Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Tue, 03 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Japan’s Robot Theater and the Rise of the Android Actor Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 ROBOTS CAN ALREADY VACUUM YOUR HOUSE AND DRIVE YOUR CAR. SOON, THEY WILL BE YOUR COMPANION. ~”Friend for Life” By Adam Piore for Popular Science (November 2014) Or so predicts Popular Science magazine in response to a US tour of Osaka University’s Robot-Human Theater Project. Whether you find the premise that your next best friend […]

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~”Friend for Life” By Adam Piore for Popular Science (November 2014)

Or so predicts Popular Science magazine in response to a US tour of Osaka University’s Robot-Human Theater Project. Whether you find the premise that your next best friend will come with batteries enticing or eerie or some combination thereof, the Robot-Human Theater Project has dedicated itself to making that dream/nightmare come to life—or at least appear as if it’s come to life—on a stage near you.

Just when you finally thought we were safe from a robot takeover, they’re learning how to act even more like us—by acting instead of us. Dr. Ishiguro Hiroshi of android fame is at it again, only this time he’s in cahoots with Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University. Thanks to these human allies, our robot overlords (or “companions” as their propaganda would like us to believe) inch ever closer. Only now they’ll be trying to woo us with Shakespeare.

Meet the Masterminds

ishiguro and geminoid

Photo by Ars Electronica

Robots don’t make themselves, you know (at least not yet). Thus far the aspiring robot actor’s journey from assembly line to curtain call has relied on the single-minded devotion of their human allies—particularly the aforementioned Ishiguro Hiroshi along with Hirata Oriza and Kuroki Kazunari.

Ishiguro, an international authority on robotics engineering and AI who often sends the android version of himself to lecture abroad, unsurprisingly heads up the engineering end of things. Hirata, a well-known public figure in Japan and playwright/director/founder of the internationally active Seinendan Theater Company, equally unsurprisingly takes charge of all things artistic. And Kuroki, president of Osaka-based robot and computer company Eager Co. Ltd, throws lots of money and resources their way.

But why go to all this trouble in the first place? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire a human actor rather than build one from the ground up? Despite their remarkably diverse backgrounds, engineer Ishiguro and theater artist Hirata are remarkably in sync with each other on this point: for them the Robot-Theater Project isn’t just an big-budget spectacle, it’s a way to combine the forces of art and science in order to tackle what makes humans human and what makes a performance a performance—and they’re equally convinced that both of those boundaries are incredibly malleable.

osaka univ robot lab

Photo by Ars Electronica

In Ishiguro’s words, “My goal is…to understand the feeling of a presence. What is that? I want to understand what is a human, and what is a human likeness.” He’s psyched to use this opportunity to come closer and closer to replicating human “presence” and behavior with his electro-mechanical minions. Hirata, for his part, believes that “robots are a means of thinking about human beings.” As far as he’s concerned, robots are just another way for him to learn how to most effectively manipulate an audience. He firmly believes that a performance doesn’t have to be “real” to have a real effect, that human emotional response is more of a mechanical reflex than anything more “mystical.” In other words, these two aren’t just looking to shock and awe their audience with shiny gadgets—they want to break our entire conception of reality.

Robots and Androids and Humans, Oh My!

robot theater serving tea

Photo by Brett Davis

Since the Robot-Human Theater Project opened its factory doors in 2008, Hirata and Ishiguro have sent their creations on tour to 33 cities in 15 countries. Out of the six plays they’ve developed thus far, both eerily lifelike androids and clearly mechanical robots have taken the stage alongside human co-actors. In order of appearance, here they are:

Hataraku Watashi (I, Worker) Debut in 2008

It’s the near future, where Takeo and Momoko, two portly and blindingly yellow service bots, tend the home of the married couple they work for in this short one act play. But Yuji the human husband and Takeo the robot have both become too depressed and existential to work—leaving human wife Yuji and robot Momoko to fret about their hikikomori other halves.

Mori no Oku (The Heart of the Forest) Debut in 2010

Three species collide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a team of scientists and their robot helpers are studying the local bonobo population—the species most closely related to our own. While the scientists industriously gather data for comparison of the primates and the humans, the robots give them more “help” than they bargained for in this one act.

Sayonara (same title in English) Debut in 2010 (since updated in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake)

A young woman facing imminent death seeks solace from her android caregiver, Geminoid F. As the woman struggles with her mortality, the immortal android tries to comfort her as best she can with the immortal words of poets. The updated epilogue to this one act reveals that after the woman’s death, Geminoid F was sent to comfort the victims of irradiated Fukushima, a place where no human is willing to go.

Sannin Shimai (Three Sisters, Android Version) Debut in 2012

A Japanese sci-fi twist on the Russian realist original, this full-length play features human, android, and robot actors on a rural Japanese estate. As the unkempt manor languishes in the current economic crisis, its inhabitants are plagued by malaise and unease. They won’t shut up about moving to Tokyo, but just like in the original no one ever actually gets off their ass.

Ginga Tetsudo No Yoru (Night on the Galactic Railroad) Debut in 2013

This full-length play is the latest adaptation of a Japanese novel with the same name by Miyazawa Kenji, a perennially popular fantastical and philosophical children’s book that some adults ended up obsessed with. A poverty-stricken and socially malnourished young girl boards a magical train one night and zooms through the Milky Way galaxy, only this time with a robot tour-guide in tow.

Henshin (Metamorphosis) Debut in 2014

The skeletal Android Repliee S1 plays the lead role of Gregor Samsa in this full-length play adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Except this time, instead of waking up as a bug, poor Gregor wakes up as a robot. As the Japanese advertising poster puts it: “Us humans exist in an absurd world where we might become bugs tomorrow. Us humans exist in an absurd world where we can’t even prove that we’re different from androids.” Strap in for an existential crisis or three, ladies and gentlemen.

robot theater

Photo by Brett Davis

While three one-acts and three full-length plays in six years might not seem like much of an accomplishment, each of these six works required a ridiculously long development process along with a ridiculously patient team to execute it. Even for Ishiguro, designing and programming robots capable of speech and movement takes a bit of time and effort. As for director/playwright Hirata, the fact that he’s directing actors that can’t respond to his direction, along with the fact that he’s always directed his human actors as detailed and minutely as if they were robots anyway, means hours and hours of rehearsal and programming changes to get a robot to make JUST the right degree angle turn of his head at JUST the right moment. Is all that worth it? Audiences seem to think so.

Human Responses to Theatrical-Electrical Stimuli

robot theater 2

Photo by Ars Electronica

These giant hunks of metal have proved themselves capable of both emotionally and intellectually stirring audiences. All of the Robot-Human Theater Project’s performances so far have played to almost exclusively full houses and dropped jaws. And if theater critics have not always responded with outright praise, they’ve at least expressed deep fascination with the phenomenon. For example:

…the stage presence of [robots] raise significant questions about theatricality and empathy. Provocatively, this evening demonstrated that perhaps the qualities we typically associate with good or effective acting—presence, responsiveness, emotional availability—may, in fact, prove ancillary. Although the success of these pieces necessitated understated performances from the human actors and particular design choices (such as easily navigable sets and low lighting) to establish the commonality between person and machine, these [robots] excited sympathy to an equivalent, or perhaps even greater, degree than their human counterparts. Their effectiveness in performance suggests that mimetic engagement on the part of the audience may owe less to actorly skill than to our collective instinct to attribute human feeling—even to decidedly nonhuman performers. Whether these two short plays confused the boundaries between human and robot or explicitly marked them, both pieces relied upon the audience’s capacity to create empathic bonds with lifeless objects…engaging dialogue between the human actors and their machine counterparts simultaneously both emphasized the differences between person and automaton and blurred those categories. (From review of “Seinendan Theater Company + Osaka University Robot Theater Project” by Alexis Soloski)

On the emotional end of things, many an audience member has admitted to empathizing with the robots as much if not more so than with the human actors—even to the point of shedding tears. One reviewer notes, “…even as I grieved for the young woman, I also felt myself worrying that the android would feel lonely once she died.” Hirata’s unemotional explanation for the audiences’ emotional outpourings is that “audiences’ brains make up half of a performance’s reality.” In other words, we see what we want to see.

Then there’s the inevitable intellectual migraine that comes from witnessing seemingly autonomous three-dimensional beings participate in an activity once exclusively reserved for humans. Feeling empathy apparently isn’t limited to feeling empathy for living things. And a performer apparently doesn’t have to be emotionally alive or even alive at all to deliver a convincing performance. Hirata has said, “In the case of the android(s), there are audience members who did not realize until close to the end of the play which was the robot and which (was) the human actor.” Where does the human begin and the robot end? Where does the robot begin and the human end? What is a human? What is a performance? Where’s my mommy?

And then once you’re through crying and philosophizing, there’s still the future to consider. A future where our lives more closely resemble these plays than the lives we’re living right now. A future that’s already being pioneered in Japan with the introduction and integration of robots that can cater to not only our practical, but our social, needs. Look no further than Paro, the fluffy robotic seal that has taken up residence in many nursing homes, or Pepper, the customer service automaton now employed by Softbank to converse with their customers. So in a sense, the Robot-Human Theater Project is depicting the logical continuation of our current society, encouraging us to imagine what roles robots can fill, what roles we want them to fill. How will humans and robots co-exist? Will they be our servants and our customer service representatives? Our friends and our lovers? And if so, is that really a bad thing? Film has given us plenty of CGI robot creations, but nothing is quite as convincing as the real thing IRL—with live 3-D actors, live 3-D audiences, and seemingly live 3-D robots in the same room at the same time.

The Future of Robot Theater

robot theater 3

Photo by Ars Electronica

Regardless of the pace at which robotic technology is developed and integrated into our lives, the folks at the Robot-Human Theater Project show no signs of slowing down. Could it be possible that other robot theater companies will soon join them? After all, programming the robot actors might be a giant pain in the fuse box, but once it’s done you can rest assured that they’ll never forget their lines. As Hirata has mused, “Will actors at auditions soon by vying for their roles with robots? And are we entering an era in which robot actors will one day take the leads in ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” How long is it before robots become better at being people than we are?


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Hideo Nomo, Baseball Rebel With a Cause Fri, 27 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Masanori Murakami’s Major League Baseball debut. Sent to the San Francisco Giants farm system for developmental purposes, Murakami sparkled when he took the mound in the minor leagues. Giants brass took notice and Masanori took the field against The Mets at Shea Stadium in 1964, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Japanese player. […]

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2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Masanori Murakami’s Major League Baseball debut. Sent to the San Francisco Giants farm system for developmental purposes, Murakami sparkled when he took the mound in the minor leagues. Giants brass took notice and Masanori took the field against The Mets at Shea Stadium in 1964, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Japanese player.

But instead of a flourishing career in the majors, Murakami found himself in an ugly tug-of-war between teams and country that would prevent Japanese players from coming to the US for years to come.

That is… until Hideo Nomo stormed into Major League Baseball and changed things forever.

Masanori Murakami Opens The Door

Photo by Dave Glass

It was only intended as a temporary, developmental trip. When the Nankai Hawks lent a handful of players to the San Francisco Giants, no one predicted it would spark an international incident.

And it was all thanks to Murakami’s success on the mound. The pitcher shined in the closing nine games of the 1964 season, posting a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings pitched. Robert Whiting commented, “No Japanese had gotten this much favorable attention in the continental United States since Kyu Sakamoto’s improbable (and misnamed) hit single ‘Sukiyaki‘.”

According to the contract stipulations, the Giants could sign one of the loaned Japanese players by awarding Nankai a fee of $10,000. Murakami signed the contract. The Giants wired Nankai the money and considered it a done deal – Murakami would take the field for the Giants come 1965.

Faced with losing a budding star, Nankai met with Murakami during his winter vacation in Japan. If he joined the Giants, they threatened, he’d never play baseball in Japan again. With additional pressure from his father, Murakami signed on with the Nankai Hawks for the 1965 season.

Murakami now had contractual obligations with two separate teams in two separate countries. Something had to give.

Of Culture and Contracts

Photo by delphinmedia

The root of the Murakami dispute lay in Nankai’s contract with The Giants. The Giants viewed the contract as a literal, binding agreement; every word was chosen with care. The $10,000 stipulation existed in the contract and therefore had to be honored.

Nankai managment, however, took a Japanese view of the contract. Robert Whiting explains,

The Japanese believed more in the spirit of the contract than the letter, that the purpose of a contract was to ensure that both sides benefitted. Since situations changed the parties… should not be locked in by mere words… What was most important was mutual understanding and the cultivation of ningen kankei , or human relationships.

Nankai stated the organization had accepted the $10,000 as a bonus for Murakami’s contribution to the Giant’s season. When the Giants refused to bend, Nankai resorted to other explanations. First they claimed the signature on Murakami’s release was a forgery. Next they flaunted a “home sick” clause that allowed a player to return to Japan due to difficultly to adjusting to American life. But Murakami’s success the previous season and signing of a new contract made that claim hard to swallow.

MLB (Major League Baseball) teams feared that Murakami’s disregard of contract would set dangerous precedent. What if other players followed suit? NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) teams harbored similar fears. Would other players follow Murakami’s example, abandoning the Japanese league for the MLB?

Yushi Uchimura, the Japanese commissioner took control. After mulling over the problem, “(Uchimura) came to the conclusion the (Nankai) Hawks had been careless in their dealings with the American team”.

In a compromise that balanced the spirit of ningen kanei with the expectation of binding contracts, Uchimura decided to allow Murakami to play for the Giants for the 1965 season. At season’s end Murakami would rejoin the Nankai Hawks and remain in Japan for the rest of his career.

At first US commissioner Ford Frick refused. But the sides finally came to an agreement when Murakami was allowed to choose whether to stay with the Giants or return to Japan at season’s end.

Murakami picked up where he left off for the Giants, mounting a successful 1965 campaign. Although he intended to stay in the US, pressure from his father and the Japanese media, who dubbed him a greedy traitor, gave him a change of heart. Murakami returned to Japan where he finished out an unremarkable career with one notable season in 1969 when he posted a 18-4 record with a 2.38 ERA.

The Murakami fiasco would sour US and Japanese baseball relations for decades. “As a result of the trans-Pacific tiff over Murakami, the U.S. and Japan commissioners has signed something called the United States-Japanese [sic] Player Contract Agreement… in which both sides pledged to respect each other’s baseball conventions.”

Free Agency: MLB Players Fight Back

curt flood

Photo by Dman41689

Until 1969, US and Japanese baseball teams enjoyed similar rights over players. Allen Barra of The Atlantic explains,

In 1969, players were still bound to a team for life by the so-called reserve clause. Simply put, a player was a team’s property. Unless the team chose to trade him or release him, his first big-league team would be his only big-league team for his entire career. A player’s only recourse was retirement.

Then the Cardinals attempted to trade Curt Flood against his will. Infuriated by players’ lack of rights, Flood sued hoping to benefit himself as well as future players. Due to a unconstitutional antitrust pardon granted to MLB, Flood would never benefit from his efforts. But his case would eventually see victory, giving birth to free agency.

In 1976, four years after Flood’s initial lawsuit, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became baseball’s first free agents. Free to negotiate with other teams, a player could weigh his options and accept the contract offer that best suited his needs. The media and fans vilified Flood, accusing him of destroying baseball. Allen Barra writes,

Prophets of doom and gloom about the future of the game could be seen on every sports page, but in the end, the Players Association worked out things with management, and salaries sky-rocketed—along with profits, it turned out, as fans liked the exciting new era of free agency and the players it brought to their teams.

…Meanwhile Back In Japan

Photo by kamon

Yet in Japan things went on as usual. Teams maintained control over their players, pay remained low and players had little say in their futures. Although players earned the right to strike, it wasn’t a step they were willing to take. Robert Whiting explains,

Indeed, the majority of players in Japan continued to speak not only of team loyalty… but also a feeling of responsibility to the parent company, the stadium food vendors, the parking-lot attendants, the transportation companies and other individuals and businesses dependent on professional baseball who would suffer economically in the event of work stoppage.

Although MLB teams are associated with the cities in which the play, Japanese teams are attached to their sponsoring companies. From the Yomiuri Giants to the Softbank Hawks, Japanese teams exist to advertise their respective sponsors.

