Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Thu, 10 Sep 2015 20:37:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Best Teaching Resources for Superstar JET Program ALTs Thu, 03 Sep 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Going on JET is a lot like being an English-teaching commando. You get recruited by a large government organization, given a quick mission briefing, and are deployed. From there, you’re mostly on your own. This is an exaggeration, of course, but it certainly can feel that way sometimes. Because ALTs get sent to so many […]

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Going on JET is a lot like being an English-teaching commando. You get recruited by a large government organization, given a quick mission briefing, and are deployed. From there, you’re mostly on your own.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but it certainly can feel that way sometimes. Because ALTs get sent to so many kinds of schools with such specific needs, it’s hard to give advice that’s not broad, general, and somewhat useless.

The very best training you can get for your job comes from your JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English), your predecessor, and your fellow JETs. Your JTEs will give you a good idea of how the school is run and your predecessor will help you understand your specific function in your school. But your fellow JETs are by and large the most helpful resource for your teaching. They are the Borg collective of team teaching, swollen with knowledge and experience you can benefit from. Sadly, you’ll only get together to formally discuss teaching strategies once a year at the Skill Development Conference. Two days once a year is not nearly enough help for a brand new ALT.

This is where the internet comes in. Thankfully, the heartbeat of the modern ALT is digital and English teaching expertise has been slowly trickling onto the internet. Even CLAIR and other once-distant official organizations have begun to dispense helpful (though well-hidden) teaching resources online.

This article is my best effort to organize as much of this online ALT English-teaching wisdom into one place. There’s a ton of information and help out there, though it’s often buried in forum posts, wikis, and older websites from 2004.

Get ready to intercept Tofugu’s covert communique, ALT Commandos. This is the training you never got.

Resources from Official Sources

The official AJET Planet Eigo logo for JET Program ALTs

These are resources from on high. They are official or officially affiliated with the official. Considering the lack of training from CLAIR, it’s nice to have something from the higher ups that say, “Hey there, buddy. We didn’t forget aboutcha. Have some nice, helpful things.”

CLAIR’s ALT Handbook

This is JET’s official stance on JET. Take this as an idea of how your job should work, not necessarily how it will work in reality. Nonetheless, having CLAIR’s official word on the ALT job can be pretty helpful in forming routines and ideas as you get started at your school.

Get: The official word on your job

CLAIR’s Teaching Materials Collections

CLAIR goes a step further with an offering of lessons and games for all grades and extracurricular activities. And they’re pretty darn good. Consider this your backpack full of survival supplies from the organization that air dropped you into your mission.

Thanks government! Like for real. That wasn’t sarcastic. These are really good lessons.

Get: Your survival gear

AJET’s Planet Eigo and Foxy Phonics

AJET is the Association for JET which is made up of current ALTs. AJET offers support, resources, and activities for all current JET participants. Though technically independent, AJET has close contact with CLAIR, making them kind of an official JET entity. Their books, Planet Eigo and Foxy Phonics, used to be available only in purchasable book form, but are now offered online free of charge. Planet Eigo especially is a wonderful collection of games and activities from JET ALTs from across the country. And because this is published by AJET, you know the materials are the best of the best.

Get: Planet Eigo and Foxy Phonics

British Councils’ ALT Handbook

This handbook can be considered partly official, because it was a joint effort between the British Council and MEXT. The UK entity gives their two pence on what an ALT should be. And it’s pretty damn helpful. This pdf guide covers a lot of ins and outs of behavior and best practices for the job. It makes a nice counterpoint to CLAIR’s official version. Consider it a great second opinion on how your job should work.

Get: Job advice from England

Resources from Your Fellow JETs

JET Program ALTs at a hanami party

Your comrades in team-teaching will be your best source of ideas, inspiration, and morale. Thanks to our wonderful internet, you can extend that powerful connection beyond your own prefecture and to all the JETs in all of 日本!

All prefectures have their own Facebook page, but some have built extensive websites and wikis chock full of info. The best of this info, of course, is the teaching materials.

Kumamoto JET Lesson Wiki

The home of everyone’s favorite KimoKawaii bear gives us an entire wiki devoted to lessons and teaching materials. All lessons are divided by level with additional lessons for eikaiwa, special needs, and warmups. The lessons are generally very detailed and sometimes offer downloadables to help in executing them. Bookmark this one because you’ll be going back.

Get: Kumamon’s lesson plans

Even more teaching resources from KumamotoJET

Oh, did you think Kumamoto was finished? The power of Kumamon imbues them with otherworldly teaching powers. The official KumamotoJET website (separate from the wiki) offers three collections of lessons from Skill Development Conferences. Presumably these are from days before the wiki, but they’re nice to have and worth checking out.

Get: A second helping of Kumamon help

AkitaJET’s Teaching Resources

The JETs of Akita Prefecture go above and beyond with not only a website, but an entire wiki. Aside from having useful information about life in the region and the JET experience in general, there is a whole ton of teaching materials you can use to beef-ify your arsenal. Some of the activities are explained in a brief and overly simple manner. But there’s so many to choose from, it’s hard to complain. In addition there are articles about team teaching and snippets of advice from former ALTs.

Get: A large quantity of simple lessons

SagaJET Teaching Resources

The JET ALTs of Saga-ken have gathered their teaching powers into a shareable Google Drive and organized them by level. Also, everything is printable, making them great for building your arsenal. Print out as many as are relevant to you and store them in your desk for those last minute emergencies.

Get: Last minute lesson ideas

SpeakRaku from KobeJET

SpeakRaku is a colorful and fun collection of lessons and info for JETs at all kinds of schools. The lessons are arranged by level and also indicate grade, time needed, grammar points, objectives, and materials needed. If that weren’t enough, SpeakRaku contributors also share stories, tips, and tricks that will smooth out the ALT experience. The super hip layout can be distracting and make it hard to find what you’re looking for, but keep searching. It’s worth it.

Get: Well organized lessons and advice

NagasakiJET’s Hello English Picture Dictionary

Nagasaki’s JET ALT community put together a nice pdf picture dictionary with great illustrations and material separated by grade. The best part about this is that it’s made specifically for Elementary grades 1-4, the four grades of school that do not have compulsory English education. Because it’s not compulsory, there is no official curriculum for these grades and thus ALTs are generally on their own when planning lessons for these classes. Thankfully there ALTs like the ones in Nagasaki that pull together to create resources for the rest of us.

Get: Lessons for grades 1-4

NiigataJET’s Teaching Resources

NiigataJET has so many notable teaching resources, I’m gonna talk about them individually.

Firstly, are resources collected from their Skills Development Conferences in pdf format. That means every time the ALTs of Niigata got together to share their best lessons, they compiled them and made them available to you! How nice.

Get: Niigata’s best lessons

The second nice thing about our friends from Niigata, they also uploaded slide presentations from their Skill Development Conferences. These mid year seminars are probably the most valuable work related training JETs get, because it involves more than just sharing resources. It involves ALTs and JTEs talking frankly about problems in the classroom and offering solutions. Download one or all of these presentations and skim through them. You won’t be disappointed.

Get: Classroom advice beyond teaching

The best contribution from them, though, is their team-teaching flow chart. It’s a one page document that outlines how an average team-teaching session should go, beginning, middle, and end. While nothing groundbreaking, it’s nice to get a visual explanation for your job that just might spark some ideas for improvement.

Get: Team-teaching flowchart

AomoriJET’s Collection of Best Lessons

At Aomori’s Skill Development Conference, they did a little thing called “Bring Your Best Lesson” or BYBL. This is similar to what Niigata did (see above), but this is a different group. Different people means different (sometimes better) ideas. Any time you can get your hands on a brainstorm of teaching materials, do it!

Get: AomoriJET’s Greatest Hits

JETSendai JHS Lessons

Sendai JETs have compiled what might be the ultimate resource for Junior High ALTs. Sorry, High School and Elementary, but there’s plenty for you elsewhere. This site is super well-organized. Not only are lessons separated by year, they even outline on the menu which lessons work on speaking, reading, writing, and listening.

Get: The most organized bunch of JHS lessons on the internet

ToyamaJET’s Teaching Resources

Toyama’s website is a bit tough to navigate but the content is worth it, first and foremost being the team teaching handbook. This has got all your lessons. Besides that is a nice series of drop down menus which offer guides to life in Elementary, Junior, and High School, with extra sub sections for Mid-level, High-level, and Technical High Schools. Sometimes these little descriptions of school life can do a world of good in helping you understand your job.

Get: Great explanations of school life

FukuokaJET Raps About Life

While FukuokaJET doesn’t offer teaching help per se, they do offer a nice collection of experience excerpts that outline very specific school circumstances. If you find yourself in a situation on JET that’s different than those of other JETs, check out these pages to get some perspective and ideas on dealing with it.

Get: Advice from people who, like, get you, y’know?

KagawaJET’s Sunshine and Hi Friends help page

Almost all elementary schools use the textbook series “Hi, Friends!” for grades 5 and 6. There are teacher’s books that go along with these, but they’re all in Japanese. Thankfully, AkitaJET has translated them and made the translations creative commons. A resourceful KagawaJET put these translations in PDF format for easy printing (huzzah!). Additionally, Kagawa offers a Keyword Maker for the “Sunshine English” line of junior high school English textbooks. So if you’re teaching from these books and need to know, say, what words your second year students should study for chapter 4, input the info into the fields and presto! A printable sheet of words and examples sentences you can use for making lessons. Now that’s fancy.

Get: Printable versions of the “Hi, Friends!” teacher’s books

Resources from Japan ALTs

ALTs in Japan discuss teaching resources

Photo by ijiwaru jimbo

Your fellow JETs do offer a lot of help, as evidenced above. But JET ALTs are actually just part of the larger Japanese ALT community in Japan. And this community, both JET and non-JET alike, have created a wealth of independent websites to help you plan better lessons and become a more engaging teacher.


This is your number one stop for English teaching help on the internet. Englipedia boasts an active community of ALTs from all across Japan that constantly add lessons and converse about the English teaching experience. In addition to resources, there’s a blog, forum, and articles designed to help better you as a teacher. One more perk, no ads or pop-ups which are pretty prevalent on most ESL resource sites. Oh wait, also it’s free.

Get: The best English teaching help on the internet


This site is definitely a jackpot. Altastic boasts a lot of unique resources that go beyond downlaodable worksheets. There are games and other interactives to be had. If you don’t have wi-fi at school, there are download options for offline use. My favorite idea from this website is their Vocablinator. If you need to know what words your students should know by a certain point, type it into the Vocablinator, and it will reveal exactly what book, chapter, and page number it can be found in. Right now, only the Sunshine textbooks are covered, but they are working on adding the 5 other major junior high textbooks. If you’re an ALT in Japan right now, you can contribute by using their Uploadinator to add data to their project.

Get: A searchable database of English textbooks used in Japan

Super Simple Learning

Their name simply says learning, but most of their songs and lessons are English related and they have a Japanese version of the page, so it’s safe to say the content was made with ESL in mind. The reason I recommend it is because of the high quality of their video production. Top notch animation and puppetry are bound to grab Elementary age learners. They sell a few things, which may be helpful or annoying depending on who you are.

Get: Fun puppet videos


A sadly defunct website about living and working in Japan. It’s a pain to navigate properly, but it does categorize blog posts by topic, which is handy in its own way. The teaching materials are mostly for junior high, but they have a nice archive of blog posts called “Worksheet Sunday” which are worth a look. Too bad it’s not updated anymore. Coulda been one of the greats.

Get: Old but helpful lessons

Let’s Teach English

This is a great site with junior high level lessons built around the New Crown textbook. The site looks nice and is easy to navigate. The lessons are varied and detailed, offering a lot of explanation. A definite winner for JHS ALTs.

Get: Lessons for the New Crown textbook

An older blogspot built around the Eigo Note series of elementary textbooks. Though Eigo Note is not as widely used anymore, the lessons can easily be applied to 5th and 6th graders using any book. There’s also some nice teaching tips for doing a self intro, opening and closing class, etiquette, and so forth.

Get: Lessons for the Eigo Noto textbook

Japan Teaching Resource Facebook Group

The name says it all: a Facebook group for English teachers in Japan. The feed is constantly full of helpful discussions and classroom shareables, many of which are labeled for level within level (ie. low-level high school). Having over 1800 ALTs at your fingertips is an awesome opportunity to get feedback on situation specific problems you might be having, and to discuss the realities of ALT teaching, even if they’re not pretty.

Get: Teaching ideas from Facebook

ALT JTE Connect

A recently defunct ALT resource blog, with a nice interface and some great ideas. There’s 4+ years of archived posts full of free downloads, worksheets, and teaching ideas.

Get: 4 years worth of ideas

English Web Book

Hot Dog! This website has a ton of activities for all three levels of junior high and they are categorized by textbook. The books covered are Columbus, New Crown, and the big daddy New Horizon. If that weren’t enough, each activity also tells you which page it corresponds to in each book. If you’re a junior high ALT teaching from one of these 3, you’ve got it made.

Get: Activities specific to JHS textbooks

Resources from ESL Teachers

An ESL Teacher at work

Beyond ALT teaching in Japan, there is the vast world of of ESL, taught in countries all over the world. There’s a lot to learn by stepping outside the realm of Japan-specific English teaching and seeing how other teachers and students work in different places. Below is a list of resources that are highly regarded in ESL circles.

International TESL Journal

Welcome to the peak of ESL intellect. Though the journal publication appears to have ended in 2010, the website is still being maintained. This site offers lessons as others do, but the real treasure is in the articles. If you’re stuck in an English teaching rut and need tips on how to improve your life in the classroom, these articles will help get your mind thinking in a new way. Similarly, the section labelled “Techniques” offers more in-depth writing on ESL teaching improvements. Some of my favs so far are:

Before passing up their lessons section, give it a thorough look. The teachers who contribute to this site are top in their field, and their lesson ideas are a bit more detailed and creative than those you might find on other teaching sites.

Get: Scholarly and creative lessons and articles about teaching ESL


Maintained principally by a group of teachers in South Korea, Lanternfish, sports a whole slew of content. Games, flash cards, puzzles, conversations, creative writing materials, phonics, articles, and more. High school ALTs at high level schools stand to benefit the most from this site, which is great because most Japan-specific resources focus on elementary and junior high. If this site could get rid of their ads, they’d be golden.

Get: English lessons from a different perspective

Dave’s ESL Cafe

This site is rather famous in the ESL/TESL world, so much so that the JET Program mentions it in its official application as a checkbox for “How did you hear about the JET Programme?” This site becomes incredibly relevant when JETs finish their contracts but want to continue teaching in Japan or elsewhere. But on JET there’s some use for this site as well. The “Idea Cookbook” section is a collection of 24 categories, each with 40+ ideas.

Get: 24 categories of lesson ideas

MES English

There is a lot on this site, though it’s all mostly geared toward elementary and Eikaiwa students. Unfortunately, the design and ads make it tough to search through. But don’t let that discourage you from at least checking to see if anything on it is relevant for you. My personal favorite feature is the custom worksheet maker (under a different domain, but created by the same guy), which allows you create all kinds of mazes, crosswords, and handwriting pages. The interface is a little clunky, but for certain tasks it may be easier than making it yourself in a document or image editor.

Get: Elementary English lessons

Dream English

Kids seem to really love this guy and his guitar singing easy English songs with puppets. Though the video quality is a bit more basic than those at Super Simple Learning, his English is more helpful and easier to understand for elementary Japanese students than SSL. The best part is, he offers most everything for free and clearly labels what’s for sale unlike some other ESL sites.

Get: Videos of a very enthusiastic man and his puppets

Many Things

This site isn’t pretty, but it loads fast and has a ton of content. It’s aimed at English learners, not teachers, so bear this in mind when going here for resources. This site has more building blocks for lessons than it does complete ones.

Get: Building blocks for English lessons

Packed with content made especially for people teaching English in foreign countries. Aside from the standard lessons and games stockpile, there’s a very active forum, which is probably this site’s standout feature.

Get: Some good discussion with other English teachers

Random Helpful Things

old tools in a pile

These aren’t lessons, materials, or resources for teaching English in Japan. But they will enhance your life on JET if you explore them a little.


The Japan Association for Language Teaching is a professional organization with chapters all across Japan. If you’re interested in furthering your career in English teaching after JET or simply want to get support and resources while on JET, JALT is probably the best place to do that. Aside from gaining a support network of enlightened peers, you also get their bi-monthly magazine, their bi-annual research journal, reduced admission to JALT conferences, invitations to JALT groups and events, and a discount on Apple products. Non-members can still gain a lot by browsing their website, which offers pdf versions of past publications and other helpful materials. But why not join and get the all the best stuff you can?

Get: A ton of help and support from professional ALTs in Japan

Tosa English

If you’re lucky enough to be teaching high level students who crave new material to read and practice with, TOSA English has got you covered. Made for learners of English, this site’s got videos, music, and books made specifically for English learners. This would be perfect material to base an English club on.

Get: Material for English club

List of Japanese Grammar Terms

Starting out as an English teacher, you may not realize how much grammar terminology you may need to convey in Japanese. Thankfully, this forum post from offers a handy reference sheet for the pronunciation and kanji for words like 母音 (vowel) and 述語 (predicate).

Get: Help with Japanese linguistic words

Never Stop Building Your Arsenal of Teaching Resources for JET Program Excellence

Teaching Resources for JET Program

Photo by Tim

Becoming a great English teacher doesn’t happen overnight. It won’t even happen the first year. It takes a lot of research, practice, and experimentation.

But as a JET English teaching commando, you can at least have fun scavenging for resources and materials to build your arsenal. Whether or not you plan on being a professional in the future, on JET you have the freedom to experiment and have fun with the job. Do your best, but make it your own. That’s the only way to ensure success without burnout. Here’s to the mission.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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“IDOL OTAKU” Tue, 01 Sep 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Japanese idol – It’s right there in the name. These cute starlets exist to be idolized. They sing, they dance, they appear on TV… but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. AKB48 and Morning Musume; efficient idol making machines like these produce new idols on a regular basis. There are over a hundred idol groups […]

The post “IDOL OTAKU” appeared first on Tofugu.

Japanese idol – It’s right there in the name. These cute starlets exist to be idolized. They sing, they dance, they appear on TV… but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. AKB48 and Morning Musume; efficient idol making machines like these produce new idols on a regular basis. There are over a hundred idol groups in Japan, each with somewhere between a handful and a hundred plus members.

With the advent of the idol came the birth of the idol otaku. In Japanese, the word “otaku” is a lot like the word geek. It refers to someone who is really into a certain thing. There are train otaku, food otaku, and probably even moss otaku.

In English, the word “otaku” refers to someone who is really into Japanese things, like anime. But in Japan, that word has a much broader usage. And yes, I happen to know an idol otaku. He was my classmate in high school. While I didn’t know him very well at the time, I wouldn’t have suspected that he would have gained such an intense interest in idols.

Fast forward some years and he is now a 29 year old lawyer who spends his free time following idols and participating in their many events. He would prefer to remain anonymous so we’ll refer to him by his pen name, オタ弁 (Otaben). He is actually famous within the idol otaku community. I suppose the people who follow him could be called “idol otaku otaku.” You can become one too by following him on Twitter. His handle is @otalaywer.

Japanese idol otaku with idols

We agreed to meet for the interview at a train station, which was an equally convenient location for both of us. I had only walked a few steps after getting off of the train when the flip phone that I had borrowed from my mother chimed in my purse. The text informed me that my interviewee was 5 minutes out. I spent that time finding the best place to stand for us to find one another. I had just posted myself outside the front gate when he emerged from the crowd of commuters. I soon learned that the signatures covering the tote bag he was carrying were signatures of idols, and that the contents that filled the bag were idol merchandise. Later on he told me that the bag itself was one of his most treasured items as it has the signatures of every member of The KOBerrieS♪, a well known idol group from Kobe. Although he showed up with this assortment of otaku-y things, he certainly didn’t look like someone you might expect to be carrying such a collection. I suppose that means I was somewhat guilty of buying into the otaku stereotype, as well. I knew then that I would learn something new that day.

I flagged him down with a smile and a slight bow. We said hello and yoroshiku onegaishimasu to each other and moved to a nearby cafe for the interview.

Once our coffees had been ordered, I jumped right into interview. My first question was very basic, “Which idols are you a fan of?” Instantly I saw a light sparkle through his gaze and the right side of his mouth began reaching for his ear. Asking this question was like asking a sommelier which wine was worth drinking and, with him being a self-proclaimed idol otaku, I believed he would have “good taste” when it came to this subject.

With a deep breath he started down his list, “Kaori Matsumura (SKE48), Chiho Matsuoka (NMB48), Kano Nojima (SKE48), Yuka Asai (SKE48), Ayuka Kamimura (SKE48), Sana Takatera (SKE48), Mizuki Tsuchiyasu (AKB48), Momoka Onishi (AKB48), Nao Ota (AKB48), Yuri Ito (KOBerrieS♪), Shiori Inaoka (KOBerrieS♪), Hamburgirl Z…” He had paused for a second, possibly for some last minute restructuring, but I stopped him from continuing because I was lost after the first few names.

How Otaben Became a Japanese Idol Otaku

Japanese idol otaku collection of morning musume cds

Photo by Dennis Amith

After receiving our cups of coffee, I took off the pink Panama hat I was wearing that day and set it on the side of the square table. With a regrettably lame attempt at a segue, “At the drop of a hat, the tough questions begin,” I said with a jeering smirk. We shared an understanding grin before I continued, “What’s your story? Could you tell us how you became an idol otaku?” Almost apologetically he asked, “Okay, but it’s kind of a long story because the very first idol group that I cheered for was “モーニング娘。(Morning Musume)” back in junior high. Is that okay with you?” I assured him that a story like that was precisely the reason why I was there that day. I offered him a friendly smile and a nod to urge him to continue.

With a reminiscent upward glance and a deep, relaxing breath, he focused briefly on some unimportant point on the ceiling, presumably navigating his way through his past to the best starting point to his story. And once his eyes had slowly fallen back to meet mine, he began.

“Back then, Morning Musume had become really popular and all my classmates had developed crushes on them. So, I was basically just jumping on the idol-bandwagon. My first ever CD wasn’t even an idol’s. Yet, I had a fun time cheering for them with my friends. We were junior high students and didn’t have much money, so we could really only see them on TV, listen to their CDs, and talk about them at school. We would gab back and forth with the typical chat, ‘Who’s your favorite?,’ ‘Well, I really like this girl,’ you know, stuff like that.”

