Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Tue, 26 May 2015 05:58:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Taming of the Shroom: The Umamitastic World of Japanese Mushrooms Fri, 22 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that […]

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Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that grows in Japan, but I tried to cover the types you can usually find for sale.  But before we start:

Warning: Do not go foraging for mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing.  That means you have lots of experience learning first-hand from another expert.  There are lots of tasty mushrooms out there, but there are also many that could give you a stomach ache or worse.  The vast majority of us should content ourselves with what’s available in stores.

What are Mushrooms and Why are They So Yummy?


A mushroom is, of course, a fungus.  More specifically, it is the fleshy, fruiting body of a fungus.  All mushroom are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.  Mushrooms sometimes usually have stems and caps, and typically have gills.  Those are the little frills you see on the underside of a mushroom’s cap.  Those gills produce spores that, in turn, produce more fungi.  The mushroom is connected to more fungal structure embedded in its food source, whether that be the soil, a tree, or something else.

A big factor in the flavor of many mushrooms is their umami.  Umami basically means “deliciousness,” but was applied by scientist, Ikeda Kikunae, to mean a sort of rich, savory flavor.  Ikeda was studying the science behind the flavor, and discovered that glutamate was the cause.  Ikeda mainly used kombu dashi for his studies, and subsequent studies also looked at dried bonito flakes.  However, in 1957, Kuninaka Akira discovered that the ribonucleotide GMP found in shiitake mushrooms also gave an umami flavor.  Based on that research he later discovered that when ingredients rich in glutamate are combined with those with ribonucleotides, the resulting umami is stronger than each individual part.

Buna-shimeji (Hypsizygus tessellatus)


Photo by Andy

Buna-shimeji are fairly small mushrooms with white, long, often-curved stems and tan caps.  They taste bitter when raw, but this is replaced with a nutty flavor when cooked.  They have a firm, slightly crunchy texture.  They are good for most recipes.

Enokitake (Flammulina velutipes)


Photo by Wendell Smith

Enoki mushrooms are named after the tree on which they grow, which is known as the Chinese hackberry in English.  However, they also grow on other trees, like mulberry and persimmon trees.  In the supermarket, they are easily recognizable as dense clumps of small, white mushrooms with long, slender stems.  Cultivated enoki are grown in a dark, carbon dioxide-rich environment to keep them white and encourage long stem growth, respectively.  Wild enoki tend to be dark brown, with shorter, thicker stems.

Enoki don’t have a strong flavor, so they probably aren’t the best mushroom to take center stage in a dish.  They do have a relative crispness to them.  For these reasons, plus their small size, they are often used in soups and stews.  They could also be used in some side dishes or salads.

Eringi (Pleurotus eryngii)


Photo by David Loong

Eringi have many names in the West, perhaps most common being the King Oyster Mushroom.  Unlike most of the fungi in this article, it is not native to Japan. It was mass cultivated there in the early 1990s and has become quite popular since.  Eringi are rather large, with long, thick, meaty white stems, and relatively small tan caps.  They don’t have a lot of flavor raw, but when cooked the umami comes forward.  I find them particularly good when grilled.  Keep it simple and cook them over flame or in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.

Magic Mushrooms


Photo by Scott Darbey

Some mushrooms can have psychedelic effects on those who consume them.  There are a number of such mushrooms, but the most popular by far are from the genus Psilocybe.  They cause hallucinations due to two different chemicals: psilocybin and psilocin.

Japan is a country that tends to take drugs quite seriously (apart from alcohol and tobacco), so it’s surprising that before 2002 magic mushrooms were legal.  You could buy them in head shops, and apparently even in vending machines.  In 2002 they were made illegal, perhaps because of the World Cup that was played in Japan that year.  It’s thought that Japanese leaders changed the law in anticipation of an influx of foreign fans getting high and causing trouble.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)


Photo by Brain Lioila

Maitake translates to “dancing mushroom.”  They don’t look like your stereotypical mushrooms.  They grow in a dense cluster and the stems flow into the frond-like caps, giving the whole cluster an appearance something like a head of cabbage.  The clusters can get quite large: over 40 kilograms (100 pounds)!  They have a woody, smoky flavor, but it isn’t as meaty as some other mushrooms.  They can be used in stir frying, simmering, roasting and other applications.

Matsutake (Tricholoma mastutake)


Photo by 挪威 企鵝

Matsutake form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain tree species, most notably the Japanese Red Pine, hence the name matsutake (“pine mushroom”).  Matustake have long, thick stems and knob-like brown caps.  Due to the difficulty in finding them, they are quite expensive.  The average price is about $90 per kilogram, but matsutake found in Japan at the beginning of the season can go for up to $2,000 per kilogram!  Matsutake grown in the U.S. can be had for a much lower price sometimes.  If you get the chance to try them, one of the best ways to show off their flavor is in a simple rice bowl dish (matsutake gohan).

Nameko (Pholiota nameko)


Nameko are small and amber-brown.  They have a nutty flavor and a thin layer of gelatin on their caps, which forms a sort of glaze when cooking with them.  They are often used in miso soup, nabemono, and stir-fries.


Photo by Akiko Ogata

Long popular in Japanese cuisine, nameko have recently gained notoriety in another field.  A trilogy of smart phone games called “Nameko Saibai Kit,” has become quite popular.  The goal of the game is to raise various types of anthropomorphic cartoon nameko.  Of course, with popularity comes merchandise, and you can find plenty of stuff featuring these cute little mushrooms.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)


Photo by tup wanders

Shiitake are named after the tree on whose dead logs they commonly grow, the Castanopsis cuspidate.  Shiitake is probably the most popular Japanese mushroom, both at home and abroad.  Who knows how long people have been collecting them in Japan, but somewhere along the line they discovered a method for cultivating them.  A shiitake bearing log would be placed next to freshly cut logs, allowing the fungus to spread to all of them.  They even found that damaging the bark of the new logs would improve the efficiency of mushroom multiplication.


Photo by Brian Liloia

It’s easy to see why shiitake are so popular, as they are both flavorsome and versatile.  When cooked, they are aromatic and have a nice rich, woody flavor.  Due to this and their chewy, dense texture they make a great meat substitute.  Shiitake can also be bought dried, which actually intensifies their flavor and adds a bit of smokiness.  The applications of shiitake are many and varied, from stir fries to grilling, from simmering to soups and nabemono (and that’s just in Japanese cuisine).  I love making a shiitake nimono: simmering the mushrooms in dashi and soy sauce until the liquid reduces to almost nothing.  You’ll have a bowl full of concentrated umami.

Kinoko no Yama


Photo by Robyn Lee

Okay, so obviously these aren’t real mushrooms.  However, they have been a popular snack ever since Meiji launched them in 1975.  Their part milk, part dark chocolate caps sit atop crunchy biscuit stems, and make for an excellent combo.  No list of Japanese mushrooms is complete without them.

Mushroom Medicine


Photo by dbaronoss

Some mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.  For example, the fungus from maitake has long been used in China and Japan for enhancing the immune system.  Modern research has indicated that the entire maitake may be useful in this regard.  In addition, a 2009 study by Sloan-Kettering showed it to have anti-tumor effects.  It may also have hypoglycemic effects.

Shiitake mushrooms have also shown some promise in the fighting both cancer and viruses, but studies have not been conclusive.  Still, as long as you’re enjoying some mushroom cooking, it’s nice to think they might be helping you too.

How to Choose and Store Your Mushrooms


Photo by Chiot’s Run

When selecting mushrooms at the store they should be dry, but not withered.  If they come plastic-wrapped, look out for condensation.  When storing them, sealing them in a paper bag is a good way to keep them from getting too wet or dry.  If you keep them in a plastic-wrapped tub, poking a few holes in the plastic is a good idea.  At any rate, you should use them within a few days.

You shouldn’t wash them until you’re about to use them.  Some say they shouldn’t be washed at all for fear of waterlogging them. Brush them instead.  A brush is fine, but time consuming, so a light wash should be fine.  If you don’t see any dirt on them, there shouldn’t be a need for either.

Let’s Put a Cap On This


Photo by Wendell Smith

What more is there to say?  Mushrooms are some tasty and versatile fungi.  Go forth and try as many kinds, in as many ways as possible!

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A Day in the Life of a Japanese Monk Thu, 21 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in […]

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Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in Japan.

I interviewed the same helpful monk from my article last year, Yugaku Ikawa of Daihisen Tatsunoji Temple in Yagyu, Nara. He belongs to a Japanese group of Shingon Buddhists from the Koyasan Shingon-shu sect. The lives of monks from different sects will differ. Even monks from within the same sect are likely to take slightly different paths because each region often has different habits, and monks who have different ranks and/or titles have different responsibilities. Even so, this interview is a great way begin understanding the lives of Japanese monks. I hope you enjoy it!

A Note from Yugaku Ikawa

There are three different types of temples: 観光寺 (かんこうでら/kankou-dera), temples for sightseeing, 御祈祷寺 (ごきとうでら/gokitou-dera), temples for praying, and 檀家寺 (だんかでら/danka-dera), temples for supporters. My temple is a danka-dera. To wrap your head around the idea of danka-dera, imagine Twitter. My temple is a twitter account. I have some followers who like my temple. They are called 檀家 (だんか/danka) or 檀家さん (だんかさん/danka-san) and they provide support to maintain my temple. In return, I assist with their worship for their Buddha and ancestors’ souls.

With this in mind, I’ll walk you through my life as the monk of a danka-dera.

An Ordinary Day



Photo by kumazoo_jp


Good morning! I get up around 5 am, then worship. I read sutra to the Buddha statue in my temple and pray for the peace of the day. It’s like a greeting to Buddhist Gods.


I clean my house and altar room.


I offer rice and tea to the Buddha statue.


I eat breakfast and prepare for the day. My breakfast is usually a banana and yogurt, since my stomach is not that strong. But in principal it should be shojin ryori (monk’s vegetarian diet). Although it’s vegetarian, there are five vegetables called 五辛 (ごしん/goshin) or 五葷 (ごくん/gokun) that are prohibited for monks to eat: green onions, garlic, Chinese chives, scallions, and hajikami, which means both ginger and Japanese sansho pepper. Why? Because they act as aphrodisiacs and are too good for building energy. We are supposed to be calm all the time.



Photo by S.R.I.M.I.N.

If there are no funerals that day, I visit the homes of my danka-san (supporters) for worship. There are two types of worship. One is called 月参り (つきまいり/tsukimairi), which is a monthly worship on monthly anniversaries of each family member’s death. I usually visit five to ten places for tsukimairi in a given day. Each tsukimairi usually takes about 10 minutes. The other is called 法事 (ほうじ/houji), which is a Buddhist memorial service which almost all family members attend. These is conducted on the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third and fiftieth anniversary of a family member’s death. Each houji memorial service takes about an hour.

At a houji memorial service, I not only do worship but also preach a Buddhist sermon. Then I visit the grave and worship there too. When I offer houji memorial services, I usually eat lunch with the family while remembering the deceased and sharing stories about them. At these times, I eat meat and drink alcohol if they are offered because it is rude to refuse.



At whatever time I return from my day’s activities, I start the evening worship. The length of the worship is about a half hour to an hour. Afterward I clean for about twenty minutes. When all the work is done, I have something tasty for dinner though originally monks are supposed to fast during this meal.

Overall, I do 法務 (ほうむ/houmu), which are Buddhist clerical duties, early morning and evening. Later on I do 檀務(だんむ/danmu), which are worship services for the temple’s supporters, during the day time.

Wakes and Funerals


Photo by Tod McQuillin

When somebody passes away, I get a phone call. It can be midnight or early morning. When I get the phone call, I visit the home of the deceased to offer Makura-kyo (also referred to as makura-gyo), which is one of the services held immediately after a person’s death. This is done to offer the first sutra chanting for the first time after death in order to keep the soul of the deceased from wandering before the funeral ceremony starts. Even if I already have other plans for the day, the funeral takes priority, so I ask those involved with my predetermined plans to kindly reschedule. If there are two funerals happening at the same time or some other unavoidable circumstance comes up, I will ask another monk from a different temple to help. Private plans are of course cancelled.

After finishing the makura-kyo ceremony, I have a meeting with the family about how they wish to conduct the wake (viewing) and the funeral and what kind of worship they would like to be performed. The wake is sometimes held the night a person passes, but it can be the next night too. Before the ceremony, I have to write 塔婆 (とうば/touba), which is a wooden grave tablet, and 墓標 (ぼひょう/bohyou), which is a grave-postmark. After the funeral, the family cremates the body and I go with them for a memorial service there, but I leave before they collect the bones. Finally, the family buries the remains on a later date, usually on the forty-ninth day after the person’s death, which is when the Buddhist services for the repose of soul are held.

Obon And Ohigan


Photo by Matthew Hine

Obon is the Japanese ritual ceremony that welcomes the souls of ancestors from heaven and to sends them off again. Ohigan is a equinoctial week in which Buddhist services are performed. There are ohigan in both spring and autumn.

I always do the early morning and evening worship and cleaning, but the daytime shift is very different and much busier during these seasons. At these times, all of the supporters want worship services so I have to visit a lot of places. I usually visit about 30 to 40 places a day, and sometimes up to 50. I get so busy that I can only offer 5 to 10 minutes of worship during this season, though I wish I could offer longer ones.

My area is a small countryside town, so my temple’s supporters are all in the same area. The supporters of city temples could be all over the place, so they probably wouldn’t be able to visit as many supporters as I do (probably 10 to 15 places a day). For both ohigan, I also hold memorial services for the people who died during the war on top of the memorial services held at each house.

And We Do It All Again Tomorrow!

And that’s an average day in the life of a Japanese monk! Did you find it interesting? Did you find any parts that you want to learn more about? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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The Fabulous World of Japanese Socks! Wed, 20 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Recently I was talking with a group of people who had all lived in Japan. The conversation turned to socks, as it does. Everyone agreed that they missed Japanese socks passionately. One person, who was taking a trip to Japan, had already earmarked sock-buying time while he was there. If you haven’t lived in Japan, […]

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Recently I was talking with a group of people who had all lived in Japan. The conversation turned to socks, as it does. Everyone agreed that they missed Japanese socks passionately. One person, who was taking a trip to Japan, had already earmarked sock-buying time while he was there. If you haven’t lived in Japan, you might not think that socks would inspire such affection, but that’s probably because you haven’t experienced the wonders of Japanese socks.


pink tabi

Photo by Nozomi

If we’re going to look at socks, we should start with the traditional tabi. Tabi (足袋) are ankle high and recognizable by their split toe design and hook fastenings. The split between the big toe and the other toes means they are suitable to wear with traditional Japanese footwear such as geta and zori that resemble sandals with a strap that attaches to the sole between the toes. Traditional tabi are made of stiffer material than socks. This is good since it provides some protection for your feet (is it just my weird feet or are zori super painful to wear?).

Tabi are still worn today when people dress in wafuku, traditional Japanese clothing such as kimono. I have a pair that were required for a kimono class, and tea ceremonies are good places to spot tabi. The best places to buy tabi are department stores and specialist kimono shops. Unlike a kimono, a pair of tabi are not very expensive. The traditional colours are white and black, but these days you can find all kinds of cute coloured tabi.

jikatabi soles

Photo by Ton Schlösser

Jika-tabi (地下足袋) are a variation of tabi. They are tabi-boots with rubber soles. Although they are a 20th Century invention, you’ll probably have seen them on the feet of “ninjas” in movies. In reality they are worn by rickshaw pullers, workmen, farmers and construction workers, though they are not as popular as they once were.

The jika-tabi name illustrates something important to keep in mind: it means tabi that connect with the ground. From this you can infer something about regular tabi: that they should never touch the ground. The Japanese attitude toward the boundary between inside and outside can clearly be seen with the use of socks. Just as you never walk with shoes in the house, you should also never pop outside in your tabi (or any kind of socks.)

Sock Etiquette

shoes at genkan

Photo by Erik

In Japan your socks are on display far more often than in some other countries, thanks to the traditional code of leaving your shoes at the door. Your feet and socks can be on show many times a day and people aren’t shy about commenting on them. Wearing dirty or worn out socks is a big faux pas – if you want to make a good impression, you must have nice socks.

There are some regional and generational differences about sock etiquette when visiting someone else’s home. Younger people are often more relaxed. However, there were exclamations of horror as a lady in my calligraphy class told a tale of how a visitor had had walked on her tatami with his bare feet! Outrageous! This is just anecdotal evidence, but I can still recommend wearing socks you wouldn’t be embarrassed by while you are in Japan. Take into account the TPO (that’s a bit of Japanese English that means Time, Place and Occasion). For example, sports socks are not appropriate in a business setting.

But having impressive socks to show off is no hardship, because luckily for you there is a fantastic selection of all kinds of socks in Japan.

Modern Tabi

modern tabi socks

Photo by pekochan

Modern tabi take the split toe design of traditional tabi and pair it with modern materials. They stretch and pull on like a normal sock and don’t have a clasp closure. Personally, I never found them very comfortable, but some people swear by them, claiming they have health benefits. Split-toed running shoes have also become popular in recent years, so split toed socks suit them perfectly.

I’ve noticed a difference between modern tabi socks inside and outside Japan. In Japan they are just another kind of normal sock. You can find them in a range of colours, from ones suitable for work to wacky character socks. Outside Japan, where they are available, they still fall into the category of novelties, and tend to be very Japanesey-kitsch, patterned with sushi, ninjas or other Japanese cultural stereotypes. It’ll be interesting to see if they break out and become more mainstream outside of Japan.

Five Toed Socks

five toed socks

Photo by Bert Kimura

If one toe split was good, five must surely be better. Or at least that’s the thinking behind 5本指の靴下 gohon-yubi no kutsushita. Five-toed socks are basically gloves for your feet. They were invented in Spain, but popularised in Japan. Japanese researchers at the University of Tsukuba even did research that showed five toed socks improve circulation in comparison with standard socks. They also supposedly help prevent athlete’s foot. Despite their health benefits, five-toe socks are not considered very fashionable, but if you visit a sock shop in Japan, there will probably be a five-toed sock section.

Warm socks

socks galore

Photo by Chris Gladis

These socks might not be cute, but they are cosy. I lived in Hokkaido, so I valued any socks that would keep my feet warm. There are many brands of socks which claim to have warming properties. My favourites were Uniqlo’s Heat Tech range and the slightly cheaper versions I could find at my local Aeon department store. Look out for them if you want toasty toes. They are a seasonal item, more common in the winter. There are cooling socks which use a different blend of materials in the summer too.

Character Socks

kawaii socks for sale

Photo by Ricado Sosa

Chances are your favourite Japanese character or mascot comes in sock form. You can find socks emblazoned with the faces of characters from the big hitters like Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma to more obscure characters like Hokkaido’s Marimokkori or the bean dog Mameshiba. Manga and anime characters also frequently make appearances on socks. Wearing character socks is a fun way to brighten up your day with your favourite character in a subtle way.

Screen printed socks

screenprinted socks

Photo by Cory Doctorow

I haven’t seen screen printed socks much outside of Japan, though perhaps the fashion has spread and I’m just not aware of it. The obvious attraction is that you can have a bright, detailed image on your feet. Woo cute koala feet! The downside is that these socks are usually made of synthetic material so are not as comfy as cotton socks. Whether you want to make that trade-off to have astronauts or macaroons on your socks is up to you.

