Tofugu» In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 30 Jul 2014 23:07:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Takahiro Hotta: The Samurai Actor That Has Killed 10,000 People Wed, 30 Jul 2014 16:00:22 +0000 The samurai is one of the most significant symbols of Japan. Japanese people, and even non-Japanese people, are fascinated by this class of warriors. Because of this high interest I wanted to conduct an interview with a samurai, however, no real samurai exist anymore. Then I tried to think about the next best thing: a samurai actor! Luckily, by chance I know a real samurai actor, though the way I met him is such an embarrassing story. However, I’ll reveal it to you right now, if only to show you his incredibly thoughtful samurai spirit.

I was rather intoxicated one winter night in Kyoto, Japan. To be honest, I have no memory of that night, and I passed out in the Sanjo arcade while on the way to my friend’s house. Believe it or not, the person who found me and took care of me was a “samurai.” He wasn’t dressed as a samurai at the time, but the next day I learned that he was a samurai actor when I visited Toei Movie Village to thank him and return his tenugui, which he lent me when I threw up in a bush next to a park, cut the skin on my nose on a branch, and got a nosebleed. Again, I don’t remember the story so everything I do know came from what he told me of it later. I regretted all of this a lot, yet it gave me the great opportunity to meet this samurai actor, Mr. Takahiro Hotta. He was as kind as he was back then when he accepted my interview request for this article and volunteered his time to answer my questions and his samurai modeling skills for a photo shoot. So I’d like to send a very special thanks to Hotta-san!

Now let’s find out more about him and what he does for a living.

Name: Takahiro Hotta. Occupation: Samurai.


Name: 堀田貴裕 (Takahiro Hotta)
Age: 32
Birthday: December 27, 1981
Occupation: Actor (Mainly Jidaigeki)
Company: TOEI KYOTO STUDIO Co., Ltd. (the same from the MOVIE VILLAGE!)

1. How long have you been samurai?

I started at the age of 18, right after graduating from high school. So it’s been 15 years.

2. How many films/plays have you been in?

Countless, espeically if you count all the shows in the movie village as well. I do the show 6 times a day, about 10 days every month, and I have done that for 15 years. So…how many have there been? When I play in a musical, it often runs for over a month with shows every day. If I count every single play, I wouldn’t be pushing it if I said 10,000 or more. I’m not sure how many because our company does various films, dramas and plays and I’m called to so many places. Sorry.

3. What kinds of films/plays have you been in?

Some of the samurai films/plays I’ve been in include Mito Kōmon (水戸黄門), The Inner Chambers (大奥, Ōoku), The Hatchōbori Seven (八丁堀ノ七人 Hatchobori no Shichinin), Abarenbō Shōgun (暴れん坊将軍), etc…
Actually, I often play more than one role in a film. In one film, for example, I once played the role of a lord watching a samurai match in the presence of the Emperor and later appeared as a retainer prostrating myself before another lord and then later appeared as a samurai in a fight sequence. It doesn’t typically happen if I have even one line in a film, but if I do a nonspeaking and unrecognizable part, it’s pretty common to play many roles. I once played a lord and a farmer in the same film and in another I played five separate roles in one day of shooting. I do various roles, though the most common role is as a samurai, good guy or bad. Maybe I play bad ones more than good ones though – the ones who get killed at the end. A much larger portion of my work these days is found in plays, ever since the decline of the samurai film and drama industry. Yet, 80% of my job is still reserved for samurai films and dramas. Contemporary plays make up the other 20%.

4. What is your favorite film that you have been in and why?

Ummm…that’s tough to decide, but if I had to choose one, I’d go with Mito Kōmon (水戸黄門) because the entire film staff worked well with each other and were united in the same goal. Additionally, all the actors and actresses got along so well with each other. It was so great to shoot in an environment where people so readily communicate and understand each other because it made the work that much easier. There were also a lot of professional and skilled people there and I found a lot of inspiration while working on that film. I’m not sure if viewers felt it while sitting in front of the TV, but the atmosphere while shooting Mito Kōmon was very serious and tense, and I really liked it. It was one of the most memorable films I have been in.

5. Why did you want to become a samurai actor?


I grew up in Uzumasa where the TOEI KYOTO STUDIO is located so I had familiarized myself with samurai plays since I was little. For example, I was able to see a samurai with a topknot (the bun on his head) and wearing straw sandals in the shopping arcade near my house. I also saw one of the main cast members of Mito Kōmon, who was playing the role of an elderly nobleman, drinking coffee at a café. Although I wasn’t dreaming of being an actor when I was little (I rather wanted to be a childcare worker since my parents were running a nursery), I became a teenager and started watching TV dramas and plays, and I really enjoyed the samurai films, dramas, and plays. I then got interested in doing a job where I could make people feel moved or energetic, so being an actor became my dream while in junior high school.

Then, when I was in high school, we went to see the musical “The Lion King” by the Shiki Theatrical Company on a school trip. I was shocked at how the actors/actress and the audience can be united by the experience of a musical. It totally changed the way I thought of the play. I originally thought the play was confined to the stage, but then all the animals showed up in and among the audience and that was all completely new to me. That experience is what made me want to act on both screen and stage. Toei does not just samurai films/dramas and samurai plays, but also contemporary plays as well, so I decided to sign with them so that I could act in various forms. With this being said, the biggest reason I chose to be a samurai actor at TOEI was that it was very close to my parents’ house. I was just 5 minutes away from the studio, so it was super convenient. (Hotta-san chuckles)

6. How does one become a samurai actor?

The center of samurai acting in Japan is Kyoto and there are two companies for it – Shochiku Company Limited and TOEI KYOTO STUDIO Co., Ltd. So, if you want to become a samurai actor, contact Shochiku or Toei, or both. Each has auditions and training schools, so it may lead you on your way to being a samurai actor. Tokyo is mainly for contemporary acting, so if you want to be a samurai actor, you have to come to Kyoto.

7. What’s the difference between Shochiku and Toei?

When samurai films were more popular, there were actually more movie companies out there. The five biggest companies were Toei, Shochiku, Daiei, Toho, and Nikkatsu. At the time, Shochiku and Toei were rivals, but we are friendly now. Each company has its own color. Simply put, Toei tends to perform exaggerated, showy samurai sword fighting (i.e. 1 samurai vs. many bad guys), whereas Shochiku tends to pursue more realistic sword fighting (i.e. 1 samurai vs. 1 or 2 bad guys). Now we both want to liven up samurai films/plays/dramas together, so we even exchange actors/actresses sometimes. Our studios are only a 5-minute walk apart, after all.

8. What kind of training do you have to do to be a good samurai actor?

Certainly, learning samurai etiquette and manners is one part of it. If you have no sense of samurai propriety, you can’t be a good samurai actor. You play a role in a samurai society with very strict discipline. Even when performing hara-kiri, you have to conform to the rules of etiquette. You can’t just randomly stab your stomach and die. It’s surprising that there is even etiquette on how to die properly, right? So there is a lot of etiquette for every movement in everyday life – from the way you move to the way your act. The samurai learned all the rules of etiquette in those times, so if you play a samurai role in a sloppy and careless way, you won’t look like a samurai but like an ordinary person walking with a katana sword. It might be a little difficult to understand, but you have to train such etiquette into yourself in order to look like a real samurai. There are many teachers who can teach those points of etiquette in TOEI. One of them has taught it for about 60 years. We often learn from them directly and the other times they come to the site where we are shooting and lecture us on the spot.

9. What is the daily life of a samurai actor?

For example, if I get a job starting at 9 a.m., I usually go arrive around 2 hours early…so around 7 a.m. Then I put some make-up up on, dress up, of course with the samurai wig, and then wait for my time.


Sometimes shooting can begin earlier than scheduled, so everyone is usually there a little earlier to get ready. Then we often ride on a microbus called roke-basu (shortened from location bus) to go to a mountain shooting or a castle shooting until sunset. There are also night scenes to shoot, so we can literally spend an entire day shooting. It really depends on the shooting schedule. There is no fixed set time like a normal office worker’s 9 to 5. It’s a day-by-day schedule. Sometimes shooting lasts until midnight and other times it finishes within 30 minutes. In those cases, preparation time is way longer than the actual shooting. If it is a TV drama series, it usually takes about 3 weeks to shoot one episode, but we don’t spend the whole 3 weeks on just one episode, so it normally takes 3 months to shoot 10 episodes.

10. What is the best thing about being a samurai actor?

There are more than likely numerous answers for this, depending on the person, but to me, it’s to gain opportunities to know about Japanese history and other historical things such as temples, shrines, traditional architectures, Buddhist statues, and etc. We are sometimes permitted entrance to places that are not opened for the public, like shrines and temples, too. Throughout those experiences, I learned a lot of things and I could once again feel the greatness of Japanese culture. For example, I realized how important the sense of season is for the Japanese people once again. There are obviously four seasons, but I hadn’t really been aware of it, at least in the way I am now, before starting as a samurai actor. However, when I go to various shooting spots, I see the difference in trees and plants in each season and find a sense of season in every location each time.

Another great thing about being a samurai actor is to know that people are people. I mean, to know that we are all the same human beings after all. Since actors and actresses in classic film speak a different language from contemporary film, I used to think it was too polite and that it felt a little stuffy. In other words, the samurai speaks really politely to follow the rules of etiquette and the yakuza speak a very rough language. Before I began acting, to me, they seemed as though they were for a completely different type of person. However, once I played various roles, I realized people are just people after all and they feel the same way as we do now, no matter what kind of people they are, or which era they belong to.

Of course, they think differently, but I’m referring to our basic feelings as humans. When they eat delicious food, they find it “delicious” and when they look upon beautiful things, they see beauty. It may sound very obvious and I knew that in my head, but I think I had some stereotype formed in my mind about how the samurai or yakuza would feel since they spoke and speak very differently. And now I realized I was wrong. I learned we are all radically the same as human beings, as we feel the same way no matter how we speak, what we wear, or the times we live in.

Speaking of language differences, it is also great that I can see the roots of our language nowadays. I learned how samurai changed the end of a sentence as a consideration to the person to whom they are talking. It leads to the keigo we use now.

11. What is the worst thing about being a samurai actor?

There are not many bad things about being a samurai actor, so I can’t choose the worst. I’ll just sound off the random bad things instead.

First, the preparation time takes soooo long. It’s also difficult to get used to samurai etiquette and manners because it requires exclusive knowledge. Fighting with swords requires special skills too. Oh, and we are very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. I don’t wear anything underneath the samurai clothes, even in the winter, because it could be shown in the film and ruin the scene, though some people cut up their sweaters and wear them underneath their kimonos. So I am absolutely freezing while acting in the winter.

When it comes to the summer, I sweat a lot because of the samurai wig. Oh, and if the wig doesn’t fit your head, it can give you a headache. It’s said that being an actress/actor requires patience, and that is true because the amount of time spent waiting can be really long. For example, after one hour of shooting, sometimes you have to wait for three hours until the next shooting. You can set the studio up to make it seem as though it is night time even though it is morning and vice versa, so I also tend to lose track of time. Another bad thing is having to go to the bathroom because I have to take all of my clothes off every time. A real samurai probably didn’t suffer from that because there is an easier way, but we have to keep our clothes clean for shooting, so it is a bit troublesome for us. I could be scolded if I wrinkled it up. Once you get used to all of the above though, there there really isn’t anything big, but until you get used to them, they may bother you.