“We also exchanged video tapes of TV shows that ‘Morning Musume’ appeared on. We only went to a couple of their concerts together. For some reason, we had an unspoken agreement that each classmate should choose a different member to cheer for, and I chose Ai Kago. A quick side note, my current idol otaku friends don’t do such things. Instead of deciding individuals to cheer for, we unite our efforts and cheer for one member together. I am digressing a little, so let’s talk about that later.”

“Anyways, I already liked idol groups in junior high, but things changed when I entered high school. None of my friends liked idol groups anymore, so I had to cheer for the girls by myself. I tried, but I was alone in this devotion and admiration. Eventually, my passion for idols disappeared.”

Hearing that last part confirmed one of my own memories from that time. “Ahh! That’s why I didn’t know that you liked idols back then. When did your enthusiasm for idols come back?” I asked.

“Umm…” he thought for a moment. “It remained that way until I graduated from university and became a law school student. Law school lasts for three years and I got so busy in the second semester of the second year. Before that time, I was going to school but living with my parents. Just getting to school was a two hour commute. I had become so busy that I needed to find a place near the university. That change granted me more free time – my me-time.”

I interjected and asked, “And with that free time you decided to cheer for idols?”

His head rocked side to side as he said, “Well, yes and no. I didn’t decide to cheer for them right away. It was a natural progression that slowly developed, or redeveloped, over that period of time when I first started looking for a way to fill my newly acquired free time. I didn’t want to waste it aimlessly surfing the internet or watching Youtube videos. AKB became popular around that time, so I started watching their shows on Youtube, to see what all the hype was about. They don’t just dance and sing, they also go on talk shows and comedy shows. It was all enjoyable. I was also incredibly stressed out and nervous as a result of the mounting pressure of the upcoming National Bar Examination, and their smiles went a long way to relax me. Thus, the more I watched AKB48’s shows on Youtube and listened to their songs, the happier I felt. ”


Photo by Karl Baron

He continued, “After that realization, I got into them in a serious way. However, for the first 6 months, I was only an at-home-fan, like I used to be back in junior high. I would watch TV and find my favorite members or listen to their CDs. I was satisfied with this practice of quiet admiration because I thought that it was normal not to meet idols.”

“So then what made you change?” I asked.

He took a moment to find his thoughts before he answered and he did so by taking the first sip of the coffee in front of him. “Well,” he said before taking a second needed gulp, “I read somewhere, or heard from someone, that it was possible to meet them at events. So naturally the prospect of meeting them piqued my interest decisively. In the summer before my third year of law school, I had the chance to see an idol up close for the first time. The girl I was cheering for at that time, Amina Sato, was chosen to be an actress in a play. The day following my first big examination of the year was the final showing of that play.”

“My seat was far from the stage, but after the play, there was a meet-and-greet with the actors and actresses. I was only able to see her for one moment, but I was amazed at how close I was to her and it was so exciting for me.”

Even then I could see the excitement of that day leap from his eyes. It was obvious then that the moment he had described made him very genuinely happy. Why wouldn’t a person pursue such a source of happiness? I thought.

I was subtly petitioning him to tell me more when I asked, “So you gave yourself up to it entirely, didn’t you?”

In a manner marked with seasoned assuredness he responded, “Yes. That experience was enough to make me want more. I wanted to go to another performance and I decided on a theatre concert. AKB48 and its local groups have their own theaters (unlike other artists today, aside from the odd headliner in Vegas) and perform a daily 2-hour live show. Also, you have to enter your name in a draw to buy a ticket. And newcomers have a better chance of winning that drawing. I lucked out and was able to buy a ticket the very first time I entered my name. It was at the SKE theatre in Nagoya. Since the theatre is not that big (maximum admission is about 300 people), even the farthest place from the stage is very close to the idols. At the end of the show, there was a meet-and-greet with the members, and I could tell them, ‘This was my first time. Thank you!’ I was surprised at how much fun it was to go see idols in person. After that, I started going to the SKE theatre once a month and sometimes to big concerts. At that time, I still hadn’t gone to a handshaking event.”

SKE48 Theater

“Okay, so you are saying that you weren’t a huge otaku, yet. So when did you finally become the committed idol otaku that you are now?” I inquired.

When he returned the coffee mug he was holding back to the table, I quickly glanced at my own mug to realize that I had nearly finished my coffee while his had hardly been touched. I was so enjoying the detail he kindly offered up in his stories that I didn’t realize I had barely allowed him the chance to sip his coffee. While raising my mug to the barista, an action which received a understanding nod in return, he began again:

“It was over a year later. In May of 2012, I wrote and passed the National Bar Examination. My legal apprenticeship started in November of the same year. Even then, I just kept going to the mini theater concerts and their large concerts. In February of 2013, I went to the SKE theater, but this time I was lucky enough to get a first row seat. I made friends with the person next to me and he asked me if I wanted to go to the handshaking event after the concert. He was very kind and shared his ticket with me, so I decided to go with him.”

“With one ticket (for national handshakes), you can only hold their hand and talk to them for three seconds, but it was more than I expected. After that, I began buying a lot of their CDs in order to get tickets for the handshaking events. I would typically buy 50 single CDs (1000 yen each). Now I’ve branched out and go see a variety of idol groups, but I still buy 30 of their CDs each time one is released. There are many sister groups of AKB48 and at least one of those groups releases a new CD every month, so it’s very common for me to spend around 50,000 yen (500 USD) on CDs each month. And that is how I became the idol otaku that I am now.”

Well, I thought, Rome wasn’t built in a day, either.

What Does a Committed Idol Otaku Do?


Photo by Dngnta

After listening to the long history of Otaben, I realized that I had basically only asked him one question. And I had a long list of questions to ask. But I didn’t fret as I was interested in his stories. So I asked, “Generally, what do you usually do as an idol otaku?”

He brought the palm of his hand to his chest with a confident thump, “My priority is making it to as many theatre performances, concerts and handshaking events as I can,” he beamed. “On weekdays, I go to work and I work either Saturday or Sunday, as well. Yet, my remaining time is spent going to events. Recently, I’ve been cheering for multiple idols, so I often visit more than one idol a day.”

After hearing that all his free time was zealously reserved for following idols, a curiosity escaped my lips, “How far (distance) will you go to get something or see someone?” I suppose I was eager to hear an incredible story full of absurd and miraculous things he’d done in order to obtain something that I might never glance twice at.

So I was slightly disappointed when he announced, “I don’t go too far, but I do make a tight schedule. For example, one three day weekend, I first went to an NMB48 meet and greet in Nagoya, then I went to a KOBerrieS♪ event in the evening. The next day, I went to Tokyo for an AKB concert in Akihabara, and then went back to Nagoya for another KOBerrieS♪ event. After that, I hopped on a Shinkansen and went to Tokyo to drink with my friends. I don’t get to see them very often, so I didn’t want to miss that chance to drink with them. The next day, I went to an AKB event in Akihabara, then hopped onto another Shinkansen to go back to Nagoya. After enjoying one final KOBerrieS♪ event, I came back to Nara on the Kintetsu special express.”

I briefly wondered when he found time to sleep during all that, but then I quickly remembered all the trains he mentioned taking. “Wow! And I thought I did a good job at filling my weekends,” I joked.

Otaben continued with a cheerful fervor, “I had a really tight schedule that Golden Week holiday (from April 29 through May 5, both of which are Japanese public holidays), as well. At 8pm on May 1st, there was a Miraiskirt event in front of Osaka station. Then I went to an idol event in Koshien, Hyogo. That afternoon, I went back to work. The next day, I went to a photo event for the whole day from 10:30am to 8pm. The following morning, I had a ticket for an AKB event in the Kanto area, so I took a really early train to get there. After the AKB event, I went to a KOBerrieS♪ event in Yokohama and then came back to Nara. On May 5, there was a KOBerrieS♪ event in Kobe, so I worked in the morning and went to the show afterward. On the last day of Golden Week, I went to another Miraiskirt event in Kyoto. After all this, I totally lost my voice because I had attended events every day over the Golden week.”

My head shook mildly in disbelief. “That sounds so busy,” I scoffed.

“Yeah,” he agreed sharing a like-minded grin. “It was really busy, but it was also a lot of fun.”

I was quickly learning that I almost didn’t even need to ask questions for this interview to progress. He was content to talk at length without any breaks. “I also check out social media sites, such as Twitter or Google + to find out idol information and share it with other fans, especially during my commute. On Google +, each AKB member has an account and they give updates with pictures from time to time, so most fans check there. There is also a new app called 755 (Nana-Go-Go), which lets you peek into the live threads of big-name celebrities and make comments. While idols do reply on 755 from time to time, they typically don’t do that on Twitter or Google +. They certainly read posts or tweets that we write, though. In fact, when I go to their meet and greets, they sometimes ask me about posts that certain fans had written. There are also otaku communities on Google +, so it’s convenient to share our information there.”

“Most of the people in the community are those I’ve met before at some other event, so it’s fun to chat with them. I’m busy during the day because of work, so I check those sites during my commute. There is also a service called mobile mail through which an AKB48 group member can send a message to your mobile phone (though all the messages and photos are the same for all otaku), and you can register for this service for 300 yen per member. They don’t send messages every day, but I read them when I get them,” he concluded.

He leaned back in his chair and reached for the cup of coffee in front of him. Before he picked it up I noticed the black coffee still cuddled the walls of the mug just below its brim. I speculated that his coffee had surely gone cold by this point. “Wow,” I chuckled. “This seems like so much time and effort. I don’t think I could be a serious idol otaku.”

Japanese idol otaku buying shoes

In a swift, unbalanced motion, he flung chest back towards the table. While gently rocking side to side, petitioning the chair to grant him a little more comfort. “Additionally…” he paused.

“Additionally?!” I teased.

Smiling and nodding, he moved on, “If one of my favorite members was on a magazine, or if they are utilized for a sales promotion, I go get the product because it could help raise her reputation in the idol industry. For example, my favorite idol Kaori Matsumura is working with a shoe shop called ASBee, and if I buy a pair of their shoes, I get a clear file folder with her picture on the front. Honestly, many fans probably don’t need the gift, but a lot of them purchase one or more pairs of shoes hoping that higher sales in connection with her advertisement will result in her acquiring even more jobs in the future.”

Hearing this was rather surprising for me and I believed I had finally heard something that qualified as ‘going to a great length’ in pursuit of this hobby. “Now that is true support, if I ever did hear it,” I conceded.

Otaben’s Parents’ and Friends’ Reactions to His Idol Otaku Lifestyle

Japanese idol otaku at performance

“You really are a committed idol otaku. I’m impressed,” I told him. He chuckled and thanked me for the compliment. I smiled back and tossed him another question, “What did your parents said when you became an idol otaku? I can’t really see them being amazed with it.”

His head tilted in a playful fashion and he shot me a friendly wink, “You are probably expecting me to say that my parents were shocked, right?” he coaxed. “How could they not be?” I amiably snickered. “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint…” he grumbled with a comical pause.

Spritely, he transitioned from a lamented tone to a positive one while rolling on with his explanation. “But things were the complete opposite in my case. My family was very accepting and welcoming of the fact that I became an idol otaku. As I mentioned earlier, I started cheering for them before the National Bar Examination. I’m not good at handling pressure and I get very nervous. I’ve experienced nausea before exams since I was in junior high. I believe that it was one of the reasons why I failed my first attempt at the university entrance exam. However, I was super healthy and calm before the National Bar Examination because of the idols. Cheering for them was a great stress reliever for me. My mom was really curious and asked me why I had been so genki (meaning healthy and energetic), and I confessed that I was cheering for idols and going to their live events and concerts.”

“Her response was, ‘Good for you! You look really healthy. If it was the ordinary you, you would be like a zombie around this time. This is really great!’ The day before the National Bar Examination, I felt mentally unburdened and decided to go buy their new CD that had just been released. I enjoyed listening to the music the next day while on my way to the exam. The day following the exam I went to the theatrical performance, as well. As a result, I passed the National Bar Examination and for the very first time I took control of the pressure instead of the pressure taking control of me.”

Admittedly, I was touched by his mother’s reaction. “Aww! That’s a really nice story.” Otaben looked pleased.

But certainly not every reaction he received could have been as positive, I thought, so I decided to dig bit deeper. “But, you told me after passing the bar exam, you got even more involved and started going to a lot of meet and greets, right?”

He nodded, “That’s right.”

I pressed further, “So what do your parents say now that you had become a devout idol otaku?”

A flushed, but cheerful, smile stretched across his cheeks before he started, “Well, I lived with them after becoming a lawyer, so they often commented in ways like, ‘Again? Who are you off to see today?’ Or, because I order CDs online, ‘More CDs? How many boxes did you order? Gimme a break!’ You know, stuff like that.”

“Although they razz me, they aren’t opposed to what I am doing. I have a younger brother, but he has lived by himself for the past 5 or 6 years. When he visits us, he calls me “sick” or “gross” for being an idol otaku. But one day I said, ‘Hey bro, you can take this CD, if you want.’ His excitement was genuine. ‘Really? This is the newly released one! Thanks!’ And there it was, I thought. I had him.”

“It’s funny because who would have recognized it as being the newest CD, if they didn’t follow it, you know? I suspect he is an idol otaku, as well, but just doesn’t want to admit it,” he finished with a hearty laugh. I chuckled with him and told Otaben that it’s very possible he and his brother might have much more to talk about than they think.

I continued on with the same topic, “So, your family all seems pretty accepting. What about your friends?”

He gave a gentle shrug before answering, “Basically, my friends, who I met recently, knew that I was an idol otaku from the beginning, so they never had the chance to be surprised. My friends from junior high weren’t surprised either because they knew I liked Morning Musume back then. People are fine with it. They may have been surprised, but I have never had a negative opinion tossed my way or anything. So I post my otaku activity on Facebook with my real name because I’m totally fine with telling the world that I’m an otaku. I post reports from events to let them know how fun being an idol otaku can be. In fact, many of my friends are rather interested. They often ask me what kind of things I do or what the handshaking events are like, though nobody comes with me. They’ve only seen these events on TV and so they want to know what it’s really like, which is why I post conversations I’ve had with idols.”

Otaben’s Conversations with Idols

Japanese idol otaku at handshaking event

For those of you who aren’t friends with Otaben on Facebook, I wanted to share some of his reports. So I asked, “Do you mind if we share some dialogue you’ve had with an idol at one of the meet and greets with our readers?”

“I’d be happy to,” he approved. “You would be amazed at how well I am able to talk with famous girls. It’s like we are friends, or maybe even like they are my girlfriend. Just kidding. I know it sounds creepy. It wasn’t serious, just to clarify.”

NMB Chiho Matsuoka

Chiho: “I want to take photos with Kao-tan san (Kaori Matsumura), so could you ask her for me?”
Otaben: “Huh? You should ask her yourself.”
Chiho: “I’m a bit scared and I can’t talk to her.”
Otaben: “She’ll be fine! Actually, if I were to tell her, she would find out that I came to you first and that would upset her and she’d ask why I went to see a different girl before her.”
Chiho: “What? Then I’ll say the same thing! You want to see a different girl?”
Otaben: “((((;゜Д゜))) OMG!”

SKE Kaori Matsumura

Otaben: “Hi Kao-tan. Chiho Matsuoka said that she wants to take photos with you.”
Kaori: “The girl from Namba (NMB), right? You’ve been saying ‘Chiho-chan’ a lot recently! (angry tone)”
Otaben: “Kaotan, you are the cutest…(trembling voice)”

With a press from his thumb, the screen on his phone went black as it disappeared below the table top, undoubtedly on its way back to that The KOBerrieS♪ bag by his left foot.

Leaning back up to join me on the useful side of the table, he continued to try to make his case for attending the meet and greets. “So, as you could probably tell from those dialogues, the more you go, the more friendly and familiar you become with the idols. It allows for more free-spirited conversations between the two of you. They know not only my name but also Who I am a fan of and what kind of things we’ve talked about before. This was so much fun for me and I wanted other people to know about it, so I post reports on social media,” he submitted.

Does Otaben Have a Girlfriend?

Japanese idol otaku takes pictures with his favorite idol

And now the question we’ve all been waiting for: “This may be a personal question, but do you have a girlfriend? Or, have you had a girlfriend while you have been an idol otaku? If so, what does/did she say? If not, are you the type of person who can only love idols?”

For the first time since this interview began, his face winced to a somber red, even though a few moments before he was positively merry. “Of course,” he regretfully moaned, “I don’t have a girlfriend. Since becoming an otaku, I haven’t had a girlfriend, either. I’m interested solely in idol girls now.”

I felt immediately responsible for the mood that question had cast over my friend and I sought quickly to dispel it. “But, you are a nice looking guy with a great job. You seriously don’t get approached by any girls?” I appealed.

“Well, I don’t care about ordinary girls, even though I’ve been asked out on dates or goukon” he asserted softly. (By the way, readers, a ‘goukon’ (合コン) is a group date.)

“Several girls have sent me messages on occasion, but I was not interested in them at all and bluntly told them, ‘Sorry, but I’m busy.’ I mean, to be fair, I really am busy. I spend so much time working and doing idol otaku activities. Now it feels like a waste of time and money even going to a goukon. I don’t enjoy them or hanging out with girls nearly as much as I enjoy idol events. I prefer to go to idol events and use my money for their stuff. After going on a goukon group date, I think, ‘Darn, I could have gotten 4 more CDs or tickets to a photoshoot with that money.'”

“Of course, I don’t mentally convert all the money I spend into how many idol CDs I could have had. Only when I spend money for goukon or dates. But if I go drinking with my guy friends, I don’t think that way. I only think this way when money is spent on a woman. It’s fun to talk with people, but not as fun as the idol stuff. There are also female otaku and I am sometimes told that we could enjoy the same things together. But they are just female otaku and not idols, so I am not interested in them either. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’m the type of person who can only love idols.”

I wondered if he truly loved idol girls, or whether it was just an excuse to avoid dating, so I asked, “So, what if an idol girl quit her group and became an ordinary girl? Would you want to date her?”

The question forced him to pause for some time. “That’s a tough question,” he groaned. “Umm…” he thought on his answer for a while longer and I could hear his foot begin to tap. His head swayed from side to side as though toying with the prospect, or perhaps the impossibility of it, until finally, with an unaffected assuredness, his eyes met mine once again.

“Well, this is my personal opinion, so other otaku may be different, but I cheer for them as an idol – the figure on the stage. I know that they are human and they live their private lives normally, like we all do. But I’m not interested in their private lives. It’s said that real people are 3D, anime characters are 2D, and idols are 2.5D. That is to say, we cheer for idols not as real people, but for the image that they project themselves as. We like them as idols. So, if one became an ordinary girl, I don’t think that it would be the same. Since I’ve never had such an experience, I cannot say anything with confidence, but that’s what I think for now. Although I might get excited to see them, I only cheer for them as idols,” he concluded.

From that answer I could see that his was a level of otaku far greater than ever I had come across in all my wide travels. I marvel at the commitment. While the words in my mouth had temporarily left me, my brain was racing with all manners of hypotheticals. Alas, I couldn’t prevent my curiosity from bursting onward. “So,” I warily inched, “you said that it may be not an exaggeration to say that you’re the type of person who can only love idols. I’m compelled to ask, but I’m hesitant to word my question improperly and so I apologize beforehand, but do you see idols as being sexual?”

In a manner leagues more relaxed than I was, he calmly shrugged and said, “Well, I never thought of them in that way. I’m not sure about other people, though. It’s too scary to ask them. This topic is a taboo in the idol otaku world. In my case, however, it’s a 100% no! In fact, an ex-member of SKE48 (Momona Kitou) became a porn star (Yua Mikami). Anyways, Kaori Matsumura, whom I cheer for, recommended fans to buy the video on a radio program, so I bought it. However, she looked exactly like she did in the idol group and I could only see her as an idol, so I didn’t even watch it. It was really disturbing and I felt weird about it all. I would have never thought that such a pure idol would have become so dirty. It was too uncomfortable for me. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that idols don’t create that link to such things in my mind.”

“What about their scandals?” I asked. “What do you feel when one arises?”

“Actually, Kaori Matsumura had a scandalous past. It was revealed in a magazine that she was employed as a hostess in a bar. But she was not like other idols when she got famous, so fans weren’t shocked at all. Some fans get really upset with their favorite idol when they are involved in scandals.” I was so impressed by his demeanor and by his completely rational answers. I was developing a fond respect for his candidness.

Japanese Idol Otaku with Wives and Families


Photo by Andy Lapham

Soon things took a natural turn towards discussing the romantic lives of other otaku and how idol activities affect them. At this point I wasn’t surprised that Otaben had knowledge about this area of the idol otaku life, as well.

“Realistically,” he began, “single men make up the majority of the male fans, but there are those who have girlfriends or wives, too. Those people aren’t usually the type of otaku that show up to every event like us, though. Of course, they would have limited time and resources to devote to idols, especially if they have a family, right? People usually work on weekdays, so main idol events are on weekends. But if they have a girlfriend, a wife, or a family, it makes it much more difficult to attend. It’s impossible for them to adjust their schedule. Among married people, some have permission from their wives, but I happen to know that some of them are sneaking out. I heard that the sneaky husbands receive CDs at the post office and hide them in their cars and stuff like that. They have to scrape their money together from what remains after paying for family necessities, so they can get away and do what they like doing.”

What? Some men sneak away from their wives so they can go watch, shake hands and chat with idols? I suppose I wasn’t surprised that it happens, but I told Otaben I couldn’t believe that some people could secretly cheer for idols without being found out by their spouses. “From a lawyer’s perspective,” I asked “do you think it could be the reason for a divorce?”

Otaben’s brow furled in thought. “Well,” he mused, “I’ve never thought about that either. I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t think it would be the only reason for a divorce, even if it was found out. Going after idols is not cheating. It’s just a hobby. It’s the same as spending their money on a motorbike. I mean, they couldn’t ask for consolation money for that reason alone. It could count as one of the reasons, though. Perhaps you could link it to incompatibility. However, I haven’t heard of any such troubles, so I believe that most of those men strike a healthy balance between their loved ones and their hobby.”

I pouted with a sigh of mild dissatisfaction and said, “All right.”

The Best and Toughest Part About Being an Idol Otaku


“Okay, let’s get back on track. What is the best part and the toughest part about being an idol otaku?” I asked.

He leapt right into his answer. “The best part is definitely that I can meet a wide variety of people. Their occupations and ages are all so varied. Each otaku has a different personality too. We all have the same hobby, so talking with them is really fun. If we get closer, we sometimes talk about our private lives. It’s definitely the best part about being an idol otaku – Getting to know many kinds of people and having a fun time together.”

“The toughest part about it is the money and time you need to invest. Scheduling events to go to and how much money it all costs is definitely the toughest.”