Fuwa Fuwa Socks

fuwafuwa socks

Photo by Ranee Flory

フワフワ or もくもく socks are fluffy just as their onomatopoeic name suggests. Whenever I was chilling in my house, I was wearing fuwa fuwa socks. Thanks to their softness, they are a great alternative to slippers. I bought mine at the 100 yen store. They usually come in pastel colours and cute animal designs.

Chair socks

chair socks

Photo by joannej

In Japan, even the chairs wear socks. You might be thinking, why would a chair possibly need socks? However, consider that tatami mats were not designed to withstand western-style chairs with legs. The socks help to keep the chair legs from scratching or denting the floors. If you want to clothe your naked chairs, the best places to find them are 100 yen stores.

Slouchy “Gal” socks

gal socks

Photo by Ogiyoshisan

ルーズソックス Loose socks, (or more accurately legwarmers) were a must-have in the 90s among school girls, but it was the gal subculture who went to extraordinary lengths to have the most slouchy socks possible. Some girls wore socks that were longer than their own height in order to achieve an extreme effect. These socks are sold by length, often over 1 meter long and usually come in white. Fashion is a great snake that eats itself, and so in 2014 slouchy socks returned as retro. You can find them in stores that cater to teenage girls.

Kon-Hai 紺ハイ


Kon-hai, or navy-blue high socks are the fashion successors to loose socks. In the 2000s, loose socks were out and knee high navy blue socks came in. They are also sometimes called 紺ハイソ or 紺ソク. They are worn with Junior and Senior High School uniforms. They are distinctive for their navy blue colour and for often having a small, embroidered logo near the top. This logo can be anything from a generic horse, to Rilakkuma, to the Statue of Liberty. Of course, the association with school girls feeds into the fetishisation of this section of society. However, in everyday life, they are just normal socks worn by normal girls.

Sock Obsession

zettai ryoiki

Photo by Beryl Chan

Now, I like socks. I like wearing them. They keep my feet warm and comfy. But after doing the research for this article, I’d be a fool not to know that some people like socks for different reasons. Looking for information on Japanese socks can take you to some very sketchy corners of the internet, but an article on socks would not be complete without mentioning of the fetishisation that surround them. Socks are a part of many school uniforms and are part of the cultural icon status of school girls. Another aspect of these socks as icon is 絶対領域 Zettai ryōiki. The phrase zettai ryōiki comes from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion and is a reference to defensive shields. In terms of socks zettai ryōiki refers to the area of skin revealed between the bottom of a skirt and the top of thigh high socks. It is common in character designs in manga, anime and games, as well as in real life, either as cosplay or as a fashion statement. A great amount of mathematical analysis has gone into this phenomenon. This is not really my kind of thing, but as long something it isn’t hurting anyone, it doesn’t bother me. And it certainly hasn’t put me off Japanese socks. It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Japanese socks are just another part of “otaku” Japan, but reality is far more broad and complex. There are socks in Japan for every taste, and now I’m going to tell you how to find them.

Sock Recommendations


tabio shop

Tabio’s goal is to be the finest speciality sock store in the world. They’ve been opperating since 1984 and seem to have been doing a good job so far. You can find Tabio stores in Japan, France and the UK, but all the socks are made in Japan. Tabio is where you go for grown-up socks. Their range of socks is extensive, coming in a variety of lengths, colours, materials (including alpaca and silk!) and styles. If you are looking for a style of sock, Tabio probably has it, from five-toed socks, to walking socks, and of course a modern version of the tabi sock with a split toe. There is even a whole selection of wedding-after-party socks. This is the pricier end of the sock market, with socks ranging from about 800 yen to over 3000 yen. Tabio has an English language online store in the UK as well as Japanese online store.


socks at uniqlo

Photo by alisdair

My partner is a huge fan of Uniqlo’s men’s socks. They come in significantly more than a rainbow’s worth of colours (50 to be exact), they fit true to size, and they last a long time. Before leaving Japan my partner stocked up on Uniqlo socks. He’s slowly adding the unworn pairs to those already in circulation so his supply lasts until he can get back to Japan for more (or Uniqlo comes to Canada.) When a colleague going on a bussiness trip to Japan asked him what souvenir he’d like, he said Uniqlo socks. Such is his love for these excellent and very reasonably priced socks.

Uniqlo’s women’s socks are also very nice. They come in a wide variety of lengths, from footies to ankle socks to knee socks, as well as tights. Living in Hokkaido and now Canada, I’m particularly fond of the Heat Tech line at Uniqlo. They often come in two or three packs and the patterns and colours change every season. You can’t go wrong with Uniqlo socks. They are comfortable, colourful and hard wearing and priced reasonably for the amount of wear you can get out of them. You can find Uniqlo stores all over Japan. Luckily for us sock lovers, Uniqlo has expanded overseas too and you can shop online for all the socks (and other clothes I suppose) you want. They might not be as exciting as some other socks, but they are dependable.


right angle socks

Photo by ORAZ Studio

The no-brand brand Muji has some nice socks. It was my go-to place for comfortable ankle socks that last. Much like most of Muji’s products, they aren’t flashy, but they are good quality. But Muji does have one particularly innovative sock, the 90 degree sock. Apparently the right angle design keeps you from getting tired, although having never tried it, I can’t vouch for that.

Village Vanguard

village vanguard shimokita

OK, that’s enough sensible socks. It’s time for some fun ones. A good place to start is Village Vanguard, which describes itself as an “Exciting Book Store.” Not exactly the first place you’d look for socks. But if you go inside you’ll find a lot of fun socks, particularly character socks, as well as a bunch of other wacky, fun stuff. If you are looking for souvenirs to make your friends laugh, Village Vanguard is a good place to go, and not just for socks. It has an online store, but it can’t recreate the overwhelming experience of visiting in person.

Sock Dreams

Finally, if you are in the US and looking for Japanese socks closer to home, my recommendation is Sock Dreams. This company is based in Portland, Oregon and has a good selection of Japanese socks, particularly modern tabi, as well as socks from the US and around the world. They also have a bricks and mortar shop, if you prefer that over online shopping.

Buying Socks

sock store

Photo by fletcherjcm

It’s not hard to find specialist sock stores in Japan. If you walk around any shopping area in a big city, you’ll probably come across more than one. There are also often displays of socks in department stores. Buying socks is pretty easy too, but here are two tips to make it even easier. Japanese socks are sized by Japanese shoe sizes. Here’s a conversion chart so you can work out your size:

japanese shoe size chart

The second hint is to look for offers on three pairs of socks. I almost always bought socks in threes, saving money with this kind of offer in many different stores. If you see a display with a range of socks and a sign with the number 3 and a price then you are probably looking at a good discount. Sometimes if you miss the offer, the sales assistant will explain it to you, so if you don’t speak Japanese and someone selling socks is trying to explain something to you, look around for these signs. For example, these epic luchador socks illustrate a typical offer, 3 for 1000 yen or 400 yen each.

luchador sock sale

Photo by Simon Q

I hope you have happy sock hunting and happier feet!

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Have a Rice Day! Rice Cooker History, Features, Futures, and More Fri, 15 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.” He was right. I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my […]

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My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.”

He was right.

I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my cooking ways.

Although I had had a rice cooker at my disposal upon arrival in my Japanese apartment, I felt reluctant to use it. The kanji labeled buttons intimidated me. It did not appear intuitive.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I worried. What was the worst that could happen? My rice turns to porridge? It took a visit from my brother to teach me the wise ways of the rice cooker.

Measure the rice. Dump it in. Wash it. Measure the water. Dump it in. Press the big red button. Go enjoy life until you hear “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Enjoy perfect rice every-time.

But that’s not all. New models push the limits of the term “rice cooker.” Equipped with features like magnetic fields, fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence, and with cooking versatility ranging from stew to bread, today’s rice cookers are the go-to kitchen appliance.

So forget the microwave and give your gas bill a break. Join us as we compare models and features and decide which rice cooker is best for you. If you’re still feeling reluctant, don’t be (like I was). Learn to stop worrying and love the rice cooker.

A Grainy History

Photo by TANAKA Juuyoh

Sometimes referred to as “denshi jaa” (電子ジャー) or “suihanki” (炊飯器) rice cookers were born out 0f Japan’s post-war revival. Before then, people cooked rice on kamado, large stoves made to accompany giant pots.

The nature of these stoves made controlling temperatures tricky and cooking delicious rice difficult. A short lyric attempted to make up for the lack of technology at the time. Kids Web Japan describes the old rhyme:

Hajime choro choro, naka pappa, butsu butsu iu koro hi o hiite, instructs the cook to begin at low heat, then increase the heat, and then lower the heat again when the inside of the pot begins to bubble.

The post-war period left companies scrambling for new commodities. With cash scarce, rice was also accepted as payment. War factories closed down and left Japan with plenty of electricity but few ways to utilize it. These two factors would soon lead to a rice cooking revolution.

At the time Sony focused on modifying and repairing radios built to strict wartime specifications (like limited stations), but looked to expand. How could they take advantage of the electrical productivity of a rice-fed nation like Japan?

The (first) electric rice cooker, made by merely interlocking aluminum electrodes which were connected to the bottom of a wooden tub, was a primitive product. The result depended heavily on the kind of rice used and the weight of the water. Tasty rice was a rarity, as the rice cooker produced mostly undercooked or overcooked rice. It was a memorable first failure.(Sony)

But Sony wasn’t the only company dreaming of a convenient rice cooking apparatus and thanks to competition, the quality of rice cookers improved. According to Kids Web Japan, Toshiba would release the first commercially successful rice cooker in 1955.

After much trial and error, the company came up with a method called “double-pot indirect cooking,” in which a cup of water was poured into the outer pot, and the machine automatically turned off when all of this water evaporated, signaling that the rice was ready. (Kidswebjapan)

Because of how they drastically altered the standard of living for households in the 1950’s, Japan dubbed the refrigerator, television and washing machine The Three Treasures. The rice cooker could have easily been declared the fourth. The convenient appliance became a cultural mainstay, offering safely cooked, delicious rice while rendering the more dangerous, inconsistent kamado obsolete.

Fuzzy Logic, A.I. and Rice Cookers of the Future

Photo by Alex Shultz

Competition between brands meant rice cookers would continue to improve. For example, “in 1960, the first rice cookers that could keep rice warm after it was cooked went on sale, as did some models with timers.”(Kidswebjapan)

Rice cooker technology continues to march into the future, cooking rice faster while bringing out the best taste. Old machines relied on simple mechanical settings, ignoring factors that are now considered like air pressure, weight, temperature and planetary alignment (okay, maybe not the last one).

Technological advancements have even made direct heating obsolete. Induction heating or “IH” (for those in-the-know) became the industry standard.

Here’s how an IH cooker works. An electric current is passed through coils around the pot. This produces a magnetic field, which in turn produces an electric current in the pot’s metal. Metal heats up when an electric current runs through it, so the entire pot quickly rises to a high temperature and cooks the rice evenly. (Kidswebjapan)

The next wave of machines incorporated computer chips and fuzzy logic. As  explains,

Fuzzy logic has to do with mathematical sets, or groups of items known as elements. In most mathematical sets, an element either belongs to the set or it doesn’t. For example, a sparrow would belong to a set of birds, but a bat wouldn’t. In fuzzy logic, though, elements can belong to sets in varying degrees. So since a bat has wings, it might belong to a set of birds — but only to a certain extent. Fuzzy logic is basically a way to program machines so they look at the world in a more human way, with degrees of truth.

Fuzzy logic allows rice cooker to make “judgement calls” based on collected data and rewards its owners with consistently delicious rice, despite life’s variables.

So what does the future of rice cookers hold? Perhaps we only have to look to sci-fi films, like The Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey or Rojin Z for scary but delectable predictions. For example, Jordan Shapiro of Forbes contacted Zojirushi, the premier rice cooker producer, about their new lines of A.I. rice cookers. He reported,

 Zojirushi tells me that (its rice cooker) learns from each cooking experience so as to adjust to your cooking idiosyncrasies. I didn’t ask, so I’m not sure what rice cooking behaviors it “learns” from, but I imagine it could adjust to variables that may stay constant for each particular user: i.e. different brands of rice, the moisture in your climate, the particular chemistry of your water.

I’m hoping for a “smart” rice cooker I could control with a phone app. Or at least a talking rice cooker, similar to HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey that could create well balanced meals on its own. “Dave, your rice is ready. Please eat before it gets cold.”

Rice Cooker Features

Photo by esPose de


Rice cookers come in various shapes and sizes. Choose a model that best fits your lifestyle. If you’re single, the smaller the better, no need for a family-sized behemoth. But if you have a family or plan on hosting parties, go big!

Choosing the Best Pot

Even the cooking pots vary. Some have chemically treated, nonstick surfaces to make cleaning easy. Aluminum is also a popular option. But if you want to avoid those surfaces, for their purported health detriments, go with a more natural option like steel or clay.

Programming and Settings

Of course, some rice cookers boast more features than others. Even those made strictly for cooking rice often feature multiple rice cooking settings. Making brown rice? Hit “brown.” Feeling under the weather and need some kayu rice porridge? Hit the special button. A clock and timer add to a cooker’s convenience. Other models even feature digital screens for detailed options and settings.


Why mention it twice? Because a timer is a rice cooker’s must-have feature. Set it before you go to bed to have fresh rice in the morning. Set it when you head off to work to have fresh rice waiting when you get home.

Multipurpose Versatility

Rice cookers now take cooking convenience to the next level and smash the excuse, “I don’t have time to cook.” You can steam some veggies, broccoli or barbecue some meat and have a healthy, fresh, affordable home cooked meal in minutes. And with some rice cookers, you can cook it all at the same time in the same appliance!

If you want to cook more than rice, you could take your chances with a standard “rice only” model, but its cooking settings and rice-centric fuzzy-logic might make for over cooked, mushy meals. But don’t fret, many of today’s “rice” cookers accommodate multipurpose needs. Special cooking settings make cooking soups, stews and even steaming vegetables and meats as easy as the push of a button.

Some rice cookers feature special steaming trays. Others double as crock pots and pressure cookers. With the help of a timer you can prepare all of your ingredients in the morning, set the timer and have a well balanced scrumptious meal waiting for you when you get home.

One of my current models, the Vitaclay 2-in-1 Rice N’ Slow Cooker, has special settings for making stew and soup (I can smell the tomato and chicken stew stewing as I write!).

Charm Points

On top of all of the shapes, sizes and technological advancements and features, rice cookers also feature charm. Although I love my Vitaclay, my Zojirushi takes the prize for charm.

For one, it has a convenient, self winding plug that stores internally and never gets in the way. There’s also a removable container to catch spill water from the lid. But best of all, the Zojirushi plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” when the rice is done.

The rice cooker universe is surprisingly vast. Please examine all the options (and read the next section) before buying one!

Rice Cooker Battle!

Photo by Eric Hunt

Now that we’ve covered the appliance’s history, technology and features it’s time to look at specific models. Which will come out on  top? You be the judge!

Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18

The Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18 is the top-of-the-line, rice connoisseur’s model.  The giant (15.4 x 10.1 x 8.6 inches, 13 pounds) NP-NVC10/18 flashes some bling in its a “platinum infused nonstick coating.” Apparently this coating makes for the best rice which is the NP-NVC10/18’s goal.

The model features both fuzzy-logic and AI and takes pressure into account. Settings allow users to make the rice as soft or hard as they prefer, and rice can even be toasted and crispy with the NP-NVC10/18’s “scorch” setting. The clock and timer means you can have your preferred style of rice when you want it.

The top of the line, this rice cooker comes in sizes and price ranges to match. If rice cookers equalled street cred, MC’s would be rhyming about the NP-NVC10/18 instead of spinners and medallions. Although it lacks versatility in terms of cooking foods other than rice, if you want awesome rice prepared nearly any way (brown, gabba brown, scorched, umami, sushi rice, or porridge), the NP-NVC10/18 is the model for you.

Panasonic SR-DE103 (13 X10 X8)

The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a well balanced model with a few extra features at a great price. Fuzzy logic helps the SR-DE103 alter the cooking time to net delicious rice every time. Although its choices in rice cooking settings pale in comparison to the NP-NVC10/18, it features a steam tray and steam and cake push-button settings that give it the edge in versatility. It’s also more compact (13 X10 X8 inches), making it easier to store.

With a timer that lets you have rice when you want it the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers what’s expected of a traditional rice cooker with a few convenient features. Priced under $100, the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers a high end cooker at a more affordable price.

Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer

The Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer offers easy, one button controls (white rice, brown rice, keep warm and steam). It comes in various sizes so you can choose one that suits your needs.

Like the Panasonic SR-DE103, the Aroma Digital features a black nonstick coated aluminum cooking pot. It also has a special “steam” setting that allows users to steam vegetables in the fitted tray while cooking rice. Take advantage of the timer to have balanced meals ready when you need them!

What’s the difference between the Aroma Digital and Panasonic SR-DE103? Size, shape and material. The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a rectangular plastic box. The Aroma Digital is a round, crock-pot styled rice cooker with a stainless steel shell (8.7 x 8.5 x 9.3 inches for the 8-cup model).

VitaClay VF7700-6 Chef

VitaClay’s claim to fame is its clay pot; a natural, stick-free alternative to most rice cooker pots’ artificial coatings. Although I love the clay pot, it can be a double edged sword. If you tend to drop things, the breakable clay pot might prove problematic. Although extra pots can be purchased online, it’ll cost you. But for the sure-handed readers out there, the clay pot is easy to clean and won’t pell after prolonged use like non-stick coated pots do. It also presents a nice aesthetic when it’s carried to the dining room table!

The VF7700-6 Chef encourages experimentation; its stew and soup settings work well in preparing curries, sauces, as well as ANY types of soups and stews. My only gripe is its lack of a steam tray. Like the Aroma Digital Rice Cooker, the VitaClay comes in a crock-pot styled shape.

Aroma Simply Stainless

As the Japanese-English phrase goes, sometimes “Simple is best.” And in the case of the Aroma Simply Stainless, it’s cheap too. This no-nonsense model features a lid, pot and plastic casing. A bare bones rice cooker, Aroma’s Simply Stainless line comes in three sizes and one touch simplicity. The pot is made from surgical-grade 304 stainless steel, so it’s a great option for those looking to avoid aluminum and chemically coated surfaces. The pot also boasts the ability to cook soups, stews, chili and oatmeal.

Although some reviews complain about steam and water spurting from the hole on the lid, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Want a no-fuss, affordable and tiny rice cooker? The Aroma Simply Stainless is your best bet!

Not Just for White Rice Anymore

Photo by Rich

When I first arrived in Japan I asked a Japanese acquaintance, “Can I cook brown rice in my rice cooker?”

“Oh… you better not,” she warned.

Japanese take their white rice very seriously, and I’ve heard the myth repeated time and time again, “Rice Cookers are for white rice.” But nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve cooked brown rice, beans, and even fish and vegetables in a rice cooker only meant for rice. Slight odors and staining of the white plastic shell proved to be the only downsides.

Whether cooked through induction heating, fuzzy logic, or artificial intelligence, at its very core a rice cooker is a heated pot. Like some of the models mentioned above, many rice cookers are moving to multi-functionality. And taking advantage of these features can be simple and fun.