In the US, players sought to take their share of their team’s profits. But Japanese teams made less profits (if any) from their clubs and therefore had less to offer players. The Economist reports, “Almost all (Japanese teams) lose money.” Unlike their American counterparts, most Japanese clubs fail to take advantage of “broadcasting rights, merchandising, sponsorship and internet distribution. Accordingly, the average salary for a Japanese player is around $500,000, compared with $3m in America.”

A team built and supported by a cooperate media giant, the Yomiuri Giants are the major exception. And when free agency finally hit NPB, it came at the whim of Giants’ brass who hoped to fill their team with established talent. Unlike in the MLB, the change did little in way of players’ rights.

Robert Whiting explains, “Players could only become free agents after ten full years of service on the parent team… the salaries of free-agent signees would be limited to only 150 percent of their previous season’s pay.” Player agents were banned from the negotiation process.

Despite a culture of loyalty, sooner or later Japanese stars were bound to be attracted to the salaries and challenge MLB offered. It was only a matter of someone standing up to the established system.

Enter the Rabble Rouser

Photo by RichardMcCoy

With his unconventional corkscrew windup, Hideo Nomo always marched to the beat of his own taiko. For example, when one of the nation’s top high school coaches rejected Nomo because of his windup, Nomo joined a relatively unknown team and thrived. And when colleges refused to draft him, Nomo joined Japan’s farm league. Both choices paid dividends, allowing Nomo to perfect his unique throwing style.

A successful 1988 Olympic campaign prompted Nomo’s drafting into the NPB in 1989. The Kintetsu Buffaloes offered him a record contract. “Nomo said yes,” Whiting recalls, “but only on condition that the Buffaloes promise not to change his form.”

It was money well spent as Nomo went on to become the league’s premier pitcher. But Nomo’s rebellious nature continued to show. When Kintestu struck an exclusive deal with the Mizuno sporting goods brand, Nomo donned Nike cleats to the NPN all-star series. Nomo’s refusal to compromise would eventually spell the end of his career in Japan.

In 1994 Kintestu brought in the strict, old-fashioned Keishi Suzuki as manager. Suzuki’s reputation for overworking pitchers proved true and Nomo paid the price with a shoulder injury. The last straw came when Suzuki demanded that Nomo, practice and play through injury. A firm believer in the rest and recovery practices afforded pitchers in the MLB, Nomo set his sights on America.

Enter Don Nomura, an agent waiting for a Japanese player to challenge the system. Nomura uncovered NPB’s voluntary retirement clause, Nomo’s key to leaving Japan. Under the clause, “a voluntarily retired player, under Japanese contract was obligated to return (from retirement) to his former team only as long as he stayed in Japan… A player who went on voluntary retired list in NPB would thus essentially be free to play in the US.”

When Kintestu declined Nomo’s request for an unprecedented three-year, $9 million contract, he announced his retirement from NPB. To the chagrin of Kintetsu, the media, and fans, Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and left for the player-friendly pastures of the MLB.

Walk this Way

Nomo became a sensation; he won games, he sold merchandise, he (once again) proved Japanese players could survive and even thrive in the MLB.

A media and society that once criticized him now embraced him as a successful countryman on the world stage. Japanese media outlets paid large sums for interviews, providing the opportunity for Nomo to criticize the Japanese game. He condemned its treatment of players, particularly the managers that cut pitchers’ careers short through overuse and ignoring injuries.

Nomomania hit both the US and Japan. Eric Nusbaum recalls,

He went into his ritual windup, summoning pitches from a place no one else had access to. He walked back from the mound, keeping his eyes on the grass. He disappeared from the public eye between starts. They called him the Tornado, but he was quiet and still, even at the center of a storm of tchochkes and sellout crowds at Dodger Stadium and kids who were mesmerized by his windup, his forkball, and even his name. We said it a lot. Nomo, Nomo, Nomo.

Nomo’s success and the loophole he exploited paved the way for other Japanese players. At home Japanese stars felt like big fish in a little pond, and for many a bigger challenge beckoned. Some, like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui would find similar success, becoming celebrities at home and abroad. Others, like Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Hideki Irabu, wouldn’t fare so well.

But no matter the degree of success, Japanese players have Hideo Nomo to thank for the opportunity to play overseas. Nomo’s unique windup symbolized his unique spirit. Like Curt Flood, Hideo Nomo was a man willing to break cultural and contractual moulds for the better opportunity of all.

The Ruin of Japanese Baseball?

Photo by ぽこ太郎

Just as US media and fans bemoaned the advent of free agency brought on by Curt Flood, Japan’s baseball pundits and media outlets declared Nomo’s move to the MLB the death-knell of Japanese baseball. With players free to leave NPB, many believed the league would become nothing more than a minor league feeding system for MLB.

These worries inspired the posting system. Under this 1998 arrangement, Japanese teams “post” a player as eligible to play in MLB and declare a “posting fee” or negotiation price. If an MLB team and player reach a contract agreement, that MLB team must pay the posting fee to the NPB team as well as the player’s salary. In other words, NPB team’s receive this posting fee as compensation for the player.

Although the posting system provided relief for NPB, it was also seen as a strike against players’ rights. Teams posted the player and declared the posting fee which added an undesirable expense for MLB teams hoping to sign NPB players.

Only long-time veterans could forgo posting. After nine years in NPB a player was free to negotiate freely.

Continued Success

Photo by ilovemypit

With two World Baseball Classic victories, Japanese baseball looks stronger than ever. The posting system has protected the NPB and the feared exodus of talent never came to fruition. As of 2014 twenty NPB players have used the posting system, yet among those twenty, only fourteen are Japanese, the others being foreigners who came up through Japanese teams’ youth recruitment systems.

Fresh off a magnificent season where he won a record-breaking 25 consecutive games in NPB, Masahiro Tanaka became the latest player to take advantage of the system, signing with MLB’s Yankees for big money in 2013. Only time will tell if Tanaka can reach Nomo’s success, but thanks to the rebel pitcher, Japanese players like Tanaka continue to challenge baseball’s best in MLB.

In 2014, fifty years after Murakami became the first Japanese player to play in MLB, Nomo continued blazing his revolutionary path, becoming the first Japanese player inducted into the leagues’s baseball hall of fame. Today Nomo’s career has come full circle as the retired pitcher “lead(s) an industrial league team in the Osaka region of Japan, called Nomo Baseball Club, which gives non-drafted (semi-professional) players an opportunity to compete” (Gandy).

But it’s unlikely any prospect will impact baseball like the uncharacteristically stubborn Nomo who broke with cultural norms, blazing his own path to success in the United States, a path other Japanese players felt inspired to follow.

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The Superior Power of Japanese Mathematics Wed, 25 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Maths was never my strong suit at school. The numbers never danced into line for me. So I thought that trying to deal with numbers in a foreign language would be impossible. However, to my great surprise, dealing with numbers in Japanese was easier than I’d expected. This wasn’t due to any genius on my […]

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Maths was never my strong suit at school. The numbers never danced into line for me. So I thought that trying to deal with numbers in a foreign language would be impossible. However, to my great surprise, dealing with numbers in Japanese was easier than I’d expected. This wasn’t due to any genius on my part. It is entirely due to the genius of the Japanese counting system itself.

One, Two, Three, 一、二、三


Photo by CeciliaC

At first, it is easy to be daunted by the Japanese counting system. Really, you shouldn’t worry. You’ve already mastered a much more complicated number system. Counting in Japanese is much more logical and systematic than English. If you can get hold of the basics you’ll soon be flying.

Let’s have a look at those basics and what we can do with them.

1: 一 ichi
2: 二 ni
3: 三 san
4: 四 shi/yon
5: 五 go
6: 六 roku
7: 七 nana/shichi
8: 八 hachi
9: 九 ku
10: 十 juu

The first ten numbers. They aren’t too daunting are they. Just ten numbers (twelve if you count the two alternate ways of saying 4 and 7.) It’s worth learning the kanji too, if only so you can read prices in fancy soba restaurants. I don’t know why, but the soba places near me always used the kanji numbers.

Now here is where Japanese has a huge advantage over English. The numbers from 11 to 99 all use the same sounds you’ve just leaned. Unlike English with its bizarre exceptions to its own rules. Eleven! What’s that all about, huh?! Eleven! It doesn’t sound anything like ten or one, or even twelve.

There are are so many exceptions that make the English counting system confusing, especially for young children. But look at the Japanese for 11, 十一 juu-ichi, ten-one. How beautiful! The same pattern continues. 21 is 二十一 ni-juu-ichi, two-ten-one. Once you get to 100, you only have to learn one more word, 百 hyaku. Now you can count from 1 to 999 using the same system. 101 is 百一 hyaku-ichi. 241 is 二百四十一 ni-hyaku-yon-juu-ichi. The only thing you have to watch out for is the hyaku sound turning into byaku. To count from 1 to 9999, all you need is one more word, 千 sen which means thousand. 10,000 is 万 man, and the same rules apply. If you are interested, 100,000,000 is 億 oku, 1,000,000,000,000 is 兆 chō, and 10,000,000,000,000,000 is 京 kei.

If you’re living in Japan, you’ll find it very easy to practice counting all the way up into the thousands because it’s so common when you go shopping. 1000 yen is only about 8 US dollars. As Japan is such a cash based society, you’ll soon be dealing with numbers in the thousands and tens of thousands on a daily basis. When I bought my car in cash, I happily counted out the 万 and 千.

Sensible regular naming systems in Japanese mathematics extend beyond the numbers themselves. Shape names don’t require you to study up on your Ancient Greek, like English ones do. Now, I’m a big nerd for English etymology, but there is something to be said for a simple system like this. To name a polygon in Japanese, all you have to do is count the sides and add that number to 角形 kakkei or kakukei. So a triangle is 三角形 san-kakkei, and an octagon is 八角形 hachi-kakukei. Admittedly, you will have to spend some time learning which pronunciation of 角形 goes with each number.

Do you know what an eleven sided shape is in English? Can you work out what it is in Japanese?

If you said, “hendecagon,” and “十一角形 (juu-ichi-kakukei)” then I salute your knowledge. Which was easier to figure out?

Everybody Do the Kuku


Photo by Bryan Ochalla

The kuku is not a bird. It’s a tool to learn multiplication tables. I remember struggling through my times tables at school. Even now I dread being asked to multiply numbers on the spot. This is not a fear that many Japanese people have. From the age of seven, children learn their times tables using the kuku chant. This covers the times tables up to 9×9, which is where the kuku gets its name. By learning the kuku by heart, Japanese children get a solid grounding for the rest of their exploration of mathematics. I’ve gone on about how regular the Japanese counting system is, but the kuku breaks from this trend. To fit the rhythm, many numbers are said in a simplified form. For example hachi is sometimes shortened to ha. Also, the kuku won’t help you past 9×9. It surprised some Japanese teachers I know that Western students learn up to 12×12.

Still, if you’d like to try it yourself, there are many videos which use different rhythms or songs to help teach the kuku. I’d recommend downloading a version that you like and listening to it over and over again and try to sing along.

Memorising mathematical concepts comes up again later in Japanese children’s education. In senior high school, they can be expected to memorise trig function tables, something that is unthinkable in the UK. The merits of memorising those can be debated, but without the training the kuku provides, it would be far more difficult. I wish that there was a sing-song equivalent to the kuku in English which I could have learned by heart. Recently, I’ve been trying to memorise the kuku and I have to say it’s far more fun than I expected.

Could You Be a Soroban Master?


Photo by Joe Haupt

There is another tool that can help you improve your maths skills and this one is literally a tool. Soroban 算盤 is the Japanese abacus. You might be thinking, “Why is she suggesting I use an abacus?” You have a scientific calculator. Abacuses are so five centuries ago. But the soroban has the ability to turn you into a mental arithmetic magician.

The Japanese abacus is divided into two sections. The upper part has one bead and each represents 5 units. The lower part has four beads, each representing 1 unit. To read the abacus you only look at the beads that have been pushed into the middle of the abacus, resting against the dividing bar. It is read left to right. You can try it yourself using this virtual soroban.

Having a physical representation of numbers and actually moving beads makes using an abacus easier and more fun for children than simply working sums out on paper. The aim is to use the abacus combined with muscle memory to mechanise the process of arithmetic. A trained soroban user can complete calculations far faster than someone with an electronic calculator because they don’t even need to think about the calculations. Using the soroban becomes automatic. Soroban schools are popular 塾 juku, where children are trained in abacus skills after school. There is even an examined ranking system, just like in martial arts. I used to watch in amazement as the teacher who sat opposite me calculated huge sums on a soroban. Her fingers flicked across the beads at amazing speed. She also used it for adding up marks on tests. I was slower, clumsier, and less accurate doing the same thing on an electric calculator.

The greatest soroban users don’t even need a soroban in front of them. This is called anzan soroban (暗算そろばん) or mental soroban. People who have mastered anzan soroban have internalised the abacus. They can see it in their mind’s eye. If you watch someone calculating with anzan soroban sometimes you’ll see their fingers flicking as if they were moving beads on their abacus, even with no abacus there. Students retain the mechanised aspect of soroban, so they don’t have to consciously do the calculations to get the right answer. Watch this video of children playing shiritoi (a word game) and doing anzan soroban at the same time.

That’s pretty mind boggling! But the most impressive form of anzan soroban is even more amazing. Flash anzan is an illustration of the extraordinary power of the human brain. Flash anzan was invented by soroban teacher Yoji Miyamoto as a game to stretch his students. In flash anzan 15 numbers between 100 and 999 are flashed on a screen. The challenge is to add them up in your head. OK, that sounds pretty tough, but doable, right? Well, the champions of flash anzan can do it in under 2 seconds. The 2012 champion of the All-Japan Flash Anzan competition, Takeo Sasano added the 15 three digit numbers in 1.70 seconds. Here is a video of the All-Japan National Soroban Championship in 2012 where contestants make the caluclation in 1.85 seconds.

This is the power of the soroban.

Maths Is More Fun in Japan


There are certainly complexities when dealing with numbers in Japan. Counting things, not just numbers brings you into the complex world of Japanese counters. All throughout this article I’ve been using the on’yomi reading of numbers (ichi, ni, san, etc.) not the kun’yomi reading (hitotsu, futsu, mittsu, etc.) which is a whole other challenge to master.

However, difficult or not, I believe there is something more important when it come to arithmetical success. That is attitude. When I asked my Japanese students what their favourite subject was there was a roughly 60/40 split between PE and maths. Japanese students are typically much more confident in mathematics than they are in English. While my maths teachers back home despaired at me, maths teachers in Japan liked me for some reason. I was often invited to maths class and teachers would try to explain things in English, much to the amusement of the students. In maths class I saw students, who I knew as shy and withdrawn, happily chatting away about mathematical concepts that were far beyond me. The attitude towards maths in Japan is far more positive than it is in the UK. Maths is something to play with in Japan. It’s not surprising that Japan is the source of many of the world’s most popular number games like sudoku.

While you and I might never achieve complete mathematical fluency in Japanese and be able to do massive calculations in under two seconds, we can learn not only maths in Japanese, but also Japan’s positive attitude towards it.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Ghibli Dictionary: A Japanese Study Guide Revolution! Mon, 23 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Last year, a new English-Japanese dictionary was released in Japan for Japanese people learning English. This may not seem very special until you hear the title: Star Wars English-Japanese Dictionary for Padawan Learners. Does this sound as awesome or what? I’m totally jealous of Japanese people who get language study tools based on Star Wars! The dictionary is essentially a list […]

The post The Ghibli Dictionary: A Japanese Study Guide Revolution! appeared first on Tofugu.

Last year, a new English-Japanese dictionary was released in Japan for Japanese people learning English. This may not seem very special until you hear the title: Star Wars English-Japanese Dictionary for Padawan Learners.

Does this sound as awesome or what? I’m totally jealous of Japanese people who get language study tools based on Star Wars! The dictionary is essentially a list of words that are used in the original Star Wars Trilogy. Readers are given lines of dialogue using target words so they can practice speaking like Star Wars characters.

The problem is that we, English speakers learning Japanese, don’t have anything similar. Why do Japanese people get all of these wonderful study guides while we’re stuck with boring dictionaries and textbooks?

This is why I have constructed a new type of Japanese study guide that helps English speakers study Japanese with the help of movies better than Star Wars: The films of Studio Ghibli! Studying alongside these wonderful films will hopefully bring fun to the learning process and warm your heart with child-like fantasy at the same time.