Yep, I thought, spending around $500 a month on CDs sounds difficult. “Yeah, I bet it can be,” I said as I imagine how this hobby might set him back over time. “Well, I hope I’m not being to brazen to ask, but how much money do you spend in one year?”

Surprisingly, he didn’t hesitate answering for a second. In fact, he looked proud. “Last year I spent about 1,000,000 yen (approximately $10,000 USD). This year, I think it will be more than that. I can openly declare that it will increase proportionately with my income. Now, my maximum limit is 1,000,000 yen. I also have savings and I always try to make sure I have money for other stuff. I don’t spend all of it. Maybe 20 to 30 %.”

“Here is a rough breakdown of that 1,000,000 yen: 400,000 yen for CDs (handshaking event tickets/votes for election), 400,000 yen for transportation and accommodation for events, the rest is spent on goods and other things.”

What Makes an Idol Otaku Fall in Love (and Spend Money)?

Now we all know that he spends a good amount of money on idols. Let’s ask how he chooses who to spend his money on. “Can you list the names of the idols that you were and are a fan of? Could you explain how your favorites have shifted over time and also why they became your favorite in the first place?”, I asked.

“As for AKB48, I started with Amina Sato, then Sawako Hata, then Kaori Matsumura and now Chiho Matsuoka is placed right alongside Kaori Matsumura. The reason I cheer for them is that they are different from other idols. They are really unique,” he answered.

Once again I saw a look of sheer delight fall over his face when he began talking about his favorites. He continued, “For example, Kaori Matsumura often gets involved in arguments with people in management. It’s something that idols don’t usually do. She also says things that an idol shouldn’t say. I can’t come up with any good examples because there are so many. But, yeah, she is not afraid to speak her mind and if she thinks something isn’t right, she will tell you. She is a really outspoken person. It’s very different from the stereotypical idol, right? I like it!”

He moved right along to a more detailed story about his favorite girl, Kaori Matsumura. “Speaking of Kaori, she was not popular at first. But when the Google+ service started, she posted updates more than anybody else. She also taped and posted videos everyday, even without any make-up on her face. Sometimes she would talk about whatever, other times she would cook. She’d show us behind the scenes footage of concerts and she’d even show us quarrels with other members. Because of her, we finally knew about what idols were doing off stage. Throughout this videotaping period, she also took on the role of an adviser for the younger or newer members of the group, as though she was their mother. She was liked by all other higher positioned members, as well. It was really fun to watch, and it quickly made her a lot of fans. Before that, she was not involved in the annual AKB48 member election, but her videos catapulted her to 34th place in the ‘Future Girls’ category. The following year, she moved up to the 24th place (Undergirls), then to 17th place (Undergirls), and finally 13th place (Senbatsu) this year. I literally cried when this happened,” he confided.

I admit I felt my eye brows raise when he uttered that last part. I then briefly pondered whether he uses the word literally… ummm… literally.

“As I was saying,” he continued, “she was not popular at all in the beginning. Although she speaks well, she is not the cutest, nor is her dancing or singing all that great either. So she wasn’t garnering much praise. She has been a trainee idol so long that she was even granted the title of ‘honorary lifetime trainee.’ But she was promoted to a member of team KII of SKE by exception due to her success on Google+. I’ve seen her put forth effort and achieve such growth over the years. I’ve witnessed her struggles and her triumphs, and I’ve watched her make her way out of the swamp. How could I not become her fan? Well, I might have gotten a bit excited talking about her just now, but my point is that I like unique girls more than ordinary girls.”

I understood completely. Why have tofu when you can have a dill-pickle-pizza-ice-cream-sundae?

Japanese idol otaku with Kaori Matsumura

“So all the other girls you listed up are also unique like Kaori Matsumura?” I asked.

“Actually no. The local idol group that I cheer for isn’t that unique. They are just like traditional idol groups, but the distance between them and the fans is much smaller. For instance, they check my twitter page often. When I visit them, they ask me about my twitter page. When I changed my photo on twitter to a picture with them, the very next day one of them said, ‘Thank you for changing the pic.’ When I tweeted that I can’t go to their event but ended up making it there anyway, while I was there one told me, ‘You said on Twitter you couldn’t make it, but you did!’ It feels like they care about me, you know? There are a lot of fans and they certainly can’t check all of the tweets, but they do check mine. That makes me feel great.”

“It’s not just the local groups that make me feel that way,” he continued. “For example, Chiho Matsuoka (NMB in AKB48 group) makes me feel welcome at the handshaking events. For example, I said to her, ‘You looked sick at the last live show. Were you okay?’, then she told me, ‘What? How did you know? You know me really well. You are the only one who noticed that. Thank you.'”

“Another time, she told me, ‘I want to talk to you a little longer. It’s really fun to chat with you. I can relax when talking with you.’ I know she might say things like that to other people too, but among all the other fans, I felt as though I was special. I think that the girls who can make fans feel that way are the best idols. It definitely makes me want to go to another one of their events.”

“They also show me their weaknesses sometimes. Chiho was recently promoted to sub-leader, requiring her to take on the role of MC, but she told me that she didn’t think she was any good at it. I encouraged her to work on it and reassured her that she would soon get used to it. She responded with, ‘Please support me until then.’ I immediately answered, ‘I will!'”

Why Japanese Idol Otaku Buy So Many CDs

Japanese idol otaku cd collection

At this point I understood spending money on CDs to shake a girls’ hand. One CD is usually 1,000yen. If I could shake hands with Orlando Bloom and chat with him, even if it was only for a few seconds, I’d buy his CD.

But it seemed to me that having one fan buy a ton of CDs would increase garbage production. “Well, why don’t they simply sell the tickets to the handshaking events rather than making fans buy CDs?”

“I can’t be certain,” Otaben responded. “But I think it’s because it would conflict with the Entertainment and Amusement Trades Control Law. Companies need special permission to sell tickets for handshaking events (literally tickets to touch other people). You can imagine it being a “touchy issue” when the event involves so many minors.”

“However, I imagine most otaku wish they could just buy the tickets. I hold on to almost all my CDs as a way to reflect on my actions. I haven’t counted them, but I believe that there are between 500 to 600.”

Japanese idol otaku buy a lot of cds

“And the CDs are also used for member election, correct?” I asked. “I mean, every CD sold between May and June would count as one vote. I think many fans spend more money on CDs during that period. Most fans understand the system, so they know that they are spending money on something for which they get nothing in return. So why do they still buy so many CDs?”

Japanese idol otaku handshaking event tickets

He gave yet another sound answer to explain such, I believed, odd behavior. “I think that there are two reasons,” he posited. “First, we can show our appreciation to the idol we really like with a visual result. We enjoy their performance and they make us happy. We cheer for them, but their performance cheers us on, as well. We want to thank them and we show gratitude with our votes at the election. An ex-AKB48 member, Yuko Oshima, said in the election speech that the votes are like love from all the fans. Oh, and it’s not as though we get nothing in return. Each CD comes with a ticket to a handshaking event. Although, I think we might still buy the CDs to amass votes even if they didn’t contain tickets.”

“Secondly, we can give our favorite idol a chance to take an active part in the group. There are so many members in the AKB group, but when they release a new CD, only ‘senbatsu’ members can sing and be on the cover. Only ‘senbatsu’ members can be in the spotlight. Typically, management chooses the ‘senbatsu’ girls, but the election grants us the opportunity to choose. We figure they choose girls who are already popular, girls who they want to be more popular and those that are good at dancing. But there is no clear criteria. It’s up to the discretion of management.”

“But at the annual AKB48 members election, those ‘senbatsu’ members are decided by fan votes (1st to 16th places become senbatsu members). That’s why we vote for our favorite girl. It gives them the chance.” With that delightful conclusion, he jumped instantly back to his favorite girl, Kaori Matsumura.

“Kaori Matsumura, whom I cheer for and won 13th place, has been chosen as a senbatsu member for the SKE single only twice. For various reasons, girls who are less popular than her were chosen, and fans were really sad. We really wanted her as a senbatsu member and to see her on nationally broadcast television. The only thing we could do for her was to vote for her. So, this year, we formed a group. There were about 100 members. Our goal was to get her to become a senbatsu member and we pooled our money and raised 14,000,000 yen (roughly $140,000). Not everyone spent the same amount of money. We hired an accountant, so we wouldn’t have any trouble. This is only a guess, but I think that the average amount each member spent was 50,000 to 400,000 yen. I spent somewhere between that, too. The richest of them probably spent at least 3,000,000 yen. Some people also bought CDs on top of what they donated. I heard that one guy sold all his assets to buy votes for her since she told us that this year will be her last. She got 17th last year, which is just one position away from being a senbatsu member. We were all so frustrated and sad about it, so we focused our efforts this year.”

He continued. “Of course, there are a lot of opinions about this annual AKB48 members election and various stances among otaku. Some people don’t care about it at all and only buy a certain number of CDs. However, some people can really get carried away and go as far as maxing out credit cards, selling their assets or even taking out loans from money lenders. It all really depends on how firmly someone desires their girl to succeed. You will never hear of one otaku spending an extraordinary amount of money on votes and then turn around and complain to another otaku for not spending as much. We act as a group, but we respect individual ideas about the election. Everyone understands the system and does what they can do.”

Japanese Idol Merchandise

Japanese idol clear files

“So, now that we know how you think of the CDs, what about special merchandise? Do you collect a lot of things and how important is it for you to have them right away?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t collect merchandise, per se, but I do have a fair number of goods.” He brought a lot of items to the cafe, but it was only a part of what he has collected over the years.

He continued, “They sell randomly packaged pictures at shops and concert venues. I have the complete sets of SKE trainee members when Kaori Matsumura was a trainee. There weren’t trainee pictures at first, but they started selling them, so I bought a lot and completed the collection. I really only buy things that I truly want.”

“One of my rarest items is a KOBerrieS♪ T-shirt with all the member’s signatures on it. Yet, the most rare item of mine is Kaori Matsumura’s solo CD that I waited in the pouring rain for hours to get my hands on. It was a limited edition, for 1000 people only, and I was 1006th. But I didn’t give up and hoped others would leave on account of the rain. When I was told that I could get it, I was so happy. Actually, it was my most memorable moment as an otaku.” Yet another mark of strong determination in this young man.

I asked him afterwards if he could have bought it online if he hadn’t received one. He told me that the only merchandise worth buying are the ones you buy first hand.

How to Become an Idol Otaku

Japanese idol otaku at outdoor concert

With a waning number of questions on my list, I glanced down at Otaben’s remaining coffee. He had done pretty well. Nearly half was gone.

With my readers in mind, I asked, “If somebody wanted to become an idol otaku, what do you think would be the first step?

He answered very politely, “On top of watching TV, videos, and listening to their music, you should go to an actual event. Perhaps concerts or other live performances. It might be a big step for you, but I’d like you to experience that atmosphere. It’s common for other fans to talk to you. If you told them that it was your first time, they would happily teach you as much as they could. If you make friends there, it becomes a lot more fun. Therefore, visiting an actual event is the most important step. You probably won’t know how to enjoy yourself there, at first, so just watch the other otaku. (By the way, the term for ‘to watch’ is “ヲチる”. It changed from “ウォッチ(watch)する” to “ウォッチる” to “ヲチる” )”

“So, do whatever you can to join in on the fun. We have a specific cheer that we shout out during songs, and it’s also coupled with dance moves. But it’s fine to clap your hands and feel the fun of the atmosphere. If you continue to go to concerts, you will eventually know what to do during each song and it will become more fun.”

(Mami’s note: As you can tell, Otaben-san was very forthcoming with information and kindly teaching me as much as he could. I visited a few events with him and, he wasn’t kidding, it really was a lot of fun. I may write about those experiences in the future, if lots of requests come in.)

“What about rules?” I asked, taking another swig of coffee. “Are there any rules all idol otaku agree on?”

“There are a lot of rules, though none are specifically written and enacted in the community,” he said seriously. “It basically falls in to the realm of common sense. Here’s a list:”

  • Do not say bad things to the idol or swear at them during the meet and greet.
  • Do not to touch anything other than their hands.
  • Do not get close to them or talk to them without reason. (Some girls who don’t like to be talked to.)
  • If you have a lot of handshaking tickets, you should stand at the end of the line so that the people who only have a few tickets don’t wait so long.
  • The local idol groups have their show with other groups usually. So we let fans of specific groups ahead. Also if you want to move around (dance) a lot during the live performances, take the back row.
  • Don’t reveal personal information to other fans unless you know them well. Also don’t ask for their information. Don’t poke your noses into other fan’s private affairs.

“There are a lot of other small rules, but those are the major ones,” he concluded with a serious nod.

Otaben’s Parting Words

Japanese idol otaku polaroid

“Lastly,” I said, “is there anything else you want to say about yourself, idol otaku, or idols in general?” He crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared in thought at the floor to his left. Peering back towards the table, he uncrossed his arms, took ahold of his coffee mug and emptied the remaining contents into his mouth with a forceful upturn of the mug. A look of pleasant satisfaction eased its way over to me, where I now sat looking at my own coffee.

“I want everyone to see these events in person. There are a lot of videos and shows on TV, but I want everyone to come on over to the actual events. There is a concert, they sell their goods and CDs, and if you buy a CD, you can shake their hands. If it is the local idols, you may be able to talk to them for one CD, as well. Even though you can’t speak Japanese, they would try talking to you. If you buy a photo ticket, called “チェキ券(ちぇきけん)”, they can do any pose you want (nothing racy, of course). It costs from 500yen to 2000yen.”

“When you come to Japan, it might be a fun thing to try and learn about this part of Japanese culture. There are so many idol events all over Japan, so I’d like tourists to stop by at least one of them and get to know what it’s like. The atmosphere is really different from what you would expect. It’s also fun to do fan performances to the music and to chat with the members. It’ll probably make you feel more genki.”

As you can see in the picture above, I tried it out at the photo shooting event. It was fun and I did feel really genki!

“The term Otaku has a negative image. You might imagine a chubby person with glasses who doesn’t care about their outward appearance, or someone who seems a bit out of place socially. However, there are many kinds of otaku. Of course, the stereotypical otaku does exist, but there are cute girl otaku, kids, fashionable otaku and young otaku – every one of them with something special to offer.”

I learned a great deal talking with Otaben and experienced a big change of perspective. I would love it if more people came to idol events to sweep that bad image of otaku away for good. Thank you, Otaben-san!

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ・ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile 1 / 2]

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20 Differences Between Japanese and Western Schools Wed, 26 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The majority of your time on JET will be spent at one or more schools. While differences in culture and daily life will likely be quirky and interesting, differences in the education system stand to shock you most of all. The more you know about these differences before you arrive for your first day of […]

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The majority of your time on JET will be spent at one or more schools. While differences in culture and daily life will likely be quirky and interesting, differences in the education system stand to shock you most of all.

The more you know about these differences before you arrive for your first day of work, the less shocking those differences will be and the more smooth your transition. There will be a steep learning curve no matter what, so why not take some time to educate yourself and decrease the incline?

Please note that things listed here are what you’ll most likely encounter at your placement on JET. There are always exceptions. But these are generally the kinds of situations you’ll encounter.




Photo by 鈴木 宏一

There are no school buses as some may be used to in their home countries. Students tend to live close to the school which they attend, so walking and biking is the way 99% of kids will arrive for a day of study.

High school is another story. Because students test into upper secondary education, they may or may not live in the same town as their high school. Thus many students may come by bus or train. Driving to school is not an option as the legal driving age in Japan is 18 and even after obtaining a driver’s license, students aren’t supposed to drive to school.


If you’re in the same town as one of the schools you’re teaching at, you’ll likely be walking or biking to work alongside your students. If you take public transit to a high school outside your town, you may be sitting on the bus or train near your students.

Entrance Exams and Cram School

japanese high schools students pass college entrance exams

Photo by Chris73

To get a good job in Japan, you need to go to a good university. To get into a good university, you need to pass that university’s entrance exams. The universities you can apply for depend on the high school you attended. To get into a good high school, you need pass the high school entrance exams. And prep for those usually start in junior high, but can start much earlier.

The most common form of prep comes in the for of cram schools or 塾 (juku). These are after school schools where kids pay money for extra education in a particular subject or for help in passing important exams. They especially come into play when students are trying to pass entrance exams.

Cram schools have a lot of critics and proponents. But the fact is they are major part of the Japanese educational landscape and how it functions.


This won’t affect you directly, but it will affect what you teach. The intense focus on testing touches all parts of education culture in Japan. Though you likely won’t be helping any of your students with entrance exams directly, you will be surrounded with the test-centric mindset. This can impact how students respond to your lessons, what your JTEs want you to teach, and more.

Behavior and Discipline


Photo by Mike

Most peoples’ image of the Japanese classroom is one of quiet studiousness and respect for authority. Those who research online may find horror stories of chaotic classrooms with Mad Max-esque social structures. The truth is somewhere in between. As I mentioned before, my school leaned toward the difficult side. But even I had classes full of well-behaved kids. Most schools will have a mixture of both. Kids are kids all over the world, which means you can expect a range of personalities with a touch of childish behavior in each.

How misbehaving students are dealt with in Japan is often the subject of debate. While on JET, I heard this common story: Because the Japanese constitution states that “no child shall be denied an education” (Article 26), teachers are not allowed to send children out of the classroom. I’ve never been able to find evidence proving this idea. But I certainly never saw teachers send students out (maybe because disruptive kids would eventually leave on their own to go smoke).

Either way, discipline is up to the Japanese teacher. Sometimes they’ll control the class and sometimes they won’t (or can’t). There’s also a different standard as to what is considered “bad behavior” so a student’s sleeping may get on your nerves, while your JTE isn’t bothered by it at all.


This is by far the greatest source of tension for visiting ALTs. Seeing behavior that wouldn’t fly in your home country go unpunished (or unaddressed) can be infuriating, especially if that bad behavior is directed at you. Try talking with JTEs or your supervisor and frankly tell them your feelings about the situation. Tell them why the situation frustrates you and ask them to help you understand the Japanese mindset behind discipline in your school.

Truthfully, there’s no hard and fast rules to coping with this difficult subject. What you’ll likely find is that behavior and the mood of the school shift throughout the year. Good classes get rowdy, bad students become your favorites, and the whole group dynamic is in constant flux. Expect major cultural differences in this area and do your best to communicate honestly with trusted coworkers when you need help.

Failing Grades


Photo by Caro Wallis

One of the biggest shocks I had was discovering that students at the elementary and junior high school levels can’t fail a grade. They will always be advanced to the next grade regardless of test scores or attendance. Or so I was told by many ALTs. I never saw hard evidence of this, like a student’s actual report card. Even the wikipedia article that makes this claim lists no sources. But I did attend the graduation where all the yankis who never came to class got their diplomas. That’s some kind of evidence, I suppose.


Coming from the U.S. where fear of failing kept me studying hard, this policy really boggled my mind. A lot of other ALTs I knew were confused and shocked by this as well. A real “does not compute” kind of feeling. Especially when a student that’s been driving you nuts and not doing any work gets the graduate with those that worked hard.

But for better or worse, this is another thing that you have no control over and is best to let go. It’s been part of the Japanese way of doing school for a while and it’s probably not going to change any time soon. Really, with the education systems focus on entrance exams, it kind of makes sense. Passing on to the next grade isn’t what advances your academic career. Passing entrance exams does. In theory, someone who did no work at school, but studied hard at cram school could pass the entrance exams and get into a good high school. Conversely, someone who does great in school could still fail the entrance exams and not be able to advance academically.

Also the practical upside is that no student, no matter how difficult, will be a thorn in your side year after year.


Teachers’ Room


Photo by MC MasterChef

As mentioned above, the classroom belongs to the students and even the homeroom teacher doesn’t have a desk there. The home base for all teachers is the teachers’ room, a safe haven for lesson planning and decompression, most of the time. In theory, students aren’t allowed in the teachers’ room without permission, but this depends on the school. Schools with large numbers of rowdy students may have trouble keeping said students out, though they’ll certainly try.

Tofugu’s own Rich calls the teachers’ room his favorite part of the Japanese school system:

This room helps foster a sense of camaraderie and cooperation. Daily morning meetings allow a chance for announcements and make sure all staff members catch up on the latest events, problems, and concerns.


At first, the teachers’ room can feel a bit weird for those of us from cultures where cubicles and personal space are the norm, but the camaraderie Rich mentions is mostly due to the open setup.

Though the teachers’ room has stresses of its own, it’s a retreat from the stresses of student activity. That said, it’s not like the fabled “teachers’ lounge” in the U.S. where no student may tread. Students sometimes visit, with and without permission. Be ready for visits of curiosity and annoyance from certain kids. Some can be fun while others less so. You are still on duty while at school, so handling these situations is part of your job. Talk with your supervisor if you’re having trouble with too many visits at your desk.

Teacher Rotation


Teachers in your home country most likely work at and for a particular school. To change schools would be their choice. In Japan, however, teachers work either for the municipal or prefectural boards of education. This means that their positions are subject to change every year when the school year ends in March. A teacher could be at school for one year, ten years, or more. It all depends on the particular BOE and their secret ways, which are many and, well, secret.


Teacher rotation is tough for the ALT who may already have a tough time forming bonds in Japan as it is. If a certain JTE is great to work with, they may not be around the next year. Conversely, if a certain JTE makes for difficult collaboration, you may not have to deal with them your whole time on JET. This is certainly a mixed blessing that will keep you on your toes and constantly meeting new people.


Uniforms and Dress Code


Photo by Ryo FUKAsawa

At the elementary level, uniforms are not required. Private schools may have uniforms at this age, but most elementary students have dress codes rather than uniforms. The closest thing elementary kids have to a uniform is their cute yellow hats and hard shell randoseru backpacks.

Junior high is the beginning of the iconic Japanese school uniform, with dark jackets and pants for the boys and sailor shirts and skirts for the girls. This continues into high school, though the uniforms may be more stylish to attract higher level applicants.


Not much besides a difference in culture. Your dress will be dictated by your school and contracting organization. It could be as informal as polo shirts and blouses or as formal as suits. The practical aspects of the uniform won’t affect you. But the idea behind it, the concept of uniformity, most certainly will.

The School Year


Photo by きうこ

If you’re coming to JET from the U.S like I was, the “back to school” season may conjure memories of falling orange leaves, crisp weather, and those waning summer days. Not so in Japan. School starts in springtime. The Japanese school year begins in April and runs through March of the following year. An example schedule is as follows:

  • First Term – early April to late July
  • Summer Break – late July to late August (usually 6 weeks)
  • Second Term – early September to late December
  • Winter Break – late December to early January (usually 2 weeks)
  • Third Term – early January to late March
  • Spring Break – late March to early April (usually 1 week)

And the cycle continues…

Bear in mind that the above is an example of the norm, but exact start and end times vary throughout the country due to weather and other factors. Still, it’s very likely that your school’s schedule will look something like this one.


