted a system of alternate attendance (sankin kotai), whereby the lords of Japan’s various domains were required to spend alternate years in their home domain and in the capital, Edo.

Sankin Kotai


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

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

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

The Route


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

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


Photo by Kentaro Ohno

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

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

The Crowds


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

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


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

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

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


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









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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Asato, Susumu, et. al., Okinawa-ken no Rekishi. (Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 2004).
  • Kamiya, Nobuyuki. “Edo-nobori.” Shin Ryūkyūshi, kinsei hen, Vol. 2, pp 11-36. (Naha: Ryūkyū Shinpōsha, 1989).
  • Kerr, George H.. Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (Rutland: Tuttle, 1958)
  • Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 1999).
  • Ronald P. Toby. “Carnival of the Aliens. Korean Embassies in Edo-Period Art and Popular Culture.” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1986).
  • “Koten Ongaku.” Okinawa daihyakka jiten. Vol. 2. Edited by Okinawa daihyakka jiten kankō jimukyoku. (Naha: Okinawa taimususha, 1983)
]]> 4
10 of Hello Kitty’s Most DISTANT Relatives Tue, 12 Aug 2014 16:00:40 +0000 There was a time when I hated Hello Kitty. But once I understood her complexity and accepted her into my life, a whole world opened up. Sanrio, not unlike Marvel or DC, is an entire universe of characters, and exploring a universe is half the fun of discovering nerdy things like this. When you first get into comics, you learn about your Spider-men, Wonder Women, and Wolverinis. After awhile though, you dig deep enough to find hilariously bizarre or mind-blowingly boring superheroes like “Matter Eater Lad” and “Captain Planet”.

The same is true with the Sanrio universe. Sanrio may push the puppies, kitties, and lambies to the forefront, but underneath there’s a lot of fun to be had with the outliers. Who created them? Why? I wouldn’t say any of them are necessarily “bad”, but some can be incredibly unimaginative while others are so imaginative as to be downright bizarre. It’s these characters that I’ll be extricating for this list: Hello Kitty’s distant relatives. When these dogs, elephants, and hamburgers roll up to the Sanrio family reunion, the other characters avoid eye contact.

These oddballs defy Sanrio’s image of polished cuteness and stand out as wonderfully strange or uncharacteristically dull. Fill up your plate with mash potatoes, because I’m sending you to sit and talk politely with the side of the family Hello Kitty tries to forget.

10. Peter Davis


It’s a white dog named Peter Davis. This character at least gets points for being one of my favorite things: a dog with a bland first and last name. But the goodness stop there. Peter Davis was born in England and, what ho! Pip pip, old chap! According to his bio on, he’s very proper, noble, fashionable, and clean. Well, well Peter Davis. You’re boring and stereotypical!

9. Dokidoki Yummychums


Dokidoki Yummychums is almost Sanrio’s answer to Aqua Teen Hunger Force as they a group consisting of meat, fries and shakes. Though that’s not what makes them bizarre. It’s the idea of cute food. Linda touched on this a few months back, but what strikes me as odd about this concept is the way cuteness is tied to protection. Things that we find cute or adorable are often the things we naturally want to protect (small animals, babies, email passwords). Mixing that protection concept with food is incongruent. And hilarious.

It’s a small, but extant, mind-bender. “Me am want eat food. But me am want also protect food. Me not know what me want!”

This food-cuteness hits me in a different way as well. I love hamburgers. Definitely in my top three of favorite foods. But I never realized I wanted to hug a hamburger, until I saw Dokidoki Yummychums. And why not? Hamburgers have brought me so much joy! I can finally release my subconscious urge to hug an enbunned meat patty now that it has eyes and a face and looks like it wants a hug! And with that invitation, of course I would reciprocate. Thank you hamburger. Thank you for everything.

8. Zoujitensha


Zoujitensha, or Elephant Bicycle, is an elephant riding a bicycle. According to his bio, he is an “urbanite with good taste”. At least his design matches his personality. Both are flat and unappealing.

7. Hangyodon


Hangyodon (literally, “Mr. Half-fish”) is another example that showcases Sanrio’s ability to make anything cute. He is a monster, something traditionally created to scare and repulse us. So is he that weird? Not in and of himself. What’s weird is how popular he is.

Hangyodon has a large number of goods attributed to him. He’s high up on the second tier of the Sanrio roster, like the Aquaman of the Sanrio Justice League (pun intended?). But with such a long list of cute animal characters behind him, you would think he would get bumped farther down the popularity rankings.