12. What is the most interesting moment you’ve had as a samurai actor?

There are many things, but here’s an example. While reading a script I once found a line like this, “That guy says he is a farmer, but his left waist is a little lower than the right, so he must have been a samurai before.” I thought this line really made sense because all samurai wore their katana sword on their left side. I’m interested in small details like that and get impressed when I come across them.

I like acting but reading such script descriptions is a lot of fun too. If I wasn’t a samurai actor, I would have never been able to read such descriptions and make such connections, so I really appreciate it and think it is very interesting. However, those details are fading in recent samurai films. For example, samurai were all trained to be right handed in those days, but you may find someone acting in a really important role, but they’re left handed. The samurai films for young people focus on trying to be easy-to-understand so they are not really picky about small details like this, at least compared to traditional samurai films. You can pick out such differences in the scripts too. The traditional ones definitely use much more difficult Japanese, albeit still understandable. I do lectures at a voice actor school since samurai actors are often required to dub in their own voices to the film as background noise is recorded while shooting. When I showed both kinds of scripts to my students, they couldn’t read many of the kanji in the traditional samurai film script, whereas they had no problem reading all of the kanji in a recent samurai film scripts. It’s changing to adopt the new generation and it is good, but also a little sad.

13.What’s the funniest moment you’ve had as a samurai actor?

While dressed like a samurai for a shoot and having a break, an elderly woman began walking towards me. I expected to be asked to take a picture with her, but she just stopped in front of me, gazed at me, pressed her palms together, bowed, and worshipped me while murmuring “o-samurai-sama, o-samurai-sama”, and then left. It happened in this very movie village. And it was the funniest moment I’ve had as a samurai actor.

14.How many times have you been killed?

Well, I’ve been killed at least 1.5 times more often than I have killed people, so I’d say more than 16,200 times. Rehearsals for fighting scenes are very serious and elaborate. Even for a 15 seconds scene, we do at least three rehearsals. That means I get killed three times on top of the official version. Some actors want to do the rehearsal 5 or 6 times. And even during the actual shooting, we often take more than one take for one fighting scene. You see me being killed just one time on the screen, but prior to that I had to be killed 10 times to get it just right. (Laugh)

15.How many times have you killed?


Countless, again. I sometimes kill 10 or more people in one show too, though I was killed today. The same math as the first question, but even if I count only the number of people I’ve killed in the shows in the movie village, it will be approximately 6 times a day × 10 days a month × 12 months × 15 years = 10,800. So I’ve definitely killed more than 10,800 people. (Lol)

16.In the past, our readers have been interested in how the samurai speak. What are your top three tips for speaking Japanese like a samurai?

  1. Speak politely while being respectful to other people.
  2. Memorizing famous expressions. One of the famous expressions of the samurai is “ござる (gozaru)” meaning “to be”, but it’s not commonly used in films. We actually use some of the same expressions as modern ones, such as “です (desu), ます (masu), or である (dearu).” Yet, we often use “~仕り候 (tsukamatsuri sourou)” which is used to tell a person of higher status what you have done, or something like that. I think it’s because if we use all samurai era expressions, it would not be easy to understand for viewers. In other words, you can learn famous expressions from samurai films while still understanding the story. So, watching samurai films or dramas is an easy way to pick up famous expressions and practice them. It’ll actually be very good practice for learning modern Japanese too because nowadays people often don’t pronounce the ending of the sentence properly, or they change it into a very rough version of the expression. Yet, in samurai films (especially the traditional samurai films), people speak Japanese very clearly and properly, from the beginning to the end of a sentence. So it will definitely be great way to learn and practice beautiful and polite Japanese.
  3. With the consideration of the above two pieces of advice, you can learn the structure of the words and word choice. For example, samurai often say “~で候 (~de sourou)” at the end of a sentence and that can be translated as “ある(aru)” or “いる(iru)” in modern Japanese and “to be” in English. It sounds like a difficult word, but it’s just a word to show your respect to someone else. Samurai language is all about respecting and being considerate of the other people. So as long as you keep that in mind and you come to learn specific samurai words and ways of saying them, you will naturally learn when to use it.

17. Do you ever find yourself speaking like a samurai in your real life?

I usually speak Kansai-ben, but when I play a samurai role, of course I use the standard and polite samurai-ben. It’s okay to talk to the director in kansai-ben, but I just adapt my manner of speaking to suit the occasion. While I am acting, I may speak kansai-samurai-ben if it was required. For example, visitors to the movie village are usually not from Kyoto. They are usually people sightseeing in the Kansai area and, to entertain them, I use Kansai-samurai-ben so that they feel, “Oh I am in Kyoto now!”. I don’t do this when I explain or describe something because they might not be able to understand it if I use that dialect to do so.

In my real day-to-day life, it’s extremely rare to find myself speaking like a samurai, but it does happen from time to time… perhaps when I get drunk. I like drinking and sometimes reading the script while I am drunk. It helps me to see the story from a different (drunken) perspective. At such times, I can mix up the language. (Laughs)

Actually, I happen to act like a samurai in my real life rather than speaking like a samurai. For example, let’s say there is a cup on the table and I am going to grab it. If I’m wearing a tshirt, I don’t need to worry about my tamoto, which is the sleeved pouch of the kimono, but I still will move my other hand as if to grab the pouch. Then I get rather surprised to only catch air and think “why is there nothing here?”.


Or when you bend your knees, if you just bend over as you do in jeans, your hakama (pleated Japanese traditional pants) can get messed up. So you have to keep them beautifully parted beautifully. I sometimes will do this action even when not wearing the hakama.


So people sometimes stare at me as if to say, “what did you do that weird action for?”

18. If there are readers shooting samurai films and want to ask you to act in the film, what should they do?

If they get in touch with TOEI and if I am available, I would be happy to take the offer. You can get TOEI’s contact information here. Or send a message to Mami and she will be able to reach to me.

19. Now that we’re nearing the end of the interview, do you have any messages or other interesting stories for our readers?

I want to tell them that the traditional films might seem a little difficult at first, but they are actually not difficult at all. The feelings that people have and experience are the same no matter which era they live in. The culture and life settings are different from what I live in now, so we can be quick to feel it’s too difficult or too stuffy. If you think that way, just try to focus purely on the human aspect of the drama, apart from all the historical stuff.

It should be a very easy to understand and an enjoyable story with Japanese emotions and inner beauty. Or if you like soap operas, sometimes such a lurid relationship is described in a traditional film as well, since it was a very common thing for a lord to have many wives to produce an heir. Well, that doesn’t sound stuffy at all, right? So if you have a preconception that samurai films are difficult, please toss it out of your mind and try out the films. I’m sure you will enjoy it!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How To Shoot A Samurai Film Tue, 29 Jul 2014 16:00:22 +0000 A couple of months ago I went to TOEI UZUMASA EIGAMURA, which is both a theme park and an active movie set. The studio has been around since about 1955. But, with the decline in popularity of traditional samurai films the studios had to make up for some of that lost yen. In 1975 they built the theme park portion: A traditional samurai village, with actors who play the parts of samurai, ninja, villagers, etc. You can go there and see how samurai films are made, take pictures with samurai, and participate in/see various attractions. I wrote about most of it here in a travel article about TOEI UZUMASA EIGAMURA.

Now, I don’t want to ruin the experience of going there for you. You should go yourself if you are able to (it’s a lot of fun!). But, I do want to give you some “pre-information” about this place so you can further enjoy the studio set. If you want to go there without knowing anything beforehand though, you can stop reading right now. But, if you want to live vicariously through my time travel experience, read on. Ready? Light. Camera. Action!

A Small Town From The Edo period… Or The Showa Period… Or Modern Times…


The most common time period used in the main town is the Edo period. The street set of the Edo period is used for a vast log of films since the periodical setting is changeable. Recently a TV movie film called 宮本武蔵 (Musashi Miyamoto), starring Takuya Kimura from SMAP, was shot here. This is despite the fact that the story’s era was a little earlier than the Edo period, when roofing tiles didn’t exist yet. So, they put some woven mats and wood on top to hide them.


Sometimes they need to shoot in a period that’s later than the Edo period. One example is a scene from one of NHK’s morning drama series: “Carnation”. This series takes place in the Showa period. They didn’t need to change the tiles for this, but they did need to change the sliding paper doors (shoji) to glass doors. They also needed to change some of the vertically written signs to horizontal ones. This set even comes with the capability to erect poles for power lines and once the cables are thrown up the set instantly looks more modern.

Since the time period of this set is changeable, a very modern film could be filmed here as well. I heard that Kamen Rider and the samurai drama “Abarenbō Shōgun” were shot on the street at the same time (separate parts of the street though). On one side was Kamen Rider on his motorcycle and on the other was a samurai on his spectacular horse.

Anyways, my point is: this set is very flexible! Perhaps that has to do with how even in modern Japanese society we keep a lot of the traditional things as well. To shoot in modern times, or to shoot in times before the Edo era… all it requires is a few small changes and it feels like a couple hundred years have gone past. If you go to a rural area of Japan, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

A Lot Of Contrivances


Since they have to make full use of the movie set, they have a lot of tricky modifications on each building and other things on the street. Do you see something odd about the image above? It’s slightly off the ground. In order to easily alter the set, some buildings have wheels on them, this one included. it requires just five or six adults to move.


Or take this for example: You can attach a new front wall to a building to make it look like a different building. If you look carefully, you will find some buildings that have double walls on the front, like the image above. The picture of the woman’s face on the wall inside (called otafuku) can be changed out if need be too.


This here is a part of the Nagaya set, which are row houses from the Edo period and are now what might be called “apartments.” Because the walls between the two residences were so thin, you could easily hear an argument between the couple next door. As you can probably expect, the well in front of the nagaya is empty, so an actor/actress has to rely on their acting skills to convincingly collect water. It is also moveable so they can expand the washing area depending on the film.

People living in nagaya usually shared one well and nagaya mothers tended to be in close proximity to the well since many of their responsibilities, such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning dishes, all required water. I know it is a stereotype, but many of them apparently liked chatting about rumors and often gossiped beside the well. This is how the phrase “井戸端会議” (Ido-bata-kaigi), which literally means “meeting beside a well” and figuratively means “housewives gossip circle” or “water-cooler chat”, came about.


Many buildings are set up to only be used for outside shops and don’t have an interior. This one, however, has a nice inside including fresh (plastic) fish and vegetables. Looks tasty!

The Only Half Bridge


This bridge is called Nihon-bashi (Japan bridge), but if you put a different name-sign in front, it can be a different bridge too.

My photo may not really show it, but it’s actually very short and steep. (Maybe slightly over 10 degrees). It’s a little trick used back in the time when CG didn’t exist. If it was shot from a lower angle, it appears very big and long on the screen. The other side is not actually a bridge, either. It’s just steps for actors / actresses to wait their turn. Because of that, there is an absolute rule that they only shoot from this side and the actors / actresses only come from the other.

Oh, and there is no water flowing underneath. If they shoot someone jumping off the bridge, they take a shot of that person going into a river in a different place. Sometimes they go on a little trip to Saga Prefecture to take such a scene. I also heard about one time when they used a pond here in the park and combined it with a moat scene shot in a different place.

A Pond With A Dinosaur


The pond I just mentioned above happens to have a dinosaur in the middle for some reason. The dinosaur has been there since the theme park started, although now it is the third generation dinosaur. Two dinosaurs were placed there at first – a mother dinosaur with her baby. Perhaps due to wear from the elements, they were later replaced with this guy. I asked the workers his name, but sadly nobody knew it.