As a JET Program participant, you’ll arrive in Japan in late summer when the school year is halfway over. You’ll certainly be welcomed in some capacity, but you’re essentially jumping into a race that everyone else has been running for 5 months. This can make your transition a little more complicated. Bear this in mind as you start your new life. Be patient with yourself and your host environment as you get situated.

Grade Levels


Photo by Ippei Suzuki

Grade levels in Japan more or less correspond to those in other countries, with slight variations:

  • Elementary School: 1-6
  • Junior High School: 1-3
  • High School: 1-3


There isn’t a whole lot of adjusting to do in this area. It’s just good information to know. Knowing Japanese grade levels will simply give you an idea of the range of English levels you’ll be dealing with as a teacher. Junior and High school both have half the range as Elementary, which is wider. 



Photo by ajari

Classrooms belong to the students, plain and simple. Rather than move around from class to class, as is the norm in the U.S., students stay in their homeroom and teachers of various subjects come to them. The exceptions are P.E., home economics, music, certain science classes, or any subject that requires more than desk for learning to take place.

Students generally spend all years at a given school with the same group of classmates. This homeroom resides in one room, cleans that room, eats in that room, and sometimes even decorates it. This system has it pros and cons, but the end result is that school groups become a family in and of themselves.

Each class has a homeroom teacher who is expected to be involved in their students’ lives, almost like a surrogate parent. This includes home visits during which the teacher meets each student and their parents.


The “family” element of Japanese homerooms can be a lot like real families: functional and empowering or dysfunctional and detrimental (or some mixture of both). The classroom is the student’s turf, so gaining control can depend heavily on what kind of “family” you’re entering into. This doesn’t mean certain classes are “hopeless,” rather more focus on engagement may be required. This can lead to enhanced bonding with the JTE of that classroom and other rewards not offered by more compliant classes.



Photo by Tokyo Times

The no-shoes-in-the-house custom extends to school where every student has their own locker or cubby for shoes right at the entrance. (No locker for books though. Students keep all books and personal effects with them in their homerooms.)

Besides the normal indoor school shoes, there’s usually a gym shoe requirement as well to keep those shiny wooden planks their squeakiest.


You’ll also have to take off your outdoor shoes off before coming into work. Buy a comfy pair of school shoes since you’ll be wearing them 8+ hours a day. Don’t be afraid to drop some cash on an Amazon purchase for the perfect footwear. I started my JET career with a cheap pair of $20 school shoes and paid the price within a month. Get something with a lot of support. Your spine will thank you.

A minor annoyance you may run into is being unable to exit school from any doorway but the one you came in. It probably won’t happen often, but eventually you’ll need to talk to a teacher who is out on the athletic field and your outdoor shoes will be at the other end of the building.


Lunch Time


Photo by Chris Lewis

Japanese schools don’t have cafeterias and students eat in their homerooms. They eat either school provided lunch called 給食 (kyuushoku) or bring a bento from home.

Junk food is not allowed at school, not even juice. This didn’t stop my rowdy students from munching kombini snacks out of their backpacks, so don’t be too surprised if you see this rule broken from time to time.


The no junk food rule extends to teachers while students are in the building. This is the same line of thinking that keeps AC off in the teacher’s room during summer. It can be frustrating if you come from a culture where teachers enjoy privileges students don’t. Even if you don’t understand the reasoning, try to accept it as one of those things that just is the way it is (and sneak matcha kit kats from your desk when no one is looking).

Cleaning Time


Japanese schools don’t have janitors. Instead they set aside time for students to clean the building. This is called お掃除 (osouji). It’s the Pikmin approach to cleanliness. While the thoroughness of the cleaning depends on the individual student, it can’t be denied that the practice in itself is a good bonding experience that (most likely) teaches responsibility. Plus, the school usually plays wacky music around this time, which is a nice mood change.


You may or may not be asked or expected to participate in cleaning time, but give it a try anyway. It’s one of those things that makes you feel better despite not wanting to do it. Not to mention, cleaning time gives you a nice break from the teacher persona and lets you have a little more fun with your students.

Club Activities


A good slogan for Japanese schools would be “Come for the compulsory education, stay for the club activities.” Whatever the students’ feelings toward classes are, club activities are a different story. Long after school ends, clubs continue for kids to run, play, build, compete, and do anything but study. The school becomes a different place after classes end. And staying to experience it is worth your time.


You don’t have to try out for these clubs and they aren’t about competing or beating other teams. They’re more for self-improvement and togetherness. Thus, you joining a club shouldn’t be because you’re an expert who will help the team, but rather because your participation in a team will help you build skills and relationships.

If you do choose to join a club, however, be clear about how many times you intend to visit. If you visit once, it will be assumed you’re in it for good. That means every day after school and some weekends. It’s okay to visit once a week, or however you choose. Just be clear with the teacher of the club and the club members that you’ll be committing a predetermined amount of time.

School Festivals


Japanese schools have two main festivals a year: Sports Day and the Culture Festival. There may be more but these are the two you’ll most likely encounter.

  • Sports Day: Usually held in in late summer, Sports Day or 運動会 (undoukai) is a full day or two of relay races, long jumps, and various other events. It’s a great chance for friendly competition and group bonding.
  • Culture Festival: This festival is a bit more nebulous as it’s defined by MEXT as “[an event] which aims to use the results of everyday learning to heighten motivation.” It also goes by the names, Daily Life Exhibition, Learning Exhibition, and School Festival. Classrooms are transformed into cafes or stops for activities. Students perform. Food can happen. Almost anything goes at a culture festival as long as it’s nice and heightens motivation.
  • Chorus Concert: Students singing. Oh, those singing students. That’s about it.


Not much besides some days off work, organizing events, and participating in them. Festivals are a welcome break from the teaching routine. Plus there’s usually enkai after!



This has nothing to do with students and everything to do with you. Enkai are arguably one of the greatest benefits of being a teacher and you’ll want to go to as many as possible.


Eating, drinking, and karaoke. Enkai are essential morale boosting and bond forming experiences for teachers. If you’re feeling disconnected at your school, go to an enkai. It won’t fix all your problems, but it’ll certainly help a lot. At the very least you’ll get some great food and drink.

Enkai can be expensive, up to and exceeding ¥10,000. If there are many in a row, it can be tempting to start ducking out. If you really can’t afford it, by all means decline. But the JET salary is rather generous, and the money you save won’t be worth the experiences you’ll miss out on. Enkai are exclusive to those in a particular company, restricting even spouses of coworkers. If you’re invited to an enkai, you are part of a group and the more group stuff you do, the easier it is to function in that group.



Who doesn’t like a good ceremony? Japan certainly doesn’t not love them a whole damn lot. There are usually ceremonies at the open and close of each trimester. But none are more grandiose than the big two: the Entrance and Graduation Ceremonies.

The Entrance Ceremony or 入学式 (nyuugakushiki) is a momentous day for students, but more so for parents. Older students will help younger students find their classrooms where they meet their homeroom teacher and classmates. Parents congregate in the gym where the students eventually come back to join them. Then the ceremonies begin: speeches, songs, school song, more speeches, speeches, and then perhaps even a speech. Parents usually eat up the entire day snapping pictures and fixing hairs. Though probably dryer than ceremonies in western countries, the opening ceremony is not unlike mandatory school gatherings elsewhere, and this similarity is interesting to note for the visiting ALT.

Graduation Ceremony or 卒業式 (sotsugyoushiki) is much like the Entrance Ceremony but more serious. Again, there will be the school song, the national anthem, other songs, and lots of speeches. Of course, students will get up to receive their diplomas and a good deal of crying will ensue in various pockets of the gymnasium. This is probably the best ceremony because emotions are high, making it less dry and more meaningful.


For opening and closing ceremonies during the school year, it means sitting through speeches in the gymnasium. For opening and graduation ceremonies, it means experiencing a very important cultural part of Japanese life. Yes, it’s still speeches and songs but they’re speeches and songs that mean a lot to the people involved.

As a side note, pay attention to homeroom teachers sitting near you or try to sit as far away from them as you can. During certain parts of ceremonies, homeroom teachers may sit and stand over and over, which might fake you out prompting you to stand when you’re not supposed to.

When it comes to the music of the ceremony, try and learn your school song. Every school in Japan has a song. It’s fun to sing along with the teachers and students and gives a greater sense of belonging if you take the effort to learn it. My school was pretty difficult to integrate into and I found learning the school song a pretty helpful step towards feeling more motivated in my job.

Machines and Contraptions



Photo by eric_abert

There are usually large restrooms on each floor in varying degrees of modernity. Floor toilets are most common, though the teacher’s bathroom may feature a western style toilet.


If you need to go while teaching on the third floor, far from the teachers’ bathroom, it may mean toiletting with students. Floor toilets may seem intimidating or weird at first, but the position it forces you to be in is actually more natural for the human body than sitting upright.

Heating and Cooling


Japanese schools don’t usually have AC, though there are pushes here and there to have it added. There may be heating and cooling units in the teachers’ room, but this doesn’t make it a comfort sanctuary. If your school does have AC, it can’t be used until after the students leave, as teachers are expected to endure the same conditions students do. If your students are gone and it’s June 29th, you’re still out of luck. AC use is dictated by your BOE, and schools generally aren’t allowed to use it until July 1. This has everything to do with the “cool biz” campaign started in 2005 to reduce the amount of electricity used in Japan during the summer. The upside is every day in summer is casual Friday!

Schools may or may not have heat. If they do, it will be in the form of kerosene heaters in each classroom, which requires the opening of windows to keep everyone from suffocating on fumes. This may seem counterintuitive, but keeping the windows open has a second purpose: ensuring that cold and flu germs get flushed out into the open air rather than swirling around inside. There’s a lot of pros and cons to this open window winter practice, but it’s common throughout East Asia so it’s not likely to change any time soon.


This may mean a lot or very little depending on how you personally deal with hot and cold. Chances are you handle one of these well and the other not so much.

Coping with the heat means casual (but not too casual) wear every day of the week. It’s actually a nice break from the otherwise formal atmosphere. The whole school takes on a relaxed feel. The downside, of course, is it’s really REALLY hot. The second upside is taking part in Japan’s heat-enduring culture. It may feel terrible at first, but you won’t be the only one. It sucks to be hot when everyone else is comfy in their Escalades. But it’s strangely refreshing when everyone is enduring the heat together.

Coping with the cold means dressing in layers. I personally hate cold so the first month of winter with open windows was torture. But once I learned to layer from top to bottom (thermal shirts and leggings), winter actually became pretty nice. There’s also a cold enduring culture in Japan as well, which will bond you to your students and coworkers.


Differences Between Japanese and American Schools old computers

Photo by Mandias

Schools in Japan tend not to have much built in tech for the classroom, though some prefectures are experimenting with mixed results. The teachers’ room should have one or two computers, some printers, copiers, and fax machines. But that will likely be the extent of your school’s futuristic powers. The only tech in the Japanese classroom is the kind you bring with you.

Despite everything I just wrote, I will contradict it by saying that my school, while being severely inaka and low performing, had computers and projectors in every classroom. As the old and hated saying goes, every situation is different.

Tech Side Note: If you’re really lucky your school will have a room with a giant console dedicated to recording audio cassettes. Those things are awesome.


The burden of implementing slideshows, videos, audio, and other media rests on you. But even if you have an iPad to bring to class, the screen is only so big and it may not be something you want to pass around. This means that your lessons will end up analog. It’s definitely frustrating for the more tech-reliant (pointing at myself here). But constraints, though not fun, foster creativity.

Understanding Differences Between Japanese and American Schools

Differences Between Japanese and American Schools sunset and cherry blossoms

Photo by Suki Tamba

Though Japanese schools may sometimes feel upside down and backwards, the truth is they are part of a flawed and fully functional system that successfully prepares 10,000,000 human beings a year for real life. Bear in mind that while some things could stand improvement, most things work fine and are simply different. What’s more, some things in the Japanese classroom may be better than those in other countries. Consider this anecdote from American psychologist, Jim Stigler.

While visiting a classroom in Japan, Stigler observed Japanese students trying to draw a 3D cube with varying degrees of success. The teacher chose a boy who was struggling and had him come to the board to draw his cube. After an imperfect attempt, the teacher asked the class if he had done it correctly. They answered, “no.”

Stigler was terrified for the boy, but the boy didn’t get upset. Instead he continued throughout the rest of the class, after which the teacher asked again if he had gotten the cube right. The class answered, “yes” and the student returned to his seat triumphant.

What happened? Stigler explains:

I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.

The boy was allowed to struggle without judgment. These realizations can be hard to recognize without a psychology professor to point them out. But keep an eye out for them and keep reading about Japan and Japanese education during your time on JET. Understanding these things makes for much easier living. You don’t always have to agree, but it helps to know the ideas behind the realities you’re living in.

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The 3 Anime You Should Watch This Season: Summer 2015 Fri, 21 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Looks like it’s time to beat the summer heat by sippin’ some Chu-Hi and watchin’ some anime. Last season was pretty decent, but which shows are worth watching this season? Well, Rich and I have some ideas for you. We watched most of the new shows that came out this summer and are happy to […]

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Looks like it’s time to beat the summer heat by sippin’ some Chu-Hi and watchin’ some anime. Last season was pretty decent, but which shows are worth watching this season? Well, Rich and I have some ideas for you. We watched most of the new shows that came out this summer and are happy to share with you our top picks. Hopefully all of our hard work pays off and helps you find your new favorite show. Onward!


Before starting the season, DBS was pretty much the only one I had some sort of expectation for. And that expectation was that it’d be better than DBGT. And it was. Hooray. But the season did offer up some additional interests. I dunno if I’ll see any of them all the way through, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve seen so far. Let’s get into my picks.

Dragon Ball Super


I’m sure many of you are at least somewhat familiar with Dragon Ball. Super is the latest iteration of it, taking place about 6 months after the defeat of Majin Buu. The world is at peace, and the Dragon Balls were used to make everyone forget about all the nonsense that happened. Vegeta is a family man, Goku is a farmer, and Gohan is a boring student. Life is simple and quaint. But there is a looming darkness in the universe that looks to be coming closer and closer to our heroes.

Dragon Ball Z was one of the first anime I ever really got into so this show holds a lot of nostalgia value for me, especially after the relative disappointment of GT. I even included it in my Personal Top 10 Anime list. The first couple episodes here are pretty slow and lacking action. But it’s kind of nice to just get a glimpse into the everyday humdrum life of the characters we know and love. It looks like the action is going to start to ramp up soon though, so I’m looking forward to that.

If you were never into Dragon Ball that much, this series probably won’t change your mind. But it’s a nice treat for people who are already fans of the series.

Rokka no Yuusha


The Demon God has arisen and it’s up to six chosen heroes to defeat him. Legend tells of how the six are market by the Saint of the Single Flower and then it is up to these heroes to defeat the god until the process starts all over again. Only problem is that the chosen heroes have no way of finding the others, so they gotta run around and group up before finally traveling west to go kick the Demon God in his behind.

I really like the look of this anime. The style and the colors and the music is all really well done and pleasant. It very much reminds me of a Tales game. It might have something to do with the main character looking like Luke from Tales of the Abyss. But no matter what it’s a good thing. The show is exciting, funny, and interesting and probably the one I’m looking forward to the most this season. The story might be a little shallow, but the characters and the setting make it compelling.



In the world of Charlotte, some people are blessed with special abilities. Our main dude can take over another’s body for five seconds, but loses all control of his own during that time. So far he’s used it to cheat in school, pick up babes, and get revenge on some jerks. Nothing special. Then one day he is taken away to a special school for kids with abilities so it can be made sure they don’t cause any harm to themselves or others.

This show was a surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting it to be so entertaining and funny. All of the powers displayed by the characters so far have some amusing drawback and it was really funny to see how the main character made creative use of his. I’m not sure what to expect from the story. This is another one of those shows where the characters really make the show. The main character is fun to watch, and I just hope that the show can keep up the momentum. Oh, and also – the music is really good. As you might be able to tell from that PV up there.


Japan jam-packs its summer with movies, anime and drama. And the anime summer 2015 season is no different. This season, Dragon Ball fans, both old and young, can join together and bask in the glory of the new series, Dragon Ball Super. I would have made it one of my picks, but the series looks to continue where Z left off; both Dragon Ball fans and haters know what to expect. This season also ushers in the return of series like Wangaria, Durarara, Non Non Biyori, Gatchaman Crowds and Junjou Romantica. Meanwhile Yowamushi Pedal, Haikyu, and Ghost in the Shell are sure to fill air conditioned movie theaters. With so much to choose from, here are my three picks for this stacked anime season!

Non Non Biyori Repeat


“Starting this spring I’ll be my village’s one and only bright, shiny ichinensei.” And so starts Non Non Biyori Repeat; the sequel to Non Non Biyori, a cute, slice of life comedy akin to Azumanga Daioh.

In Non Non Biyori Repeat, a handful of students from a small town Japanese elementary school have innocent and silly life experiences. Don’t expect a heavy plot or deep character development. Biyori Repeat offers a light relaxing experience, perfect for those hot and humid summer days.

I’m enjoying this series because the characters remind me of my kindergarten and elementary school students. Their logic and innocent reactions have an authentic flavor. That being said, Non Non Biyori Repeat will be too light, too cute, and too uneventful for many viewers. But fans of light-hearted affair like Azumanga Daioh and K-On! should enjoy this easygoing comedy.

Ushio and Tora


After an original manga run from 1990 to 1996, Ushio and Tora’s anime has been a long time coming. Although an OVA came out in the early 1990s, the ten episode run barely scratched the series’s surface. Perhaps fans owe Japan’s current yo-kai boom for Ushio and Tora’s revival.

When junior high school student Ushio mistakenly releases Tora, a legendary demon put to rest by his ancestors, all sorts of spirits and monsters start showing up. To protect his family, friends and put an end to the yokai infused madness, Ushio is forced to team with the finicky, uncooperative demon. Will the unlikely pair cooperate and save the world or kill each other in the process?

Ushio and Tora stays close to the source material, both in visual style and themes. The fun, yokai filled adventures have enough battles and laughs to please both longtime fans and newcomers alike. If you like Yu Yu Hakusho and Kikkaishi, you should give this action-packed mishmash of yokai and school life a look.



Gangsta takes me back to a time when anime first debuted on adult swim. The series would fit in right alongside Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star. Gangsta’s adult-themed world has all the gritty, stylized stuff that goes over well in the West.

Overwhelmed by the growing power of gangs and drug cartels, local police hire street smart tough guys, “The Handymen” Nic and Worick, to help take care of the dirty work. The two jump headfirst into the dangerous world without hesitation and continue to find excuses to take on the baddies throughout the series.

With edgy characters, a European-flavored setting and its share of mystery, sex, and action, I found Gangsta the most intriguing series of the summer season. Whether Gangsta will embrace a focused narrative and develop deep characters or continue a simple onslaught of cool violent confrontations, I’ll be watching.

Anime Summer 2015 Parting Thoughts


Rich: Alongside these picks, I look forward to continuing my holdovers from last season, My Love Story and Shogeki no Soma. For those looking for a satisfying single-serve anime experience, look no further than Little Witch Academia: Mahou Shikake no Parade. The gorgeous animation, charming characters, and fantastic world compliment this sweet, innocent, yet thrilling roller-coaster ride of an adventure. In under an hour, Little Which Academia offers a more well rounded, rich narrative than some series twelve times the length. Hope you find something cool to keep you cool during this summer’s heat… unless you live below the equator and it’s winter – then, by all means stay warm!

John: Just an aside, Gangsta was nearly edged out of my top 3 by Charlotte. I think Gangsta looks pretty promising as well. That aside – I’m guessing that eventually the nostalgia value will wear off with DBS, and surprisingly I think I’m going to have to say Charlotte is my top pick this season. It looks good, sounds good, and keeps me chuckling. Hopefully the rest of the season doesn’t let me down!

So what were your top picks for the anime summer 2015 season? Any favorites from last season? Let us know in the comments!

The post The 3 Anime You Should Watch This Season: Summer 2015 appeared first on Tofugu.

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JET Program Survival Resources Wed, 19 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 While researching the Tofugu JET Guide, I came across a wealth of information. Blogs, websites, wikis, forums, the list goes on. So many people are writing so much about life in Japan and on JET. So it’s only right to share the resources I was most impressed with. These are sites I bookmarked and kept coming […]

The post JET Program Survival Resources appeared first on Tofugu.

While researching the Tofugu JET Guide, I came across a wealth of information. Blogs, websites, wikis, forums, the list goes on. So many people are writing so much about life in Japan and on JET.

So it’s only right to share the resources I was most impressed with. These are sites I bookmarked and kept coming back to in my research. The best of the best.

Naturally, no one site contains all the information pertinent to everyone ever. So it’s good to look through the links below and see what uniqueness each has to offer. I’ve done my best to highlight what makes each one special.

Hopefully this page can be a resource for JETs looking for answers. Good luck!

Official JET Program Links



This is help from above, so to speak. The official word from the people who sent you to Japan and/or are in charge of you. This advice can feel stiff at first. After all, it’s from the bosses so there is a certain veneer of formality that goes along with this type of writing. Nonetheless, there is a lot of great stuff in here. A lot of problems JETs faced are covered in these links and covered well. Read all this stuff before digging into other resources.

The JET Programme

This seems like a no-brainer. But few JETs check through the “official” JET help documents. While CLAIR may give you dry advice or gloss over tough issues, its resources are actually incredibly helpful if you take the time to dig. The General Information Handbook (GIH) alone clears up a lot of concerns held by JETs during their tenure. On top of this, CLAIR offers New JET Guides, ALT Handbooks, Teaching Materials, and Returners’ Guides. Consider these resources the “Read Before Posting” guidelines of the JET Program. Clean and official, but very helpful.


Visit: The Official JET Program Website


AJET (The Association for JET) is an official/unofficial organization. It’s officially the unofficial support network for all JETs in Japan. Being tied to CLAIR but not ruled by it means their help is down to earth and high quality. Their teaching materials are top-notch, as are their guides to life and work in Japan. You could get all the help you need from AJET and be just fine.


Visit: The AJET Resource Page

CLAIR’s Information for Foreigners in Japan

This a site/directory created by CLAIR for foreigners living in Japan. It covers everything from marriage to taxes to garbage to job searching. If it’s something you have to do in life, this site probably talks about doing it in Japan. What I find strange is that this is made by CLAIR, the same organization which oversees JET. Why is this site not shared with JETs? Sure, it’s not JET-specific. But all JETs live in Japan and could benefit from this site. Whatever the reason, you have the link now. Give the site a look and I’m sure you’ll find a lot of useful information.


