Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Tue, 04 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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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The Daily Life of a Housewife in Japan Mon, 27 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Here on Tofugu, we talk about all kinds of different people in Japanese society. The politician, the salaryman, the artist, the musician. But seldom do we focus on a large section of the Japanese population – the housewife. Though being a stay-at-home mom has fallen out of fashion in other parts of the world, it’s […]

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Here on Tofugu, we talk about all kinds of different people in Japanese society. The politician, the salaryman, the artist, the musician. But seldom do we focus on a large section of the Japanese population – the housewife. Though being a stay-at-home mom has fallen out of fashion in other parts of the world, it’s still a popular option for women in Japanese society.

U-Can and I-Share conducted a research study in Japan. Out of the 1,243 women surveyed, 53.9% said they wanted to be housewives with the primary role of “attending to housework and raising children.”

I wrote about Japanese housewives a little bit in one of my previous articles, which focused on the perception of women in Japan. In writing that piece, I found that Japanese men aren’t alone in wanting their wives to stay at home. Many women are very keen on the idea, as well.

Because of this, I thought it worthwhile to take a look into some of these women’s lives. So I organized interviews with four different women about their daily lives. Of course, there are a lot of Japanese housewives and each one leads a different life, so this is just a sample to give you an idea. But hopefully this small sampling of information will shed some light into this part of Japanese society.

Note: The women I interviewed wished to remain anonymous and provided pseudonyms in place of their real names.

Japanese Housewife #1 – KonnichiwaKitty

Housewife in Japan feeding the children

Photo by domkey kong

Pseudonym: KonnichiwaKitty
Age: 27
Occupation: Housewife, does not work outside the home
Housewife Career: 1 year

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

6:00 – wake up
6:30 – have breakfast and relax
8:00 – prepare baby food and feed the baby
8:30 – play with the baby
10:00 – do housework and prepare for lunch
12:00 – have lunch
13:00 – play with the baby
15:00 – do housework
17:30 – prepare baby food and feed him
19:00 – bath time
19:30 – cook dinner for me and my husband
21:00 – go to bed

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

I just try to enjoy an extended breakfast time alone in the morning. It gives me time to relax while my son is still sleeping.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

To be able to closely observe my child as he grows.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

Other than that short window of time in the morning, I don’t really have any extra time that I can devote to myself.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

If playing with my son isn’t considered working, it would be one to two hours during the week and five hours on each day over the weekend. I tend to do a lot of cooking over the weekend and freeze those meals for the upcoming week.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

He helps me a lot. He takes the garbage bags out, washes the dishes, cleans our bathroom, and takes care of our child.

Q. Have you ever considered working full time instead of being a housewife?

I haven’t considered it.

Japanese Housewife #2 – Miki

Housewife in Japan raising her family

Pseudonym: Miki
Age: 37
Occupation: Housewife (and has a part time job online)
Housewife Career: 8 years

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

6:00 – I wake up and start making bento lunch for my husband. I prepare breakfast for him and my daughters and then I do the laundry.
7:30 – After my older daughter leaves for school, I hang the laundry out to dry and then read the newspaper.
8:00 – I eat breakfast with my younger daughter, then wash dishes.
8:30 – While my younger daughter is playing by herself or watching TV, I finish some work online. Afterwards, I spend time with her, like taking her to a park.
12:00 – Lunch
13:00 – I work online while playing with my child.
14:00 – I bring in the dry clothes and then clean the house. If I still have some time, I’ll do more work online.
14:45 – My older daughter’s school ends around this time, so I walk to her school with my younger daughter to pick her up.
15:30 – I check my older daughter’s homework and then I make preparations for dinner.
16:00 – I take my older daughter to her friend’s house or to one of her lessons and I go shopping.
17:00 – I pick my older daughter up and then I start making supper.
18:00 – We all eat dinner.
19:00 – I do the dishes.
19:30 – We all have a bath.
20:30 – I read or tell stories to my daughters.
21:00 to 21:30 – My daughters go to bed. (If I am tired, I go to sleep, too.)
21:30 – I work online.
22:30 to 23:30 – My husband comes home from work and I serve him his supper.
24:00 – I go to bed.

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

After sending my older daughter off to school and finishing the dishes, I enjoy having a coffee and listening to music.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

To be able to closely observe my children grow up. When I am sick or not feeling well, I can simply rest. Although I’m unable to get out into the workforce, I do have time to study, learn new things, and brush up on some skills.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

I have to fight against loneliness. I don’t have many ties to the community or much of a social life and I sometimes feel fear and question myself, “Can I really keep doing this?”

Furthermore, people hold the stereotype that housewives are lazy and useless for society, which makes me sad. I believe that staying at home and spending time around your children when they are young is better for them because you have a chance to positively affect their lives as they grow. So I intentionally chose to be a housewife for my children’s sake, instead of spending time at some random part-time job.

But there are a lot of married couples in which both partners work nowadays and it may be a little difficult for them to understand what it means to be a housewife without a job. They should be aware that many housewives want to work, but intentionally choose to stay at home for the sake of their children.

It’s especially difficult when I have a quarrel with my husband. He sometimes says, “I’m the one who is earning the money for this family. The stresses and hardships of working and being a father is incomparable with just being a housewife.” It’s very upsetting to hear that from him.

I know many mothers who choose not to work until their children finish pre school/kindergarten, but they all take the job of properly raising their children very seriously, and I respect them for knowing how important that is. Of course, some women have to work out of financial necessity, but that’s a different story.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

Basically from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, I think I am always doing work in some form or another. I barely even have time to sit down and watch TV for a while.

Q. With all this time spent on housewife-work, how do you find time for your online job?

I am usually able to find two hours on weekdays to work online. On weekends, my husband is home to cook and play with the kids, so I work for about 3 or 4 hours then, but I also still work as a housewife.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

On weekdays, he works all day and gets home around 10:30pm or 11:00pm, so he can’t help with anything. On weekends, he cooks and plays with the children, but I don’t know how things are with other families’ husbands.

He helps with cooking because he likes to cook, but he doesn’t do the dishes because he doesn’t like to. It’s still helpful and I can work while he is cooking. He also bathes the children on weekends and that’s really helpful because I don’t get chance to take a bath by myself and relax at all during the week.

He wants to relax on weekends, but the children want him to take them outside and play. He doesn’t help with the cleaning at all, but if the dried laundry has piled up, he’ll help with folding them, so I guess he cares about housework.

However, he tends to not realize what I want him to help with and I wish he would ask me what to do before starting something. It might be a stereotype, but there may be many husbands who try helping their wives on their own regardless of what the wives actually want them to help with. He feels satisfied because he knows he helped me, but it’d be better if he talked to me so we could share the necessary workload.

Q. Have you ever considered working full time instead of being a housewife?

I absolutely do. I would work full time, if I could. However, my children are still little and my husband works very long hours. I can’t ask for support from either of our parents because both sets live pretty far away.

My mother in law lives fairly close, but she can’t drive. I also live in the countryside, so finding a good job also means a long commute. Therefore, I don’t think I’ll be able to work full time for a couple more years. I also think that many Japanese companies are a far cry from providing an easy and comfortable work atmosphere for women. The problem of wait listing children for kindergarten and nurseries still remains, too.

I think the way that society is and the way companies conduct themselves need to change first. It’s really rare for a woman 40 years of age or older to find a full-time position. My friends have mostly only been able to work part-time after being a housewife for so many years. I feel as though it’s nearly impossible to get a full-time position after being a housewife.

I personally think that housewives sacrifice a great deal more than people think. By taking on this role, many women learn patience through raising children and by working on their friendships with other mothers. I feel I have grown a lot, so much more than when I was single. In that sense, I hope that companies will come to value housewives more in the future and see them as people that possess a certain set of transferable skills. We should be granted a better opportunity to work full-time.

Japanese Housewife #3 -Wasabi

Housewife in Japan cooking for her family

Pseudonym: Wasabi
Age: 53
Occupation: Currently a housewife without a part time job (has experience with both full and part-time jobs.)
Housewife Career: 30 years

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

Morning: Housework (Cleaning, shopping, laundry, etc…)
Afternoon: Watch TV, read books, or other such leisurely activities.
Evening: Walk our dog, make dinner, and wash the dishes afterwards.
Night: Watch TV, read books, or other such leisurely activities.

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

Watch TV or read books.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

I am free to use my time however I want.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

I can’t really think of anything.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

Approximately 40 hours.

Q. Have you worked a part-time or full-time job in the past, and if so how did you find enough time to be a housewife?

When I worked part-time it was 4 hours a day, so I had enough time to work as a housewife. But when I worked full-time it was 8 hours a day and I was too busy to do things around the house. My commute was really long. It took me an hour and a half to get to the office.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

He takes the garbage out and makes his own breakfast. He walks our dog in the morning. If I ask him to do something, he is willing to do it, but I often don’t like how he washes dishes. I’m also better at cooking than him, so I usually handle all things kitchen related.

Q. Have you ever considered working full time instead of being a housewife?

Yes. I tried, but it was too difficult, especially while raising my children. So it didn’t last very long.

Japanese Housewife #4 – Ninja-Pie

life of a Housewife in Japan

Photo by Julie

Pseudonym: Ninja-Pie
Age: 62
Occupation: Housewife without any part time job
Housewife Career: 35 years

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

6:00 – I wake up.
7:00 – I eat breakfast and relax
8:30 – Cleaning, laundry, and other housework.
11:00 – Prepare lunch.
12:00 – Eat lunch
13:00 – Clean the dishes and do other housework
14:00 – Free time for myself
16:00 – Prepare supper.
17:00 – Go for a walk
18:30 – Supper
21:00 – Have a bath.
23:00 – Go to bed.

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

I have teatime after breakfast and dinner, and enjoy a couple snacks with coffee.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

I can have some time for myself.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

It’s difficult to keep myself in good shape because I tend to stay inside all day. That’s why I try to devote a certain amount of time each day to walking.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

About 35 hours a week.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

He helps with the shopping and by cleaning the bathroom.

Q. Have you ever considered working full-time instead of being a housewife?


Would You Want to Be a Housewife in Japan?


Special thanks to our interviewees for letting us into their lives and how they feel about being a housewife in Japan. What do you think about their answers? Do these situations seem different from housewives’ lives in your country? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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How to Plan a Cycling Trip in Japan Fri, 24 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 It probably comes as no surprise that Japan is a nation of cyclists. Everyone competes for sidewalk space with commuters and tourists in every major city. But take the cycles off the sidewalk and onto the open road. There, you may get swept up in the fast growing スポーツバイク (sportsbike) trend. Sports cycling and road biking are gaining a […]

The post How to Plan a Cycling Trip in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

It probably comes as no surprise that Japan is a nation of cyclists. Everyone competes for sidewalk space with commuters and tourists in every major city.

But take the cycles off the sidewalk and onto the open road. There, you may get swept up in the fast growing スポーツバイク (sportsbike) trend. Sports cycling and road biking are gaining a wider following in Japan. My small city in the Tohoku region has countless small cycle shops. At least seven of them carry high-quality cycles. Also, a regular cycling group in my area meets on weekends for longer rides.

Japan is well-suited for these long rides. There are well-kept roads, mountain passes meant not to strain engines, and plenty of conbinis and rest stops. Not to mention you get to eat your way through a cycling tour, using bowls of ramen instead of liters of gas to keep you going.

Sound like a good time? You don’t have to be an expert to join in. I’ve been on dozens of these rides, and below I explain how to plan a cycling trip in Japan. Let’s ride!

