Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Tue, 27 Jan 2015 18:04:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Christians in Kyushu, Part 2: The Shogun Strikes Back Fri, 23 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 Be sure to check out Part 1 before engaging in this epic second part. When we last left off, Oda Nobunaga, the padres’ most powerful patron had just perished.  The next great unifier to take his place was a general of his, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598).  Hideyoshi had worked his way up from peasanthood to become the most […]

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Be sure to check out Part 1 before engaging in this epic second part.

When we last left off, Oda Nobunaga, the padres’ most powerful patron had just perished.  The next great unifier to take his place was a general of his, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598).  Hideyoshi had worked his way up from peasanthood to become the most powerful man in Japan.  Due to his background, he was never able to take the title of shogun, but he was equally influential.  His policies laid the groundwork for what was to come, including an increasing suspicion of Christian motives.  There will be plenty about him in this article, but first, back to Kyushu.

The King of Bungo

statue-of-otomo-sorin Christians in Kyushu

Photo by 大分帰省中

As mentioned in Part 1, just before leaving Japan in 1551, Francis Xavier met with Otomo Sorin (1530-1587), lord of Bungo (in eastern Kyushu).  Initially reluctant to meet with Xavier due to slanderous descriptions given by Buddhist clergy, Sorin was convinced to see him by a Portuguese captain, who described Xavier as a man of high status who could commandeer a European vessel anytime he wished.  Sorin gave the Jesuits permission to preach in his territory and a building to use, but it would seem his initial generosity was not religiously motivated.  In 1562, he even became a Buddhist lay-priest.

However, over time he may have had a change of heart.  In 1578, he converted to Christianity, taking the name Francisco in honor of Xavier. Actually, a marital problem led to his conversion.  Sorin had married a woman in 1550, who was staunch in her traditional religious beliefs and shared a contentious relationship with the Jesuits.  She is known only as Jezebel, the name the Jesuits used to refer to her.  In 1578, Sorin became ill, which the priest Luis Frois claimed was Jezebel’s fault.  He was nursed by one of her ladies-in-waiting, with whom he fell in love.  Sorin had his new paramour spirited away to a seaside villa where they were free to hear Christian instruction.  First, she converted, taking the name Julia. Later Sorin also converted.  They soon married, and Jezebel, as a pagan, was no object.  To many observers Sorin’s behavior was scandalous, but to the Jesuits he was a hero.  Sorin’s happiness did not last long.

At the same time that Sorin was pulling a Henry VIII, there was trouble brewing further south.  The Shimazu family, which had rejected Christianity, had begun to expand their territory northward.  They soundly defeated the Otomo at the Battle of Mimigawa (1578).  The Shimazu were doing so well that by the mid-1580s, nearly all of Kyushu was theirs.  Knowing the Shimazu’s final push would come soon, Sorin asked Toyotomi Hideyoshi for aid.  In 1587, Hideyoshi’s armies entered Kyushu and began pushing the Shimazu forces back southward to their home territory until they were forced to surrender.

Christian Cruise

Japanese-delegates-visit-Pope-Gregory Christians in Kyushu

Japanese delegates visiting Pope Gregory.

Otomo Sorin did one other major thing in the history of Christianity and Japan.  In the midst of combating the Shimazu in 1582, he and two other Christian lords sponsored the first official Japanese embassy to Europe.  The embassy was the brainchild of Italian Jesuit, Allesandro Valignano (1539-1606), who had been preaching in Japan for three years.  The Tensho Embassy (named after the reign-name of the time) consisted of four Japanese converts.  With them was their European tutor and translator, and two servants.  They stopped at Macau, Kochi, and Goa along the way.  Valignano himself accompanied them as far as Goa.

The embassy arrived in Lisbon in 1584, and from there went on to Rome.  During their European tour, they met several kings and two successive popes.  In Rome, one of the converts was made an honorary citizen.  They returned to Japan in 1590, after which Valignano ordained them as the first Japanese Jesuit fathers.

A Tenuous Tolerance

toyotomi-hideyoshi-climbing-a-mountain Christians in Kyushu

Having conquered Kyushu, Hideyoshi soon finished what Nobunaga had started and united all of Japan under his banner.  Like his predecessor, Hideyoshi expressed an interest in what the Europeans had to offer.  When the Tensho Embassy returned from Europe, he received them at Osaka Castle, curious to hear their stories and the music of European instruments, like the harpsichord, which they had learned to play.  However, under his rule we can also see the seeds of doubt that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Christian mission in Japan.

In 1587, Hideyoshi issued an edict to expel the missionaries (not all Europeans).  He seemed mainly concerned that too many lords were converting, and were also forcing the conversion of their retainers and subjects.  There was a worry that Christian lords might have conflicting loyalties.  Fortunately for the padres, the edict was not well enforced. They there were able to remain in Japan, they had to keep quiet for a while.  This was not true, however, of the Franciscans and other orders, more recently arrived, who continued to preach boldly.  This led to Japan’s first martyrs.

The 26 Martyrs

painting-of-the-nagasaki-martyrs Christians in Kyushu

In 1596, the San Felipe, a Spanish galleon shipwrecked off of Shikoku, spilling its cargo of silks and gold.  When the local authorities confiscated as much of this as they could and detained the crew, the ship’s pilot warned them to be careful lest they wind up a Spanish colony like South America.  He told them “the missionaries come as the king of Spain’s advance guard.”

This was just the wrong thing for Hideyoshi to hear, and from a list of 4,000, ultimately 24 leading Christians from the Kansai area were arrested.  Hideyoshi had them marched all the way to Nagasaki to face execution.  This was symbolic as Nagasaki had become one of the strongest Christian centers in Japan.  Along the 450 mile journey, two more were arrested for giving comfort to the prisoners, including a twelve-year old boy.  He was given the chance to recant, but refused.  On February 5, 1597, the 26 were crucified on a hilltop in Nagasaki.  It may sound like Hideyoshi chose this form of execution to be ironic, which I don’t think is out of the question, but crucifixion had long been a common punishment in Japan.

Tokugawa Transition

Konishi_Yukinaga Christians in Kyushu

While dealing with issues at home, from 1592-1598 Hideyoshi had thousands of samurai carrying out an invasion of Korea.  One of the top two generals of the expedition was a Christian himself, Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600).  Yukinaga often found himself at odds with the other leading general, Kato Kiyomasa (1561-1611), a Nichiren Buddhist.  When Hideyoshi passed away in 1598, his war weary generals negotiated an end to the war in Korea, but Yukinaga’s problems were far from over.

Japan soon divided between those supporting the Toyotomi and those supporting another former ally of Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).  In 1600, came the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, and Ieyasu emerged victorious.  Konishi Yukinaga had fought for the losing side, but rather than commit ritual suicide (seppuku), he chose execution.  This would have been the less honorable choice in the eyes of most of his peers, but his Christian faith taught him that suicide was a sin.

Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, and established a line that would rule Japan for the next 268 years.  At first, like Hideyoshi, he took a cautious attitude toward Christianity.  In 1600, shortly before the Battle of Sekigahara, English pilot William Adams (1564-1620), the basis for the protagonist in James Clavell’s Shogun, arrived in Japan.  Ieyasu valued his knowledge, but Adams, out of his own Protestant prejudices against the Catholics, fed the lord’s fears that the missionaries were precursors of a Catholic conquest.

The Hammer Falls

jesuit-with-a-japanese-nobleman Christians in Kyushu

Added to the fear of foreign conquest, one of the biggest concerns that Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu had always had with Christianity was the matter of loyalty.  For a Christian samurai, did allegiance to the shogun or the pope take precedence?  In 1612 there was a bribery scandal, involving a daimyo and a member of Ieyasu’s council, both Christians.  This showed that ties between the faithful might be stronger than those to the central authority.  In addition, at the execution of a Christian, a priest told the crowd that obedience to the Church should trump obedience to their daimyo.

These events led Ieyasu to ban Christianity in domains governed directly by the shogunate, and many daimyo followed his example.  Then in 1614 he issued the “Statement on the Expulsion of the Bataren”, in which accusations against the priests were leveled. They were commanded to leave the country at once, and Japanese converts were ordered to renounce their faith.  Most missionaries left the country, but some continued to operate in secret. Those who were caught were executed.

Anti-Christian measures became even harsher under the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, who took power in 1623.  It’s estimated that in 1612 there were approximately 300,000 Christians in Japan, but that by 1625 there were half that or fewer.

Dark Times Ahead

beheaded-jizo-statues Christians in Kyushu

Things were never easy for Christians in Japan during the Sengoku period but, as the country moved toward unification and peace, they came under even closer scrutiny.  Though some anti-Christian reasoning points to other issues, it seems that the biggest problem was the fear of those in authority that Christians would have conflicting loyalties.  After a century of chaos, betrayals, and civil war, that was something the Shogunate would not tolerate.

Next time we’ll see where the suppression of Christianity leads.

To Be Continued . . .

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How To Survive Japan’s Medical System Wed, 21 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 While I was living in Japan, the scariest thing for me was the thought of getting sick. Having to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t fully understand and in a system I wasn’t familiar with sent chills through me. I tried to live healthily and for two years and successfully avoided the […]

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While I was living in Japan, the scariest thing for me was the thought of getting sick. Having to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t fully understand and in a system I wasn’t familiar with sent chills through me. I tried to live healthily and for two years and successfully avoided the hospital. But eventually my fears became reality, first with a bout of norovirus and then with a bus accident. Though a harrowing experience, it left me with a wealth of information on the Japanese medical system. Hopefully, by sharing my experience of the Japanese medical system as well as those of other people I know, it will help you understand and overcome a very difficult situation.

Clinics for This, Clinics for That


Photo by Roger Walch

If you get sick in Japan you need to get yourself to a hospital or clinic. These are two main types of medical facility in Japan: hospitals and clinics. There is not really a system of GPs or family doctors like there is in the UK or elsewhere. Usually the first port of call is a hospital. If it’s an emergency, you aren’t sure where to go, or all of you hurts, you go to hospital. This is the place to go, whether you’ve been injured or just have a really, really bad cold. You might then be referred to a more specialised clinic. Alternatively, you can just find a clinic yourself if you know what kind you need. Japanese hospitals are much like those in the west, with emergency rooms as well as facilities for operations. It felt odd going to a hospital for a minor problem that I would have usually gone to my GP for back home.

Clinics are the other kind of medical institution. They tend to be highly specialised. You go to a eye clinic for eye problems, a heart clinic for heart problems, a maternity clinic for pregnancy. In rural areas, hospitals tend to take care of a broader range of problems as there aren’t as many specialised clinics as in the cities. However, if you need long term treatment, you will probably end up in a clinic. Clinics are owned and run by doctors. Although they get their money mostly from the public insurance system, they are run as private businesses. Each one will have a different atmosphere and rules. One thing that is the same wherever you go: you’re going to have to pay for it.

Welcome to the Japanese Insurance System(s)


Photo by Nemo’s great uncle

Luckily, all Japanese citizens, permanent residents, and non-Japanese people living in Japan with more than a year-long visa are required to be enrolled in either National Health Insurance or Employees’ Health Insurance. Between these two plans, everyone living or working in Japan has access to healthcare with insurance that covers 70% of the bill and a cap on how much you have to pay on the other 30%.

If you move to Japan and are required to enroll in a health insurance plan, you must do so within two weeks. Signing up for National Health Insurance (国民健康保険, Kokumin-Kenkō-Hoken) is a case of visiting your local ward or city office. There you will be given your Health Insurance card. Once you get that card, don’t let it go. If you don’t have it with you when you go to a hospital, you’ll have to pay 100% of the cost upfront. You can claim it back later, but that will take some time.

Employees Health Insurance (健康保険 Kenkō-Hoken) is all taken care of by your employer. The cost is shared between you and your employer. For many foreigners working in Japan, this is the insurance system you will be using. I didn’t have to do anything to sign up for it as it was all set up by my employer. However, there are some exceptions, such as people employed by companies like Interac. This English Teacher supply company keeps its employees’ logged working hours (29.5 hours a week) just below the level they would need to get Employees’ Health Insurance (30 hours a week). In reality most work longer, up to 40 hours a week. These employees are responsible for joining the National Health Insurance plan by themselves and Interac makes no contribution. This is one of the ways private ALT companies cut costs, and it is important to be aware of this if you are thinking about teaching in Japan.

Whether you are covered under either plan, the benefits are the same. 70% of your health care costs are taken care of as soon as they arise. All you have to do is hand over your insurance card in a hospital or clinic. There are a range of options to cover the missing 30%. There is private health insurance, as well as insurance schemes run by employers directly. When I was in Japan I was covered by the JET insurance plan which took care of 30% of any medical costs.

Around the world, Japan’s healthcare system is admired for providing good service for a low price. The Japanese spend half of what Americans do on health care and have longer life expectancy. Still, the idea of it being provided for a price at all was a bit confusing to me. When I had to go to the hospital because of norovirus, I had to pay for the 30% of my treatment that wasn’t covered by my Employee’s Insurance. There was an ATM right there in the hospital lobby so people could pay in cash. I was given a receipt and was able to claim back the final 30% from my JET insurance later. It felt very strange handing over cash in exchange for medical treatment, even if I knew I was going to get it back later. Britain’s NHS spoiled me, I guess.

Alternatively, if you are simply visiting Japan, all you have to do is get travel insurance. It is usually pretty affordable. With it you can enjoy your trip without worrying about what will happen if you fall down some shrine steps or have a bad plate of fugu.

The doctor is in… control


Photo by Angelina Earley

The power dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship are different in Japan than in many Western countries. These days in the UK, there is a lot of focus on patients having choices on how and where they are treated. Doctors have authority, but are expected to work with the patient to help heal them, not dictate from on high.