Visit: Multilingual Living Information

Shimane PAs

The Prefectural Advisors of Shimane-ken did a great job setting up a resource blog for their JETs. Though many things are Shimane-specific, any JET or expat in Japan should benefit from 70% of everything here. The best part is, it’s still active. So hopefully there’s more goodness to come.


Visit: Help from Shimane PAs

Ibaraki PAs

The PAs of Ibaraki have started a nice website for JETs in their prefecture. Right now there’s not much in the way of resources, but they do have an interesting feature: Ask Ibaraki JET PAs. ALTs ask questions about their job and the PAs give honest and helpful feedback. It seems to be updated rather frequently so hopefully it continues. In a year it could make for a treasure trove of Dear Abby style advice for ALTs.


Visit: Help from Ibaraki PAs

By JETs, For JETs


Almost every prefecture in Japan has JET Participant-created website meant to aid the community. Some of the resources on these pages will only apply to people living in or visiting that specific prefecture. But the majority of articles, guides, and clickables will help any JET anywhere.

If your prefecture’s website doesn’t offer the answers you’re looking for, or you’d just like a second opinion, click some of the links below. You’ll be surprised how much advice and wisdom you’ll pick up from these sites.

The JET Coaster

This site is unique to this list in that it is unofficial. It’s curated by a group of former JETs who give awesome JET advice to newcomers and those currently on the program. It’s relatively new, but already has a good deal of solid content. This site is often updated, giving it a big advantage over those that are helpful, though stagnant.


Visit: The JET Coaster

Kumamoto JET

Definitely one of the best. Consistently updated. High quality content. I could go on.

KumamotoJET is featured prominently in Tofugu’s Guide to Lesson Planning, and it’s no slouch when it comes to the rest of JET life. Their Tax Guide alone is worth the visit. It’s only applicable to U.S. residents, but it’s incredibly detailed. If you’re a JET from the U.S., check it out for sure.


Visit: Kumamoto JET

Kyoto JETs

Kyoto JETs has a great collection of information. It will take some crawling but its worth the effort. The standouts are the Disaster Preparedness section and the Tax Guide. Most sites don’t even address disaster (surprisingly), so that alone is worth a click.


Visit: Kyoto JETs

JET Sendai

This is one of my favorites (which is why it’s near the top). JET Sendai covers a lot of ground and their explanations of procedures untangle complicated situations. Short, sweet, and to the point. If you need help in a hurry, head to JET Sendai. ‘Nuff said.


Visit: Sendai JET

Hyogo AJET

The website is rather bare bones in terms of design but it has a ton of useful content. It doesn’t cover every aspect of JET life. But what it does cover is unique and useful. More obscure and offbeat topics are covered here. Definitely recommended.


Visit: Hyogo JET

Akita JET

Don’t let the plain presentation fool you. The Akita JET wiki has a lot to offer. Though some entries are a little shallow, the Akita wiki covers a lot. If you’re facing a strange or abstract situation, visit this site. The answer just might be there.


Visit: Akita JET

Saga JET

The Saga JET Programme site is pretty nice. Cute layout. Good amount of info. It takes some digging to find the good stuff though. Most of the advice ends up being Saga-specific. So you may click on a link thinking, “Wow! I really need to know this,” only to find the advice contained applies only to people living in Saga. Nevertheless, keep poking around. There are a lot of gems in here that will apply to anyone living in Japan.


Visit: Saga JET

Gunma JET

Honestly, I just have fun on this site. Maybe it’s the layout. The colors. I don’t know. All the resources are very complete and personal. One of my favs. It includes a unique furikomi guide. You’ll probably be taught how to use this by your supervisor, but it’s great in case you forget or are never taught.


Visit: Gunma JET

Yamaguchi AJET

This is a very clean and navigable site. It has very complete resources for incoming and outgoing JETs. Not as much for life in between, unless you live in Yamaguchi. They have intensely detailed descriptions of every city in the prefecture. If you’re placed in Yamaguchi, it’s an excellent resource. If not, maybe it might be worth visiting. Going on a trip with such a detailed guide can make for a great experience.


Visit: Yamaguchi AJET

Okinawa JET

The Okinawa JET website covers most aspects of JET life. Their guides and articles are mid-size, which can be a good thing. If you’re overwhelmed by comprehensive explanations elsewhere, it’s helpful to read shorter versions of the same information.

Also, OkiJET has an Island Guide. With beautiful beaches and resorts, chances are you’ll want to head down Okinawa way at least once. The Island Guide will give you the resident’s perspective not found in most travel guides.


Visit: OkiJET

Mie JETs

Mie JETs is a little tough to navigate at first, but the information is worth the effort. It’s set up like a wiki but isn’t called one. A wiki by any other name is still a wiki. Check here if you can’t find answers anywhere else.


Visit: Mie JETs

Oita JETs

OitaJET is relatively new, but still sports a lot of content. Hopefully new things will continue to be added. Until then, enjoy the clean layout and unique features.


Visit: Oita JETs

Kagoshima JET

The PAs of Kagoshima have created some original and helpful content. A lot of the common “Guides for Living” include abstract questions to aid in development. It’s nice to see a personal touch once in a while.


Visit: Kagoshima JET


Maybe the cutest logo of all Prefectural sites. Like others in this list, OkaJET offers its take on JET life. It also chimes in on regional issues like rainy season survival which you are likely to experience anywhere in Japan.


Visit: OkaJET

Toyama JETs

Though the site is very pretty, I was put off by navigation. But I pushed through and found some good content. The medical information was the most helpful, in my opinion.


Visit: Toyama JETs

Fukuoka JET

Fukuoka JET’s resources are hit or miss. Some are detailed and helpful. Others not so much. Poke around the site and see what you can find. The School Calendar Kanji guide was pretty unique and could be helpful to ALTs wanting to stay in the loop at their schools.


Visit: Fukuoka JET

Ishikawa JET Wiki

Very complete and has the advantage of being a wiki. Unfortunately it’s a wikia wiki, so be prepared for ads, ads, ads! The experience is slow, but content might be worth it.


Visit: The Ishikawa JET Wiki


Tokushima has a pretty little site. Still sparse on info, but what it does have fairly complete and easy to find. Thumbs up!


Visit: TokushimaJET

Ehime AJET

Ehime AJET is a little on the small side, but has some hidden gems. It’s pop culture events guide is unique as well as the shipping guide. Good stuff for vegetarians. Worth a look.


Visit: Ehime AJET


Shizuoka AJET (or Shizajet) is still getting started. Hopefully it will expand with time. I did really like their Top 5 Lists, which are a good collection of advice and ideas for ALTs in digestible form. More stuff like this please, Shizajet!


Top 5 Lists

Visit: ShizaJET


The Niigata JET site isn’t too different from those listed above. It has a nice little blog that’s worth clicking through for personal insights. I thought their section on culture shock had some unique things to say.


Visit: NiigataJET



Photo by kinpi3

If you didn’t get enough survival help from your fellow JETs above, here are some non-JET related links to take care of any loose ends you’re still fighting with. Really, the first link in this list is the jam. Keep reading and see what I mean.

Surviving in Japan

No joke, this site is what inspired this list. All the other sites listed are very helpful, but this one is extremely, overwhelmingly helpful. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since 2013. Fortunately the articles left over are pure gold. This is all the nitty gritty stuff most guides don’t bother to cover.

Which toothpastes have fluoride? Where to find foods from home? What kinds of foundation match which non-Japanese skin colors?

I really can’t say enough good things about this site. Check it out and be amazed.

Visit: Surviving in Japan

Just Landed

This is an online community for expats in every country. The topics covered are fairly comprehensive, but not as deep as really good sites. Check here if you’ve checked everywhere else. You might find some answers or links you’re looking for.

Visit: Just Landed

Japan Post Communication Guide

This is a chart from the Japanese post office that helps foreigners use the Japanese post office. Makes a good language study tool.

Visit: The Japanese Post Office

Hyperdia & Jorudan

These are both Japanese train time calculators. I included them for completeness’ sake, but Google Maps does the same task better. Use these if you have an aversion to Google Maps.

Visit: Hyperidia

Visit: Jorudan

Japanese Toll Calculator Guide

Road trippin’ in Japan? Calculate the tolls you’ll have to pay on your cross country tour. Don’t forget the snacks! Seriously. Don’t forget the snacks.

Visit: Japan Toll Calculator

Import Foods


Food is one of the things you’ll miss most while on JET. Sometimes a tough bout of culture shock can be cured with a bit of cheese or some sour patch kids. Thankfully there are some websites that offer import and foreign foods delivered straight to your door.

The Flying Pig

This is probably the most famous resource. The Flying Pig delivers Costco items. Considering there aren’t many Costco locations in Japan and they may be hard to get to for most JETs, this is a big deal. The Flying Pig offers comforts of home as often as you like.

Visit: The Flying Pig

Foreign Buyers’ Club

The Foreign Buyers’ Club goes beyond Costco to just about everywhere else. Almost anything you can imagine, they’ve got. Try not to spend your whole paycheck.

Visit: The Foreign Buyers’ Club

The Meat Guy

Pretty self-explanatory. He’s a guy. He sells meat. His prices are pretty reasonable and you can get almost any kind of meat in any size. Even Thanksgiving turkey! Put your burger and bacon cravings to rest once and for all.

Visit: The Meat Guy

Tengu Natural Foods

For whole, natural, and organic foods. Tengu is the best way to eat right in Japan.

Visit: Tengu Natural Foods

Yoyo Market

Yoyo offers items from Costco and a little bit more. If it’s for sale anywhere in Japan, chances are they can get their hands on it.

Visit: Yoyo Market

Legal Help


Photo by Roy Berman

Hopefully you won’t need these links while on JET.

Japanese Law Translations

Unofficial translations of Japanese laws and regulations. If you’re in legal trouble or are simply a law geek, check it out.

Visit: Japanese Law Translations

Japan Legal Support Center

Legal Consultation for foreigners in Japan. If you need a lawyer while on JET bookmark this site. Actually, bookmark it no matter what. You never know.

Visit: Legal Help for Foreigners in Japan

Support for Various Groups


If you need help or support for certain issues on JET, these sites and organizations should help you out.


Stonewall Japan is a branch of AJET that offers support for the LGBTQ community in Japan. They offer groups, events, resources, community outreach, and more!

Visit: Stonewall Japan


Figuring out what you can and can’t eat as a vegetarian in Japan is a challenge. Thankfully this extensive guide distinguishes which Japanese dishes are vegetarian. There’s even a nice restaurant guide at the bottom.

Visit: The Neverending Voyage


“Is it Vegan?” offers solutions, recipes, and guides to help vegans find and make food while on JET.

Visit: Is it Vegan?

Japan Vegan gives survival tips and, most importantly, vegan friendly restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Visit: Japan Vegan

People with Celiac Disease

Avoiding gluten is a serious matter for those with celiac. Thankfully, Gluten Free in Japan brings relief and suggestions for navigating the Japanese culinary landscape with gluten-avoidance in mind.

Visit: Gluten Free in Japan

More JET Program Survival Resources?


Photo by m-louis

JET life outside of school can be a challenge, sometimes more so than the ALT job itself. Working out what to do and how to do it takes years. Hopefully these resources help a little and put you on a path of figuring out life in Japan.

If you have any suggestions for resources I may have missed, leave them in the comments below.

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Tsukemono! The Wonderful World of Japanese Pickles Fri, 14 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When we think of pickles in the US, it’s mostly the spear along with our sandwich or the slices on a burger. When I was growing up we had two types, sweet and sour. And maybe there were some pickled beets in the fridge that I refused to eat. Little did I know the riches I […]

The post Tsukemono! The Wonderful World of Japanese Pickles appeared first on Tofugu.

When we think of pickles in the US, it’s mostly the spear along with our sandwich or the slices on a burger. When I was growing up we had two types, sweet and sour. And maybe there were some pickled beets in the fridge that I refused to eat. Little did I know the riches I was missing elsewhere in the world.

In Japan, they’ll pickle anything that’s not moving. All kinds of things are pickled in different ways, creating healthy side dishes that add variety to traditional meals based on rice.

If you’ve never been to Japan, you may have seen a couple of these in restaurants (That pickled ginger with your sushi is one of them). But when you get there, you’ll find all kinds of mysterious things on little dishes with your fancy dinner and tucked in your convenience store bento. Come along with Tofugu on a journey through the wonderful world of Japanese pickles and find out what all those amazing little tidbits are about.

Many Ways to Get In A Pickle


Photo by Tokyo Times

Tsukemono 漬物 is the Japanese word for pickles, derived from tsuke “soaked” and mono “things.” You’ll see that most of the Japanese names for different types end in -zuke, which is the same word as tsuke when it undergoes rendaku in the second part of a compound word.

But “soaked” is far from the only way that pickles are made. Yes, some are made in liquids like vinegar, but other methods will probably surprise you.

Shio-zuke – salt pickles

The original and simplest, there are a couple of different ways of making salt pickles.

In one method, the vegetables are sprinkled with salt – although the word “sprinkled” may be misleading given how much salt is used – and put in a container. They’re covered with a weight or lid that presses down on them, which makes sure the salt penetrates. (Nowadays you can buy plastic containers that come with a pickle press). The salt makes the water content of the vegetables seep out by osmosis, so the container needs regular attention to drain the liquid.

Removing the water from the vegetable concentrates the flavor, and with less water, the vegetables are less susceptible to rotting. Salt pickles can take varied length of time. There’s a version that you just leave overnight. Another one is measured in months. Pickled plums, for example, are supposed to be left in the salt for the whole rainy season. The longer the pickling time, the more intense the flavors.

In the other method, vegetables are put in salt water in an airtight container. As Kikkoman describes it, “in this environment, the enzymes in the ingredients break down the food’s components into very different and flavorful substances.” That sounds a little scary to me actually but it’s nothing compared to our next example….

Nuka-zuke – rice bran pickles

Rice bran pickles are made by laying vegetables down in a specially prepared bed of rice bran. Boiled salt water is mixed with the bran. Then, similar to sourdough bread, you add some of the bed from an old batch that contains microbes to get the lactic acid fermentation process going. It must be mixed up regularly, traditionally with your bare hands, to keep all the little microbes growing and healthy.


Photo by Max Wheeler

I’ve never had the privilege of getting close to one of these beds (although I’ve seen them displayed in shops). But The Black Moon says this is how you know when it’s ready: “After a week or so the pickling medium should have a heady aroma and look like damp sand.”

Some rice bran pickling beds have been passed down for generations. It’s an astonishing thought in a century where everything in the supermarket has an expiration date printed on it. Like salt pickles, vegetables can be left in briefly or for a long time, up to several months, with different flavor results.

Kasu-zuke – sake lees pickle

Sake lees is the solids left over after sake, which is made from rice, is filtered. Like rice bran, instead of being discarded, people figured out how to use it to make pickles. Also cured for a variety of lengths of time from a few days to several years, they may actually be slightly alcoholic. Kampai!

Koji-zuke – koji pickles

You probably have never heard of koji, but Japanese food wouldn’t exist without it. It’s a microbe (let’s not call it mold, that sounds so unappetizing!). This little one-celled friend is responsible for soy sauce, miso, and sake, and it’s even been proposed that it should be called Japan’s National Fungus. Koji is mixed with rice to start the fermentation process that results in those fundamental products. And this koji mash can also be used to make pickles. These are somewhat sweet because koji produces amylase, an enzyme that produces sugar from the starch in rice.

And the rest….

Pickles are also made using soy sauce, miso, and vinegar. The most familiar to us, vinegar pickles are not usually for long-term storage. This is because Japanese vinegar is low in acid. I make one regularly with vinegar and a little soy sauce and sugar. Eaten fresh it’s more like a little side salad. Leftovers the next day are more pickle-y.

What’s that? You’d like to try the recipe yourself? No problem. Here it is.

Recipe for quick pickled cucumber:

Use pickling cucumbers or another type with the minimum of seeds – they have a better texture. If you have to use a regular American cuke, scoop all the seeds out.

  1. Slice cucumber and cut slices in quarters or halves. Finely shred some gingerroot.
  2. For a large cuke, mix 1/4 c soy sauce, 1/4 c rice vinegar and about a tablespoon of sugar. (Start there and experiment – you can go up to 2 T next time if you want it sweeter.)
  3. Mix it all up and refrigerate for an hour or two or three before serving. It’s also good but different the next day.

(Adapted from a recipe by Harumi Kurihara)

Tsukemono’s Little One-Celled Friends: Fermentation and Microbes


Some of these methods may seem weird to us. In our culture, we think food will spoil if left out of the refrigerator for five minutes. How can it possibly be a good idea to put vegetables in a tub of rice bran and leave them there, at room temperature, sometimes for months? And those pots of rice bran have been passed down for generations! And people mix them with their bare hands! Why aren’t people dying of food poisoning left and right?

Because these methods actually preserve food: They encourage good microbes, which keep out the bad microbes that make you sick.

In the US, fermentation is the new cool hipster foodie thing. There’s a kombucha bar at my Whole Foods and a stand at my local farmers market selling kimchee and sauerkraut. Maybe we’re finally starting to catch up. But Japanese cuisine always been all about the fermentation. As mentioned earlier, miso and soy sauce, both fundamental to Japanese cooking, are produced by fermentation. And aside from those quick vinegar pickles that are more like salads, most of the pickling processes involve fermentation too.

Preserving vegetables this way not only made them last longer when there was no refrigeration, some methods even made them healthier. Some types of pickles aid digestion. Rice bran pickles are high in B vitamins – a vitamin that the Japanese diet was short on when it was based mostly on white rice. Rather than throw away the B-vitamin-rich rice bran after it’s removed while making the white rice, pickling with it adds these vitamins back into the diet.

Famous Japanese Pickles


Photo by Shigemi.j

Japanese people make pickles out of almost every vegetable in so many ways that we could never list all the combinations. There are local specialties and all kinds of ingredients added for flavor. From herbs and citrus fruits to ingredients that add umami like kombu seaweed, bonito, and shiitake mushroom.


Photo by Sushicam

But there are a few pickles that you’ll see everywhere:

  • Umeboshi is the Japanese plum, salt-pickled then dried in the sun. They come in a variety of sizes and different textures. They’re colored with red shiso (an herb) and are intensely sour. You’ll see them in bento and inside onigiri rice balls (careful, because they still have the pit). They’re said to have been made for over a thousand years, and to have an antibacterial effect that keeps the other foods in your bento fresh.
  • Gari is the pickled ginger you get with sushi. It’s a simple vinegar pickle. And in case you didn’t know, you’re supposed to eat it between pieces of sushi to cleanse your palate so you can appreciate the different flavors of each kind of fish. Young ginger naturally turns pink when pickled. But the bright pink kind you’ll often see is made with artificial dye.
  • Takuan is rice-bran pickled daikon radish.  It’s usually served in half-moon slices, and makes a good vegetarian sushi roll filling. Manufactured takuan is also often dyed nowadays, to a bright yellow color. Traditionally it’s dried in the sun before being pickled, which can make a pretty awesome photo.
  • Beni shōga is ginger in little red strips. You probably seen these on top of yakisoba or takoyaki. It’s pickled in the vinegar used to make umeboshi pickled plums. So its bright red color ought to come from the red shiso leaves. Sadly, today it is also usually artificially dyed.

How to Approach a Strange Tsukemono


Photo by Ruth and Dave

The earliest pickles were vegetables preserved in salt. One legend of the origin of tsukemono places it at Kayatsu Shrine in Nagoya. The shrine is now nicknamed Tsukemono Jinja and home to a festival celebrating the occasion each August. It’s said that the local people there traditionally made offerings of salt harvested from the sea and the vegetables from the first harvest. Because the offerings spoiled quickly, someone came up with the idea to combine them together in a barrel.

The result was a fermented product, which lasted a longer time. This was considered a gift from the gods, and with good reason. Before refrigeration, and greenhouses, and flying produce all around the world from places where seasons are different, there weren’t a lot of vegetables around in the winter. Pickles were the answer. They preserved spring and summer’s bounty for the cold time of year.

Now we can buy all kinds of fresh produce at any time of year. So they’re no longer necessary for providing vitamins and fiber when they’re out of season. But Japanese cuisine developed to include them, so a traditional meal doesn’t make sense without them. In fact, just rice, soup, and pickles count as a complete traditional Japanese meal.

Japanese food is often stereotyped as having delicate, subtle flavors. That may fool you into taking a huge mouthful of pickle, which could be a shock. Think of them more like a condiment. And remember that Japanese cuisine is based around a bowl of rice. Rice is indeed a subtle (some would say bland) food, and there’s nothing like a little bit of pickle to kick it up a notch when you take a mouthful of rice.

If you watch Japanese cooking shows, you’ll often see them taste something and say “this makes me want to eat a lot of rice.” That’s tsukemono in a nutshell. Oh, and that’s supposed to be a good thing.

Aside from their flavor, don’t forget how important presentation is to Japanese food. Tsukemono in their varied colors add eye appeal as well.

Japanese Pickles Today


Photo by anjuli ayer

Pickles used to be made by hand in each household, and each tasted a little different. Your mom’s rice bran pickles really were different from everyone else’s, because the microbes on her hands were different. Now, homemade pickles are usually lighter kinds that only take an hour or a day or two to make. Most people go to the store and buy the more labor-intensive kinds.


As noted above, manufactured pickles are often made with artificial dyes. Read the ingredients on the packaged ones. You’ll find they are about as similar to traditionally made pickles as instant ramen is to a real local ramen shop. Remember that many of these pickles take days or weeks or even months to make in the old-fashioned way. So commercial ones take a lot of shortcuts.

However, you can still find traditional stores specializing in handmade pickles, which may have hundreds of kinds. You should look for them when you’re in Japan, because even if you don’t buy anything, it’s as much a true traditional Japanese sight as any temple or rock garden.

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How Monster Strike Conquered Japanese Mobile Gaming Thu, 13 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Teaching kindergarten has its advantages. We sing, dance, read picture books, and even take naps. As an added bonus, the children keep me up to date with the latest trends in their world. A couple of years ago Yo-kai Watch exploded onto the scene and possessed children’s handhelds, t-shirts, school stationary and even bentou lunch boxes. This past year the kids showed me a mobile […]

The post How Monster Strike Conquered Japanese Mobile Gaming appeared first on Tofugu.

Teaching kindergarten has its advantages. We sing, dance, read picture books, and even take naps. As an added bonus, the children keep me up to date with the latest trends in their world.