Step 1: Plan Where to Cycle


When planning a trip, there are lots of places to go. Cycling shops in Japan often have knowledge of local roads and share routes in the area (gratis or for a fee). There are also many blogs by resident cyclists which chronicle their journeys.

The first thing to figure out is how far you should go in a day. Just because you can cycle 100 miles in a day, doesn’t mean you should. Or if you’ve never pushed beyond a few miles before, why not start now? It all depends on your goals and preferences.

Take the climate into consideration. Think about what would make the trip most pleasant for you. Consider your heat/cold tolerance and where you’d like to sleep at night. Japan has the benefit of four seasons- but the winters in the north are notoriously long and hellish. Like most other outdoor activities, aiming for any season but winter is best.

If you choose to cycle in northern Japan, you’ll more easily beat the summer heat. You’ll avoid the dangerous traffic of major cities as well. You can travel relatively far by bike along rivers, past orchards of apples, pears, peaches and cherries, and endless rows of rice paddies.

Nihon isshu, the name used by cyclists for the journey along the length of Japan by bike, takes many routes and has no set pit stops. A journey from Aomori to the southern tip of Honshu takes about a month to a month and a half. Add two weeks to that estimate if you plan to include Hokkaido. And you won’t be alone. Depending on the season (spring and fall are best), hundreds of touring cyclists ride the north-south route every year.

My Personal Recommendation

If you have less time, I recommend venturing into the north country, away from the bustling cities of the south. I’ve cycled north, south, and west. Tohoku is by far my favorite place to cycle (though Hokkaido is a close second).

Northern Japan is often overlooked by tourists, who focus on the cultural centers and specific food areas. But I’ve gotta plug the north, where I live and love to cycle. Fewer crowds, a different lilt to the language, and locally sourced foods. Also, the country folk here tend to be friendlier, which is pleasant for a foreigner rolling through on a bike.

Make sure that your bike is well equipped with lights and reflectors. Any long cycle up north will mean a trip through a mountain tunnel.

Step 2: Map it Out


Photo by xlrider

Next you’ll need to get out a good old fashioned map and plan a route. As far as cycling routes go, you can get as creative as you like. All roads outside of major highways accommodate cyclists. With a little planning you can easily plot out days of 50-150k. Nights can be spent in hotels, traditional Japanese home stays, or camping at rest stops along the roads. Sleeping on the ground may be less glamorous, but there are plenty of public restrooms and onsen, so you’ll rarely feel like you’re roughing it.

You’ll be hitting the conbini on a semi-daily basis. Since you’ll be running into one every 20km or so, you don’t have to weigh your bike down with days worth of food. A long cycle between prefectures means that you can eat anything from kenoshiru to Shizuoka oden and never feel stuffed. You may need to consume as much as 8,000 calories per day on a long tour, so eat up!

Google maps in Japan often doesn’t offer a biking option between points. While it’s a helpful tool to gauge distances and approximate travel time, I recommend carrying a paper map with you. Also check your planned route with someone who knows the area. Any friendly local with some time on their hands will do. Although a fellow cyclist or bike shop is preferable. It’s a good excuse to start a conversation, and will give you ample warning of any construction, impassable bridges, or dangerous sites coming up on the road.

Step 3: Decide What to Take with You


Photo by xlrider

If you decide on camping and carrying your things with you, panniers and other cycling bags are available in Japan at certain stores. But they can be pricey. If you’re traveling here from outside the country, try to get the major purchases taken care of first. Smaller things like tubes, toolkits, and pumps you can find here.

A Packing List

To get an idea of what you may or may not want to take with you, I’ve provided a sample packing list. These are things that are usually a good idea to have with you. But some of them are optional depending upon whether or not you want to carry them and how heavy they are. Legs don’t fail me now!

Always/Day trip

  • Water bottles (2)
  • Maps
  • Spare tube
  • Multitool
  • Patch kit
  • Pump
  • Duct tape (not the whole roll, wrap it around your water bottle a few times and ta-da! Instagrip and emergency duct tape.)
  • Bike bag (for trains)
  • Sunglasses
  • Headphones (the jury is out on this one, as far as safety is concerned. But one earbud and an audiobook will save your sanity on a long day.) 
  • Helmet!


Camping/Cooking accessories are optional depending on where you’re staying, but make sure you go lightweight. You’re in panniers territory here if you’re camping. Try to resist the urge to fill them to the brim just because you can!  My first overnight camping trip I had four books packed with me. I ended up shipping them home. Do some practice rides all filled up just to see how it feels and see what items you’re willing to leave behind. 

If you’re looking to save money, a camping stove, lightweight pot, and lighter will go a long way. Instant ramen is ¥20 compared to a bowl at a ramen shop that costs about ¥680. But quality-wise? No comparison. 


  • First aid kit
  • Cell phone/camera charger

Clothing (for overnight trips) 

  • Pants (one for wearing, one backup waterproof pair)
  • Shirt (one for wearing, one to change into on downtime) 
  • Base layer (optional but a good idea if you’re camping out, depending on the season) 
  • Raincoat (with Gore-Tex
  • 3 pairs of underwear/socks
  • Bandana (or tenugui)
  • Gloves
  • Flip flops (or other lightweight shoes for off the bike)

Packing for Train Rides

You’ll also likely need to take a train at some point, unless you’re planning on doing an out-and-back trip by bike. To carry a bike on the train, you’ll need to buy a rinko fukuro, or a bike carry bag, and take one or both wheels off. The bags run about ¥3000 and are available at most bike shops but not at train stations. Bikes can be a pain to carry, especially on a busy train. But it doesn’t cost extra to carry with you and makes for more flexible travel.

Pro tip: On the shinkansen make sure to get on near the back of the car. This way you can stash your bike behind the last seats in the compartment, the only available space.

If you’re looking for more information on planning a biking trip in Japan, check out the cycling-friendly hosting site Warm Showers. If your language level is up to it, cycling magazines like BikeNavi, Cycle Sports, or Bicycle Club are great resources. Japan Cycling is a bit dated but super helpful, and has lots of other riders reports that give you a pretty in depth insight into what a long distance touring journey is like here in Japan.

Step 4: Hit the Road!


No matter what your cycling level or where you’re located, start looking around at bike shops and online for cycling groups. Some areas are lucky enough to have rails to trails, group rides, or other local cycling/outdoor advocacy groups that coordinate rides or can connect you with those who do.

If you’re seriously considering touring, it helps to get to know a bike mechanic who will be able to help you set up your current bike, or steer you towards a new one with a frame that is durable and sturdy enough to carry weight.

If you’re not sure what you want to do, try going for rides and getting into it. In the early summer mornings, Japan’s roads are ready and waiting to be rode on!

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ズバアー! The History of Boxing in Japan Wed, 22 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The noble art. The sweet science. Fisticuffs. Boxing is called by many different names. But what it boils down to in the end is two men stepping into a ring and putting it all on the line. Though boxing is usually thought of as a sport of the west, it has a rich history in Japan […]

The post ズバアー! The History of Boxing in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

The noble art. The sweet science. Fisticuffs. Boxing is called by many different names. But what it boils down to in the end is two men stepping into a ring and putting it all on the line.

Though boxing is usually thought of as a sport of the west, it has a rich history in Japan as well. From exhibition fights in the Meiji Era to current world champs, boxing has had a powerful role in Japanese culture.

The History of Boxing in Japan Begins


Boxing first came to Japan with the Americans. More specifically, when Commodore Matthew Perry came over to Japan in 1854 for the Convention of Kanagawa. The American sailors boxed onboard their ships to help pass the time. Far from the padded gloves and wrapped gauze of today, boxing back then consisted of two men wrapping their fists in thin strips of leather. There was no real referee, and “matches” were more like glorified sparring.

Yet these spectacles were the first examples of boxing the Japanese had ever seen. The Shōgun ordered an ōzeki-ranked sumo wrestler named Tsunekichi Koyanagi to fight an exhibition match against an American wrestler and boxer. No official documentation exists for the match, but Koyanagi reportedly defeated the Americans. This was Japan’s first taste of boxing, but it didn’t really take off until years later.

In 1921, Yūjirō Watanabe opened The Japan Kentō Club after training in San Francisco for several years. At this point, boxing wasn’t known in Japan as “boxing” (ボクシング). It was called “kentō” (拳闘), which translates to “fist-fighting.” Watanabe later became known as the “Father of Japanese Boxing.” He helped raise some of Japan’s first professional boxers (though there was no real line distinguishing amateur and professional fighters at the time).

In the 1928 Summer Olympics, Japan sent Fuji Okamoto to fight in the Lightweight division and Kintarō Usuda to fight in Welterweight. They were the first Japanese athletes to compete in Olympic boxing.

But the blurred line between professional and amateur boxing was still an issue, particularly in regards to establishing champions. In 1931, the All-Japan Professional Kentō Association was founded to bring more legitimacy to the title of “champion.” It also attempted to establish a true sense of professional boxing distinct from amateur. It was around this time that Tsuneo “Piston” Horiguchi began his rise to fame.

Horiguchi started out at Watanabe’s gym when he was 19, and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. He earned his nickname “Piston” from his unique style of throwing quick alternating straight punches. On May 23rd, 1933, in a stunning upset, Horiguchi defeated the Japanese featherweight champion Kaneo Nakamura by TKO in the second round and seized the title. But in 1935, the Japan Kentō Club was dropped from the Japan Boxing Federation due to political differences, which stripped Horiguchi of his title.

Japanese boxing took its biggest hit from WWII. Able-bodied young men were conscripted into the Japanese army. This meant boxing lost almost all potential new fighters, as well as many active ones. Furthermore, after Pearl Harbor, The Japan Times ceased coverage of sports, pulling boxing’s popularity further down. Boxing did not receive the negative press of other Western sports like baseball. But it still took a significant loss of popularity and fans due to the war. The first post-war Japanese championship boxing match was not held until 1947, more than two years after the war ended.

Japan Takes to the World Stage


Japan was still reeling from WWII years after it ended. The economy was terrible and many cities were in disarray. The Japanese felt robbed of their identity and self-respect. Japan needed boxing now more than ever, and it was to play an integral part of its post-war revitalization.

Every time two men climbed into the ring, putting everything they had on the line, they proved that the Japanese people still had the backbone and spirit of pre-war Japan. It was proof not only to the boxers, but to every Japanese spectator cheering ringside. Boxing made a defeated people feel empowered again.

In 1952, Yoshio Shirai received an offer for a world title match, the first ever in Japan. But Japan lacked an official governing body for boxing, and thus the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) was founded. Less than a month later, Shirai met Dado Marino in the ring. Shirai fought with a smart and slick style, ultimately defeating Marino by unanimous decision. Shirai was crowned the Flyweight champion of the world, as well as the first Japanese boxer ever to become a world champion. In 1954, the JBC was absorbed by the World Boxing Association, assisting in its legitimization and establishing Japan as a credible player in world boxing.

Besides Shirai, another famous Japanese boxers made it big on the world stage: Fighting Harada. Harada won his first match by KO on February 21st, 1960, and went on to win his first twenty fights. In 1962, Harada knocked out Pone Kingpetch to become the world Flyweight champion. He lost the title in a rematch. But he remained in the higher rankings of world boxing for the next few years.

But Harada’s true golden moment came in 1965. Éder Jofre, the man nicknamed “Golden,” had been standing at the top of the boxing world as the world Bantamweight champion, undefeated in 50 fights. Harada and Jofre fought in Nagoya while the entirety of Japan was glued to their TVs, holding their breath. After 15 long rounds, Harada dethroned the king and became the new world champion via a controversial split decision. This was the match Japan had been waiting for. As one sports writer described it, this match “let Japan once more experience fervor.” When Jofre finally retired in 1976, Harada ultimately proved to be the only boxer to ever defeat him.