Hangyodon is a smart character design because it plays on our pity for monsters. Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Shrek are all stories which exemplify this. These stories resonate because we all feel unattractive or clumsy or even monstrous at one time or another and we all hope someone will love us despite our unattractive qualities. We all want to be understood.

His official Sanrio bio says he is “a lonely romantic who wants to be a hero someday” but we don’t need words to tell us that. That’s the power of Hangyodon.

6. Country Fresh Veggies


Country Fresh Veggies. Their name describes them, giving me literally nothing to write about. It’s a basket of damn vegetables. They have eyes and appendages, so they are slightly less boring than others on this list, but not by much. Even their bio on merely says, “Today, the fields are full of just-harvested, fresh vegetables.” Nuff said, I guess.

5. Gudetamago


Gudetama is a lazy egg. His name comes from the words gudegude (lethargic) and tamago (egg). While most Sanrio characters have several hobbies and goals, Gudetama has none. He knows he’s going to be cooked and eaten and wants to get it over with.

As far as sub-characters go, Gudetama is given more attention than most. There are pictures, goods, and YouTube videos showing him sleeping…






And generally lazing about.


This goes beyond relaxation. Gudetama is dead to the world. Is there any social commentary to be found in this? Does Gudetama reflect the attitude of Japanese young people reluctant to enter Japan’s notoriously stressful workforce? Probably not any more than Garfield reflected America’s love for lasagna in 1987. Either way, the egg laziness idea is a truly genius design choice.

Rilakkuma is a very popular lazy bear character, from Sanrio competitor San-X. But do you know what else can be lazy? A cat, a mouse, a badger, a panda, a shoe, anything! It’s easy to think of a noun and assign it the adjective “lazy” (Note to self: copyright “Cecil the Lazy Shoe”). But an egg yolk actually looks lazy! Someone at Sanrio looked deep into their breakfast and imbibed it with a personality that fit its shape. And that’s creativity- looking at something from an angle that everyone else is missing.

4. Geetown Special


Geetown Special is a group of three alligators. Let’s go to the bio for more insight:

“A group of three alligators.”

Was there any thought put into these three? They have no story, they’re nearly identical, and not even in color. I understand that some Sanrio characters are merely designs for cards and tote bags, but those that are should be categorized as such. Leave the charactering to anthropomorphic things with some appealing connection to offer the recipient. Later, gator.

3. Shiri Rappers


Hula-hooping, rapping butt vegetables.

I just wanted to make it clear from the outset what we’re dealing with. Shiri Rappers comes from the Japanese oshiri (butt) and the English “rappers” (rappers). According to, the Shiri Rappers are human-friendly butt fairies who, upon hearing a human’s cry, will rush to their aid and begin hula hooping/rapping with all their might, thus dispelling the human’s sadness.

As delightfully bizarre as this sounds on its own, I’m afraid it refers to a smartphone game.

In the game, the Shiri Rappers pop out of the ground, doing their gyration dance until you tap them. And you get points. I don’t see this as helpful to mankind, unless they are serving the particular pocket of mankind that needs to poke butt vegetables in order to live.

So, my initial joy at discovering the absurdity of the Shiri Rappers was diminished slightly upon finding that their story was created to explain their actions in a smartphone game. But dammit, the Shiri Rappers are hula-hooping butt vegetables and no one can take that away from me. Thanks Sanrio!

2. Boy and Girl


Welcome to the bottom of the boringness barrel. Boy and Girl. I used to think Patty and Jimmy were unimaginative, but Boy and Girl make Patty and Jimmy look like Ren and Stimpy. These two are like Hello Kitty clones turned human and sapped of all charm and style. The salt in the unimaginative wound is their name: Boy and Girl.

Let’s say you work for a creative company and your job is to creatively use your creativity to create creative characters. If your boss asks you, “What should we name this boy and girl?” and you answer, “Boy and Girl!”, you should be fired.

1. Heysuke


Heysuke. Yes, it is an angry, naked baby, but what makes it stranger than the Shiri Rappers? Heysuke’s story on

“Who? What the heck? It’s a kind of a suspicious, mysterious baby. For some reason, it’s laughing in the nude. Where it came from is a mystery. Is it a boy? A girl? Heysuke doesn’t even know for sure. The place where it lives is right next to you. One thing is for sure, he loves to be naked. It’s birthday is January 1st.”

Heysuke is a suspicious, ever-laughing, genderless naked baby who lives right next to you! The reason Heysuke gets the number one slot is its ambiguity. Most Sanrio characters’ designs have a specific vibe and their story bios expound upon that vibe, adding detail. But not Heysuke.