A couple of years ago Yo-kai Watch exploded onto the scene and possessed children’s handhelds, t-shirts, school stationary and even bentou lunch boxes. This past year the kids showed me a mobile game called Monster Strikeor Mon-Suto (モンスト) to those in-the-know. To kindergartners in Japan, owning a smartphone means one thing; Monster Strike.

And Mixi, Monster Strike‘s parent company, couldn’t be happier. Mixi used to be Japan’s social media kingpin, until they were overtaken by upstart competition. Yet, instead of squandering resources on a losing battle, Mixi hatched a plan to conquer new territory – the mobile gaming scene. Monster Strike’s domination of the mobile gaming scene struck me as random, but was anything but.

By assembling a crack production team that brought old school gaming elements to the current mobile gaming world, Mixi and its pet Monster dethroned the leading mobile gaming king, forced the mighty Nintendo to take notice and became 2014’s mobile game phenomenon.

The Ballad of Mixi


Mixi had conquered Japan’s social networking scene. Or so it seemed. “At one point, 27 million people, or one in five Japanese, had a Mixi account,” says Jonathan Soble of the New York Times. But just when they appeared to have a secure grasp on the Japanese market, foreign competition entered the game.

Twitter, Line, and Facebook chipped away at Mixi’s market share by offering slightly different experiences. Line focused on chatting. Facebook allowed “real” people (more on that later) to connect and reconnect. Twitter offered second-by-second news, sharing, and personal expression.

Smartphones kicked archaic keitai (cell phones) to the curb by offering streamlined interfaces and smooth internet browsing experiences. Thanks to smartphones’ popularity and intuitive apps, Mixi’s competitors became more accessible and easier to use than they had been during the keitai era.

Facebook spurred a paradigm shift in Japanese social-networking. Although membership had been limited to those with registered college email addresses, in 2006 Facebook emerged from its isolationist shell, allowing anyone to join. Taking the opposite route, Mixi restricted membership to Japanese cellphone owners and ran strictly in Japanese.

Although Mixi’s strategy offered extra security, it came at a cost. It confined the Mixi experience to Japan. A Western import that offered the world, Facebook’s lack of limits gave it an air of possibility and sophistication.

Furthermore, Facebook brought a sense of reality to Japanese social networking. ” ‘Facebook values real-life connections,’ warns a message that pops up when a Japanese user withholds information.” While Mixi promoted the use of nicknames and false avatars, Facebook preferred real names and searchable true identities. Japanese users gave up Mixi’s anonymity for Facebook’s reality based potential.

Facebook helped its cause by creating a native Japanese interface. Blog-like walls and the “Ii ne” button, Japan’s equivalent to “Like,” made Facebook fun. Facebook’s notification page kept everyone up-to-date on their friends activities. Japan, a culture that embraces social “circles,” found Facebook to be a powerful social tool.

Mixi dipped into a tailspin and its stock plummeted. “Mixi stopped publishing membership data after the number of people who logged on at least once a month fell to half of what it had been at the company’s peak,” Soble says in his report. Currently, Facebook has grown to Japan’s ninth most visited site while Mixi has fallen to 13,406th.

Mixi was down, but not out. Ironically the technology that nearly killed Mixi would serve as the foundation to its meteoric rebirth.

Like a Phoenix


Mixi could have fought to the end and joined the graveyard of failed companies in this fast moving technological era. But they tapped out, regrouped, and lived on. They focused their remaining resources on a new endeavor – the lucrative mobile gaming industry.

Mixi’s move came with the mobile-gaming boom that’s swept up Japan’s young generation. GREE, Japan’s third largest social-networking operator, saw the number of users to its site more than double to nearly 10 million. Its profits increased multiple times over the past year on the back of popular mobile games created in house. The phenomenon underscores how social games, if they catch on, can lead to a huge gains.

With established names like GREE, Line, and Nintendo already thriving in the gaming market, Mixi didn’t take the task lightly. Like a sports franchise looking to rebuild, it secured the best free agent on the market, gaming industry legend Yoshiki Okamoto. The former Konami and Capcom employee (and creator of the “global megahit” Street Fighter II) teamed with producer and director Koki Kimura and Mixi’s head of localization Michael Oakland to engineer Monster Strike, the game behind Mixi’s unimaginable resurgence.

The plan worked. Monster Strike rocketed to number one in mobile app downloads, overtaking then-darling Puzzles and Dragons and stealing some of Nintendo’s audience. Mixi returned to the top, but of a totally different playing field.

Uniting the Old School and New


How did Monster Strike rise to the top? Mixi learned from its downfall and offered audiences a slightly different experience from its competitors. Although Monster Strike embraces current industry standards, Okamoto’s old tricks, like keeping the game “small,” made the difference.

Old School Co-Op

In a strategy fitting of Mixi’s origins, Monster Strike‘s production team sought to harness the joys of social interaction. Koki Kimura explained,

The thing about Monster Strike is that it was built from the ground up, by us, to be a communication tool – to get people playing games together in the same room again. (Nutt)

Monster Strike harkens back to the pre-internet era, a time when “multiplayer meant going to a friend’s house or hitting the local arcade. But cyberspace took multiplayer global and local co-op fell out of favor. By reaching back into gaming’s past, Monster Strike offers the novelty of playing with close friends in the literal sense. Since players cannot play together via the net, local co-op is one of the game’s unique hooks.

To drive the point home, Mixi took it a step further by rewarding cooperative play. Friends share the game’s limited continues . Using one continue allows everyone to play on, so teaming up means more opportunities to play.

Let’s Get Small


The sheer size of today’s console games has made their production expensive, time consuming and, according to Okamoto, frustrating. Giant worlds and complicated plots mean today’s games demand more commitment than ever for players to complete them.

The Monster Strike team felt many game fans don’t have time to invest in these “big” games. Okamoto explained,

People… don’t have a lot of time on their hands, so they want to find experiences that they can play for five minutes, ten minutes (at a time). (Nutt)

The Monster Strike team focused on making a smaller, more focused game. And it all starts with its palm-sized playing fields that encapsulate all the action. Since players needn’t worry about the world beyond the screen, they can focus on the on-screen action. For me Monster Strike conjured memories of arcade machines, like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Burger Time. The game’s action unfolds over an established, static background.

Monster Strike is also small in terms of time. Like Okamoto’s Street Fighter II, Monster Strike can be played in “short bursts.” The game progressively saves a player’s progress and small time investments add up. I have played it waiting on appointments, in line at the supermarket, and during commercial breaks while watching TV.

Lights, Touch Screen, Action!

“Action” sets Monster Strike apart from competitors like GungHo Online’s Puzzles and Dragons which focuses on “match-three” puzzle gameplay and A-Lim’s Brave Frontier which emphasizes classic RPG menu battles. Although those games feature onscreen action effects, the nature of matching gems and navigating menus disconnects a player’s initiation from the onscreen action.

Monster Strike’s battle system offers a sense of realtime action. In what can be described as a combination of Pokemon and billiards, players flick their character game pieces around a closed arena, sending them bouncing off the walls and into their foes and allies alike. This intuitive flicking action system gives Monster Strike a sensation of physical game interaction that many competing games lack.

Taking “User-Friendly” to a New Level

Monster Strike‘s smallness has also allowed producers to react to real time feedback and keep the game user friendly and fair.


In an era where “free-to-play” often translates to “pay-to-win,” Mixi sought to offer a free and fair gaming experience (Yvray). Koki Kimura says,

You can’t get the strongest character in Monster Strike by paying. Nor does paying get you to 10 levels beyond where you were before you paid… Skill should get you further than money. (Kain)

Just as Monster Strike rewards cooperative play, special items can be earned by logging in and participating. Players can’t buy the best characters. They earn them by winning special campaigns or through the games capsule machines. Players can spend money on coins or more playing time, but it isn’t necessary. In a break from the “pay-to-win” paradigm, Monster Strike facilitates a feeling of fairness by rewarding player effort and allowing players to succeed with no monetary commitment.

Embracing the Grapevine


Small games based in social networking lend themselves to real-time communication. Monster Strike‘s maintenance team reacts to player concerns with little delay. “Because it’s not a big, bloated triple-A game, you can actually make real-time changes based on this feedback” says Okamoto.

Recent frustrations with the infamously glitched Batman: Arkham Knight PC-port illustrate his point. Disgruntled customers numbered around 8,000 and WB Games decided to suspend sales of the game until the kinks were ironed out. Unlike giant PC and console games, small game production teams can respond with quick solutions. If problems do arise, players receive updates via the game, its website or social networking tools like Twitter or Facebook.

Small games also facilitate small updates and add-ons. Monster Strike constantly adds new and limited-edition campaigns, items, and characters. These small changes keep Monster Strike fresh and surprising. Players never know what to expect when they log-in.

How Monster Strike Competes with Consoles


Photo by Esther Vargas

While smartphones’ streamlined internet experience played a role in Mixi’s initial downfall, the devices’ proliferation sparked Monster Strike‘s rise. Today (nearly) everybody has a touch screen device with internet access. So mobile gaming’s access far exceeds that of stand-alone consoles. And the puzzles, dragons, and monsters have helped mobile games take a bite out of the console market. Since 2013 console and software sales have dropped, but the mobile gaming market continue to grow.

Smartphones have changed mobile gaming culture, taking a large chunk of both portable and home consoles’ audiences. Since parents already own smartphones, there is no need to buy children new hardware. Furthermore, there’s no physical software to buy. Monster Strike can be downloaded anywhere at anytime. Like Monster Strike, many mobile games are free or cost less than “bigger,” more time consuming console software.

While Monster Strike maintains a “small” game experience, it receives updates and continuously expands. Thanks to calculated strength limits, Monster Strike maintains a challenge and thrill many console games lose through grinding or building overpowered characters to make the game easy. Players never beat or finish Monster Strike. They play until satisfied or a new game attracts their attention. Of course, Mixi hopes the latter won’t happen.

How Monster Strike Struck My Heart


Many mobile gaming fads have come and gone but Monster Strike was the first to hook me. Free means guilt-free. Sure I’m wasting time, but at least I’m not wasting money. And since I play the game in minute spurts, I rarely feel like I’m actually idle.

I’ve unlocked top-tier characters and beat difficult campaigns without spending either a yen or cent. Monster Strike truly embraces its mantra of fairness. On the occasion that the game crashes or experiences technical difficulties, Monster Strike offers items or other rewards to make up for the inconvenience. As the game’s producers’ vision proves true, the Monster Strike goes out of its way to treat players fairly.

The kid in me loves the collectible characters. Monster Strike‘s unique cast ranges from historical legends, anthropomorphic military vehicles, beasts, robots, plants, cute girls, cool guys, and legendary heroes and villains. A continuous stream of new characters, including new evolutions and limited edition from franchise tie-ins like Gojira (Godzilla), Evangelion, Okamoto’s Street Fighter cast, and even TMNT makes “catching them all” nearly impossible.

But my favorite element is the action based gameplay. I have a ton of fun flicking my character pieces around the screen. And while critics may question Monster Strike‘s challenge and level of strategy, I have won and lost many battles based on my decision making.

Future Strike


Photo by Maurizio Pesce

Although Monster Strike’s explosion in popularity seemed sudden, it was anything but. The game achieved a deliberate success, engineered by an all-star production team that heeded gaming’s past and future while respecting its audience. As a result, Monster Strike offers a free-but-fair, constantly evolving action-based gaming experience.

Its insane earnings have not been ignored. “As of March 31, 2015, the game has been downloaded more than 30 million times and has daily revenues of $3.8 million” according to Wikipedia. Mobile gaming profits have grown enough to lure just about any game maker to the market. Even Nintendo decided to join the fray, announcing the development of five games for mobile devices.

Does Nintendo’s foray into smartphone gaming signal a continued fall for consoles, or is it just a passing fad? Although naysayers question the legitimacy and longevity of mobile games and free-to-play games in general, industry insiders like Okamoto and Konami CEO Hideki Hayakawa have declared mobile gaming the future. “Mobiles,” Hatakawa said, “will take on the new role of linking the general public to the gaming world.”

Will Mixi repeat past mistakes and rest on its laurels? Or will it continue to push the envelop?  Perhaps it will allow players to trade characters? Or combine characters to unlock special versions for each player? Maybe Monster Strike will create a versus mode? Or lend their popular characters to other games? If anything has proven true it’s that social elements rule the day.

However, with an anime series in production, expansion to the 3DS announced, and the availability of Monster Strike credit cards the Monster Strike hype train shows no signs of slowing down, at least for now.

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Practicing Japanese on the JET Program: At Work and in the Community Mon, 10 Aug 2015 13:52:12 +0000 Now that you’re settled on JET and have prepared your Japanese study regimen, it’s time to use all Japanese all the time! But wait. At work you have to use English all day. And the majority of your time on JET is spent at work. This means the majority of your time in Japan on […]

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Now that you’re settled on JET and have prepared your Japanese study regimen, it’s time to use all Japanese all the time! But wait. At work you have to use English all day. And the majority of your time on JET is spent at work. This means the majority of your time in Japan on JET Program could be consumed with English.

Because your job title is English teacher, it is possible to stay in English mode during work hours, even though you’re at a Japanese workplace. You may block out Japanese inputs during work time because switching your brain between English and Japanese is tiring. Then you may do the same after work. Over time this adds up and you can go months or years without learning as much Japanese as you had planned.

Just as you have to be purposeful in setting up your Japanese study regimen, you also have to be purposeful about listening and using Japanese in your daily life. That’s why we’ve put together some advice for practicing Japanese at work (when you should mostly be using English) and practicing Japanese after work in the community. Be consistent and you’ll see the gains you’re looking for.

Practicing Japanese at Work

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program Teaching English in Japan

Photo by Chris Lewis

There will be times at work when you can use Japanese. Any interaction you have with non-English teaching staff, for one. But with your JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) and students, it’s English a-go-go. And you’ll spend 90% of your time with these two groups.

With so much time spent on English, how can you maximize your own Japanese learning opportunities?

Reverse engineer English classes

This was an idea I had halfway through my JET experience. A few JTEs I worked used me for only 30% of the class, leaving me to stand at the back of the room awkwardly the rest of the time. After getting tired of pretending I was busy, I started bringing a pocket notebook to each class and reverse engineering the English being taught to the students. Having the English grammar on the board gave me a focal point. With the English in mind, I listened to the explanation in Japanese and learned the Japanese grammar equivalent.

Because I was a beginner at the time, every lesson was something I could learn from. But that doesn’t mean high level learners can’t benefit from class time down time. Our own Verity Lane used this time in her own way:

“When a teacher is speaking in Japanese in class, really listen. Don’t switch off. Learning to understand classroom Japanese can be really helpful. However, I would encourage particularly SHS JETs not to use Japanese in class. When you are in class you’re there to teach first, anything you learn comes second at that moment. It’s a time for listening practice, not speaking practice.”

Talk to students in Japanese during breaks

Though you should use English the majority of the time while at work, English is not beneficial to every situation. You may encounter students who are hesitant to speak English or are downright belligerent about learning in general. This is where your struggle with Japanese can help them. While the “yanki” students may take more time to warm up, those that are nervous about English can learn from your example. Tofugu writer Rich explains:

“Though I spoke English with students in class, outside of the classroom I’d often practice Japanese with my students – during lunch break, at after school clubs or if I ran into them outside of school. Not only did my Japanese improve, but students recognized my struggle with Japanese and became bolder in their use of English. Students learned more about me and my culture than they would have if I had built an ‘English only barrier.’ So in the end we both benefitted.”

Turn your lesson materials into study materials

If you’re making lesson plans for your students, reverse the English you’re teaching them into lessons for yourself.

For example, let’s say you’re a beginner at Japanese and teaching at an elementary school. Turn your lesson about animals into a self-study vocab lesson. If you’re an intermediate learner teaching senior high, take English sentences you’re writing for your students and translate them into Japanese.

Depending on your level and situation, you may get a lot or a little from this method. Even if you only learn a few new words, it’s worth the effort. You’ll be doing this work anyway. You might as well squeeze a little bit of learning out of it.

Use your desk time at work

If you’re having trouble blocking out study time at home, you may have all the time you need at work. ALTs and Japanese teachers are not assigned to a class for every period of the day. This is because Japanese teachers need time to prepare lesson plans, attend meetings, and chip away at other work duties. As an ALT, however, you don’t have quite as much to prepare. More than likely, you’ll be able to finish preparing for classes with time to spare.

Most JETs bemoan this part of the job (as I did), wishing there was more work to do or some other way to be useful. Certainly you can find ways to use this time that help your students, but most supervisors are 100% okay with you using this time to study Japanese. If you get your sit-down study time done at work, then the after work study time you have blocked out can be used for going out and using Japanese for even more gains.

Stay after school and chill with the teachers

If work is getting you down and you’re missing chances to connect with staff at your school, stay in the office after the students leave. Though you’re probably allowed to go home at 4:00p or 5:00p, stay after every once in a while, especially if you don’t have anything extra to do. After work hours, the teachers let down their hair and break out the snacks. The teachers’ room becomes a lot more lively and a little less stuffy. You’ll build all-important work bonds and get some Japanese practice. Increase your vocabulary and camaraderie at the same time.

Practicing Japanese in the Community

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program Cooking Group

Photo by masamunecyrus

After school is the perfect chance to get out and use your Japanese. No job titles restricting you to English now! Of course, real life rarely goes as planned. Your energy after work is bound to be sapped. It will be incredibly easy to arrive home, collapse and stay there. Don’t get me wrong. Collapsing and relaxing in a Japanese-free zone is necessary. But just like going to the gym, there are times when you have to force yourself. Here are a few things you can do to practice Japanese in the community.

Put yourself in new situations and keep a notebook on you

Chances are, you’ll get good at some survival Japanese right away because you’ll be put in situations where you have to communicate. But life is full of situations, with caveats, exceptions, and branching consequences. So drill some vocabulary and then get into situations where you think you’ll be likely to use it. Then get into them again. Each time you’ll get better at using the grammar and vocab you learned, as well as getting fuel for future study.

This future study fuel can be most easily remembered with a handy pocket notebook. This is something I did out of necessity and it ended up being one of my best teachers. When trying to communicate in a new situation, if you hit a wall, take note. This reveals gaps in your knowledge, which you should write down and add to you study regimen. Not only will you boost your ability level, but you’ll practically smooth out bumps in the road of your Japanese life.

Our own Verity shares her experiences in this area:

“Try to do things by yourself. It can be tempting to have a supervisor or a friend do everything for you. That’s fine at the start, especially for things like setting up a bank account, but don’t let it become a habit. If you don’t try it for yourself, you’ll never get better. Nothing bad will happen if you say something weird at the postoffice or the garage or the combini. And sometimes you can get a much better deal by doing things yourself. For example, I asked my supervisor for advice about getting my winter tires changed. His way cost me 8000yen. The next season I went to a garage myself and through a combination of Japanese and gestures, I got my tyres changed for 2000yen. Not only that, but I knew I could do it myself.”

Putting yourself out there

It’s great to get in casual chit chat with coworkers and students, but sometimes you need a lengthy, focused conversation to cement language concepts and force you to listen and talk longer. This is your “language power lifting” in comparison to usual “language aerobics.”

But how to do this?

Chances are, your town has community groups that offer conversation meet-ups or some kind of language exchange. Ask your supervisor if they know of any opportunities.

Look for volunteer activities. Part of your job is to serve your town anyway, so might as well get some language practice and connect with Japanese people while doing so. The great part about volunteer work is that it’s a nice break from routine of teaching and you’ll have more opportunities to use Japanese than you will at school.

Every prefecture has an AJET (Association for JET) group that organizes activities for JETs. Though you may only see other JETs, one of your fellow ALTs might bring a Japanese friend or coworker along. Or the event may involve interacting with Japanese people. At the very least they’re fun and stress relieving. At best you’ll get some Japanese practice in as well.

Join a club or group outside school, like taiko or ikebana. Even if you feel like you won’t like it, sign up anyway. Japan is a group-oriented society. So just being part of a group, whether you excel at the particular skill or not, will make you much more likely to become friends with the people in the group.

Another side effect of all this Japanese friend making is that it wards off culture shock and makes you less likely to join the “foreigners only club.” I spent some time in this club, mostly due to culture shock, and during that time my Japanese stayed right where it was. It’s a good idea to hang out with your fellow ALTs and forge those lasting friendships, but make sure you don’t exclude yourself from interactions with Japanese people. Your advancement in the Japanese language will suffer as will your ability to cope with cultural adjustments.

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program Wakayama

Photo by jpellgen

These strategies are the ones I’ve done myself or learned from other ALTs and Japanese learners. But there are certainly others. If you have some that you’ve tried or an idea to improve one listed, leave it in the comments below so we can all benefit.

The best news is that practicing your Japanese in Japan is a virtuous cycle. When you study Japanese, you’re learning to communicate better. When you communicate, your Japanese gets better. All this raises you up and makes your life in Japan easier overall. Here’s to your continued learning and ever-improving life in Japan.

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From Katana to Rocket Launchers: The Unique Weapons of Ancient Japan Fri, 07 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When I imagine a samurai, I envision a warrior with a sword. And not just any sword, but the world-renowned Japanese katana – a curved blade engineered for cutting down foes with supreme efficiency. A Japanese battlefield conjures up more variety, with spearman and archers entering the mix. However, Japan’s ancient warriors also plied less glamorous, lesser-known and therefore possibly more […]

The post From Katana to Rocket Launchers: The Unique Weapons of Ancient Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

When I imagine a samurai, I envision a warrior with a sword. And not just any sword, but the world-renowned Japanese katana – a curved blade engineered for cutting down foes with supreme efficiency. A Japanese battlefield conjures up more variety, with spearman and archers entering the mix.

However, Japan’s ancient warriors also plied less glamorous, lesser-known and therefore possibly more interesting weaponry. Implements like the jutte and kusurigama allowed users to defend and combat the katana. Fans, smoking pipes and other weapons disguised as everyday items meant one had to be wary at all times. Other weapons, like rocket launchers, seem more fit for manga than actual battlefields.

Tofugu covered Japan’s Secret Weapons of World War II. Next we’ll delve deeper into Japan’s tradition of unique implements of violence, protection, and destruction by exploring weapons used long before the modern era. Dive into our comprehensive list of Japanese weapons from the Edo period and before.

Japan’s Famous Blades – The Katana

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Katana

Photo by Rama

Japan’s most famous weapon needs little introduction. Japanese blacksmiths’ method of repeatedly heating and folding the steel made a katana’s sharpness and strength unique among the world’s swords. Strong enough to be used defensively but sharp enough to cut through limbs, the katana earned the reputation as the soul of the samurai – a reputation that lasted long after the samurai abandoned the sword for the pen.