One of Japan’s favorite boxers came to prominence in the 1970s. Yoko Gushiken, a native Okinawan. He turned pro in 1974 after he found success in the amateur ring, winning the All-Japan High School Tournament. Gushiken won over crowds with his big afro and bushy moustache. He poked holes in his opponents’ defenses and let loose big left straights for the knockout. Gushiken was nicknamed the “Fierce Eagle,” and quickly dominated Japan’s boxing scene. Soon, Gushiken realized that Japan was too small a stage for him, and moved on to challenge the world.

In 1976, Gushiken knocked out Juan Antonio Guzmán in seven rounds, earning his spot as the new world Light Flyweight champion. Gushiken held this title for over four years, winning eight of his thirteen title defenses by knockout. Gushiken experienced his first loss in 1981. Pedro Flores, whom he had narrowly defeated in his last match, requested a rematch, and knocked out Gushiken to seize the title. Gushiken chose to not to return to the ring after this defeat, and retired with 23 wins and only 1 loss.

Modern State of Boxing in Japan


Photo by ramadam karim

The boxing fever that once gripped Japan has subsided in recent years. The post-war grit is a thing of the past, making iconic heroes like Yoshio Shirai and Joe Yabuki vintage goods. But fights are still broadcast on TV. Japan raises world champion boxers each year, Olympic and professional.

One of the most surprising moments in modern Japanese boxing came in 2011, when Nobuhiro Ishida knocked out James Kirkland in one round. Kirkland had been previously undefeated and was using Ishida as a warm-up fight after a long absence. However, Ishida was able to secure three knockdowns in the first round, causing the referee to call the fight. For a Japanese person to secure a knockout over an undefeated American in the upper weight classes was truly an upset. Especially since Ishida had less than a 25% knockout rate going into the fight. The outcome was so unexpected that no interpreter was on hand for the victory interview, forcing Ishida’s trainer to translate with his limited English. The Ring magazine voted the fight as the Upset of the Year.

Pros are not the only ones with exciting news. Japan’s amateur boxing world was also rocked recently during the 2012 Summer Olympics. Satoshi Shimizu experienced a highly controversial match. Shimizu began boxing as a third year in junior high school, and had previously fought in the 2008 Summer Olympics as a Featherweight. After his loss, Shimizu declined offers to go pro, intent on winning an Olympic gold medal. He returned to the Olympics in 2012 as a Bantamweight, since the Featherweight division had been removed from the games. Shimizu faced Magomed Abdulhamidov of Azerbaijan.

Abdulhamidov started out strong, and Shimizu trailed by seven points by the beginning of the third round. During the final round, Shimizu began his counterattack, and he knocked Abdulhamidov down six times. But Abdulhamidov was awarded a 22-17 victory over Shimizu. This led to an immediate protest by fans and Japanese officials alike. It was later revealed that Azerbaijan had transferred $9 million to an organization owned by the AIBA, which oversees and manages Olympic boxing. Sources claimed that an Azerbaijani government minister was paying for his country to receive at least two gold medals. Although an AIBA committee ultimately found the accusations to be spurious, they still overturned the decision and awarded the fight to Shimizu. According to their decision, the referee had made a mistake by not stopping the fight after three consecutive knockdowns.

Where Will the next Great Japanese Boxer Come From?


In addition to the serious athletes, boxing has found popularity with the masses in the form of “boxercise,” a workout based on boxing training and techniques. In boxing gyms across Japan, you can find high school students training side-by-side with salarymen and OLs. Hitting the heavy bag, jumping rope, even getting in the ring and hitting mitts are all effective forms of exercise. Few of these wannabe-Tysons are training with the intention to go pro. But they still come in to the gym with the same tenacity and drive of Rocky hitting a slab of meat.

Although people are more likely to think of karate and kendō when discussing martial arts in Japan, boxing has an undeniable place in Japanese culture, both as a sport and as a source of national inspiration.

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Interview with Chiptune Musician TORIENA Mon, 20 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The Game Boy has become a popular musical instrument in recent years. Many DJs use its internal sound chip to make music. But few use it like TORIENA. She started making music on her Game Boy (also known as chiptune) in 2012 and hasn’t slowed down. Her fast-paced and complex compositions make her stand out […]

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The Game Boy has become a popular musical instrument in recent years. Many DJs use its internal sound chip to make music. But few use it like TORIENA.

She started making music on her Game Boy (also known as chiptune) in 2012 and hasn’t slowed down. Her fast-paced and complex compositions make her stand out in the sea of chiptune DJs. She’s performed at Blipfestival, Sasakure Festival, Square Sounds Festival, Design Festa Vol. 40. She founded her own label, MADMILKY RECORDS, in 2013 and was awarded “Best New Artist Award” at the World Wide Chiptune Awards.

TORIENA took some time away from composing, touring, collaborating, and making art for her music (yes, she does that too) to answer a few of our questions.


Photo by jeriaska

Q. How did you first get into making music? How long after that did you start making chiptune music and why?

There was no definitive reason why I set out to start making my own original music. But when I was a junior high student and (this may sound a bit audacious) I felt as though there wasn’t any music out there that matched my preferences or met my needs. So I suppose that feeling was the biggest factor in why I started making my own music.

Also, I have loved music for as long as I can remember because I grew up with a family who loves music. When I was in high school, I had an overwhelming desire to play original songs in a band. But my parents were against it, so I wasn’t able to. In the meantime, I got into artists from Warp Records and was drawn to electronic sounds. Eventually I found myself wanting to make techno music. In my 3rd year of high school, on a whim I went to an Internet label event for the first time, and was instantly fascinated by the high-volume electronic music coming from speakers. That moment spurred me into making my own electronic music.

As soon as I became a university student and started living by myself, I bought “Cubase6” and started making hard and minimal techno music. I joined a band club that mainly performed original songs and I had a lot of fun with them. One of the alumni from that club is NNNNNNNNNN. He is my senpai and someone I get along with very well. One day he asked me to start making chiptune with him. So we went to a café in Kyoto called “Café la siesta.” Miraculously, the café owner let us use an LSDj cartridge that had been sitting around and we started making songs with that.

And here I am now. Come to think of it, it was all rather fateful.

Q. What brought you to the Game Boy as a musical instrument?

It plays direct and sharp sounds. Although many people say that electric sounds are very monotone and don’t express any soul, I believe there is soul in its sound. Electric sound is a kind that doesn’t naturally exist in the world, right? Human beings created these sounds all by ourselves. It’s very mystical and sexy to me. I think electric noise created by humans is full of life force and soul. I really like the sound of the Game Boy. It comes directly out of the built-in chip in the form of a pulse or trianglular sound wave. It’s like the chip is screaming out its feelings. Making it into an instrument and having it play music that is an audible expression of my heart and soul is what attracted me to it.

Q. Where did the name Toriena come from? What does it mean?

I actually get this question a lot. “TORI” means “bird” in Japanese and my birth year is the year of the bird. “ENA” came from my younger sister. I consulted her about my artist name with her, then her answer was like, “Your face fits the name ENA, so why don’t you choose ENA?” Thinking back now, it’s kind of weird. But nobody else has the name TORIENA and I liked the sound of it.


Photo by jeriaska

Q. Making music on the Game Boy is very complex. On top of that, your music is deeply complex. What kind of skills does it take to create such fast-paced music on the Game Boy?

I use Game Boy music composition software called “LSDj.” The Game Boy sound chip offers only four channels with 4-bit sound. Within this restriction, I put multiple elements in one track to make your ears play tricks on you and make you believe you’re listening to multiple sounds. I can also create one sound by using two channels. If I really started talking about it, I could go on forever.

Actually, the way to make music differs from person to person. So if you are thinking of making your own music, you have to try and fail over and over again until you get the hang of it. To be honest, I still have difficulty creating music in the exact way I envision it sounding. One of the most important things for creating music, I think, is not to persist on reaching one outcome or accepting one standard. You should listen to a wide variety of genres of music and learn of all the elements you like. While doing so, you should create your own music while happily dancing away. Then you will probably be able to make fun music by yourself. The most important thing is that YOU also enjoy your own music.

Q. Are there any systems or programs besides the Game Boy you use or would like to use to make music?

I’m using DTM a lot recently. I use CUbase too. I’m curious about working with SID sound source found in ATARI machines. The sound is good and is really interesting.

Q. Who are your musical influences?

Even though he’s not a musician, I might have to say my father. He likes roots reggae and R&B, and he has listened to those genres on his record player and huge sound system since I was little. I am not sure, but I assume I have always thought deep down that it’s really cool music. When I started getting into music, I borrowed some records of his and listened to a variety of genres. He recommended some music as well and also gave me a rock compilation album.

Q. Your Pulse Fighter music video is amazing! Is there any chance there will be a Toriena game?

Thank you for those very kind words! Actually, I made an app game called “Pico^2 Sprite” with m7kenji who was in charge of the pixel art and video of Pulse Fighter. Like the music video, I did the music, sound effects, character design, and the scenario. m7kenji did the pixel art, the boss characters, and the UI. It is a puzzle game and all the characters including the boss are very unique. I’m sure you will enjoy it!

Q. You founded your own label, MADMILKY Records, in 2013. What inspired you to make the jump from artist to producer?

When I performed at BLIP Festival Tokyo in 2012, a thought raced through my mind. It was that chiptune is really awesome and I want to make it much more popular in Japan. I talked about it to NNNNNNNNNN who was performing there as well, and we ended up deciding to make a music label together.

Q. What are your favorite games? Which games inspire you to make music?

My absolute favorite game ever is MOTHER 2. I’ve played it over and over again. The best part is the pixel art. I also like the story, which is very well written. It actually influenced my worldview quite a bit. I also like Kirby and the Pokemon series. I like them for their music. Sometimes I even just listen to the music from those games.

Q. What foods go hand-in-hand with chiptune music?

Pepsi and Haribo gummy candies. I always have them while making music and drawing.

Q. Can you tell us a story about your job that you’ve never told anyone?

I don’t know anything about musical theory. Although I used to play the bass and contrabass, I couldn’t read music, so I just played by ear. I am also very bad at sports, haha!

Q. What skills beyond music does it take to be a successful musician?

I think people need to clarify what it is they actually want to do. I believe that everybody has a dream, but it’s often vague. You should understand yourself and your dream really well and pursue it. Throughout the process, you’ll form your own unique style and you’ll become an artist that can’t be replaced. That said, I’m still on my way to becoming an artist like that.

Q. What skills do you need to be a successful musician in Japan particularly?

Japanese people care about courtesy, duty, and humanity. So I believe communication ability is necessary. If you don’t forget to be thankful and thoughtful, you’ll get to know more and more good people, and that will lead you to success.


Photo by jeriaska

Q. What advice do you have for our readers who may want to become DJs in Japan?

I don’t know much about the club scene overseas, so my advice comes solely from a Japanese standpoint. First, you should clarify what kind of music you like and what kind of performance you want to give. It might be good to mimic one or two DJs whom you really admire. You can get a leg up on others by having at least one unique thing that you are good at because people may think, “We should call so-and-so for this kind of music event! We should ask them to perform for us.”  I believe it allows you to play a more active part in your success.

Other than that, just don’t forget the spirit with which you started and be polite to everyone you meet. Apart from that, you should certainly also strive to learn more and more DJ techniques.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say about your job or any messages to Tofugu readers?