A simple Youtube search reveals all sorts of things that can be cooked in a rice cooker – from various types of rice to pasta, eggs, pancakes, cake and bread. Resources to help you become a cooking everything-other-than-rice rice-cooker master.

Karate Rice

A site offering tips on how to prepare the perfect rice as well as various rice-based dishes, Karate Rice proves anyone can cook for themselves. I recommend the “Japanese Sweet Potato and Rice” and “Rice Chili Stew.” Add extra garlic and cumin to the stew to give it more zing!

Ariel Knutson’s 21 Surprising Things You Can Make in a Rice Cooker

A less traditional collection of recipes that often abandons the rice altogether. Although Mac and Cheese is always popular, I love the Vegetable Frittata as a quick, well balanced meal. Just looking at the “Tofu and Asparagus’s” deep green asparagus, soft brown tofu cubes and rich broth made my mouth water.


The offers all sorts of articles aimed at dedicated dog lovers. It even features a recipe for dog food (though I’m considering trying it as people food) made in a rice cooker. Instead of cooking with a dog, cook for a dog!

The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook

With the subtitle, 250 No-Fail Recipes for Pilafs, Risottos, Polenta, Chilis, Soups, Porridges, Puddings, and More, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman’s book puts cooking within reach of even the most inept household chefs.

Learn to make risotto, chunky or smooth applesauce, tapioca pudding, and hot breakfast cereals. Although I haven’t run into any problems myself, reviewers say this book nets the best results with fuzzy-logic models.

Bask in the Glory of Well Cooked Rice!

More versatile than the name implies, rice-cookers are clean, safe, and super convenient! After not using one for most of my life, aside from the refrigerator it has become the most used appliance in my kitchen. I don’t even own a microwave, toaster or oven anymore and have no plans on investing in any of them. Don’t get me wrong, the rice cooker can’t outperform those appliances, but for me it’s an acceptable alternative.

Rice cookers make cooking easy.  Timers and extra features can make cooking convenient for even the busiest of people. Best of all, it’s easy to make healthy, well balanced meals. Plus experimenting with new recipes is fun and (usually) rewarding.

If you have a rice cooker to recommend or recipes or recipe websites, please comment below. Happy rice (and everything else) cooking to all!

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Kata and Kiai in Martial and Other Arts Wed, 13 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Hi-yah!  A stoic martial arts hero dramatically works his way through a series of deadly techniques handed down from generation to generation, punctuated by a fearsome shout.  It’s a familiar scene to any martial arts film buff, but what is the reality?  Both kata 型 (forms) and kiai 気合 (shouts) are a part of many […]

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Hi-yah!  A stoic martial arts hero dramatically works his way through a series of deadly techniques handed down from generation to generation, punctuated by a fearsome shout.  It’s a familiar scene to any martial arts film buff, but what is the reality?  Both kata 型 (forms) and kiai 気合 (shouts) are a part of many martial arts.  However, there’s often an air of mystique built up around both, so let’s have a go at separating fact from fiction.  There is practical thought behind these traditions, and we’ll see how their usefulness has spread outside of the dojo.

Form and Function


Learning through repetition and rote memorization has long been a favored method in East Asia, and kata are an extension of this.  By practicing the same series of movements again and again one builds muscle memory, so that, eventually, one can perform the technique well without conscious thought.  These concepts traveled from China to Japan and over time kata came to be used in martial arts like karate, kendo, aikido, and judo, to name a few.  There’s often an aura of antiquity around kata.  Whether explicitly expressed or not, there’s a feeling that masters have been handing down these forms for centuries.  The truth (as usual) is a bit more complicated.

Take karate for example.  It began as a blend of Okinawan and Chinese fighting styles.  Although it may go back farther, no one has been able to reliably trace karate any earlier than the early nineteenth century.  A lot of the exact Chinese connections have been lost, but it is possible to trace a few kata to their Chinese antecedents.  For example, the kata Sanchin can be traced to the Fujian White Crane Style, beyond a reasonable doubt, but that would still put its origins at about the mid to late eighteenth century.  There are many kata like this; ones that are old, but probably not ancient in the way people imagine.  Others are less than a century old.  Most of the masters responsible for bringing karate from Okinawa to the rest of Japan (and then the world) lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  To bring their art to a much larger audience, some of them invented new kata.  Some of these broke down or simplified older kata, while others were more original.  Likewise, most of the kata in judo were created by founder Kano Jigoro during the 20th century.

Non-Combative Kata


Photo by Todd Fong

There are also kata among non-martial Japanese traditions.  When studying abroad in Fukuoka a few years ago, I took a course on tea ceremony, part of which was learning to perform a bit of it ourselves.  Having some prior experience in karate, I began to notice that the routine of the tea ceremony was quite similar to practicing a kata.  In both cases, you build technique and muscle memory through repetition with strict attention to detail.  As you hone your skills there is room for the individual to shine through, to adapt the form to yourself without losing that which makes it the form. But you must learn the rules before you can bend them.  I voiced these sentiments in class and my tea sensei was inclined to agree.  Indeed, kata are part of training in both the tea ceremony and in kabuki, as well.

Kata For the 21st Century


Though kata can be a way to preserve knowledge, they are also a way to sharpen skills, whether for fighting, pouring a cup of tea, or writing computer code.  That’s right, kata have found a place in the digital world.  Programmer and author, Dave Thomas (no, not the Wendy’s guy), probably coined the term “code kata.”  These code kata are basically code writing exercises or problems that can be practiced repeatedly with the goal of improving one’s programming skills.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about programming, so I can’t really comment on the details or effectiveness of these exercises, but I think it’s really cool that people are attempting to apply the concept to new skills.  I imagine there are other skills for which kata could be a useful learning method.

All About the Shout


Photo by cenefil_

At its most basic the kiai is a shout, usually given in conjunction with executing an attack, such as a punch or kick.  A proper kiai originates in the diaphragm, not the throat, and emanates as a loud shout, with the shouter expelling as much air from their lungs as possible.  What sound your kiai makes doesn’t matter much, and there is a lot of individual variation, but there are some trends among different arts.  The kiai of most unarmed styles like karate tend to be short and sharp, while those in sword arts like kendo tend to be much longer. In fact, in kendo, the kiai is deemed so important that in a match points will not be awarded to a successful strike if there is no accompanying kiai.

Why kiai at all though?  Well, there are several practical reasons.

Firstly, doing kiai when practicing kata can help develop the proper coordination of movement and breathing, which is important in maximizing the efficiency of your movement and not tiring yourself out as quickly.  For this purpose making a sound is not strictly necessary, but doing so during a kata just emphasizes the point.  Secondly, getting all the air out of yourself voluntarily when you strike makes you less vulnerable to getting it knocked of you by a counterattack, which is much less pleasant.  For a similar reason, those who do jujutsu or judo are trained to kiai at the point of impact when they take a fall, and I can tell you from experience that it works pretty well.  Thirdly, a kiai can have the effect of intimidating an opponent.

However, some have taken this last possibility to an unbelievable level.  There has been much discussion over the existence and nature of ki 気 (the ki in kiai).  Perhaps the best translation is “energy,” but much like this English word, ki can be used in a variety of situations.  Trying to briefly define energy in a way that covers all of its possible uses is not so easy.  However, that does not necessitate the mystification of either word.  Having some experience in martial arts and in studying ancient Japanese and Chinese texts, in my opinion, most of the uses of the word ki within the martial arts/medical fields are related to breathing, physical/mental effort, blood circulation, biomechanics, perhaps bioelectricity, or some combination of the above. But all of these have been put under the blanket term ki.  Therefore, many of the things ascribed to ki are explicable through science.  In the cases where ki is credited with something supernatural, I would approach that with just as much skepticism as I would someone who claims to read auras or see ghosts.

Legends of Dubiousness


There are a number of stories of martial arts masters able to employ the kiai in a near superhuman manner.  However, there is plenty of exaggeration in the martial arts world, so it’s best to take such stories with shaker of salt.  Funakoshi Gichin was the master perhaps most responsible for popularizing karate throughout Japan, and then the world.  In his memoir he dismisses claims of karate masters who can pierce through human flesh with their fingertips, saying that no amount of training will allow a person to exceed the bounds of human ability, but shortly thereafter he relates a story that arouses skepticism in me for those same reasons.

The story goes that well-known karate master Matsumura Sokon was challenged to a match by an engraver, who also happened to be skilled in karate.  The engraver tried to attack Matsumura twice, but each time was immobilized by the latter’s gaze alone.  The confused engraver realized he had lost, but was determined to finish the match to save face.  He attacked, but Matsumura gave a “great cry that sounded to the engraver like a thunderbolt,” and finding himself unable to move, the engraver made a final feeble attempt before falling to the ground.

A Lot of Hot Air


Photo by dfbphotos

You may think such fantastic stories are a thing of the past, something that could only exist in a time before smartphone cameras and such, but no. There are still individuals purporting to be kiai masters with abilities beyond our perception.  Some of these people claim to be able to attack someone without touching them, in a Jedi-like manner.  I will admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude when I see videos of people demonstrating to these kiai masters ample evidence to the contrary.  I give you Exhibit A, in which an MMA fighter takes up a kiai master’s offer of 5,000 dollars to anyone who can beat him.

As satisfying as that was, I think I like Exhibit B even better. Here we take a look at kiai master, George Dillman.

I think my favorite part of this video is watching Dillman jump through hoops trying to explain away the failure of his technique on a nonbeliever.  From his reaction, it seems that he is not cynically trying to fool his students, but believes in his own ki abilities.  Others who have analyzed dojos like this one, have theorized that they may be examples of both self-delusion in the master and a form of mass-delusion among the students.

Back to Reality


Kata are great for developing technique, and if one analyzes them, the sequences can tell you some useful things for an actual fight, but to jump in the ring and start doing a kata from beginning to end is ridiculous (I’m looking at you “Karate Kid 3”).  Also, keep in mind that although they are a useful training tool, they are not the end-all, be-all of martial arts.  Likewise, they are practical uses for kiai, just not anything that would qualify you for the X-Men.  There are many reasons to do martial arts, but if practicality is of any concern to you, it’s good to keep your romanticism in check and think about what you are doing.

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BAKA! Japan’s Most Popular Profanity Mon, 11 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 “Baka” is the most commonly used Japanese swear word. It usually means foolish or stupid, but can take on a whole range of meanings depending of context, relationship, and various other factors. In kanji, it’s usually written 馬鹿. When separated, the literal meaning of those kanji are 馬 (horse) and 鹿 (deer). These kanji were selected simply […]

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“Baka” is the most commonly used Japanese swear word. It usually means foolish or stupid, but can take on a whole range of meanings depending of context, relationship, and various other factors. In kanji, it’s usually written 馬鹿. When separated, the literal meaning of those kanji are 馬 (horse) and 鹿 (deer). These kanji were selected simply because of their sounds “ba” and “ka”, but there are several other combinations that would have served the same purpose, such as 母娘 (Mother-Daughter), 馬娘 (Horse-Daughter), 破家 (Broken-House), 莫迦 (Trillions-Beautiful voice), 馬稼 (Horse-Earning money), and 跛家 (One foot-House).

It’s also commonly written in Hiragana as ばか or in Katakana as バカ. On the internet, it is sometimes written as “ヴァカ” or “βακα.”

Although baka can be used in several ways, there is certainly a negative connotation attached to it (it is a swear word after all). Thus it’s not typically used in public or legal situations.

For example, if you say “baka” to a subordinate in your company, you may have to spend some time in HR watching videos on an old VCR for a few hours. There is a certain amount of caution that needs to be exercised before pulling this puppy out of your Japanese language arsenal.

Therefore, we are going to study the word “baka” so as not to be 馬鹿 by misusing it.

The Origin Of Baka


Photo by GalaxyFM

There are several theories on the origin of baka, which regrettably means we can’t be sure which one is correct. The oldest written usage of baka is in Taiheiki (a Japanese historical epic said to have been written by Kojima Houshi in the 1370s). At the time the word was not 馬鹿 but 馬鹿者 (ばかもの / stupid person). So the theories which take into that 馬鹿者 was the first usage of the term are more believable than others. There’s a multitude of interesting theories but today we’ll focus on just five of them.

#1 A Story from the Shiki (The Records of the Grand Historian from China)

During the era of the second emperor Kogai of the Qin dynasty, his eunuch Choko planned a rebellion in an attempt to usurp his power. He wanted to find out which courtiers were on his side and came up with an idea. He brought a deer to the Imperial palace, offered it to the emperor and said, “I’ve brought you a very rare horse”. Understandably, the emperor got confused and asked, “Isn’t this a deer?”

With a divisive line drawn, Choko then moved towards the courtiers asking, “This is most certainly a horse, is it not?” Those who were afraid of Choko replied, “Yes, this is a horse” and those who did not fear him answered, “No, it’s a deer”. Choko later killed the courtiers who answered deer. From that, the phrase “指鹿為馬” (しかをさしてうまをなす / Pointing at a deer, calling it a horse) arose to describe using power to insist that something is one thing though it is clearly another.

It’s believed that baka comes from this story and this theory is actually the most widely accepted. However, one inconsistency is that the ‘ka’ part of ‘baka’ is actually a Japanese reading and wouldn’t have been read this way in Chinese.

#2 The Sanskrit Word “Moha”

Another word that can be read as “baka” is the kanji 莫迦, which is from the Sanskrit word “moha”, meaning “ignorance” and “illusion”. In this theory, it’s theorized that monks began using baka esoterically and it came into common usage later on. This theory was put forward by an Edo period Japanese scholar, Sadakage Amano, and is used in most major Japanese dictionaries, including the Kojien. However, some studies question this theory since “ignorance” was not among the meanings for baka when it was first used.

An interesting addition to this theory is that in Bengali, the official language of Bangladesh which has its origins in Sanskrit, the word “baka” means “stupid person”.

#3 Wakamono (Young People)

In Japanese “若者” (wakamono) means “young people”. In this theory, the “w” of wakamono was for some reason changed into a “b” when referring to young people as stupid and, thus, “馬鹿者” (bakamono) came into being .

Kunio Yanagida, the father of Japanese native folkloristics, said that the editor of Kojien, Izuru Shinmura, presented this theory but didn’t leave any documents supporting it when he died. So the truth of this theory is still uncertain. What is known, however, is that Shinmura was unwilling to accept the Sanskrit theory of “Moha” for the Kojien.

#4 Bankrupt Family

The word “破家” (baka) in the Zen Buddhist scripture means ‘a family bankrupted’ and it’s said that “馬鹿者” (bakamono) came out of this to refer to a person as “someone that is so stupid that they could allow their family to go bankrupt”. This theory was presented by a professor at Tohoku university, Kiyoji Sato, and adopted by a Japanese dictionary 日本国語大辞典 (Nihon Kokugo Daijiten).

#5 The Family Name 馬 (Horse)

In Bai Juyi’s poetry anthology 白氏文集 (Hakushi Monju), there is a poem about a wealthy Chinese family with the name 馬 who spend all their money on stupid things and eventually go bankrupt. It’s considered 馬鹿者(bakamono) was born as a 馬家者(bakamono), which can be broken down as 馬(Horse)-家(Family’s)-者(Person). This theory was presented by Osamu Matsumoto in his book “全国アホ・バカ分布考” (Zenkoku Aho・Baka Bunpu Kou).

How To Use Baka #Nuance


Though we can’t be sure how it came into being, we know that baka eventually emerged to take its place as the nasty little word we know and love today. That said, let’s go over how it’s being used presently and learn how to “mind your Ba’s and Ka’s”.

The often observed implications of the word are “insufficient knowledge”, “insufficient thoughtfulness”, “insufficient understanding”, or “abusing the stereotype”. The meaning changes depending on the person who says it, the person/object/situation it is directed towards, and the situation in which it is used.

I know that sounds confusing. With so many possibilities, surely you’ll have trouble knowing exactly when to use it. However, unlimited possibilities mean you pretty much can’t get it wrong. The beauty of the many nuances is that you can just blurt out ばか at any random time and people will automatically correlate the meaning most suited to the current situation. You (mostly) can’t lose!

Be aware though that its usage is quite different regionally. For example, in Kanto (Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa), baka is generally used for mild ridicule, whereas it’s the go-to word when you really want to curse someone out in the Kansai region (Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga). Thus, it’s important to note that people take this word very differently depending on where they’re from.

If you know a bit of a certain dialect, you may have heard the synonym “阿呆” (あほ / Aho), which is the most commonly used profanity in Kansai. Although both are very similar words, there are slight differences between them. Baka is often used when someone’s will or effort to understand is lacking, whereas aho is used when someone’s ability to understand is completely lacking. So aho is generally the more nasty of the two.

The place where one must practice the most discretion though, is Hokkaido. People from all over Japan have moved to Hokkaido so there is no way of immediately knowing which side of the Aho / Baka fence someone might fall on. The nastier of the two words may differ depending on the area of Hokkaido you’re in. Hokkaido-ans also have their own regional version of baka, which is はんかくさい (Hankakusai) or in the old dialect たくらんけ (Takuranke), but more on that later.

How To Use Baka #PositiveMeaning


Baka is often used to mock someone, but it can also be used in a good-natured way. Like the English word “silly”, it could express stupidity, foolishness, and irrationality, but can also describe ridiculousness, an inebriated state, or even feelings of endearment for someone. If you tell that beautiful woman walking down the street or the handsome guy from accounting that they are baka, you’re not likely to get a phone number. But watching how baka is used between people can reveal the kind of relationship they share.

Someone who is really into something can also be called baka. In this case, “baka” means that you are so keenly interested and involved in something that your attention for other people or other things is lacking. For example, there is a famous movie called “釣りバカ日誌” (つりばかにっし / Tsuri-Baka-Nisshi / Fishing Fool’s Diary) in which the the main character is a salaryman whose top priority is fishing. This particular meaning is often self-appointed and sometimes denotes a sort of respect.

Some more examples of this usage are: 野球馬鹿 (Yakyu-baka) meaning someone who is really into baseball. If you are really into learning Japanese, you might call yourself日本語馬鹿 (Nihongo-baka).

Baka can also be used for someone who works so diligently and purposefully towards a sole endeavor that they become a master of that one thing. For this type of 馬鹿, there is another expression, which is “愚直の念” (ぐちょくのねん / Guchoku No Nen). 愚直 means simply and stupidly honest and 念 refers to a sense or feeling. An example of this usage is the title of the manga『空手バカ一代』(からてばかいちだい / Karate Baka Ichidai / A Karate-Crazy Life).

How To Use Baka #Combination


The most common word paired with 馬鹿 directly translates as something you might have combined with the phrase “dummy” or “meanie” when you were three. 大 (おお / oo / Big) is commonly added to the beginning of baka and is used when someone is being really stupid, or大馬鹿 (おおばか / oobaka ) a “Big Stupid”.

This is also used when somebody goes a little kooky. Instead of using 大, young people often add激 (げき / Geki / Intense) or 超 (ちょう / Chou / Very) which form to become激馬鹿 (げきばか / Gekibaka / Intensely Stupid) or 超馬鹿 (ちょうばか / Choubaka / Very Stupid). It’s not the exact same pronunciation as the character Chewbacca, but it’s good way to help you remember.