Japan’s Not-So-Famous Blades – Tekkan and Hachiwari

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Tekkan

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Hachiwari

At first glance, the tekkan and hachiwari may not look impressive. The dull, heavy blades served as striking weapons made for hitting armor-clad enemies with maximum impact. Sergei Mol explains, “The tekkan was specifically developed (for use) against opponents wearing armor and is therefore necessarily heavy so that it can be used against the armor’s weak points” (64).

Also dull and heavy, hachiwari resemble the tekkan but employ a short hook at the base which may have been used to hook an opponent’s armor or to gain leverage to pry the armor apart (Cunningham). Instead of the katana’s deadly finesse, the tekkan and hachiwari aimed for heavy-handed disarmament.

Fans of War – Gunsen, Tessen, and Gunbai

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Gusen

Photo by BrokenSphere

In ancient Japan even implements intended to provide relief from summer’s heat and humidity became weapons. But the gunsen and tessen, foldable fans reinforced by metal plating, were only relied on as a last resort (Deal 167). Police officers and night watchmen used these blunt, nonlethal instruments to beat perpetrators into submission (Cunnigham).

The subtle, but mighty fan could even defeat entire armies. Battlefield commanders carried fans as symbols of rank, but these large, solid “gunbai” also served as means of communication to deployed forces. Visible from long distances, motioning the fan directed actions on the battlefield. Today sumo referees use gunbai to alert viewers to the victors in sumo matches.

Smoke Your Enemies – Kiseru Battle Pipes

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kiseru

Image from Brooklyn Museum

Imagine you’re a pilgrim wandering the hillsides of ancient Japan. Weary from the long journey, you decide to take a break under a tree’s shady branches. Just when kick back to enjoy a puff from your trusty pipe, some ruffians show up demanding money. What do you do?

If you’re a badass, you beat those inconsiderate jerks with your pipe. Although not all were designed for fighting, a glance at pipe’s size and weight might give away its user’s intent. “Many pipes were made of metal and were… three to four feet long. Several edicts point to the fact that such pipes were used in brawls… Some pipes were fitted with regular guards, just like swords” (Ratti 323). Battle pipes became so common, martial arts schools devised techniques in their use (Cunnigham).

The Sickle – Kama

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kama

Photo by Katorisi

According to legend, the kama started out as a farming implement, used to cut grass and crops. However, Don Cunningham believes that the kama evolved from the jingama, a similar sickle used for clearing campsites. Either way, the weapon gained popularity among low-ranking bushi and could be used for cutting and slashing.

The Ten-thousand Power Chain – Manriki-kusari

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Manriku

Although the manriki-kusari (sometimes called fundo-kusari or weighted chain) gained fame as a ninja weapon, police officers actually adopted the weapon to disarm and capture criminals (Cunningham). No matter the wielder, the versatile weapon had many advantages. The collapsable chain could be rolled up, concealed and easily transported. It could be used for climbing, restraining an enemy, and could be wrapped around body parts for extra protection ( Mol 125).

In battle, a user could shorten his grip and taylor the length as a situation called for. Once in motion, a manriki-kusari moved at speeds that rendered it invisible. An experienced practitioner could swing the chain around himself to keep opponents at bay. Thanks to its weighted end, the manriki-kusari doubled as a projectile; its metal weight could be thrown to strike opponents. Yet unlike other throwing weapons like darts or knives which had to be retrieved to be used again, the manriki-kusari’s weight returned to the hand of its wielder via its attached chain.

The manriki-kusari could also ensnare and immobilize an opponent’s weapon. The swinging chain could not be cut by a blade and would instead wrap around it, making it particularly affective against the katana (Mol 125). Once the chain entangled an opponent’s weapon a skilled user could disarm an opponent.

But manriki-kusari had disadvantages too. A difficult weapon to master, a manriki-kusari user could injure himself with the flying weight. Despite its adjustable nature, the manriki-kusari proved weakest in confined spaces like crowded or wooded areas where the chain could not be swung freely, limiting its power (Mol 125).

The Best of Both Worlds – Kusarigama

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kusarigama

Photo by Worldantiques

Law enforcement also made regular use of kusarigama, which combined the manrikigusari and kama (Cunningham). Enemies could be kept at bay by the swinging weighted chain and then slashed with the blade in close combat.

The Japanese Mace – Chigiriki

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Chigiriki

Made of wood or metal, this staff featured a weight attached to a chain at the top that was used to trip, strike, or disarm an opponent (Campbell 63). With the chain concealed within the shaft, chigiriki could be disguised as an ordinary walking stick or staff.

Death From Afar – Yumi

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Yumi

Photo by Fukutaro

The original samurai weapon, the Japanese bow has a long and storied history. Isolation from other cultures allowed Japan to develop its own unique archery tools and techniques.

Japan’s oldest hunting an ceremonial bows date back to 10,000 BCE (Friday). Without the wood binding technology of other countries, Japan developed very long wooden bows, some over 2.5 meters, to maximize their power (Friday 69). A low grip developed to account for the bow’s length, its use from horseback, or to achieve maximum power. “Whatever the reason for its initial adoption,” Friday writes, “gripping the bow two thirds of the way down its length maximizes its rebound power and minimizes fatigue to the archer far better than the more familiar centered grip” (70).

Thanks technological limitations, Japan developed an innovative bow with a distinct shooting style that predated the katana, matchlock or rocket-launcher.

 Death From Not-So-Afar – Fukiya

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Fukiya

Image from Golgo 13

Fukiya are, without a doubt, ninja weapons, as depicted in the 17th century Mansenshukai ninja scrolls ( Blow-darts made little noise, were easy to transport and could double as flutes, pipes, or breathing straws. In a pinch bamboo or paper could be used as substitutes. Poisoning the darts made the weapon extra effective.

But Fukiya weren’t solely used as weapons. The tube could launch notes and messages to allies. Hunters also used fukiya to fell birds.

Today Fukiya has evolved into an international sport, similar to archery ( Capable distances range from 10 to 90 meters. Practitioners list the weapons simplicity as one of its charms.

Fire Arrows and Bohiya

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Bohiya

Photo by Worldantiques

Fire arrows and miniature rockets called bohiya could wreak havoc on wooden buildings, fortifications and naval vessels. Although originally fired by bow, the Japan’s introduction to gunpowder and firearm technology lead to portable, ignition-powered arrow launchers resembling rifles (wiki). “The incendiary material on the fire arrows was made from rope that had been waterproofed by boiling it in a mixture of water, the ashes of burnt cedar leaves, and a certain iron substance, all wrapped in paper with a fuse… During one seas battle we read of bohiya ‘falling like rain’ “(Pirates, 31).

Bombs Away – Horokubiya

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Horokubiya

Also used in naval combat, horokubiya mimicked a Chinese technique that encased explosives in iron, ceramics or paper. The bombs were filled with gunpowder and metal shards (Pirates 31). According to Stephen Turnbull’s Fighting Ships of the Far East these bombs would be launched from a rope spun overhead or via handheld catapults resembling lacrosse sticks (40-41).

Samurai Rocket Launchers – Hiya Taihou

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Hiya

Photo by Worldantiques

That’s right, ancient Japan even had its own rocket launchers. In the mid-1500’s, Portuguese firearms inspired Japanese to build their own guns and an evolved form of fire-arrows launched from portable, gun-like firearms. Mini-cannons called hiya taihou battered enemy troops and fortifications with explosive rockets made of thick wooden shafts and metal tops (wiki).

Firearms – Tanegashima (Japanese Matchlock)

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Matchlock

Photo by ryochiji

At the end of the 16th century Japan made some of the world’s best firearms. And when the West had given up the matchlock for newer technology, Japan continued to innovate, even devising ways to protect the ignition mechanism from rain. The short stock and elegant style became a trademark of Japanese firearms (Ebrey).

Despite the katana’s prominent place in Japanese warrior imagery, projectile weapons always served an important place on the battlefield and firearms proved no exception. Warlords took advantage of firearms lethal power and matchlocks became a lethal force on Japanese battlefields.

Throwing Death – Shuriken

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Shuriken

Photo by kaex0r

Widely known as throwing, ninja, or Chinese stars, Turnbull translates the term as “hand-hidden blade” (Ninja 61). Although they came in various shapes and sizes, the classic throwing star with multiple points spun in flight and therefore required less skill to throw than long throwing knives or other shapes.

Can You Dig It? – Kunai

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kunai

Photo by alelag

Kunai are dagger-like throwing weapons made famous in ninja anime like Naruto. However, the flat, trowel-like kunai made a better tool than projectile. Ninja used kunai for scaling and digging holes into the wattle, daub and plaster of castle walls (Ninja AD 61).

 Watch Your Step – Testubishi or Makibishi

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Makibishi

Black Belt Magazine dubbed these weapons “thorns of surprise.” Small metal spikes resembling children’s jacks, testubishi were thrown on the ground to slow opponents down and prevent chase. Spikes were long and sharp enough to penetrate thin soles wore at the time. As writer Tiko Yamashita points out, “They could also be wielded offensively in a counterattack.” Wielders had to plan ahead, however, as the little spikes could become a disadvantage to the thrower as well.

Death In the Palm of Your Hand – Yawara

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Yawara

Photo by Evan-Amos

Sometimes called kubotan, yawara are small grip weapons that fit in the palm of one’s hand. Though they may be pointed, yawara usually have blunt ends at each side made for striking an opponent and proved especially effective on pressure points (Nardi). Rounded or hexagonal, a yawara’s greatest advantage lied in gripping the weapon, which strengthened its user’s punch and prevented hand breaks (Gambordella).

Not Just For Falling Trees – Ono

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Ono

Photo by Worldantiques

Japan’s stone axes predate those of iron and steel and made ono a preferred weapon of Japan’s ancient yamabushi or warrior monks. “The yamabushi used these pole-axes (some six feet tall) in the thick of battle, whirling them around at varying heights; or in individual encounters” (Ratti 322).

Not Just For Fighting Fires – Tobiguchi

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Tobiguchi

Photo by Fg2

This axe-like tool acted more like a hook and was used to clear debris away from burning buildings. “Even during a fire it was important to be armed… and one had to be prepared for the possibility of someone taking advantage of the situation and attacking” (Mol 103). As proof of their use as weaponry, some Tobiguchi featured a hook to aid disarmament. The fire tool known as “kite beak” earned the nickname “kenkatobi” (喧嘩鳶) or “fighting kite” as it popularity among commoners (Mol 104).

The Long and Short Of It- Bo and Jo

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Bo

Image from IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Dating back to the prehistoric aborigine, “the bo, or long wooden staff, is the most archaic of weaponry in Japan”(Lowry 21). Warriors took advantage of a bo’s length, striking from afar or swinging it around to ward off enemies.

Bo come in many shapes and sizes. For example, the maru-bo is round while the hakaku-bo hexagonal. While the average bo measured 5 to 6 feet or about the height of its user, the shorter jo’s length was dictated by the wielder’s preference. “The humble jo seems quite plebeian. And yet, the jo possesses many of the attributes of all three of these revered arms: the striking stroke of the katana, the thrusting reach of the spear, and the reversible striking power and indestructibility of the bo” (Lowry 21).


List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kanabo

Photo by mamboo

The most lethal looking of the “bo” family, the metal spiked kanabo came shaped like a bo or tapered like a bat (Brown) and specialized in bludgeoning enemies. Perhaps that’s why it’s the preferred weapon of Japanese oni, a type of demon or ogre that frequents Japanese folktales. In fact, the image of an oni with kanabo is so powerful it became immortalized in a kotowaza (proverb), “oni with an iron club” (鬼に金棒 or Oni ni Kanabo) which meant invincibility.

Not Just For Nails – Otsuchi

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Otsuchi

Photo by Bejnar

The giant battle hammer was used as a battering ram and probably smashed down more doors, gates and walls than enemies (Pauley 131).

Rise to New Heights – Kyoketsu-shoge

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kyoketsu

Photo by Budoka720

The kyoketsu-shoge consists of a hooked dagger attached to a rope with a ring-shaped weight at the end. The double edged dagger could be used for stabbing while the ring swung overhead and distracted or ensnared the enemy (Mol 121).

Disarmament – Jutte

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Jutte

Photo by renfield kuroda

Since only top ranking police officers could carry swords, lower ranking police officers relied on alternative weaponry like the versatile jutte. The jutte could deflect sword attacks and disarm a suspect with minimal injuries. Jutte required close proximity to be useful, but once in range the weapon could strike, entangle the clothes, restrain and even throw enemies (Cunningham).

While many claim the kagi or hook of the jutte could be used to entrap a sword blade, David Cunningham believes the kagi served to “prevent (the jutte) from slipping through the wearer’s obi (belt). The kagi may have also been used to entangle the clothes or fingers of an opponent” (67). Common among the era’s police officers, the jutte came to symbolize the job.

Restraint – Sasumata

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Sasumata

This long pole could entrap perpetrators with the u-shaped fork at its end. The pole’s protruding spikes entangled a suspect’s clothes, aiding capture. But sasumata weren’t limited to subduing criminals and “firefighters used similar tools to hold up ladders or manipulate buildings’ beams and other structures” (Cunningham 96). Today spike-less, smooth sasumata survive as restraining tools that can still be found in Japanese elementary schools, used to pacify rampaging children (an extreme rarity).

Rope-a-Dope Edo Style – Torinawa

Police used special ropes called torinawa to arrest subdued criminal suspects. “Cord loops or metal rings were often used instead of actual knots to bind the suspect… Binding someone without employing knots apparently avoided the disgrace associated with bondage” (Cunningham). Like chain weapons, versatile torinawa were easy to transport and could be hidden under the belt or robe of an officer.

The Ladies’ Choice – Naginata

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Naginata

Photo by Alton

Although used by both sexes, naginata became the standard weapon of upperclass female warriors. Also known as “the woman’s spear,” women of the ruling classes practiced and often mastered the weapon (Ratti 247). Although it resembles a spear, a naginata’s curved blade allows for sword-like strikes instead of simple stabbing motions (Ratti 247).

Climbing Claws – Shukou & Ashikou

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Ashiko

Shukou and ashikou are short spikes worn over the hands or feet. Although meant for climbing, in a pinch they could double as weapons.

Claws of Death – Tekko-kagi

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Tekkokagi

Photo by Sevar

Worn over the hands, tekko-kagi’s protruding metal claws could be used for scraping and striking. Descriptions of the techniques vary. Serge Mol explains one practice where the user wields a dagger in one hand and wears a tekko-kagi on the other. The claw allowed users to slash and defend with natural hand motions. With proper technique, even katana could be ensnared, disarmed or broken.

 Death Rings – Kakute

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Kakute

Photo by Hyakuraiju

Contrary to intuition, users wore these rings with their spikes hidden in their palms as the kakute’s main advantage lay in its grip. One ring would be worn on the middle finger while a second ring could be placed in the thumb. Serge Mol writes, “The main purpose of the weapon was to gain a firm hold on an opponent, with the teeth digging into pressure points to cause pain… The surprise effect of this weapon would cause an opponent to lose concentration, making follow-up techniques easier” (111). Like tekko, kakute could be dipped in poison for added effectiveness (Levy 67).

Cat Scratch Fever – Nekote

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Nekotte

Image from SNK’s King of Fighters

These sharp, claw-like weapons fit over the finger tips and could be dipped in poison for lethal results (Levy 67).

Okinawa’s Weapons

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Okinawa Weapons

In 1609, Japan occupied Okinawa and outlawed conventional weapons to prevent rebellion. These limits inspired creativity and lead to weaponless karate and kobudo, Okinawa’s unique weaponry (Yamashitra 23).

Tinbe Rochin

Okinawa’s tinbe rochin, a short spear and shield combo, differs from Japan’s shieldless, bladed warrior culture. “The usage is more akin to a combination of Zulu fighting and European sword and small shield fighting” (rkagb). The vine, cane, metal, or turtle shell shield parried attacks, allowing users to counter opponents with upward strikes from a short spear (rkagb). Unlike the agricultural, fishing and Okinawa’s other tool-based weapons, the tinbe rochin harkens back to the kingdom’s ancient battle culture.

Danger Sticks – Nunchaku

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Okinawa Nanchaku

Image from Enter the Dragon

One of the most famous, glorified and downright cool weapons, legend has it that nunchaku originated as a grain pounding tool in Okinawa. Constructed by connecting two sticks with a rope or chain, nunchaku could be swung around the body for defense or wiped outwards to strike an enemy.The short sticks and foldable chain meant nunchaku could be tucked away for secrecy and easy transport.

Three Pronged Attack – Sai

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Sai

The heavy, three pronged sai traces its roots back to ancient China (rkagb). Okinawan sai are often used in pairs, though a third may be carried to replace one that has been thrown (Seiler 29). Similar to the jutte and due to their widely spaced prongs, sai made effective defense against longer weapons like bo and katana.

Side-handle Baton – Tonfa

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Tonfa

Photo by Yo

This straight wooden rod with a short, perpendicular handle started as a digging tool, cookery hook, or as the handle to a grain grinding stone (Nishiuchi). Practitioners use the tonfa as a defensive guard and striking weapon. Masters could wield the weapon in a fluid spinning motion, relying on its “centripetal force,” akin to nunchaku. Tonfa are thought to have influenced the shape of modern police batons.

Paddle Your Foes – Eku Bo

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period eku

Another classic instance of a trade tool becoming a weapon, the eku bo or fisherman’s oar was about six feet in length. Eku bo techniques resembled those of a standard bo staff, but the wide, heavy end made the eku bo unbalanced and more difficult to master (wiki).

Knuckle Dusters – Tekki and Tekko

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Tekko

Image by chris 論

In western terms tekki and tekko would be described as brass knuckles, but I prefer the term “knuckle duster.” Two similar theories explain the weapon’s origin, both involving horses.

The International Ryukyu Karate Research Society explains that “the use of the tekko appears to have originated when bushi in Okinawa used the shoes of their horses as a make-shift weapon to defend themselves against a surprise attack” (McCarthy). However, others describe the weapons as “iron stirrups gripped by the straight bar so that the curved upper portion wraps around the knuckles of the fist” (Seiler 36).

Although tekki made speedy striking weapons, they also offered defense against weapon strikes. However, their small surface area and closeness to the hand meant users had to be precise (and brave) to rely on tekki for defensive techniques (Seiler 36).

Death By Hoe – Kuwa

What originated as a simple farming hoe, the kuwa consists of two parts, the long handle and the blade. “When holding a kuwa with the butt-end facing your opponent and the heavy metal end to the rear, the metal actually serves as a fulcrum and helps increase the speed and dynamics of the shaft. What results is a tool that can keep pace even with fast weapons, but can then follow up with punishing, heavy blows”(Ikikaiway). Although the blade dealt maximum damage, a strike with the blunt side of the blade could stun an enemy. The blade could also be used as a hook, to trip opponents.

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Complete!

List of Japanese Weapons from the Edo Period Arsenal

Photo by T. Enami

Japan’s ancient fighting weapons ranged from working class tools like the kuwa and kama, to those created with deadly intent like the kanabo and katana. Jutte, sasumata, and other weapons meant to subdue opponents proved necessity is the mother of invention.

The overall variety of Japanese weapons inspires the imagination and continues to spark interest in ancient Japanese battle culture. Funny that Japan, a country that takes pride (for the most part) in its peaceful, safe reputation has such a weaponed, violent heritage.

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  • Bo-hiya

The post From Katana to Rocket Launchers: The Unique Weapons of Ancient Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

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Umbrellas in Japanese Culture Wed, 05 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 For longer than humankind has had words to complain about it, rain has been drenching us. Trees and caves provided adequate shelter for our ancestors. Over time they even built roofs to protect their heads from the soaking assaults of the heavens. Still, finding shelter from the rain meant you were stuck in one place until it […]

The post Umbrellas in Japanese Culture appeared first on Tofugu.

For longer than humankind has had words to complain about it, rain has been drenching us. Trees and caves provided adequate shelter for our ancestors. Over time they even built roofs to protect their heads from the soaking assaults of the heavens. Still, finding shelter from the rain meant you were stuck in one place until it relented. That is until some clever fellow had the idea of putting a roof on a stick and carrying it with him! With this new umbrella technology, people could roam wherever they pleased, safe in the knowledge that they would not be drenched.

Umbrellas have long been a feature in the daily life of Japan, and in its mirror, Japanese art. Let’s take a stroll together down the puddle-strewn alleys of umbrella history. Mi kasa es su kasa (mega  bonus bilingual pun points).

From Paper to Plastic


Photo by A. Davey

Oil-paper umbrellas were a variety invented in China which spread to many neighboring countries. No one knows exactly when umbrellas were invented, but it’s thought they came to Japan via Korea during the Asuka period (538-710).

At first umbrellas were such a luxury item that they also had spiritual significance. But over the centuries some changes were made, and by the Edo period umbrellas were much more common. Still, a lot of craft went into making umbrellas.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), if you were a samurai short on dough, making umbrellas at home and selling them was an acceptable way to make extra cash. Umbrellas also became a common feature of visual and performing arts (more on that later).

From the Meiji period onward, and particularly after World War II, traditional umbrellas were eclipsed by Western style ones. Post WWII, the plastic tablecloths used by occupation forces inspired the founders of the White Rose company, who created the world’s first plastic umbrella. They took a while to catch on, but catch on they did. This trend continued to the point that 500 yen plastic convenience store umbrella are found all over Japan.

Today most of these are made in China, and White Rose is the only Japanese company still making plastic umbrellas. There are now very few artisans making traditional umbrellas, mostly in Kyoto, Yodoe, and Gifu Prefecture.

An Umbrella for Every Occasion


The Japanese word for umbrellas is kasa 傘. The kanji has four of the kanji for person 人under what one can imagine to be an umbrella. Isn’t that cute? The word for the traditional paper umbrellas is wagasa 和傘, or “Japanese umbrella.” However, there are several types.

  • Bangasa 番傘 are bigger heavier umbrellas, typically used by men.
  • Higasa日傘, or “sun umbrellas” are not oiled and only used for shade.
  • Honshiki nodategasa 本式野点傘 are large and used for outdoor events like an outdoor tea ceremony.
  • Ja no me kasa蛇の目傘, or “snake’s eye umbrellas,” are named for their pattern of concentric rings that we might call a bull’s eye. They are often lighter, with fewer ribs, and are usually used by women.
  • Maigasa 舞傘 are also light and used for dancing. In fact, maigasa may just be a name applied to higasa when they are being used for dancing.