How It Works


The Ghibli Dictionary is not like a normal dictionary, simply listing words in alphabetical order. Its purpose is to teach you words that will increase your understanding of the Japanese used in Ghibli films (without subtitles, of course).

The words are organized according to the films they can be found in. For each film, there is a different category of word to focus on while viewing the film. For example, the My Neighbor Totoro section focuses on nouns. In this way, you can concentrate your studies toward learning one specific aspect of the dialogue at a time, instead of trying to learn everything all at once.

There are many ways to use the dictionary according to your level and preference. One way I recommend is to read over the words for the film you choose and try to remember as many as you can. While viewing the film, listen for the words you just learned and see how many you can recognize. Once you recognize them here, you’ll be surprised at how often you encounter the same words in other anime, dramas, or films. Soon, you’ll be speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in Japanese!

Be advised that all the listings in the Ghibli Dictionary are in kanji, hiragana, and katakana. No romaji! Romaji, as helpful as it seems to beginners, its actually detrimental. It can make it hard for you to read real Japanese later on and wastes your study time. So if you don’t yet know hiragana and katakana (you don’t need kanji to get started in the Ghibli Dictionary), I suggest you check out Tofugu’s handy guides for learning hiragana and katakana. It will take less than a day or two to learn both, and you will be studying much more efficiently from then on.

The words in the Ghibli Dictionary are listed (for the most part) in the order they appear in the films, so you can get a general idea of where to find them.

Enough talk. Let’s get started!

NOUNS! in My Neighbor Totoro


My Neighbor Totoro is a simple story about two young sisters who move with their father to a new house in the countryside. Their mother is ill and staying at a hospital nearby. Soon after moving into the new house, they meet a big fluffy creature called Totoro. With his mysterious kindness, Totoro helps them get used to a new environment and deal with the anxiety of their mother’s illness.

Since the dialogue centers around two children, Satsuki and Mei, the language is quite simple and easy to understand. If you feel ready to graduate from the annoyance of subtitles, this is a great place to start.

Repetition is one of (if not the) most important aspects of language learning. The great thing about My Neighbor Totoro is that many words are used repeatedly, as children are apt to do. So let’s focus on learning the nouns that repeat in My Neighbor Totoro.



Let’s start by learning the nouns and pronouns for people since they are the most repeated words. Sometimes words for family members are said with or without the お, and さん honorifics, and instead are replaced with ちゃん. They mean the same thing, but the お and さん are a bit more formal. The list includes the form that is used most in the film.

お父さん ( おとうさん) = Father, Dad

お母さん (おかあさん) = Mother, Mom

お姉ちゃん (おねえちゃん) = Older Sister

妹 (いもうと) = Younger Sister. Unlike おねえちゃん, this word is not used to call your younger sister, but only to refer to her. In Japan, younger family members are only addressed by their names.

おばあちゃん = Grandmother, Old Lady. This word is generally used for any woman who is elderly, not just your own grandmother.

私 (わたし) = I, Me. Mei refers to herself as Mei instead of I or me. Young girls tend to do this but the older sister Satsuki mostly uses 私, which makes her sound more mature.

私たち (たしたち) = We, Us

みんな = Everyone. The teacher at Satsuki’s school says みなさん, which is a more formal way of saying everyone.

先生 (せんせい) = Teacher, Doctor. You may be used to calling your Japanese teacher 先生, but people of many other occupations are addressed as 先生 as well, such as doctors, lawyers, or politicians.

子供 (こども) = Child

あなた = You. Formal.

おまえ = You. Informal.

バカ = Stupid Person

女の子 (おんなのこ) = Girl

Things and Places


This is a list of the nouns that are repeated most throughout the film.

お家 (おうち) = House, Home. Satsuki’s teacher uses this word to mean household, which is also a common usage.

家 (いえ) = House, Home. This is the same word as お家 (おうち), even though the pronunciation is quite different.

お化け (おばけ) = Ghost

お化け屋敷 (おばけやしき) = Haunted House

木 (き) = Tree

クスノキ = Camphor Tree. This is the type of tree that Totoro lives in.

どんぐり = Acorn

リス = Squirrel

ネズミ = Mouse, Rat

水 (みず) = Water

道 (みち) = Road

お弁当 (おべんとう) = Boxed Lunch

庭 (にわ) = Garden

傘 (かさ) = Umbrella

バス = Bus

猫 (ねこ) = Cat. The cat bus is called 猫バス (ネコバス).

夢 (ゆめ) = Dream

電報 (でんぽう) = Telegram

病院 (びょういん) = Hospital

風邪 (かぜ) = Cold (as in catch a cold). This has the same pronunciation as 風 (かぜ) meaning wind, so try not to get them confused.

迷子 (まいご) = Lost Child

Mei’s Mispronunciation


Mei, being as young as she is, is prone to mispronouncing words. One of those words is トロル (tororu, meaning “troll”), which she pronounces as トトロ (totoro). The name of the film and the fluffy creature we all love is just Mei’s way of pronouncing troll. The other two words that Mei mispronounces are words that new learners of Japanese may have trouble with as well, so watch out.

おたまじゃくし = Tadpole. When Mei finds tadpoles in a small pond in the garden, she yells out オジャマタクシ!, an understandable mistake.

とうもろこし = Corn. Mei mispronounces this word two different ways トンモコロシ and トンモロコシ. I’m sure there are a lot more ways to say it wrong…

ADJECTIVES! in Spirited Away


Spirited Away is possibly the best-known Ghibli film. It is the highest grossing Japanese film of all time and even won an Oscar. It is a fascinating story about a ten-year-old girl who, with her parents, enters the world of the gods. Her parents are turned into pigs and she is forced to work at a bathhouse run by a wicked witch.

The colorful environment and wonderfully detailed artwork make this film a joy to watch. So what better words to learn from this film than words that describe things? Adjectives!

There are a number of different adjectival forms in Japanese, but we’ll only focus on the three most common: ones that end in い (i), しい (shii), and な (na).

The い-adjectives


This is the most common and basic form of Japanese adjective. These can be placed either before or after the thing it is describing.

いい = Good. This word is used in many different ways, just like the word “good” in English. One combination you will hear often is いい子 ( いいこ) meaning “good child.”

悪い ( わるい) = Bad

青い (あおい) = Blue

近い (ちかい) = Close

柔らかい (やわらかい) = Soft

小さい (ちいさい) = Small

どんくさい = Slow, Slow-witted. This word is used for people who are clumsy or slow to learn. Lin calls Chihiro this in the beginning, but Chihiro becomes brave and spirited by the end, so she takes it back.

うるさい = Noisy

汚い (きたない) = Dirty

強い (つよい) = Strong

うまい = Delicious, Skillful. This word can be used to say food is delicious, but it can also be used generally as “good” or “well.” For example, near the end of the film, No-Face is helping make a broom for Zeniba and Zeniba says, “うまいじゃないか” to tell him that he is doing a good job.

早い (はやい) = Early, Fast. This can also be written as 速い.

遅い (おそい) = Late, Slow. Even though there are two different ways to write fast and early, there is only one way to write slow and late.

The しい-adjectives


These are actually just a form of i-adjectives. They tend to be emotions, personalities, or states of being.

新しい (あたらしい) = New

忙しい (いそがしい) = Busy

おかしい = Weird, Odd. This word has other meanings such as “funny,” but in this film, it is only used to say “That’s weird…(おかしいな…).

美味しい (おいしい) = Delicious. The difference between “ おいしい” and “うまい” is that “おいしい” is a bit more formal while “うまい” is casual and manly.

珍しい (めずらしい) = Rare, Unusual

優しい (やさしい) = Kind, Gentle

苦しい (くるしい) = Painful, Strenuous. Another word with many meanings. It is used for any situation where one is having a hard time, physically or emotionally. In the film, Chihiro uses this word to ask Haku (in his dragon form) if he is in pain.

嬉しい (うれしい) = Happy, Glad

The な-adjectives


These adjectives can only come before the noun.

きれいな = Pretty, Beautiful, Clean. きれい can be used on its own, but adding -な at the end of きれい makes it able to modify a noun.

うまそうな = Delicious Looking. うまそう is a conjugated form of うまい. It might be useful to know that if you replace the final い or な in most adjectives with そう, it becomes “looks ——.” For example, if you replace the い in つよい and say つよそう, it means “looks strong.”

バカな = Stupid

贅沢な (ぜいたくな) = Extravagant, Luxurious

余計な (よけいな) = Unnecessary, Needless

大切な (たいせつな) = Valuable, Precious

大事な (だいじな) = Important. だいじな and たいせつな have a similar meaning but たいせつな sounds much more important and emotional.

生意気な (なまいきな) = Impertinent

変な (へんな) = Strange, Weird

IMPERATIVES! in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is set in a world where most of the land is covered in toxic forests swarming with giant insects. Nausicaä, the princess of the Valley of the Wind, gets caught up in a struggle with the Tolmekian army who are trying to use an ancient weapon to wipe out the insects.

The story is full of suspenseful events and high-pressure moments, which means that there is a lot of ordering around going on. They just don’t have enough time to ask nicely. If your image of Japanese people is that they are extremely polite and would never tell you anything directly, well…that’s not always the case. The dialogue of this film uses an abundance of imperatives (commands) that are useful to learn for understanding your boss’s orders or picking a fight.

The language of this particular film is a bit archaic, so it could be challenging to try and understand all of the dialogue. Let’s just focus on imperatives for now.

(Technically, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not a Ghibli film, because it was released before the studio was formed. But since its success led to the founding of Studio Ghibli, I decided that it deserves to be in the Ghibli Dictionary.)

Direct Orders


These words are in the simple imperative form that could sound very rude in the wrong situations but are very useful in dire circumstances. They are useful to know when watching war movies or detective dramas. Be aware that these words are all verbs translated into forms that make them commands. Since this is a dictionary we won’t go into how these verbs are conjugated (use a textbook for that), but it’s good to know that these words are conjugated forms.

急げ (いそげ) = Hurry Up. This is by far the most used word in the film, since the characters are always in a hurry.

引け (ひけ) = Pull

出ろ (でろ) = Go Out

早くしろ (はやくしろ) = Do It Quickly.  Sometimes the older men say はよせい, which is the exact same word just in a different dialect.

待て (まて) = Wait

来い (こい) = Come

見ろ (みろ) = Look

集まれ (あつまれ) = Gather

動くな (うごくな) = Don’t Move. If a Japanese cop yells this at you, you might be in a bit of trouble.

落ち着け (おちつけ) = Calm Down

やめろ = Stop

聞け (きけ) = Listen

撃て (うて) = Shoot or Fire (as in a gun or a cannon)

着けろ (つけろ) = Pin It On (as in pinning something to your shirt)

捨てろ (すてろ) = Throw It Away

渡せ (わたせ) = Hand It Over

言え (いえ) = Say It

どけ = Get Out Of The Way

離せ (はなせ) = Let Go

放せ (はなせ) = Release Him/Her/It/Them

行け (いけ) = Go

逃げろ (にげろ) = Run Away

Softer Commands


This form, ending in て (te) or で (de), sounds softer and closer to a request. These are words in the て form, which we won’t go into explaining here, because this is a dictionary. It’s fine to know these て form words as they are, but be sure to learn how the て form is conjugated and utilized by studying a textbook.

急いで (いそいで) = Hurry Up.

燃やして (もやして) = Burn It. Princess Lastelle uses this word to ask Nausicaä to burn the cargo. This is a good example of the difference between the softer commands and direct orders. She does not say 燃やせ, which would have made her seem rude and stuck up.

待って (まって) = Wait

聞いて (きいて) = Listen

どいて = Get Out Of The Way

教えて (おしえて) = Tell Me. おしえて literally means “teach me” but it is often used to say ‘“inform me” or “let me know.” When Nausicaä meets the Pejite soldiers, she says おしえて to say, “tell me what your plan is.”

やめて = Stop It

見て (みて) = Look

The -nasai Form

Some of the commands are given in the -なさい form, which is a softer but condescending form of the imperative. It should only be used for people who are much younger or are of lower social position than you. Parents often use the -なさい form to their children.

見なさい (みなさい) = Look

渡しなさい (わたしなさい) = Hand It Over

捨てなさい (すてなさい) = Throw It Away

To Children or Animals


Japanese has words that can only be said to children or animals. You can hear Nausicaä saying these words to the ohmu and the fox-squirrel in the beginning of the film.

お帰り (おかえり) = Go Back. Yes, this is the same word to say “Welcome back,” but what the speaker means should be clear from the context.

おいで = Come Here. This can also be used to invite friends to your place, but it must be a very casual context or you may sound rude or condescending.

Nimoji Jukugo in Whisper of the Heart


My personal favorite Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart, is a slice-of-life story based on the manga of the same name by Aoi Hiragi. It was written by Hayao Miyazaki, but actually directed by Yoshifumi Kondō. It is about a 14-year-old girl, Shizuku, who loves to read. She keeps seeing the same boy’s name, Seiji Amasawa, on many of the library checkout cards and begins to daydream about him. One day, she meets a boy who gets on her nerves, who turns out to be Seiji Amasawa.

This is a great film for learning Japanese because the language is realistic and very casual. So let’s focus on a very general type of word that covers a wide range of usages: nimoji jukugo! Nimoji jukugo are words that are made by combining two kanji characters. The meanings of the two characters are combined to make one meaning. I’ve divided the words up into four different categories so maybe you can try to tackle one or two at a time.

The great thing about learning kanji words is that you can mix and match the kanji to make new words, or if you recognize at least one of the kanji, then you might be able to guess the word’s meaning. So if you are an intermediate or advanced level, try to learn the kanji as well. If you know Chinese and already recognize the kanij, well then…you’re just lucky.

Time Words


I probably don’t have to explain how important these words are. You can probably see some patterns in the kanji.

時間 (じかん) = Time

明日 (あした) = Tomorrow

今日 (きょう) = Today

昨日 (きのう) = Yesterday

毎日 (まいにち) = Every Day. Pretty much every word that has to do with “day” has the kanji 日 in it.

午後 (ごご) = Afternoon. The word for before noon is 午前 (ごぜん).

最後 (さいご) = Last

最初 (さいしょ) = First

瞬間 (しゅんかん) = Moment



These words are nouns when used on their own, but when you add する at the end, they become verbs. For example, 説明 (せつめい) means “explanation,” while 説明する (せつめいする) means “to explain.”

出勤 (しゅっきん) = Going To Work

遅刻 (ちこく) = Being Late

勉強 (べんきょう) = Study, Studies

応援 (おうえん) = Support. This word can also mean “cheer” as in “cheer for a sports team,” but is only used as “support” in the film.

安心 (あんしん) = Relief, Peace of Mind

説明 (せつめい) = Explanation

返事 (へんじ) = Reply

仕事 (しごと) = Work

完成 (かんせい) = Completion

期待 (きたい) = Expectation, Anticipation

約束 (やくそく) = Promise

Things and People


自分 (じぶん) = Oneself. A very useful word that can be used to say myself, yourself, himself, herself, or one’s own. It can also be used in place of a first or second person pronoun, which can be a bit confusing. For example, when Shizuku gets angry at Seiji after finding out his name, she calls him じぶん which means “you” in this context.

物語 (ものがたり) = Story

人形 (にんぎょう) = Doll

時計 (とけい) = Clock, Watch

職人 (しょくにん) = Craftsman

宝物 (たからもの) = Treasure

魔法 (まほう) = Magic

進路 (しんろ) = Course. In this case, the course of one’s future.

才能 (さいのう) = Talent. Often used as 才能がある (さいのうがある) which means “to have talent” or “be talented.”

読者 (どくしゃ) = Reader

Others (Emotions, Adverbs, Adjectives, etc.)


元気 (げんき) = Healthy, Energetic

一緒 (いっしょ) = Together. This words can be use to say “same” as well, but in this film it is only used as “together.”

本当 (ほんとう) = Truth. Adding a に at the end makes it into an adverb, meaning “really” or “truly.”

自信 (じしん) = Confidence. There is another word that is pronounced じしん written as 自身. This word means “oneself,” so try not to get them confused.