Another common word paired with 馬鹿 is 馬鹿野郎 (ばかやろう / bakayarou / stupid man). I supposed the equivalent in English would be something like “dude”, as 野郎 (やろう / yarou) is slang for ‘man’. However, unlike dude, it can take on a bad meaning like jerk, schmuck, or other more inappropriate names. Combining 馬鹿 with such a word can come off pretty strong, but if you’re through the roof 馬鹿野郎 is not strong enough. For intense situations you need the big guns.

If you add 大 in front like 大馬鹿野郎 (おおばかやろう / oobakayarou / Incredibly stupid person) then you’ll definitely cut the offending person down to size.

Sometimes, 野郎 (Yarou) is replaced with a neutral word, such as 者 (もの / mono / person), or with a more nasty word like たれ (tare). When you add 小 (こ / ko /small) instead of 大 in front of 馬鹿, as in 小馬鹿 (こばか / kobaka), you get the meaning of ‘to look down on someone’.

Examples of Usage


Photo by Andrew Dobrow

To get a better idea of when and where you should use each instance of baka, I’ve put together some situations so you use the right baka at the right time.

#1. To rail at someone who made a mistake or did something stupid.
“ ばか!” “ばかもの!” “ばかやろう!”

#2. To regret that you or someone else did something stupid.
“馬鹿なことをした” (I/You/He/She/They did such a stupid thing.)

In this case, you can add a suffix like 馬鹿なことをしたよ(yo), 馬鹿なことをしたな(na), 馬鹿なことをしたね(ne), 馬鹿なことをしたもんだ(monda) to the end for adding some more specific nuance. As for ね (ne), here is the explanation what kind of meaning it will add.

#3. To look down on someone who doesn’t know something you consider to be common knowledge.
“〜も知らないの?馬鹿だね” (You don’t even know ~? You are such a simple minded person)
“テストで0点取ったの?馬鹿だな” (You got a score of 0 on the test? You must be pretty dumb.)

#4. Someone who can’t think objectively or rationally about something.

“親馬鹿” (おやばか) – 親 (おや- Oya) means parents and combines with baka to become 親馬鹿 (Oyabaka) means ‘overly-fond parents’. In this case, a parent loves their child/children so much that they can’t think objectively or rationally when it comes to them.

#5. Someone who is only well learned in one subject and lacks common knowledge. In this usage, the meaning of baka is similar to otaku.
あいつは数学馬鹿だから。(あいつはすうがくばかだから) (He is crazy about math.)
あいつは野球馬鹿だから。(あいつはやきゅうばかだから) (He is crazy about baseball.)
あいつはサッカー馬鹿だから。(あいつはさっかーばかだから) (He is crazy about soccer.)

#6. Something that is useless or broken.
ネジが馬鹿になる。(ねじがばかになる) (The screw loosened and won’t fasten anymore.)
嗅覚が馬鹿になる。(きゅうかくがばかになる) (Your sense of smell has become stupid.)

#7 Used as a prefix to express something extraordinary.
馬鹿正直 (ばかしょうじき) (Super honest)
馬鹿デカイ(ばかでかい) (Super big)
馬鹿騒ぎ (ばかさわぎ) (Party out)
馬鹿受け(ばかうけ) (Super funny, Very popular)
馬鹿売れ (ばかうれ) (Sold very well)

Baka Dialects


I briefly mentioned the Hokkaido dialectal differences for baka earlier, but why not learn each prefectural dialect, as well? Some places just use ばか and don’t have dialectical variation, but most have fun ways to call people stupid. (Note: Some regions in the prefecture may use different expressions. The Japanese dialects are not perfectly divided by the prefectural boundary.)

Okinawa: ふらー
Miyazaki: しちりん
Nagasaki: ばか

Which one is your favorite? Mine is にとはっしゅ in Saga. It sounds cute, doesn’t it?



Photo by Steve Voght

Harlan Ellison once said “the two most common elements in the world are hydrogen and stupidity.” With so many ways to be stupid, we humans need just as many ways to call it out. So study up on these variations of “baka”, so you’re ready for whatever dumb situations life throws at you, or so you can accurately describe yourself when you absent mindedly find yourself in baka whirlpool of your own making. Whether talking about your love of fishing or blowing off some steam with some casual Japanese swearing, be sure to use 馬鹿 responsibly, effectively, and maybe even a little bit foolishly.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop – 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile 1 / 2 / 3]

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25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) Fri, 08 May 2015 13:01:33 +0000 If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a […]

The post 25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) appeared first on Tofugu.

If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a foreign country, after all. It’s important to do your research.

I’ve put together a list of pros and cons for going on JET. By pulling from my own experience, as well as the experience of many other JETs, I think I’ve come up with a pretty thorough resource. I hope it helps you to make a good decision for you.

A Note

This article is intended for those interested in the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. JET also employs CIRs (Coordinator of International Relations) who work in Boards of Education and government offices. However, the CIR position requires at least N2 level Japanese and accounts for only 10% of JET participants. Less than 1% of JET participants are SEAs (Sports Exchange Advisors). ALTs make up 90%. All this to say, our focus will be on becoming an ALT in the JET Program.

Tangible Benefits


Photo by

Free Trip to Japan

JET brings foreign people to Japan, so the plane ticket seems to go without saying. As “basic” as this sounds, it’s actually a perk JET has over other ALT programs. Most private ALT companies expect you to pay your own way into the country.

Be aware that flying with JET means you must return to the same airport you departed from. Aside from this it’s a free round trip international flight (with 1 to 5 years in between). A nice perk not offered by many other programs.

Job in Japan

One of the most stressful situations in life is finding a job. It’s doubly stressful when paired with moving your life to a new country and culture.

It’s possible to move to Japan without a job and find one once you get there. But consider the vast expense of moving to Japan. Then finding a place to live, and the costs associated. Finally add job searching.

You’ll probably find an English teaching job, but not having one set up beforehand adds a countdown to zero monies. Stress like that is the last thing you need while job searching.

Depending on the company, some ALT staffing agencies may not always have your best interest in mind. Their job is primarily to make money by keeping the Board of Education happy. This is not always the case, but keep it in mind when looking at alternatives to JET. JET places you in a job with the intention of keeping you there. Things will go wrong (we’ll get to that later), but at least the JET Program isn’t trying to make things difficult for you.

The fact that JET offers you employment in Japan may go without saying. But considering what it’s like to move across the globe without a job helps put into perspective what a major benefit this is.

Getting Set up

You’re flown to Japan and given a job. On top of that, JET sets you up with an apartment, a visa, a residence record, and a residence card. Most other English teaching programs should help with this as well, in varying degrees. However if you are coming to Japan on your own, all of these things rest on you.

Even with a good deal of Japanese under your belt, navigating the bureacracy required to secure an apartment, put the utilities in your name, set up a cell phone plan, get a visa, and register your residency would be daunting. Having a supervisor to get you on your feet in a matter of days relieves a lot of that hassle.


JET sets you up with your living situation. This is a big deal considering how different home set-up in Japan is, compared to other countries. In most cases, you’ll take over your predecessor’s home, which diminishes the startup fees normally required for new apartments. This isn’t a guarantee though. You may need to have up to six times your monthly rent to pay in key money and other fees. Super expensive, but that’s just how apartments in Japan work.

Your JET apartment may not be a dream home, but it’s your own place in Japan. In most cases, it’s fully furnished and partially subsidized, though it could be only one of these or neither. You are free to leave and find your own apartment at your own expense (which is very possible, given the generous JET salary). Follow this guide if you take that route.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of having a place set up for you before you arrive. It’s a big stress reliever and a great way to feel that Japan is your home as soon as you land.

Lots of Support

You have a lot of bosses with varying degrees of power to help you. If one boss is not helpful, at least you have other avenues to explore when solving problems. Not all bosses help with the same things, so in certain situations, you’ll need to approach a certain boss.

School Supervisor (担当者)

This person will be your main go-to supervisor at school. They will be a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) who works at your school, a day-to-day coworker and one you will work with in class. You can go to them with school issues, classroom issues, Japanese culture issues, etiquette issues, and sometimes even issues outside of work.

Vice Principal

The Vice Principal is a supervisor as well and can help with a lot of things, but usually only when your School Supervisor directs you there. These are usually issues that the School Supervisor can’t handle on their own, thus they move up the chain of command.


The Principal is definitely your boss. If it’s a situation the Vice Principal can’t handle, it’s on to the Principal. Realistically, you won’t handle issues with Principal at all, if ever.

Board of Education or Prefectural Office Supervisor

CLAIR refers to this supervisor as your “supervisor”. Like, this is the supervisor for your JET contract and your number one go-to boss in just about every situation.

This person is someone who works at the office of your contracting organization. Your supervisor will be in charge of setting you up in your apartment, setting up utilities, registering you at all local government offices, registering you for health insurance, dealing with repairs in your apartment, opening your bank account, helping you find a doctor, giving you permission to take time off, evaluating your performance, helping you in case of emergency, and helping you to recontract to stay on JET at the end of each year.

Prefectural Advisor (PA)

You will most likely have two Prefectural Advisors (PA). These people are JET Program participants who work closely with the contracting organizations and Prefectural government. Their job is to confidentially counsel you in all issues you have on JET, including issues with your contracting organization. Because PAs are still performing their duties as JET participants, they have a more relatable perspective and may be able to mediate between you and your contracting organization. Bear in mind that PAs have limited power and may not be able to solve your problem. But no matter what, it’s nice to have an advocate who can be in your corner, even if the outcome doesn’t develop the way you like.


After publishing this article, I learned that CLAIR had effectively removed the PA position from JET’s support network last year. PAs still exist, but they are barred from offering counseling or mediating in any way. I don’t know why the PA position is still in place if it’s been stripped of ability to act. The other supports are still in place, but the Prefectural Advisor was one of the most helpful and important sources of official support. The Association for JET (AJET) compiled a study on JET participants’ reactions to this change and presented it to CLAIR, MOFA, MEXT, and MIC. You can read it here. Hopefully this will turn things around, but we’ll see.

If you do go on JET, I would recommend you supplement the loss of PA support with other support organizations like the AJET Peer Support Group or the Tokyo English Life Line. They won’t be able to mediate with your contracting organization like PAs did, but at least they’ll be able to provide the counseling aspect.


JET Program pay is very generous. The pay scale goes like this:

  • 1st year JETs – ¥3,360,000/yr
  • 2nd year JETs – ¥3,600,000/yr
  • 3rd year JETs – ¥3,900,000/yr
  • 4th and 5th year JETs – ¥3,960,000/yr

This is more than enough to pay rent, pay bills, buy meals, spend money, save money, and go on trips. You’re not only given the experience of living in Japan, but also the means to enjoy it!

Generally speaking, JET is the highest paying ALT gig there is, unless you join a company that has a pay scale in which your raises would eventually exceed ¥3,960,000 a year. However, this might take a few years of teaching, which would be a great goal for those wanting to live in Japan long term. But as far as starting salaries for ALT work go, JET can’t be beat.

Tax Exemption for 2 Years

On top of the high pay, you will most likely be tax exempt for the first two years. Many countries, including the U.S., have a tax treaty with Japan, wherein the money you earn for the first two years on JET is tax free. Check with your home country’s tax authority to find out if you qualify. You will still need to file taxes with your home country and your local Japanese government, but that’s a small price for two years of tax free pay.

Pay off Debts with That Money

Many JETs use their income situation as an opportunity to pay off student loans or other debts. This is a huge benefit considering the amount of time it usually takes people to pay off debts. You could pay off those student loans in 4 years rather than 30, and still having money to spend on vacations.

Many Insurances

As a member of the JET Program, you are automatically enrolled in 3 insurance plans to cover you in most imaginable cases. Many private ALT staffing companies try to get out of enrolling their employees into the National Health Insurance Program by claiming employees’ total work time per week as 29.5 hours. In reality ALTs in those companies work closer to 40.

With JET, you are enrolled in the mandatory National Health Insurance Program and two others as well. And all without any paperwork required. Below is a breakdown of the healthcare you would receive:

  • The National Health Insurance Program is the social healthcare program. The majority of Japan is enrolled and nearly every Japanese doctor accepts it. This plan covers 70% of your medical expenses, which includes doctor visits, treatment, medical supplies, operations, hospitalization, nursing, and transportation. Dependents are also covered under this plan and receive all the same benefits of the beneficiary. Dependent care differs in that they must pay 20% of hospitalization costs and 30% of out-patient care.
  • JET Accident Insurance covers whatever National Health Insurance doesn’t. Use it if it’s a situation you wouldn’t want to pay for out of pocket. It also covers you for up to one month at a time outside of Japan, in case you want to go on vacation or visit your home country.
  • Employment Insurance is your contribution to the Japanese unemployment fund. This allows you to collect unemployment if you remain in the country after JET and are unemployed for a time. This is an invaluable safety net for those who wish to reside in Japan long term and need to look for a job after JET.

Pension Fund (for retirement or unable to work due to injury)

Everyone working in Japan is required to put money away in the National Pension. It’s like America’s Social Security, except you get back the money you put in. This is used in case you are too ill to work, you die and need to leave money to family, or you retire in Japan. In the event you leave Japan without doing any of these things, you can apply for a refund of the majority of what you put in after you return to your home country.


JET offers an incredible amount of time off, especially when compared with your Japanese co workers. The exact amount you get depends on what your contracting organization allows. The numbers below should be a close estimate to what you will get:

  • Vacation Days – 12-20 per year
  • Sick Days – 5-10 per year
  • Special Days – If you are a prefectural ALT, you may be entitled to a compensatory holiday (だいきゅう, 代休) if the number of work days in a month exceeds the number stated in your contract.

Language Practice

JET gives you an invaluable chance to take textbook Japanese and temper it into real, working fluency. Whether you know a lot or a little, it will get practiced into a smooth buttery flow. And studying on JET means real world application, which smashes the learnings into your brain.

Is it possible to live in Japan and not learn any Japanese? Definitely. But Japan offers so many opportunities for immersion that it’s the best place to reach benchmarks of fluency.

The JET Program Japanese Language Course

CLAIR offers its own Japanese Language Course to all JET participants free of charge. The course is split between Beginner/Intermediate Courses and the Translation and Interpretation Courses. You have to test into the Translation and Interpretation Courses, but the Beginner/Intermediate Courses are open as soon as you start JET.

In years past, the JET Program Japanese Language Course was administered with textbooks and CDs mailed to your contracting organization. However, in recent years it has become an online e-learning course.

You can read what JETs say about the course here. It may not ultimately be the best course for studying Japanese, but it’s worth trying. It teaches grammar and vocab based on situations you may encounter on JET and it’s free. If anything, it at least shows CLAIR’s pro-activeness in caring for your development.

International Work Experience

The ALT Job, which has its pros and cons, does offer a lot of opportunity to hone skills which look good on a resume. Chief among these is “international work experience,” which hiring managers love. To employers this usually means, adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to work with various personalities. If you know how to highlight this on a resume and in an interview, it can be the career strengthener you need to land a better job.


Enkai are one of the best perks of the job. You pay some money and go to a party with all your teachers. Eating and drinking ensues. You can only experience this by working in Japan, as enkai are only for those “in the group”. No spouses or family allowed.

Tatemae gets pushed to the side at these parties and you see a side of your co workers that you won’t see at school. After the fun, there’s more fun. Most enkai continue at the 二次会 (second party).

Enkai are fantastic and exclusive experience. Go to as many as you can.


Yay! Sitting in chairs and listening! There’s not a whole ton of training involved on JET (see sections below), but you are offered some. There are several orientations before leaving for JET, one in Tokyo upon arrival, one before you finish JET, and in the middle of every year.

The Skill Development Conferences were the ones I found most helpful. They are conducted by host prefectures and all ALTs in the prefecture attend with one JTE from their school. This means open discussions and workshops with one of your JTEs, and getting to hear from other ALT/JTE teams from the region. Results will vary, but the potential is definitely there.

The CLAIR Grant for TEFL Certification

CLAIR offers grants for JETs to get Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification. This is great if you want to teach English in foreign countries as a career or want to get better at your job as an ALT. More info here.

A TEFL Certification will allow you to get better teaching jobs in Japan, including universities. Other countries in which English is not the native language open up as well. If you love your job as an ALT and want to travel Japan or the world, a TEFL Certification can help you achieve that goal.

Alumni Network

JET only lasts five years, so you will need to find another job at some point. This is where the JET Alumni Association (or JETAA) can be a big help. There are 52 chapters in 15 countries totaling over 25,000 members. No matter where you end up after JET, there should be a (relatively) nearby support base built in. Not only does this help with reverse culture shock, but JET Alumni are always eager to help a former JET get adjusted to their new home, whether it be in finding a new job or anything else.


Your contracting organization will most likely supply you with a bicycle while on JET. Maybe not, but 90% of the time you will get a bike. Hey kid! You wanna free bike? Why would you say no?

Foothold in the Country for Living Long Term

For those wanting to live in Japan long-term, this might be the number one reason to go on JET. You can get to Japan and live for a year or two while networking, job searching, and getting acclimated to your new life. Starting a career in a new country is difficult enough without having to blaze your own trail. JET gives you a solid base from which to start your career advancement operation.

Intangible Benefits


A Chance to Live on Your Own in a Foreign Country

It goes without saying that living in Japan is different than visiting. You’ll experience Japan as a relative insider, seeing both good and bad aspects of culture, society, religion, government, and daily life. You will also be largely on your own forcing you to become more resilient in a shorter amount of time than you might in your own country.

Dealing with Culture Shock (Initially Bad, Long Term Good)

Culture shock is a personal disorientation experienced when moving to new countries or environments. While on JET you will be forced to deal with it in varying degrees. This may not sound like a benefit, but it can be if dealt with correctly. If you can gain perspective and adjust in some ways, you’ll find it easier to cope during other transitional times. Not fun but certainly beneficial.

Learning More About Your Own Culture

Yes, I did say your own culture. Learning about and interacting with Japanese culture has the funny side effect of teaching you about your own. When confused or frustrated by the way things are done in Japan, eventually you’ll start to examine why those things bother you. This usually leads to an examination of your own values and/or the values of your home country. With a lot of these experiences and thinkings compounding on one another, you eventually gain a broader perspective of your own culture and why it functions the way it does.

Experience All Four Seasons in Japan

Recently in the Tofugu office, we had a fun argument about which season was the best. I said fall, while Koichi said winter, and Kristen said summer. Seasons in Japan are all wonderful (though fall is definitely the best). This is not so much due to weather, but rather the interesting and exciting ways Japan celebrates each season. Sakura viewing in spring, matsuris galore in summer, momiji hikes in the fall, and nabe at the kotatsu in winter. Living in Japan year round enables you to experience each season and discover reasons to love each one.

The People

It’s great to talk about mountains, temples, shrines, arcades, and konbinis. But none of these amazing Japanese things would exist without Japanese people to create them. The people you will meet in Japan are the best part of the experience.

A lot of guide books and travel sites say things like, “Japanese people are polite, kind, and hospitable.” I’m not arguing that but you’ll meet all kinds of characters that fall in line with and defy the stereotypes. There’s no telling what you’ll encounter when dealing with the cocktail of personalities that is humanity.