I am preparing to release a new song in a popular series. I am also thinking of releasing something interesting this year. My overseas live performances are also scheduled too, so if you see I’m coming to your town, please come out!

I have concerts on October 24 and 31 in UK. The details haven’t been revealed yet, but it’d be great if you can keep your eye on it. I’d also like to create more video content and distribute my concert performances and music videos more.

I’d be happy if Tofugu readers who read this interview got interested in me and/or chiptune even a little bit.

Q. What’s the one question you wish people would ask you but never do (Then answer it!)

The question I wish people would ask me is, “what’s your final goal?” I do a lot of things from composing to illustrating to performing, but I don’t want to be limited by anything. I want to be a person that can’t be replaced. The one and only TORIENA. I want to be a stylish girl with various charming attributes which, like a hologram, change depending on your perspective.

Get Your Japanese Chiptune Fix!

Big thank you to TORIENA for answering our questions. Give her music a listen on SoundCloud, bandcampher website, and MADMILKY RECORDS.

Special thanks to our own Mami for setting up and translating this interview.

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What the Japanese Royal Family Can Learn from Prince William’s Japan Trip Fri, 17 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Britain’s Prince William recently went on his first trip to Japan. He spent three days there, as part of a larger trip that also included a few days in China. The Duke of Cambridge had his own animal rights cause to promote in China, but Japanese politicians had their own agendas for Prince William in […]

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Britain’s Prince William recently went on his first trip to Japan. He spent three days there, as part of a larger trip that also included a few days in China. The Duke of Cambridge had his own animal rights cause to promote in China, but Japanese politicians had their own agendas for Prince William in Japan. It was a chance to highlight their successes, in front of the world to some degree, but primarily for the benefit of the Japanese public.

Of course, Japan has its own royal family, and they fulfill their role in Japanese politics, just as the Windsors do back in the UK. However, having a foreign royal come to visit provides a unique opportunity. Moreover, despite some similarities between the royal institutions of each country, Prince William showed a somewhat different face of royalty to a country that really loves them some royalty.

Royal Roamings


The royals of Japan and the UK have been visiting each other’s countries for quite some time. In 1869, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, became the first European prince to visit Japan. Just one year prior, the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan since 1603 had been overthrown and the emperor restored to power. Alfred had an audience with the newly empowered Emperor Meiji in Tokyo. As Japan became reacquainted with the West during the Meiji period, they didn’t fail to notice some similarities between themselves and the UK Both were island nations with long traditions of monarchy, manners, and tea. Japan was also interested in taking up another British tradition: imperialism, and looked to the British model in forming many of their new institutions. It is important to note that Britain was hardly the only imperial power that Japan drew inspiration from, taking elements from Prussia and France as well.

Over the next few decades there were some visits by princes and such on both sides, and then in 1921 Crown Prince Hirohito became the first of his rank to leave Japan when he went to the UK and other European countries via Singapore. Then relations went sour from the 1920s until the end of World War II. After normalizing relations, then Crown Prince (currently emperor) Akihito attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1971, the emperor himself, Hirohito paid a state visit to the UK, and four years later Queen Elizabeth returned the favor. In 1986 Prince Charles and his wife, Princess Diana, went to Japan, and this visit would be often referenced during Prince William’s recent visit. Emperor Akihito visited the UK in 1998, 2007, and most recently in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Prince William in Japan: Day One

Prince William arrived at Haneda Airport on Thursday, February 26th, where he was greeted by a welcoming crowd despite the rain. The duke’s duchess, Kate, did not join him on this trip, as she was seven months pregnant with their second child. It was a bit of a shame she couldn’t go, as she is quite popular.

Not only has Kate been a quite public figure, appearing at numerous functions and meeting various dignitaries, but she has become known for her fashion as well, not unlike William’s mother. She stands in contrast to Princess Masako, wife of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito, who has had difficulty dealing with public life over the years. She has suffered some emotional distress, and largely stayed out of the public eye since 2002.

Regardless of country, I’m sure being in such a position can often be stressful, but differing cultures and fates have made the situation worse for Princess Masako. Many have speculated that her emotional issues stem from pressure for her to produce a male heir. After six years of marriage, she had a miscarriage in 1999. Then in 2001, she gave birth to a daughter, Aiko. This ignited a lot of public debate over whether or not she could succeed the throne. This would require changing the Imperial Household Law of 1947. The matter was put aside in 2006, when Crown Prince Naruhito’s younger brother, Fumihito and his wife had a son. On the other hand, Kate gave birth to a boy, Prince George, in 2013, just two years into her marriage.

Soon after arriving, Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe took the prince on a boat tour around Tokyo Bay to see some of the places that will host events in the 2020 Olympics.

Later in the day, William went to Hamarikyu Gardens to take part in a tea ceremony, where he was greeted by flag-waving schoolchildren. The gardens date back to the Edo period (1603-1867), and provided a nice setting for William’s first public appearance taking part in traditional Japanese culture. Of course tea, and the formalized serving of tea, is something that both the UK and Japan have long appreciated, but there are some key differences. William was excused from sitting in the usual seiza position (on his knees), and sat on a low stool instead.

Prince William in Japan: Day Two

On Friday, Prince William visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama. The cemetery is dedicated to the approximately 1,700 servicemen from the British Commonwealth (Britain, Canada, Australia, etc.) who died in Japan as prisoners of war during World War II. William offered a wreath and a silent prayer. He also signed the visitors’ register and was shown an album with pictures of his mother, who also visited the cemetery during her final visit to Japan in 1995. His grandmother, the queen, has also paid her respects there.

After the cemetery, William went to a luncheon hosted by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. It was not their first meeting, as the imperial couple met William and his wife in 2012 during the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne.

Later that day, William had tea with Crown Prince Naruhito. Some have noted the contrast in the personalities between the outgoing William and Naruhito. However, once again, some of the blame for what may seem like a colder attitude on Naruhito’s part must surely be laid on the more distant relationship between the imperial family and the Japanese public in general.

Prince William in Japan: Day Three

Saturday began with a visit to NHK studios in Tokyo, where William explored the sets of a historical drama. He was also allowed (persuaded?) to don some samurai costume, including helmet and sword.

Later that day William headed north to visit the Fukushima area with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which I’m sure the government thought would be a great opportunity to show the Japanese people examples of success in their recovery efforts following the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, and to reassure them that the government is still making progress in that area. Apparently some locals weren’t happy about the prince’s visit, feeling they were being used for political ends, when they have been dissatisfied with the same recovery efforts the visit was meant to highlight.

At any rate, most of the coverage has been positive. William and Abe went to an athletic center, in the city of Motomiya, which was opened in 2012 as a safe place for recreation in an area where there is less fear of radiation. William talked to local children and impressed them with his juggling skills. They also participated in a tree planting ceremony to wish for a quick recovery.

In the evening, William and Abe donned yukata (light cotton kimono) at a ryokan (traditional inn) in Koriyama, where they ate a dinner made from local ingredients. Of course this kind of thing is common on state visits, except that in this case using local ingredients from the Fukushima area argues for their safety, a point that both the government and Fukushima farmers are eager to make. After all, if it’s good enough for the prime minister and the crown prince of Britain, it should be good enough for you.

We’ll Never Be Royals . . . But Maybe They Can Be More Like Us


The next day Prince William bid Japan farewell and continued along his travels. So, what can we learn from his trip?

State visits are fairly common, but royal representatives that go between the UK and Japan are a bit special due to the many things their lives have in common, but also due to the many differences, usually stemming from differences in culture.

In both cases, the royals were once considered to have divine right in one form or another, but now they have neither that nor practical authority. In the UK the change came from within, whereas in Japan it was forced upon them from the outside. I think this has led to a lot of lingering ideas about the imperial family in Japan that both remove them from the public and at the same time put more public pressure on them. Perhaps, by seeing the example of William, a royal who is more open and tries to use his influence for good in a number of causes, while at the same time being a bit more down to earth than previous royal generations, Japan might take a closer look at their own relationship with the imperial family, and how it might evolve for the better.

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Ekiben! Japanese Food on Japanese Trains and Beyond Wed, 15 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 In the US, feeding yourself while traveling is pretty much just a chore. Highway rest areas with the same fast food chains all over the country let your fuel yourself and your car at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it a treat. You won’t starve on Amtrak, but you’re better off packing a […]

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In the US, feeding yourself while traveling is pretty much just a chore. Highway rest areas with the same fast food chains all over the country let your fuel yourself and your car at the same time, but you wouldn’t call it a treat. You won’t starve on Amtrak, but you’re better off packing a lunch, and if you take the bus that may be your only option. And airline food – ugh, better not to think about that at all.

When you travel by train in Japan, it’s a different story. Ekiben (駅弁), the bento sold on trains and in train stations, were once a simple necessity for hungry travelers. Modernized in the face of competition from the private auto, now they serve as souvenirs and promotion for local tourism. Now people even flock to buy them when they’re not traveling – for sure something that would never happen with an airline meal.

Come with us on a journey from the first simple rice ball to a wonderland of local delicacies, charming presentations, and delicious, delicious Japanese food.

The First Japanese Train Station Bento Box


It’s clear that train travel started in Japan in 1872, but the beginning of the ekiben is a little harder to pin down. There are various competing theories as to what counts as the first ekiben, as is often the case with an idea whose time has so obviously come. There were trains, there were people, people get hungry. The market was so ready that it almost had to happen in some form, and surely more than one merchant met the need. But who would think to keep precise accounts of who first sold a thing that hadn’t even been defined yet? What’s more, many historical records were lost in the war, so even if they did, they’re long gone now.

The standard narrative gives the honor of being first to a meal that was sold at Utsunomiya station in Tochigi prefecture, consisting of two rice balls in a bamboo wrapper, with pickles. It sold for five sen. One sen is 1/100 of a yen, so that was the equivalent of around 10 dollars in current money, which is about the price of a nice ekiben today.

Competing possibilities for the honor of the first are actually earlier, including meals sold in Osaka and Kobe and 1877 and Ueno Station in 1883, among others.  I wonder if the Utsunomiya station one wins more or less official recognition because apparently we know the exact date it was first sold – July 16, 1885, the opening day of the Japan Railway Tohoku main line. That gives us a precise anniversary to celebrate. Pretty convenient.

Something this good needs more than one excuse for a party, though, and ekiben are also celebrated on another day: April 10 is Ekiben no Hi 駅弁の日, because the Japanese cannot resist a kanji pun. Apparently 弁 looks like a combination of 十 (ten) and the Arabic number 4? Whatever. Any excuse to eat more ekiben, right? This year, April 10 was in fact celebrated as the 130th year of the ekiben by the association for Japan Rail ekiben makers as you can see from this official flyer.

The Ekiben Develops


Photo by 4563_pic

The ekiben quickly began to take on the features that are recognizable today. 1888 saw the first standard ekiben with rice and a bunch of side dishes, sold at Himeji Station. Some sources say the first ekiben to feature local specialties were sushi ekiben sold at Ichinoseki and Kurosawajiri in Iwate beginning in 1890, but whoever started it, the idea took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While travellers didn’t have websites to consult in those days, by 1905 a magazine listed the different ekiben available in different places, and some railway timetables would list the famous ekiben of the region.

In the old days, ekiben vendors carried their wares on a display tray that hung from a strap around their necks. Announcing themselves with a special sales call, they walked along the platform and sold through the windows of the stopped trains.