In Japan, doctors, especially in hospitals, have a lot more say over your treatment than you do. This can extend from the medicine you are given to the food you are allowed to eat. One friend of mine who had broken her elbow, ended up checking out of the hospital early because of the discomfort she experienced with this power balance. She wasn’t allowed to take a shower. Her food was weighed before and after she ate and she was criticised for each gram she didn’t finish. She wasn’t informed about her own condition or what they planned to do with her. The final straw came when she was expected to stay in the hospital for two weeks, a far longer stay than she felt was necessary for a broken bone. Once she was plastered up, she checked herself out and went home where she could be comfortable.

The hospital likely wanted her to stay partly because it would bring in more money for them. The longer a patient stays, the more money the insurance pays. If you find yourself in a Japanese hospital, you have two options: 1.) Either get the treatment and get out against doctor’s orders, like my friend did, or 2.) surrender yourself to the medical system and endure its oddities and indignities. Be prepared to have your preconceptions challenged though.

As many clinics are owned and run by doctors, the sense of authority doctors feel can become inflated. You can see this in cases such as Japan’s maternity advice to expectant mothers. Japanese doctors tell pregnant women to “save their weight” meaning they shouldn’t gain more than 10 pounds during their pregnancy. Clinics will even refuse to treat expectant mothers who gain more than their guidelines. For many years, this orthodoxy in Japan has made it the only developed country where maternal weight is going down. The bad news is that low maternal weight contributes to low birth weight and low birth rate is associated with many health problems in adulthood including diabetes, obesity, and poor cardiac health. Japanese doctors have been informed about these problems in study after study, but most refuse to change their policies. Some Japanese doctors operate in an environment where everything they say goes. Changing the mind of someone used to that level of authority is no easy task.

Communication Is Only Half the Battle


Photo by Nina Helmer

For me, the biggest cause of my fear of the Japanese medical system was my lack of understanding of medical Japanese. Daily life Japanese and medical Japanese are completely different challenges. If you aren’t confident that you’ll be able to understand everything, having a friend or coworker with you to help translate will make the experience far better. Most doctors in Japan speak some English, however it can often be very limited. When I had to have a set of X-rays for my whiplash, the technician and I communicated in a mix of broken English and Japanese. It was not the most relaxing way to spend a day.

However, language isn’t the only barrier you can face when you seek medical care in Japan. Even if you are super ペラペラ (fluent) in Japanese, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand the things that happen to you in a Japanese clinic. A friend of mine who speaks excellent Japanese went to a gynaecologist. She was led to a room where one wall was just a curtain. A disembodied voice told her to take the clothes off her bottom half and sit in a chair. Since her feet were cold she kept her socks on. They were cute socks with mameshiba’s face on them. Mameshiba is a half dog, half bean who loves trivia. My friend sat down in the chair stripped to the waist apart from her cute socks and waited. The voice asked her if she was ready. She said yes, but she certainly wasn’t ready for what happened next. The voice said, “動きます!” (ugokimasu) which is usually said when buses depart. Suddenly the chair lifted up, spread her legs apart and swivelled round. Her feet swept the lower portion of the curtain aside, but the upper curtain still hung down, separating her from the doctors and nurses on the other side. One of the nurses exclaimed, “Ah! Mameshiba!” in great surprise, when she saw my friend’s socks.

When my friend told me all this I laughed, but behind the humour, it’s also terrifying. My friend sat on a piece of medical equipment that was not explained to her. You can see an illustration of the chair here. She was subjected to an invasive medical examination without even seeing who was performing it on her. Coming from a culture where we expect to be able to see our doctors, it can be quite shocking, even more shocking than her socks were to the nurse!

There are also problems that hospitals face when treating non-Japanese patients. Before my fiancé had an operation on his foot he had to tell the hospital where his family was registered, just in case anything went wrong. The problem was that being Canadian, he didn’t have a family register. All Japanese people are required to be registered on their household’s koseki (戸籍) or family registry. The hospital administrators couldn’t understand that there was no equivalent system in Canada. They explained it to him over and over again, while he explained that he couldn’t give them information that didn’t exist. In the end his whole surgery ended up being delayed by a day while the hospital tried to work out a solution. Trying to get these sorts of things straightened out while you’re dosed up on pain meds isn’t easy. Even people with good Japanese can struggle when they simply can’t tell the hospital what it needs to hear.

No Bad News Can Be Bad News


Photo by Yuya Tamai

Another aspect of communication that disturbed me about the Japanese medical system when I first learned about it, was the attitude toward the patients’ right to know.

I had a student who was applying to medical school. He had to write an essay about whether he would inform a terminally ill patient that they were terminally ill. I checked through his English, but what shocked me was his opinion. He said that he would not tell the terminally ill patient that they were going to die. His reasoning was that it would only upset them. To me this was horrifying. The idea of going to a doctor, someone I trusted, and not being told the truth about my own body, my own life, filled me with dread. We debated it for a while and were joined by another Japanese English teacher. She sided with the student and told me that it was perfectly normal in Japan not to tell patients they only have a short time to live. The thinking is that it is better to just continue living and working as before right up until the moment you die. In some cases, the family of the patient will be told, but not the patient themselves.

While I don’t imagine this is a problem that most foreigners living in Japan will face, it does illustrate that while many of the techniques and medicines may be the same, attitudes can be very different. Personally I think those attitudes are very important when it comes to something as fundamental as health. The Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology laid out guidelines on the importance of telling patients the truth, but admits that change has been slow, as it is in many aspects of the Japanese medical system.

Navigating Japan’s Medical System like a Pro


Photo by strikeael

Maybe I’ve freaked you out a little with these horror stories, but don’t worry too much. The Japanese health care system, for all its quirks, is actually very good. If you are working in Japan, you are guaranteed to be treated for a very reasonable cost. It may be stressful, but getting sick always is. Also, there are many resources to help you navigate your way through Japan’s medical system and back to health.

Japan Health Care Info provides a service finding English speaking doctors and booking appointments for you if you need it. This can be a great help when you’re faced with the huge array of clinics and aren’t sure which one to choose. Their website also has lots of useful information about health care in Japan.

This website, has a list of clinics where English or other foreign languages are spoken. You can browse by type of clinic and see if there are any in your area. Of course, the closer you live to a major population centre, the more likely there will be an English speaking clinic nearby.

The Institute of Mental Healthcare Professionals is an organisation that provides mental health support to people of different nationalities living in Japan. Their website has a search function that can help you find a therapist to meet your needs.

This guide to purchasing over the counter medications is quite useful. Learning the kanji for dosage and frequency is a very good idea. I had a lot of success going to the pharmacy in my local supermarket for medicine. At first I always asked the pharmacist by pointing at whatever body part hurt and looking up the word for my problem, and I always walked away with the right kind of medication. Later, the technique I used was looking at the pictures on the packets. If it had a picture of a giant mosquito and a mosquito bite being soothed, I guessed that it would help with my painful mosquito bites. I wouldn’t recommend this technique for more serious problems though, and especially not for drugs like painkillers. If in doubt, ask. Mime and a dictionary can get you a long way.

There are some prescription drugs that you will find very difficult to come by in Japan. Many antidepressants and more modern hormonal contraceptions are not easily available. If you know that you will need medication for more than a month while you are in Japan, you’ll have to fill out a Yakkan Shoumei Certificate. This will allow you to import a year’s supply of your prescription medication. However, there are some drugs that you cannot bring to Japan at all. Many ADD and ADHD medications are completely illegal in Japan, as well as narcotics and even some nasal congestion relief drugs. If you are planning a trip or move, check that all of your medications are not controlled substances in Japan. If they are, consult with your doctor at home to see if there are any alternatives.

Finally, in case of a medical emergency, dial 119. This is Japan’s emergency number, equivalent to the USA’s 911 or the UK’s 999. If you need an ambulance say, “Kyukyusha onegai-shimasu.” Then give your name and location.

I hope that most of you will never need any of this information. But if you do, I’d urge you to keep in mind that your health should be your priority. Looking back, I probably let my fear of the health system keep me out of the hospital several times when I should have gone (like the time I ate Hell Ramen, but that’s a story for another day.) In the end, when I did end up in hospital, it wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated, even if I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have been at home. Stay healthy and happy, in Japan or wherever you are!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara: The Death of Yakuza Cinema Mon, 19 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 2014 has proven a sad year for Japanese cinema with the passing of two legends: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Although close in age, the two came to represent opposing eras of yakuza cinema – Ken Takakura’s honorable yakuza heroes of the 60’s gave way to Bunta Sugawara’s cutthroat yakuza criminals of the 70’s. The two actors symbolize the yakuza genre, making the […]

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2014 has proven a sad year for Japanese cinema with the passing of two legends: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Although close in age, the two came to represent opposing eras of yakuza cinema – Ken Takakura’s honorable yakuza heroes of the 60’s gave way to Bunta Sugawara’s cutthroat yakuza criminals of the 70’s. The two actors symbolize the yakuza genre, making the close timing of their deaths somewhat apropo.

Yet simplifying their legacies would be a mistake as the two actors transcended the genre they grew famous for.  As the popularity of yakuza films faded, both men showed versatility by taking on new roles.  Ken Takakura acted in dramatic films and even got his feet wet in Hollywood while Bunta Sugawara kept closer to his tough-guy roots, starring in the Trucker Yarou comedy series.  Both stars worked well into old age, starring in sentimental dramas like Ken Takakura’s Dearest and Bunta Sugawara’s My Grandpa.

Join Tofugu in celebrating the legacies of these amazing, genre-transcending actors. Choosing only a handful of movies from the hundreds they appeared in proved a challenge and the following recommendations mix things up, featuring a variety of works spanning the actors’ careers. So grab some senbei and fire up the old projector, Betamax or whatever you’re using nowadays – on to the movies!

Ken Takakura

A Meiji University graduate, Ken Takakura “was in the process of applying for a lifelong ‘salaryman’ position at the Toei film company in Toyko when, on the lot, he entered an audition on impulse” (Roger Macy). Soon after, Takakura debuted in Denko Karate Uchi (1957) and never looked back, pumping out hundreds of movies through Toei Studios.

Described as “brooding, dignified, (and) hard hitting,” Takakura played heroic characters with a sense of justice  (Ben Beaumont-Thomas). And no term better describes Takakura’s performances than dignified. Even when playing a criminal, Takakura could radiate dignity with a single glance.

His characters aren’t perfect, but that makes their struggles easy to identify with.  In lowly roles, we root for him rise above his situation. When in positions of power we hope he can see justice through.

Takakura’s acting prowess and English ability helped him land roles in pictures abroad.  He made his western debut in the WWII film Too Late the Hero and went on to star in a handful of Hollywood films.

His empowering roles took on special significance in China where “Takakura’s 1976 hit Manhunt was among the first Japanese films to be screened in China after the Cultural Revolution” (AFP-JIJI).  His role in Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles helped solidify his position as a cultural bridge between nations.

I compiled this list hoping to exemplify the variety of Ken Takakura’s roles, from dignified yakuza to struggling police officers to hard-nosed baseball managers.

Abashiri Prison (Abashiri Bangaichi – 1965)

Take a trip to Japan’s legendary Hokkaido prison, a detention center similar to the US’s Alcatraz in fame and reputation.  We all know Takakura’s good-guy character has a justified reason to be there, and part of the movie’s fun is waiting to find out why. All the while inmates try to pull Takakura into an escape plot he initially resists, but is given reason to consider. Will Takakura join the plan?

Hokkaido’s snowy landscapes provide a deep, beautiful black and white backdrop to this prison adventure. Despite some impromptu festival dances and scenic drives to labor areas, no one wants to end up in Abashiri Prison.

Abashiri Prison combines Takakura’s classic dignified persona with a strong cast and great plot. As a bonus for watching you’ll get a taste of Japanese prison life and learn why you don’t have to worry about dropping the soap in Abashiri Prison.

Demon Yasha (Yasha – 1985)

“A hyena with a conscious is no longer a hyena.” My favorite among Ken Takakura’s films, Demon Yasha tells the story of a yakuza who leaves a life of crime behind to move to Hokkaido. There he goes legit, becoming a fisherman, family man and respected member of his village.

Of course things don’t stay peaceful for long and trouble comes calling when a young, drug dealing “Beat” Takeshi arrives with his attractive girlfriend.  Will Yasha be able to protect the village and continue living his new life?  Or will his yakuza roots pull him back in?

Faced with deep temptation, Yasha becomes one of Takakura’s more troubled, complex characters. Demon Yasha kept me guessing on how it would all turn out. I enjoyed the film’s atmosphere and rhythmic, no-nonsense cinematography that gave it a “Beat” Takeshi-like movie feel.

Black Rain (1989)

East meets West in this police crime drama directed by Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame.  And boy does it feel like a Ridley Scott movie with its dark, brooding, confined locations and (where does it all come from?) smoke and steam. The movie’s eerie depictions of Osaka creeped me out as a kid and continue to do so today.

Circumstances force American cops, played by Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia, to venture into Osaka in pursuit of a ruthless yakuza named Sato.  To do so they must cooperate with a Japanese cop (guess who!) who is caught between adhering to police protocol and helping the American cops apprehend Sato.

Ridley Scott makes sure Black Rain‘s pace never slows by striking a great balance between plot development and action.  The music, mood and style are pure eighties goodness, but my favorite aspect of the movie is Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia and Ken Takakura’s chemistry. I really enjoyed the interactions among the three, with Andy Garcia acting as the voice of reason in contrast to his strong-willed partners.

Black Rain is worth watching just to witness Takakura’s karaoke duet with Andy Garcia.  Yuusaku Matsuda’s brilliant performance as Sato is also worth note, as it was one of his last.