You’ll certainly always remember places you went and things you did, but people are what make experiences into adventures.

The Horcrux Effect

A fellow JET friend of mine likened her leaving Japan to a Horcrux from Harry Potter. For the uninitiated (muggles), a Horcrux is something a wizard can use to split their soul and attach a piece of it to an object, thus anchoring that piece of them to a certain place. This is the best description I’ve heard for living in and leaving places.

We all leave pieces of ourselves in the various places we’ve called home, and this is no different when living in Japan. When you leave, there are people, places, and memories that you’ll hold dearly. I’m not sure whether or not to call this a benefit. But it’s definitely a feeling, though bittersweet, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Reasons Not to Go on JET


Photo by tokyoform

After reading the lists above, you may get the impression that JET is a perfectly positive organization offering a perfectly positive experience. Of course, this is not true or possible. JET has its share of pitfalls, miscommunications, and downright crappy situations. Some of these are due to Japanese culture and society conflicting with a JET participant’s worldview (ie. Culture Shock), while others may be administrative problems caused by JET or the Japanese school system itself. Below is an overview of cons to consider before jumping into JET with both feet.

Every Situation is Different (thus you can’t prepare for it)

This was the previous mantra of the JET Program, sometimes abbreviated as ESID. Though CLAIR no longer officially supports this catchphrase, it’s still a fact of life on JET. The organization is so large and sends ALTs to such disparate locales, it’s impossible for them to predict what will happen to you when and how. On some levels this is understandable, but it came to the point that CLAIR and other JET entities used this idea to deny responsibility or take action when there was a legitimate issue. While it’s encouraging to see this motto dropped, it’s probably still ingrained in the wiring of the organization.

In reality, JET and CLAIR are not god-like entities that can swing the hammer down any time a JET is in trouble. Part of the point of the program is being on your own in Japanese society. So you are, in essence, signing up for an experience in which the powers that send you have very little ability to help after you are deployed. You may have a great school with attentive students, or a difficult school full of street toughs. You may get Japanese co-workers who are thoughtful and caring, or indifferent and rude. You may get housed in a large 2 bedroom home or a tiny shoebox. More than likely, you’ll get a mix of good and bad elements to your JET experience (ie. Good teachers, bad students. Small home, close to train station, etc). JET drops you directly into Japanese life and Japanese life, like life anywhere, is complicated.

Culture Shock

Just a few sections up, I talked about the benefits of culture shock, but to get the benefits one must go through some real sucky times.

Most will go through culture shock and come out on the other end just fine. But it can be detrimental if you have a predisposition to depression or are in the middle of dealing with a tough life situation. It’s best to deal with those things first, learn some coping strategies, and then try coming to Japan. Adjusting to Japanese life takes some mental preparedness, so it’s best to defer if you aren’t ready.

Training Sucks

Rather, training in Japan is different. Japanese work culture is one of on the job training, wherein you jump in and learn the ropes as you go. If you’re coming from a Western country, you may be more used to being trained in what to do before being sent to do the job.

Neither approach is right necessarily, but going from one to the other can be frustrating. This is explained best in this article by Rochelle Kopp. In Japanese culture, training is seen as something that develops the self and therefore should be done on one’s own time. Thus, you should be ready to jump into your new job and roll with the punches until you get the hang of it.

You’ll Most Likely Get Put in the Inaka

The majority of JET participants are placed in the countryside of Japan (called “inaka” in Japanese). This could be a pro or con depending on your preferences. In general, inaka life means living far from train stations, having only a few shops in your town, being one of the only foreigners in your area, needing a car, and not having a whole lot to do after work. There is a lot of charm to living in the inaka, but we’re focusing on the negative here, so let’s not get too chipper.

Medical Situations

Japanese medical practice is a whole issue that is best covered in this article. The Japanese medical system will provide you with the care you need, though you may bump into a number of nuances and roadblocks that give you pause. Certain procedures that are common in the West may not be in Japan. Certain medications you are used to may not be available. Doctors are gods among men who cannot be questioned. The language barrier can feel especially daunting when it comes to medical Japanese. All in all, you will be fine in the Japanese medical system and you won’t pay much thanks to all your insurances (see above sections). But unfamiliarity with Japanese medical processes and the differences in medical practices may cause some frustration.

The Japanese School System Takes Some Getting Used To

Just as the Japanese medical system takes getting used to, so does the Japanese school system. The difference here is that the majority of your time on JET will be spent in this system.

Understanding the Japanese School System would take an entire article in itself, but the main things to remember are:

  • Kids are the center of the school, not the teachers: Kids stay in their homerooms and teachers go to them. This gives the students a sense that the classroom is their turf.
  • The school school is a group and that group must がんばります together: This is more of a dynamic of Japanese work culture, but the basic idea is that the group has to work together, and that means individual needs may get marginalized.
  • Japanese school is test focused: Japanese students have one goal: to get into a good college. To do this, they need to pass an entrance exam. And to get accepted to take the exam, they need to graduate from a good high school. And to graduate from a good high school, they need to test into a good high school. And to do all these things, Japanese students need to be good at taking tests. This can mean that some or most of the English lessons you teach have very little practical application.

These are just a few examples, but hopefully they should give you a good idea of how different the Japanese school system may feel.

You Are a Public Servant, Not Simply a Teacher

This means that you are bound by the same rules and obligations of other full-time government employees. As a public servant you may be asked to attend functions at the last minute, work on weekends, or stay late. Most schools choose not to ask their ALTs to do these things, but it is in your contract so be aware that your school or Board of Education has the right to rope you into a lot of extra work any time they choose.

The Answer to Some Questions Is “Just Do It Because That’s the Way It’s Done”.

In the West, we usually want to know why we are doing something before we do it. In Japan sometimes reasons may not be given as to why you need to do something.

For example, a friend of mine asked his Japanese neighbor about paying the NHK man who asks for money door-to-door.

The NHK is a government run public broadcasting service funded partly by the public. Instead of running telethons, the NHK simply goes door-to-door and insists on payment. As a person with a TV that receives NHK (all TVs in Japan do by default), you are expected to pay for the channel.

My friend told his Japanese neighbor that he didn’t pay the NHK man because he doesn’t watch NHK. The neighbor responded in shock. “You must pay the NHK man!”

When my friend asked why, the neighbor replied, “Because that’s what you do!” The real answer is that payment is required by law, but to the Japanese neighbor that wasn’t the issue. You just do it because you do it.

Several of your “why” questions on JET may be answered with “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because that’s the way it’s done.” This is especially frustrating when your questions are about things more serious than paying for public television.



Photo by skyseeker

JET is without a doubt a worthwhile program with a lot of flaws. There’s much to consider when deciding whether or not the JET Program is for you. You’ll want to talk it over with family and friends, make your own pros and cons list based on your life situation, and think about overall career goals. Keep in mind that life on JET is an adventure, and adventures are not constant excitement or good times. There’s a lot rough patches, boring spots, and downright frustrating obstacles. But peppered in there will be joys and ultimate rewards. An adventure is always a gamble, but hopefully worth it in the end.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Why English Is Hard and Japanese Is Easy Wed, 06 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Before all my past linguistics professors start to wail and compose angry comments, let’s get that deliberately sensationalist title out of the way: Really, no language is harder than any other language. Wherever a child is born, whatever language is being spoken there, that baby will learn its native language – or languages – just […]

The post Why English Is Hard and Japanese Is Easy appeared first on Tofugu.

Before all my past linguistics professors start to wail and compose angry comments, let’s get that deliberately sensationalist title out of the way: Really, no language is harder than any other language. Wherever a child is born, whatever language is being spoken there, that baby will learn its native language – or languages – just as easily.

The problem, though, is that we don’t get to choose where we are born. And if you’re a native speaker of English who wishes you could speak Japanese, starting over as a baby is not an option. But who cares what babies think? Talking about how easily babies learn Japanese does nothing but make me angry at those lucky Japanese babies and the annoying linguists who think this is a relevant answer to the question.

Of course what we’re really interested in, as adults, is how hard a language is to learn for an adult – and the answer to that question depends on where you’re starting. Yes, it will take me longer to get fluent in Japanese than in, say, Spanish (the Department of Defense has done the calculations, and if you’re studying Japanese, click that link at your own peril). But that’s purely because I am starting out as an English speaker. What makes Japanese hard is that it’s so different in structure from my native language, while what makes Spanish easy is that it’s much more similar.

There’s no answer to “how hard is this language for an adult,” only “how hard is this language for THIS adult.” Regardless of whether we’re talking about babies or adult learners, there’s no such thing as an easy or hard language in absolute terms. But as adult learners, we’re not interested in absolutes – for us, as with the English/Japanese/Spanish comparison, it’s all relative. And there are actually interesting things to say about some of the details and relative difficulty. There are features a language can have that are relatively rare in the world’s languages, so they’ll be hard for speakers of a lot of other languages. We could fairly call those features “difficult.”

And when we look at it that way, English has a fair number of difficulties, while Japanese – yes, Japanese – has some features that make it easy. What’s more, they actually share some features that make both of them hard for everyone else – which means that whichever one you’re starting with, you should at least be glad you don’t have to learn them both.

English vs Japanese: Pronunciation Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Ben Ward

While no sounds are inherently harder for those irrelevant babies to learn to pronounce in their native language, some are inherently rarer – they occur in fewer of the world’s languages. This means that speakers of more languages are going to have trouble when they encounter them in a foreign language. And when it comes to these less common sounds, English has got a bunch of them.


English has some consonant sounds that are extremely rare. To make matters more confusing, there are two of them that we write the same way, as th. Here are words that start with these two sounds and the symbol that linguists use to write them:

voiceless θ: thin
voiced ð: the

These consonants are found in less than ten percent of the world’s languages. This means that the vast majority of learners coming to English already can’t pronounce these sounds. Most of them will end up substituting either t and d or s and z depending on the language they started with. Japanese speakers will tend to use s and z as you know if you’ve read our Guide to Loanword Phonology, as in the following:

voiceless θ: marathon – マラソン marason
voiced ð: leather – レザー rezaa

What’s particularly cruel to non-native English learners is that we not only have this annoying sound, there’s no way to avoid it, because it’s in words that are used constantly and have no real alternative, like “the” and “that” and “there”. It’s almost like we wanted a way to out someone as a non-native speaker every time they open their mouth.

Another weird consonant is the way R is pronounced in American English. In the vast majority of languages that have some kind of R sound, it’s either a trill or a quick tap against the alveolar ridge (that ridge behind your front teeth). This thing we do in American English where we bunch up the tongue in the middle of our mouth is basically designed to torture nearly everyone else on the planet.

Japanese, in contrast, has no rare consonants. The only candidate might be the exact pronunciation of the f sound, but that only occurs in a limited context, and isn’t going to trip you up every time you try to use the definite article.

Advantage: Japanese


English has only five vowel letters but many more actual vowel sounds. We need special symbols to talk about them precisely:


Compared to other languages of the world this is an above-averagely large number of vowels, and English can be fairly described as having an “unusually rich and complex vowel system, and a great deal of variation in vowel pronunciation across dialects.”

“Unusually rich and complex.” That’s a good thing if you’re talking about, say, cuisine, or literature. For learning a language it just means trouble. For example, the difference between the tense/lax pairs in the chart above is hard for just about anyone learning English – with the result that someone with a strong non-native accent has trouble pronouncing words like “seen” (tense vowel) and “sin” (lax vowel) differently – they both sound like “seen.”

In contrast, Japanese has what is basically a classic system of vowels, which is 5, corresponding to the five vowel letters of our alphabet. (The u sound has a slightly unusual pronunciation but you can get by without ever noticing it.)

So English speakers learning Japanese already have all the vowels they need. There are slight phonetic differences, which is why you probably have a detectable accent, but you can get close enough by using vowels you already know. That’s much easier than the poor Japanese learner, who has to learn to pronounce vowels that they never knew existed.

Advantage: Japanese

And that’s before we’ve even addressed the other thing, which is that in English we only have five letters to spell all of those vowels with, AND we use them differently than all other languages. We’ll get to that later.

Syllable structure/consonant clusters

Individual sounds aren’t the only thing you might find difficult in a new language. It’s also how those sounds are put together, and again, here English poses more of a challenge.

Although it’s kids’ stuff compared to some languages (hello Russia and neighbors), English is more complex than average when it comes to how many consonants you can cram into one syllable.

In comparison, while Japanese doesn’t have the simplest possible syllable structure, it’s pretty close. In some languages, the most complicated possible syllables are sequences of one consonant and one vowel. Japanese only allows a tiny bit more complexity than this. If you’ve read our guides to the Japanese past tense and English loanwords in Japanese, you know that the consonants that can occur next to each other in Japanese words is very limited – certain identical consonant sequences and certain nasal-consonant sequence – and only in the middle of a word. That’s why English words borrowed into Japanese tend to have a bunch of vowels added to them.

The result is that most Japanese sound sequences are going to be possible in whatever other language the learner is coming from, so they don’t present a challenge. The most unusual thing is those sequences of two identical consonants (what linguistics geeks call geminates), but once you learn to the trick to those, it’s the same for all of them. That’s much less complicated than the variety of consonant sequences you have to wrap your tongue around in English, where you can begin a syllable with three consonants (strike), end it with four consonants (texts, which actually ends in the four sounds ksts), and of course there are various different two- and three- and four-consonant possibilities.

And don’t even get me started on how crazy English stress is.

Advantage: Japanese

English vs Japanese: Morphology Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Adam Koford

Morphology is what linguistics geeks call the study of the structure of words. I’m not going to address syntax (sentence structure) as such in this article, but there a few things languages often do with words to make them fit into sentence structure that both Japanese and English learners can be happy we don’t have to worry about.

Verb conjugation is pretty simple in Japanese. There’s no agreement for person – compare to the Spanish, say:

yo digo – I say
tú dices – you say
él dice – he/she says
nosotros decimos – we say
vosotros decís – you plural say
ellos dicen – they say

In Japanese, it’s all “hanashimasu” no matter who is doing the hanashimas-ing. In English, it’s only a hair more complicated – say/says is the only difference.

In both Japanese and English, we don’t have to learn noun gender, that painfully arbitrary stuff that means that in Spanish you have to use the masculine form of “the” for el lago “the lake” and the feminine form for la mesa “the table” even though these things clearly have no sex at all.

We also don’t have to learn noun case – this is the thing wherein some languages, nouns take a different form depending on whether they are subject, object, etc of a sentence. The classic example is Latin: “girl” is different depending on the role the girl plays in the sentence:

puella if she’s the subject, like, “the girl is eating sushi”
puellam if she’s the object, like, “the dog bit the girl”
puellae if she’s the indirect object, like, “I gave sushi to the girl”
(And that’s only one declension – nouns are divided into several sets, each of which has different endings.)

I haven’t really researched morphological differences thoroughly enough to give a score, but I’m going to do it anyway. I give Japanese the honorary award for being harder because of another thing: the different forms of the numerals for counting different kinds of objects. If you’re counting a bunch of pencils you go “ippon, nihon, sanbon…” and if you’re counting a bunch of dogs you go “ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki….” and if you’re counting sheets of paper you go “ichimai, nimai, sanmai….”

While it’s true that there are also general numbers for counting, and that most people can probably go their whole life without needing to count a bunch of small animals, I’m giving Japanese extra credit for this one. Back in the day when I taught intro linguistics, I used to tell students there were languages like that because the textbooks said there were, but I’m not sure I really believed it. Imagine my surprise when I started studying Japanese…

Advantage: English, because I said so.

English vs Japanese vs Everybody Else: Vocabulary Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Pierre Metivier

Because of their history, both English and Japanese have unusually complicated vocabulary systems. English is basically a Germanic language, but took in a lot of words with Romance/Latin roots from French at the Norman Conquest. Likewise Japanese has a core of native vocabulary and then took in a whole bunch of words from Chinese. Both histories result in similar complications that are a pain in the ass for second language learners.

In Japanese, this is why you’ve got different kun/on readings for kanji – basically the language has a whole bunch of pairs of synonyms, with different historical origins, that are written with the same character. For those of you who are not (yet) actually playing along at home by studying Japanese, a quick explanation:

Let’s say you’re learning the kanji 豚, which means “pig.” There are two ways to pronounce that same character: the historically native Japanese, “buta,” and the historically Chinese, “ton.” Which way you pronounce it depends on what word it’s in: 豚肉 “pork” is buta-niku, whereas that delicious fried pork cutlet 豚カツ is tonkatsu.

But while you’re wailing and gnashing your teeth about how much this means you have to memorize in learning Japanese, what you probably don’t realize is that English has basically the same problem for the language learner. There are many cases where the relationship in meaning between two words is completely obscure because we use a Germanic root for one and a Latin root for the other.

For example, “mouth” is a Germanic noun, but when we make an adjective meaning “related to the mouth” we use the Latinate root, “oral.” Compare this to German, where the word for “mouth” is mund and to make an adjective meaning “related to the mouth” we mostly just stick a suffix on the same word: mündlich. Which would you rather have to learn?

Or compare it to Latin itself: In English, we have the German word “hear” but “related to hearing” is “auditory.” In Latin, “hear” is audire and “related to hearing is” – wait for it – auditorio. Both contain the root audi, and you can derive all kinds of words related to hearing from that root in consistent ways. Latin is another language that is supposed to be “hard,” but for that pair of words, I know which would be easier to memorize. And there are a lot more pairs like this in English, basically most of the vocabulary for body parts and functions (heart/cardiac, see/visual…. your foot doctor is a podiatrist… etc.)

There are also segments of English vocabulary that do the same thing but add confusion by being less systematic. For example, we borrowed a lot of words relating to food from the French, but not all, with results like the following:

The word for a cow in a barnyard is cow, but in the kitchen it’s beef; likewise, you’ve got a pig in the pen and pork on your plate. Compare to Japanese where niku is meat, pork is buta-niku or ton-niku, both “pig meat,” and beef is gyuu-niku “cow meat.” I know which pairs I’d rather have to memorize, right? And then just to keep those foreigners on their toes, we call chickens, lambs, ducks and any number of fish the same thing whether alive or grilled. I’m sure this results in a lot of people digging around in the dictionary wondering what the word for “chicken meat” is – expecting something just as unrelated as the words “cow” and “beef” – and then wanting to kick someone when it turns out to be “chicken.”

Advantage: Neither. Speakers of other languages should be equally sorry they are learning either Japanese or English.

English vs Japanese vs Everybody Else Including Native Learners: Writing Systems Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Joe Kester

Both English and Japanese have difficult writing systems. Kanji kicks everyone’s asses – it takes Japanese kids a long time to learn too. And English has a ton of irregularities that make it harder to learn to read than most languages that use the Latin alphabet. There’s probably no winner in this battle other than people who manage to go through life without having to learn either, but English is probably a lot harder than you realize if you’ve been reading it all your life.

Japanese combines two distinct types of writing systems. One is the familiar type that represents pronunciation: when you see the kana か, you know to move your mouth to make the sound “ka” come out. The other element of the writing system, kanji, represents morphemes, which is what linguists call the basic elements of meaning that make up words. Here’s another example, like the one we saw above for the word pig, just to make sure you get it if you’re not already studying the language: When you see the kanji 見, you know that the word will be something related to seeing – you have an idea of the meaning – but you don’t know whether to pronounce it mi or ken without knowing the particular word it’s part of.