This charming custom died out when trains became climate-controlled, with windows that didn’t open, as well as schedules that were tighter. Sales have mostly moved to kiosks and to inside the train, but there are still a few places left with old-fashioned platform vendors (here you can see photos from some train stations that still had them in the early to mid 2000s).


Along with local specialties, ekiben incorporate a couple of other features essential to traditional Japanese cuisine. Some feature seasonal foods and are only available at certain times, and always, beautiful presentation is vital. Even when made in large facilities instead of by local cooks, attention is still paid to the presentation and placement of each item. (For example, check out this report of a visit to an ekiben factory.)

When we talk about presentation, that includes the box and wrapping as well as the food itself. These are not your supermarket/conbini bento in plastic trays. Not to knock conbini bento, which are one of my favorite things, but one way ekiben compete with these cheaper options is with souvenir containers and attractive packaging. Fun containers include the shinkansen above, and my favorite, this octopus jar:


Photo by Linda Lombardi

Ekiben in more conventional boxes are covered in wrappers that feature a fantastic variety of Japanese art and graphic design. Many give you an idea of the food inside, with elegant drawings of fish or produce. Others commemorate occasions – for example, there was a special ekiben at Tokyo Station for the 1964 Olympics. And some include historical or folkloric figures and famous sites. This one from Ueno Station features the station facade and the statue in Ueno Park depicting Saigō Takamori, often called the last samurai, and his faithful dog:


Photo by Luke Lai

Pop culture characters get into it too. For the full experience of that sort of thing, watch someone buy an Anpanman ekiben and eat it on an Anpanman-themed train:

And then you can spend hours on this site navigating one guy’s collection of over 6000 ekiben wrappers, some going back to the 1900s, and some, if he bought the actual meal himself, with photos of the contents as well.

The Ekiben Rises, Falls, and Rises Again


Photo by Luke Lai

During World War Two, ekiben were affected by rationing, with limited rice supplemented by sweet potato or noodles and fancy wrappers replaced by plain paper, sometimes with patriotic slogans. One famous Japanese dish came out of this period. Ikameshi, squid stuffed with rice, was invented by an ekiben vendor in Hokkaido using small squid that weren’t otherwise being made use of. Stuffing the squid with the rice and simmering the result made a small amount of rice into a more satisfying meal.

After the war in the 1950s, there was a travel boom, and with the rise in popularity of TV, interest in ekiben was spurred by a 1973 drama based on a manga about a guy who travels around Japan to try them. These decades were the golden age of ekiben. Consumption rose from about two million boxes per week in the late 1970s to twelve million boxes daily in the mid 1980s.

Times changed though as private car ownership became more common and flying became more popular as a way to travel. Ekiben purchases dropped, and 1987-2008 saw a 50% decline in the number of ekiben makers. To save their companies, new ideas were needed. Some of these were technological, like self-heating boxes, but even more attention seems to have been given to promotion. Maybe the most brilliant realization was that if people weren’t taking the train as much, what we needed was ekiben minus the eki. The first department store ekiben festival took place in 1966, and in two weeks sold 400,000 ekiben of 200 different kinds from all over the country. Now, instead of the train taking you to sample local specialties, the local specialties came to you, at least for a couple weeks out of the year.

Ekiben Today


Photo by かがみ~

While some say ekiben have seen better days, they really don’t seem to be doing all that badly. They are keeping up with the times with anime-themed products to catch the attention of young people for whom ekiben don’t have the nostalgia value, like a Naruto ekiben, offered in the home prefecture of the original manga’s creator. Or this one (that I really want) with both nostalgia and kid appeal, a souvenir Kitaro ekiben.

Since that first department store ekiben festival, more stores started holding them, and I’ve even been to an ekiben matsuri at a Mitsuwa market in the US. You can still go to the biggest and most famous annual ekiben matsuri at Keio Department Store in Shinjuku where over 200 varieties are sold. There are cooking demonstrations and special theme events, such as a recent Abandoned Railway Line Ekiben Project that recreated the ekiben of train lines that have been shut down.

But those department store festivals only last a couple of weeks. What if you’re in Japan at the wrong time? Never fear! Now you can head for the new, permanent ekiben matsuri street in the renovated Tokyo Station, where you can choose from 170 different ekiben from all over the country. The three most popular are reportedly a self-heating grilled beef tongue bento from Sendai, a chirashi bento with lots of egg omelet from Niigata, and a beef on rice bento from Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, which is famous for its beef. That’s a lot of culinary geography you can cover without even getting on the train.

But try to do it the old school way at least once. There’s nothing more quintessentially Japanese than eating your ekiben while looking out the window of a train. You may weep at the memory next time you’re served an airline meal, but it’s worth it.

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Questioning Japanese Creativity: Is Japan Really Creative? Mon, 13 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Ukiyo-e. Kabuki. The Shinkansen. Akira Kurosawa. Haruki Murakami. Hello Kitty. Attack on Titan. So, is Japan really creative? It seems like such a silly question. Why even bother to ask it? I imagine that most people reading this will wonder why I’m questioning such a self-evident truth. After all, there is even a study done by Adobe which found Japan to be […]

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Ukiyo-e. Kabuki. The Shinkansen. Akira Kurosawa. Haruki Murakami. Hello Kitty. Attack on Titan.

So, is Japan really creative? It seems like such a silly question. Why even bother to ask it?

I imagine that most people reading this will wonder why I’m questioning such a self-evident truth. After all, there is even a study done by Adobe which found Japan to be the country perceived most creative in the world.

However, this same study revealed something interesting. Japanese people themselves do not see Japan as creative. In fact, they were the least likely among the surveyed countries to describe themselves as creative or as “people who create.”

Within Japan, in business circles and in mass media, “innovation” has become a buzzword in recent years. But the practical model isn’t Sony. It’s Silicon Valley.

There’s a major gap between how outsiders view Japan and how Japan views itself. And I aim to find out why.

Japanese Creativity


Japan is certainly the birthplace of many creative things.

Visual storytelling mediums such as film and manga have been especially unique and innovative throughout the 20th century. Japanese characters like Hello Kitty have taken the world by storm. Beginning in the 1990s, Japan the world began to discover the depth of Japanese anime and games.

I personally remember growing up watching Digimon and battling caterpies in Veridian Forest on my Gameboy.

Then there’s also the list of Japanese inventions that Japan has provided the world. Not just the useless and weird ones, but very useful ones as well.

College students have Japan to thank for instant ramen. Party people thank Japan for karaoke machines. All kinds of gadgets, like the Walkman and portable CD player, were introduced during Japan’s industrial heyday.

For film you have recent award-winners like Departures and Confessions, not to mention works by Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki, and Shohei Imamura.

Japan boasts some notable musicians like Joe Hisaishi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who is best known for his composition “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” (one of my favorites).

Japanese literature gave us novelists like Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami.

Need we even mention Tezuka and Miyazaki?

We could go on and on creating these lists, for every realm and sphere. So how then can Japanese people consider themselves to be uncreative?

And more to the point, does this prove Japan’s creativity?

Why Don’t Japanese People Consider Themselves Creative?


Photo by Angie Harms

To understand why Japanese people don’t consider themselves creative, consider the following explanations:

  1. There’s probably a bit of humility distorting the results.
  2. It used to be Sony that was offering new products to the world. The past ten-so years have seen Silicon Valley leading and Japan playing catch-up.
  3. Japan’s software side remains weak. Japanese websites are a prime example. Games are the exception. But games aside, I can’t think of a widely-used Japanese software or app that has gained traction outside of Japan besides LINE (do enlighten me if you know of one though).
  4. Entrepreneurial culture remains small (but it certainly exists and is growing). This article calls the situation in Japan an “entrepreneurship vacuum” and notes that it had the lowest rate of new enterprises appearing in the whole OECD.

Flagging corporations, weak software development, and a small entrepreneurial culture. And this from a country of 120 million. Despite our lists of creative works and heroes above, there is evidence to support the argument that Japan is not the most creative country in the world.

Japan’s Creative Strengths and Weaknesses


Naturally each country has its strengths and weaknesses and Japan is no different. It displays creativity in areas like cultural products and food. But entrepreneurship and software are entirely different fields.

I’ve mentioned before that the Japanese are not necessarily conservative, but risk-adverse. Thus, creativity expressed in Japan is likely to be in rather risk-free ways. Perhaps this is why we see creativity expressed through cultural products, fashion, and the arts. These fields naturally come with some cultural expressive space and demand something different.

This creativity is probably stifled in the Japanese boardrooms and corporate offices. After all, risk-adverse corporations are unlikely to make drastic and possibly upsetting moves. Individual employees are also unlikely to stick their necks out for a wild idea because of the responsibility that comes with it. Perhaps it is this aversion to risk which causes creativity to manifest itself unevenly in different fields.

Another point is the skills in which Japanese people excel. I have to say, from personal experience, IT education in Japan is poor. People enter university not having touched Microsoft Word before, much less with any programming ability. Also, even within Japan right now there is more respect paid to hardware engineers compared to software engineers. This explains the poor software sector in Japan.

On the other hand perhaps Japan’s strength in arts and music arises from the long artistic traditions and the educational institutions Japan has in these areas.

Creativity Is in the Eye of the Beholder


Illustration by David Gutteridge. Used with permission.

There’s also a lot of distortions when it comes to the outside view of Japan. A good example is “I survived a Japanese Game Show” which aired on ABC in 2008. It featured American contestants going to Japan to perform wacky deeds on a show called “Majide.” It fails to really show anything real in Japan. Even the NHK, which is funded by the government and biased, shows more of Japan’s reality. If anything ISAJGS shows people what they expect. These are things that non-Japanese people have already attached the “weird” label to. Usually, this idea of “weird” also connotes “creative.”

The typical tourist experience in Japan is another fine example. The typical tourist will probably walk through Harajuku at 7:00pm, stunned by the Gothic Lolita fashion. The typical Japanese working person however has to deal with the 8:00am Shinjuku station, one of the most dreary and uncreative scenes imaginable.

Obviously the typical tourist comes to Japan looking for what’s special about it. He or she will leave Japan knowing all about the glittery things. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact it’s normal for any short term visitor. But it should be recognized that tourists view of Japan is narrow, as they miss the mundane, ordinary, and “normal.”

This also applies to cultural products. The anime that receive attention outside of Japan are likely to be the cream of the crop or have some exotic appeal to them. These shows are different from “normal” Japanese anime, and even more different from the “normal” TV you’d see by channel surfing in Japan. You’re more likely to stumble on formulaic travel or variety shows with one or two gimmicks thrown in and presenters yelling “oishiiii.”

In addition, I think lots of people look at Japanese culture and assume that it’s creative just because it’s different from their own. However, apply the same standards to Western culture and things begin to look off.

If we conclude that Japan is creative for inventing Pokemon then isn’t Belgium creative for inventing the Smurfs? Little blue men (and one woman) living in mushrooms. That’s pretty different and creative.

Saying that Japan is creative because it has KyariPamyuPamyu is like saying the US is creative for having Lady Gaga. Final Fantasy?  The US gets super creative points for Dungeons and Dragons then.

If any of the statements sound strange it’s because they are. If it doesn’t make sense to use Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as evidence for American creativity, then the same goes for using Hello Kitty as evidence for Japan’s.

Creativity as Defined by Whom?


I actually don’t have a straight answer to whether Japan is creative or not. I certainly can say Japan has creativity (duh!). If it didn’t, Apple wouldn’t be choosing Yokohama for their new research center. I can also say that Japan displays more creativity in some fields than others. Also, it isn’t 100% creative across the board.