In spite of having the dangerous dinosaur, this pond is apparently used for a lot of scenes. The depth is different between the left side and the right side to diversify the scenes. A drowned body floating is usually shot in the shallower side, whereas someone who is killed by a samurai and drops into the water is done in the deeper side. There is usually only one set of samurai actor / actress costumes and wigs made (especially for those who will be killed or drown), so only the people who are most experienced and reliable in terms of falling into the water get these scenes.

For the big stars, the water is completely cleaned and warmed up. Needless to say, the dinosaur is forced to go hunt some sheep or something when shooting needs to be done.

Red-district Yoshiwara Street


Yoshiwara was a famous licensed brothel district in the Edo period. There are two gates granting access to this street. The front gate is called “Oomon” and the back gate is called “Uramon”.


If you go in there, you’ll find the street to be very short. Yet when they shoot there, they change the signs and curtains of each house and combine them together when they edit, so that the street appears as if it is very long in a film.


The size of some of the doorways can also be altered and is done to change the appearance of the houses.


The upstairs of these buildings are only used for shooting, but you can go into the first floor of some places. However, make sure to take your shoes off if you see this sign, 土足厳禁 (dosoku-genkin).

Modern Architectures


Just as a quick side note, they don’t only shoot traditional films but contemporary films as well! So, you’ll see some modern buildings that can be used as film sets.


This big staircase inside the modern building pictured above is often used for scenes that often include some big-shot politician with confidential information getting surrounded by a bunch of press. You may see this staircase while watching a Japanese drama or film.


There is actually a pretty good chance of encountering an actual shooting while visiting, too. While I was there, they were shooting 大岡越前 (Ōoka Echizen), though photos were not allowed. While shooting, there are a lot of people standing with a fan with writing on it that says “おしずかに(Oshizukani)” which means “Quiet, please.” However, JR trains operate nearby the studio and they can’t read what the fans say. So, the assistant director always has a train schedule in hand and it is his/her job to scream, “Hey, we’ve got only 5 minutes for next train! Hurry up!”


As I mentioned above, the exteriors of the buildings in the theme park are primarily what is used for shooting. Indoor shots, on the other hand, are done inside actual studios, which are located right next to the studio park. Sadly, this area is off limits to us normal people.

As you can tell from this article, I was truly interested in the film set. I hope you enjoyed this article and it encourages you to visit as well. There are a lot more than movies in this park too, including TOEI actors and actresses dressed up in historic costume, and many other touches that add to the atmosphere of a historical town. Actually, I even was able to conduct an interview one of the samurai actors, and his interview will be coming out tomorrow! Now that you know what the set and park is like, I hope you look forward to hearing more from someone who is often on the inside. If anything, you can find out how many people he has killed.

See you tomorrow!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Introducing Introduction: Mastering Jikoshokai and the ALT Self-Intro Class Mon, 28 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 Hajimemashite! It’s nice to meet you!

If you come to Japan you’re going to find yourself saying this quite often. Introductions are very important in Japanese culture. It can be seen as an extension of the Japanese obsession with perfection. Things have to be perfect right from the start and that includes the start of every relationship, whether in business, school, or even casual meetings. It can sometimes seem like the introduction is the most important part of any endeavor. If you’ve got off on the right foot, all the subsequent steps aren’t quite as important. But that introduction… gotta get that right!

I once attended an English camp where I spotted a tiny error in the program notes for the introductory speech. I pointed it out to the organizers and thought that was the end of it. Problem solved! I was surprised to find the organizers flipping out for the next half hour, trying to work out if they could reprint all the programs before the opening ceremony. I was very confused so I asked a Japanese co-worker why they were so agitated. She explained, “It’s because it affects the opening ceremony. We think that if the opening is good, then the whole thing will be good. If the opening is bad, then everything is ruined.”

To me that seemed like a lot of pressure to put on the start of something (though actually that camp was a disaster, so maybe they had a point.) Still, it gave me some insight into the importance that Japanese culture places on introductions. The introduction sets the tone for the entire relationship. It’s a formalized way of perfecting first impressions. In some ways this is stressful, if you don’t know the rules. But luckily the rules are easy to grasp. Once you’ve got them you can relax.

Let’s Jikoshokai!


Photo by kouyuzu

So if introductions carry so much weight in Japan, it must be pretty important for you to master! Jikoshokai (自己紹介) is the Japanese word for self-introduction and it’s probably the third thing you should learn after konnichiwa and arigatou.

At its very simplest, the pattern is:

はじめまして。Hajimemashite. (Nice to meet you.)
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu. (It doesn’t translate well, but this means, in a self-intro situation, something like “Please be kind to me.” More than one student has thought it translates as “Nice to me too.”)

The next step up is:

私は (name) と申します。Watashi wa (name) to moushimasu. (My name is… (polite version).)
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

Then you simply build from there:

Watashi wa (name) tomoimasu.
(Home country) から来ました。(Home country) kara kimashita. (I’m from (home country).)
日本の(interests)に興味があります。Nihon no (interests) ni kyoumi ga arimasu. (I’m interested in Japanese (interests))
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

And so on, depending on what you want to say.

The content of your self-introduction will differ depending on who you are talking to. Self-introductions can open a lot of doors. For example, if you are a new ALT at a school, mentioning aspects of Japanese culture that you are interested in might get you an invitation to a class or club. But if you are in a business setting, it’s best to keep things formal. If you are just meeting people casually you don’t need to launch into the full spiel, just hajimemashite, name, and yoroshiku onegai shimasu will do. However, if any group is meeting for the first time, don’t be surprised if someone suddenly says it’s time for jikoshokai, even if you’ve been happily chatting for half an hour.

Business Cards


Business cards (meishi) are an art form in Japan. If you’ve read any sort of guide, you already know to take them with both hands. Don’t write on them, damage them, or stick them in your back pocket. You might also want to have your own printed up. Bilingual meishi are particularly useful. Personally, I never got round to having some made, but there were certainly times I wish I had. As a JET ALT it wasn’t necessary, but if you are looking to find another job in Japan, ALTing or otherwise, then cards will be a useful tool for you.

I got a little case from a 100 yen store so that I’d have somewhere to put meishi given to me. Failing that, I’d put them flat on the table then tuck them into my wallet only when I’d finished speaking to whoever gave it to me.

Some people go beyond simply handing over a card. The most impressive presentation of a business card I ever saw was performed by a magician. When he opened his card case it burst into flames. Then he used sleight of hand to pass it to me without me even realizing. Business cards don’t have to be boring! You’ll probably want to stick to formal ones for formal occasions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also have a set of personal name cards for more casual meetings.

How to Master the ALT Self-Intro Class


Photo by Dylan Raife

I recently wrote an article for new ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), offering tips and tricks for success in the classroom. But before ALTs can start proper teaching, they are expected to teach a self-introduction class. While this may seem daunting at first, a little preparation and practice can make anyone a self-intro wizard!

First, don’t worry if it goes a bit wrong. The first ones are always dodgy. Take it as a learning experience. My first self-introductions were appalling, mumbling, too long, too focused on me talking, and far too complicated. Now, over 100 self-intro classes later I can literally do one successfully almost on autopilot. The key is to refine it a little each time. Notice which bits got the laughs and which bits got dead silence. Adjust your self-introduction accordingly. Ask JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) for feedback. They may not all be willing to give any, but a few might have some good advice for you.


Photo by Verity Lane

Most of my schools didn’t have access to any kind of presentation equipment, so I relied on printed pictures. The laminator will be your greatest friend. I put my self-introduction together three years ago and used it over 100 times. Thanks to being laminated it’s still going strong. When it comes to pictures, think big – A4 size minimum. Passing pictures around takes time and splits a class’ attention when you want to keep that attention on what you’re saying. Flags are good, as are other props, especially for younger students. If you love rugby, take a rugby ball. If you have a national animal, take a stuffed toy. Pictures of your family, your pets, favourite foods and hobbies are good staples. Try to find a picture to illustrate each point you want to talk about. Back those pictures up with drawings on the blackboard, however terrible they may be. Fast is more important than beautiful. You can write keywords too, which really helps Japanese students who usually don’t get much listening practice, but can read much better.

If you do have access to presentation equipment, go for it! I’d particularly recommend Prezzi, presentation software. It will blow your students’ minds. Actually, even PowerPoint will probably blow their minds, especially if you include moving elements. In my experience of rural schools, most JTEs rarely use technology in the classrooms. (Some can’t even use Microsoft Word – I wish I was joking.) Given how unusual presentation equipment is in Japanese schools, I’d suggest making a low-tech version as a backup. You never know when a projector won’t work, or your power point will bizarrely show upside-down or a teacher will simply be so freaked out by the idea of a presentation that they say no.

So you’ve got your materials. But what do you say? Try to think back to language classes you took as a child. What topics did you cover? Family, animals, foods, and so on. Make it your own too. What is interesting about you? That can be hard to answer by yourself, so ask friends and family for their opinions.


Photo by Verity Lane

Now, I’m not saying you should lie to children (fun as that is), but do simplify your life story. Personally, I say, “My family are sheep farmers. This is my favorite sheep, Kevin.” I don’t say, “My Aunt once rescued some sheep and has since created a paradise on earth for out of luck farm animals. Kevin is an ovine spiritual guru whose wooly coat holds the secret to cosmic happiness, which can be unlocked by petting him.” It’s simpler. The aim is not to have the kids understand every nuance of your life, but just to have them understand something. Also, this appeals to the kids in my area, many of whom come from farming families. Try to find parts of your life the kids can empathize with. This will take some time. Don’t worry about being perfect on your first try.

Throw some questions in there too. When I show the picture of Kevin the Sheep I ask the students, “What animal is this?” Kevin is a very handsome brown sheep, but most sheep in Japan are white, so the answers usually go from dog to bear to cow before settling on sheep. That’s more fun for the students than me simply saying, “This is a sheep.”

Go to town with gestures too. Mime like your life depends on it. I do an imitation of Kevin the sheep running towards me in a field, which is 100% ridiculous. It always gets a laugh and the kids visibly relax. They aren’t so shy about embarrassing themselves, because nothing they do will be as embarrassing as me running around the classroom going “Baaaaaaaa!”

I don’t just talk about sheep, (though animals are a good topic for kids since they know a lot of the vocabulary.) I usually start with an explanation of the four countries of the UK. I make it more interesting by explaining that my Dad is from England and my Mum is from Wales (another simplification.) I do this using pictures of my Mum and Dad and making the kids guess who they are before saying “Yes. This is my Father. He has a crazy face.” (In the picture I use, he is pulling a very strange expression! Thanks Dad!) Really simple humor using words they know (like crazy) is really important. Thus, without really realizing it, the students learn about the otherwise confusing and dull administrative districts of the UK. (Also, the Welsh flag is badass and gets a mime too – roar!)

I also run through, my favourite food (scones), famous UK food (fish and chips), and my hobby (knitting). Each subject has a picture. I don’t work from a script, but instead put the pictures in order and let them remind me of the next topic. If I have a lot of time I throw in that I studied at Oxford University, but I brighten this up for students who have never heard of it by explaining Harry Potter was filmed there. Pop culture can be a useful tool to connect with students. Although this is a self-introduction, that doesn’t mean you have to talk about only yourself. This is a great chance to talk about where you come from and your culture.

Self-Intro Class Quiz Finale!