If you speak a language that uses an alphabet, kanji can seem crazy. Why make people memorize thousands of characters when they could just memorize 26 letters and combine them any way they need to? But one important thing to realize is that writing systems aren’t designed to be easy for the learner – they evolve to be useful for the fluent speaker. After all, you spend a tiny period of your life learning to read, compared to the years you’ll spend reading afterwards.

And in Japanese, once you’ve learned the system and the language, reading and writing kanji is actually more effective than using a system that represents just pronunciation (as anyone who tries to read Japanese in just romaji will eventually realize). The reason for this basically follows from what we learned earlier about the sound system: Japanese has a relatively small sound system and allows only relatively simple syllables. That means there’s a limited number of ways you can combine sounds into words, so there are many homophones – words that sound the same but have different meanings. If I walk up to you and say tsuku – or if you read つく – you have no way of knowing what it means unless there some context to rely on, because it can mean any of the following and more:

吐く to breathe
点く to catch fire
着く to reach
突く to poke
付く to be attached
憑く to haunt
浸く to be pickled

That’s a modest case, because I made it two syllables. Go type “ki” into a Japanese dictionary and you’ll get a much more impressive list that I couldn’t stand the idea of typing here.

Of course in writing, like in the list above, which meaning is intended is clear, because they’re all different kanji. Native Japanese speakers will sometimes disambiguate even in speaking by drawing a kanji in the air with one finger. So despite the time it takes to learn, the writing system makes sense given the structure of the language.

And in fact, if you want to argue in favor of a writing system that represents pronunciation, you probably shouldn’t do it by talking about how much easier it is to read and write English. There are plenty of languages where the alphabet reliably tells you how to pronounce a word, but English isn’t one of them.

There are even ways that English is a similar kind of mixed system, consistently representing morphemes rather than sounds. A common word that’s hard for second language learners to pronounce is “says.” They look at it and figure, just pronounce “say” and put the sound s at the end, right? Sadly, nope. It’s more like “sez” (a spelling you sometimes see in comic books to indicate casual speech or dialect, which is actually pretty weird since that’s the standard pronunciation).

So why don’t we write it “sez”? Instead of representing the pronunciation, the writing system preserves the relationship of meaning instead: you know that “say” and “says” are forms of the same verb by looking at them, even though it’s not clear how to say them. Just as if the sequence “say” were a kanji character!

A reversed but still similar case is the words to/two/too: they are all pronounced the same but written differently, just like all the different kanji for “tsuku.” Yeah, you’d be able to tell which was which by context most of the time. But there’s no real pressure on the writing system to regularize those spellings, since they do serve a function by making those words easy to distinguish at a glance.

So some apparently irregularities in English writing make some sense, the same way kanji makes more sense once you think about it. Unfortunately, this is not an excuse for most of them.

The basic problem with English spelling is a historical one. (Here’s a cute video that explains much of it ). Our spelling was standardized by the invention of printing at an unfortunate time – before a bunch of pronunciation changes took place. This accounts for some obvious things like the extra letters in a word like “thought” – there used to be a sound where the gh is, but it went away – or “cough” – where the pronunciation of the sound represented by gh changed to f.

But the worst part of all is the vowels. To start, there’s the Latin alphabet. We got it from Latin, which only has five vowels. Since we have more vowel sounds than that, as I mentioned earlier, we have to use combinations of letters to represent some of them. Some of which aren’t even combinations of adjacent letters: pity the second language learner who has to learn that the e at the end of bite isn’t pronounced, but is stuck on so you know it’s a different vowel than the word bit.

And the additional historical problem here is that as a result of something called the Great Vowel Shift, we use those basic vowel letters aeiou differently from everyone else. In other languages that use the Latin alphabet, the vowel letters are pronounced the way they’re pronounced in romaji: ka, ki, ke, ko, ku. To everyone else, ki is how you write what we’d write “kee.” That’s nowhere near the vowel in “kite.” Likewise, the vowel in ka is nothing like the vowel in the word “mate.” There are enough confusing features of English spelling that you can write a poem like this one:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).

…that goes on quite a bit longer if you follow that link. While you may complain because you can’t look at a kanji and know how to pronounce it, I think most speakers of English as a second language would feel the same way about trying to read that poem.

Basically, when it comes to writing, speakers of nearly any other language should be equally sorry they are learning either Japanese or English, when they could have chosen any number of languages where the alphabet consistently represents actual pronunciation. The only possible difference is that speakers of Chinese probably have an advantage learning kanji, but the characters are not the same in both languages and certainly not pronounced the same. As one native Chinese speaker explains it, it’s more just “after learned thousands of Chinese characters from young and having got extremely familiar with such writing system already, you hardly have reason fearing learning a couple of hundred more of them.”

Advantage: Neither, with maybe a slight advantage to Japanese just because there are so many millions of native speakers of Chinese.

Can’t Complain

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by NobMouse

So there you have it – at least some small but interesting portion of it – when we look across the languages of the world and see where Japanese and English compare. Yeah, Japanese is not a piece of cake if you’re a native speaker of English. But anyone trying to learn your language will probably want to punch you if they hear you complain, and they’d be entirely justified. So we probably better keep our whining to ourselves.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Interview with Sarah Feinerman from Design Festa Mon, 04 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 International Art Event Design Festa is an explosion of creativity that happens twice a year at Japan’s largest convention center, Tokyo Big Sight. It’s the largest art event of its kind in Asia, so big that it recently spawned a sister event, GAKUTEN, to give extra space an attention to student artists who participated in the […]

The post Interview with Sarah Feinerman from Design Festa appeared first on Tofugu.

International Art Event Design Festa is an explosion of creativity that happens twice a year at Japan’s largest convention center, Tokyo Big Sight. It’s the largest art event of its kind in Asia, so big that it recently spawned a sister event, GAKUTEN, to give extra space an attention to student artists who participated in the original Design Festa event. On top of this, Design Festa owns and runs a gallery year round, at their headquarters. And all this is organized by 18 people.

One of those 18 is California native, Sarah Feinerman, the overseas public relations coordinator who has been helping people find art and helping art find people since 2013.  Tofugu was fortunate to get some of her time and learn about inner workings of Japan’s largest and most vibrant art organization.

Becoming Part of the Team


Q. How did you get to Japan initially?

I graduated from college and then came straight to Japan at 20 years old. At the time I was the only person I knew who had never traveled abroad. I had never studied Japanese, opening my first textbook on the plane from San Francisco to Tokyo.

I was brought over as an ALT, and on my first day into work I found out the contract my company had with a Board of Education in Miaygi had actually been cancelled. This is not a rare situation, as independent dispatch companies like mine play a high-stakes game of supply vs. demand every spring and there are always people who arrive for work from overseas only to find they don’t have a job anymore, due to no fault of their own. Under normal circumstances I would have been put back on my plane and flown home to San Diego, but there just so happened to be a small town in Tochigi that was too poor to keep their status as a town (they would be transformed into Moka City 18 months after I arrived) or to keep their expensive, government-issued non-Japanese English teacher. I had five elementary schools and three middle schools to teach simultaneously, but I had a job, and came to adore Ninomiya Town.

Q. What were you doing before Design Festa?

I was convinced that the only job for a non-Japanese person with no special skills in Japan was English teaching, so that’s what I did and that’s what got me out here. I spent 3 and a half years working at kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Tochigi, Fukushima and Ibaraki, then an additional two years at an English conversation school in Chiba. I moved every year for my first six years in the country, but it never really felt like I was working at my job–I was tolerating it. My students were great, but I was no teacher. I was finally in talks to be transferred from the classroom to the head office at the conversation school that employed me when along came Design Festa.


Q. How did you get your job with Design Festa?

When I first moved to Chiba for the English conversation school job, the company had a system where new potential teachers were all put together in a guest house. You went through training and test classes and if you showed potential you were officially hired.

My neighbor in the guest house was a social type who would intentionally look up events and happenings in the area, and he invited me to Design Festa. I am not a social type. I had very little interest in going anywhere with someone I didn’t know and I have no idea why I went, but I did.

My first Design Festa was in May of 2011 at vol.33, which I attended as a visitor. I had attended several anime conventions in California (again: nerd), and I absolutely love, love, love the atmosphere of a convention hall. Thousands of people all passionate about the same thing all together in a place where you don’t have to feel embarrassed to say what you like, to express what you like, because everyone else feels the same way and wants to meet you. They’re glad you’re there with them. I felt like I’d come home–or, as I’d later say in my interview with the Director of Design Festa, I felt the emotion of “tadaima.”

I have no artistic abilities whatsoever, but my best friend in the world is an illustrator in San Francisco. I harassed her into sending me posters, postcards, prints, keychains, pin badges–anything we could come up with–and in November of 2011 I was an official Design Festa vol.34 exhibitor.

I exhibited and sold her work at volumes 34, 35 and 36, making me more than familiar with the Design Festa website, the application process and the documentation sent out to English-speaking exhibitors.

Being the English nerd that I am, all of the…interesting grammar in the official documentation kind of depressed me. I am quite a fan of Japanese-English, spoken, written or otherwise, but I loved Design Festa and I wanted it to put its best foot forward. I wanted it to impress other people as much as it impressed me, and I felt that the unusual application of English that its organizers used was selling it short.

I was also kind of confused–I knew that Comic Market, the giant anime, manga, and doujinshi fair also held at Tokyo Big Sight was organized entirely by volunteers, and assumed Design Festa operated in the same way. If I’d known it was an actual company I never would have done what I did: emailing them in June of 2012 offering to correct their English-language website purely on a volunteer basis. It was an offer I’d made before to one or two lolita fashion export shops, but no one ever took me up on the offer. So I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back.

It wasn’t until September that I came across the response from the Director of Design Festa in my spam folder–and he was offering me a job. I thought I’d ruined everything by ignoring his email for three months, but I responded anyway in a flurry of apologies, and he assured me the position was still open. From January 2013 to March I worked two jobs, five days a week teaching English conversation in Chiba and twice a week at Design Festa in Harajuku, and I was a full time employee by April.

My first event as a staff member was Design Festa vol.37.


Q. What are the responsibilities of your job?

I’m officially the overseas media public relations coordinator, but like most people in the company I do a little of everything. Translation for the websites and official documents for exhibitors is a big part of what I do, in addition to arranging TV spots, magazine features, and other collaborations with English-language media. Thanks to my graphic design background I’ve been able to take on the responsibilities of all our foreign-language advertising materials from copywriting to photography to design. I’ve also been learning video editing on the fly, interviewing exhibitors during Design Festa and GAKUTEN events and then creating event report videos, artist interview compilations and, from this year, monthly features of artists and exhibitions at Design Festa Gallery. We also have relationships with several foreign embassies to whom I represent the company. Everyone assists with the day-to-day running of the art gallery that the Design Festa office is located in.


Q. How many people do you work with?

International Art Event Design Festa, the largest art and performance convention in all of Asia, if not the world, welcomes nearly 60,000 visitors and 12,000 artists to each of its biannual events. This monster of an art and music festival has no comparison anywhere inside or outside of Japan, and it is run entirely by 18 people.

International Art Event Design Festa


Q. How does your job change when Festa time rolls around? With 60,000 visitors you must be pretty busy.

The very electricity in the air changes as Design Festa draws near. I personally shift to helping prepare paperwork, checking, re-checking and re-re-checking English language signage and documentation, taking phone and email inquiries from English-speaking exhibitors and visitors, sending out invitations to foreign embassies and the media and other exciting things. The Friday before Design Festa weekend is always the most fantastically hectic, where we pack up computers, signs, equipment, flyers and a million other things to transfer to Tokyo Big Sight. I’m not sure how much I can give away, but by the end of the first day of Design Festa, a good portion of the staff members you’ll see won’t have slept for over 24 hours.


Q. That all sounds so exciting and, as you said, “electric.” Are there any unexpected roadblocks or funny stories that come out of this frantic time?

I ended up with an orphaned school desk once, but that was a lot funnier at the time than it is in retrospect. We can’t leave Tokyo Big Sight until almost midnight on the Sunday of the event (with everyone back at work at 10am on Monday), and everyone has been dead on their feet for hours by then. There was a school desk we’d brought from the gallery that we’d forgotten to load onto the moving truck.

For some reason it was hilarious.

I go to and from the venue with my car stuffed with as many people who are too exhausted to take the train as it can hold, and that night one of my senpai made the trip back home with an upside down school desk in his lap. Then it sat in my parking spot for a few weeks. One of my neighbors asked if they could have it, but I eventually got it back to the gallery in one piece. Poor little desk.


Q. How many different countries are represented at Design Festa on average?

We have a pretty steady average of over 20 different countries represented at every Design Festa event, but we’re always trying to attract talent from outside of Japan. We offer exhibitor support in English, Korean, and Chinese in addition to Japanese, and I started studying French last year in hopes that we might one day be able to help non-Japanese artists in a fifth language as well. This year is particularly exciting as we have the normal mixture of overseas exhibitors in the 3,500 booths of the Booth Area, but also non-Japanese live bands in our Live Music Area and non-Japanese performers in both the Theater Space and on the Show Stage.


Q. What kind of art is exhibited at Design Festa?

Design Festa is a fantastically abstract affair, so this is going to be a terribly vague answer, but literally anything is welcome at the Design Festa event. We perform no screenings and we have no process for artists to submit their work for any sort of approval. As organizers we know as much about what will arise at Design Festa as our visitors, and the only thing to expect really is the unexpected. Our one and only rule is that an exhibitor’s work be entirely original, so fan art, cosplay of copyrighted characters and the like can’t be displayed. If you want to go somewhere where the only rule is “You must have something no one has ever done before,” Design Festa is that place.

Fashion design, music, live painting, dance, illustration, swordplay, photography, bondage, film, taxidermy, installations, body painting, graphic design, accessory design, figurine design–if it is a thing that exists, there is a good chance you will find it at Design Festa.


Q. Since anything that is a thing can show up at Design Festa, do you ever find yourself saying, “Wow. I didn’t know that was a thing!”

Every time. One of my favorites was a girl who drew pictures in ketchup on top of omurice. Her exhibition was 200 pictures of 200 different omurice ketchup pictures. She had people vote on their favorites to later announce the “Best Om” on her website.

I also really liked a lady who made silver accessories based on Japanese mythological creatures. There was another girl who took rulers, video game controllers and other generic things and turned them into adorable bracelets, necklaces and earrings. The “sushi lover” illustrator had work unlike anything I’d ever seen before, too–and these were all exhibitors just from vol.40.

Q. What kinds of things do exhibitors at Design Festa go on to do? Is it a good place to get your art noticed?

Exhibitors often launch their own brands and online shops and/or go on to become successful bands and geinoujin. The Design Festa event is a fantastic opportunity in that its potential is only limited by how you use it. Some independent artists have no other place they can meet and greet with their fans in person, while newer artists have an audience of thousands to whom they can introduce themselves while simultaneously making connections with others in their field.

I interviewed a Taiwanese artist last year who was displaying work they created for a job they got when they were approached by a company at the previous Design Festa event. I heard secondhand of an American artist who paid for their flight to and from Japan and hotel fees with profits made from selling their work at Design Festa.

Design Festa is a fantastic place to get your art noticed, not only by the general public but also by your fellow artists, performers, photographers, cinematographers, fashion designers and more, who can be just as (if not more) important to an artist’s success than their audience. A significant percentage of our Design Festa Gallery exhibition groups consists of artists who met one another at Design Festa and joined forces to support each another in other independent exhibitions.


Q. Can you buy some of the art at Design Festa?

My personal favorite thing about Design Festa: we charge no commission fees. Visitors are welcome and encouraged to purchase the art and designs they find, as 100% of all profits goes directly to the creator. There will always be work that is display-only, but beginning a conversation with an exhibitor about what they have for sale is a perfect opportunity to discover a new favorite artist and make a new friend.


Q. What are your favorite things to see at Design Festa?

I am a huge fan of designs described as “yurui” in Japanese, a word for which I haven’t yet found a suitable English translation. They’re very simple, often strange…they could almost be described as generic if there wasn’t something bizarre about them that makes them anything but.

One of my absolute favorite designers is the creator of Nyanco & Mico, who participates at every Design Festa event as well as exhibiting at Design Festa Gallery. I buy something every single time, not because I feel obligated as a repeat customer, but because she always has something that she’s never had before and that I can’t get enough of. She is one of our growing Design Festa success stories, and a great example of the “yurui” design aesthetic that I can’t help but love.

I also have a wall in my apartment almost completely covered in postcards. It seems like a bland sort of item to indulge in, but 100 yen postcards can be found all over Design Festa and exhibitions at Design Festa Gallery. They’re a great way to affordably support local and overseas artists you love. I suppose there are probably people who send them to friends, but I prefer wallpapering my personal spaces in a mix of the fantastic illustrations and photographs that can be found nowhere else but Design Festa.



Q. Why was GAKUTEN started?

After twenty years of wildly successful Design Festa events, we managed to outgrow our venue. Unfortunately Tokyo Big Sight is the largest convention center in Japan, leaving us with very few options to continue growing. We decided to focus our efforts on our exhibitors in need of the greatest amount of support: student artists.

GAKUTEN exhibitors are not limited to college students though: to the contrary they vary in age from 8 years old to age 64 and include adults pursuing the study of an instrument, language, or craft in their free time, retirees attending classes at community centers, elementary school, middle school, high school students and more.


Q. What separates GAKUTEN from Design Festa?

Design Festa is for amateurs and professionals, individuals and companies, the general public and established artists to buy, sell and perform. GAKUTEN is for networking: an opportunity for technical schools to reach out to the community alongside universities and students to step outside their classrooms for the first time to get real, unfiltered feedback from an audience.

GAKUTEN is an opportunity I would have done anything for when I was a student, and we are doing our best to meet all the needs of up and coming student artists who need more personalization and support than what can be offered at Design Festa due to its sheer size. Buying, selling, and performances still happen, but fashion designers have the increased visibility of the GAKUTEN Fashion Avenue. Impromptu performance groups, performance artists and sculptors have the more personalized option of the Installation Area. Universities and technical schools have the entirely unique Campus Area. GAKUTEN, like its student artists, is growing and evolving all the time.


Q. Because GAKUTEN is newer, what dreams to you have for it personally?

Personally, I want GAKUTEN to be the place non-Japanese students go when they’re thinking about attending school in Japan and want to know what kind of options are available to them. I want it to be where students of all levels of schooling go because the experience and feedback they get working with the public at GAKUTEN is something they can get nowhere else. I want it to be where large companies and small business owners go to find talent for their future ventures and where, therefore, students go to get job offers. I very strongly believe that GAKUTEN’s potential is endless, simply because it has never been tried before, just like things were when Design Festa was founded over twenty years ago.

Advice and an Ever Changing Gallery


Q. What advice do you have for our readers who may want to get a job in Japan one day?

You have to adapt. You don’t have to agree with everything or even anything, but you have to be flexible. It sounds like common sense that everyone applies in any workplace in any country, but everything that can be different is different in Japan, and everything from the good to the bad can feel like it’s being magnified threefold. It can feel like you’re the only one who sees a problem that should be glaringly obvious, that you’re the only one that can’t understand something that shouldn’t make any sense and that you’re the only one laughing at something that should be hilarious. That last one in particular–I’m the only one who thinks I’m funny.