Mr. Baseball (1992)

In Mr. Baseball Ken Takakura plays second fiddle to Tom Selleck, but that does nothing to undermine his contribution to the film.  A struggling major-leaguer, Selleck’s stubborn character gets shipped to Japan where he struggles to adjust to his new life. Takakura plays the team’s equally stubborn manager whose job is on the line thanks in part to his new American import. The two bump heads, refusing to bend to cultural differences and the comedy-drama ensues.

All but forgotten in the annals of moviedom, Mr. Baseball shines at showing the difficulties a foreigner living in Japan faces. Although I had trouble relating to Selleck’s jerk of a character, his situations felt very familiar.  I couldn’t help but cringe at some of his faux pas, recalling my own.

Despite Takakura’s great performance, to those who never experienced Japan, Mr. Baseball may feel like a forgettable comedy. But those that share some of Selleck’s awkward experiences will appreciate its realistic depiction of culture shock, or more appropriately, culture clash.

Dearest (Ananta e – 2012)

Takakura’s final film has a “it’s not the destination, its the journey” theme. Dearest sees Takakura trekking across Japan to spread his late wife’s ashes in her hometown. During the trip he meets all sorts of people, takes in the beautiful scenery and grows even closer to his late wife.

Dearest features a cast of popular actors including “Beat” Takeshi (Outrage), Koichi Sato (Unforgiven), Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (of pop group SMAP) and Haruka Ayase (Happy Flight).  As a result, the film becomes more a celebration of Ken Takakura than a good movie in its own right.  Like Clint Eastwood’s recent work, Dearest has sentimental themes, but lacks Eastwood’s punch and purpose. Still, I’m glad I joined Takakura for his last ride.

Bunta Sugawara

The gritty, bloody and chaotic Modern Yakuza Outlaw Killer served as my unforgettable introduction to Bunta Sugawara and a new world of Japanese cinema.

In an era where Akira Kurosawa was the face of Japanese cinema (fans had to dig deep to find Golgo 13 and Shogun Assassin) in the West, one thing was clear – Kurosawa this was not.  Despite its descriptive title, the film’s violent, reckless style shocked me – and I’ve been a Bunta Sugawara fan ever since.

Perhaps Sugawara played badasses so well because he was, in fact, a certified badass. According to film reporter Mark Schilling,

Sugawara entered the Shintoho studio in 1958 after leading a scuffling existence on the fringes of Tokyo’s underworld that furnished material for his later roles. When the studio went bust in 1961, he left for rival Shochiku, but his career was treading water until former-gang-boss-turned actor Noboru Ando helped him join the Toei studio in 1967.

Sugawara’s resulting library of work steered the yakuza genre in a new direction. Audiences watched Takakura films, but they experienced Sugawara films – and occasionally showered afterward for spiritual cleansing (maybe that was just me).

Although best remembered for the groundbreaking Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, Sugawara went on to star in a variety of roles as a boxer, a trucker driver and even a police inspector.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai – 1973)

The theme song strikes like a bolt of lightening and serves as a warning; this isn’t your usual yakuza film.  Director Kinji Fukasaku’s gritty directing style means Battles Without Honor and Humanity doesn’t just look different from previous yakuza movies, it feels different. Based on true accounts of crime in post WWII Hiroshima the shaky camera, gratuitous blood and haunting locations give the film a life of its own.

And Bunta Sugawara is at the helm.  A former soldier turned street hoodlum, Sugawara is sent to prison where his life becomes entangled with one of Hiroshima’s top yakuza families. The film and its sequels follow the ups and downs of Sugawara’s violence filled life of crime. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Awards for best actor and best screenplay in 1974 (IMDb), Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a Japanese film classic that shouldn’t be missed!

Truck Guys (Torakku Yarō – 1975)

Like Ken Takakura, Sugawara didn’t limit himself to the yakuza genre and Truck Guys provides a light, comedic alternative to his heavy, violence-laden yakuza films. Sugawara’s rough but lovable trucker character proved popular enough to spawn several sequels.  Cheesy and campy in all the right ways, Truck Guys‘s bar fights, races, CB radio karaoke sessions and heartbreaks make for an entrancing hour and a half.

The Boxer (Bokusa – 1977)

The Boxer finds Sugawara playing a former boxing champion who turned his back on the sport at his peak, though no one knows why. Fate brings a eager young boxer to the former champ’s doorstep. Sugawara reluctantly agrees to train the young man, who brings hope to Sagawara and a band of hopeless misfits that rally around the two.

I’m a sucker for boxing films and The Boxer’s gritty montages, music, and film style quickly won me over. Sugawara and Kentaro Shimizu’s performances propel the film past rocky attempts at symbolism and campy seventies trimmings. Sugawara’s dignified character provides a refreshing change from his usual riff-raff.

Why did Sugawara’s character quit the sport? Will his protégé win and bring him and his supporters redemption?  You’ll have to watch to find out!

The Man Who Stole the Sun (Taiyou wo Nusunda Okoto – 1979)

In The Man Who Stole the Sun, Sugawara jumps to the right side of the law, playing police inspector Yamashita. After stopping a gun-wielding maniac in a hostage crisis, detective Yamashita becomes a subject of fancy for Kido, a terrorist who just completed the construction of an atomic bomb.  The Man Who Stole the Sun becomes a game of cat and mouse, with Yamashita doing his best to catch the criminal and protect the city before it’s too late.

Like many Sugarawara films, The Man Who Stole the Sun has a kinetic style that’s over-the-top and fun to watch. I loved witnessing Kido’s plan unfold; we witness him study, plan, steal materials, build a bomb, and then terrorize Tokyo before battling it out with inspector Yamashita.

A stirring and memorable soundtrack accompanies the plot and puts today’s uninspired, synthesized soundtracks to shame. As a testament to the soundtrack’s awesomeness, Yamashita’s theme makes an appearance in Evangelion 2.0.

“Individuals don’t need atomic bombs, nations do!” one investigator shouts when he learns of Kido’s intent. Like Terror in Resonance (Zankyō no Teroru), the recent anime series this movie undoubtedly inspired, The Man Who Stole the Sun explores the meaning of extreme destructive power, touching upon important themes while maintaining its true goal of entertainment.

My Grandpa (Watashi no Guranpa – 2003)

Even the badass Sugawara can’t avoid a sentimental ride into the sunset. Still, Sugawara stays close to his roots, playing an old yakuza in My Grandpa.

Instead of retiring to a quiet life, Sugawara leaves prison prepared for a head-on confrontation with his past. This includes settling the score with a rival gang, atoning for his best friend’s death and coming to terms with his estranged granddaughter.

Although a criminal, Sugawara doesn’t play his typical wild, ignoble yakuza character. Instead My Grandfather has the class of a Takakura gangster – a dignified criminal with reason and remorse. Less sappy than Takakura’s Dearest, My Grandpa  transcends simple sentimentality by focusing on an empowered old man coming to terms with a haunting past and regret.


International Gangs of Kobe (Kobe Kokusai Gang – 1975)

I imagined that if Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara starred in a movie together it would have resembled something like a yakuza-themed The Odd Couple, with Ken Takakura’s dignified yakuza having to pacify Bunta Sugawara’s crazy side.

In International Gangs of Kobe the opposite occurs; it’s Sugawara’s presence that brings out Takakura’s ruthless side. Although the two start off as allied gang members, Kobe proves too small a town for the giants of yakuza cinema. The gang splits into rival factions and Takakura and Sugawara settle their differences with violence. Tons of action and a notable cast make the unexceptional International Gangs of Kobe a load of silly yakuza fun.

Antarctica (Nankyoku Monogatari – 1983)

Do you remember that 2006 Disney movie called Eight Below?  The one where Paul Walker leaves a bunch of sled dogs at a base in Antarctica during the harshest part of winter? Did you know the plot is stolen from – I mean based on the plot of Ken Takakura’s Antarctica? If you like dog movies then check Antarctica out, though calling it a Ken Takakura movie is a bit of a stretch considering it stars a bunch of dogs.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – 2001)

Although Ken Takakura appeared in enough English language movies to make him a familiar face in the West, Bunta Sugawara never gained notoriety overseas. His most recognizable role in the West consists of just his voice, as the multi-limbed boiler room operator Kamiji in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. That’s right! If you watched the Studio Ghibli film in Japanese you’ve already experienced Bunta Sugawara!

The Projector Rolls On

black rain

Both Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara have been referred to Japan’s Clint Eastwood. However, Ken Takakura’s noble yakuza share more in common with the clean-cut cowboys of John Wayne’s old westerns. Clint Eastwood comparisons seem more appropriate for Bunta Sugawara, whose violent yakuza films changed a genre, just as Clint Eastwood’s violent spaghetti westerns did in the US.

But in the end the comparisons prove unnecessary. Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara were trailblazers of Japanese cinema and lynchpins of Japan’s domestic industry.  Both actors survived the studio system and overcame typecast roles to become lifelong artists whose influence can still be felt today. Bunta Sugawara helped pave the way to the ruthless and shocking gangsters of Takeshi Miike’s yakuza films while Ken Watanabe followed Ken Takakura’s blueprint to fame abroad.

If you haven’t experienced these legends for yourself, please take the time to see their works and experience Japanese film history!

Do you have a personal favorite that wasn’t mentioned?  If so, please recommend it in the comments section below.

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Japanese Horror Fiction: Emotions Unearthed Fri, 16 Jan 2015 17:00:26 +0000 The New Year is bright and shiny and new and you’re probably thinking about your resolution to study more kanji, while Halloween is far in the rear-view mirror. Well, I’m firmly of the belief that Halloween should be celebrated year-round with some good old-fashioned horror stories, so let’s dive into another discussion of horror fiction […]

The post Japanese Horror Fiction: Emotions Unearthed appeared first on Tofugu.

The New Year is bright and shiny and new and you’re probably thinking about your resolution to study more kanji, while Halloween is far in the rear-view mirror. Well, I’m firmly of the belief that Halloween should be celebrated year-round with some good old-fashioned horror stories, so let’s dive into another discussion of horror fiction in Japan. In the first installment of this series, we talked about the narrative skeleton of Japanese folktales and how these origins influenced the plot structure of Japanese horror. Well now it’s time to put some meat on those bones and talk about some of the emotional themes of Japanese horror tales.

Emotion and Horror


When asked about the need for horror films, David Cronenberg, in defense of his craft, once said,

For me horror films are films of confrontation, in a horror film [you] confront things that you really might not want to cope with in your real life, in a kind of safe dreamlike way. But you will meet these things eventually.

Horror fiction aims to allow the audience to confront things that they know are part of life, but are hoping to not have to face for as long as possible. Things like death, separation, deformity, madness, and disease. Many of these act as the antagonist in horror fiction, not in the same way as, say, Freddy Krueger, but because they represent the nameless, faceless, and quite painful realities of life that most people try to push out of their minds.

Horror fiction makes you face these things in relation to the strong emotions that they convey, and this is especially true in Japanese horror fiction where emotion and atmosphere are central to the storytelling experience. In this article, let’s look at some of the primary emotions Japanese horror explores and how they contribute to its distinctive sense of



Photo by: Timothy Takemoto

Okay, what is it that Yoda said about the path to the dark side? Anger leading to hate and hate leading somewhere and then something else? Oh, whatever, the point here is that, for the purposes of this article, fear is the dark side of the Forcebecause everything leads to fear. Pure primal fear is the emotion that horror fiction is trying to elicit from its audience and all of the other emotions we’re going to discuss are a means to that end.

Fear is typically defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” In horror fiction, the fear typically comes in two different flavors: slow-moving disorienting creepiness, and in-your-face fight-or-flight fright (say that five times fast). The former is like seeing a shadowy figure in the distance that disappears after you briefly turn away. You have no way of assessing if this is in fact a threat, but it puts you ill at ease anyway. What’s more, the fact that you don’t know if a stimulus is a threat makes you even more uneasy than if you just knew in the first place. The latter type of fear is more obvious. You know just what you are in for and it ain’t good, like having a chainsaw-wielding maniac run you down in a


emotions-unearthed-rage scroll

Photo by: Timothy Takemoto

Rage is an important component in the Japanese horror story as it is often a powerful vehicle for the plot. Rage is either treated as a very problematic character flaw that sets dark events into motion, or as a force so powerful and binding that it causes the spirits of the dead to linger on earth to carry about their revenge—sometimes both in the same story.

In “Ju-On: the Grudge” for example, Takeo Sayeki murders his wife Kayako, son Toshio, and cat Maru in a fit of jealous Rage after discovering Kayako’s love for another man. The indignant rage Kayako feels at her family’s brutal murder coalesces into a curse that binds their souls to this earth as vengeful ghosts.

Rage in the case of the jealous husband character is a used as a device that causes deviation from normalcy. Japan is often a very traditionalist country that values things being in routine to create harmony. Anything that deviates from the routine is represented in folklore to be a negative change and worthy of scorn. In this case, rage is used as a mechanism for a heinous crime to be enacted. In essence, it is a cautionary tale towards temperance and controlled emotion in order to avoid disastrous results. Very Buddhist.

As for Kayako, her rage is shown as both her tether to the world of the living and as the seed of a powerfully destructive curse. This makes her an onryō, a type of vengeful Japanese ghost whose origins date back to the 8th century. Again, it is a cautionary tale to:

  1. Treat others nicely and coexist in society—you don’t know what they’re capable of.
  2. Keep your emotions in check because there is nothing but chaos to be wrought.

Rage scares us as humans because it is the emotion that is the most likely to be violent or destructive. It’s also possible to be so blinded by rage that people can find themselves doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Powerful emotions like this form the basis of horror because not only do they make villains scary, but they can also make you scary to yourself, leading to regret and



Sorrow has a similar role to rage in Japanese horror with quite a few Japanese ghosts being born of extreme sadness and not explicitly rage—such as the ubume. Ubume are ghosts of women who died during childbirth and they return sorrowfully either chanting that they wish they could give birth to their baby, or else swaddling a rock or jizo statue in effigy of the child they never got to hold. That is at least twenty kinds of sad.