Photo by Verity Lane

Some teachers will ask you to introduce yourself in 5 minutes. I did a very quick highlights version (name, country, student questions). But sometimes you’ll be asked to do your self-introduction for an entire class period. Talking about yourself for 50 minutes is tough on you and on the kids. That’s why it’s quiz time! There are loads of different ways to run this. I’m going to share what worked for me (at Senior High School level, though it could easily be adapted for Junior High Schools), but you’ll be sure to find your own groove.

This entire process is done in English, for both you and the students (this depends on student level, but even at low level schools, it is possible to do it all in English since your pictures and props will help with understanding.) Sometimes it’s appropriate for Japanese Teachers to add explanations in Japanese, but usually I found it’s not, even at the lowest level schools. Try as hard as you can to stop JTEs from translating every word you say. It kills self-intro classes.

Prepare your quiz questions ahead of time. At first you’ll probably need them written down, but your eventual aim should be to do this paperless. Don’t be afraid of going off script. It’s important to react to the tone of the class.

  • At the start, divide the kids into teams of 5 or 6 and have them move their desks together.
  • Give each group one big piece of paper.
  • Explain that you are going do your self-introduction then there will be a quiz, so the students should write a memo. Memo is a word kids know from katakana (these sorts of words are your friends).
  • Do your crazy-awesome self-introduction.
  • Explain that the first round of the quiz is the students asking you questions.
  • Give them two/three minutes to discuss their questions in a group.
  • Use this time to draw the scoreboard, question categories, and points on the blackboard.
  • If you have 4 categories then plan on between 3 and 5 questions per category to fill 30 to 50 minutes. As you get more familiar with your self-introduction you’ll be able to gauge how many questions you’ll need to fill the time.
  • Ask the JTE to keep the scores.
  • When the 2 minutes thinking time is up, regain the students’ attention and tell them to raise their hand to ask a question.
  • Answer the students’ questions. Give lots of positive feedback (“Great question!” “Nice!”)
  • If they ask a slightly wonky question eg. “What do you like foods?” repeat the correct version back the them before answering, “What foods do I like? I like agidashi dofu!” (The weirder the Japanese food you say, the happier they’ll be.)
  • Be prepared for rude questions too and don’t get too flustered.
  • Give the students 10 points for each question they answer.
  • After a few minutes, or when every group has asked a few questions, tell them it’s time for you to ask them questions.
  • Get ready to slip into a “Game Show Host” persona – think big gestures and big reactions.
  • Explain the categories and the points (more points mean a more difficult question).
  • Explain that if a team gets a question right they get to choose the next question (they can easily grasp this once they start playing).
  • Run through all your questions. Erase the points as the students answer each question.
  • Call out the points to the JTE who should be writing them down.
  • If there is a very confident team, try to give other teams a chance to answer too by ignoring them for a round.
  • At the end add up the scores and give the winners a round of applause.
  • Boom! You just ran an awesome self-introduction.

As ever, this advice is what has worked for me. Be sure to modify and change as you see fit. If you aren’t sure where to start with self-introductions, then you can use this as a framework to build your own style on. There are lots of awesome ways to run a self-introduction. If you have access to IT equipment at school you could do this as a Jeopardy style quiz on a screen. Or you could do it another way entirely. For very young kids, you could consider making answer cards with words or pictures for them to collect when you ask questions about yourself. You could make a comprehension worksheet with questions or in a bingo style for students to fill out as they listen to you. You could get the kids to guess everything about you. I tried several styles before settling on the one I described above.

But beyond all these tips, perhaps the most important thing is the attitude of the JTE towards you. I once had two classes, the same level, same material, same school, same day. The first class went fantastically; kids asked great questions and got really excited. The second class went terribly; the kids stared silently and getting them to ask questions was excruciating. The only difference was the teachers. In the first class the teacher walked in with me and said, “Today we have an ALT with us! She’s going to give you her self-introduction!” with a big smile on his face. The second teacher walked into the classroom without saying a word and stood at the back silently. In both cases, the teachers set the tone of the students’ reaction. If you can, talk to your JTEs before class to ask them to introduce you. As I said right at the start, introduction is an important part of Japanese culture. The students’ crucial first impression of you is formed in part by how the JTE introduces you.

Concluding the Introduction to Introductions


Photo by Ian Forrester

All that said, don’t let all this perceived pressure on self-introduction freak you out. When you first arrive in Japan things can be a little overwhelming. If you can get your Japanese self-introduction mostly memorized you’ll be fine. People will be forgiving, even if you flub it. Prepare your English self-intro class, but also be prepared to change it as you find your ALT feet. Don’t worry; you’ll have lots and lots and lots of opportunities to practice the art of jikoshokai. You’ll be a master in no time!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

A (Very) Quick History


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

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

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

Surviving Undoukai


Photo by Tamago Moffle

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

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


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

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

The Venue


Photo by 不可説

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

Opening Ceremonies


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

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

(Rajio Taisou with some local Tohoku flavor.)

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

The Events


Photo by Ishikawa Ken

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

Popular undoukai events include:

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


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


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

The Soundtrack


Photo by Arbitrarily0

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

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

Closing Ceremony


Photo by Taku

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

Or does it?

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

The Spirit of Cooperation Under Competition’s Guise


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

#10: Japanese Spider Crab


Photo by Laika ac

Kaijū Equivalent: Ebirah


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

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

#9: Blue Whale


Photo by anim1755

Kaijū Equivalent: Godzilla


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

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

#8: Frilled Shark


Photo by OpenCage

Kaijū Equivalent: Zigra


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

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

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

#7: Sika Deer


Kaiju Equivalent: Cowra


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

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

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

#6: Amami Rabbit


Kaijū Equivalent: Hanejiro


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

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

#5: Okinawa Habu


Kaiju Equivalent: Dai Umi Hebi


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

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

#4: Ryukyu Flying Fox


Photo by Momotarou2012

Kaijū Equivalent: Kyuranos


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

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

#3: Ussuri Brown Bear


Photo by Nzrst1jx

Kaijū Equivalent: King Caesar


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

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

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

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

#2: Japanese Giant Salamander


Photo by Paul Williams

Kaijū Equivalent: Japanese Giant Salamander (Sanshouuo Kaijin)


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

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

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

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

#1: Japanese Giant Hornet


Photo by KENPEI

Kaijū Equivalent: Battra


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

Japan’s 2014 Uniform


Photo by BagoGames

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

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


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

Japan’s Crows


Photo by Frankyboy5

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Legend of Yatagarasu


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

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

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

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

Why Yatagarasu?


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

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

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

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

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

Yatagarasu, Still Guiding After All These Years


Photo by m-louis

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Traveling The Hidden Spots Of Japan With MATCHA Tue, 22 Jul 2014 16:00:18 +0000 I was visiting my family and friends in Japan last month and one of my friends asked me what I do for work. I proudly answered Tofugu, but didn’t expect that he would know what Tofugu was because he was Japanese and Tofugu is intended for non-Japanese people who are interested in Japan.

Yet, I received an unexpected reaction – “What!? That Tofugu!? Really? I’m jealous!” Then he told me that he often comes across the name Tofugu online and showed me the most recent site he had read, as well. The site that he showed me was this Mr. Saitou’s personal blog named DoaBLOG. In this blog, Mr.Saitou gave Tofugu loads of praise and also introduced a site called MATCHA, which is the site he works for. I got interested in his article on MATCHA about a hammock cafe, then left a comment on his blog saying, “I want to swing on the hammock in the cafe”. Well, I still haven’t swung on the hammock in the cafe, but I did swing by for this interview and got the opportunity to ask him about this new Japanese travel web magazine called MATCHA.

Let’s find out how this powdered green tea travel blog, MATCHA, tastes!

Interviewing: Shinnosuke Saito. Position: PR


Q. What’s your story?

I’m a third-year student at Meiji University’s School of Commerce. I like English and international exchange, so I’m going to New York City in America to study this summer. I have various hobbies from travel to photography, to music, to café-hopping, to reading. I also host foreigners coming to Japan about once a week via Couchsurfing. While hosting non-Japanese people, I came to realize that they are often able to point out aspects and components of Japanese culture that I had never even thought about before. I found several times that I could only provide inadequate explanations.

For example, I was at a loss when I was asked about otoshi while in an Izakaya restaurant. Otoshi is the small appetizer that is brought to you while taking your seat even without ordering it. It is not on the house because it is provided as compensation for the seating charge. On the spot I was asked, “What is that?” but I had no idea how to answer.

That kind of new discovery is interesting to us, the Japanese people, as well. I simply like things that are unique to Japan and if I keep my eyes open, I can find an ample amount of such strictly-Japanese things. Then I began to want to tell everyone outside my home country of the true value of Japan, so I became a member of MATCHA. That’s what I want to introduce to you all today. I work as a project planner and in PR, but I sometimes write articles as well. I’m passionate about informing as many people as possible about the good things of Japan, so I do a lot of running around talking about MATCHA and Japan to various people. Today I got the opportunity to make my voice heard on Tofugu and let you guys know how great Japan is, too!

Q. Okay, I suppose you should tell us about Matcha then.


MATCHA is a web-based magazine for foreign tourists coming to Japan. Its writers, like myself, introduce the good and interesting things that are only found in Japan and place their articles under one of five categories (FOOD, SHOP, SPOT, HOW TO, and OTAKU). We now translate our articles in 7 languages. They are Japanese, English, Chinese (in both simplified Chinese characters and original Chinese characters), Korean, Indonesian, and “Easy-Japanese”. The Easy-Japanese is aimed at the more than 10,000,000 Japanese learners that exist in the world today.


The “How To” section is intended to help Japan-beginners to travel around Japan without getting lost. So we teach people how to buy a Suica (transportation card), give instructions on taking a taxi, have information on how to connect to Wi-Fi, ATM maps, etc… As for the articles found under SHOP and SPOT, they would even be interesting to Japanese people. In fact, there is a great deal of website access from Japan. We’ve received comments such as “I didn’t know that” or “I read MATCHA although I’m Japanese” from many people and I’m really happy about that. There are so many valuable things in Japan, but if nobody preserves them, they won’t last into the future. Hence, MATCHA is a media source that will help preserve the memory of such things unique to Japanese culture.

Q. Why did you start working at Matcha?

Yu Aoki, whom I have respected for a long while, played a big role in my desire to join MATCHA. He was originally blogging about his around-the-world trip on his own blog called Hibilog. I was a fan of his and joined the morning activity that he had started and soon after was asked to join MATCHA. He is the first person to start generating the collection of information regarding valuable Japanese culture in order to preserve it.

Yu Aoki Sen.Inc CEO

As I mentioned above, I do ‘couchsurfing’, or rather, I host ‘couchsurfers’. I’ve become a sort of tour guide for them and they are always satisfied with the excursions that I lead them on. They trust the information I offer them and return to their respective countries confident that they’ve seen “real” Japan by visiting those places and I’m very happy to be able to provide them with that.

However, this also means that they accept the information without a second thought. If the information quality is not good, they may have a bad experience. I think it is a little sad if they only know the Japan that I know. There is so much more I would like to know, myself. Sometimes I am asked about cultural aspects and I find I am unable to answer because I had never even considered it before that question, and I think it’s great that I can’t answer because I get to learn something new about Japanese culture. MATCHA was the most suitable place for me to unveil such answers after finding out. Of course, I would never turn down Mr. Aoki’s offer anyways because he is a person I really respect, when I was asked to join, I answered instantly, “I want to join you guys!”