I can positively say Japanese creativity, as perceived from outside Japan, has been massively exaggerated. Japan has been subject to a runaway media especially online but also offline. This has reduced a unique and complex country into a pastiche of weird food, Engrish, anime, and hentai.

Perhaps we should remember that, for the Japanese, things out of the Japanese normal, not the western normal, are creative. That is to say, no matter how novel (to the outside) and entertaining it may be, there is nothing really creative about yet another fan-service filled, formulaic shounen anime. Neither is it creative for Japan to (apparently) have panty vending machines (which I’ve never seen in all my time here). If there are already vending machines for cigarettes and soda, it really doesn’t take much of a creative jump to fill one with underwear.

Most Japanese people will probably consider Attack on Titan to be genuinely creative though. Because the themes and characters are rather fresh.

So perhaps instead of pointing to Japan as “creative” in long, distorted strokes, maybe we should think about what is really creative to Japanese people. After all, if creativity is the ability to create new things, then to judge this we need to look at what is pushing the envelope within Japanese culture, not simply Japanese things we’ve never seen before.

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JET Program Culture Shock Part 3: Coping with Culture Shock in Japan Fri, 10 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The last two articles, defining culture shock and preparing for culture shock, were leading up to this. Dealing with culture shock while you’re shocked is the most important piece of the puzzle. There are lots of ideas on what to do when culture shock stares you in the face. Below are 10 ways to cope with culture shock, […]

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The last two articles, defining culture shock and preparing for culture shock, were leading up to this. Dealing with culture shock while you’re shocked is the most important piece of the puzzle. There are lots of ideas on what to do when culture shock stares you in the face. Below are 10 ways to cope with culture shock, and 4 ways that may seem like a good idea, but actually hurt more than help. Even further below are links to some of the best resources, helps, and ideas I’ve found so far.

How to Cope


Once you’ve recognized your shock-ed-ness, it’s time to take action. With a little work and patience, you’ll be back on your emotional feet and loving life in Japan the way you wanted to.

  1. Acknowledge that your feelings are valid: More than likely, the culture shock feelings you’re experiencing may not be entirely wrong. The problem is that culture shock blows up those feelings exponentially and then spreads them over your perception of all of Japanese culture. For example your frustration at using a fax machine in the internet age may be entirely valid. But then the valid feeling becomes anger which turns into “This whole damn country is backwards!” These feelings spread farther to “Giving omiyage is so useless and stupid. This whole damn country is backwards!” Eventually everything you encounter becomes stupid, useless, backwards, illogical, and just plain wrong. And that’s where you become miserable. Take some time to write down all your grievances, no matter how angry or outlandish they may be. Get them down on paper. Recognize that they are your personal feelings and you are entitled to your opinion, no matter what it is. Then put them away. Put those feeling away in a box or drawer and forget about them. You’ve recognized that you’re in stage 2 and you’re not yourself. So put these feelings aside until you’re past this stage. You’re not dismissing your ideas, you’re just putting them aside because they’re getting in the way of your enjoyment of life. This is saying, “I’m not going to let my ideas of how Japan should work get in the way of enjoying the way Japan is.” After you’re past stage 2, come back to the list. Over time you may find that some of these ideas are not the way you truly feel about Japan. Some ideas will remain, though you won’t feel irrationally angry about them. You may end up feeling that the group mentality does have some positive effects, while you may still think using a fax machine in the 21st century is silly. But no matter what your opinion on Japan ends up being, you’ll be able to accept the country for what it is and enjoy your life.
  2. Join a club: Join a group activity at your school or in your community that involves Japanese people. When Japan’s cultural differences are bugging you, it may seem counterintuitive to join activities with Japanese people, which is exactly why you should do it. You may not fully understand the Japanese way of thinking or doing things, but being in fun, non-work situations with Japanese people will help you to start enjoying the company of individuals who are part of the culture that’s grating on you. Over time, it becomes easier to understand the Japanese way of doing things because you’ll have friends to connect that mindset with. You start to connect Japan with people you care about, rather than ideas or concepts you think about.
  3. Volunteer: This has the same benefits as joining a club or activity. But it has extra efficacy because you’re serving and helping others. Also, it refocuses your attention on people who need help, and gets you outside of your head and the negativity bouncing around in there.
  4. Differentiate between a cultural issue and an individual behaving badly: When deep in culture shock, it’s easy to take the behavior of one (or a few) jerks and assign it to the entire Japanese population. When a disgruntled salaryman elbows you on the train and tells you to go back to 外国, it’s easy to think, “Stupid Japan. Everybody here hates foreigners.” Pay special attention when you find yourself thinking these things. Is it really a Japan problem, or is it just that person?
  5. Remind yourself that you moved to Japan for the differences: If you wanted the same life you had, you would have stayed in your home country. But you wanted adventure and something different. True, some of that differentness is not always good or easy to deal with. Some parts of the adventure are sucky. But trudging through the sucky parts will eventually lead you to the treasure you set out for.
  6. Journal and Blog: Take some time to write down your thoughts in a journal and a blog. Notice I said “and,” not “or.” I suggest doing both, one for your thoughts for other people and one for personal thoughts. First use your journal to get out all your personal, angry, hurt, sad, or whatever feelings. Once you’ve done that, blog the ones you feel like sharing. This lets you do a lot of emotional parsing and keeps you from sharing things you’ll regret saying later.
  7. Take some alone time (but not isolation time): For all the getting involved that is good for you, it’s important to take time for yourself. Sometimes culture shock can be worsened by overwork and over socializing. So be sure to politely decline some events or invitations if you really need to recharge your batteries. The caution here is that you don’t let alone time become a period of isolation. People in difficult emotional states tend to isolate themselves and turn inward, which makes their situation worse. Make sure to reconnect with friends, family, and co-workers after your pre-determined recharge time.
  8. Focus on the similarities: Japan’s differences are all up in your face and irritating you. So try to look past them and focus on what makes you and Japan similar. What values do you share? What beliefs?
  9. Read about Japan online: This may be hard to do when you’ve got Japan overload, but read as much as you can. Not only is reading good for you, reading about news in your new nation can help you feel more aware of your surroundings and more connected with your new life.
  10. You are not your brain: Dr. Rebecca Gladding and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz remind us that our brain is not us. It’s an organ that keeps us alive and tells us to do things, usually based on survival. This is great in the wild, but not so great in society where we have to be in relationships with other humans. This means you’ve got hope in the midst of culture shock. The emotional and psychological ups and downs can be controlled and limited. This isn’t accomplished easily, of course. But it can be accomplished. Your brain may order you in different directions, but you don’t have to do everything it tells you.

How Not to Cope


While enacting coping strategies, there are a few things to avoid, some that may even seem like they’re helping at first.

  1. Don’t rush yourself: As mentioned in number 3 of this list, you have  a lot of things to adjust to: new job, new people, new language (probably), new mindset, new living conditions, new weather, and the list goes on. Part of the reason culture shock happens is because the adjustment time usually outlasts the novelty of a new environment. So be patient with the shock. Do your best to cope but know it might take a while to even out.
  2. Facebook: Social media touts itself as a revolution in human communication. And it can be sometimes. But scrolling through friends’ news feeds while culture shocked is like feeding your homesickness. When you’re feeling down about your life in Japan, don’t consume (overblown) images and stories of friends in your home country doing swimmingly. Instead, opt for Facebook messages or tweets directly to a friend or loved one. Use social media for helpful communication rather than one-way intake of other peoples’ life snippets.
  3. Don’t isolate yourself: This was mentioned above, but it bears repeating. Don’t isolate yourself. It doesn’t take scientific research to know that isolation is bad for mental health, but here’s some anyway: scientific research.
  4. Don’t complain about Japan in groups: As Verity explains in her article on culture shock, it’s best to avoid what she calls “stage 2 parties.” This is where a group of foreigners get together to gripe about Japan, which usually validates extreme ideas in their minds and makes their culture shock worse. Make no mistake, it’s fine to let off steam. In fact, a bit of “I know, right!” with friends can be very helpful during stage 2. But try to be conscious of when this party has gone on too long, is not constructive, or is destructive. The goal of letting off steam is to let feelings go, not pile them on and weigh you down even more.

What to Do If Culture Shock Becomes Overwhelming


Photo by Jes

If you feel the effects of your culture shock are too tough to handle on your own and you’re experiencing symptoms beyond your control, please reach out to someone. There are large networks of people who help JETs with all kinds of problems, culture shock included.

  • The AJET Peer Support Group: This is a group of individuals that work between 8pm and 7am, Japan time. They are trained to help JETs all over the country with all kinds of problems and offer counsel. Find out more information at the AJET PSG website, or give them a call at 050-5534-5566 or on Skype at AJETPSG.
  • Tokyo English Life Line: TELL is a non-profit in Tokyo that offers various types of counseling and support to English speakers in Japan. Check out their website or call them at 03-5774-0992.
  • Your Prefectural Advisor: Though their powers are now more limited than they used to be, your PA is still there for you. This is exactly the kind of thing they are meant to handle. Contact them any time you need help, especially in an emergency.

Resources for Coping with Culture Shock in Japan


Below are a list of resources I came across while researching this article series. Refer to them for extra information on understanding and dealing with culture shock. The official JET General Information Handbook had some of the most enlightening and helpful information on the subject. Also, an article called “The Values Americans Live By” by L. Robert Kohls was similarly enlightening, especially his list of American values set side-by-side with those of a more traditional country. Check that one out, even if you’re not American.

The Jewel and the Light


Photo by Orbital Joe

Overcoming culture shock is a tough subject because it’s different for everyone. It can be mild or severe and how or when it takes effect depends on the individual. But no matter who you are, I hope this series helps at least in a small way.

Personally, I dodged some parts of culture shock, but other parts hit me hard. I handled some things well, but others I didn’t, which kept me shocked longer than I needed to be. In the end though, I learned a lot about myself and Japan.

I’ll end this series with a quote from an excellent resource for JETs, KumamotoJET:

We are like a jewel, and culture is like the light.  When light comes from a different source or angle, the jewel looks different.  Sometimes just a little change makes the jewel shine, and other times it makes it look dull and unimpressive.  It’s not the jewel’s or the light’s fault, it’s the result of the interaction.  It’s not Japan’s fault, it’s not your fault.  It’s the result of the interaction between the two.

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Making the Best of Roppongi’s Split Personality Wed, 08 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Although its name means “six trees,” it might as well be called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Located near the center of Minato Ward, between Shinbashi and Shibuya, Roppongi’s (六本木) one square kilometer is jam packed with business, culture, and entertainment with a touch of debauchery. Home to businesses and national embassies, Roppongi puts on serious airs during the day. But once the […]

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Although its name means “six trees,” it might as well be called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Located near the center of Minato Ward, between Shinbashi and Shibuya, Roppongi’s (六本木) one square kilometer is jam packed with business, culture, and entertainment with a touch of debauchery.

Home to businesses and national embassies, Roppongi puts on serious airs during the day. But once the sun sets it transforms, unleashing the pleasure-seeking beast within. Despite all the fun offered by Roppongi’s nightlife, it also holds its share of danger. However, with proper precaution, visitors can avoid the fangs and enjoy Tokyo’s famed entertainment district.

The Legend of “Six Trees”


Photo by Σ64

Roppongi’s “Six Tree” moniker has no certain explanation, though two theories prevail.

Mukashi mukashi, or long ago in the pre-Edo era, farmers and wood collectors frequented the area’s forests to gather lumber and kindling. The region became well known for six types of trees that flourished there. According to this legend, Roppongi gained its name from those, now forgotten, six species of tree (Cooper).