But it’s not impossible, and it’s not even necessarily harder just because it’s Japan. It’s just different.

It’s not you being in Japan that makes getting and holding a job hard or easy, it’s being you in Japan and what you do with it.

Q. What advice do you have for young artists who may want to come to Japan to exhibit their art or get an art career started?

Talk to anyone–everyone. When exhibiting on my friend’s behalf at Design Festa I constantly had other artists coming up to introduce themselves, to try and discuss the art with me and give me business cards. After each event my friend would get a surge of emails from people looking to form a group for an exhibition at some gallery and asking where her next event would be so they could meet up again. A Japanese friend of mine brought her silver accessories to Design Festa, met up with an American glass accessory designer and now, years later, he’s the reason she’s fluent in English and she’s doing English to Japanese translation for a huge company. Accessory design was always a hobby for her, but there is no telling where the people you meet will take you whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional.


Q. Any advice to those applying to exhibit at Design Festa?

Be ready to talk! That is another one of the things I love about the event. When I was an exhibitor, it suddenly didn’t matter that I was a confused blonde girl surrounded by people who didn’t speak my language. The staff, my fellow exhibitors and the visitors all acted like me being there was the most natural thing in the world. People would “koe kakeru”–reach out, I guess, you could say in English–without the slightest hesitation, and that doesn’t always happen when you’re an obviously-non-Japanese-person in Japan. I was there with them, I was a part of them. I exchanged candies with my booth neighbors along with “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” in the morning, we watched each other’s spaces when we stepped out for lunch in the afternoon and we helped each other clean up our spaces at night.

Design Festa is two days of belonging, and that is amazing no matter who you are.

But yes: talking.

Before Design Festa I was working at an English conversation school, as I’ve mentioned, and one of the tasks assigned to teachers from time to time was handing out flyers for the school at the train station during down time. My first time with those flyers went horribly, as I tend to be crippled by shyness when thrust in front of strangers. Then there was Design Festa. I only exhibited for one of the two event days, but it was eight hours of greeting, explaining things to and befriending people I’d never seen before.

When I was back on the street with my conversation school flyers the next week, I gave out every last one. It was a skill I’d never known I needed and had no idea how to gain even if I did, and Design Festa made it possible.


Q. What do you like to do when you’re not shaping the future of Japan’s greatest artistic organization?

Study French! An unusually large percentage of the non-Japanese visitors that come to Design Festa Gallery are from French-speaking countries, and I dream of being able to one day guide them through our exhibition rooms in French. I went to a language school in Montpellier (my first time to a country that isn’t Japan or the U.S.) earlier this year. I study with a teacher via Skype once a week and independently whenever I can. It would probably be easier if I lived in a French-speaking country, but I’m too much in love with Design Festa to imagine myself ever being anywhere else.

Q. What’s the most magical Japanese food?

Katsudon is love. Tempura-don and oyakodon are similarly made of magic. The invention of “meat and vegetables on rice” is the greatest in the history of man.


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

So if Design Festa is continuing to grow as the largest art and performance festival in Asia and GAKUTEN is aiming to become one of the single greatest support systems for student artists, what even is Design Festa Gallery?

Design Festa Gallery is a collaboration of Design Festa artists, GAKUTEN artists and an increasingly large variety of students, teachers, amateurs, professionals, individuals and companies. It is a constantly evolving art village, a hotbed of originality and creative expression but, above all, a community. It is one of the largest galleries of its kind and brings people from all over the world together on a daily basis, with creators and fans, tourists and local artists, contemporary and traditional mediums all coming together into one of the most diverse melting pots on earth.

The Design Festa event is like my home and Design Festa Gallery is like the neighborhood where I grew up. Every day I walk into work to find 20 different exhibition rooms of people and things I’ve never seen before, and it’s completely amazing, every single time.


Q. Anything you want to say to the Tofugu friends and readers?

This has been an awful lot of words trying to put across something that really can’t be explained. I’m a shamelessly biased source, but I truly believe that Design Festa is something everyone should experience at least once. Words, pictures, and video can help you get a general idea of what goes on, but you’ve really got to be immersed–surrounded, caught up and swept away–to really understand what Design Festa is about and what can be accomplished by the tens of thousands of people there.

Create & Participate

Big thanks to Sarah for her time and informative answers. Be sure to check out the incomparable Design Festa and GAKUTEN event experiences at Tokyo Big Sight. The next event dates are:

Design Festa


Design Festa Gallery Access

If you can’t make it to a Design Festa organized event, the Design Festa Gallery is open year round in Harajuku.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Dragon Ball Training Guide to Self-Improvement Wed, 29 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Olympic judoka and UFC champion Ronda Rousey turned some heads and busted some scouters when she appeared at this year’s Wrestlemania wearing a Dragon Ball Z t-shirt with an image of Vegeta and the phrase, “It’s over 9,000!” “You think there’s a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan in mma than you?” an interviewer once asked. “No!” She scoffed, then explained […]

The post The Dragon Ball Training Guide to Self-Improvement appeared first on Tofugu.

Olympic judoka and UFC champion Ronda Rousey turned some heads and busted some scouters when she appeared at this year’s Wrestlemania wearing a Dragon Ball Z t-shirt with an image of Vegeta and the phrase, “It’s over 9,000!”

“You think there’s a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan in mma than you?” an interviewer once asked.

“No!” She scoffed, then explained how Dragon Ball Z inspired her to train and admitting that she had a big crush on Vegeta. “I would have gone cartoon for (Vegeta)!” she says before bursting out laughing. “Dude, he knocked up Bulma and then ditched out to go train… that’s hardcore.”

But Rousey isn’t the only celebrity or sports figure inspired by the likes of Goku, Vegeta and company. Marcus Brimage, another UFC fighter, claims Dragon Ball inspired him to be a fighter. MMA pioneer Carlos Newton called his style Dragon Ball Jiu-Jitsu, and mimed a kamehameha as a victory celebration. In other sports, Spanish tennis sensation Rafael Nadal is also a fan of the series, “I have all the DVDs, from the first one to the last one.”

Rapper Soulja Boy made a rap inspired by Dragon Ball (warning it’s both vulgar and horrible). Apparently smoking up makes him look like Gohan. Other artists, like XV, Machine Gun Kelly, J-Live, Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, Lupe Fiasco and Childish Gambino (to name a few) make Dragon Ball references and word play, know what I’m saiyan?

The action series, Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama garnered worldwide fame. With all the powering up, transformations, wishes, special techniques, colorful characters, and violent battles, kids’ll tell you Dragon Ball is fun to watch. But underneath all that action lies life lessons and sound advice for self-improvement.

Like the athletes and lyricists mentioned above, we can all use Dragon Ball as inspiration. The series motivated me to work out, take my running hobby to the next level, and improve my Japanese. And Dragon Ball continues to inspire me to buckle down and get things done today. So next time you need motivation or seek to kick it to the next level ask yourself, WWGD? (what would Goku do)?

Not Awe But Inspiration


When Dragon Ball Z first hit Cartoon Network and gained mainstream popularity in the US, fans discussed the show with awe.

“How cool would it be to be strong like Goku?”

“Did you see when he trained at 100 times gravity?!”

“Wish I could fire off energy blasts!”

Everyone talked about the show’s crazy, over the top moments. They mimicked kamehamehas, did the fusion dance, and argued over power-levels, remaining spectators instead of applying Dragon Ball‘s lessons to the real world

Ronda Rousey couldn’t train with her cartoon crush Vegeta, but she took inspiration from Dragon Ball and became a champion. Rafael Nadalalso hasn’t turned Super Saiyajin (yet), but watching him will convince you he can. I haven’t run Snake Way, but I’ve run a marathon and an ultra-marathon in its place.

Sure we may never blast a big bang attack, drink of Korin‘s “sacred water,” or instantly alter our hair color. But we can take the lessons and strategies that lie beneath all the lightning fast punches, teleportations and power blasts and use them to improve our lives.

Getting Started

Commit and Make Sacrifices


When you want to make an omelet, you have to crack some eggs. Set a goal and commit to it. But remember, commitment means sacrifice.

Kid Gohan’s (forced) commitment to training meant he couldn’t study, enjoy being spoiled by his mother, hang out with his woodland pals, or enjoy his favorite hobby, crying. Later in the series, college-age Gohan commits again when he sits still for over 24 hours, allowing Old Kai to unlock his hidden potential.

When we make a goal, we have make sacrifices to achieve it. Gonna pass the JLPT? Invest time in studying. Gonna lose weight? Better forego movie theater popcorn and a skip those bar crawls. Like Gohan, we all have to make sacrifices when we commit to a goal.

Create a Routine


Piccolo removes his weighted hat and armor before battle. Kid Goku often stretched and warmed up with calisthenics. The Z Warriors prepped for battle by donning their battle gear – at least until said outfits got torn to shreds.

Tell your body and mind that it’s go-time by maintaining a routine. Create a regimen around whatever you’re preparing for. Do the same warm up, down the same drink, use the same writing utensil, and repeat the same mantra whenever you practice.

In A Fighter’s Mind Tim Ferris writes, “Routine can help us enter Musashi‘s mind of no-mind or the zone… It’s a kind of relaxed super-competence.” Routine can help our minds relax, fall into a rhythm and perform without distraction, overcoming the distractions and nervousness when we finally face our challenge.

Reach and Then Redefine Your Limits and Goals


Goku didn’t rest on his laurels when he pulled off his first kamehameha, or when he beat Piccolo to win the Tenkaichi Budōkai Tournament. Goku’s constant progresses redefined him and what it meant to be Saiyajin throughout the series.

In his book 10-Minute Toughness, Jason Selk calls this the “Plus One Concept,”

The best way to climb a mountain is to take one step at a time. (The) +1 concept (is) the idea that success can be achieved by meeting a string of basic, incremental goals in the present that will will ultimately lead to excellence in the future… Believe in yourself and your ability to make gradual improvements, and the results will follow.”

As with Dragon Ball‘s cast of characters did, expect gradual “plus one” improvements as you work your way to your goal.

When you achieve one goal, set another and aim higher. Passed the JLPT level 4? Congratulations, now aim for level 3. Ran a 5k? Try a 10k. Watched 20 episodes of Dragon Ball in a day? Next time watch 21.

In Turn It Up! Jeffrey Spencer states, “Even though most people want an easy life and think it will give them the life fulfillment they seek, my experience tells me that the happiest people are those who perpetually seek goals and whose lives are appropriately challenged, so they remain alert and focused on moving forward to a better future.” New challenges keep life interesting, satisfying and therefore happy.

The Two-Fold Path To Improvement

Surround Yourself With Badasses


Okay, maybe Krillin isn’t the best example, but thanks to a series of badass teachers and foes, Goku became one of the baddest beings in the universe.

Goku learned the kamehameha from Master Roshi. He pushed himself to learn King Kai’s Kaio-ken technique and the Genki Dama because of Vegeta. Majin Buu led him to Super Saiyajin 3, Beerus pushed him to Super Saiyajin God, and the list goes on.

Like Goku, surround yourself with people above your level. “Badasses hang out with other badasses…. Make friends with successful people. If you want to become better then you need to allow the good influences of other people to rub off on you. Let them bring you up to their level” (

Whatever your goal, find a great training partner or a rival. Let them push you. Learn from them and improve. Want to learn Japanese? Find a senpai or native speaker. Want to get better at a martial art? Train with a higher belt rank. Want to become a great cook? Learn from a master chef.

Had training with mediocrity satisfied Goku, he would have never defeated the likes of Piccolo, Vegeta, or any of the other threats to earth. Thanks to the laundry list of badasses Goku faced and trained with, he became the supreme badass we know today.

Blaze Your Own Path


Holy contradictions Saiyaman! Rich just finished telling us to surround ourselves with badasses, but now he’s telling us to blaze your own path?! Aren’t they opposing strategies?

Yes and no. Just look at Goku’s wardrobe. He entered his first tournament wearing Master Roshi’s 亀 (kame/turtle) logo and donned King Kai ‘s 界王 (world king) logo before changing to his own 悟 (go/enlightenment) logo.

After enjoying the tutelage of various masters, Goku becomes his own master. During his solo voyage to Namek, Goku trains alone – improving his techniques and making them his own. When he finally arrives on Namek, its under his own “悟” mark.

Although one needs others to learn from and aspire to, self discovery is also essential. By blazing our own paths we can make others’ teachings our own and find what best works for us. Study Japanese from teachers, converse with native speakers, and then review alone to make what you learned concrete. Learn new techniques from masters and then practice alone to perfect them and make them your own.

While advocating both training with badasses and blazing your own path sounds contradictory, we can employ both strategies to reach maximum heights. Like Goku, utilize both tactics to build the best possible you.

Embrace Downtime

Push the Limits, Then Rest


Follow the Kame school tenet – train hard and rest hard. Sayajin push their bodies to the limit and recover stronger than before. Dragon Ball‘s lesson is clear – rest is vital.

Hard work needs to be rewarded with rest and recovery. “Athletes (or anyone) must learn to toe the fine line of doing what is needed without overdoing it” (Selk). Overdoing it can grossly inhibit one’s motivation, performance, and overall well being.

Similarly, mental exhaustion can lead to “difficulty concentrating, impaired creativity, and negative attitudes toward one’s self, others, one’s work and life” (Bartlett 130). In general overtraining and overstudying lead to inefficiency and unnecessary suffering. It’s probably one reason, among many, that Vegeta is always so pissy.

Good old fashioned “R & R” gives muscles time to recover and grow and allows new information to soak in. Research shows sleep is beneficial for absorbing newly learned information and technique (Claudia Nagel). So whether pushing yourself physically or mentally take a break and come back refreshed for a renewed effort and maximized benefits.



When Bulma, Krillin, and Gohan head to Namek, Krillin and Gohan make the most of their downtime and space capsule’s confined space by practicing visualization. The two meditate and envision battling one another. Although their level of psychic connection might be difficult to pull off in reality, visualization reaps big rewards.

Visualization is creating a mental picture of a situation, such as seeing yourself giving a speech, (taking a test, scoring a goal, etc.)… Also called mental rehearsal, visualization helps you overcome the mental and emotional causes of anxiety. (Verderber 35)

Through visualization, also called a “mental workout,” we imagine the execution of our goal and positive results. Countless athletes (golf legend Jack Nicklaus, Olympic gymnasts Julianne McNamara and Peter Vidmar) swear by visualization, which builds confidence, increases efficiency, combats anxiety, and gives a sense of experience.

Scientists believe that we may experience real-world and imaginary actions in similar ways… Whether we walk on a mountain trail or only picture it, we activate many of the same neural networks – paths of interconnected nerve cells that link what your body does to the brain impulses that control it…. Imagining yourself doing movements can help you get better at them. (Rodriguez)

So if you’re taking a test, imagine what it takes to perform your best – at your desk, opening your test booklet, reading the questions and knowing the answers. If your competing physically, imagine your techniques, be it throwing the perfect spiral, sinking a free-throw, and pulling off the perfect sequences in a karate kata.

Review Your Motivation


Goku and company rarely reviewed their motivation because it stared them in the face; as a matter of life or death for themselves, their loved ones, and the entire planet. In the first Tenkaichi Budōkai Tournament, Nam exemplifies the power of motivation, hoping to win the tournament and prize money to buy water for his drought stricken village.

During downtime review your motivation. Are you saving the planet? Helping others? Trying to land a new job? Supporting your family? Trying to be the best you?

In Running With Kenyans, Adharanand Finn proposes that one reason Kenya churns out great marathoners is that running provides an escape from poverty. Major race winnings prove life altering for the both runners and their families. Suffering in practice and the event can’t compare to the everyday hardships the runners will face if they don’t win.

Take it from Nam and periodically review your motivations. When we are worn, training becomes tiresome, and our drive wanes, it provides a much needed spark. Review them again before the big event, fueling your resolve down to the final stretch.


Don’t Forget Your Routine, Sacrifices, or Motivation


From tournaments brimming with spectators to intergalactic face-offs, Goku always showed up, warmed up, and faced his next challenge.

Remember that routine you made? Don’t abandon it now. Remember all the hours you sacrificed, don’t let them go to waste. Continue on as you have. Different circumstances can’t phase you now, you prepared for this!

Did Goku ever show up to a fight lacking pants? Maybe once. Did Goku ever show up to a fight lacking confidence? No.

Why? He knows he put in the time and effort. You did too. Think back to all of your sacrifices and, like Goku, let your preparation fuel your confidence.

Face Your Fears


Despite training under Master Roshi with Goku, Krillin lacked confidence when he had to face his former senpai, a fellow student from Orinji temple at the first Tenkaichi Budōkai Tournament. He even considered quitting until Goku convinced him to “give it his best shot.” Krillin does and handedly beats his senpai’s baldheaded ass.

Despite our preparations, many of us lose confidence down the stretch. When the time comes review your motivation and remember all your sacrifices. Don’t get scared off when the finish line is in sight.

Take the test. Make the speech. Run the race. Don’t let your fears sabotage all your preparation. Face them head on!

Let Go


Sometimes, despite all the sacrifice, despite training with badasses, despite blazing our own paths and sticking to routine and considering our motivations, things still go wrong.

We lock up during a speech. Our minds go blank during a test. We are asked a question in Japanese and can’t understand despite having studied the words and grammar being used.

At the start of Dragon Ball Z, Goku didn’t even know he was Saiyajin. A few story arcs later he faced his toughest foe, Frieza, and things were not going well. Frieza crippled Vegeta, reduced Piccolo to a bystander, and blew Krillin to dust.

What did Goku do?

He let go. He got angry. And bam! He turned Super Saiyajin. “Five minutes” or about one hundred episodes later, Goku defeated Frieza.

Bruce Lee once said, “And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit, it hits all by itself… Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.”

Stressing over the situation makes it worse. When the going gets tough, relax and let go. Chances are routine will kick in and you’ll regain your stride. Like Goku, by letting go we discover new abilities and reach heights we never knew we could achieve.

When the Dust Has Settled



One of Dragon Ball’s greatest themes is that of forgiveness. Pure-hearted Goku befriends forgives everyone – from the jerk Krillin, to the corrupted Tien Shinhan, to the devil in Piccolo, to the fascist Saiyajin prince Vegeta, and most recently the god of destruction Beerus. At this point no one should be surprised if he befriends Frieza at the end of the new movie, Revival of F.

In fact, he would have become best buds with Frieza had Frieza ever chilled out. Of course in reality there’s a point where our best interests lay in burning bridges (for Goku it came in the form of Frieza and Cell). But we can lead less stressful lives (like Goku) if we (like Goku) learn to forgive and forget.

Be a Life-Long Learner


Take it from the SSLLL (Super Saiyajin Life Long Learner) himself. Did Goku stop learning after he mastered the kamehameha? No. Was he satisfied after reaching the first level of kaiyoken? Or the second? Or third? No way. Had he been, he might have never learned the spirit bomb, teleportation, or reached Super Saiyajin…what level is he up to now?

Goku is a life long learner. He may take a rest, but he never gets stuck in a rut or loses his appetite for new experiences. And Goku’s satisfaction doesn’t lie in victory itself but in the constant act of learning, improving, and challenging himself.