Q. I think we’re going to focus this interview mostly on traveling Japan travel, but we’ll talk about your website a little bit too. You seem to focus on the smaller, lesser known places (we do that too in our travel section). Why do you do this?

MATCHA considers each writer’s passion to be an important part of the reading experience. Each writer has their own image in mind of the Japanese topics they write about and are encouraged to explore the special feeling they get about certain topics when they write. Because of that, the places tend to be niche spots rather than famous sightseeing places. On top of that, MATCHA is a media source that intends to perpetuate the existence of cherished Japanese culture. Unfortunately, cultural life, cultural goods, cultural traditions, and experiences could disappear if no one collects it. For example, Japanese breweries are said to be decreasing more and more. We often focus on such cultural aspects, places and things that are less popular and less well known and it shows in our content.

Q. If someone were to visit Tokyo, what 5 things do they HAVE to go see?


  1. Asakusa – Asakusa temple and the traditional shopping, entertainment and residential districts that represent Tokyo. The Skytree is also nearby, so you can easily spend the whole day in and around this area.
  2. Shibuya Scramble Intersection – It’s an incredibly famous intersection that you’re sure to have seen on TV before, where traffic lights allow pedestrians to cross in all directions simultaneously. It’s one of more fascinating spots for many foreigners, especially those not too accustomed to big cities, because it’s easy to be blown away by the sheer number of people. It is just intersection, but the chaos you experience here is well worth the visit.
  3. Harajuku – It’s the ‘Mecca of Kawaii’. If you want to see this world popular Japanese culture with your own eyes, you had better visit here. It may even be worth visiting while doing  cosplay too!
  4. Tsukiji – Raw fish, the smell of busy stovetops, the lively chatter….everything is fresh. If you go there at 5 am, the first 120 people in line get to observe the tuna auction! You can eat some of the freshest Kaisen-Don (Raw fish on rice in a bowl), as well!
  5. Akihabara – It’s the Mecca of Japanese anime and otaku culture. The flash of lights and eruption of color that covers everything adds percussion to your wandering feet. There are so many kinds of music that you can listen to, as well. It’s very much as if you were in a different world. Actually, I live in this area right now.

Q. If someone is visiting Japan, what 5 things do they HAVE to go see?

  1. Kyoto. It has a completely different atmosphere than Tokyo. I especially recommend Gion which can sum up the atmosphere of Kyoto. Red lanterns line the street and the alleys show us a traditional face with a very Japanesey taste. You would do nothing but be very excited if you visited here.
  2. Osaka – Osaka is also a very large city. Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki are famous to everyone, right? This is also a stereotypical spot to venture to, but I recommend you visit Dotonbori. Not only can you enjoy the famous Glico advertisements, takoyaki shops, and Okonomiyaki shops, but also peer into the deeper parts of Japanese culture. Oh, and the illumination of the street is also very beautiful.
  3. Matsushima – This is in Miyagi prefecture, where I’m from, and I really recommend visiting. It was voted as one of Japan’s top three most scenic places and you can enjoy fresh seafood, such as oysters and muscles. It is also close to the March 11th disaster area, so I would like people to visit there to see what happened.
  4. Hiroshima – There are world heritage sites, such as Itsukushima shrine and the Atomic Bomb dome. Also, Saijo is known for having one of the three biggest Japanese sake breweries.
  5. Gifu Shirakawago – This place allows all of us to realize that the really great spots in Japan are all in the rural countryside. I want everyone to feel the traditional tone and natural style of Japanese life – Japaneseness!

Q. What are the three weirdest spots you’ve written about on Matcha?


  1. These beautiful restrooms.
  2. This cafe where you can get coffee in a wine glass.
  3. and this anime-inspired Kamakura Pilgrimage.

Q. What are the three most beautiful spots you’ve written about on Matcha?

  1. The Meijijingu Shrine in Harajuku.
  2. This secluded bamboo temple in Kamakura.
  3. and  these World Heritage Sites: 1993-1998, 1999-2013.

Q. What are the three tastiest spots you’ve written about on Matcha?


  1. The extremely pastel colored KIKI LALA Cafe.
  2. Totoro Cafe, where you can get Totoro themed cream puffs.
  3. and Japan’s most delicious Dorayaki at Kameju.

Q. What are the three most stereotypical otaku spots you’ve written about on Matcha?

  1. Maison de Julietta, where you can become a Lolita.
  2. Nakano Broadway, for your medal addiction.
  3. These three anime shops in Akihabara.

Q. What kind of travel advice do you have for someone visiting and traveling within Japan?


Memorizing easy Japanese greetings. We feel happy when a visitor even just says “Arigato! (Thank you)” and it is that kind of simple phrase that makes a really good impression. Oh, and you should practice using chopsticks too, though there are so many Japanese restaurants around the world nowadays so maybe it’s already easy for you. Yet you will still receive praise if you can use them really well.

Q. What prefecture do you think is the most underrated in Japan (That people should go visit)?

Mmmm, my personal choice is Nagano. Nagano is a bit far from Tokyo and it will take a while to get there, but there are so many fascinating places, such as the Southern Alps of Japan, Jigokudani, which famous for the monkeys that live in a hot spring, traditional inn towns, and all the delicious soba noodles and Japanese sweets. I highly recommend going there at least once.

Q. In your opinion, which prefecture has the best food in Japan?

Miyagi prefecture, where I’m from, has the best food in Japan. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but to me the best food in particular is Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue) of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture.

Q. What’s your favorite secret spot in Japan?

It’s too difficult to answer. I’m sorry, but I have to pass on this question.

Q. If Tofugu Readers Want To Check Out More Matcha…?

MATCHA English:
Easy Japanese:

If you want to see the other languages please visit one of the above URLs and choose your preferred language.

MATCHA Facebook page:

Q. What can we expect from Matcha in the future?

MATCHA will be one of the great Japan tour media sources to represent Japan. Soon we will cover all 47 prefectures and convey valuable information about each of them. We distribute new articles every day, so please check it out, especially when you come to Japan!

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

A Quick Overview of the Ainu


Photo by seriykotik

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ainu Mythology 101


Photo by davidooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Photo by mushimizu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Karuta! Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Nintendo has been a household name in the world over for the last 30 years, and their Pokemon franchise took the world by storm in the 90s. But did you know that the multimedia Nintendo empire started out as a humble karuta company in 1889? That’s right, not 1989, 1889. Long before Mario and Princess Peach’s torrid love affair began, there was a type of Japanese playing cards called karuta (かるた or カルタ). Oddly enough, mastering karuta requires some of the same skills as mastering your average video game–a combination of lightning reflexes, memorization, and lots of time to waste. And for the Japanese language learner, karuta also offers the perfect blend of procrastination and productivity, a way to work and play at same time.

Clam Shells + Portuguese Sailors = Karuta


Photo by Scott S

Karuta, as it exists today, is the hybrid descendent of 12th century clam shells and 16th century Portuguese sailors. During the Heian period (794-1185), Kyoto aristocrats whiled away the hours with pastimes like writing elaborate poetry (read: passing gossipy notes back and forth that happened to be written in meter) and playing kai-awase (買い合わせ), a “shell-matching” game. The inner surfaces of clam or oyster shells were painted with matching scenes and/or poetry, a set of shells were laid face down, and players competed to see who could match the greatest number of shells in the shortest amount of time.


Photo by Sudare

Karuta’s second ancestor arrived through the port of Nagasaki in the mid-1500s. Here Portuguese sailors introduced the resident samurai class to European playing cards that they called carta. As filtered through Japanese ears, carta became karuta. During the ensuing Edo period (1600-1868), karuta fully evolved from a foreign Portuguese import into a distinct Japanese custom, combining traditional kai-awase gameplay with the European paper card medium. Although painstakingly hand-painted at first, before long karuta were being mass-produced via cutting-edge woodblock print technology. Now people from all walks of life could afford to buy their own deck, and oysters once destined to become kai-awase could breathe a sigh of relief.

How To Play


In order to get your game on, you’ll need to buy, borrow, or make your very own karuta deck (there’ll be more on that later). The standard way to play requires a “reader” or “caller” and two or more players. In any karuta deck there are two types of cards:


yomifuda (読み札): “reading cards” with written information on them

torifuda (取り札): “grabbing cards” with pictures and/or written language on them

Note: each yomifuda has a corresponding torifuda

Once armed with your deck of choice, you’re ready to play:

  1. Spread all the torifuda face up on a flat surface between the players.
  2. The “reader” randomly draws a yomifuda from the deck and reads it aloud.
  3. Players race each other to determine which torifuda corresponds to the yomifuda clue and then to touch/grab/claim the correct card first.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until no cards remain.
  5. Whichever player has the most cards wins!

Competitive Karuta


Now if you’re a casual gamer like me, you’ll probably be satisfied with the low-stress version of karuta described above. But if you’re the masochistic sort who likes their recreational activities to induce stress, you might want to try your hand at kyogi karuta (競技カルタ), or competitive karuta. Sure, a paper cut might be the most severe injury you can receive in a match, but competitive karuta is no joke. You’d be surprised at how intense the last few rounds can get–two formerly unassuming obaasan can morph into fierce warrior women before your eyes! The televised matches remind me of competitive poker–and strangely enough, karuta used to be a popular form of gambling.

The official karuta deck used in competition is also the most common (and/or popular): the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, with 200 cards per deck (100 torifuda and 100 yomifuda). Each yomifuda showcases a complete waka poem (also known as tanka, a form requiring 31 syllables to be arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) along with an illustration of the poet who wrote it. The corresponding torifuda list only the second half of the poem (the final 7-7 lines). (There’ll be more about this deck and others below.)

In competitive karuta, 50 randomly selected torifuda are split 50-50 between two competitors. Before the game begins, each player arranges his or her 25 cards face-up on his or her territory in any one of a number of strategic positions. A fifteen minute period is provided in order to memorize the position of his or her own (and his or her opponent’s) cards and a two minute period is reserved for players to practice striking at cards. When time’s up, the reader opens the game by chanting a poem that doesn’t appear in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu deck. After that, the action starts–the reader sings out the first lines of the first poem while the players scramble to identify and then claim the torifuda card containing that poem’s last few lines.

This is where cat-like reflexes and a memory built like a computer’s hard drive come in handy. The keys to mastering competitive karuta are memorizing all 100 poems and honing hand-eye coordination, so that 1) within the first few syllabes of the yomifuda you know exactly which card you need and 2) the instant you’ve identified your target you’re able to swipe it. Watch these pros in action for an idea of just how competitive competitive karuta can be:

Since the mid-Meiji era, large-scale kyogi karuta competitions have taken place on a national level. The All-Japan Karuta Association (established in 1957) currently sets the standard for the official rules and format of kyogi karuta. The rules are more complicated than you might think–see for yourself here: English Kyogi Karuta Handbook. The media covers many of the tournaments sponsored by the AJKA, particularly the New Year’s national championship held every January at Omi Shrine in Shiga Prefecture. This is where the AJKA crowns the male and female Grand Champions as Queen (クイーン) and Master (meijin 名人). And as if that wasn’t hyperbolic enough, seven-time Grand Champions are bestowed with the title of Eternal Master (eiseimeijin 永世名人) or Eternal Queen (eiseikuin 永世クイーン). Just imagine how that would look on your resume.