Sorrow is employed in contemporary horror very similarly, having bad things happen to good people makes an audience sympathetic and loosens them up to be unsettled. Like the ubume, much of the sorrow in horror comes from characters with powerful feelings of



When thinking about the components of horror fiction, love probably doesn’t immediately come to mind—but it should. The feeling of love is another powerful emotion that instigates a lot of the events in horror and embodies most of its impact. Back to the first example, if Kayako didn’t fall in love (or at least appear to) with another man then the events likely would have been avoided. Similarly, if Takeo hadn’t been madly in love with his wife (albeit to a controlling and creepy extent) he never would have committed his awful crime.

For the audience, love is primarily the lens through which we interpret our connection with the characters. If a slasher murders a random victim, it’s perhaps scary or off-putting, but it’s different if a slasher murders their spouse.  Now there’s intrigue. Now there’s emotion. Not only that, but it gets us thinking about our own loved ones. Would they ever do this to us? Hopefully not, but that is a scary thought.

In Japan, the exploration of love as a motivator for scares dates as far back as the onryō, many of them found themselves in their incorporeal predicament because of love one way or another. In the 17th century one of the most popular tales of eerie affection came to light. In the story of “Botan Dōrō,” a widowed samurai falls for a woman who walks by his house at nights holding a peony lantern. They meet often (she visits at dusk and must leave before dawntypically that’s a red flag) and promise themselves to one another. The samurai’s neighbor becomes suspicious and sneaks in at night to check on him. She finds him sleeping with a skeleton. For his own protection, the neighbor locks him in the house and places a warding charm to prevent the ghost from gaining access. His ethereal lover is no longer able to enter, but she calls to him from outside. Eventually, the samurai decides that he loves the ghost too much to resist and leaves to be with her. The two lovers retire to the woman’s abode, a temple grave. The next morning the samurai’s dead body is found there embracing the woman’s skeleton.

For more modern explorations of love in Japanese horror fiction, turn your attention to who else but the horror manga godfather, Junji Ito. The film “Love Ghost,” based on one of his manga works, explores many of the ways that love can interact with, despite horrifying scenarios. His multi-part manga and movie series about an evil entity known as Tomie is another good exploration of the concept. The titular Tomie, a deathless monster in the guise of a gorgeous woman, has unearthly beauty that causes any man who beholds her to fall madly in love with her and deep into her manipulative grasp. If you get the chance to check any of those out, I’d encourage you to do so. It might make you think of love first when thinking of horror. After all, two of the biggest emotions that drive Japanese horror fiction are love and



Photo by: Patrick Makhoul

Despair coming from intense feelings of loneliness and isolation is one of the main vehicles for scares in Japanese horror. Nothing generates fear faster than being in a situation where you feel that you need help and there’s no one there to save you. We can’t help it, we’re social animals. This sense can be created by positioning your character in situations where he or she is alone and in harm’s way, but more often than not it’s also helped by the use of claustrophobic environments.

This is done in part by choice of settingsmall dilapidated houses or apartment buildings, empty hallways in abandoned buildings, dark corridors down Tokyo side streetsbut visual mediums have additional tricks to employ. In cinema, the use of low angle shots help create a sense of isolation by cutting off the peripheral views and making the subject look encased by the surroundings. Color palette can also be used. Saturating the frame with browns, greens, and blues creates a dark tone that is reminiscent of smog and urban sprawl making the characters seem alone in a larger, uncaring environment. Manga has its own set of tricks because panel size, panel spacing, and use of form and line can all make environments seem to shrink around their subjects.

This idea of isolation or exile can be particularly effective for ghost stories. Let’s take these two cases for example, because, yes, Japanese horror has at least two cases of women being thrown into a well: Sadako Yamamura from “Ringu” and Okiku from the classic ghost story “Banchō Sarayashiki.” These two, when they inevitably return as ghosts, are not only spiritually exiled from the world, but physically exiled due to having their bodies thrown into the confines of a well. This allows audiences to relate to the isolation and hatred they must have felt. However, it also makes the exiled women themselves things to be feared because of their separation from our world, creating a sense of anxiety and



Photo by: Xtream_i

The type of insecurity I am referring to here is not necessarily a lack of confidence in oneself (although that can be a trait of a horror character seeing as it can make protagonists sympathetic or give antagonists vile motivations) but of a driving desire for stability that horror tends to flip right on its head. People have a tendency to desire safety through stability and constancy. The very prospect of horror introduces a force that disrupts just that in the character’s lives. Forces beyond individual control change things and the people are in need of reassurance and security. In this way, insecurity represents a natural human fear of change.

The Japanese are often criticized as a highly xenophobic nation. The claims can be exaggerated, but they aren’t too far from the reality of the situation. Japan is a very homogenized society and is highly custom-based. Foreign things that enter into that culture without appropriation are often unsettling to people that are very much reliant on the status quo. It isn’t just strangers from other nationalities that are unsettling, it is the very idea of strangers and what they represent: that which is unknown. This is based on preconceived notions of a “village” social model where people that would interact on a daily basis would get to know each other. In modern times, Japan’s crowded cities don’t often let that be the case. As Timothy Iles, Assistant Professor of Pacific and Asian Studies at Victoria University, puts it:

Horror represents the inchoate fears of an urban citizenry who daily encounter strangers—countless scores of unknown people, whose motives, desires, and potential capacity for harm remain immeasurable. These unknown people are all potential opponents. They are all potentially in competition for the very things each individual wants, yet whose true desires, because they remain unknown, are potentially far more threatening than they were in the ‘traditional’ pre-modern ‘village’ social model

This insecurity is a big component of Japanese horror. This is the reason that most modern Japanese horror stories play up the urban environments and the difficulties of everyday life. The instability that change represents is also the reason why many turn of the 21st century Japanese horror films have a technological aspect: “Chakushin Ari” (2003)  deals with the proliferation of cellular phones, “Kairo” (2001) deals with computer technology, and “Ringu” (1998) with home video . The rapid advancement in technology changes the landscape and that unsettles people who are hoping that everything will be the same, and that everything will be okay.

If you take this emotion to its extreme you get a sense of paranoia and delusion that can also make for very effective horror characters—characters that become obsessively afraid and let that become their downfall. If you have the time to sink into a 13-episode anime series, I’d recommend “Paranoia Agent” for this understanding of how insecurity and anxiety, as well as the prevalence of information technology, can lead to a gripping paranoia with widespread consequences. Also, it’s a great show.

Delving Further into the Darkness


It’s important to look at how horror functions not just at the intellectual level but at the emotional level. Next time you are watching a Japanese horror movie or thumbing through a Junji Ito manga think about the ways the creators might be using these emotional themes to get under your skin and creep you out. Again, I think there’s more that I can say about Japanese horror (can you tell I’m a fan?), so join me next time when I go another step deeper and talk about motifs and iconography. Until then, I urge you to put aside some time in this new year to dive into some Japanese horror!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Balmain, C, (2006) “Inside the Well of Loneliness: Towards a Definition of the Japanese Horror Film” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies
  • Benneville, J. S, (1919) “The Mechanics of Japanese Ghost Stories” Asia: Journal of the American Asiatic Association, Volume 19
  • Iles, T, (2005) “The Problem of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Horror Films” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies

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Japan’s Dependence on China’s Unsafe Food Wed, 14 Jan 2015 17:00:44 +0000 Fake eggs crossed the line.  I had gone through life in Japan, blindly filling my basket at the grocery store, hunting for the best bargains instead of the healthiest or safest options.  Then I heard about China’s fake (chicken) eggs – wonders of human innovation created by a complicated chemical process that look real enough to […]

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Fake eggs crossed the line.  I had gone through life in Japan, blindly filling my basket at the grocery store, hunting for the best bargains instead of the healthiest or safest options.  Then I heard about China’s fake (chicken) eggs – wonders of human innovation created by a complicated chemical process that look real enough to be sold and consumed by unsuspecting consumers.

Really?  Artificial eggs?  Chickens eat stuff off the ground and lay real eggs.  Ethical issues aside, I thought factory farming had that problem solved.  If any food seemed to be safe from forgery I thought the egg was it.  Boy, was I wrong.

Suddenly, I found myself giving the grocery aisles a shrewd eye.  The cheaper an item, the more suspect it became.

I interrogated products.  “Green tea, why are you so cheap?!”  Labels provided answers.  “Oh, because you’re from China huh?  Back to the shelf with you!”

Despite troubling trends in food safety, Japan depends on China for a surprising amount of food imports.  Everyone living in Japan can stand to take caution.  Yet the issue is not exclusive to Japan.  China’s continuing growth as a contributor to the global food market means the issue concerns everyone.

Too Bad to Be True?

Global confidence in China’s food products has taken several blows in recent years.  In 2007, when several brands of pet food made by the same manufacturer sickened and killed pets, the cause was found to be ingredients from China that were contaminated with melamine. Chicken jerky pet treats made in China have made also made thousands of pets sick and the illness has killed over a thousand dogs. The specific cause of that illness is still unknown and under investigation.

Since news of tainted pet food broke in 2007, scandals have continued to haunt China’s growing food industry.  The 2008 San Lu milk scandal shocked China and the world when milk and baby formula tested positive for traces of melamine, a chemical that can cause blindness. Vaughn M. Watson of World Policy Blog reported, “By the end of 2008, China’s ministry of health reported more than 300,000 children may have been affected by the contamination.”  But news of scandals only snowballed from there.

China’s food safety issues exploded into headlines earlier this year thanks to the tainted meat exported to Japan. A Shanghai company provided rancid meat to major Japanese fast food chains like McDonalds and Family Mart.  Zoe Li of CNN reported on the gloveless meat handlers and forged expirations dates among the company’s illegal and unsanitary practices.

By this point nothing should come as a surprise.  If food isn’t contaminated by toxins, it’s altogether counterfeit.  If it isn’t counterfeit it’s rancid.  At first, cases of gelatin injected shrimp, poison rice, and even glowing meat forced domestic customers to use caution.  Now expired meat and poison pet foods have forced the world to take heed.  When will China’s food scandals end?  More importantly, why are they happening in the first place?

What Gives?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by High Contrast

As Chinese food scandals continue to break at home and abroad, consumers are left wondering why. Experts blame pollution, lack of regulations, and the strain of providing affordable food for the world’s largest population.


China’s air pollution may actually be more famous than its food scandals, a situation that gained notoriety thanks to the county’s quick cleanup before hosting the 2008 Olympic games.  Allison Jackson of Global Post writes:

It’s hard to overstate the severity of air pollution in China. In many cities the level of contamination in the air often reaches levels considered by experts to be hazardous, and much has been said about the devastating impact it’s all having on people’s health.

But the pollution problem doesn’t end with air quality. According to state reports, sixty percent of China’s underground water is also polluted (The Guardian). The less visible, less known problem of soil contamination is nearly as bad. The Wall Street Journal reported:

One survey declassified last December had found that nearly 20% of Chinese farmland could be contaminated with deadly heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Officials in Guangzhou last year found high cadmium levels in 44% of rice samples.

Yet pollution has done little to deter the land’s use. “In Hunan, rice production in polluted sites has not stopped” said Mr. Wu of Greenpeace.

With its most important resources to food production heavily polluted, it’s no wonder China has given birth to food quality scandals.  Produce from polluted land still finds its way to the market and unlucky consumers pay the price with their health.


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by M M

If the Chinese government enforced regulations, pollution, contamination and counterfeiting wouldn’t be such a problem.  Instead, the government turns a blind eye, underplaying pollution and questionable practices. The Wall Street Journal points out, “Officials classify pollution data as ‘state secrets’ to prevent the public from pressuring them to take action.”

The Chinese government is so secretive that it falls under suspicion even when it takes visible action. The overemphasis of post-scandal government “crackdowns” force many to question their validity.  Conspiracy theorists believe the government set these smokescreens to reassure customer confidence and return things to normal.

Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch testified in Washington DC,

Since 2009, the Chinese government has made a point of making public displays of enforcing food safety rules, inspecting food facilities and punishing people connected with tainted food. News reports frequently reference millions of inspections of facilities and frequent “crackdowns” on particular products.

Proper inspections, performed by the Chinese government or other countries, only serve to shake consumer confidence. Stanley Lubman of China Real Time writes, “reports on the state of Chinese food processing establishments are discouraging. More than half of food processing and packaging firms on the Chinese mainland failed safety inspections in 2011, according to a report by Asia Inspection, a China-based food quality control company.”


China's Unsafe Food

Photo by MPF

Perhaps this is what it takes to feed the world’s largest population.  But in reported cases, profit trumps necessity, regulations and well-being.  Patty Lovera explains, “China’s food manufacturers often found to cut corners and substitute dangerous ingredients to boost sales.”

Food Scandals in China timeline on shows meat being injected with water to boost weight, cabbages sprayed with cancerous chemicals to prolong shelf-life and the use of “gutter oil,” a low-cost cooking oil made from “reprocessed garbage and sewage” (Max Fisher). All of these practices serve one purpose – increasing profit.  And that wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t at the expense of consumer health.

The Center for Investigative Reporting‘s Rachael Bale writes, “Halting agricultural production in many of the worst-hit areas simply isn’t an option.  It would put people’s livelihoods at risk and could result in food shortages.”

Enforcing food production and pollution rules with adequate inspections costs the government money. The abandonment of polluted land and disposal of contaminated goods equals net profit loss for producers.  In terms of profit, enforcement creates a lose-lose situation.  By turning a blind-eye everyone makes out, except consumers (and their pets).