Another theory tells of six daimyo (governor) families that resided in the district. During the Edo era, the Tokugawa shogunate forced regional daimyos’ children and wives to live near the Edo capital (modern day Tokyo). The virtual hostage situation forced daimyo stationed throughout Japan to tread carefully and remain loyal to Tokugawa. Legend has it that each of Roppongi’s six resident daimyo families had names ending with 木 or “tree.” Roppongi was named after these “six trees.”

Regardless of the name’s origin, both legends paint Roppongi as a remote, unsettled region. Roppongi would remain off the beaten path until 1626, when the area’s monks hosted the cremation ceremony of shogun Hidetada’s late wife (Cooper). The lavish ceremony brought capital to the monks, who reinvested their newfound wealth in the area.

Roppongi’s transformation began with the construction of new temples and lodging. Word of the ceremony and the new construction attracted people to the area. Houses and shops grew into a community that would be named Roppongi (Cooper).

Henshin (Transform)!


Photo by Morio

As time passed Roppongi grew in population and reputation. In 1894, the Japan-China War brought Roppongi’s first military presence. Imperial Japanese Army personnel sparked business growth, particularly in the entertainment industries.

The trend of military influence continued on after WWII, when US military personnel made the area home. “Many Japanese-owned restaurants, pool halls, bars, and brothels catered to US military personnel but were also often frequented by Japanese customers” (wiki). The international flavor Roppongi inherited during the post war era continues today.

Roppongi flourished with Japan’s post war economic growth. Businessmen and celebrities flush with bubble economy cash frequented its bars and clubs. Richard Smart of CNN notes, “By the time the 1980s bubble burst, Roppongi was cemented in local imagination as a center for debauchery, perhaps only rivaled by Shinjuku’s notorious Kabukicho district” (Smart).

Japan’s economic collapse hit Roppongi hard. As the cash flow slowed, people had fewer reasons and less means to party. Many Roppongi businesses, bars, and clubs went bankrupt, underwent name and ownership changes, or disappeared altogether (Smart).

Real-estate investor Minori Mori described  post bubble Roppongi as a “hodgepodge of cheaply built post-war buildings” that had fallen into disrepair (Sposato). Roppongi owes its rebirth to Mori whose investments and vision, like the monks hundreds of years earlier, transformed its physical and economic landscape.

Hello Roppongi Hills!

is roppongi safe

The Japanese government hoped to rebuild or renew city areas by easing building and investment restrictions through its 1986 “urban renaissance”policies. The economic collapse postponed or terminated many of these projects, but the turn of the century’s economic revival brought an “urban renaissance” (Shima, et al).

An ISOCARP report explains,

Urban Renaissance Special Measure Law then went into force in 2002 and, under this law, Priority Urban Development Areas were selected… In the areas, various incentives, like deregulation of urban planning, financial support, are provided to encourage private investment.

Roppongi represented one of the most densely populated areas chosen for renewal. Local support coupled with the vision and investment strategies of Minoru Mori, “whose entrepreneurial risk-taking helped transform the central Tokyo skyline and which set him apart within Japan’s staid real-estate world,” triggered Roppongi’s remarkable transformation (Sposato).

The Mori website explains, “Our aim was the creation of a new Tokyo cultural center, where humanity, culture, interaction and vision could flourish.” Completed in 2003, the Roppongi Hills complex takes up about 24 acres, boasting a 54-story main building, over 200 shops and restaurants, and serves as Japan’s headquarters for Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers.

Roppongi’s Multiple Personalities


Photo by Grueslayer

Although Shibuya Crossing and Tokyo Tower offer Tokyo’s most recognizable images, they can’t top Roppongi’s unique reputation. The area radiates a surreal vibe, offering an eclectic mix of the serious (businesses, embassies), the lighthearted (chique art and party culture) and the dangerous (gangs and crime). Welcome to Tokyo’s Thunderdome.

All Business

is roppongi safe

Photo by jon

On the serious side, Roppongi touts several convention centers, embassies and the Tokyo Metropolitan Offices. The urban renewal project attracted many businesses. Mori Company made its home in Roppongi’s rebuilt district. The Pokemon Company made its headquarters there. Other corporate presences include Ferrari Japan, Genco, Yahoo! Japan, Google Japan, TV Asahi, Goldman Sacs, State Street, and Corning Incorporated. Several law firms are also headquartered in Roppongi (Wikipedia).

The Art Side


Photo by Ihateanarchists

Roppongi serves as a hotbed for art and culture too. Museums and convention centers, like Mori Art Museum and Mori Arts Center Gallery, host a variety of exhibits. There are also big events, like Roppongi Art Night which “has been turning the eponymous Tokyo district into a sprawling exhibition, taking over not only its art galleries and museums” (Sunda).

There’s an education and cultural center called Academy Hills. Roppongi Hills Arena provides an outdoor facility for live events and performances. And TOHO Cinemas Roppongi Hills shows domestic and international films. Despite its famed nightlife, Roppongi offers many daytime attractions for those with a taste for culture.

Party Hard

is roppongi safe

Photo by dat’

Despite all it has to offer, Roppongi is most famous for its nighttime entertainment. This reputation is  a well earned one. After all, Roppongi became famous for its nightlife with the arrival of the imperial army in the late 1800s, long before it transformed into a corporate and cultural hub. The hedonism continued to thrive during the American occupation and the bubble economy.

Roppongi’s restaurants, clubs and bars carry on its night-life legacy. Hostess clubs, love hotels and other borderline illegal attractions give Roppongi its edge. But gangs, drugs and other crimes have given it a precarious reputation.

The Darkside


Photo by karendesuyo

The fun of Roppongi nights comes with a threat of danger. So visitors to the area should be cautious. “Japanese police statistics show Roppongi leads violent crime rates in Tokyo” (Gittler). Many crimes, including assaults, worker exploitation, and drug deals remain insider problems. Most victims include gang members, business owners, workers and police officers.

However some crimes specifically target regular customers and foreign tourists. Protect yourself by learning about the nature of the crimes and how to prevent them.

Drink Spiking


Photo by

Cases of spiked drinks have have become so frequent, the US Embassy has issued several warnings regarding the situation.

Typically, the victim unknowingly drinks a beverage that has been secretly mixed with a drug that renders the victim unconscious for several hours, during which time large sums of money are charged to the victim’s credit card or the card is stolen outright. Victims sometimes regain consciousness in the bar or club, while at other times the victim awakens on the street (USEmbassy).

Spiked drinks target foreign customers because communication difficulties make reporting and pursuing prosecution difficult and problematic.

Due to the nature of serving drinks at a bar, club or restaurant, avoiding spiked drinks can be tricky. If possible, explore bars with an acquaintance familiar with the area. Having someone fluent in Japanese help. Going in a large group can make drink spiking problematic for the establishment, especially if there’s a designated non-drinker to keep an eye on the situation.

Male Vicitms


Photo by Danny Choo

Although everyone should take caution, there are some cons aimed more at men. Hostess clubs and other pleasure services have a reputation for taking advantage of male customers, usually overcharging them.

Hosts and hostesses aim to drive up tabs and help their establishments. Bills that include a companion’s drinks and other expenses surprise unprepared, unknowing patrons. But this is normal.

Some establishments use more sinister tactics, like overcharging for items or adding “spurious” or fake charges to the bill (Gittler). Beware of any place where attractive men or women join you for foods and drinks, particularly when they pressure you to continue ordering.

Pushy Owners and Staff


Photo by Anna Lee

Image from Vice: Boyfriends for Hire in Japan

To make matters worse, Roppongi’s foreign business owners and staff can be pushier and more forceful than their Japanese counterparts. Keiji “Duke” Oda, regional director of a citizen group, patrols streets and neighborhoods to deter crime. He notes,

Many foreign nationals in quasi-gangs work for bars as touts and doormen to attract customers, he said, adding that the competitive pressure on them can make them dangerous. Visitors should be very clear when dealing with them if they don’t want to go to their bar… but never argue. (Gittler)

News stories and editorials say that foreign doormen are particularly aggressive. Use extra caution when approached by non-Japanese people in Roppongi. From my experience the best tactic is to ignore them and walk away.

Stumbling Into Trouble


Photo by shiranai

Oda also mentions the danger of stumbling upon drug deals and gang activities. Since these situations usually don’t take place in the open, visitors can avoid them by sticking to the main-streets. Steer clear of back-alleys and side-streets to lower the chances of dangerous encounters.

Is Roppongi Safe?


Photo by Laitr Keiows

When The Japan Times asked “people on the street” to describe Roppongi in one word, answers ranged from “pockets,” to “nightlife,” to plain “crazy.” But only one word occurred repeatedly – “schizophrenic.”

Roppongi’s personality changes throughout the day and quickly at night. This ever evolving nature frustrated author Roman Cybiwsky who coined the term “Roppongi frustration” to describe his inability to come up with a consistent image of the area (xvi).

Natsumi Suzuki had similar feelings. The 26 year old chef explains, “Roppongi is a place with no single personality. It has two – or more – sides. It is multi-faced in so many ways… It is a great place to go and a dangerous place to go, depending on when you visit.”

Roppongi’s popularity endures thanks to its ability to go with the flow and satisfy an eclectic mix of interests. From the corporate to the cultural and pleasure seeking, Roppongi offers a bit of everything.

But part of that “schizophrenic” mix is an alluring danger that adds to Roppongi’s thrills. The growing trend of drink-spiking has caused alarm, particularly for foreign tourists who are likely to fall victim. Other crimes like overcharging, theft, and assault are also on the rise.

But by staying informed and vigilant, visitors can party with Roppongi’s Dr Jekyll, while avoiding its dangerous Mr Hyde.

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Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko Mon, 06 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you were a wee one, did you dream of being a doctor or a lawyer when you grew up? Or maybe something even more ambitious like an astronaut? How about a shamaness-queen? Almost 2000 years ago, Queen Himiko of Yamatai raised the bar for women everywhere when she was crowned high priestess and supreme […]

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When you were a wee one, did you dream of being a doctor or a lawyer when you grew up? Or maybe something even more ambitious like an astronaut? How about a shamaness-queen? Almost 2000 years ago, Queen Himiko of Yamatai raised the bar for women everywhere when she was crowned high priestess and supreme ruler of her kingdom. As the political and religious leader of the proto-Japanese federation of Yamatai, she was beloved at home for her peaceful rule and respected abroad for her diplomatic savvy.

Himiko (also known as Pimiko) is not just any old badass chick in Japanese history. She holds the distinct honor of being the first badass chick in Japanese history. In fact, she’s the first named and confirmed (male or female) figure in Japanese history, period. Most people on earth who lived and died during the 3rd century have been rendered anonymous by temporal and cultural distance. But not Himiko. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of Education and Sciences, 99% of Japanese schoolchildren recognize and can identify her. Like Oprah or Madonna, Himiko’s on a first name basis with the Japanese general public. Meanwhile, she continues to fuel intense debate among amateurs and scholars alike concerning the exact location of her kingdom, a debate that more or less hinges on the location of her grave.

Before Japan Was Japan


Photo by Saigen Jiro

Himiko’s reign roughly spanned the first half of the 3rd century, long before the Japanese islands were the single political entity that we now call Japan. Rather, the archipelago was scattered with hundreds of “countries” or clan-nations linked into regional confederations. Agricultural communes had started giving way to diversified kingdoms. Political power became increasingly consolidated and social status increasingly stratified. Historians and archeologists often refer to these decades as a “transitional era” between the Yayoi (300BC-300AD) and Kofun (250-538AD) periods—hence the overlap in dates.