Photo by 47 News

If you think you have what it takes, there’s a budding international tournament you can set your sights on. The first one was held in 2012 and competitors from the US, China, South Korea, and New Zealand showed up to show each other up. Hurry up and snag your trophies while you can, before they add karuta to the Olympics and everyone and their okaasan start competing for the glory.

That said, don’t worry if you feel unprepared to compete on the world stage. There are lots of levels on which to enjoy karuta. For over a century, a rousing game of karuta has been a staple of New Year’s celebrations in Japan. It can be enjoyed year-round at community centers (where members often create and use their own karuta with local scenes) or high school and college clubs devoted to studying and playing karuta. Karuta’s even made it into the curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education–studying and playing karuta is one of its recommended teaching materials. Karuta is also a media darling–there’s Karuta Queen, an NHK drama, and Chihayafuru, a wildly popular manga (and then anime) series that follows a school girl who takes up kyogi karuta.

Varieties of Karuta


Whether you want to brush up on your classical Japanese poetry, finally memorize the names and location of all 47 Japanese prefectures, or gain a questionably useful but unquestionably entertaining knowledge of traditional Japanese monsters, there’s a karuta deck for you. To give you a sense of the variety out there, here’s a sampling of some of the most popular and/or common karuta decks I’ve come across:

Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (百人一首かるた)


This is the most widely known and popular version of karuta, probably due to the fact that it’s the variety used in competition. This deck is based on a famed poetry anthology of the same name (which literally translates to “100 people, 1 poem”), a collection representing both male and female poets from the 7th through the 13th century. The 100 poems featured in Hyakunin Isshu Karuta are the same 100 poems selected and compiled by poet and court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the early 13th century. This is a great way to exercise your classical Japanese skillz, also known as kobun (check out Rochelle’s thorough and thoroughly awesome Introduction to Kobun Series if you need a primer.).



Poem by Koukamonin no Bettou
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
For but one night’s sake,
Short as is a node of reed
Grown in Naniwa bay,
Must I, henceforth, long for him
With my whole heart, till life’s close?


Poem by Sosei Hoshi
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
Just because she said,
“In a moment I will come,”
I’ve awaited her
E’en until the moon of dawn,
In the long month, hath appeared.

Iroha-garuta (いろはがるた)


This is the second most widely known and popular version of karuta, and it’s also more widely accessible than its poetic counterpart. Often used in conjunction with teaching children the hiragana syllabary, Iroha-garuta feature 48 proverbs (kotowaza). The proverbs vary according to the set but, in all cases, the full proverbs appear on 48 yomifuda while a corresponding picture and a kana with the first syllable of the proverb appear on 48 torifuda. While 48 might seem like an arbitrary number, it’s based on the number of hiragana syllables–each of the syllables is represented by a proverb beginning with that syllable. However, since no words begin with “n” in Japanese, the custom is to replace the “n” with the character kyo (京) for “capital” as a nod to the game’s origins in Kyoto.



Inu mo arukeba bou ni ataru (“A dog that walks around will find a stick”)


Issun saki wa yami (“An inch ahead is pitch-black”)

Obake Karuta (お化けかるた):


Photo by Kotonoca

These “monster” (obake お化け) karuta were created and popularized during the Edo period but remained common through the 1910s-20s. Charmingly creepy illustrations of 48 bakemono (monsters) from Japanese folklore slither, slink, and skulk on the faces of the torifuda cards, along with an accompanying hiragana character in the corner signifying the creature’s initial syllable. Clues to identify the monster appear on the yomifuda that correspond to each ghoulie, ghostie, and long-legged beastie. Hmm, a Japanese card game about monsters…sound familiar? It’s hard not to see Obake karuta as the grandaddy of modern phenomena like Pokemon and Yo-kai Watch.



Photo by Yomi Kikase

Obake names from left to right: Nopperabo, Rokurokubi, Karakasa, and Hitotsume Kozo

Regional Karuta (hougen karuta and kyodo karuta 方言かるた and 郷土かるた)


Photo by Sanzo Kuame

Tired of speaking plain-old, run-of-the-mill Japanese all the time? Want to know more about the unique and fascinating regions of Japan’s islands? Regional dialect karuta (hougen karuta) can arm you with the words and phrases you need to sound native whether you’re in Hokkaido, Osaka , Kyoto, or Aomori. And regional history cards (kyodo karuta) can introduce you to the local events, specialties, and historic sties of areas as far flung as Gunma (Jomo Karuta) and Hokkaido (Hokkaido no Meisho or “Famous Places in Hokkaido”). Tokyo’s not the only game in town!


Photo by Katoko

Translation of tsuppe (Hokkaido dialect): to tsuppe suru is to put a piece of tissue in your nose when you have a nosebleed


Translations of cards from left to right: “Gunma Prefecture, shaped like a crane in flight”; “The hot springs of Ikaho, among the best in Japan”

National Karuta


Karuta like Todofuken karuta (都道府県かるた) and Nipponichi karuta (日本一かるた) both fit under this category, since they represent all of Japan’s various regions in a single deck. Playing with Todofuken karuta can help you memorize the shape and characteristics of all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, while Nipponichi karuta will introduce you to a traditional folk craft from each of Japan’s prefectures via poems inscribed on the yomifuda. These decks are a great way to bust the myth of Japanese homogeneity and learn more about Japan’s internal cultural diversity–Nagasaki is not Gunma, just like Maine isn’t Alabama.



Nipponichi karuta: Here we have an homage to Nara’s luxury socks on the left and the tairyoubata (大量端) banners of Chiba symbolizing great catches on the right.


Todofuken karuta: Two sides of the pair of cards featuring Hokkaido (in this set, the torifuda and yomifuda are double-sided in order to pack in as much info as possible)

Shakespeare Karuta (シェイクスピアかるた)


This one’s a bit of a wild card. Similarly to Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, this Shakesperean variety features a poetic verse on the yomifuda and the last few lines of that verse on the torifuda. The twist, of course, is that Shakespeare’s Old English has been transformed into modern Japanese. If you’re a translation dork like me, this is the kind of stuff that gets you going–the opportunity to see how familiar English phrases like “To be or not to be” and “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” become retrofitted to an entirely different language and culture.


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hyakunin Isshu is almost like the original Monopoly, and like Monopoly with its twenty million variations, the karuta industry endlessly generates new variations on its centuries-old theme.

How to Catch ’Em All


Photo by Gilgongo

One of the best things about picking up karuta as a hobby is that it doesn’t have to break the bank. I picked up my first deck on a whim for 500 yen (roughly $5) at Daiso in Harajuku (a popular “100 yen store”). That doesn’t mean you can’t drop a small fortune, though–a single reproduction of the famed Ogata Korin Hyakunin Isshu set, elegantly hand-printed and highlighted with fine gold foil, goes for around 1,100,000 yen (roughly $11,000).

Though I haven’t yet been myself, the Okuno Karuta Store, established in 1921 and located in the Kanda-Jinbocho district of Tokyo, promises to be a karuta pilgrimage worth taking. On the first floor, the Okuno family sells a ridiculous array of karuta, including over 30 decks exclusive to the store as well as antique, hand-painted sets dating to the Meiji era. Having been in business for almost a century, the Okuno Karuta owners have curated some stunning collections over the years. These collections can be seen on the second floor (added in 2009), now the home of a minis-museum dedicated to traditional Japanese games with displays rotating on a monthly basis.


If you can’t afford to ship yourself to Japan and back again, you can always get karuta shipped to you instead. Online stores like Punipuni Japan, Rakuten, Japan’s, River Whale, and Discovery Creative all offer a wide selection of affordable karuta (including all the varieties listed above) for international shipment. And if you’re cramming for a test, head over to Gakken, a company that specializes in explicitly educational karuta–practice your Japanese while you memorize world geography or the elements of the periodic table.

If you’re not satisfied with the available decks, you can buy a stack of blank karuta cards (sold on Rakuten) to make your very own set on the topic of your choice. On the other hand, if it’s the cost that’s got you down, you can always use cut up your own blank card stock to create your own custom deck or recreate an established one.

Last but definitely not least, you can print out free downloadable karuta decks on sites like Happy Lilac and Nifty Kids–see for a Hyakunin Isshu set or for Iroha-garuta.

Get Your Game On


Photo by fdecomite

You might be thinking, “Alright, this could be funbut I don’t have anyone to play with!” Never fear! You’re not alone in your quest to master karuta on your own. A number of sets come with a CD-ROM that stands in for a reader, calling out the yomifuda for you so you can concentrate on grabbing those torifuda. The same principle works if you play via app (here’s just one version:

Another option (my personal favorite) is to just do the reading yourself. And hey, taking on both reader and player roles gives you the most language learning bang for your buck–combining reading, pronunciation, and listening practice. Just record yourself reading each of the cards as a separate audio file, import those files into a folder on iTunes, and let them play on Random mode to act as the reader while you play in real time as the player.

Whatever way you choose to play–solo or group, casual or competitive, IRL or online–you’ll be flexing your Japanese muscles, beefing up your knowledge of the deck’s topic, and exercising your memory all at the same time. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a single deck of cards. So take a break from some other time wasters and give karuta a try–you’ll never become an Eternal Master by playing online solitaire, that’s for sure.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Can You Dig It? Of Love and Earwax Thu, 17 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 Forget hugs and kisses. Throw away your candy, flowers and rings. If you want to truly express love for someone, clean their ears.

Is It a Love Story?


Image from the anime, Hen Zemi (変ゼミ)

Perhaps you’ve seen it in anime, manga, drama or movies. Or maybe you’re one of the (un)lucky ones to have experienced it yourself. In Japan it’s common imagery – a blissful man rests his head on the lap of a woman who takes a long, pointy tool and picks, pulls, or wipes the excess earwax out.

How romantic.

However, ear cleaning, or mimi souji (耳掃除) isn’t limited to romantic interests. Family members might also get in on the act. Hitome Kobayashi, associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Showa University School of Medicine explains, “Many Japanese grew up having their ears cleaned by their mothers, and associate it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness.”

How did such a rudimentary cleaning routine come to embody intimacy? Few areas of the human body are as important yet as vulnerable as the human ear. Even a pressure change during air travel can rupture the delicate human eardrum. So it’s no wonder any physical contact with the ear’s organs should be avoided. Luckily they sit deep inside our heads, protected by the outer ear, pinna, and (sometimes hairy) ear canal.

You wouldn’t let any Jo-suke Schmo off the street poke around in your ears, would you? Of course not. Only the most trusted people should be allowed access to this vital, vulnerable area – particularly when it involves long, pointy objects. In an ideal world no one would be more trusted than one’s parents or lover(s). So ear-cleaning as a symbol of love kind of makes sense.

Or A Horror Movie?


But to the (un)trained eye the scene appears more fitting of a horror film. Ear cleaning tools resemble a dentist’s ensemble at best, medieval torture devices at worst. When I first witnessed the act my muscles tensed and my forehead broke into a cold sweat! I couldn’t escape the thought that a only small slip would cause major damage.

And I’m not the only worried Westerner. Andrew R. of Oita Prefecture wrote of his culture shock, “Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear!”

So if the act appears (and is) dangerous, why do it? A cotton swab or a towel over my finger always the job done for me. Are all of these tools really necessary?

Turns out they might be – not all earwaxes are created equal.

Earwax Nomenclature


Photo by Hiro

There are two basic types of earwax. Genetics determines which type you have, but it’s also connected to race.