素敵 (すてき) = Wonderful, Great

全然 (ぜんぜん) = Not At All, Completely. This word was originally used only for negative phrases but is now commonly used in positive phrases as well. For example, 全然食べれません (ぜんぜんたべれません) means “I can’t eat at all” and 全然食べれます (ぜんぜんたべれます) means “I can definitely eat.” Keep in mind that using this in the positive form is not technically correct and is often used by young people.

全部 (ぜんぶ) = All

平気 (へいき) = Fine, Okay, Indifferent

上手 (じょうず) = Skillful

Have Fun!


I hope you enjoyed using the Ghibli Dictionary and picked up a few words to add to your vocabulary. By the end of studying these four movies, you will begin to recognize the words and structures of dialogue. Once recognition kicks in, understanding will naturally follow.

Animation, and films in general, are a great resource for learning Japanese. But without a clear goal or method, it can be ineffective and take a very long time. I hope this guide gives you an idea of how to use film as study material.

I would love to hear about your experience of studying with the Ghibli Dictionary. Whether it was helpful or useless, loved it or hated it, want more of it or have suggestions on how to change it, please leave all of your thoughts in the comments below. Your feedback would be invaluable in further developing the Ghibli Dictionary and The Study Guide Revolution!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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Don’t Get Sued! Libel, Slander, and Defamation Laws in Japan Fri, 20 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Scandal erupted back in 2007 when a Japanese weekly magazine, Shukan Gendai, reported that Asashoryu, a grand champion sumo wrestler, had bought his way to the top, paying off opponents in exchange for winning matches, and that he wasn’t the only sumo wrestler to do so. The Japan Sumo Association conducted its own internal investigation, […]

The post Don’t Get Sued! Libel, Slander, and Defamation Laws in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

Scandal erupted back in 2007 when a Japanese weekly magazine, Shukan Gendai, reported that Asashoryu, a grand champion sumo wrestler, had bought his way to the top, paying off opponents in exchange for winning matches, and that he wasn’t the only sumo wrestler to do so. The Japan Sumo Association conducted its own internal investigation, found no evidence of match fixing, and took Shukan Gendai’s publisher, Kodansha, to court for damaging the JSA’s reputation—and won to the tune of over 40 million yen, the biggest amount ever awarded in a Japanese libel case surrounding a magazine article.

But the thing is, Shukan Gendai’s reporting was sound. Matches were being fixed. (Albeit, to this day it’s unknown if Asahoryu was a part of this bout-fixing, but other sumo wrestlers involved in the case have since come forward.) And if this case happened in the United States or another developed country, things would have probably turned out way differently. But defamation laws and how they’re interpreted shift and change depending on what country you’re standing in and where that country’s society places cultural value.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to appreciate a few slander and libel cases, and in fact, knowing a little bit more about defamation laws in Japan will boost your own cultural understanding and may even save you from seeing the inside of a courtroom. (See? Who needs law school when you have Tofugu?)

First, A Little History

meiji jinja

Japan has some serious literary cred when it comes to its poetry and prose, both of which can be traced back centuries. But Japan’s press didn’t really gain its footing until the Meiji era, when, in an attempt to bring Japan up to speed with the West, the Meiji government started encouraging common Japanese people to become more informed about current events. A knowledgeable citizenry is always a rad idea, but in this case, it also resulted in a press that was basically another arm of the government, and a tool for the government to disseminate whatever information it wanted.

Fast-forward and things changed again for Japan’s press when, in the aftermath of World War II, General MacArthur and his American staff drafted a new constitution for Japan, which is still in use to this day. Reading the Japanese Constitution, it’s pretty obvious that MacArthur and his team drew heavily on the United States Constitution. So it probably comes as no surprise that freedom of speech is pretty open-ended in the Japanese Constitution as well. But with that open-endedness comes a lot of room for interpretation, and that’s where culture can really come into play. For example, Japanese courts are much more inclined to protect and focus on reputation than United States courts. A United States court is going to be concerned about whether the statements in question subject the plaintiff to intense ridicule or public hatred; a Japanese court will tend to focus on whether the statements in question reduce the respect of the plaintiff in his or her community.

Slander vs. Libel


Photo by emdot

But before I get into more of the nitty-gritty of Japan’s defamation laws, let’s toss up some definitions real quick. Defamation is the act of saying something untrue about someone else in order to harm their reputation and can be divided into two subcategories: slander and libel. Slander is defamation that’s spoken, and libel is defamation that’s printed. (Simple, no? Though as a point of interest, Japanese law doesn’t make a distinction between libel and slander.)

Exactly what can count as defamation and who can sue for it changes depending on which country’s law book you’re using. For example, in the United States, once you’re dead, you can no longer seek legal protection from slander or libel. People can say anything they like about you, true or not, because your reputation and societal standing aren’t worth anything once you’re a corpse. Japanese corpses, however, can still protect their good name and reputation under the law, so long as what’s being said about them is false.

Defamation can also be divided another way: Is the allegedly defamed person in the public or private sphere? Defamation laws act a little differently depending on whether the plaintiff is a private citizen or a public figure, because your expectation of privacy is going to differ depending on where you stand in your community.

So, let’s say you’re David Beckham, soccer star and husband of Posh Spice. And a magazine, let’s say In Touch Weekly, publishes an article about you having an affair with a prostitute. And let’s say you then sue that magazine for libel, because the story is false. As a public figure, David Beckham lost his case, because he couldn’t prove “actual malice.” By malice, I don’t mean that the magazine was twirling its moustache, plotting to destroy David Beckham’s reputation. “Actual malice”, in legalese, is knowing that a statement is false but saying/publishing it anyway, or acting with reckless disregard for the truth. This is very hard for plaintiffs to prove, so most cases in the US turn out the way David Beckham’s did.

But in Japan, David Beckham probably wouldn’t have gotten as raw a deal and he definitely wouldn’t have been required to prove there was “actual malice” behind the published story. Instead, Japan would have put the onus on the publication to prove that their statements about David Beckham were a matter of public interest, were only made with the sole purpose of advancing public interest, and were true. (Remember the Japan Sumo Association suing Kodansha for that story about bout-fixing in sumo? Kodansha was required to prove those same things in court and failed.)

The Truth Won’t Set You Free

lawyer fortune

Photo by slgckgc

But what happens if you’re just a regular person, someone who doesn’t even have more than a hundred followers on Twitter? I’m not a lawyer (or a person who has a lot of Twitter clout), but in my layperson research, a defamation case against a private citizen in the United States mostly boils down to one question: Is what Person A saying about Person B true?

Good to know the truth is always a defense, right? Well, in Japanese libel and slander cases, the truth won’t necessarily help you. Instead, it all comes down to reputation. (The Japanese word for defamation, meiyokison or 名誉毀損, when broken down, literally means “damaged honor”.) Even if a published statement is 100% true, it can still be considered defamatory if it irrevocably hurts the subject’s reputation and oftentimes the question of truth doesn’t really enter the equation. For example, in 2012 a Japanese man discovered that when he put his name into the Google search bar, it autocompleted results that implied he had a criminal record, and this man argued these autocomplete search results were severely damaging his reputation. Some sources strongly implied this man really did have a criminal past, others said that he was innocent. But it didn’t really matter either way—the Japanese court ordered Google to remove the autocomplete terms, which they did.

So You’re Being Sued

lawyer on tv

Okay, so what happens if you’re the one being sued for defamation in Japan? Well, if you’re a weekly magazine, this really isn’t so bad. In fact, this is probably a consequence you’ve already accepted in exchange for printing a really juicy, salacious story that’s going to sell a whole lot of magazine issues. Being sued is all part of publishing life in Japan, because it’s relatively easy for a plaintiff to make a successful case and there usually isn’t a huge amount of money involved anyway. This is in pretty steep contrast to the United States, where defamation cases might be settled for millions of dollars. In Japan, you won’t typically get a lot of yen for your trouble. It’s a question of pride, not money.

Things can get bad, though, if you’re being brought up on a criminal charge, and you could be facing a jail sentence of up to three years. Again, it’s about losing reputation and respect. In the United States, defamation cases are only civil cases, with no jail time for the defendant. (Just a big check to write.) In Japan, defamation can be a civil case or a criminal case, depending on how the plaintiff wants to go about things. (Are they out for cash or are they out for blood?)

Injunction, What’s Your Function?

stop button

But sometimes it’s not enough that there’s a payout or a prison sentence. Japanese publications also face the occasional injunction. An injunction, in this context, is a court order demanding that a publication not print or distribute a particular story or fact. In the United States, injunctions (theoretically) don’t happen: the media can be held responsible after something’s been published, but not before. In Japan, an injunction is fair game if it will irrevocably damage someone’s reputation. (At this point, you may be sensing a theme here.)

For a better sense of how this whole injunction thing works in the name of libel, I present Hoppo Journal Co. v. Japan. In 1979, a Supreme Court allowed an injunction against an article about Kozo Igarashi, a local mayor planning to run for governor of Hokkaido. Igarashi’s lawyers argued that Hoppo Journal had written defamatory statements about Igarashi that, if widely released, would severely damage Igarashi’s reputation. To be fair, I wouldn’t like it if a magazine article said I was a “cockroach” and “an ugly character hiding behind a beautiful mask,” like the Hoppo Journal said of Igarashi, but I would also argue that few of Hoppo Journal’s readers probably took this language literally. Still, the court thought otherwise, and Hoppo Journal had to pull its article about Igarashi, the masked cockroach running for governor of Hokkaido.

Court Is Adjourned

judges gavel statue

Freedom of speech and press is a closely held right and ideal in most countries, and Japan especially has a very liberal ruling on free speech built right into their constitution: “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.” That’s actually a way broader free speech law than a lot of other developed countries have. (Canada, what’s up with the whole “reasonable limits” on your “rights and freedoms” thing, eh? And England, why the crazy intense libel laws, huh? Though to be fair, the United States has its own dubious free speech baggage. See: WikiLeaks.)

But Japan is also a country with a constitution that’s extremely close to that of the United States. (Hence why I compared Japan law to United States law. Also, I’m American and this is what we do.) Yet, for better or worse, Japan interprets its open-ended free speech laws in ways that a United States court never would. We don’t necessarily think about it, but laws like those for libel and slander interpret culture into action and it’s pretty clear how Japanese courts use defamation law to best meet Japanese culture. Maybe samurai aren’t falling on their swords anymore, but reputation and social standing are still meaningful things in Japan, and their effects are far-reaching, right down to how Google autocorrects your name.

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How to View a Japanese Sword Like a Pro Wed, 18 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 For most of us who get the chance to handle a finely crafted nihonto (日本刀 Japanese sword,) we couldn’t do much more than hold it cross-eyed and bleat out “nice sword.” Why some consider a Masamune on par with a da Vinci eludes us. Japanese swords are works of art, but to the untrained eye one […]

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For most of us who get the chance to handle a finely crafted nihonto (日本刀 Japanese sword,) we couldn’t do much more than hold it cross-eyed and bleat out “nice sword.” Why some consider a Masamune on par with a da Vinci eludes us. Japanese swords are works of art, but to the untrained eye one isn’t much different from another. While being able to properly appraise a sword can take a lifetime, fortunately, you can see what makes a sword unique just by knowing what to look for.

 Nihonto or Gunto?


Photo by Keith Putnam

Gunto (軍刀, meaning either “saber” or “service sword”) were the swords of Japanese WWII officers. Although some gunto were either handcrafted or partially handcrafted, most were assembled in factories from standard bar stock. Telling a gunto from a high quality blade is usually easy. If you can read Japanese and know how to open the grip, the signature on the tang (the part of the blade inside the handle) will tell you exactly what it is. If you can’t do these things, it’s still not very difficult.

If the sword is in Japan it is definitely a nihonto. Since the mass-produced gunto have no artistic value, the Japanese government classifies them as weapons. Owning one is illegal in Japan. There have been cases of American gunto owners wanting to reunite a Japanese soldier’s sword with his family, but unfortunately the law makes that almost impossible. If you try to bring a gunto into the country, it will be confiscated and you will be deported as if you tried bringing in an AK-47.

If you’re not in Japan, though, one way to tell is the scabbard. Gunto are actually not based on katana, but an older kind of sword called a tachi. Tachi look pretty similar to katana, but were worn horizontally, edge-down behind a samurai’s back. Japanese WWII soldiers hung their swords at their hips, but edge-down from loops on the scabbard. So if the scabbard has hangers, it is probably a gunto. The cheapest gunto also have serial numbers on the blade, which immediately tells you they were mass produced.

Still, some WWII swords were family swords modified for military fittings. You would normally be able to tell them apart from the steel’s grain or the temper line, but unfortunately, most swords that made their way abroad are in such poor condition the metal’s features have faded. The only way to tell is the signature, which most people can’t read. It’s really too bad, because somewhere out there is a Japanese national treasure called the Honjo Masamune, which was taken by a G.I. and never recovered.

The Basics of Shape


Photo by Marco/Zac

Now that you know if it’s a nihonto or gunto, next is viewing the blade’s personality. Japanese swords have a lot of details that are hard to catch without proper lighting, so you need a good, strong light source.

It’s traditional to bow to a sword before a viewing, though if the occasion is informal it’ll probably look strange. First, hold it edge-up and push the hilt away from the scabbard with your thumb. Do not touch the metal. The acid in your fingerprint will cause rust. Slide the sword out along its back to make sure the scabbard doesn’t scratch the blade.

Once out, hold the sword upright at arm’s length and notice the curvature. For ancient blades, the placement of the curve affected its cutting power and how quickly it could be drawn. The point determined its piercing power, and could vary from long and curved to short and angular. The smith would also choose which kind of back to forge, from flat to three-sided. Appraisers would use all these features to tell which period and school of swordsmithing the sword came from, but if you’re just viewing a blade, it’s enough just to know these features exist.

The Basics of Steel


Photo by Charles Tilford

Nihonto are usually made from a high-carbon steel called “tamahagane (玉鋼).” Carbon makes steel hard, but it also makes it brittle. Tamahagane has so much carbon that a sword made from the untreated metal would shatter the first time it was used. There’s a common belief that a Japanese sword’s strength comes from folding it, but folding actually makes tamahagane softer, not harder. Each fold brings down the carbon content about .2 percent until it’s soft enough to withstand being used.

Below is a great example of the steel folding process.

The common image of a katana being folded thousands of times depends on what you consider a fold. If you count the actual amount of times the smith folds the steel, folding it a thousand times would drop the carbon content to zero, making the steel unfit for a sword. If you count the number of layers actually created in the metal, though, the number of “folds” grows exponentially. Either way, layering forms a distinctive pattern that appears after polishing. Waves, knots, and even wood-like patterns can be created depending on how the smith folds the billet. To view the grain, place a light above and behind you, then hold the blade horizontally.

Although tamahagane is crucial for making Japanese swords, it was almost lost to modern science. The steel is made in a smelter called a tatara, all of which ceased operations in 1945. Fortunately, in 1975 a society formed to preserve interest in nihonto and managed to revive tatara operations in Shimane prefecture. Smiths occasionally make their own metal, but most of Japan’s tamahagane is still being made by that very same tatara.

The Basics of the Temper Line


Photo by Ian Armstrong

In the picture above you can clearly see the wavy line where the side of the steel near the edge is lighter than towards the rear. It’s called the hamon (刃文) or temper line, and it’s a Japanese sword’s most distinct feature. In manufactured swords it’s nothing more than a decoration, but the hamon of crafted swords is part of why katana are some of the best swords in the world. Japanese swords are forged from at least two steels. The rear of the sword is soft steel that acts as a shock absorber, while the edge is made of harder steel for cutting.

Before quenching (when the red hot blade is suddenly submerged in water) smiths coat it with a clay mixture to cool the edge slightly faster than the back. The difference is only a few thousandths of a second, but it turns the edge into an even harder kind of steel called martensite. It also creates the hamon. In ancient times, its main function was to create a powerful blade. Today, it’s an opportunity for the smith to express himself artistically.

Examine the hamon by pointing the sword just below your light source with the edge up. Moving it continuously should reveal a thin white line along the boundary between the steels. If the sword was well-made, you’ll also see any number of hataraki (働き) or special features within it, like cloudy patterns or “feet” that extend towards the edge. A lot of swords on the internet sport fake hamons, which, like gunto, probably won’t have any hataraki or patterns within the grain.