But media exposure and the growing distrust of Chinese food producers may eventually lead to a loss of profit and food shortages anyway.  For example, the 2008 milk scandal forced many Chinese to avoid domestic milk products and empty supermarkets of imported alternatives, hurting China’s domestic producers and creating shortages

Recently exposed scandals and data hurt China’s reputation and its business’s wallets.  The government and businesses are slowly being forced to change.  Nations that buy from China are demanding proper regulations some conduct investigations of their own. Hopefully these scandals and tragedies will lead to true reforms that force China to become a trusted food source.

Why Import From China?

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Angie Harms 

Unbelievable scandals and the disregard of its own citizens’ safety begs the question – why would anyone import food from China?

Considering the countries long history of distrust and even downright hatred for one another, the question is especially poignant in Japan.  But like other countries, Japan depends on Chinese imports because it cannot produce enough food to support itself.

In the past, Japan’s large population and small, mountainous landmass made providing enough food for its population a challenge.  Yet farming techniques and technology helped Japan meet the challenge and for years Japan produced a large percentage of its own food.

Today Japan’s percentage of domestic food production is at an all time low.  According to Kazuhito Yamashita of The Tokyo Foundation, “Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio has dropped below 40%.” Lack of arable land is not the problem. In fact, nature has begun to reclaim abandoned plots of farmland in the country. Unused agricultural plots located in residential areas are being converted into apartments, convenience stores and solar farms.  Yamashita writes, “Some 2.60 million hectares-more than 40% of the 6.09 million hectares that existed in 1961 – have disappeared due to abandonment and conversion for residential or other purposes.”

Japan’s aging farming population has also forced Japan’s dependance on imports.  The country’s farmers have reached retirement age.  According to one government report, in 2008 sixty percent of Japan’s farming population was sixty-five years old or older (, and no one is replacing the void left by these retirees.  Most young people have no desire to live in the country or farm for a living.  They perceive the farming lifestyle as uncool, inconvenient and therefore undesirable. Current population trends show Japanese citizens are migrating to cities.  The Japan Times reports,

The three largest metropolitan areas around Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka combined had a record high population of 64.39 million as of January, accounting for 50.9 percent of the whole nation, while 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures lost population compared to the previous year.

Thanks to government subsidies Japan still produces enough rice for its population.  But that’s not true of all Japanese food staples. Kazuaki Nagata of the Japan Times explains,

Although Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for rice, eggs, whale meat and mandarin oranges exceeds 90 percent, the rate for essential ingredients for Japanese cuisine, including soy beans, is a mere 5 percent, and just 13 percent for daily necessities like cooking oil.  Half of the meat products consumed in Japan is imported.

Japan isn’t alone – countries around the world are growing dependent on Chinese imports.  Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch testified in Washington DC on behalf of the American people,

China is the largest agricultural economy in the world and one of the biggest agricultural exporters.  It is the world’s leading producer of many foods… apples, tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, pears, peas – the list goes on and on.

Like Japanese and Chinese citizens, Lovera worries about the dangers of Chinese products and advocates stricter enforcement of import regulations at home to make up for the lack in China.  As China grows as a global food producer, we all have reason to use caution.

Major Chinese Imports

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Nino Barbieri

After learning to read Japan’s food labels, I found the amount of food imported from China surprising.  And there was usually one dead giveaway – the lower the price of the product, the more likely it originated in China. Most of my local supermarkets’ honey and peanuts came from China. Honey from other countries sold for about five times the price.  Non-Chinese peanuts went for triple the cost.

Deeper investigation revealed the majority of Japan’s garlic, pumpkin seeds and frozen berries also come from China.  China’s garlic is so cheap that it undersells locally grown garlic, despite shipping costs.  In America, cheap garlic imports are putting California’s local garlic growers out of business. As China increases its production of green tea and kimchi, local Japanese and Korean industries might face the same threat.

Now I don’t want to seem unfair.  All countries have their share of contaminated food products.  Japan has strict regulations on American beef imports due to mad cow disease.  Germany and Scandinavian countries lead the world in incidents of campylobacter, salmonella, yersinia, e.coli and listeria. Perhaps some degree of contamination comes with the food business. But out of all the world’s food scandals, China’s are the most consistent, bizarre, and alarming.  And research shows we have reason to worry.

What You Can Do?

China's Unsafe Food

Although strict regulations and enforcement would be optimal, they are not a reality.  Right now we have to take responsibility for ourselves.  Since China has become a global food provider, anyone that cares about their health needs to remain vigilant.

But taking extra care can prove tricky abroad, where language and cultural barriers add a layer of difficulty.  Throw in three different types of characters (hiragana, katakana and kanji) and it becomes downright intimidating. That’s why Tofugu is providing these tips and tricks to help our fans in Japan protect themselves.

Most packaged foods feature important product information on the back of the package, framed by a convenient little table.  Here are the categories that usually fill out the table’s left side.

  • 名称  (meishou):  the product’s name.
  • 原料 (genryou) / 材料 (zairyou): ingredients.
  • 原料 原産 地名 (genryou gensan chimei): the goods’ or ingredient’s place of origin.  The following locations are featured on the right.
    • 国産 (kokusan) domestic
    • (ken) prefecture
    • 中国 (chuugoku) China
    • 韓国 (kankoku) Korea
    • アメリカ, 米国 (amerika, beikoku) America/United States
    • カナダ (kanada) Canada
  • 保存 方法 (hozon houhou): storage instructions
  • 商品の情報 (shouhin no jouhou):  product information
  • 内容料 (naiyou ryou): the content quantity/weight of the goods/package
  • メーカー名 (meekaa mei): name of maker/manufacturer
  • 製造者 (seizousha): manufacturer

Overwhelming labels become less intimidating when you know what to look for.  The most important kanji to remember are 原料 原産 地名 (genryou gensan chimei), 国産 (kokusan),  (ken) and if you intend on avoiding Chinese products, 中国 (chuugoku).

From the examples above we can see that the package on the right contains strawberries (イチゴ) from China (中国).  That label lists little information and is easy to decipher.  The one on the left contains more detailed information.  But when you know what to look for, finding the important information becomes easy.  It contains blueberries (ブルーベリー) from the United States (アメリカ).

Happy label reading!

The Label-less

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Matt Smith

While produce like loose vegetables and fruit don’t have labels, they often have signs nearby explaining their origins.  In the case of imports, the signs will show the country of origin.  This is where knowing the kanji for China comes in handy.

In the case of domestic produce, the sign will display the prefecture’s name. Remember, prefecture/ken is written with .  So if the sign shows a bunch of kanji with  at the end, the item is probably domestic, from one of Japan’s prefectures.

Research Online

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Merdal

If a food seems suspicious, for example it has an unbelievably low price or a strange taste, search for it online.  I didn’t know Japan imported green tea from China until I bought a cheap, odd tasting green.  The package revealed that it came from China and this article from Greenpeace informed me that Chinese tea leaves test positive for banned pesticides. From then on I made sure to buy domestic green tea.

When I searched for Chinese honey, I discovered that the United States bans the product due to illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.  Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, “Chinese honey producers inject some honey with water, heat it, filter it and distill it into syrup, which wipes out antibiotics but turns it into a diluted, less valuable product that can be sold below the price of regular honey production.”  The enterprise is so profitable it has given birth to global Chinese honey smuggling rings.

A search for cheap garlic revealed that Chinese garlic had “high levels of lead, arsenic and added sulfites” (The Washington Post).  The trend continued and my searches exposed antifreeze contaminated toothpastes, “catfish laden with banned antibiotics, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and others” (The Washington Post).

When you’re uncertain about the quality of a product from any country, do an internet search. What it reveals might surprise you and change your shopping habits!

You Are What You Eat

China's Unsafe Food

Photo by Arto Teräs

In the past, I shopped for the best deals. Price dictated what I bought and quantity ruled the day. But when getting more for your money includes extra antibiotics, heavy metals, molds, and pesticides it may be time to change your shopping habits. Watching your budget is important, but so is protecting your health.

China’s recurring food scandals should have us all taking extra caution. Although news of China’s tainted dog treats first broke in 2007, instances of sickness and deaths from those treats continue today.  It’s unfortunate, but these instances can be avoided.  Small efforts, like checking labels and doing a little research can go a long way.

Although I’ve become cautious, there are always new surprises. Thanks to this article I learned my frozen strawberries come from China! Time to do more research!

Of course, even with extreme caution, you can never be too sure. The idea of honey smuggling seems like a joke, but it’s a real problem. Though the label may say pure honey from India, customers might actually be buying watered down, contaminated honey smuggled from China.

Each new China food scandal makes the next one easier to swallow (pun intended).  Instead of shock, we’re left wondering, “what’s next?”

From gutter oil to fake eggs and poison milk, nothing about the bizarre state of Chinese food production surprises me anymore. But with a little effort I hope to avoid becoming a victim of food scandal – it’s bad enough having to read about them.

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Michi No Eki: Japanese Stamp Rally in Hokkaido Mon, 12 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 Stamp rallying is very popular in Japan. There are Pokémon stamp rallies, convenience store stamp rallies, curry stamp rallies, and many more! The concept is simple. You have a special book or sheet of paper. You take that book to interesting places, which have rubber stamps for you to use. You stamp the book. If […]

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Stamp rallying is very popular in Japan. There are Pokémon stamp rallies, convenience store stamp rallies, curry stamp rallies, and many more! The concept is simple. You have a special book or sheet of paper. You take that book to interesting places, which have rubber stamps for you to use. You stamp the book. If you collect all the stamps you can win big prizes! Yay prizes!

This is not to be confused with the other colloquial use of “スタンプラリー” in Japan, which refers to paperwork caught in a bureaucratic tangle that has to be stamped by many departments before it can proceed. Today’s subject is a lot more fun than a bureaucratic stamp rally. I’m going to tell you about my favourite, the Hokkaido Michi no Eki Stamp Rally, and how you can do it too.

Station of the Road

michinoeki dragons

Photo by Tzuhsun Hsu

There are 1030 Michi no Eki in Japan. 114 of those are in Hokkaido! Hokkaido is big. Really big. And it’s full of treasures. It’s the only prefecture apart from Okinawa to have its own stamp rally. All the others have to combine into regions.

But what is a 道の駅 – Michi no Eki? Literally translated it means “Station of the Road”. Some might say that Michi no Eki are mere service stations. Those people are fools. Michi no Eki are wonderlands of fun, just waiting for you to visit and discover them!

OK, yes, they do share a lot of features with service stations. They have toilets, vending machines, parking areas. Some have cafes. But there is something special about Hokkaido’s Michi no Eki. And that something special is different in each one!

How about a Michi no Eki with a crane sanctuary where you can see Red Crowned Cranes? Or a Michi no Eki with an onsen right inside it? Perhaps you’d like to visit the Michi no Eki with a huge clock tower full of wooden gnomes playing musical instruments. Or the Michi no Eki that is towered over by dragons?

And I haven’t even started to tell you about the food. Betsukai’s Michi no Eki has local ice cream. When you’re in Furano, you know it’s all about the lavender – lavender flavoured everything! I had an epic baked curry in Kenbuchi in a restaurant that seemed to have been carved entirely from wood. Want melon soft cream ice cream? Head to the Yubari Michi no Eki. It’s cheaper than the Yubari melons themselves, the most expensive in the world. At Michi no Eki you can eat local delicacies from Hokkaido, land of delicacies!

Local Highlights

michinoeki delicacy

One of the best things about Michi no Eki is that they celebrate the local regions of Hokkaido. If you don’t have much time to visit an area, popping into the Michi no Eki will help you get a feel for what is special about it. If you do have time to visit longer, Michi no Eki also act as Tourist Information Offices to point you in the right direction.

Michi no Eki have three stated purposes. First, they are places for drivers to take a break. Tired drivers are not safe drivers. By being more attractive than simply pulling over in a layby for a nap, Michi no Eki are intended to encourage drivers to rest frequently. Secondly, they provide information for both people passing through and locals. This includes road condition information as well as tourist information – I once was treated to an explanation of of Hokkaido’s deer population at Akkeshi’s Michi no Eki. The third purpose is to promote regional cooperation. Michi no Eki serve as a hub for the community, as well as a place for visitors to interact with that community.

The local connection is the main reason I’m recommending Michi no Eki to you. If you want to find local souvenirs, Michi no Eki should be your destination. They are a great place to pick up interesting omiyage that aren’t just generally “Hokkaido” themed, but are specific to the area you visited. If you don’t have much time in Hokkaido, Michi no Eki are a fantastic way to get a taste (literally and figuratively) of this incredibly diverse prefecture. From the squid in the South-West to the onions of Kitami, you’ll be able to sample the best of Hokkaido.

Getting Started on Your First Japanese Stamp Rally!

onsen stamp

Photo by Verity Lane

OK, but what about the Stamp Rallying? First, you need something to stamp, a pokédex of stamps if you will. Alas, no Professors hand these out, but you can buy one for about the price of a soft drink from any Michi no Eki you visit. If you’re planning a stamp rally trip, you can pick one up at your first Michi no Eki.

Each page has space for two stamps. You have to put the stamp on the right page. Even if you don’t read Japanese, this is usually pretty easy as the place where the rubber stamp is kept often has a little sign telling you the page number. Don’t worry if you do make a mistake. There are a couple of blank pages at the back of the book.

If you collect all of the stamps, you’ll get a certificate of completion. You are also entered into a prize drawing to win things like an onsen trip for two, electronics, and many smaller prizes like bags and files. My heart burns with a desire to get that certificate of completion. Once I started stamp rallying it became a bit of an obsession, which led me once to spend more than one entire day doing nothing but drive from Michi no Eki to Michi no Eki. If you’re the kind of person who finds joy in completing things, stamp rallying is a good thing to get into because it is also fun to explore while collecting your stamps.