Erika Engelhaupt of reported on earwax research performed at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “‘We could obtain information about a person’s ethnicity simply by looking in his ears,’ chemist Katharine Prokop-Prigge said. If you would describe yourself as white or black, your earwax is probably yellow and sticky. If you are East Asian or Native American, it’s likely to be dry and white.”

It appears that earwax type and underarm odor might share a connection. “As for our different ear odors, they came about because of a tiny change… that long ago granted an East Asian population a reprieve from both smelly underarms and sticky earwax.”

Why study earwax? Researchers hope to create an earwax test, similar to blood or urine tests, that would indicate health problems a patient might have.

Understanding earwax types allows us to understand the differences in ear cleaning cultures. Although my sticky earwax adheres to a cotton swab or towel, the “dry, flaky” earwax common among Japanese people doesn’t. This warrants the scoops, shovels and picks that pick and pull the dry, flaky earwax out. And considering the tools, having a partner perform the act seems seems safer than performing it alone.

Tools of the Trade


Whatever the reasoning, when it comes to ear-cleaning in Japan a simple cotton-swab won’t do. Ladles, loops, disks, picks and ear rakes line hygiene aisles. Ear cleaning tools, or mimi kaki (耳かき) come in plastic, wood, and even silver and gold models.

Some have puffs at the end to help pull wax out or brush it aside. Others have safety guards to prevent picks held by unsteady hands from entering too far.

The most technological models use LED lights to illuminate ear canal, making it easier to see. Some models even feature figurines for style. So Hello Kitty fans, for example, can reap extra satisfaction by cleaning their ears with an official Kitty-chan ear-pick.

If you’re single, don’t worry. Just because your love-life suffers doesn’t mean your ears have to. Daniel Krieger of TravelCNN reports, “When the Japanese government… (made) medical licenses unnecessary for ear cleaners, a new type of business sprung up in Tokyo and other big cities: ear-cleaning parlors, which now number in the hundreds.” Mr. Krieger purchased the hospitality of a “kimono-clad young woman,” tea, conversation, and the intimacy of a private ear cleaning for about $30.

Women with waxy build-up need not fret. “Though most Japanese ear-cleaning parlors cater more to men who may long for the maternal tenderness of their childhood, female-oriented salons have been appearing,” Mr. Krieger explained.

And if your love for mimi souji has grown into a fetish, there are parlors that cater to your needs as well. The Australian reported on the workers at a parlor called Tenshi no Tobira (Angel Gateway), “a job description that falls somewhere between beautician, unobtainable sex fantasy, and psychotherapist.” At these “discount versions of the traditional hostess bars” a cute member of the opposite sex cleans a customers ears while providing pleasant conversation and, according to an AFP News report, blowing their ears clean.

A few ear-cleaning parlors provide even more thorough, less innocent cleaning services. According to The Tokyo Reporter, “Mimi Kaki Club charged a heady 20,000 yen (about $200) for a 60-minute session, of which only the first 10 minutes involved ear-reaming.” If you’re having trouble imagining what followed mimi souji please read the article, but be forewarned that it includes adult language and strong sexuality. And please remember this type of mimi souji is the exception, not the rule.

But even improved ear cleaning technology and strong-lunged workers can’t hide the truth – most experts agree ear cleaning is unnecessary.

A Sound Argument Against Ear Cleaning


Photo by Ricky Qi

Wet or dry, earwax serves a noble purpose. Alice Gordenker explains, “(Earwax is) there to protect the skin of the ear canal and keep out things you wouldn’t want in your ear, including bacteria, water and (bugs).”

Doctor Timothy C. Hain of agrees, “One should realize that wax isn’t all that bad. It keeps your ear dry and helps prevent infection. Thus, you don’t want to eliminate wax.”

Perhaps my eyes didn’t deceive me. Maybe we should all tense up at the though of earwax removal – be it by finger, cotton-swab, pick, rake, or scoop. The act appears dangerous because it is. Even the innocent-looking cotton-swab causes its share of injuries. Rose Eveleth of Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Removing wax yourself can be dangerous… Thousands of people go to the hospital every year because of those pesky cotton swabs.”

Besides, ears are self-cleaning by design. Ross Pomeroy of RealClearScience explains, “‘(Excess wax) falls out of the ear without us noticing.’ Much of this cascade occurs while we eat. The movement of the jaw massages wax out of the ear canal. Along with the wax comes any particulates or dirt that were gumming up the hearing works.”

But what about waxy buildup? Surely some situations call for the physical removal of wax, right? Professor Kobayashi suggests that “there are times when ear wax has to be removed, but it should be always be handled by a medical professional.”

“If someone experiences symptoms such as pain, discharge, a sense of fullness or hearing loss,” Professor Kobayashi continued, “they should go to a doctor who has training and special tools.”

Is That Waxy Buildup In Your Ears, Or Are You Just Happy To Hear Me?


“Remember, never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ears,” an elementary school teacher of mine once said.

“My elbow’s too big to fit in my ear!” a classmate called out.

“Exactly!” He said with a smile. Though I couldn’t maneuver my elbow anywhere near my ear to try, the teacher had made his point – don’t stick anything in your ears.

And health professionals agree, cleaning one’s ears is unnecessary and often does more harm than good. Self cleaning can lead to deeper wax buildup, infections, and damage to the inner ear. And thanks to natural mechanisms, ears clean themselves. So is it really worth the risk?

Some people think so. In many countries ear cleaning has become a hygienic ritual. This is especially true in Japan, a culture that prides itself on cleanliness. But mimi souji supercedes hygiene. Many consider the act a pleasurable, comforting experience that embodies love and trust.

Mii-chan, an ear cleaning parlor girl concluded, “The ear is a very sensitive place and, when someone is cleaning it, you feel loved.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Takarazuka’s Crossdressing Starlets: Better Than Real Men? Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:00:57 +0000 The Takarazuka Revue is a unique Japanese all-female theater company that has gained incredible popularity since it was founded nearly one hundred years ago. With over one thousand performances each year and an audience of two and a half million, including people who come from all over the world, The Takarazuka Revue is one of the largest theater companies in the world. A single-gendered troupe of such incredible popularity is a unique phenomenon, though Japan is no stranger to gender bending in theater performance. The traditional theater Kabuki has been restricted to men only since 1629, with males playing female roles.


The revue is not only unique because of its fame, which is on the same level as Broadway musicals in the United States, but also because of its unique stylistic elements. The women in the troupe are split into two categories, otokoyaku, who play men’s roles, and musumeyaku, who play women’s roles. Once these roles are decided, the actresses specialize in that role and almost never switch from one to the other.

Becoming Takarazuka


The goal is not to trick the audience into believing that the otokoyaku are men, but to present an idealized male character through a woman’s body. The productions are almost always romantic, glamorous musicals, and thus attract a mostly female audience. They are generally Western-style musicals, with costumes and music very similar to American Broadway musicals. Although they often stage adaptations of Western plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Gone with the Wind, they are even more glitzy and extravagant than their Western counterparts. It is as if they took the idea and exaggerated it. For an American like me, it is a strange sight to see the actresses with their blonde hair and eye-exaggerating makeup.

The Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1914, in the small Takarazuka City near Osaka, for which the group was named. The founder, Kobayashi Ichizou was a railway tycoon, and his original intent was to increase the use of his new railway by attracting people to Takarazuka City and making it a leisure location. Kobayashi created the revue’s motto, which still endures today: Kiyoku, Tadashiku, Utsukushiku (Purity, Integrity, Grace). The company currently has five troupes with about eighty performers each: The Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and Cosmos Troupes, which all perform both in the Takarazuka Grand Theatre located in Takarazuka City and the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre, as well as going on tour both in Japan and abroad. The company has in-house playwrights, costume designers, stage art directors, music composers, and orchestras.

The audition to be accepted into Takarazuka is extremely competitive, with fewer than one in twenty girls passing each year. Originally they accepted girls in their early teens, but now only girls aged fifteen to eighteen may apply. After passing the audition, the girls attend the Takarazuka Music School for two years where they receive rigorous instruction not only in performing arts, but also in how to become disciplined in everyday life. The school is renowned for its strictness; for example, first year students must get up in the early hours of the morning and clean the school from top to bottom in complete silence. Furthermore, there is an even more controlling aspect of Takarazuka: the actresses must remain unmarried until they retire from the group, and in fact are not permitted to date or even have interaction with outside men.

The “Dream Factory”


The characters that the otokoyaku try to create are heroic figures, masculine enough to seem strong and supportive, but gentle enough to be romantic and loving. This is not meant to seem realistic by any means, but to portray an ideal, impossible man that will delight the hearts of the audience. As a foil to the otokoyaku, the musumeyaku portray exaggeratedly feminine women, who therefore make the male characters seem more masculine by comparison. The otokoyaku train their voices to reach low octaves, attempting for a husky tone, while the musumeyaku practice an unnaturally high tone. Beyond that, the Japanese language also provides a way to set them apart from each other, as they can use gendered language to an extreme that most Japanese people don’t use in their day-to-day speech.

Before I went for my year abroad in Tokyo, I had heard about Takarazuka and was intrigued. During my time there, I saw two shows at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre and I found myself enraptured by their performances. There was a Disneyland-esque feeling of a fantasy land being brought into the real world. Indeed, Takarazuka is sometimes called a “Dream Factory.” The otokoyaku held a particular mesmerizing appeal.

One Takarazuka show I saw while I was in Tokyo was The Rose of Versailles, the company’s most famous play. Based on a classic manga series of the same name, it follows the story of Oscar, a female who is raised as a male because her father needed a son. This show adds another delightful layer of gender confusion, and throughout the years there has been discussion about what kind of actress should play Oscar; the actresses who play females, the musumeyaku, or the actresses who play males, the otokoyaku? Generally they choose an otokoyaku, who then ironically plays a more feminine character than usual, a woman pretending to be a man rather than a pure male character. This is further complicated by her romantic relationship with her male friend and companion, Andre. This is my favorite scene, in which a young Andre is introduced to Oscar, who immediately challenges him to a sword fight. You then get to see them grow up together in a few flashes of theater magic:

The advance tickets were sold out for this show within hours of becoming available, but there were also limited same-day at the door tickets. I stood in line with some hardcore fans from 6:00 am to 10:00 am in the freezing winter cold in order to secure these tickets.


Luckily my friends and I could take turns to run to the local convenience store to buy hand warmer packets. During that time I was bemused to observe fan club members, dressed in identical scarves and shirts, standing in a line outside the theater and waiting patiently for hours until their favorite actress arrived so that they could hand her gifts and letters. The clubs will perform this ritual both before shows and after, simply to have that moment of contact with their favorite star.

The Takarazuka Fanclub


Almost all of the star actresses have one or more specialized fan clubs, where dedicated fans take on almost a cult-like tendency as they support their favorite actress. The Takarazuka official fan club, Takarazuka Tomonokai (Takarazuka Friends’ Society), was founded in 1934 and is a general club for any Takarazuka fan. But almost all of the stars have their own personal fan clubs. The top stars often have more than a thousand loyal fan club members. Although the group was originally intended to appeal to families and to young girls, the typical fans today are usually middle aged married women.

Club activities include writing letters together, discussing theater, and staging their own plays. Letters to the actresses typically contain compliments, requests for advice on personal problems, gentle criticism of the star’s latest performance, or may sometimes even contain love confessions or sexual content. While the newer fans can only have contact with their favorite actress through those letters and fleeting moments outside the theater, long time fans will perform duties such as chauffeuring her to and from the theater, preparing meals for her, and in some cases even providing financial support.