Smiths sometimes gamble with the hamon. At times they don’t use clay, but heat the edge and rear of the blade at different rates to create a natural pattern. A smith using this method has no control over the hamon’s appearance, but the natural quenching could create distinctive and beautiful patterns impossible with clay. While this can create stunning hamon, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Many nihonto admirers prefer to appreciate the smith’s hand in creating a distinctive hamon rather than one at random. Appearance is important, but hard work and effort is appreciated even more. A beautiful hamon made without clay is merely a matter of luck, after all, and not skill.

Bells and Whistles


Photo by Francios Serent

Making a blade takes months, but a sword takes even longer. The smith does a rough grinding and polishing after he finishes a blade, but then it’s sent to a professional sword polisher. The polisher uses a series of increasingly finer stones to bring out the steel’s details. Without a skilled polisher, the blade would just look like a featureless piece of metal.

Many collectors only care about the blade itself, so many new swords are only sheathed in a shirasa, a simple wooden scabbard. However, if the smith wants all the bells and whistles, he will send his creation to a scabbard maker. He might then himself make the tsuba (鐔, or guard,) habaki (ハバキ/ 鎺, or the small metal piece that fits the sword into the scabbard), and any engraving, or he can send it to individual specialists for each. Whether by the smith or another craftsman, each part of a Japanese sword has a lot of effort put into it, so take a moment to examine them in turn before you finish your viewing.

Viewing a Japanese Sword


Even if you can’t tell a Bizen from a Soshu blade, you can still look at a Japanese sword and understand what you’re seeing. It’s a lot like admiring the brushwork of a Van Gogh. Before you realize it’s there, you can only see the picture. But once you do, you can see the master’s hand at work.

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Japan’s Wild Boar Problem Mon, 16 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 In the movie “Princess Mononoke,” a young warrior must save his village from a giant demon that has come rampaging out of the mountain forests.  After its death the beast is revealed to be a wild boar god, corrupted by an iron bullet lodged inside it.  Later on, an army of boars attack the humans […]

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In the movie “Princess Mononoke,” a young warrior must save his village from a giant demon that has come rampaging out of the mountain forests.  After its death the beast is revealed to be a wild boar god, corrupted by an iron bullet lodged inside it.  Later on, an army of boars attack the humans in an attempt to save the forest from their encroachment.

mononoke boar

Looking at the actual relationship between humans and boars in Japan, the film resonates all the more. In the last few years there has been an increase in boar-related incidents, such as attacks and the destruction of farmland. In this article I will look at the boar’s place in Japan and the causes of these recent problems.

Cultured Creatures

wild boar

The boar is native to many parts of Eurasia. The Japanese word is inoshishi 猪, though an older nickname is yamakujira (“mountain whale”). The Japanese boar (Sus scrofa leucomystax) is considered a subspecies of wild boar. They are found all over Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu, with another subspecies in the Ryukyu Islands.

The boar may not hold as strong an association with Japanese culture as, for example, the crane, dragon, or tanuki, but they have held on to their own little cultural spaces with the tenacity for which they’re known. Boar motifs have been found in pottery from the Jomon period.  When Japan adopted the Chinese calendar and zodiac in the seventh century, they altered the twelfth animal from the pig to the wild boar. This made sense as there would be no domestic pigs in Japan for centuries to come. Then again, there were no tigers or dragons either, so it may reflect the importance of the boar to the Japanese people.

Buddhist influence constrained the consumption of meat throughout Japan’s pre-modern history, but on the other hand, boar is pretty tasty. It was not a common meal, but was certainly on the menu from time to time. Still an uncommon food today, I had the chance to try it in Japan once, as a friend’s girlfriend’s dad had shot one, and her mom cooked it up. It was quite good, and I would describe it as tasting somewhere between pork and beef. In the Edo period (1600-1868), people put forward what seems the thinnest of excuses for eating meat by referring to it in floral terms. Venison was called momiji (maple), horse was sakura (cherry blossom), and boar was botan (peony).

At the same time, the boar was associated with another flower. The card game hanafuda developed during the Edo period, latest in a long line of card games adapted from the cards brought by Europeans in the sixteenth century.  There are twelve suits (one for each month), each with a particular flower, and some with lines of poems or animals.  The suit of the seventh month all have hagi (bush clover) and one of them features a boar as well.

For Naruto fans out there, hanafuda was also the inspiration for the names of Team Asuma. In the game,  the boar, deer, and butterfly cards are a strong hand, known as ino-shika-cho. Team Asuma consists of Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji. Like the cards, they work best together.

Boar-n to Be Wild

young wild boar

Photo by Marcus Saul

Both English and Japanese speakers have come up with equally cute names for boar piglets. In English, hunters call them squeakers. In the first year of their life they have stripes running the length of their bodies, so in Japan people sometimes call them uribō “melon boy.”

By the age of 8-15 months, males leave to lead mostly solitary lives, while females usually live in groups called sounders (in English). During mating season, males will travel long distances to find a sounder. Once found they will violently chase off any rivals, a task for which they are well equipped.  They can run up to 40 kph. Males can grow 5-10% larger than females and 20-30% heavier. Of course, males also have tusks, but during the breeding season the males form a layer of subcutaneous tissue to protect their organs during fighting. A male sometimes mates with up to 5-10 sows. The female’s gestation period is only a little over four months, and she usually has litters of 4-6, starting the cycle anew.  Boars can live 10-14 years, but most only survive to the age of 4-5.

Boars are omnivorous. They eat nuts, berries, seeds, leaves, bark, twigs, and shoots, and dig up roots and tubers. They also eat worms, bugs, fish, shellfish, rodents, bird eggs, snakes, lizards, frogs and carrion. In other words, they aren’t picky porkers.


wild boar hunt print

Wild boars have always been a problem for Japanese farmers. They are known to eat crops and damage embankments by digging. In 2005, they were responsible for 26.1 percent of the 18.6 billion yen in crop damages by animals that year, topping the list. Some farmers erect knee-high fences of corrugated plastic or aluminum sheeting to protect their fields. However, this isn’t always effective.

In recent decades, and even more in the most recent one, boar attacks have increased. I was unable to find exact figures on the amount of attacks, so I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the problem, but all of my sources agree that they are on the rise. Let’s take a look at a few example cases:

Kobe, January, 2011: An elderly woman attempted to feed a boar, which bit off her finger. Feeding boars was actually made illegal nine years prior, but the penalties are minor and not well enforced.

Taishi, Hyogo Prefecture, April 6, 2013: Eight people, mostly senior citizens, were injured by a single, large boar. According to local police the animal first bit a woman in her yard, then headed east.  Tada Miyuki, 68, was talking with a friend on the street, when she was bowled over by the boar and broke two ribs. “The boar came almost out of nowhere, and before I knew it, it rushed toward me,” she said. Local authorities issued a warning to local residents, and later that day a boar suspected of being the culprit was found as roadkill nearby.

Kobe, June, 2014: Local media responded to sightings of a wild boar that attacked a teenage girl and an elderly man. In the video below, after knocking down a young woman, the boar then charges the cameraman. He does his best to avoid and fend off the boar, but sustains bites on both legs, requiring stitches. It was later found that the boar had four offspring, and the attacks were probably caused by motherly defensiveness. Authorities later disposed of the mother, with no word on what happened to the young.

Provoking the Piggies

boar warning sign

Historically, boars usually kept to the mountains and forests. What then, is the cause of the upturn in boar-on-human violence? The first reason for the increase in attacks is encroachment on boar territory by humans. In the past, most people lived on the plains where farming was easy, but now, with a much higher population, they are entering and developing boar turf more than ever, not so much for farming as for living.

Likewise, the boar population is increasing. Even restrained by Buddhist prohibitions on meat-eating, Japanese people hunted and ate boar more often in the past. Firearms are highly controlled in Japan, and I think it safe to say that demand for game meat decreased in the twentieth century, so hunting has dropped. In addition, climate change has affected the boar population.  Warmer winters have seen some boars producing two litters of young per year, rather than one. They also kept further south before because their short legs don’t do well in heavy snow, but with less snow they have been pushing northwards.

A reason that I haven’t seen cited, but have wondered about, is the lack of natural predators. Worldwide, wolves are the primary predator of boars, however, due to the introduction of rabies in the 18th century, encroachment, and overhunting; the last wolves in Japan went extinct in 1905. Not finding the relevant data, I can’t really say if this contributed to boar population growth, but I wonder.

Swine Solutions wild boar trap

There have been some responses to try and curb boar incidents. Feeding boars is illegal in some areas, but this can only be enforced so well, and boars will eat out of trash anyway. Another strategy would be to encourage more hunting. The overall number of hunters in Japan has fallen by half since the seventies and most of them are senior men. However, the number of women hunters in their 20s and 30s is holding steady, and even growing in Hokkaido. The Ministry of the Environment is actively trying to encourage young hunters to help control booming populations of both boar and deer. Still, it seems unlikely that hunting’s popularity will outstrip the boar reproduction rate anytime soon.

Boars can be dangerous, without a doubt, but they are just doing what they do. The burden lies on humans to find a way to rectify the harm they’ve done by destabilizing the environment in all the ways mentioned earlier. Hopefully, a way to achieve a balanced relationship is found before much more damage is done.

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A Neurotic’s Tips to Tokyo Travel Fri, 13 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 The first time I went to Japan was because I was invited to a conference. Despite studying the language and being interested in the food, gardens, and culture, I’d never had the nerve to plan my own trip. I was terrified of flying, but I managed it, and the experience was so awesome that I […]

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The first time I went to Japan was because I was invited to a conference. Despite studying the language and being interested in the food, gardens, and culture, I’d never had the nerve to plan my own trip. I was terrified of flying, but I managed it, and the experience was so awesome that I said, “I’m going back next year!”

Ten years later, I noticed that my passport was about to expire, and I’d never been back. Oops.

That inspired me to get off my butt and plan a trip. My fear of flying, and some of my Japanese, had faded over the years, but I made it and had an awesome two weeks. I swore I wasn’t going to let ten years pass before I went again. I went back the following year, and then this year too!

I’m not going to lie, going to Japan is stressful. I’m not the kind of person who rolls with the punches or craves spontaneity. I’m a nervous person, the kind who wants a Plan C, just in case my Plan B doesn’t pan out. And the thing is, even in a place where you speak the language, it can be hard to find your way around an unfamiliar city. Luckily, over the past three years I’ve gotten comfortable with a lot of things I used to find horribly nerve racking. If you’re like me, you might find some use in what I’ve figured out.


I feel confident in saying that Tokyo has the most amazing subway and train system on earth. Yes, okay, I haven’t traveled to that many places, but I was born and raised in New York. If their system is more complicated than that, it’s enough for me.

This is one of the things I love most about the city. However, it can be overwhelming even to this native New Yorker because some things just happen to work differently. Here are some things you should know.

“Transfer” Can Mean a lot of Things

Sometimes when it looks like you can change from one train or subway line to another on a map, this means you just cross the platform or go up or down one flight of stairs. That’s what someone like me would normally expect.

But sometimes you’ll be surprised to find that you have to pay the fare to exit the station, go outside, and enter another station. And sometimes that’s actually closer than a transfer within the same station. I’ve had to walk about 500 meters before, which is about 1650 feet, and it felt like about six freaking blocks. Seriously, to me, that does not count as the same train station.

This leads me to an important tip…

Use the Maps in the Stations

There are two kinds of maps/diagrams that you’ll find in many, if not all, stations.

One is a map of the station itself, like the photo above. You will want to check this out. Even in a small station, there are usually exits on both ends of the train, which can be many blocks apart. Great for the locals who thereby have an entrance closer to home; not so great if you’ve randomly walked a long way to one exit to find you’re at the wrong end and have to walk the whole distance back and then some. I love to walk, but, A, the weather in Tokyo is often something you want to minimize contact with and B, you’re more likely to get lost on the street. Don’t ask me how I know.

In large stations, you really need to check the map. Exits even farther apart in the stations that serve as major transfer points. If you’re changing trains, don’t expect to find your train by walking around randomly.

The other awesome poster that I learned to decipher on my last trip – one of the few common informational signs in Tokyo that isn’t bilingual – looks like this:


This one tells you what car you want to get on to make your trip the most efficient. You can look up your exit station and it will tell you what car is nearest your transfer point and how long the walk is. (It might take you a bit longer than what the sign says if you aren’t used to the walk.) You can also compare the walk time if there is more than one transfer point. This can save you hundreds of meters of walking.

Let’s take a closer look at the line labeled 21, close up.


You should be able to tell that if we want to change to the line symbolized by the letter F in a rust-colored circle, we need to get in car 9 or 10. When we get off it will be a six minute walk. If we want to change to JR, we need to get in car 2, 3, or 5. When we get off it will be a six minute walk as well.

Sometimes there’s more than one option for changing between certain lines, but the amount of walking to transfer can be quite different, making this information very useful. You can also see from the icons that at car 5 you’ll have to take an escalator but at cars 2 and 3 you’ll be near an elevator, useful to know if you’re toting a lot of luggage.

There’s even more info there if you can read Japanese, of course, but there’s a lot you can get out of it even if you don’t.

On the other hand, as far as maps go, let me warn you:

Don’t Believe the Train System Maps


That’s the Tokyo Metro map. Looks like it has all the trains anyone could need, right? Au contraire. I don’t think any one map you see contains every possible train. It’s probably impossible. There are at least two major companies in Tokyo, JR and Tokyo Metro, not to mention the many other independent companies, running intersecting train systems.

Because it’s all too much for one map, the maps can be misleading. This one has some non-Metro lines on it, but only a few of the stops on them are indicated. During one outing I went from 10 to 2 the long away around because the one stop that was crucial to me realizing that I could go a shorter way isn’t indicated on this map. It also doesn’t have the other main system, JR, included on it in any useful way.

There is an amazing app that helps people plan their trips – it gives you transfer points and even which trains to get on down to the exact minute, because you can do that in Tokyo. This is useful if you are going somewhere off the beaten path and your trip looks like it will need more than one transfer. If you have Japanese friends or hotel staff that can help, get them to use the app to find the shortest route. Or you can use the English version available for the Tokyo Metro. It doesn’t look like it includes every other train line, but should help.

I also recommend: trust but verify. The maps and diagrams in the stations do have awesome detail but I always made sure to ask if the train would be stopping at the stop I was going to, even if it seemed obvious. There are lots of lines with more than one type of express that skip different numbers of stops, and your stop might be one of them. Once I was told, “you have to change because the local doesn’t stop there, only the express does.” Seems impossible by definition, but it turned out to be true.

Finally, while I mostly take Tokyo Metro for my own convenience, I will note that JR can be preferable because, instead of being underground, you will have a view. For my first trip, I decided I’d only go places on the JR Yamanote Line, which goes in a circle around the city. I figured that way I’d always eventually get where I was going, even if I went the wrong way or missed my stop.

When we talk about trains this leads directly to…



In Tokyo, English is everywhere… until it isn’t.

The way English permeates Japanese culture is kind of weird if you think about it. Major companies like Japan Rail and the national broadcaster NHK use the Latin alphabet for their logos, and it’s not uncommon to see stores with names written in English with no Japanese along side. It’s as if Amtrak wrote its name in Cyrillic characters on their trains. There are a lot of conversations that could no doubt be had about this, but never mind that for now. On the surface, this abundance of English it’s a lifesaver for an English speaker. You just can’t get lulled into a false sense of security and count on it always being there for you.

The one place you can pretty much count on English is on the trains. Signs are all in kanji, kana, and English/romaji. Most trains also have electronic displays telling you what station you’re arriving at and bilingual recorded announcements of the same.

This is only true in the city though. Even stations at the edges of your Tokyo Metro map may have less English signage. Train lines that you’ve taken many times and that reliably have bilingual signs announcing the stations may suddenly stop providing them. Sometimes commuter trains that come in from way out in the sticks share the tracks and then run local. They won’t have the English you’re used to. I always find this unnerving, but don’t panic, really, you can read the sign when you get to your station and you’ll still have plenty of time to get off.

Also, the conductor’s live announcements are always in Japanese. Usually, he’s just saying vacuous comments like, “Welcome, thanks for riding!” and, “Don’t leave your bags behind when you get off.” But if he was announcing there was a breakdown or something, I’d be out of luck. To comfort myself, I always think of this thing that happens in New York City all the time when the conductor suddenly announces that the local train you’re on is going to skip all the stops to 125th street. The thing is, half the time the sound system is so bad that you can’t understand what he’s saying even though he’s speaking your native language. So being in Tokyo isn’t really much different. You can survive a missed stop or a missed announcement just like you would back home.