Stamp Rallying for Your Health and Sanity

stamp rally map

Photo by Verity Lane

Your stamp book also comes with a handy map and a heap of information. Each stamp space has the opening hours and other useful information about each Michi no Eki. The stamps are only available during opening hours, but if you visit when the Michi no Eki is closed you can take a picture of yourself in front of the sign board with your book. That counts towards your total if you are going for the challenge of getting all the stamps.

The map is very useful whether you are stamp rallying or not. Driving can be tiring, but Michi no Eki are spaced apart in just the right way to refresh you. If you have a long drive to do in Hokkaido, pull out your Michi no Eki map and plan your stops in advance. Michi no Eki always have toilets and drinks vending machines. At some you can have a sit down meal of local produce. At a few you can even visit an onsen, to really refresh yourself for your onward journey.

Road Tripping in Hokkaido

hokkaido view

Photo by Stuart

A lot of people think of Hokkaido as only a winter destination. While it is true that the powder snow is sweet up in the northlands, there is more to Hokkaido than just snow sports. For many Japanese tourists, Hokkaido’s summer provides a refreshing escape from the heat and humidity of the south. That’s not to say Hokkaido is cool in the summer, but it won’t make you sweat so much that you dehydrate and look like an umeboshi. Autumn is also very pleasant, especially with the changing leaves that turn the hillsides red and gold.

Hokkaido doesn’t yet have a Shinkansen to whisk you across its wide-open spaces. There is a train network, but it misses out a lot of the true gems of Hokkaido. In fact many Michi no Eki are built on the sites of old train stations that closed as the rail network shrank. So a car is really the best way to go in Hokkaido.

Aside from your stamp rally book, what do you need to have a successful road trip in Hokkaido? First up, if you are coming from outside Japan you’ll need your International Drivers Permit. You need to get this in your home country BEFORE you enter Japan. With that you should be able to rent a car and drive legally in Japan. Then, check out this essential driving in Hokkaido pamphlet. It includes useful information on car rental, local highlights and those wonderful Michi no Eki.

Next you have to consider the seasons. If you are visiting in the winter you will want a car with good winter tires and four-wheel drive. Those cute little kei cars with their yellow license plates might be a bit cheaper, but they are really only good for driving in towns. You can be blown off the roads in one of those wee little cars. No joke.

If you aren’t a confident winter driver, I would recommend saving your Hokkaido road trip for another time. The road conditions can get ugly. They don’t salt or grit the roads in Hokkaido like they do in many other countries. Roads are plowed, but they still have a thick layer of ice throughout most of the season, and you need to be careful of the high snow piles that can obscure your view. Also, ensure you have supplies in case you get stuck in the snow. A shovel, emergency rations and a blanket or sleeping bag are all must-carry items if you’re planning a long trip. Most of the Michi no Eki remain open in the winter, but a few of the more remote ones are closed because the roads leading to them are closed by snowfall, so you won’t be able to stamp them all in a single winter.

Summer is a completely different story. Summer is made for road tripping! You’ll get to see the lush mountainsides, fields of flowers stretching as far as the eye can see, adorable cows ambling around in green pastures. In summer, Hokkaido’s roads are at their best. There are some toll roads, which have a higher speed limit than the normal roads. Hokkaido has the same speed limits as the rest of Japan. Sometimes, when you’re on a clear straight road that stretches for miles, this can seem restrictive compared to other countries. However, don’t be tempted to speed. A ticket from a cop will ruin your trip and the countryside is beautiful enough to warrant taking it slow.

Stamp Rallies Elsewhere

michinoeki stamp

Photo by icoro

If you want to go rallying elsewhere in Japan, you can do that too. Most regions of Japan have a stamp rally system. Of particular note, in the Tohoku region (Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures) shares one stamp book and it has been rolled into the reconstruction efforts. If you reach all the Michi no Eki in Tohoku, you receive a letter of thanks for visiting Tohoku and supporting the region. However, some Michi no Eki in the worst affected areas have not reopened.

Completion Fever

hokkaido stamps

Photo by Verity Lane

For me it’s best if I don’t think too much about other stamp rallies. Trying to complete one is enough. Since I was the only one of my JET friends with a car in our town, I used to drag them to Michi no Eki whenever we went anywhere. While they had an ice cream or used the facilities, I headed straight for the stamping station. The feeling of slamming down a rubber stamp onto my book was fantastic! It was a mark that said, “I was here.” Also lots of the stamps have pretty cute pictures. As further swag, I would usually pick up one of the town sign magnets in the gift shop. Each town in Hokkaido has a unique sign, and you can see them as you drive along. The pictures represent what is special about that town. Sometimes they are beautiful, like Akkeshi town’s flowers. Other times they are pretty goofy, like Kitami’s rugby playing onion man. My fridge is covered in them, but sadly my collection is incomplete, even after three years. Hokkaido is really big after all.

I never managed to complete my stamp rally book either, a fact which still haunts me to this day. Stamp rallying is quite addictive. I shall return to Hokkaido. I shall complete my collection of town magnets. And I shall win the Hokkaido Michi no Eki Stamp Rally certificate of completion, or die trying*.

*This may be slightly over dramatic, but only very slightly. Stamp rallying is serious business.

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 1: Guns and Rosaries Thu, 08 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 In 1543 the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Two (maybe three) Portuguese merchants aboard a Chinese ship were blown off course and forced to land on the island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Only six years later, the first Christian missionary came to Japan. What followed was, what some historians call, Japan’s “Christian century.” […]

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In 1543 the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Two (maybe three) Portuguese merchants aboard a Chinese ship were blown off course and forced to land on the island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Only six years later, the first Christian missionary came to Japan. What followed was, what some historians call, Japan’s “Christian century.” Despite 100 years of Christian dominance, today only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. In this three-part series we’ll look at what happened in between. There will be a focus on Kyushu because many of the significant events of Japan’s Christian history were centered there. Those first Portuguese men to arrive at Tanegashima also brought the first guns to Japan. Today’s article will focus on the sixteenth century, during which time guns and Christianity were often entwined. Both had a heavy impact on Kyushu and Japan at large during this period, known as the Warring States period (sengoku jidai), a century where central authority in Japan had lost its sway and samurai clans vied for dominance.

The Apostle of the East

1-Francis-Xavier01 Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the first Christian missionary to Japan, was born to an aristocratic family in Spain. Xavier became a founding member of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits). They were the first order to specifically make missionary work their purpose. In the early 16th century the Portuguese had established colonies in India, including Goa. In 1541, Xavier sailed to Goa to take charge of the Jesuit mission there. After a few years of preaching to southern Indians and uncouth Portuguese sailors with little success, he moved on to another Portuguese colony, Malacca, Malaysia in 1545. It was at Malacca that Xavier met a young Japanese man named Anjiro (or Yajiro, according to other sources), who was curious about Christianity. Anjiro was from Satsuma (modern day Kagoshima prefecture), on the south end of Kyushu. After being implicated in a murder, Anjiro had fled to Malacca, where he picked up some Portuguese, and developed an interest in Christianity. That interest, combined with Anjiro’s stories of Japan, convinced Xavier that it might be prime territory for spreading the word. The two set sail on a Chinese ship, along with two Spanish Jesuits, an Indian and two more Japanese converts. On August 15, 1549 they disembarked at Kagoshima.

Making Good Impressions


Photo by Roke

The Shimazu family who ruled Satsuma also controlled Tanegashima, the island where the first Europeans had landed. The Shimazu had been impressed by European firearms and were quick to reproduce them. So, when Xavier arrived they respectfully welcomed him, curious to see what he might have brought along. They gave him permission to speak to their subjects and, through translators, they began to preach. Xavier and his Spanish colleagues began studying Japanese, and soon were attempting the occasional sermon in Japanese, transliterated into the Roman alphabet for them. For the most part, Xavier and European missionaries who followed were quite impressed with the Japanese people. The Jesuits, for their part, were unyielding on matters of faith, but otherwise tried to adapt to local customs. They limited their meat consumption to better fit into Japanese society. They couldn’t be persuaded to bathe daily as the Japanese did, but compromised by doing so once a week (or every fortnight in the winter). Although the Jesuits found many admirable qualities among the locals, there were generally hostile relationships between them and the Buddhist clergy. Though there were a few interfaith friendships, the Jesuits often accused Buddhist monks of being lazy and sodomites. The Buddhists thought the Europeans were spreading lies.

Mission Impossible


Photo by Uploadalt

Some of the most curious quirks of the Jesuits’ mission in Japan sprang from dealing with the language barrier. Xavier once described Japanese as “the devil’s own tongue.” Xavier and others were largely working through Japanese translators, but they were trying to convey something that had no precedent in Japan. An early mistake was when Anjiro translated God as Dainichi, a Buddhist deity. This led people to think the priests were from some new Buddhist sect, and Xavier didn’t discover the error for two years. They tried Deus (deusu), but decided it sounded to close to daiuso “big lie.” They settled on Tenshu “Lord of Heaven.” The missionaries found many translations carried Buddhist connotations, so they began to use the Latin or Portuguese words for new ideas. For example, they used the word bataren (from the Portuguese, padre) to refer to themselves, so they wouldn’t be confused for Buddhist priests.

Comings and Goings

4-Japanese-Christians-in-Portuguese-Dress02 Ten months after Xavier’s arrival, the Shimazu changed their stance towards the Christians, prohibiting proselytizing and further conversions. This was probably prompted by the landing of a Portuguese ship at Hirado, in northern Kyushu and outside of Shimazu territory, which dashed Shimazu hopes of securing European trade through the missionaries. Xavier left for Hirado, having only converted 100 people in Kagoshima. Xavier made another 100 converts in Hirado, but didn’t stay long, leaving Kyushu and striking out for Kyoto with hopes of meeting the shogun or perhaps the emperor, stopping briefly in Yamaguchi and Sakai along the way. When he reached the capital, Kyoto, he was disappointed by the effects of the civil wars. The shogun was in exile, the emperor powerless and nearly penniless, and the residents too worried about the next attack to care about his message. Xavier headed back the way he came. During his first stop in Yamaguchi, Xavier had made a poor impression on the local lord, Ouchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551), but on the return journey he decided to try again. This time he pulled out all the stops, dressing in a fine silk cassock and bringing gifts, including a clock, wine, textiles, cut glass, a pair of spectacles, a telescope, and a three-barrel musket. The lord was pleased and gave them both permission to preach and an abandoned temple, Daidoji, in which to stay. Xavier spent four months there before going to Bungo, in eastern Kyushu. Xavier had remained the head of the Jesuit mission in Goa, India during his entire adventure in Japan. When a Portuguese ship landed at Bungo, he hoped to receive word from his Indian mission. There was no word to be had, and Xavier felt he must return to Goa aboard the ship to see to his responsibilities. After two and a half years in Japan, sowing the seeds of the Christian mission, Xavier said farewell to the country that he once described as “the only country yet discovered in these regions where there is hope of Christianity permanently taking root.” The following year he died of illness on a small Chinese island.

Convenient Conversions


Photo by 大分帰省中

Before Xavier left Bungo for Goa, he was granted an audience with the local lord, Otomo Sorin (1530-1587). Sorin gave the Jesuits a building which became their headquarters. Many years later, Sorin converted to Christianity himself (more on that in part two), but this initial generosity was probably a political move to draw in Portuguese trade. Kyushu became the hotspot for lordly conversion. The first lord to convert was Omura Sumitada (1533-1587), with territory in northwestern Kyushu. In 1561, Jesuits approached him, saying that if he would “permit the law of God to be preached in his land, great spiritual and temporal profits would follow him therefrom.” Sumitada gave them the port of Yokose-ura, and converted to Christianity in 1563. Though “temporal profits” seem to have been a factor, Sumitada acted zealously on behalf of his new faith, burning down temples and shrines. His actions provoked a revolt led by a rival family member. Yokose-ura was burned by the rebels, so in 1570 Sumitada opened the port of Nagasaki to the Jesuits. At the time of its opening, Nagasaki was a small fishing village, but from then on it grew into a center of foreign activity.

The Enemy of My Enemy


Photo by 名古屋太郎

Around this time, the Jesuits made their most powerful ally, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). The first of Japan’s great unifiers began to patronize the Christians in 1568. Doing so helped him in trade with the Portuguese, getting guns and cannons to aid his conquest. Nobunaga appreciated the austerity of the Jesuits, and found hypocrisy in a Buddhist clergy who “preached about suffering while living in luxury.” Nobunaga never converted, and it doesn’t seem that he ever believed in the Christian message, but he certainly had no love for Buddhist institutions either. A number had been thorns in his side. He burned the great temple complex on Mt. Hiei, killing roughly 25,000, and spent eleven years fighting the ikko-ikki, a type of militant Buddhist group. In Nobunaga’s town shadowed by Nobunaga’s castle at Azuchi, the Jesuits set up a school for the children of the local elite, called the Seminario. There they taught Latin, the history of Christianity, music, and Japanese literature. Unfortunately, it lasted only three years, because in 1582 Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his generals, and chose to kill himself rather than be captured. The traitors then attacked Azuchi Castle, which burned down along with the Seminario. Nobunaga had been a source of hope for the Jesuits, and with his death there were even harder times ahead for the Christian mission in Japan.

Onward to Part 2! →

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Amezaiku: Japanese Candy Creatures Born from Sugar and Fire Tue, 06 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s not enough for something to taste good, it has to look good too. This is particularly true of sweets, which are often just as much a handicraft as a food. The most famous example of this is the seasonal wagashi sweets traditionally made for the tea ceremony, which look more […]

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In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s not enough for something to taste good, it has to look good too. This is particularly true of sweets, which are often just as much a handicraft as a food. The most famous example of this is the seasonal wagashi sweets traditionally made for the tea ceremony, which look more like tiny sculptures of flowers, fruits, and other seasonal symbols than something to eat.