It’s cute as a baby, but its angry face makes you wonder what the hell is wrong. Then Heysuke’s story bio confuses us more by explaining that it’s laughing, suspicious, and lives right next to you. Suddenly this baby feels threatening, which is a tough concept to digest because it’s a baby. Everything about Heysuke is perplexing and strange.

Oh, and Mami pointed out that it’s wearing muscle-relaxing patches on its shoulders. WTF, Heysuke?

Heysuke was introduced on January 1, 2000, so maybe it was meant to be some kind of Baby New Year. But it never caught on anywhere ever. All the other characters on this list, weird as they are, have enjoyed some kind of success, appearing on various goods and being drawn in various poses.

Heysuke was only drawn once and, as far as I can tell, no goods bear its likeness. And so it remains: laughing, naked, and staring at you.

Explore the Chara-verse!


Okay, you’re done. You did your time at the table with the weirdos. Now you can go back to your Hello Kitty and your rap music. But hopefully you’ve learned a valuable lesson. There’s a whole world of Japanese characters to explore, within Sanrio and beyond. You may find more wacky treats when you search through them for yourself. Japanese mascot characters are a universe not often explored even by die-hard Hello Kitty fans. But if you dig design, animals, colors, or fun things in general, I encourage you to delve into this multiverse. You may just find yourself voluntarily sitting at the table of outcasts at the next Sanrio family reunion!

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

]]> 13
The Social History of Ramen Mon, 11 Aug 2014 16:00:52 +0000 When I say Japanese food, the first thing you think of is probably sushi. And the second thing? These days, it’s likely to be ramen. Everyone’s familiar with the ubiquitous instant kind, and the real thing – stock simmered for hours, hand-made noodles, regional variations – is catching on in the US and becoming a foodie obsession. But ramen hasn’t always been so central to Japanese cuisine, as I found when I read a fascinating recent book.

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

The Birth Of Ramen


Ramen is complicated, and its history is messy.

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

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


Photo by James Callan

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

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


Photo by Jeff Laitila

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

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

The Young Adulthood Of Ramen


Photo by jamesjustin

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Days


Photo by Hikosaemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boom Years


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

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


Photo by jepster

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

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

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

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

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

Ramen Against The Man


Photo by Owen Lin

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

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

Ramen Becomes Trendy


Photo by Aaron Webb

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


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

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

Ramen Turns Japanese


Photo by ibtekn

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

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

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


Photo by leesean

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600] ∙ [1280x800 Animated]

]]> 10
Five Ways To Experience Japan Without Leaving Home Thu, 07 Aug 2014 16:00:49 +0000 I’m sure for a lot of us, visiting or living in Japan is high on our list of things to do. But when you can’t make the trip overseas, there are lots of ways to experience Japan without getting on a plane. In fact, some of these you can try without even leaving home! Of course, I’ve left some basic suggestions off – like learning Japanese, reading blogs about Japan, and eating Japanese food – because you have probably already thought of those. But here are some things that might be new to you!

Community Service


Japanese communities and Japanese-American friendship groups are both great ways to experience Japan at home. There may not be much of one if you’re away from a major city, but it never hurts to check or ask around. Start on the internet – search for (nearby large city) Japanese Society. Or (nearby large city) Japan America Society. For example, I live in Seattle. When I Google “Seattle Japan Society”, the Japan America Society for the State of Washington immediately comes up. If you’re in college, there may be a Japanese Students Association or an Asian Students Association. If you don’t have any luck searching online, don’t be afraid to ask around at a local Japanese restaurant or Asian grocery store before broadening your search. The Japanese consulate closest to you might also have an idea of what sort of communities or societies are active in your area.

The benefits of seeking out the local Japanese community are numerous, as Japan America societies tend to do a variety of activities. I’ve been involved with these sorts of groups in several different states. Through them, I have chaperoned Japanese exchange students, worked at Japanese New Year celebrations, gone to Japanese festivals, and attended a bunraku play – just to name a few. If you can’t find a Japan America society near you or want even more involvement, try to find the nearest Asian art museum, as it will likely have regular events of interest. Over time, investing in these groups more and more will help you foster connections in the local Japanese community, providing even more opportunities.