Never stop learning. Smell opportunity and take advantage. Recognize and even relish your accomplishments, then move on to the next goal.

Enjoy the Journey


Vegeta spends most of Dragon Ball Z frustrated, unsatisfied, and unhappy. While Goku trains with a smile, Vegeta wears a scowl (and the occasional pink shirt). He takes no joy in the process, never achieves his goal, and subjects himself to a long, angry journey. But by the end of the Buu saga, when Vegeta finally sits back and lets it all soak in, he comes to a realization.

Yet you (Goku) showed mercy to everyone, even your fiercest enemies, even me… You fought to test your limits and push yourself beyond them, to become the strongest you could possibly be… It makes me angry just thinking about it. But perhaps it’s my anger that’s made me blind to the truth for so long. I see it now… You’re better than me Kakarot. You’re the best.

Don’t be Vegeta; or at least don’t be the Vegeta that took about 250 episodes to relax. Remember: it isn’t about the goal, it’s about the journey to achieve it. In 10-Minute Toughness, Tom Selk advises, “Remember that you stand to experience more joy and satisfaction from striving to reach your goals than from actually achieving them.”

Like Goku, enjoy the journey. When you face your next challenge, enjoy the process. No matter the outcome of the effort, value the experiences and progress made in challenging it.

Unleashing That Saiyajin In All of Us


So next time you watch Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z or any other series please enjoy it! But allow the lessons they offer to motivate you to face new challenges and become the best version of you that you can be.

RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan sums it up best, “Today I believe we’ve all got a Saiyan inside us… That’s what we’re all trying to reach, through all the chambers of our lives.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


  • Bartlett, Steven J. Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: The Need to Look Elsewhere for Standards of Good Psychological Health.
  • Be a Badass By Surrounding Yourself With Other Badasses.
  • Egan, Carol. 4 Slam-Dunk Strategies to Improve your Confidence.
  • Finn, Adharanand. Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.
  • Nagel, Claudia. Learning Best When You Rest.
  • Petrie, Trent A., and Eric Denson. A Student Athlete’s Guide to College Success: Peak Performance in Class and Life.
  • Rza, and Chris Norris. The Tao of Wu.
  • Rodriguez, Tori. 3 Easy Visualization Techniques.
  • Selk, Jason. 10-minute Toughness: The Mental Exercise Program for Winning before the Game Begins.
  • Sheridan, Sam. The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game.
  • Spencer, Jeffrey. Turn It Up! How to Perform at Your Highest Level for a Lifetime.
  • Ungerleider, Steven. Mental Training for Peak Performance: Top Athletes Reveal the Mind Exercises They Use to Excel.
  • Verderber, Rudolph F., Kathleen S. Verderber, and Deanna D. Sellnow. Essential Speech.

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Exploring Shueisha (and an Interview with a Manga Editor!) Mon, 27 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Recently, I interviewed a manga scriptwriter named Araki Joh, the author of several best selling manga series published by Shueisha, the publishing house behind the Jump line of manga. If you’re not familiar with Jump manga, you may be familiar with some of their titles like Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece (the top 3 bestselling […]

The post Exploring Shueisha (and an Interview with a Manga Editor!) appeared first on Tofugu.

Recently, I interviewed a manga scriptwriter named Araki Joh, the author of several best selling manga series published by Shueisha, the publishing house behind the Jump line of manga. If you’re not familiar with Jump manga, you may be familiar with some of their titles like Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece (the top 3 bestselling manga of all time).

After answering all my questions, Araki Joh extended his generosity even further by inviting me to the Shueisha building in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo to see the editors’ room. Not only did I get a tour of part of the building and the editors’ room, I also got an interview with Araki Joh’s editor and learned a lot about how manga gets published.

Buckle up for a part-travel, part-interview hybrid adventure. Let’s go see some manga magic!


This is the Shueisha building located in Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Its modern design suits the progressive city. The white and blue in the glass exterior both mimics the sky and helps reflect it.


There is actually a gallery on the first floor, which is open to everyone during the week from 9:30a.m. to 5:30p.m. Sadly, I didn’t really have much time to check it out, because I was on official business. But if you’re a manga fan visiting the Tokyo area, be sure to pop in for a visit.



I only got to take a couple pictures of the gallery from the street side window. As you can see, there are a few framed manga drawings and awesome character statues. Too bad that rope is keeping us from posing next to JoJo and Chopper.


Okay, it’s time to go inside! There is a reception area past this door and you need an appointment to go upstairs. But because I was with Araki Joh, I didn’t need to check in and, thus, there are no pictures of it. Did you really want to see pictures of a desk?


I was given access to two floors of the building. I was immediately impressed with how thick the walls were with familiar faces.




Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure…


And Haikyuu! were some of the highlights. They were all fun to look at and gave the offices a unique energy. You could feel that Japan’s greatest manga flows through this place.

Finally, it was time to enter the editors’ room.


Ta-Da! As you might notice, the majority of the employees here are male. I only saw one woman, who was in a part time position, working on this floor.


While most everyone diligently attended to their duties, I found this guy reading manga with his legs up.

“Really?” I jealously, but quietly, exclaimed. This surprised me at first, but I was soon told that it’s all part of being an editor. What a nice perk!


Adding to the flavor of the office was a gallery of former Grand Jump covers.


All the covers on the gallery wall started out this way. The cover artist must first prepare a few ideas to choose from.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a manga editor? Take a minute to look over the sketches, then see which one was selected here.


If editors get any rare and valuable down time, they can choose from a huge library of manga to kick back and relax with. While this may seem like a lot manga to you and me, there’s actually a whole ton more in another room.


Because most mangaka (manga artists) work from home, I felt fortunate to come across a mangaka working on his storyboards. (A wild mangaka appeared!)


When mangaka are finished with their pages, they bring them into the office for publication. The completed pieces look like this. They are much more extraordinary and expressive than the printed versions, don’t you think?


After the pages are submitted, designers put finishing touches on the manga drawings. These guys decide where to place dialogue and which colors and fonts to use.


Check out the before and after. The designers added a lot of information and style to the finished product. Once the designers are done with the drawings, the files are sent to a print shop.

Interview Time!

After the tour, I got an exclusive interview with a manga editor at Shueisha who worked with Araki Joh. He asked to remain anonymous, so imagine him as a mysterious hero of the manga editing world. I hope you enjoy it!

Q. What does a manga editor do?

First, we conduct meetings with manga writers. Once a script is completed, we take it to a manga artist. When the manga drawings are finished, we take it to a print shop and they make a sample for us to proofread. If we are happy with the final product, we give the go ahead to start printing the magazine.

I’m an editor for Grand Jump, which is published every two weeks, so we have really fast turnaround and it can be very hectic. Just imagine what it must be like for editors doing weekly publications.

And, of course, we attend company meetings as well.

Q. Could you tell me how to become a manga editor?

There are three big steps involved in getting a desk inside a manga company.

First, you fill out an “entry sheet” and send it to us. So many people want to join Shueisha and this is our first method of screening. If your entry sheet is accepted, you can move on to the next step, which is an exam. The exam is pretty long (about four hours) and it contains current topics, common knowledge, Japanese literature, English, Kanji, and an essay. After passing this exam, you will have to make your way through a couple interviews.

Once past this entire process, only a select few will be asked to join our company. Even if you make it that far, management decides which department you’ll work for, so you’ll need a bit of luck to become a manga editor.

Anyway, that’s the process, but you shouldn’t think of how to get into the company you want to work for. Instead, you should think of what you would want to work on if you were actually employed there. That helps you relax, and helps you figure out what you really want to do and why you want to become a manga editor.

Q. What is the best part of being a manga editor?

We share a sense of achievement and joy when a manga becomes a hit. The feeling is stronger for a manga that has both a scriptwriter and a manga artist, because those make me feel as if I played a larger role in creating the story. It would be truly wonderful to help lift a writer and/or manga artist up from obscurity, like what happened with the manga “Bakuman.” But I haven’t experienced that yet.

Q. What is the worst part about being a manga editor?

We have to wait for scripts and manga to arrive on our desks and sometimes they don’t come on time. I have to wait and wait and wait and wait, and if it still hasn’t come, it feels almost as if I’ve been betrayed.

Since I’ve grown up a little bit and come to respect the creative process, I understand that it’s just the way things are in this job, but it can still be a bit frustrating at times.

Q. What are the some of the manga you’ve worked on?

I worked as an editor for girls’ manga before moving to Grand Jump, but I haven’t worked on any famous manga other than Bartender.

Q. Which was your favorite?

Sorry, I don’t have a lot of choices to pick from. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s Bartender. Although it became a hit, it was not an easy journey. We worked so hard together, though that’s not to say I haven’t worked hard on other manga.

After Bartender, I worked on a manga called “Hotaru – Yuigon Bengoshi Masaki Jimusho” and it didn’t do as well, so it ended pretty quickly. I still think it would have become much more popular and the story would have developed quite nicely if it lasted a little longer.

Q. Since you’re an editor, I imagine that sometimes you have to tell an author that you need to cut something or add something. Is this difficult to do?

It depends on the author, but it’s difficult in terms of word choice and timing. When the authors don’t have much confidence, they ask for advice from us. If I have known an author for a long time, I figure out what they want, what they are trying to say, or what they are asking of me a lot quicker, so it’s easier than working with authors that are less familiar with me.

Q. If somebody wanted to be come a manga editor, what should they do?

Read a lot of manga. As you can see in the pictures above, reading is a pivotal part of the job. You should read it as if you were the creator and think about how you would make the story better. You should also know of a lot of manga writers and artists and think about if one of them would make a better fit for the specific manga you’re reading.

We need as much information as possible about a manga when we ask writers and artists to write and draw for our magazine. Famous people don’t usually just write for a magazine out of nowhere, but getting a great piece of work out of them is also part of our job. At the very least, we read every major manga magazine currently published when it’s released.

In addition, you should also try to reflect on the reasons why a manga inspired or moved you a great deal. Especially try to remember the ones that drew you in and affected you when you were a child. The most useful skill when working in the manga industry is your sensitivity to recognizing why particular thoughts and emotions were cultivated from those books. Hence, what you read today becomes tomorrow’s ink.


If you want to go to the Shueisha Gallery on the first floor of the Shueisha building, you can visit it on weekdays from 9:30a to 5:30p.

Address: 3-13, Jinbo cho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Hours: 9:30a to 5:30p, Monday-Friday
Access: 2 minute walk from Toei Shinjuku Line, Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line “Jinbo cho” station

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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Japanese Civic Duty: A Look at the Responsibility of 日本 Wed, 22 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 So after exploring how conservative and hardworking the Japanese are, let’s look at another related topic. The (very condensed) logic goes like this: Fact 1: Japan’s streets are really clean. And the Japanese don’t really seem to litter. Fact 2: Japan is (generally) safe and there’s usually no problem with walking around at 2 am. Fact 3: […]

The post Japanese Civic Duty: A Look at the Responsibility of 日本 appeared first on Tofugu.

So after exploring how conservative and hardworking the Japanese are, let’s look at another related topic. The (very condensed) logic goes like this:

Fact 1: Japan’s streets are really clean. And the Japanese don’t really seem to litter.
Fact 2: Japan is (generally) safe and there’s usually no problem with walking around at 2 am.
Fact 3: Japan is orderly. You probably heard of the neat lines at disaster camps immediately after the 3/11 earthquake of 2011. Looting would most likely have occurred elsewhere.

Conclusion: The Japanese are responsible.

This isn’t as common a stereotype as the previous ones I’ve talked about, but I still do hear about this from time to time. Variations of this include statements that the Japanese are civic-minded or mature.

To me, responsibility has two parts. There’s the follow-the-rules part which the Japanese excel at and which is clearly reflected in the general peace that tourists observe in Japan. However there’s a more proactive element to responsibility too – the part which requires that people not just follow the rules but make new ones when those existing don’t work anymore.

This is where the Japanese come a bit short.

Good at Following Rules

To the left, to the left.

Photo by Dom Pates

If you’ve been to Japan you don’t need me to say much about this. You probably noticed the very clean streets despite the fact that there are hardly any trash bins around. Indeed the Japanese do hold on to their trash until they reach home or the nearest combini. You also may have noticed a very low (not zero) crime rate and it’s not as if there’s that particularly strong a police presence on the Japanese streets anyway. Heck, they peacefully ride their bicycles around and will even help you – very nicely – if you’re lost and ask them for directions. It all leaves the general impression that everyone is law-abiding.

The statistics back this up. This website, calculating a “crime index” score based on various statistics, puts Japan as the country with the 8th lowest score in the world. This is furthered by this table which notes Japan’s very low homicide rate – outranked only by countries such as Liechtenstein, Singapore (yay!) and a few others.

Of course crime statistics only reflect crimes that are actually reported. But I can’t think of a reason why Japanese people are less likely to report homicide and robbery than people in other countries. Distortions arise when it comes to crimes which have a certain “shame” element – we’re talking about molestation, domestic violence, and rape – but this alone doesn’t fully account for the gap in statistics. The Japanese are indeed less likely to cause violent crime than people from other countries.

Some rather interesting incidents follow from this. People who have lost their phones and wallets in Japan will likely tell you about how a very kind Japanese person returned it to the nearest police box. And I have to say I don’t know any other country where this would happen so commonly. Another example – a friend of mine, as what occurs in many other places in the world, torrented a textbook for class. He then posted a status on Facebook offering his coursemates a copy – just message me.

Bad move. What came after was a hail of universal castigation and horror and sonna koto shicha dame yo. Perhaps unthinkable anywhere else and very “only-in-Japan,” but this certainly fulfills the definition of “responsibility”.

A Cultural Grounding?

Photo by Jun Seita

So what makes things this way? I don’t have a concrete answer but there’s a few explanations that people point to.

Firstly some cultural explanations: this article raises a few (and some limitations to Japan’s crime-free image). Maybe there’s something in Confucian cultures and “shame societies” that explains why Japan fits within the wider pattern of low crime in East Asia.

In addition to that there’s another layer of the Japanese concept of “meiwaku” (to trouble someone else). The Japanese themselves go through pains to avoid “meiwaku o kakeru” (troubling other people) so perhaps this layers on top of the Confucian culture stated above. Many people also refer to the state of the Japanese classroom – that it is the kids and not the janitors who are in charge of cleaning the classrooms. Also it is the students who distribute school lunches. The conclusion therefore is that these tasks have instilled a sense of duty in them. Some others refer to Japan’s low gun ownership for low violent crime levels.

Other explanations refer to economics – pointing out that Japan has a much lower rate of inequality compared to, for example, the USA. But this argument doesn’t make much sense given the other East Asian countries with similarly low crime rates but with much higher levels of inequality (eg. Hong Kong). Maybe there’s something to be said about the Japanese culturally-speaking being more rule-abiding.

The Other Side of the Coin

Photo by Moyan Brenn

You may have noticed that so far I’m deliberately avoiding the words “responsible”, “ethical” and “civic”. The first reason is that while everyday crime may be low, this doesn’t stop Japan from having big scandals very contrary to public interest. A short list to refresh your memory:

  • The Fukushima disaster and clear lapses in public accountability from all sides.
  • Environmental disasters in the period of rapid growth (see Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan) – clearly there was nothing intrinsically cultural back then to stop companies from acting in this manner.
  • This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tokyo Sarin Gas attacks – the perpetrators were Japanese. The cult was founded in Japan and many of the members were actually members of the Japanese elite. The victims were of course Japanese.

So there are quite a few examples of Japanese irresponsible behavior, but in what ways is this irresponsibility expressed?

Responsible – but to Whom?

The Minamata disease was one of the Four Big Pollution Diseases which involved both corporate and government cover-ups of mercury pollution. Photo by Marufish

The above examples show that in Japan, loyalty and following the group’s orders sometimes overrules responsibility to society. But then again this is no different from any other part of the world – sub-prime loans and the banking crisis a few years back being an example.

The more peculiar point in Japan’s case is that people may need to be more responsible to themselves instead of the social groups and institutions they belong to. Karoshi (death from overwork, see this article for more info) is the most obvious example. Besides this example, perhaps it would be better if the Japanese sometimes don’t do the “endure-and-sumimasen” which you see quite often. Certainly this is linked to the Japanese idea of humility – When you see an angry old Japanese man berating some shop staff for something which really isn’t her fault, you might think that maybe she shouldn’t apologize so much.

What About Rotten Rules?

One part of responsibility involves not breaking rules. The other part is actively contributing to society, which can sometimes mean not blindly following outdated/unfair/unnecessary rules.

The second point requires a proactive attitude which isn’t that strong in Japan. Consider the following:

Japanese people spend around the same time volunteering as those in other OECD countries. This book notes that Japan has a very small professional civil society sector. That is, Japanese people take an active role in, for example, neighborhood associations and Parent Teacher Associations (which partly function as social gatherings). However, when it comes to NGOs which actually require full time employed staff – that is to say, those which are more likely to be tackling actual social problems and involved in advocacy – the number of employees is extremely low compared to other developed countries. This in turn suggests weak cash flows, limited scope of activities, and a weak and small civil society within Japan.

This article also ranks Japan as number 120 in 153 countries on a “world giving index score”. According to the study,

  • 17% of Japanese have given money to charity in the last month (tied with 8 other countries at 107th place)
  • 23% of Japanese have volunteered at an organization last month (tied with 4 other countries at 49th place, but note problems stated above)
  • 25% of Japanese have “helped a stranger in the last month” (145th place)

The last one is problematic, since it’s self-reported, and the Japanese may not feel like they’re helping others when they are, and vice-versa for those in other countries. The question is whether this is enough to explain Japan’s low ranking in these statistics.

Political participation is another topic which is more ambiguous. Japan doesn’t actually have that low of voter ratings (around 52.6% in the most recent year vs. 54.9% 2012 US presidential elections). What is unambiguously discernible though is that the young are extremely disengaged. This article provides a nice summary of the issues. Japanese youth tend to think, in comparison to other surveyed countries, that their actions do not make much of a difference, which is reflected in low voting and political participation rates.


Note that Japan has faced quite a few changes regarding how “responsible” their citizens have been. Japan, like most of the developed West, was also caught up in a wave of militant student activism in the 1960s which died down very quickly in the 1970s. On the other hand, it was the 1995 Hanshin-awaji earthquake which is considered to have brought out a “volunteer revolution in Japan”. On that note however, the earthquake 4 years ago has not galvanized civil society as much as one might hope, as explained in this article. This (very dense) article explains the history of it – that having an active citizenry (civil society) only became a trending idea after the Hanshin-Awaji disaster, but citizen activism was seen suspiciously in the context of left-wing agitation due to 1960s student movements.

What’s important to recognize is that there are different aspects of what makes a responsible citizen. Yes, a responsible citizen respects the rules of society, sorts out their trash and returns lost cellphones and wallets. The first two are performed very well by the Japanese while the third makes them (in my view) exceptional. And I don’t mean to say that this isn’t important but as I’ve argued in the second half of this article, when it comes to an “active citizenry,” Japan looks relatively weak. This is ironic because it’s not like Japan has a lack of social problems which need attention.

In the end, it looks like an imbalanced picture for the Japanese – responsible in following the rules and decorum, but not so much when it comes to pushing for change and trying to solve problems in society.

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