What qualified someone to rule one of these emerging kingdoms? Well, it helped if you were on speaking terms with the gods, or at least could convince other people that you were. As in many other ancient (and not so ancient) societies, religious authority was linked to spiritual authority in 3rd century Japan. Luckily for Himiko, female shamans were highly regarded in the folk religion and proto-Shintoism of the time, considered to be capable of banishing pesky malignant spirits on the one hand and speaking on behalf of divine spirits on the other. Since women had equal access to the spiritual realm, they also had access to the political realm. So far from being the shamaness-queen, Himiko was likely one of many shamaness-queens.


Another quirky characteristic of the times lent its name to the Kofun Period. At their most basic, kofun are big piles of dirt. Impressively big piles of dirt shaped like keyholes. First constructed in the mid-3rd century, these large earthen mounds served as mausoleums for deceased rulers. They began to appear in the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region and then spread throughout the archipelago in tandem with the increasing dominance of the Yamato clan. Over 5,200 have been identified so far in a variety of standardized shapes and uniformly staggering sizes. Himiko may have received one of the first such burials. Stay tuned for more about that.

“Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”


The little we know about the life and times of Himiko has been gleaned from a combination of written Chinese (and Korean) histories along with archeological verification. Before the Japanese began to record their own history, the Chinese did everyone the favor of writing some of it for them. The History of the Kingdom of Wei (297 AD) stands alone as the first written source about Japan. However, at that time Chinese historians relegated information about the “Land of Wa” (their name for Japan) and its peoples to the flattering “Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians” section of their histories, almost as an afterthought. At any rate, it’s got lots of juicy information about Himiko and her kingdom. Later Chinese dynastic histories reiterated and confirmed the information included in this first history, and the oldest surviving Korean text (Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms, 1145 AD) briefly describes Himiko’s relationship with the Korean peninsula. Collectively, this is what they can tell us:

During the second half of the 2nd century (ca. 147-190 AD), the lack of a capable leader plunged the Land of Wa into political turmoil and violent upheaval. Finally, in 190 AD the unmarried shamaness Himiko was chosen by the people to rule. Installed in a palace with armed guards and watch towers, she was served by “1,000” female attendants while her “brother” acted as a medium of communication, transmitting her instructions and pronouncements to the outside world. After ascending to the throne, Himiko went on to restore order and maintain peace like a boss for the next 50 or 60 years.

In addition to upholding her religious duties, Himiko presided over more than 100 “countries” that acknowledged her as their ruler. But she didn’t just stay in her own backyard. On behalf of the entire federation of Yamatai, Himiko dispatched diplomatic missions to China at least four times during her reign. In recognition of her legitimacy, the Chinese Wei Dynasty bestowed upon her the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei” along with a nifty golden seal and over 100 ceremonial bronze mirrors. I know that might not seem very exciting now, but back then mirrors were THE ULTIMATE status symbol. A decent stash of mirrors could turn you into the coolest kid on the block.

Unfortunately, the party couldn’t last forever. In 248, Queen Himiko died. Some uppity dude reportedly attempted to succeed the throne in the wake of Himiko’s death, but his reign was heavily resisted and short-lived. According to Chinese sources, order was restored again only once the 13-year-old Queen Iyo took the throne—who just so happened to be a relative of Himiko. I guess badassery ran in the family.

But that’s not all. In Himiko’s honor “a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter” and 100 of her attendants, um, euphemistically “followed her to the grave.” The aforementioned “great mound” was almost certainly one of the first kofun ever erected. Just a few years ago in 2009, a group of Japanese archeologists claimed that they had identified Himiko’s tomb as the Hashihaka Kofun in Sakurai City near Nara. Radiocarbon-dated artifacts found on the periphery of the Hashihaka Kofun date to between 240 and 260 AD. In other words, the time of Himiko’s death. Unfortunately, the Imperial Household Agency has designated Hashihaka a royal tomb and thereby forbids further excavation, so we may never know with certainty.

Himiko’s Legacy: From Hero to Zero and Back


Truth be told, Himiko didn’t have much of a legacy until the late Edo period (1600-1868). How did such badassery go unrecognized for so long? Well, in large part this is because she was conspicuously snubbed in the first Japanese texts, the mythic Kojiki (712) and the mytho-history Nihongi (720). Neither Himiko nor her kingdom are mentioned in either, despite the fact that the writers of the Nihongi clearly reference and cite the Chinese histories where she appears. Did they just skip those pages or something? Scholars attribute this blindness to the fact that the 8th century Japanese ruling house was consciously emulating patriarchal Chinese ideals and institutions. And this ideological framework didn’t leave much room for the existence of shamaness-queens. Meanwhile, the Japanese adoption of Buddhism and Confucianism didn’t do much to elevate the status of women, either. So in the interest of looking cool by Chinese standards, the Japanese court just decided to pretend Himiko and her ilk hadn’t existed.

Luckily, she wasn’t permanently erased. Queen Himiko and her kingdom of Yamatai resurfaced during the Edo period with the work of philosopher-statesman Arai Hakuseki and scholar Motoori Norinaga. Between the two of them, they started one of the oldest and most heated controversies in Japanese scholarship: where was Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai? Hakuseki rejected the Japanese histories as inaccurate, threw his weight behind the veracity of the Chinese records, and claimed that Himiko’s country of Yamatai had been in the heart of Japan—the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region known as the Kinai Plain. Norinaga, on the other hand, rejected the Chinese histories as inaccurate, upheld the veracity of the Japanese histories, and went so far as to claim that Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai had merely fooled the Chinese government into thinking that they were the ruling clan.

Norinaga’s view became dominant throughout the ensuing decades from the Meiji era through the end of World War II. During this time questions about Himiko’s kingdom became tangled with the nationalist-imperialist politics of the day. With the emperor enshrined as divine, rejecting the ancient Japanese histories could be viewed as an attack on the imperial system in general—and some historians who refused to conform lost everything at the hands of censorship laws. One such professor was Naka Michiyo, who from 1878 until the end of his life continually criticized the chronology of the ancient histories and disproved Norinaga’s claims about Yamatai.

In the post-war era, historians and archeologists picked up where Naka Michiyo left off, digging into the ancient texts as well as various archeological sites. Between 1955 and 1964, a series of archeological discoveries ignited the debate about the location of Yamatai—including the excavation of a tomb near Kyoto with numerous bronze mirrors possibly dating from the 3rd century. The 1960s through the early 1970s witnessed what the media proclaimed as a “Yamatai boom” as the debate became a national obsession ping-ponging between claims for Kyushu and the Kinai. Suddenly everyone was clamoring to claim Himiko.

Himiko Today: Town Mascot, Role Model, X-Rated Fantasy?


Photo by geraldford

In life Himiko was a religious and political leader. In death she’s become just about everything else. As a historical figure, she’s turned out to be remarkably pliable, probably because so little is known about her and the little that is known about her creates such fertile soil for the imagination. As a result, she’s been repurposed and repackaged in all sorts of ways. For example…

Thanks to the debate over the location of Yamatai, several cities in Japan claim her as a sort of town mascot. In Kyushu, there are statues of her outside Kanzaki Station, near Miyazaki Takachiho Gorge, and on the grounds of the Himiko Shrine in Hayato.

The city of Yoshinogari holds an annual bonfire festival that climaxes with the appearance of a costumed “Himiko” and a Kyushu brewery released “Himiko Fantasia” shochu.

Over in the Kinai region, Sakurai City (where Hashihaka Kofun is located) features Himiko on signs, online, and in person (well, at least a person in a mascot costume). City leaders have created online Himiko-themed anime shorts, and there’s a municipal webpage devoted to her called “Himiko-chan’s Page.”

As a role model Himiko can symbolize female power, innate occult abilities, national origins, and even good eating habits. No kidding, she’s the poster girl for a school campaign that urges students “to chew your food as thoroughly Queen Himiko did” in order to improve digestion and tooth health.

You can even be crowned “Queen Himiko” by participating in one of a number of Queen Himiko Contests, which are more or less beauty pageants. Women 18 and older are eligible to compete for a substantial cash prize on the basis of their charm and appearance—which is a bit depressing when you consider Queen Himiko’s historical worth probably had nothing to do with her ability to put on eyeliner.

Sakurai City Mascot

Himiko has also served as the inspiration for characters in numerous films, novels, manga, anime, and video games. A powerful and dignified Himiko rules with authority and grace in the 1967 bestseller “Maboroshi no Yamatotaikoku.” The 2008 film version of the book starred a venerated Japanese actress as Himiko, and her image in the role was selected for a set of commemorative stamps by the Japanese government.

And then for something entirely different, an irresponsibly promiscuous, Himiko meets her downfall in the 1974 film drama “Himiko” directed by Masahiro Shinoda.

In addition to a symbol of female power (whether for good or ill), Himiko has also been used as a tool for political critique. The first book of manga maven Osamu Tezuka’s acclaimed Phoenix series depicts a vain, power-hungry Himiko as the first of many vain, power-hungry rulers throughout Japanese, and world history—“power leads to corruption” being the main theme that Tezuka pursues throughout the rest of the series. And one of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s political cartoons features Himiko in order to argue for changing the imperial succession laws to allow for the throning of an empress.

Himiko pops up all over the place. A Himiko clone appears in the manga Afterschool Charisma and in the anime Shangri-la. The 2013 Tomb Raider video game reboot features a menacing Himiko as its primary antagonist. The Legend of Himiko encompasses an anime, manga, and video game series that appeals to pre-teen girl power sensibilities. And for the 18+ set, Taniguchi Chika’s erotic manga series aimed at women stars none other than Queen Himiko in various X-rated adventures. So whether you’re looking for a despotic villain, a role model, a symbol of national or local identity, a naïve shrine attendant, or a sexual fantasy, there’s a Himiko out there for you.

What’s So Great About Queen Himiko?


Photo by 皇なつき

Himiko ruled a kingdom 2000 years ago, fuels a bunch of debate about said kingdom, and continues to get a lot of face time in modern Japan in the form of statues and stamps and just about everything else. As impressive as all that is, what makes Himiko noteworthy is that she wasn’t unique in her time. In the earliest periods of Japanese history, women more generally had public authority, economic power, and spiritual prestige. The historical figure Himiko is merely representative of the heights of the political and religious leadership that women in Japan held prior to the importation of Chinese, Buddhist, and Confucian ideology. And even after these patriarchal influences first took root, it was many decades (centuries, even) before ideology and practice fully merged (if indeed they ever did).

In other words, Himiko was not an anomaly. She was merely the first notable ancestor of a strong tradition of female religious leaders (a la miko priestesses in Shinto) and political leaders (a la empresses) in Japanese history. Over time women’s roles may have devolved from active initiators to assistants in both spiritual and secular realms. But Himiko serves as a shining example that symbolically reflects the many other (now anonymous) women who were also leaders in their communities.

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  • “History of the Kingdom of Wei (Wei zhi) ca. 297 C.E.” Translated by Tsunoda Ryusaku (Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600; 2001)
  • “Gendered Interpretations of Female Rule: The Case of Himiko, Ruler of Yamatai” by Akiko Yoshie, Hitomi Tonomura, and Azumi Ann Takata (U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal; 2013)
  • Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850 by Karl Friday (2012)
  • “In Pursuit of Himiko: Postwar Archaeology and the Location of Yamatai” by Walter Edwards (Monumenta Nipponica; Spring 1996)
  • “Rebranding Himiko, the Shaman Queen of Ancient History” by Laura Miller (Mechademia; 2014)

The post Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko appeared first on Tofugu.

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