English on the Street


In case you don’t already know this, let me just be clear: Just because Japanese people study English in school does not mean they all speak or understand it. Of course there are many, many more people who can use a little English in Tokyo than there are people who can Japanese in, say, the United States. But you should not rely on finding one to make it to your destination.

Because of this, tourist maps written completely in English are practically useless. You won’t be able to ask anyone the way by pointing to your map. They won’t know what it says. Get a bilingual map whenever possible.

Speaking of street maps, most neighborhoods have awesome maps on big boards on the side of the road where you get off the train and often elsewhere. As you see from the photo above, these are bilingual. Thank you, Japan.

Finally, even if you haven’t studied Japanese, from my awkward experience, I recommend you take a look at the following:

99% of the time restrooms are labeled in a way you can understand, either in English or with illustrations. 1% of the time your friend will take you to a fancy restaurant where you better know the kanji for “man” and “woman” .

“Flush”   is also useful, so you don’t accidentally push the emergency call button in a public toilet in an out-of-the-way train station. Don’t ask me how I know.

Speaking of toilets, everyone tells you about the squat toilets and the high tech ones with heat and built in bidets. No one seems to tell you that many toilet handles gives you a “small” 小 and “large” 大 flush option labelled only in kanji. Sometimes they don’t even have handles, just buttons with those characters on them. This is to deal with either number 1 (小) or number 2 (大). You’re welcome.

Assorted Practical Details



If you’re American and you live in near a city, free wifi might be something you’re used to. This is not a common thing in Japan. There are many wifi hotspots, but people log into their own service providers. Since you don’t live in Japan, you probably don’t have your own account with a provider, so these are useless to you.

This is is one of the big things foreigners complain about. There’s been progress even in the year since my last trip, but while there are more options, they are all still pretty complicated. You can rent a smartphone, rent a portable wifi router (Try herehere, here, and here), or download an app just for tourists that lets you access certain tourist-only hotspots for two weeks. There are also spots that offer wifi, but you have to enter all kinds of information to basically sign up for an account on the spot.

You can learn more about these online, but be sure to make arrangements in advance. If you don’t, I have one word for you: Starbucks. Much as I hated the idea of spending my precious time in Japan in an American chain, sometimes when you’re exhausted there’s nothing more comforting than a nice Starbucks with the closest thing you’re going to get to American-style wifi. To use it, you just need to log into your Google account or some other popular service. And, really, just look at the photo above of the view from the lovely Starbucks in Ueno Park. Don’t you want to be there right now?


Trash cans are as rare as unicorns. They are also really complicated. Be prepared to carry your trash with you for a long time.

Paper towels and napkins are rare. Japanese ladies carry a small hand towel, which is also useful for sweat when the weather is hot. It’s a bit of a pain, but since there’s no place to throw stuff away, it’s a good idea to carry one.

Nice restaurants give you one of those rolled-up moist washrags before the meal, but informal places will give you a wrapped wet-wipe. If you don’t use it right away, keep it. Same for the tissues you’ll see handed out with ads at train stations and on the streets. They come in handy.


As we learned in a recent Tofugu article, Tokyo is essentially a tropical destination. This has some practical ramifications.

There are entire stores that sell only umbrellas. There are channels along the stairs in every Metro station to drain water. These small details should be obvious warning signs. There’s always at least one day of my trip where I regret not bringing waterproof shoes.

The summer is hot and humid enough to kill you, seriously, and I say this as someone who lives in Washington DC. Even in October there will be days when you will still be able to wear a t-shirt comfortably. A tour guide once told me that the leaves don’t start to change to fall colors until December.

In general, Japanese people seem to be much more tolerant of discomfort than typical Americans, so unless you’re in a hotel room where you control the temperature, the indoors will probably always be too hot or too cold. Also, air conditioning can sometimes seem like a purely theoretical notion compared to the way it’s used in the US.

Finally, and once again for the Americans…

Keep Left!

You may think you don’t need to worry about this crazy driving-on-the-left thing because you won’t be driving, you’re going to the city with the most awesome public transit in the world after all. Sorry to burst your bubble.

First of all, don’t forget to look to the left first when you cross the street. You’re going to forget this sometimes in your jet-lagged state so I can’t emphasize this enough.

Second, people don’t just drive on the left, they walk on the left too. If you’re headed straight for someone walking towards you, you might instinctively step to the right to avoid them, which won’t help when they instinctively step to their left. To avoid head-on sidewalk collisions you need to swerve the opposite direction from what comes naturally.

When going up and down stairs and in crowded train passageways people also walk to the left. Except, of course, when they don’t. You will randomly come across stairways explicitly labeled “Keep Right Here” for no reason I could ever figure out. I can only assume that they’re trying to keep us tourists just a little off-balance, because in the end, what’s the point of flying to the other side of the planet if you don’t get pushed out of your comfort zone a bit?

That’s all I have for now. Perhaps I will learn something new the next time I go back. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Do you have any Tokyo travel tips of your own? What about the rest of Japan? And is there anything you felt like a genius for figuring out? Share in the comments!

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Japan’s Sacrificial Lamb – The Okinawa Military Base Controversy Wed, 11 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Despite its small size, Okinawa sure has giant problems. Due to its strategic location, Okinawa has struggled as a pawn in Japanese and US affairs since before World War II. Today, the independent kingdom turned prefecture houses the bulk of US military installations in Japan. For Okinawa, the situation brings a host of problems including increased crime and environmental damage. […]

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Despite its small size, Okinawa sure has giant problems. Due to its strategic location, Okinawa has struggled as a pawn in Japanese and US affairs since before World War II.

Today, the independent kingdom turned prefecture houses the bulk of US military installations in Japan. For Okinawa, the situation brings a host of problems including increased crime and environmental damage.

A history of resistance, including protests and even a riot, have done little to change Okinawa’s situation. However, its native population refuses to give up, voicing their frustrations in a recent local election that could change the face of Okinawa and its relationships with Japan and the US.

Why has controversy embroiled such a small group of islands? Can a single prefecture stave off the wills of two world powers? What does the future hold for the former Ryuku Kingdom, known today as Okinawa?

Okinawa Elects to Resist

Okinawa Military Base Controversy

Photo by Nathan Keirn

On November 16, Okinawans elected Takeshi Onaga as their new governor. Onaga’s election bears special significance because he opposes current Prime Minister Abe’s platform of continued US military presence in the prefecture. With the US planning to build a new military facility in Nago City, the time for Okinawa to act is now.

The election signifies Okinawa’s continued resistance to developments that guarantee US presence in the prefecture for decades to come. Matthew M. Burke and Chiyomi Sumida of Stars and Stripes write, “The former Naha mayor ran on a platform of blocking the move of flight operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in central Okinawa to an expanded Camp Schwab in the remote north, a move seen as pivotal to the U.S. realignment of forces in the region and mutual defense agreements.”

Onaga’s first order of business is blocking the construction of the new military facility. His next move would be limiting US presence in Okinawa or removing it altogether.

Although the US military expansion in Okinawa lacks resistance in Japan as a whole, local opposition has grown. “He (Onaga) defeated incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima by a huge margin — 100,000 more votes of 620,000 cast”(Burke). Onaga’s recent victory represent’s the people’s will, a majority of which want change.

With many Okinawans opposed to the US and the Japanese presence there, one might wonder how Okinawa ended up in its precarious situation in the first place.

A victim of its size and lack of power, Okinawa had no choice.

The Ryukyu Kingdom

Okinawa Military Base Controversy

Photo by Shogyoku

Prior to the seventeenth century Okinawa functioned as an independent nation known as The Ryukyu Kingdom. Extending south into the East China Sea, the distance of this string of islands from Japan protected it from Japanese interference for centuries.

Ryukyu’s earliest ties lay in the west, with its influential trade partner China. As a result, Ryukyu culture developed a distinct Chinese flavor. Although Ryukyu’s king pledged loyalty to the Chinese emperor, the kingdom remained an independent nation with control over its own destiny (OPN-LA).

Japan’s Satsuma han (feudal domains ruled by daimyo in the Edo period) changed that in 1609 when they invaded Amami, Ryukyu’s northern islands. Satsuma exploited Ryukyu, forcing its people into sugar production.

Islanders underwent a period that they refer to as ‘Sato Jigoku,’ or ‘Sugar Hell.’ The Amami islands… became integral to the growth of Satsuma’s economy and consequently to it’s growth in military strength. (OPN-LA)

However, with Satsuma concentrated in Amami, the rest of Ryukyu remained relatively free from interference and the kingdom’s trade relations with China continued.

The 1854 arrival of Commodore Perry’s infamous black ships would help bring any semblance of Ryukyu independence to an end. In Crossfire Couples, Chris Ames notes that Perry created the first US base in Ryukyu when he stopped there on his way to Tokyo Bay in 1853 (199). The site would serve as a docking and supply station and signified the US’s first footprint on the islands.

The first in a long and distressing history of US military abuses occurred soon after Perry’s arrival when seaman William Board attacked, and according to many sources raped, an elderly Ryukyu women (Ames 199).

Although Commodore Perry had little influence in Ryukyu itself, his arrival in Japan ushered in a period of modernization known as the Meiji era. The Meiji government’s goal to become a world power ended any semblance of Ryukyu independence. OPN-LA explains,

Japan felt the intense need to develop some form of geo-political buffer zone to protect itself from possible military encroachments by western powers. The Ryukyu Islands presented the perfect candidate for such protection, by providing some form of security on Japan’s southern front… Japan forced the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879… ending the ruse of Ryukyuan sovereignty.

As an partially independent kingdom and trade-partner to China, Ryukyu represented a legal wrinkle that was ironed out in its transformation to Okinawa Prefecture. The prefecture has been forced to bend to the whims of Japanese and US interests ever since.

World War II Linchpin

Okinawa Military Base Controversy

Photo by W.wolny

Overshadowed by the commemoration of Iwo Jima and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Battle of Okinawa occupies a minor page in American historical lore. But it was a vicious battle.

Doug Bandow of Forbes explains,

The so-called ‘Typhoon of Steel,’ as the American invasion campaign was called, ran from April through June in 1945. Combat was brutal. Estimated civilian casualties ran up to 150,000.

The battle also saw astronomical military losses. In his book, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan Samuel Walker writes,

The combined American casualties of 12,000 killed and missing and another 60,000 wounded far exceeded those of any other battle in the Pacific war… Japanese military forces suffered at least 70,000 deaths. (51)

Once occupied, US forces had planned to use Okinawa as a point of entry into Japan. But the Battle of Okinawa’s heavy casualties and the Japanese force’s refusal to surrender made the US second-guess its invasion plan, which was rendered unnecessary after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s subsequent surrender.

Although it did not serve the US as planned, Okinawa became a “veritable colony” (Bandow). The US military built installations as a measure to prevent a Japanese military resurgence (Sarantake 62). Okinawa remained under US occupation until 1972 when it was returned to Japan. The US military presence remained and continues today.

The former independent nation remains in a precarious position – under Japanese control and home to the US military. And despite resistance, neither world power wants to relinquish its position.

How Japan Benefits

Photo by BotMultichillT

Japan’s lack of allies and military power increases the significance of its alliance with the US. But Japan has to give in order to receive, and the US won’t lend its “services” without cooperation. In order to reap the benefits of US military presence, Japan must allow US bases on its soil. And for the small, resource-poor nation the benefits are many.

Japan lives in the shadows of neighboring world powers – China, Russia and North Korea. By allowing US bases on its soil, Japan gains vital military presence and protection. Any hostile action taken against Japan must be carefully considered thanks to the threat of instant US military retaliation.

US military presence in Japan may alleviate the worries of Japan’s neighbors as well. Doug Bandow writes that by preventing “a rearmed, resurgent Japan,”

The (US/Japan) alliance also eases Tokyo’s diplomatic burden, which otherwise would include reassuring neighbors still obsessed with Imperial Japan’s military depredations… It is a claim that even Japanese officials have used on occasion: protect us, since surely you don’t want the Imperial Japanese navy wandering the Pacific again.

Reliance on the US military eases the burden Japan would face if it had to maintain its own armed forces. Instead, those finances and resources can be focused elsewhere, providing economic relief.

How the US Benefits

The United States also enjoys its alliance with Japan. Located just outside the Asian mainland, bases in Japan give the US a military presence in East Asia. If the situation calls, the US can respond with immediate action.

By providing Japan with military protection, the US need not worry about Japan acting on its own. The partnership has been described as the “spear and shield.”Ankit Panda of The Diplomat explains,

The United States’ formidable offensive capabilities were the ‘spear’ to be paired with Japan’s ‘shield.’ After all, Japan, with its aptly named Self-Defense Forces, could hardly aspire to much more given the circumstances.

But the alliance isn’t all love and roses. No one wants a foreign military in their backyard, no matter how great the benefits might be. But what if there was a way Japan could enjoy the benefits of US military protection, without suffering the problems associated with military presence?

There is. And it’s called Okinawa.

Okinawa became mainland Japan’s sacrificial lamb. By allowing the US military to build most of its bases in Okinawa, Japan enjoys the advantages of US military presence without the disadvantages, which occur hundreds of miles south, far from the Japanese mainland.

Okinawa’s burden hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Although nearly six of ten Japanese is critical of the resulting burden on Okinawa,” Doug Bandow points out, “none of them wants another U.S. base near their neighborhood.”

The US has bases scattered throughout Japan but Okinawa houses the biggest concentration, earning it the moniker of “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier”(Harumi Ozawa). Over half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan according to AFP. And one Okinawa government website states that Okinawa is home to over thirty training facilities which translates into almost 74 percent of the overall US military presence in Japan.

And so Okinawa remains, a land torn between an independent tradition, Japanese control and US occupation.

Why Okinawa Wants the USA Out

Photo by LERK

Foreign military presence brings a host of problems to any location. But this is especially true in Okinawa, thanks to its small geographic size and large concentration of US bases.

Doug Bandow paints a picture of occupied Okinawa,

Long fences separate residents from property owned by their ancestors. Air bases crowd civilian neighborhoods. Prime beaches remain under U.S. military control. Thousands of young, aggressive foreign men transform local life—and often not for the good.

Okinawans must find it hard to consider the positives of military presence while confronted by the negative aspects in their everyday lives.

Military Accidents

Residents worry about military bases located near cities and residential areas. Aircraft bring noise pollution and the threat of major of accidents – a threat that has become an unsettling reality.

The worst accident occurred in 1959 when a military jet crashed into a local elementary school. “It was a major disaster,” Eiko Asato writes, “17 people were killed, 121 people were injured (wikipedia lists 210 injuries), 17 private houses, one public hall and three classrooms were completely burned.”

Another accident occurred in 2004 when a military helicopter crashed into a university. As recently as 2014 a helicopter crashed due to pilot error.

However aircraft pose less of a risk than frequent traffic crashes, which see nearly 200 fatal accidents a year (Burke). The most famous incident occurred in late 1970 when intoxicated military personnel struck an Okinawa man with their car. Building frustration exploded into attacks on military personnel and buildings that what would be known as the Koza riot.

Environmental Impact

The US military presence also has a sizable environmental impact. “Adding another military facility to Okinawa by destroying the beautiful water of Henoko is something we should never let happen” Onaga declared (Burke).

The military builds over pristine land and docks at Okinawa’s beautiful beaches. Construction even puts native species at risk, including the endangered dugong (Mitchell). Okinawa’s pristine beaches, mountains and forests act as an economic asset, attracting tourists and therefore outside money.


Instead of pleasure-seeking tourists with open pocketbooks, Okinawa brings in US military personnel. Unlike vacationers visiting by choice, soldiers stationed in Okinawa become bored, homesick and frustrated. At times these feelings escalate into aggression or crime.

According to an Okinawa government report on US military crime, traffic accidents make up the bulk of reported problems, with robbery accounting for most of the rest. But in regards to the US military, horrible acts of violence overshadow all other crimes and rape cases by military personnel have occurred with disgusting frequency over the years.

 Asato Eiko of the Transnational Institute reports,

According to a report entitled “Post-War Crimes against Women of Okinawa by US Soldiers” by the Association of Women in Action Against Military and Military Bases, the number of rape cases between 1945 and 1997 was about 180, of which 22 were committed against young women less than 20 years of age.