Amazingly, candy sculptures aren’t restricted to high society. Common people had them too. Even their children had amezaiku. This unique craft of making intricate sugar figures of animals and other creatures was once commonly practiced by street vendors, but recently it seemed at risk of dying out, restricted by new health regulations and losing the competition with more modern forms of fun. But now, new craftspeople are keeping it alive and adding their own personal take on the tradition.

Shaping Syrup

cropped critters

Amezaiku, unlike other candies, is edible entertainment, as much performance as sustenance. One place where you can watch the mesmerizing act of amezaiku creation today is Amezaiku Yoshihara in Sendagi, Tokyo. If you buy one of the already-made creatures (like the ones pictured above), you miss out on the best part.

To do watch the show, first make a choice from their catalog. Amezaiku artisans can make giraffes, dragons, snails, octopi, koalas, wild boar, owls, flamingos, different breeds of dogs, and many more. They also have seasonal specials, like their own rabbit mascot dressed up in Halloween outfits. When I was there, I wanted something quintessentially Japanese but, I have to confess I also thought, “what’s the point of watching him make something easy?” So I picked a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, the kind that’s kept as a pet.  With its thin legs and antenna, it looked like the most challenging of the lot.

The amezaiku artisan’s material is a boiling pot of mizuame, a sugar syrup made from rice or potato starch, similar to corn syrup. Grabbing a glob of the molten mixture and holding it above a small fan, he tosses and stretches it like taffy until it reaches the right temperature. The mizuame is white so, if the creature is meant to be a different color, the artisan adds a drop of coloring, which mixes in as he stretches and kneads.

When the material is the right consistency, he compresses it back into a glob and inserts a long wooden lollipop stick. Then, using only his fingers and a small pair of special scissors, he makes tiny cuts and pulls the candy into legs, ears, wings, or antenna, depending on the creation.

amezaiku artisan making beetle

You can see a video of him making a cute octopus here. He has only a few minutes to make the figure before the candy becomes too stiff to work with. When he’s done, he taps on it with his fingernail to show you that it’s hardened. He paints on details with a tiny brush, then wraps it carefully and you’re good to go.

finished amezaiku beetle

Don’t ask me how it tastes. It’s been over a month now and I haven’t had the heart to eat it. I’m not sure I ever will.

Evolution of Amezaiku


Some sources say that amezaiku goes all the way back to the eighth century, when a candy puller made an offering at the completion of the temple To-ji which was built when the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto. But what’s recognizable as amezaiku today probably started in the Edo period, where it was known as “ame no tori” or “candy birds” since that was the usual shape that was made. The technique was actually different in the old days: the craftsman put the glob of candy on the end of a hollow reed and blew air into it, rather like glassblowing. The result was a hollow candy, less intricate than we see today.

Techniques grew more complicated over time, and the English flyer at Amezaiku Yoshihara gives a rather fanciful explanation for how this happened:

It is said that the ninja disguised themselves as candy workmen and wandered through the town, collecting information on the techniques that each candy puller used. The talents and secrets of the different pullers were collected, and more complicated technology and designs were collected, making the candy pulling ever more complicated and beautiful.

Amezaiku makers didn’t have shops. They were traveling vendors. The video below is a traditional call of a vendor entreating children to come and buy candy birds.

The fact that amezaiku vendors made their wares on the streets contributed to the decline of the craft in the late 20th century. In the 1970s, health laws prohibited candy from being made in street stands, and also outlawed the old technique of blowing hollow candies, because you’d have the craftsman’s germs on the inside of your candy. (It’s still done this way in China, as you can see in this photo.)

Making a living as a candy vendor on the street was always hit or miss, but eventually it became impossible. The remaining artisans hired themselves out for festivals and private events. In 1995, an amezaiku maker included in a book called “Vanishing Japan” was said to be the last experienced one in Tokyo. He said that his customers at that point were mostly young women, rather than children. Kids were too busy with scheduled activities, he said, but no doubt amezaiku faced stiff competition from the burgeoning world of TV and video games.

That vendor also said he had many apprentices during his thirty year long career but not a single one stuck with it. You can’t blame them when you hear current practitioners talk: suffering for your art is unavoidable when your material is sticky syrup at a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit). One craftsman, when asked what was the trick to touching the hot molten sugar, told a reporter that, when he began learning, “I thought there should be a trick, but there was NOT.” Another recently explained on an NHK TV show, “your skin hardens and your nerves die, so you don’t feel the heat.”

Candy Creatures Change with the Times


Photo by Exploratorium

As is clear from the fact that there are current practitioners to quote, amezaiku hasn’t vanished completely, and new practitioners are taking the craft to new places.

The craftsman who made my beetle, Takahiro Yoshihara, was the first to open a permanent brick and mortar amezaiku shop. He’s been in business since 2008, and there are three other artisans who work for the shop as well. Yoshihara made an interesting observation about the development of the craft now that it’s being done in a shop. When I went, I got to see the show, but I also bought an already-made rabbit to take home to a friend. The latter sort of purchase puts pressure on the craftspeople to make their products more impressive:

“At festivals, you buy amezaiku for yourself, and the fun part is watching it being made. But in a shop like this one, people come to buy something to give to someone else, so the person who receives it doesn’t know how it was made. And if the thing they receive is not extremely well made, they won’t be happy to receive it. One thing I noticed since I opened the shop is that I think the shapes become more and more beautiful.”

The success of this shop was a good sign for the craft, but when there’s only one of something, it’s hard to have confidence that it’s not on the brink of disappeaing. However, there’s now a second shop. Opened in 2013 in Asakusa, Shinri Tezuka of Ameshin has his own style, using clear sugar and painting on translucent layers of color. To increase interest in the craft, both places offer workshops where you can try it yourself (although remember, you’ve still got nerve endings to burn off).

These are the only two shops, but they’re far from the only amezaiku makers left. Others still do it more or less the old way, travelling around and appearing at special events, although they’re modernizing the business in other ways. Some are on the internet, of course: You can read the blog (in Japanese) of a woman in Nagano who has her own company. And Takahiro Mizuki, another Tokyo amezaiku maker, has a website in three languages, Japanese, French and English. Mizuki makes traditional figures but is just as happy to make modern characters like Pikachu and Winnie the Pooh.

Amezaiku Abroad and Beyond!


There are also a handful of amezaiku makers outside Japan. In fact, if you’re an American and this all sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because for years there was a woman who did it at Epcot Center,  although sadly she’s no longer there. There are also a couple in Los Angeles and Hawaii,  both places with large Japanese-American communities. (The LA craftsperson is actually training his nephew, who came from Sapporo and plans to return to Japan to practice the trade.)
And those travelling amezaiku artists travel a lot farther now than they did in the old days. Takahiro Yoshihara of the Sendagi shop recently performed at a fair in New York City. And if you’ve got the big bucks to hire an international travelling amezaiku artist, try Takahiro Mizuki – he’s been to the US and Saudi Arabia and says on his website “Will fly anywhere on the planet!”

Amezaiku is still seen as something old-fashioned – Takahiro Mizuki writes that, much to his amusement, he’s even heard elementary school children call it “nostalgic.” But it looks like, while they might have had a close call there for a while, these candy creatures have been saved from extinction.

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  • Kiritani, Elizabeth. Vanishing Japan. Tuttle, 1995.

Uncredited images by Linda Lombardi

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An Exclusive Interview with the Seikan Tunnel Stations Wed, 17 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 The Seikan Tunnel is an undersea tunnel running from Honshu, Japan’s main island, to Hokkaido, its northernmost island. A train station can be found at each end of the tunnel: namely Yoshioka-Kaitei Station (Fukushima, Hokkaido), and Tappi-Kaitei Station (Sotogahama, Honshu). Image by Tangotango Recently, these two retired from regular train-station lives due to construction of a new high-speed […]

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The Seikan Tunnel is an undersea tunnel running from Honshu, Japan’s main island, to Hokkaido, its northernmost island. A train station can be found at each end of the tunnel: namely Yoshioka-Kaitei Station (Fukushima, Hokkaido), and Tappi-Kaitei Station (Sotogahama, Honshu).


Image by Tangotango

Recently, these two retired from regular train-station lives due to construction of a new high-speed train line. After decades of passenger service, I figured they had some stories to tell, so I sat down with them for an interview.


M (Matthew): “Good morning, stations. I’ll start by asking you to introduce yourselves.”

Y (Yoshioka-Kaitei): “Good morning. I’m Yoshioka-Kaitei. I’m the one at the north end of the Seikan Tunnel.”


Photo by Encino

T (Tappi-Kaitei): “Hello! I’m Tappi-Kaitei, and you’ll find me at the south end.”


Photo by PekePON

Y: “We’re both so thrilled to be interviewed today. We just love NHK’s programming.”

M: “Oh, I’m not from NHK. I’m from Tofugu.”

T: “Tofu-what?”

Y: “Is that a cookbook or something?”

M: “No, it’s a blog about Japanese culture. The best of its kind, in fact.”

T: “Wow, really?”

M: “Well, it’s in the top ten, at least. Top fifty.”

Y: “Interesting.”

M: “It’s not the worst one out there, is what I’m saying. Probably.”

T: (whispering to Y) “Couldn’t we land an interview with NHK instead?”

Y: (whispering back) “Well, we have to start somewhere. Let’s work our way up from the bottom of the media heap.”

The Seikan Tunnel

M: “Tell me about the Seikan Tunnel.”

T: “Well, our tunnel goes under the Tsugaru Strait.”

Y: “That’s the strip of water between Honshu and Hokkaido.”


Photo by Alljal

T: “Naturally, passengers and freight have been crossing the strait for a very long time, but things really got booming after the war.”

Y: “The Second World War.”

T: “That’s right. The economy skyrocketed, and so did shipping between the islands. Eventually, people started looking at alternatives to ferry traffic.”

M: “And they decided to build the tunnel?”

Y: “They did! Of course, lots of careful planning was needed first. Especially here, what with all the volcanoes and earthquakes.”

T: “Goodness, yes. An extraordinary feat, really. They started the surveying all the way back in the 40s, and only got started on construction in ’71. That part took almost two decades, finishing up in the late 80s.”

M: “And that construction included the two of you?”

Y: “Of course! We opened together in 1988. Oh, I remember the excitement!”

T: “Just before all that economic trouble started.”

Y: “Shhh! Don’t bring that up, you’ll spoil the interview.”

T: “No sense ignoring it.”

Y: “You’re so gloomy sometimes!”

(several minutes of bickering)

Other Tunnels

M: “Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with the prevalence of undersea tunnels…”

Y: “Unfamiliar? Where do they live, in a cave somewhere?”

T: “Canada, maybe.”

Y: “Oh, yeah, I suppose.”

M: “Could you tell me about other examples throughout the world?”

T: “Well, while the two of us obviously live in the world’s finest undersea tunnel, we have many colleagues around the globe. There’s the Thames Tunnel, in London…”

Y: “The very first underwater transit tunnel.”


Photo by Lars Plougmann

T: “…that’s right. Then there was the Severn Tunnel, under another English river…”

Y: “England really got the ball rolling on the whole underwater tunnel thing.”

T: “…quite. Now those tunnels go under rivers, so they’re pretty short. In the twentieth century, we started getting much longer ones, under bits of ocean.”

Y: “Probably the most famous one of all is the Channel Tunnel, linking the UK and France. The stations are Folkestone and Coquelles.”

T: “We must invite them over again. It’s been so long.”

Y: “But they’re so annoying! Always casually mentioning that they have ‘the world’s longest undersea tunnel.’ As if that matters.”

M: “So your’s isn’t the longest?”

T: “Ours is the longest tunnel that has an undersea portion. From end to end, our tunnel is about 54 kilometers… longer than the Channel Tunnel, which is about 50. The undersea part of the Channel Tunnel is longer than our undersea part, though; about 38 kilometers, versus our 23.”

Y: “But who’s counting.”

M: “What about other tunnels around the world?”

Y: “There are a number of others, largely in Europe… Norway, especially. You’ll also find them in the United States. And Korea, and China.”

T: “Here in Japan, there’s one that runs under Tokyo Bay. It’s part of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line. Almost 10 kilometers long, I think.”

Y: “It’s the world’s fourth-longest underwater tunnel, and the longest underwater road tunnel, as opposed to a rail tunnel.”

T: “Of course, the whole underwater transit thing in Japan started with the Kanmon Tunnel, built in the 30s and 40s to connect Honshu with Kyushu. Its stations are Shimonoseki and Moji.”


Photo by Muyo

Y: “Oh, I can’t stand them either. They’re even worse than Folkestone and Coquelles. They never stop reminding us that their tunnel was first.”

T: “They’re unbearable.”

Why Tunnel?

M: “So, no offense, but why build tunnels at all? It seems like a lot of trouble.”

T: “Well, let’s look at some other options. If you need to cross a body of water, you could build bridges… boring! Predictable!”

Y: “That’s what they did to connect Honshu with Shikoku. Yawn.”


Photo by Toto-tarou

T: “Or you could rely completely on ferry service, but that’s slower and less fuel-efficient than a tunnel. And being sensitive to sea and weather conditions, ferries can be dangerous. There was a terrible accident in the 50s, when a typhoon sunk five of them in the Tsugaru Strait. Over a thousand people were killed.”

Y: “Compare those options with tunnelling under the sea. You use less fuel, and you avoid waves and weather altogether. Moreover, a tunnel won’t disturb ships or sea life, unlike a bridge.”

M: “Are there any disadvantages to undersea tunnels?”

T: “None whatsoever.”

M: “None at all?”