One may also hear umbrellas referred to by their place of origin, such as Kyo wagasa or Gifu wagasa.

Umbrella Tech


Photo by JoshuSasori

Wagasa differ from Western umbrellas in some important ways. The most obvious of these is the counterintuitive decision to make wagasa with paper, a less than water-proof material. But the paper is coated with oil, armoring them quite nicely against the rain.

Wagasa also open differently than Western umbrellas. They have 30-70 bamboo ribs which spread as the umbrella is opened, unfurling the paper (which is attached along the length of the large outer ribs) along with it. Western ones open with the tension of the metal ribs forcing the covering open, and the two are usually only attached at key points.

These differences mean that the ribs of an open wagasa remain straight, while those of a Western umbrella curve, creating a dome. Finally, closed wagasa stand handle-down, rather than handle-up like Western umbrellas.



Photo by Magnus Manske

To begin, the artisan prepares the materials. Next they attach the bamboo frame to the opening/closing structure. This means fitting the many ribs into what is essentially a wooden ring with notches cut into it, and then threading all the ribs together at that base. Then a large piece of washi (traditional paper) is cut and glued to the ribs.

After drying, the paper is colored and decorated before being coated with linseed oil for waterproofing. It must then dry again for a few days or a couple weeks. Finally, a few other parts or decoration are attached.

Umbrellas in Japanese Culture



In the kabuki play “Sukeroku,” which premiered in 1713, the titular character sports unique makeup, a purple headband, and ja no me umbrella. A bit of a playboy, he uses it for keeping his hair stylish while traversing the streets of Yoshiwara.

There are quite a few umbrella dances, some of which are featured in kabuki plays, or are inspired by said kabuki dances. Other umbrella dances can be seen at some festivals. For example, in Tottori you can see an umbrella dance every August. Coinciding with O-Bon, the Shan Shan Matsuri features a parade of dancers with rainbow umbrellas. Apparently it began as a way to pray for rain. Last year they made the Guinness Book of World Records for “Largest Umbrella Dance,” with 1,688 participants.



Wagasa are finely crafted, beautifully decorated tools. If taken care of they could last decades. But when an umbrella survives for a hundred years it might become something…else.

Sprouting two arms and a single eye and leg, an umbrella can become a kasa obake or karakasa kozo. These are examples of tsukumogami: objects of daily life that have reached a great age and become animated. Kasa obake are not particularly harmful, but a little mischievous, and may give you a lick.

It also has a lesser known cousin, the hone karakasa or “bone umbrella.” It is a tattered umbrella that takes to the sky on wet, windy days. It is an omen of bad weather.



Being a common feature of everyday life, and an aesthetically pleasing one at that, umbrellas can be seen in many woodblock prints. Whether in the hands of actors, geisha, or ordinary townsfolk, there are a lot of ukiyo-e featuring umbrellas. Here’s a few:


“Komachi Praying for Rain,” (c. 1810) by Toyokuni


“Couple Under An Umbrella in the Snow,” (c.1750-1770) by Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770).


Japanese umbrellas even found their way into the paintings of Western artists, like this one by Aimé Morot (1850-1913).

Modern Culture


Just the gentle pitter patter of the rain on my umbrella is enough to make me smile. But perhaps you’re looking for more.

How about a ninja in the rain? I saw this guy at Kumamoto Castle, and also picked up my own katana shaped umbrella, complete with samurai family crests. You can read a bit more about these anachronistic combos of awesome: umbrella katanas.

Not enough, you say? Then I give you the UnBrella, invented by Hiroshi Kajimoto. The inside opens to become the outside, keeping your pants or whatever dry when it’s closed. It also stands on its own.


Still not enough? Last October, OK Go released the video for their song, “I Won’t Let You Down,” filmed in Japan with hundreds of umbrella wielding extras. I don’t know if the band members were aware of Japan’s umbrella history, though they are on record as being inspired by Singin’ In the Rain and the now-famous Robot Restaurant. Filmed in one take, it still took four days to get it right, partly because of rain. Even though the humans had plenty of umbrellas, the weather postponed their use of personal mobility units and drones.

If that doesn’t brighten your rainy day, then you’re just a wet blanket.

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JET Program Japanese Study: Setting Yourself Up for Success Mon, 03 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you first arrive in Japan, it feels as if you’ve got all the time in the world to study. But 1-5 years can fly by fast (especially the 1). Unless you’re planning to live in Japan long term, there will eventually come a time when the total immersion of Japan is not available to […]

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When you first arrive in Japan, it feels as if you’ve got all the time in the world to study. But 1-5 years can fly by fast (especially the 1). Unless you’re planning to live in Japan long term, there will eventually come a time when the total immersion of Japan is not available to you.

You may not see yourself using Japanese after JET. But every bit you learn will make your life easier in Japan. Also a second language increases your marketability, no matter what job you apply for.

Whether you come to JET with a degree in Japanese or next to zero experience, you have a prime opportunity to maximize your learning and take your language ability to new heights.

Read on for good habits, better ideas, and best practices for getting the most out of your Japanese language learning on JET.

The Bare Minimum (What You Should Do Before You Arrive)

kana study notebook

Photo by Ivana Vasilj

For those coming to Japan with zero Japanese ability (like I did), learn kana as quickly as possible. If you don’t have time to learn it before you go, you have a 12+ hour flight ahead of you in which there’s nothing to do but sit.

Use a few hours of this time to cram kana into your short term memory. As soon as you land, you’ll be surrounded by opportunities for your brain to recall what you’ve learned.

For easy and efficient kana guides that help you remember with pictures and mnemonics, click the links below:

If you’ve still got time/energy, go over the first 3 chapters of Japanese for JETs (more on that below), or a better textbook. The more you can understand about basic sentence structure before you land, the better. That way, you can start putting together the handy vocab you learn and use it to communicate right away. If this isn’t possible, cram some survival phrases to hold you over for a few days until you get enough down time to study basic grammar.

The point is to hit the ground reading and speaking, be it ever so rudimentary. The sooner you start using Japanese, the faster you will learn and the better off you’ll be.

Get Your Study Materials Together

japanese textbook for japanese study

Photo by abuckingham

Before you can study, you’ll need study materials. Though you may have some already, CLAIR provides two sources for learning Japanese:

  1. The Japanese for JETs textbook
  2. The JET Programme Japanese Language Course

The Japanese for JETs textbook is CLAIR’s effort to offer some kind of beginning language study materials to JETs that may arrive in Japan with nothing. It comes with a CD and pages full of words. I found the first few chapters useful when I was starting out, but switched to better learning materials as soon as I learned kana.

The general consensus about this book is that it’s good if you’ve got nothing else. But considering the wealth of info online and the fact the book is filled with romaji, it’s best to pass on it and find something better.

CLAIR also offers the JET Programme Japanese Language Course. As recently as a few years ago this was still administered by mail, but it has since been moved online. It consists of a beginner and intermediate course, which you can choose between freely without testing. There is also a Translation and Interpretation Course which you have to test into.

If you want to sign up for this course, tell your supervisor in October when they give you the JET Participant Contact Information Confirmation/Language Course Survey Sheet.

The course consists of lessons and four or more tests a month. If you miss the test submission deadline three times, you are removed from the course.

On the plus side, the deadlines are good way to keep yourself on track. Aside from that I don’t know many other positives. I never signed up for the course myself and most people I knew who did switched to better study tools rather quickly. This old review from 2010 seems to like the course, especially the grammar explanations. But I would imagine the course has changed a lot since then (hopefully for the better). CLAIR itself offers some positive reviews from JETs who have taken the course, but take them with a grain of salt.

When it comes to the negatives, Tofugu writer Verity gives us her experience:

“I completed the beginner’s course, but gave up on the intermediate. The beginner’s course is in romaji, which is really its biggest fault. The grammar explanations are not clear. I almost always had to look them up elsewhere before I could get them. They were less explanations than examples. Also, showing the books to Japanese co-workers often made them confused too. The multiple choice tests (that used to be scantrons that you posted in, but are now done online) often have more than one answer that could be right, but it’s just a case of picking the more right one. Even my co-workers couldn’t work it out sometimes. There isn’t much content in the books either in terms of vocab or useful expressions. I had a friend who took the Advanced course and she was very frustrated that even the advanced course had furigana. It wasn’t advanced at all. Basically, they are written like Japanese English textbooks, about as interesting and useful, ie. not very. They are incredibly patronising. The only good thing I heard was that it gave people study deadlines, but people didn’t actually use the books to study for the monthly tests.”

It’s really up to you whether or not to take the course. It’s absolutely free, so you might as well sign up and try the first lesson and judge for yourself.

If you find Japanese for JETs and the JPJLC lacking, head on over to our page of recommended Japanese learning resources. Pick out a few textbooks, websites, and apps you can use to build an effective study regimen.

A word of advice: no matter what your study regimen looks like, make sure it includes kanji. You’re likely to learn get a lot of grammar, speaking, and listening practice because you’ll be surrounded by it. But kanji won’t come automatically. This is where a program like WaniKani could do you a lot of good. Not only is it an easy way to have kanji learning fed to you with a silver spoon, your Japanese life will ensure you have plenty of opportunities to spot kanji in the wild, further solidifying what you’ve learned.

Do a Little Sit down Study Every Day (Don’t Worry, You Can Start Small)

japanese apartment

Photo by Karl Baron

Once you’ve gotten your study materials, you need to set aside study time. Even though you’re surrounded by Japanese, you may not be immersed. The ALT job (pretty much) requires you to use English 8 hours a day, after which time you may usually be so tired that you don’t go out. Even if you do immerse yourself, immersion doesn’t equal learning. You still need to have sit down and study every day. It’s the only way you’ll learn new material that you can try out in real life situations.

Learn by Doing

volunteering in japan on jet program

Photo by Hajime Nakano

Nothing gets vocabulary or grammar stuck in your head like using it. Why else would textbooks be filled with exercises? But better than textbook exercises is practical application. As former JET and Tofugu writer Verity advises:

“Get involved in teacher’s activities, not just school clubs. Learning through doing is a very powerful tool. For example, I helped the teachers clean the gym and set out chairs before ceremonies. The teachers I was working with explained things in Japanese. I helped through a combination of listening and watching others. Doing the activity you just learned the words for cements it far more than just looking at it on paper. Also, helping with such tasks will improve your relationship with other teachers, so they may be more willing to communicate with you at other times.”

JET Program Japanese Study Success = Failure

festival in japan on jet program

I’ll end with some great advice I got from my Prefectural Advisor soon after I arrived in Japan. “Language is about communication, not perfection. If you’re using hand gestures and messed up grammar, but eventually get your point across, you’ve succeeded.”

I, knowing almost zero Japanese at that time, was terrified to speak, especially surrounded by other JETs who had studied Japanese as their undergrad major. But his advice released that anxiety and allowed me to fail. And fail I did. A lot.

“Failing your way to success” has become a popular idea in recent years and for good reason. That’s how learning works.

If you’re on JET, study every day. Then go out and fail. You’re in the best place you’ll ever be to do it.

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4 Foreigners in Traditional Japanese Roles Wed, 29 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs. However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way […]

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When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs.

However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way to make a name for themselves even in traditional jobs in Japan. Despite the worldview that some areas are reserved for native-born Japanese people, these local celebrities have proven otherwise.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners rakugo

Rakugo is a form of Japanese comedic storytelling dating back to the 9th century. It was originally called karukuchi (軽口), meaning “talkative.” But texts describing it have also called it otoshibanashi (落し噺), meaning “falling discourse.” The term rakugo (落語) literally means “fallen words,” and was first used during the Meiji Era.

During a rakugo performance, a lone performer sits onstage and tells a story. And it can last several hours. The only props allowed are a paper fan (扇子) and a small cloth (手拭). Rakugo performers, or Rakugoka, cannot leave the seiza position throughout the entire story. And since rakugo is performed solo, the rakugoka must do all the voices of the characters, including dialogue, with only slight changes in tone and pitch to show who’s speaking. Thus, rakugo has been described by Professor Noriko Watanabe as “a sitcom with one person playing all the parts.”

Rakugo was invented by Buddhist monks as early as the 9th century. Its written tradition can be traced back to the collection of stories Uji Shūi Monogatari. The monks used rakugo as a way to make their sermons seem more interesting and to better relate to their constituents. It eventually spread throughout Japan.

Modern rakugoka must be accepted as apprentices to rakugo masters before they can perform. And there are only two rakugo training centers in Japan. After observing their master and practicing the art, a rakugo apprentice can have their professional debut. They eventually finish their apprenticeship to become a full-fledged rakugoka.

In the history of rakugo, only three foreign rakugoka have been considered true professionals. The first was known as Kairakutei Black. Born Henry James Black in Australia in 1858, he lived in Japan from the time he was three years old. Black started out telling jokes and stories to people outside his father’s publishing company. He became the first foreign rakugoka after a master took a liking to him. Black became a rakugoka against his family’s wishes. He eventually severed all ties and was adopted by a Japanese family and took Japanese nationality. Black died on September 19th, 1923, and is buried in Yokohama Foreign Cemetery.

Bill Crowley is another foreigner who was able to become a professional rakugoka. He was assisted by Katsura Shijaku II, but never became an official apprentice. As a part of the HOE International performing troupe, Crowley worked alongside several other foreign aspiring rakugoka. Crowley was also a pioneer in the field of English-language rakugo, positing that the universality of the experiences described in rakugo stories bolsters its appeal across languages.

Besides Bill Crowley, the only foreign rakugoka currently performing is Katsura Sunshine. Born Gregory Robic in Toronto on April 6th, 1970, Sunshine originally studied classics at the University of Toronto. He came to Japan to study Noh and Kabuki, and worked as an English teacher at Daigakushorin International Language Academy. In 2008, he became an apprentice to Katsura Sanshi (now called Katsura Bunshi VI). Sunshine received his rakugo name in rakugo tradition, taking his master’s last name and a part of his first. He combined the “san” from “Sanshi” with the character for “shine,” pronouncing it “sunshine.” Sunshine debuted in Singapore in 2009, and completed his three-year apprenticeship in November of 2012. Sunshine is the first ever foreign professional rakugoka in the Osaka-based Kamigata tradition. Kairakutei Black was an Edo-style rakugoka.

Sunshine lives in Ise City, where he regularly performs at his own rakugo theater, Ise Kawasaki Kikitei. He also has performed in Singapore, the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, France, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong. Sunshine appears often on Japanese television, and even performs rakugo in English in the West.

Sunshine has remarked that audiences often tell him that they are either amazed by how fluent and native-like his Japanese is, or that his Japanese isn’t nearly good enough for rakugo. So he says that reactions to his performances balance out in the middle.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great sumo

We can’t talk about traditional Japan and not mention sumo. Sumo is one of the oldest Japanese sports, but its exact origins are not clear. One theory is that sumo is the result of influences from other Asian countries. Mongolian wrestling (Bökh), Chinese wrestling (Shuai jiao摔跤), and Korean wrestling (Ssireum씨름), are all similar to sumo, and none has a definitively known creator or creation date. So it is highly possible that one of these other forms of wrestling is the parent sport of sumo.

Another theory is that sumo is based on ancient Shinto rituals. Representatives would wrestle with kami. Defeating the spirit meant a successful harvest was assured. The salt used to purify the ring before a match also has roots in Shintoism. The ring came from the 16th century, when Oda Nobunaga organized a nationwide sumo tournament, requiring an official ring and stands for spectators. Matches were held on the grounds of a shrine or temple until sumo become a professional sport during the Tokugawa period.

The first professional sumo rikishi were actually rōnin, masterless samurai who needed a new form of income. Professional tournaments began in 1684, taking place primarily in Tokyo during the Edo era. But Kansai had its own sumo, with Osaka functioning as Japan’s original sumo capital. In 1926, Osaka sumo merged with Tokyo sumo, and the Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo became the new exclusive venue for sumo matches.

Sumo is still a celebrated sport of Japan, though a series of controversies and scandals concerning hazing, match-fixing, and even murder, have shaken the public’s faith in recent years.

Despite traditional roots, many foreigners have had great success in sumo. Akebono Tarō, born Chad Haaheo Rowan in 1969 in Hawaii, became the first non-Japanese-born wrestler ever to become the yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo. Since then, five other foreigners have become yokozuna, chief among them Hakuhō Shō. Hakuhō was originally known as Mönkhbatyn Dayaajargal, born March 11th, 1985 in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Hakuhō’s father was a darkhan (the equivalent of a yokozuna) in Mongolian wrestling, and even won the silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Despite this, Hakuhō’s father discouraged him from wrestling because he considered his son too small. When he was 15, Hakuhō was invited to come to Japan by Kyokushūzan, another Mongolian sumo. But Hakuhō was only 137 lbs, far too light to be an effective rikishi. Thus, no stable was willing to accept him until Kyokushūzan intervened and convinced the Miyagino stable to take him in. In 2001, Hakuhō made his professional debut in Osaka. Though he lacked real wrestling experience, Hakuhō climbed the ranks and grew bigger and bigger. He eventually reached 6’4” and 346 lbs.

Hakuhō was promoted to ōzeki, the rank just below yokozuna, in March 2006 a few weeks after turning 21. He was the fourth-youngest wrestler to reach ōzeki in modern sumo history. In 2007, Hakuhō became the third ever foreign-born yokozuna after winning two consecutive tournaments, one with a perfect 15-0 record.

Hakuhō is still an active yokozuna. He holds records for the most wins in a calendar year, the most undefeated tournament championships, the second longest winning streak in sumo history, and the second most wins of all time in the top division.

Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi, a former yokozuna himself, has commented that “Nobody can touch Hakuhō… I’d like to see him go for 40 titles. If he keeps going the way he is, that’s a possibility.”


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners enka

Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

Before AKB-48 and Arashi, there was a different kind of music that defined Japan; enka.

The term “enka” was first used to describe a series of “songs” from the Meiji era. These songs were actually political speeches in protest of the Meiji government. But strict laws against political dissent meant that people could not deliver speeches. So they found a loophole by singing their thoughts instead. Thus, enka was born.

As time went on, enka evolved, incorporating both traditional instruments like shakuhachi and shamisen, as well as more modern instruments like violins, guitars, and other percussion.

During the 1940s, jazz became popular in postwar Japan, which helped start the careers of many enka singers. Kasuga Hachirō is considered the first modern enka singer. His 1954 hit “Otomi-san” sold 500,000 copies in six months, and eventually went on to sell over one million copies. Enka’s popularity continued well into the 1990s, even beating out Elvis Presley in Japan. However, with Kasuga’s death in 1991, enka began losing out to more modern music like J-pop.

Younger Japanese people were not impressed by enka, and preferred more Western style music. But during the early 2000s, a new form of “hybrid enka” emerged. This new form is a cross between traditional enka and hip-hop, rap, and rock. Enka suddenly saw a resurgence in popularity.

The first non-Japanese enka singer was Sarbjit Singh Chadha, an Indian man. He released an enka album in 1975 that sold over 150,000 copies. In 2002, Yolanda Tasico became the first enka singer from the Philippines who released several singles in Japan.

In recent years, the most popular foreign enka singer has been Jero, an American. Born Jerome Charles White, Jr. in Pittsburg, PA in 1981, his maternal grandfather was an African-American who met his Japanese wife during his time as a serviceman during WWII. They had a daughter, Harumi, and eventually moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh. Since Jero’s parents divorced when he was young, his grandmother helped raise him. This instilled in him a strong sense of Japanese culture and identity. She was the one who introduced him to enka. He began singing at the age of six, and by the time he was ten he could sing hits by great enka artists.

Jero studied Japanese all throughout high school and college. He moved to Japan after graduating with a degree in information technology from the University of Pittsburgh. He worked as an English teacher and computer engineer, but still wanted to become a professional enka singer. He’d promised his grandmother that he would one day perform at the annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen song show. Unfortunately, she died in 2005, just three years before his single “Umiyuki” was released. It entered the Japanese charts at number 4, cementing Jero as an enka professional, as well as the first black enka singer ever. He won the Best New Artist Award in the 50th Japan Record Awards on December 30th, 2008. He finally fulfilled the promise he made to his grandmother when he performed at the 59th Kōhaku Uta Gassen.

Although his lyrics are those of traditional enka, Jero’s performances are influenced by hip-hop. He wears jerseys, sneakers, and baseball caps instead of the kimono that enka singers usually wear. His traditional lyrics appeal to the nostalgia of older fans, while his modern image appeals to younger fans. Jero tours both in Japan and in the US, bringing enka across the Pacific.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great wave

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings. Their production began in the Edo era, when Japan began urbanization. They primarily depict beautiful women, famous theater actors, sumo wrestlers, and traditional Japanese folk tales. Rather than have a single artist create their own carvings and prints, production of ukiyo-e was often divided into three parts.

  1. A carver who would create the woodblock.
  2. A printer would ink the woodblock and press the image onto paper.
  3. A publisher would finance the operation and distribute the finished products.

Modern ukiyo-e are usually not produced in the traditional woodblock and carving method. Rather they incorporate modern techniques like screen printing, etching, mezzotint, and other multimedia platforms.

Despite the evolution of ukiyo-e production, there is an artist in Japan who continues to use the traditional carving and printing methods. Originally from Toronto, David Bull first became interested in ukiyo-e when he visited a local gallery featuring woodblock prints. He became intrigued with the production process, and moved to Japan in 1986 with his Japanese wife. Bull is self-taught, and learned by studying the works of great ukiyo-e artists from the Edo era.

“My teachers were the long-gone workers from 100 years ago,” Bull said, “and I had to learn everything from scratch.”

Although ukiyo-e production is traditionally done by three people, Bull does everything. He designs, carves, prints, and publishes his own works. His works are made in series, often taking years to complete. His first series, Hyakunin Isshu (one hundred poems from one hundred poets), consists of 100 prints depicting classical Japanese poets, and took him ten years to complete, producing ten prints per year. In recent years, Bull has begun teaching young aspiring artists his techniques in addition to his solo craftsmanship, and operates with others as the Ukiyo-e Heroes production team.

Traditional Jobs in Japan Aren’t Only for the Japanese

traditional jobs in japan for foreigners sumida river hiroshige

Japan has a reputation for being a very insular country, one where a foreigner can never quite feel like they fit in. Some people say that only a native-born Japanese can adequately understand the nuances of Japanese traditions. However, history has proven that you don’t have to be born Japanese to appreciate, and even master, some of Japan’s most ancient and treasured cultural phenomena. Foreigners from other Asian countries and even Westerners who spent the bulk of their lives ignorant of Japanese culture have found their way into Japanese society, and continue to flourish today. Something that is traditionally Japanese doesn’t require a Japanese person to keep it authentic.

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