Communication is Key


Photo by liz west

Out of all my suggestions, this one may take the most effort, but it can yield some great results over time. There are a lot of Japanese people online who want to make friends overseas and practice their English. Several sites offer penpal ads, so do some searches and find which one you like best. I’ve had the most luck with Japan Guide and the Penpals Subreddit. Ideally, if you can write and read Japanese, include some Japanese in your letters. Try to keep your English simple, practice internet safety/common sense, and talk about your hometown and what makes your life awesome. After all, these are probably the sorts of things you would want to know about the Japanese people you talk to. For several years, I maintained a penpal in Japan – we eventually even sent each other packages.

If you get to know your penpal and want to exchange snail mail or packages, but you’re not entirely comfortable sharing your home address, consider investing in a PO box. Be prepared to download Skype, Line, or whatever other messaging system is most popular at the time (right now, I see a lot of penpals looking for friends who use Line). Most ads you see will be very general, and it may take some effort to understand what the person is trying to say. Practice patience. I recommend writing an intro paragraph about yourself – say where you’re from (to whatever degree of specificity you are comfortable giving out on the internet), include your age, indicate your gender, describe a few of your interests, what you do for a living, what your favorite food is, and your Japanese language proficiency. If you can translate it into Japanese or get a friend to do so, include both the Japanese and the English. Keep the paragraph in a file and copy/paste it to new potential penpals, rather than reinventing the wheel each time you want to respond to an ad. When you get replies, respond to them in a timely fashion, take notes about each penpal so you don’t repeat conversations, and have fun!

Abandoned Places


Photo by Kenta Mabuchi

Haikyo (廃墟) is the Japanese word for “ruin” or “abandoned place”; it’s used to refer to the exploration of abandoned sites and sometimes urban exploration in general. As stated before, blogs about Japan are great, and if you need suggestions for those, sources like Tofugu can provide you with lots of J-blogs to read. Here, we’re looking for a specific type of blog or site – those about haikyo. Gakuranman is a great place to start. If you can read some Japanese or don’t mind picking your way through Japanese sites, try searching for 廃墟 on

I recommend haikyo sites for several reasons. First of all, haikyo enthusiasts visit a variety of locations – love hotels, amusement parks, houses, museums, hospitals, schools, factories – you get the idea. Second, haikyo frequently involves a dip into the history behind a site; I find that it gives a taste of Japan in a unique, engaging way. I once spent hours picking my way through Japanese company crests to try to solve the mystery behind this haikyo. Although I was unsuccessful, I learned about company crests and insignia and had a lot of fun. That haikyo sums up what I love best about good haikyo, which are beautiful, creepy, and fascinating – sometimes all at once.

Hobby Time


Photo by halfrain

Take up a traditional Japanese hobby. Some of these hobbies are probably already well known to you (at least in theory), like karate, haiku, and origami. Your local YMCA or gym may offer karate classes, and there are numerous resources, both printed and online, if you’re interested in origami or haiku. There are also less well known Japanese arts that may intrigue you more.

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging; it’s quite different from Western flower arranging and may appeal to you even if you’ve never had any interest in becoming a florist. A search online for your hometown, home state, or home country plus “ikebana” may give you a good idea of where to start. Kendo is a sword-based martial art; it may especially appeal to you if you are interested in both martial arts and Japanese swords. One of my favorite Japanese arts to practice is shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. If you cannot find a shodo society near you, try contacting nearby Japanese language professors; some form of shodo is frequently included in Japanese classes, so a professor may know someone who can instruct you. Any of these pastimes may have a local group in your area, but if you can’t find someone who’s already interested, look into making a group of your own – every organization has to start somewhere!

Analog Sources


Photo by Samantha Marx

A recent trip to my local public library yielded more books about Japan than I expected – add the fact that many libraries these days will allow you to request books from other branches online, and you will definitely find a multitude of books on Japan. My suggestion is to look online, then write down the call numbers and head to the library itself. Once you locate your book on the shelf, you’ll likely find more books that interest you. The call number system means that other books on the same subject are likely to be on the same shelf. In my library, I found not only a large selection of Japanese history books, but a second section on the other side of the library with books that had more of a travel-guide theme. I didn’t expect to find much there, but was happy to be proven wrong. Looking for foreign-language books is always worthwhile as well as there will likely be a Japanese language section. Some of these may be of interest to you, even if you can’t read Japanese yet. By browsing this section, I once found a beautiful Japanese-language travelogue about my hometown that had been written by a Japanese expat by browsing the foreign-language section. Whether you find books in English or Japanese, reading is a great way to learn about Japan, and the library not only collects books for you by subject, but is also free – win-win!