When attending a Kabuki performance, I saw two otokoyaku accompanied by two fans sitting in the most expensive seats, no doubt purchased as a gift by the fans. How did I know they were otokoyaku? Even outside the theater, they dress in a particular style that is fashionable and sleek and androgynous. They also have a particular aura, such that one could practically feel their presence in the room. The rest of the audience also seemed keenly aware of their presence, but they were guarded the entire time by their adoring fans. My friends and I noticed them immediately, and since we were up in the balcony we spent the entire intermission peering down at them with our binoculars.

How Do You Categorize Them?


Quote from a fan of Takarazuka:

Japanese men are boring, so of course women love Takarazuka. The husbands work so hard that they have no time for their wives, and Takarazuka is a place for wives to go that doesn’t threaten their husbands. At Takarazuka, women can express the emotion they can’t show their coldhearted husbands. Takarazuka never disappoints them. (Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan).

Because Takarazuka fans seem so passionate about their favorite actresses, Western scholars who study Takarazuka often describe it as a “lesbian” phenomenon, while Japanese scholars, fans, and actresses alike insist that there is no romantic attraction at work. Instead they explain the bond as a sisterly bond, with younger fans and actresses acting as the adoring imouto(younger sister) and the older ones acting as the wise, protecting oneesama (older sister). In fact they often use these words to describe each other. But as many fans of anime and manga have no doubt noticed, this kind of relationship can seem very romantic to an outside eye. And in some ways, it is romantic.

Even so, there is no way to call Takarazuka fans lesbians. They do not fit into Western ideas of romance and sexuality, where one must fall into one of several neat categories. They exist somewhere in between, and while Americans might try to figure out the exact nature of the relationship, Japanese Takarazuka fans are perfectly content to leave that question unasked, and to enjoy their hobby with no shame.

When an answer can’t be nailed down, sometimes we have to let that question go and enjoy the uncertainty.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Understanding The Ways That Japan Tells Time Tue, 15 Jul 2014 16:00:50 +0000 Can someone tell me what year it is? 2014? Wait. What system are you using? It’s obviously Heisei 26 right now, the 26th year of the current emperor’s reign. Sure, you could use the Gregorian calendar, but that’s not the way Japan does it. The native Japanese calendar is utilized, nearly interchangeably, with our Western one. In fact, the native Japanese calendar, or “the nengō naming system”, is the official dating system still used in Japan today. The Japanese government and most businesses continue to date things using this method.

We now know that the date is Heisei 26 because it’s the current emperor’s 26th year in power. But, I bet you’ve heard of some of the other era names too. Showa? Meiji? Taisho? Genroku? Anything sound familiar here? If not, that’s fine – you’ll be getting plenty of exposure to them from here on out.

Made in China


Photo by: Jonathan Corbet

Like many other conventions in Japan, the nengō system of naming the periods by the reigns of emperors was imported from China. Originally, this was one of the many ways Japan tried to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the various Chinese dynasties. There was one big difference, though. In Japan, there has only been one single “dynasty.” The imperial rule has arguably been the same since the beginning of their history. In China, however, there is something called the “Mandate of Heaven,” which basically says that if there is an unjust guy on the throne, the heavens will make sure he is overthrown and a better ruler can take over. Smart of the Japanese imperial family to leave this little tidbit out of the Japanese emperor rulebook.

While Japan didn’t really understand the concept of different families ruling, they did understand the need to legitimize the succession of the imperial heirs. Since the start of recorded history there have been numerous methods of keeping the same bloodline going. From inter-marriage, female empresses, and the inclusion of distant relatives, the Japanese imperial family has worked very hard over centuries to continue their only dynasty. With all of the work they were doing to keep the same family at the top, creating a distraction from unpleasant events seemed like a good solution.

Pretty Names Made People Forget the Bad Stuff


After China’s Han Dynasty (205BC – 220AD), the Han Emperor began attaching names onto the years in which emperors ruled. In English, we call these attachments “reign titles”. These reign titles were not the names of the emperors, but rather descriptors of what the emperors wanted their reign to be associated with, such as Jianyuan (establishing the first) or Jianzhongjingguo (establishing middle, peaceful country). By 645AD Japan’s Emperor Kōtoku adopted this custom. Japan called their reign titles nengō (年号). For anyone who is confused by that kanji, don’t think of the 号 as a number, think of it as a name. That will clear things up for you.

The very first nengō was Taika (大化) which started in 645AD with Emperor Kōtoku. So we would call 648AD the “third year of Taika,” rather than the “third year of Kōtoku.” This is the same as calling 1989 the “first year of Heisei” (or the last year of Showa if it’s early January).

Emperors in Japan would give these names to the periods of their reign and they were not limited to just one. Some, like Emperor Go-Daigo had as many as eight different reign titles. Some of them would even have more than one in a single year. Nengō were meant to signify a change, new beginnings, and good things. Although this is a wonderfully artistic way to do things, for someone who is unfamiliar with these types of naming conventions, it can make things overly complicated.

For those wondering what kind of event would cause one of these names to change, it could literally be anything.

Many of these nengō are not so important that you will instantly know when or who they are referring to. However, if you are studying a certain period, you may notice that a particular name is used frequently in reference to it. For example, maybe you’re looking up the forty-seven Ronin (Try and stay away from the Keanu Reeves one) and you keep seeing Genroku (元禄) everywhere.


What is that anyway? Well Genroku was the nengō Emperor Higashiyama gave to the first years of his reign. So from 1688 to 1704, we call it the Genroku Period (元禄時代). The first year to every new emperor’s rule would get a name and this emperor was certainly optimistic about the start of his. Genroku basically means “the origin of happiness.”

However, even with such a nice name picked out, the Genroku period was plagued with huge fires and violence. Finally, after the Great Genroku Earthquake, the reign title was changed to Hōei (宝永) which means “eternally prosperous.”  This was the new beginning the people of Japan needed. This was going to be a great, successful time! (Then there was another earthquake less than four years later.)

Luckily for us, emperors were limited to one name after the Meiji restoration, which is why, although there were 63 years in the Showa period, we only have one name for it. Also, notice that the emperor’s posthumous name and the nengō for their period are the same. So if you know who the Taishō Emperor (大正天皇) is, you know his nengō was Taisho (大正). It’s certainly much easier than it once was.

Made up of Heaven and Earth


Photo by: Tranpan23

Now that you know all about how the emperors name things, let’s complicate it!

Once more we have something that came from China – but this time it was adopted completely, no extra complications. That’s good, right? We call it the “Sexagenary Cycle,” and it’s made up of the “Ten Heavenly Stems” and the “Twelve Earthly Branches,” which you can see in the picture above.  Here is a list of all the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, respectively:

Heavenly Stems:

甲 – kō / kinoe
乙 – otsu / kinoto
丙 – hei / hinoe
丁 – tei / hinoto
戊 – bo / tsuchinoe
己 – ki / tsuchinoto
庚 – kō / kanoe
辛 – shin / kanoto
壬 – jin / mizunoe
癸 – ki / mizunoto

Earthly Branches:

子 – shi / ne
丑 – chū / ushi
寅 – in / tora
卯 – bō / u
辰 – shin / tatsu
巳 – shi / mi
午 – go / uma
未 – mi (or) bi / hitsuji
申 – shin / saru
酉 – yū / tori
戌 – jutsu / inu
亥 – gai / i

If the Earthly Branches look familiar to you, it is because they are the same characters used for the Chinese Zodiac and they are also used in the solar calendar in Japan – but let’s not get distracted by that right now.

The order they are in is set (don’t mix them up!) and there are sixty possible combinations of Heavenly Stem + Earthly Branch. The first combination is 甲子, then it goes 乙丑, 丙寅, 丁卯, and so on taking the next from each respective row. When you reach the end of the Heavenly stems, just go back to the beginning and you end up with 甲戌, until you have all 60 and end up back at the start. Each one of these combinations is a cycle.

If you’re wondering how to read them, they can be with either the on’yomi or the kun’yomi, so no worries. Usually how you say it only depends on context, but you shouldn’t sound super weird either way. If you want to say 2014 you can choose to say kōgo or kinoeuma for 甲午.

The great thing about these cycles is that China, Korea, and Japan all use it the same way, meaning that no matter where you go in these three countries it should remain consistent, unlike the nengō, which are different based on which country you’re in. This is important because this system is used all throughout East Asia to name important events in history. It also can be used to compare nengō dated events and the sexagenary cycle. For example, let’s look at the Japanese invasions of Korea:


In Korea the first invasion is called the Imjin Waeran. Imjin (壬辰) being the sexagenary cycle year of 1592, the year it began. This same event is called the Bunroku no eki (文禄の役) in Japan. Bunroku (文禄) was the nengō that started under Emperor Go-Yōzei that same year.

In modern times these two systems are still being used. Postcards, art, signs, and really anything that might need a date on it. They can be used to date something without having to use any numerals at all, and gives whatever they’re on an artsy, old-timey feel.

Here is an example: it is currently 2014, which means it’s the 26th year of Heisei, or 平成26. But, by combining the nengō and the cycle name, it can be written as平成甲午. You may pick out a postcard at the top of Mt. Fuji and notice those characters somewhere on the front of the picture. Years from now, when your grandkids ask when you were there, you can look at at that date and say, “Ah! 2014!”

Modern Calculators Make It All Easier


Photo by: Sean McEntee

The cycles are also assigned to months and days but they come up much less often than they do with years. There is a mathematical calculation to find out what year is assigned to what cycle, but remember, Japan did not start using the solar calendar until the Meiji period, so if you decide to do some math you need to base it before or after Meiji.

Here is an example. To determine the sign for 1977 you will follow this guide:

1. 1977 – 3 = 1974
2. 1974 ÷ 60 = 32 (If you end up with a fraction, simply drop it.)
3. 1974 – (60 x 32) = 54
4. The 54th pairing in the Sexagenary cycle will then give you 丁巳. That’s 1977.

If you’re math-shy like I am, you can always search online to see what the date you want to know was called. If you want an even easier method you can use this nifty calculator called NengoCalc.


“Oh hey, I was born on a Wednesday!”

I know, I know. It says nengō, not cycles, but it can help with both! This tool can help you find out the nengō for any year from 598 to 2008. Not only will it provide you with the Japanese and Western dates, but it will also give you the sexagenary cycle year and day too. It even tells you what day of the week it was. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the hang of it, but it’s a great way to find the names you need in a hurry.

You never know when being familiar with these naming systems will come in handy. You may encounter a beautiful painting when you’re studying abroad in Japan. You can see the artists signature in red in the corner, but there are no visible dates. How do you know which Tanaka painted this possible masterpiece? Well odds are they have the nengō and the cycle on there instead. This is the case with some of the postcards you see at tourist spots today. If you’re in Japan around New Year’s, you may also see something like this:


Photo by: Akira Kawamura

This lists the year with both the nengō and the sexagenary cycle: 平成二十五年癸巳歳. More simply, this was 2013. You may also notice the earthly branch 巳, being from the Chinese Zodiac, also tells us that this is the year of the snake. (Thus, the flowery snake in the picture.)

The government in Japan also still uses this system of dating on official paperwork, though it is less common that you would be able to see this in your day to day life.

While it’d take a lot of time, sweat, and effort to memorize all these nengō and sexagenary combinations, at least you now know how to look them up, convert them, and seem like you know what’s going on. Who knows? It may just come in handy some day!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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