The disturbing trend first received major publicity in 1955, when a US soldier raped and murdered a six year old girl before disposing of her disfigured body. Outrage reached fever pitch when locals discovered that the crime would be handled by the US military and its courts. Thanks to extraterritorial rights perpetrators would avoid the local justice system and possible death penalty (Asato).

In 1995 the planned abduction and gang rape of a twelve year old girl again sparked outrage among Okinawa’s residents. In 2008 a marine Staff Sargent was convicted of sexually abusing a fourteen-year-old girl (Onishi). The most recent case occurred in 2012, when two soldiers making a brief stop in Okinawa robbed and raped a Japanese woman.

Military Efforts to Improve

The crimes and overall belligerent attitude taken by US military personnel have done nothing to help US, Japanese and Okinawan relations. However, the US military has taken preventative efforts after the 2012 incident. Travis J. Tritten of Stars and Stripes writes,

Strict new liberty and alcohol rules coincided with a historic drop last year (2013) in crimes committed by U.S. personnel on Okinawa… Okinawa-based troops were banned from all off-base drinking for the first half of 2013…. The Marine Corps leadership on Okinawa has also emphasized cultural awareness training for newly arriving service members.

Recent rules have decreased crime and other incidents. But how long will they last? The quick easing of drinking bans doesn’t bolster Okinawans’ confidence in the US military’s commitment to the changes.

The Trouble Continues

Photo by Nathan Keirn

As an elected official that promises to represent the will of those that voted for him, Onaga’s election has brought hope to many Okinawans.

“We’ll break through the wall that the Japanese and American government have put up,” Onaga declared (Johnston).

“It is against the spirit of democracy to ignore the consensus of the local public. It is outrageous for the government to ignore it,” law professor Hideki Shibutani of Rikkyo University in Tokyo said (Burke).

But not everyone wants the US military out.

Many Japanese believe that Japan needs the US military protection. Recent controversy over disputed islands has forced Japan to grow uneasy in the face of Chinese and Russian encroachment.

Some Okinawa residents hope the US base will bring economic opportunity to the struggling prefecture. Shop owners hope the military bases will bring business. Other unemployed residents hope it’ll bring construction jobs, among other opportunities (sbs.dateline).

Despite the noise caused by Onaga and his supporters, prior agreements will make it difficult to halt construction. Matthew M. Burke and Chiyomi Sumida write,

Despite the rhetoric, the Marine Corps and the Japanese government have said they remain committed to the relocation. Legal scholars said while there is a chance Onaga could block the move, it is slim.

Onaga’s recent election and ongoing protests have called renewed attention to the longstanding issues and human rights violations that have defined Okinawa’s tragic history. As the three-way dance continues we are left to wonder, will 2015 finally bring relief to Okinawa? Or will the people continue to be ignored?

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Japonism: How Japan Shaped Modern Art Fri, 06 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Art is pretty awesome. One of the most awesome things about art is how it can bring people together. Throughout history, neighbouring peoples have constantly exchanged aesthetic ideas, inspiring the form and content of each others’ work. Art has consistently transcended political conflict, with even the bitterest of rivals sharing innovations. A prominent and relatively […]

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Art is pretty awesome.

One of the most awesome things about art is how it can bring people together. Throughout history, neighbouring peoples have constantly exchanged aesthetic ideas, inspiring the form and content of each others’ work. Art has consistently transcended political conflict, with even the bitterest of rivals sharing innovations.


A prominent and relatively recent example is the modern diffusion of Japanese art across the Western world. While Chinese art has been known in Europe since ancient times, the influence of East Asian aesthetics truly skyrocketed in the nineteenth century, when Japanese prints arrived en masse to shops across Western Europe. As we’ll see, many of the biggest names in the modern art scene received gigantic bites from the Japanese art bug.

Lines of Communication


Direct European contact with Japan dates to the 16th century, with the arrival of Portuguese traders, followed by those of other European nations. Japan was thereby introduced to Christianity, as well as European technologies like ship-building and guns. Naturally, many works of Western art were also imported.

This initial phase of Euro-Japanese relations is known as the Nanban period, where “Nanban” means “southern barbarians”. The term “Nanban art” denotes Japanese art of this period that reflects Western influence, including works of painting, sculpture, and furniture. Yet barbarian influence was quite limited overall, leaving native Japanese aesthetics fully intact.

Meanwhile, works of Japanese art were carried back to Europe. The impact of such works on Western artists was significant, notably in the field of ceramics. But this phase of Japanese influence on the West was a mere trickle compared with the flood to come.

In the early 1600s, Japan’s affair with foreign traders seriously cooled off. The Tokugawa, who ruled the country for upwards of three centuries, were somewhat averse to contact with the outside world; anyone caught trying to leave the country, for instance, could be executed. With policies like this in place, European residents and trade flows, though not eradicated, became increasingly rare.


Then, in the late nineteenth century, America sent a group of friendly visiting-ships into Uraga Harbour. Using some very persuasive arguments, the Americans convinced Japan to re-open relations with the outside world. From this point onward, Japanese culture would radiate throughout the West.

So It Begins


“Modern art”, which dates roughly from the late nineteenth century onward, sought to break away from traditional aesthetics in favour of novel means of expression. In search of fresh ideas, many modern artists looked to native artistic traditions around the world, from Sub-Saharan masks, to Mesoamerican temples, to Oceanic tiki sculptures. Modern networks of transportation and communication accelerated these waves of cultural fusion.

Japanese influence on Western art, often known as “Japonism”, manifested most vigorously in France (followed closely by England and the Netherlands), especially among painters of the impressionist movement. While inspiration was drawn from imported Japanese ceramics, bronzes, textiles, and fans, the foremost medium of influence was the woodblock print. Japanese prints, also known as ukiyo-e, had the advantage of cheap mass-production, making them universally accessible both at home and abroad.

So what form did this influence take, specifically? To start with, European artists often lifted distinctly Japanese imagery from ukiyo-e, grafting them into their own works. Cherry blossoms, lanterns, kimonos, and temples would be four primary examples.

More deeply, ukiyo-e helped reshape the techniques and guiding principles of Western art. The long-entrenched standard of realistic shading and perspective was finally overturned, partly due to Japanese prints. After all, while physical realism is a fine way of doing things, why should it be the only way? The upheavals of modern art were driven largely by the notion that art is about communicating ideas, and that in order to communicate a full range of ideas, one must be open to a full range of forms of expression.

Ukiyo-e typically feature prominent outlines (rooted in the Japanese reverence for calligraphy), and areas of flat, vibrant colour. Shadows are generally omitted altogether. Early modern artists realized that, far from hindering Japanese art, these unrealistic techniques could unlock unique aesthetic experiences.


Woodblock printing was also influential in terms of composition; that is, the overall arrangement of a picture. Traditionally, Western artists laid out scenes carefully to achieve certain effects; Renaissance painters typically sought a balanced, harmonious arrangement, while Baroque painters often went for a sense of unrest and movement. Japanese artists took a more subtle, organic approach, opting for asymmetry, often with the principal figure or object positioned off-centre. Many ukiyo-e scenes are presented from a diagonal view, and figures are often partially “cut off” at the edge of the picture.

Traditionally, Western art was dominated by standard “appropriate” subjects, which generally meant either biblical or classical; while some artists did portray scenes of everyday life, these were widely considered inferior. Part of the great revolution of modern art was the elevation of everyday life to first-class artistic consideration. Modern artists grew fond of capturing urban life, including streets, parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues. This everyday focus was partly fueled by (guess who?) ukiyo-e, in which these very subjects had long been explored.


Had enough background info yet? It’s time to roll out some concrete examples. And why don’t we look at ukiyo-e artists and modern Western painters side-by-side, to really bring out the influences and whatnot?

Suzuki Harunobu / Edgar Degas

Suzuki Harunobu is known as the founder of polychrome ukiyo-e. French artist Edgar Degas is considered one of the great founders of the impressionist movement. Both men are known for their many portrayals of women, whether at home, socializing, or as professional performers.


This Harunobu print depicts a young couple at home; the man kneels, reading a scroll, while the woman stands at the doorway. In terms of ukiyo-e influence on early modern art, the most striking feature of this print is its composition. Note the abundance of diagonal lines, along with the sense we are looking down on the scene from a height. The overall arrangement is asymmetrical, with elements positioned in a plausibly natural manner.


This relatively simple painting illustrates Degas’ love of ukiyo-e style composition. The view is elevated and diagonal to the architecture, providing interesting diagonal lines. The scene is sharply asymmetrical, with the right-hand figure cut off by a wall, similar to the partially hidden woman in Harunobu’s print.

Impressionist painters, who seek to capture the overall impression of a momentary scene, don’t concern themselves with sharp, detailed realism. Some parts of impressionist paintings border on abstraction, such as the background behind the two gentlemen in Degas’ painting. Note that a similarly abstract background is found in the top left of the Harunobu print, behind the house.

Kitagawa Utamaro / Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, arguably the greatest American impressionist painter, is known particularly for her portrayals of women, including mothers with children. Ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamoro, whose work Cassatt collected, is known for these same subjects.


Here we have a typical, everyday mother-child scene. Well okay, maybe not completely typical. The child is Kintarō, a popular Japanese folk hero with super strength, while the woman is Yama-uba, Kintarō’s “mountain witch” mother (biological or adoptive, depending on which version of the story you hear).

But still, it’s basically a mother-child scene. Note the warm psychological connection between the pair, as well as the close-up view (such that most of Yama-uba’s body is cut off) and the off-centre positioning.


This Cassatt painting depicts a sensitive mother-child scene in typical sketchy impressionist style. Just like Kintarō and Yama-uba, the figures exchange an affectionate gaze; the child’s hands rest on her mother’s embracing arms, just as Kintarō’s left hand grasps his mother’s wrist. Like Yama-uba, this mother leans at a diagonal, only back instead of forward.

Utagawa Hiroshige / Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Hiroshige, known particularly for scenes of nature, was a master of capturing weather and the seasons. His work became a major influence for landscape painters of the impressionist movement.


This print, which features a prominent figure over a landscape background, is from a series Hiroshige created while travelling along the Tōkaidō, the principal Japanese road of the age. Once again, diagonal lines are abundant, drawing the eye in criss-cross fashion across the picture. The mountain and tree are both cut off at the edges, and the colouring is mostly flat and contained within prominent outlines.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painter and printmaker, is perhaps the most iconic ambassador of the bohemian artist lifestyle. His depictions of Paris night life and theatre drew partly from ukiyo-e, which often feature equivalent scenes of Japanese recreation, including kabuki theatre. Toulouse-Lautrec eagerly embraced the vivid colouring and dramatic curved forms of Japanese prints.


In addition to the age-old art of painting, modern technology allowed a new medium to flourish: the poster. Toulouse-Lautrec is considered one of the leading figures in the “golden age” of poster advertising, which spanned the late nineteenth century. The actress in this Toulouse-Lautrec theatre advertisement, executed in bold outlines and flat colours, features a sinuous, diagonal posture that echoes the Hiroshige print above.

Katsushika Hokusai / Vincent Van Gogh

Hokusai is probably the most famous of ukiyo-e artists, due to his most famous work: The Great Wave, from a series of prints focusing on Mount Fuji. Along with landscapes and seascapes, Hokusai is known for his closeup studies of plants and animals. Landscapes were also among the favoured subjects of Van Gogh, the troubled Dutch artist, for whom ukiyo-e provided immense inspiration.


This print undulates with a gentle asymmetry, in the form of clustered houses and rolling hills. As usual, colours are few in number and flat in texture, with some parts of the scene left strategically uncoloured. Hills are evoked with simple outlines, rounded out with lateral sub-lines and vegetation.


Like Hokusai’s print, this Van Gogh painting features a rolling asymmetry of hills and vegetation, executed in a simple, bright colour scheme. The angled rows of haystacks lend the scene a vigorous bottom-left to top-right momentum. Outlines are thick, and there is little in the way of shading or shadows.

A Universal Language

Art of the late nineteenth century laid the foundation of modern art, which continues to this day. Even as the early twentieth century was ravaged by war, artistic endeavour pierced the darkness with lights of cooperation and understanding between kindred spirits across the world. Ukiyo-e was, and continues to be, very much one of those lights.

Art really is pretty awesome.

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 3: The Last Stand Wed, 04 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the history of Japanese Christianity that bring us here! When last we left our holy heroes, the situation for Christians in Japan had gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.  The Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians, largely out of a fear that Christianity would […]

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Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the history of Japanese Christianity that bring us here!

When last we left our holy heroes, the situation for Christians in Japan had gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.  The Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians, largely out of a fear that Christianity would subvert the order and hierarchy that they had struggled for so long to create and maintain.  In 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu issued a proclamation expelling Catholic missionaries from Japan.  Japanese Christians were forced to go underground, becoming known as Hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan).  Under successive shoguns, persecution intensified.  The final straw was to come in 1637, when a revolt broke out in Kyushu.

We’re Not Gonna Take It!


Photo by 663highland

The Shimabara Peninsula lies on the western part of Kyushu, somewhat out of the way.  The lord of the area, Arima Harunobu (1576-1612) was a zealous Christian, and after Hideyoshi’s 1587 expulsion edict, many Jesuits escaped to Harunobu’s domain.  He was later involved in the corruption scandal of 1610, stripped of his lands and ordered to commit seppuku.  He was replaced by Matsukura Shigemasa.

The life of a Japanese peasant was generally filled with a good deal of suffering.  It wasn’t unusual for a lord to treat them poorly.  Yet, Matsukura Shigemasa was exceptionally cruel.  He taxed everything, even births and deaths, and didn’t take kindly to those who couldn’t pay.  Being thrown into a water-filled prison was perhaps the best one could hope for.  His most notorious punishment was called the raincoat dance (mino odori), so named because the victim, wearing a straw raincoat, was doused in oil and set on fire, causing them to dance about.  Sometimes the family members of those who failed to pay were taken hostage or punished as well.  In 1637, when one of Shigemasa’s men assaulted a farmer’s pregnant wife the people finally snapped.

Rebel, Rebel


Map of Hara Castle and surrounding area. Just south of the peninsula, you can see two large Dutch ships, which fired upon the rebels on behalf of the shogunate (there was a lot of Protestant-Catholic tension at this time).

The violence quickly spread from the original village to others on the Shimabara Peninsula, becoming a serious uprising.  The oppressed marched on Shimabara Castle, but couldn’t take it.  Meanwhile, the peasants offshore on the Amakusa Islands also revolted.  After conferring, they decided to come together at Hara Castle in the south of the peninsula.  The vacant castle’s coastal position made it quite the defensible base for the rebels.  It was generally illegal for peasants to own weapons, but the rebels still managed to get a hold of some.  Still, many had to make do with farm implements, or even sticks and stones (which we all know may break some bones, but are not the first choice for battle).

You may be wondering where Christianity comes into this rebellion.  The truth is that it may not have had that much to do with Christianity, at least initially.  It had much more to do with the extreme pressure and cruelty that Matsukura Shigemasa inflicted on the peasantry.  However, after converging at Hara Castle, the movement acquired some Christian leadership.  There were a handful of Christian ronin (masterless samurai), and at the top, a mysterious youth.


This young man was Amakusa Shiro (c. 1621-1638).  Born on one of the Amakusa Islands, he was the son of a former Konishi clan retainer (the family’s Christian head, Konishi Yukinaga was killed for picking the wrong side at Sekigahara).  He studied with Jesuits in Nagasaki, and according to local lore, made a name for himself preaching equality and dignity for the poor on the island of Oyano.  Little else is known about him, but during the rebellion his followers began to think he was the one foretold years earlier by Father Marco Ferraro, a priest who worked in the area before being expelled.  He said that, “After 25 years a child of God will appear and save the people.”

The rebels were able to hold out for a surprisingly long time. However, as the winter months wore on, hunger took its toll and the defenses were breached.  The victors spent three days slaughtering the rebels.  An estimated total of 37,000 were killed, including Amakusa Shiro, and as John Dougill points out, “It’s invidious to play the numbers game when it concerns the dead, but the number killed at Shimabara is almost identical to the 39,000 who died in the Nagasaki atomic bomb.”  10,000 heads were staked up around the castle, and 3,300 were sent to Nagasaki for the same treatment: a clear warning to the people.