Do It All for the Experience


Photo by moominsean

No matter which of these suggestions most appeals to you, I urge you to look most closely at the options that are furthest from your current experiences. The further out of your comfort zone you wander, the more likely you are to have totally new experiences and find something awesome and shiny to be passionate about. I took a class in college that had us practice ikebana, shodo, and haiku. Those experiences have stuck with me, long after I forgot many of the other things I learned for exams. There are many ways to experience Japan without boarding a plane, and I hope you give some of these a try!

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]

]]> 18
Lords of Kumamoto: Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa Wed, 06 Aug 2014 16:00:15 +0000 Last fall I visited Kumamoto Castle. Though mostly a reconstruction, it’s impressive nonetheless. There is currently a regular live show on the castle grounds, in which actors dressed as famous samurai stage mock fights and deliver stirring speeches to dramatic music. Chief among them was Kato Kiyomasa, lord of Kumamoto Castle. Entertaining though it was, I couldn’t help but think, “If the real Kato Kiyomasa were here, he would despise this.”

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

The Demon General


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


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


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

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


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


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

The Hosokawa


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

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

Way of the Warrior


Photo by Tranletuhan

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

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

“The Precepts of Kato Kiyomasa”


Photo by Dreamcat115


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kato Kazuenokami Kiyomasa

Hosokawa, Rennaisance Clan


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


Sword mountings made by Tadaoki

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

An eggplant shaped sake flask created by Tadaoki

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

Modern kouda-yaki cup

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


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

The Sword? The Brush? Both?


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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu, Gateway to Japan.
  • Kent: Global Oriental Ltd., 2009
  • Matsumoto, Sumio; Itakasu, Kazuko; Kudo, Kei’ichi; Ikai, Takaaki. Kumamoto-ken no rekishi.
  • Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1999.
  • Swope, Kenneth M. A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War.
  • Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2009.
  • Wilson, William Scott. Ideals of the Samurai.
  • Ohara Publications, 1982.
  • Wilson, William Scott. The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.
  • Shambhala Publications, 2013.
  • “Hosoakawa Tadaoki.”
  • “Hosokawa Tadatoshi.”
]]> 0
A Crash Course in Japanese Poetry Tue, 05 Aug 2014 16:00:12 +0000 I remember reading Japanese poetry for the first time in the second grade. Don’t ask why it stuck with me; I just remember reading a haiku by Matsuo Bashō and thinking it was awesome. I remembered it well enough that I sought out Bashō’s poetry as I grew older. Along with video games, I attribute Bashō with fomenting an early interest in Japan for me.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Stuff


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

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

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

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

Kamo yama no
My girl is waiting for me

Iwane shi makeru
And does not know

Ware wo kamo
That my body will stay here

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

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

Haru no no ni
Now it is spring –

Kasumi tanabiki
And across the moors the haze

Stretches heavily –

Kono yūkage ni
And within these rays at sunset,

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

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

Ashi no ha ni
I shall miss you most

Yūgiri tachite
When twilight brings the rising mists

Kamo ga ne no
To hang upon the reeds

Samuki yūbe shi
And as the evening darkens cold

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

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

Ōkata wa
Lovely as it is,

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

Kore zo kono
No, not such a thing,

Tsumoreba hito no
Whose accumulated splendors heap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabishisa wa
Loneliness –

Sono iro to shi mo
The essential color of a beauty

Not to be defined:

Maki tatsu yama no
Over the dark evergreens, the dusk

Aki no yūgure.
That gathers on far autumn hills.

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

nozarashi o
weather beaten

kokoro ni kaze no
wind pierces my body

shimu mi kana
to my heart

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

yagate shinu
soon to die

keshiki wa miezu
yet showing no sign

semi no koe
the cicada’s voice

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

Beneath the bright
Cherry blossoms
None are indeed
Utter strangers.

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

mihotoko mo
Buddha too –

tobira o akete
he’s opened his altar doors,

suzumi kana
cooling off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts


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

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Miner, Earl; Odagiri, Hiroko; and Morrell, Robert E. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas. A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature. New York: Kodansha International, 1988.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth and Atsumi, Ikuko. Women Poets of Japan. New York: New Directions Books, 1977.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. New York: New Directions Books, 1964.
  • Brower, Robert and Miner, Earl. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961.
  • Reichhold, Jane. Basho: The Complete Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas and Gessel, Van C. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Ninomiya, Takamichi and Enright, D.J. The Poetry of Living Japan. New York: Grove Press, 1957.
  • Lowitz, Leza; Aoyama, Miyuki; and Tomioka, Akemi. A Long Rainy Season. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
  • Wright, Harold. The Selected Poems of Shuntarō Tanikawa. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.
]]> 6