Following the Shimabara Rebellion, the Tokugawa took the final step in guarding the country against foreign subversion by expelling all Europeans from Japan and banning their reentry on pain of death.  The one exception to this was the tiny island of Dejima, just off Nagasaki’s coast, where an extremely limited number of Dutch ships were allowed to dock and trade.

Methods of “the Man”


Photo by Chris73

In the decades prior to and following the Shimabara Rebellion, the shogunate came up with some strategies for ensuring the loyalty of its subjects and rooting out Hidden Christians.  In 1635, the government began to require that all subjects register themselves at a local Buddhist temple, which in 1666 became an annual requirement.  Apart from this annual registration, it probably wasn’t necessary to regularly visit the temple.  However, groups of households were organized to observe and report on one another, and if one person was exposed as a Christian their family would also suffer the consequences.  To avoid suspicion, most Hidden Christians needed to have a Buddhist funeral as well.

Another set of tools at the shogunate’s disposal were fumi-e “stepping-on pictures”.  These were small pictures of Jesus or Mary, usually made of metal, stone, or wood.  As the name implied, they were designed to be trod upon, a sign that one held no loyalty to the forbidden faith.  Fumi-e were first used in Nagasaki in 1628, and became a staple of anti-Christian procedures.  The practice even became known to some back in Europe.  In Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Japan is the only real country visited by the protagonist, who asks the emperor “to excuse my performing the ceremony imposed upon my countrymen of trampling on the crucifix.”

In 1640, a central prosecution office (shumon aratame yaku) was established, with branch offices in each domain.  Many Christians were killed, their numbers dropping from 300,000 in 1612 to half that or fewer by 1625.  Not only that, but the government knew that if they could make Chirstians publicly recant their faith it would be far more effective than simply creating more martyrs.  Thus, various methods of persuasion including horrific tortures were inflicted on many arrested Christians.

Practices of the Persecuted


Photo by PHGCOM

A Kirishitan statue of Mary disguised as Kannon

In the face of such persecution, how did Hidden Christians stay hidden?  In Part 1, we already saw that there were many misunderstandings in the early days of conveying Christianity to the Japanese people.  After the banning of the religion and expulsion of foreigners, the Hidden Christians were left without clergy, leading them to develop some very unorthodox practices.

Without a clergy, the only sacrament left to the Hidden Christians was baptism, as lay people were allowed to perform this in the absence of a priest. Thus baptisms became quite important. They also made statues of the Virgin Mary that look nearly indistinguishable from the Buddhist bodhisattva, Kannon, or Jesus statues disguised as Jizo.  In fact, Mary became a major focal point of Hidden Christians’ practice.  Though everyone was required to register at a Buddhist temple, in some more rural localities the Buddhist clergy knew there were Hidden Christians, but looked the other way.  Still, the consequences of being Christian could be so severe that they learned to be extremely secretive.

Perhaps the most important part of daily practice was the recitation of prayers.  Called orashio (after the Latin oratio), these were Catholic prayers such as The Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary.  They were passed down orally to avoid detection. Those that had been translated into Japanese changed little over the centuries, but not so for those in Latin or Portuguese.  For example, “Ave Maria gratia lena” became “Abe Mariya hashiyabena.”  In fact, many modern practitioners don’t know what some of their prayers mean.  Another important prayer was the Konchirisan (Contrition), which must have assuaged the guilt felt for stepping on fumi-e, holding Buddhist funerals, and all the other compromises Hidden Christians were forced to make in order to keep practicing their faith secretly.

The Second Coming of Japanese Christianity


This state of affairs more or less continued throughout the remainder of Tokugawa rule, with Hidden Christians paying lip service to Buddhism to satisfy the authorities, while practicing Christianity in secret.  During the 19th century, even before the reopening of the country to the West, the shogunate began to become lax in enforcing many of the policies they had crafted to carefully maintain the hierarchy of society, including the hunting of Christians.  Of course the U.S. finally did force Japan to open up in the 1850s, then the Tokugawa fell in 1867, and the modern Meiji government was established the following year.

Foreign Christians reentered the country, and in 1871 religious freedom became law.  Hidden Christians revealed their existence, to the surprise of many at home and abroad.  This didn’t mean things became easy.  Many Hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church.  Many chose not to, largely out of respect for the practices of their ancestors, and a feeling that if they abandoned them it would be admitting they were wrong.  In addition, as the climate became more and more infused by nationalist State Shinto ideals, being Christian continued to be a liability until the end of World War II.

Considering Japanese Christians have only had about the last 70 years or so to make up for roughly 350 years of persecution, it may not be that surprising that Japan’s Christian population is so small.  I won’t dwell on the modern period and reintroduction of Christianity, as the main focus of these articles was meant to be the Hidden Christians.  Today there are very few carrying on the Hidden Christian traditions, mostly in Kyushu, particularly on Ikitsuki Island.  It’s hard to know exact numbers, but one estimate is that only about 500 practicing members remain on Ikitsuki.  Young people today are generally neither interested in carrying on Kirishitan traditions, nor in staying in the rural areas where the religion survived.  It seems quite likely that the religion will die out within the next few decades.  Even if their beliefs are no longer practiced, the history of the Kakure Kirishitan will remain.  Even in three articles, I was only able to highlight some of the major points in Japan’s Christian history.  I urge everyone to read more on the subject.

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  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu: Gateway to Japan, A Concise History. Folkstone: Global Oriental Ltd, 2009.
  • Dougill, John. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2012.
  • Elisonas, Jurgis. “Christianity and the Daimyo.” in vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Japan, edited by John Whitney Hall, Marius B. Jansen, Madoka Kanai, and Denis Twitchett, 301-368. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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What It’s Like Going To The World’s Largest Yukigassen (Snowball Fighting) Tournament Mon, 02 Feb 2015 14:00:21 +0000 In February of 2013, the Tofugu staff made a four-day stop at the Showa Shinzan International Yukigassen tournament. We had written about Yukigassen in the past, which is what originally piqued our interest. We had to see it for ourselves, and this was our chance. This particular tournament (the Showa-Shinzan International Yukigassen Tournament) is the biggest in […]

The post What It’s Like Going To The World’s Largest Yukigassen (Snowball Fighting) Tournament appeared first on Tofugu.

In February of 2013, the Tofugu staff made a four-day stop at the Showa Shinzan International Yukigassen tournament. We had written about Yukigassen in the past, which is what originally piqued our interest. We had to see it for ourselves, and this was our chance. This particular tournament (the Showa-Shinzan International Yukigassen Tournament) is the biggest in the world. Not to mention it’s where Yukigassen was originally conceived.

With cameras, gloves, and warm jackets, we braved the mountain snows of Hokkaido. The result is this video, which will show you how Yukigassen is played. I’d recommend watching it, otherwise the rest of the article won’t make a lot of sense. Plus, it’s fun and educational!

As you can see, Yukigassen is essentially a combination of dodgeball and capture the flag, though it’s not that simple. There is added precision and strategy that is normally associated with a professional level sport. We’ll talk more about that later.

Getting To The Yukigassen Tournament


Showa-Shinzan is a small volcano where the yukigassen tournament is held. This volcano is near Soubetsu Town. If you want to visit Showa-Shinzan this is most likely where you’ll stay. In the summer, Soubetsu Town attracts a lot of tourists thanks to its hot springs and “nature.” During the winter there are still tourists visiting, though the numbers drop dramatically.

Thanks to that, Yukigassen was born. Town leaders were discussing ways to increase tourism in the cold winter months. They saw some people having a good time throwing snowballs at each other and apparently thought, “What if we make the snowballs way harder and had people throw them at each other at 90mph?” After some work and deliberation, the sport of Yukigassen came to be. Now Showa-Shinzan and the town of Soubetsu are flooded with tourists for about a week every winter.

Despite being some kind of Mecca for Yukigassen players, it wasn’t easy to get there. First we flew from Narita Airport to Sapporo in the late morning. That was the easy part. Then we got on a train that headed south to Hakodate. Although Soubetsu Town and Sapporo look pretty close on a map, trains make things fairly roundabout. There’s a lot of mountains up in Hokkaido, after all.


Blizzards, snow, and broken trains delayed us, so it wasn’t the easy 3-hour ride that we hoped for. Also, if you follow the directions on Google maps, it has you getting off at Nagawa station. This is a big mistake. We were staying in Soubetsu town, and this is the closest station. But, there’s nothing here. It didn’t help that it was already dark when we arrived. I wrongfully assumed that there’d be a bus, or at the very least a taxi, waiting for us.


Of course, there wasn’t any of this. But, there was a lone telephone booth (our phones weren’t getting any signal). I called the hotel and the conversation went something like this:

Koichi: Hello?

Hotel: Hello! What can I do for you.

Koichi: Hi, we’re staying there. We have reservations for tonight.

Hotel: Oh, thank you so much!

Koichi: Yeah, ok. Anyways, we got off at Nagawa Station and…

Hotel: Nagawa station…?

Koichi: Yeah, and I thought there was supposed to be a bus, or something… really anything here.

Hotel: There’s no bus?

Koichi: No… is there a shuttle service or anything like that?

Hotel: Hmmm, no, sorry not to there. I think you got off at the wrong station. Is there a taxi, or something?

Koichi: Hmm, no. There’s really nothing around here. Maybe we’ll walk. But, we’ll be late, so please keep our reservations.

Hotel: Okay! Is there anything else I can do?

Etcetera. Our only options were to wait for the next train (one hour or more, who knows with the snow conditions), or walk. We foolishly chose the latter. Apparently Toya Station is where we should have disembarked if we wanted to take the bus. If you’re going you should double check this though, because we never tried it ourselves.

Soon after we began our trek we realized our mistake. Sure, it was only about three miles away but it wasn’t an easy three miles. Snow was stacked up around us several feet high. The ground was either ice, snow, or a combination of the two. Throw in negative twenty degree (Fahrenheit) weather, our backpacks, and several switchbacks we’d have to climb and descend. After about a half a mile we came upon our savior… a Seico Mart, glowing orange in the distance! This wouldn’t be the first time a Seico Mart (possibly) saved our lives in Hokkaido. We got in, bought some hot tea, and asked the employee there to call us a taxi. All was well in the world.

One harrowing 45-minute taxi ride and ~$100 later, we arrived safely at Toya Sun Palace (洞爺サンパレス), just in time to get in for our all-you-can-eat dinner. This was just about the only hotel left available, even though we booked a month or two in advance. I guess that goes to show how many people go to this tournament every year. The Toya Sun Palace is a little farther away from some of the other available accommodations, but it was probably one of the nicest / most touristy. It screamed, “We built this in the 80s during the economic bubble!” but after all the cold none of us cared about any of that. A little pampering would do us good. There was an arcade, a great onsen, a swimming pool / water slides, warm food, a lot of Chinese tourists, and even some Yukigassen teams. We talked to the Canadian team a few times, which was fun. They seemed like they were having a good time too, the few times we bumped into them.

We had arrived a couple days early from the start of the tournament to scope it out, so on this night we relaxed.

Soubetsu Town: Where Yukigassen Was Born


Staying in Soubetsu Town in the winter isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. It’s definitely more of a summer-tourism town, so it was quiet. The cab driver who took us to the hotel the night before gave us his card though, so we called him up and he did most of our driving for us on this trip. There are plenty of busses that go by Toya Sun Palace though, so it wouldn’t be hard to utilize those if you didn’t have access to a lavish no-limit Tofugu Travel Rewards Credit Card.

The town had some touristy shops, some restaurants, and most of the other things you’d find in a small town. We ate ramen, which was so-so, and we got some souvenirs from a gift shop. There wasn’t much else to do after that, so we had the driver take us to Showa-Shinzan, where the tournament was to take place the following day.


The tournament grounds were still being set up while we walked around and took some video, though nobody seemed to mind. The most interesting monument was the volcano itself (Showa-Shinzan), which has a pretty interesting story. Apparently it didn’t exist until the end of World War II, when it just sort of… appeared, as volcanoes sometimes do. It was kept a secret from the Japanese public, though, because volcanos appearing is supposedly a bad omen.

The volcano steamed and burped but everybody just went about their business. Just another day in the life of living near an active volcano, I guess.

Not much was happening on the day before the tournament, though, so we headed back to the hotel and went down the water slides forty or fifty times and then relaxed in the onsen.

Watching The Yukigassen Tournament


When we arrived on the day of the tournament, I’ll admit that I had a not-so-secret wish that one of the teams would show up missing a player and somehow come up to me and say, “Hey, we need a strong looking dude to fill a spot and that’s you!” I’d say “yes, if you insist” and have a great time, meet some lifelong friends, and take home a champion’s jersey. I have great childhood memories that involve snowball fights, after all!

Then we saw the first match. That hope and dream went straight out the window.



First of all, it seemed like half of the players were baseball players. Probably pitchers. They threw hard and meant business. I think I saw a few knuckleballs even. And, with the cold in combination with the snowball compressing tools, the snowballs themselves were hard, too. I took one, stood on it, and tried to break it. There I was, a grown man standing on top of a snowball. It didn’t break. These people may as well have been throwing perfectly formed rocks at each other.


The strategy involved was fascinating as well, and I’m probably only skimming the surface. You could tell a lot of time and practice went into their tactics. From how they rolled snowballs to the forwards to the captain / other team members telling a person behind a bunker which side they should dodge to as volleys came down around them. That way they could keep their eye on the opponents in front of them.

Notice the defender yelling tactics in the background.


The way they moved forward and gained advantage was well done too. Players didn’t just throw snowballs indiscriminately (they do only have 90 snowballs a round, after all). They would wait, and sometimes the tension would grow and grow and grow… until one player made a mistake and all hell breaks loose. Attacks and volleys would be coordinated as well. A forward would have a much more difficult time avoiding arcing snowballs if there were three or four coming at him. You can’t dodge in all directions at once, after all.

If you look carefully, you can see a volley about to hit this guy.


This guy is being careful and sneaky, not unlike a ninja (who were also known to enjoy a good snowball fight).


We weren’t the only people to be impressed by all these tactics either. Talking to the non-Japanese teams, they seemed surprised as well. Many had never seen this level of competition. As one Canadian team member said: “It’s like a chess match to them. They’re so patient and methodical. We just try to run it and gun it, then take the flag. They just pick us off one by one.”


Watching the Canadians, the Finnish, and the Norwegians play, you could see what they were talking about. The non-Japanese teams were a lot more aggressive… but they made more mistakes as well. Soon a few of their players would get picked off, and the Japanese teams would slowly and methodically move in for the kill.


Apparently the Canadians played a show-match with some local up-and-coming middle school yukigassen players the day before and had their butts handed to them. By kids! Hopefully that gives you some idea of the level that the Japanese teams play at. For many Japanese team members, it’s a sport and not a hobby. Just as it should be.

To get a feel for this, I’d recommend watching some of these individual match videos that we put together. It definitely gets intense sometimes.

Although we had a great time watching, it’s not something I’d easily recommend to everyone. It’s not like going to a professional baseball game or something, where everyone’s taken care of. You spend a lot of time standing around in sub-zero temperature. Luckily there are several vendors selling (very hot!) food and a couple tents with heaters, but for most of the day you’re trying to avoid frostbite.

I’d guess that 99% of the people there were either players, friends/family of players, or people who worked for the Showa-Shinzan International Yukigassen Tournament. This sport has not reached a level where the masses go to watch the matches… at least not yet.

But despite that, there was quite the turnout. I was told that every year there are more teams and more people watching. Here’s the opening ceremony, which shows you mostly players:


And, it’s big enough to have its own mascot (though what in Japan isn’t big enough to have its own mascot, ammiright?).


Most of the people here were either going to play Yukigassen or support an individual player in some way. I certainly didn’t see any of the Chinese tourists from the hotel show up. I had the feeling that most people in Soubetsu Town didn’t even know that the tournament was happening, though I only tried to talk to a few people about it.

That being said, it was one of my favorite memories of being in Hokkaido. It was cold and sometimes it was miserable, and the days felt really long, but it’s something you can’t really see anywhere else, at least not on this scale. Everyone was having a great time doing what they loved, and the energy was really great. No matter who won or who lost, everybody was excited for both the present and future of the sport. If we’re lucky, maybe it’ll become a winter olympic sport in the coming decades. If that happens I’ll probably watch something besides curling for once.

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