Y: “Our tunnel is absolutely perfect. People should tunnel everywhere.”

M: “There must be something.”

T: “Well… I supposed they are expensive to construct. But once they’re up and running, they’re cheaper than fleets of ferry boats.”

Y: “You get what you pay for.”



M: “One issue that comes to mind immediately regarding undersea tunnels is safety. I imagine there are some hefty safety measures in place?”

Y: “Fire is probably the one people worry about most. Our tunnel has a ventilation system with fans to suck out smoke, as well as high-tech fire detectors and sprinklers.”

T: “And surveillance too, so officials can help guide people to safety in the event of an emergency, and be sure everyone makes it out.”

Y: “That’s where we come in! Part of our job is to provide escape routes for the tunnel.”

M: “How’s that?”

Y: “In the event of disaster, in the undersea part of the tunnel, we provide the nearest evacuation points. We’ve been designed to accommodate escaping crowds, though hopefully that will never happen. Tunnel travel is very safe.”

T: “Unfortunately, tunnel construction can be very dangerous. Not that it’s surprising, with all that drilling, picking, and exploding one’s way through undersea rock. Our tunnel cost thirty-four workers their lives.”

(reflective silence)


M: “You two were closed not that long ago, I understand.”

Y: “I was closed in 2006, shortly after work began on the Hokkaido Shinkansen.”

T: “And I was just closed in 2013.”

M: “The Hokkaido Shinkansen?”

Y: “‘Shinkansen’ is the name for various high-speed, long-distance train lines in Japan.”


Photo by Swollib

T: “Real high speed. We’re talking over 200 kilometers an hour.”

Y: “They’re planning on finishing the Hokkaido Shinkansen in 2016.”

M: “So you were closed to make way for construction in the tunnel?”

T: “The tunnel has two parallel sets of tracks. One set is being upgraded to a larger gauge to accommodate the Shinkansen.”

Y: “Trains are still running on the other set.”

T: “We’re actually helping with the construction, by holding materials. So although we’ve been closed to passengers, we’re really only semi-retired.”

Y: “And we continue to serve as emergency escape routes. So we aren’t out to pasture yet!”

Waving Goodbye


Photo by OiMax

M: “Thank you for your time, Yoshioka-Kaitei and Tappi-Kaitei.”

Y: “Thank you! And hey, if you bump into anyone from NHK, please let them know we’d love to meet them and do a real interview. I mean, another interview.”

T: (whispering to Y) “He’s from Tofugu. He’s not going to be rubbing shoulders with anyone from NHK, or anyone else in media.”

Y: (whispering back) “I know, it’s a long shot. But we might get lucky.”

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Wined, Dined, Brined, and Intestined: Acquiring a Taste for Japanese Delicacies Mon, 15 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 The world has fallen in love with Japanese cuisine. It has even been recognized as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. You probably know all about the big stars of Japanese food: sushi, noodles, onigiri. Maybe you’ve even tried some stranger Japanese dishes, like the opinion dividing natto. But have you ever heard of chinmi? Chinmi (珍味) […]

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The world has fallen in love with Japanese cuisine. It has even been recognized as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. You probably know all about the big stars of Japanese food: sushi, noodles, onigiri. Maybe you’ve even tried some stranger Japanese dishes, like the opinion dividing natto.

But have you ever heard of chinmi? Chinmi (珍味) literally means “rare taste,” but it also contains the meanings of acquired taste and delicacy. To give you some context of what sort of food qualifies as a chinmi, the word is also used to describe some non-Japanese foods such as caviar, truffles, and foie gras, which are described as 世界の三大珍味, the world’s top three delicacies.

The idea of chinmi pops up in Japanese popular culture across the spectrum from the surreal Toriko to the classic Oishinbo. Seeking out strange gourmet dishes is possible in the real world too. Even for Japanese people, these are a little out of the ordinary. If you really want to level up your Japanese food appreciation, seek chinmi out. Some of them are hard to find. Some of them are hard to stomach. Some of them are hidden gems.

The Top Three

Uni (sea urchin), karasumi (dried mullet roe), and konowata (salted sea cucumber innards) reign supreme in the world of chinmi. These three are the most popular and widely available.



Photo by Tako Yamada

The spiky little sea urchin, or uni, is valued for its roe (ripe eggs). You can easily find uni topping donburi or gunkan sushi across Japan. However, the most famous regions for uni production are old Echizen province (now Fukui prefecture) and the cool northern waters of Hokkaido. Living in Hokkaido, I had many chances to eat top notch uni. Unfortunately, I never made the most of it since I’m not really a fan. I felt pretty bad about wasting this opportunity since uni is a very pricey delicacy, with top quality uni fetching $450 per kilogram. Even if I can’t give you my personal recommendation, if you want to try one of Japan’s top three tastes then give uni a try. As a side note, sea urchins got their English name from their resemblance to hedgehogs, who have a wide variety of nicknames including urchin and furze-pig. Aww uni are cute, gourmet, little sea-hedgehogs.



The name karasumi supposedly comes from it’s resemblance to sumi (ink sticks) from China (kara). Karasumi is very similar to the Mediterranean dish botargo. Both are the cured roe pouches of the mullet fish. Karasumi is typically soft, while botargo is harder. Karasumi is made by salting mullet roe and drying it in the sunlight. Karasumi becomes even more of a delicacy if it’s given a sake bath or smoked. There are plenty of different karasumi to try. Traditionally served as a side to sake, thanks to its powerful umami flavor, karasumi has also become a popular ingredient in a wide array of dishes, such as this karasumi pasta.



Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

Konowata is made from the cured entrails of sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers are pretty fascinating creatures in their own right (even before they have their guts scooped out and turned into something you can eat.) Sea cucumbers don’t have brains, they barely even have a nervous system and they aren’t vegetables, despite what the name suggests. They are echinoderms from the class Holothuroidea. In Japanese they are called namako (海鼠) which literally means sea mice. Squishy, sausauge shaped creatures that live on the bottom of the sea probably don’t seem very appetizing. Yet, their guts are highly valued in Japan. First, the entrails are scooped out. Then, they are cleaned thoroughly. Salt is added and the mixture is stirred frequently for about 5 hours. The final step is putting it in a barrel for a week to let the intestines’ own enzymes work on turning themselves into finished konowata. Since sea cucumbers aren’t very big, the process doesn’t produce high volumes. A 100 gram jar will set you back about 3000 yen. The final taste is briny and pungent, verging on putrid. It is often served with sake and sometimes even served in sake. That makes it slide down easier.

Rarer Rare Tastes

If you’ve mastered Japan’s top three chinmi, how about seeking out some of the other ones? Just because they didn’t make the top three, doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious and/or disgusting. Either way, they are certainly worth hunting down. Even if rare tastes aren’t your thing, at the very least, forewarned is forearmed. I know from personal experience how much some people get a kick out of watching others try these dishes. I wish I’d known what I was eating before I tried some of these. So here are a few of my top chinmi recommendations/warnings.



Photo by: DDD DDD

You know when a food is described as “famously malodorous” it has got to be good. Kusaya has a pretty interesting history. It comes from the Izu islands, the tropical island chain that is technically part of Tokyo. In the Edo period, the people there made a living from salt production and paid their taxes in salt because they didn’t produce enough rice. This left the islanders with little salt to use themselves to preserve their food. They frugally reused the salty brine which they cured fish in over and over again. The brine, called kusaya eki (くさや液) became sticky and stinky and so did the cured fish, which is called kusaya. The kusaya eki, or kusaya juice, was also used as a medicine. These days, each of the inhabited Izu islands has a different brand of kusaya, with Hachijo-jima and Niijima being particularly well esteemed.



Photo by kobakou

The kanji that make up the name shutō (酒盗) mean sake thief. This name indicates shutō’s typical accompaniment, alcohol. Actually, most chinmi are usually served as sides while you are drinking. (Perhaps the alcohol helps distract from the fact you are eating pickled sea stuff.) Shutō itself has one of the most stomach turning descriptions. It is made from the entrails of the bonito (katsuo), a fish more widely known as an ingredient in Japan’s ubiquitous stock dashi. The guts are mixed with sake, honey, and mirin. After six months of fermenting, it’s ready to eat with a nice glass of sake. You are most likely to find shutō in Odawara city in Kanagawa prefecture.



Photo by pelican

Dorome is a speciality of Akaoka Town in Kouichi prefecture. It takes the alcohol-chinmi link to new heights as it is celebrated in the Dorome Matsuri, a festival that involves a men vs women sake drinking competition. The dorome themselves are a type of young anchovy fry that are eaten whole, similar to whitebait. The Dorome Matsuri may be more about drinking than it is about dorome, but the fish are pretty good too, especially with ponzu sauce.



Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

Akita prefecture brings us a chinmi that isn’t made of marine stuff! Tonburi is made from the Bassia scoparia plant, also known as the burning-bush, Mexican fireweed, or hōkigi (ホウキギ), depending on where you find it. The seeds of the hōkigi plant are dried, boiled, soaked, and then rubbed by hand to remove the skins. Although it isn’t made from fish, it seems even this plant-based chinmi can’t escape the marine connection as tonburi is sometimes called “land caviar” as its texture resembles fish eggs. The little dark green seed pods are often used as a garnish.



Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

I had to include something made from fugu. This is Tofugu, after all. You’ve probably heard of fugu, the fish that can kill you if it isn’t prepared properly. Well how would you like to eat a fugu’s ovaries?
Usually this would be a very bad idea, as the ovaries contain very high levels of the potent neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. Chefs train for years to learn how to cut out the ovaries without contaminating the rest of the fish. Of course, some clever person looked at all those discarded toxic ovaries and thought, “what a waste.” In Ishikawa prefecture, a technique was developed to make the ovaries edible. They are salted and pickled for almost two years. This renders the toxins harmless. Even so, each batch must be tested by the Ishikawa Prefecture Preventive Medical Association before it can be sold. Would you dare to eat Fugunoransounonukadzuke?



The other half of Tofugu is tofu, so here’s a tofu based chinmi. Tofuyo is a delicacy from Okinawa, characterised by its red color and pungent smell. It is made from shimadofu, Okinawan tofu that is a little harder than other Japanese tofu. It is fermented with benikoji, or red yeast rice, and the local Okinawan distilled spirit awamori. The bright red color of tofuyo comes from the mould Monascus purpureus. Apart from being yummy, tofuyo may also have health benefits. A 2012 study found that tofuyo increased the life span of mice infected with influenza. Stinky and healthy – yum!

Karashi Renkon


Photo by Shinichi Kato

If you like mustard, karashi rekon is the delicacy for you. It’s from Kumamoto in Kyushu and comes with a legend attached. The daimyo of Kumamoto, Tadatoshi Hosokawa became sick. In some versions of the story a zen monk called Gentaku, and in other versions a kitchen worker named Heigoro, presented the sick Hosokawa with a lotus root that had been boiled, stuffed with a miso and mustard paste and deep fried. Supposedly, this cured Hosokawa. Conveniently for the story, sliced lotus root looks a lot like the mon (family crest) of the Hosokawa family. It is important to note that karashi renkon should be quite thinly sliced before you eat it. It is often sold whole, but if you try to take a big bite, you’re going to have a bad time



It wouldn’t be an article about unusual foods without some insect action. This one comes courtesy of Gifu prefecture where they cook up a delicious meal of black hornet larvae. It is also sometimes called hachinoko (hornet’s children). The honeycombs are collected before summer to encourage the hornets to build larger combs. The larvae are plucked out and boiled in either soy sauce and sugar or honey. If you don’t like your hornet larvae sweet, you can also try them as a sushi filling. Now, I haven’t actually tried these, but I would given the chance. As I always say, why not eat insects? These bugs were an important source of protein for generations in Japan.



Photo by t-mizo

The last chinmi I’ll introduce you to today is the dramatically black kurozukuri. It gets its color from squid ink. Squid is salted and mixed with its own ink and liver. It is then left for over a month, undergoing fermentation by various different microbes including, Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Weissella paramesenteroides. If you like the sound of that, go find some kurozukuri in Toyama prefecture and pick up a copy the manga or watch the anime of Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture to learn more about the wonderful world of the microbes in your food.

Chinmi and the History of Japanese food


Photo by jun560

You might have noticed a theme running through many of the chinmi I’ve just described, fermentation and preservation. The Zenchinrin Association, which promotes chinmi, classifies chinmi into groups; smoked, salted, marinated, pickled, roasted, dried, and boiled. All of these techniques are used to prevent food from spoiling. Japanese cuisine as we know it now is very different than it was even 100 years ago. From a food production standpoint, Japan was not an easy country to live in. While it is rich in resources such as sea food, there were cultural and logistical problems in farming animals for food. Before the introduction of the refrigerator and food imports, people relied on preservation techniques to store enough food to keep them going through hard times. Chinmi illustrate the inventiveness of Japanese cuisine in making the most of the resources available.

These days many people, Japanese or foreign, would rather have a plate of curry rice than a dish of fermented fish guts. I’m probably one of them (curry rice is delicious!). However, if you have the chance to try some chinmi, just screw up your nose and put that stuff in your mouth. Maybe you won’t like it the first time you try it. Maybe you’ll love it. Either way, you’ll have a better appreciation of how lucky we are to be able to make choices about our foods. Also, you can gain an appreciation for the background that some of your favorite Japanese foods like sushi and miso emerged from. The chinmi are a window back into Japan’s past. Many of them have dwindled to little more than oddities, even for Japanese people, but they show us that some of the techniques our favorites share are still alive (just as the microbes that make them are still alive too).

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Pay to Play: The Price of Local Multiplayer in Japan Fri, 12 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 We’ve all heard the term “Galapagos syndrome” paired with Japan before. It’s the idea that something (usually technology) that is available globally grows into something different when it becomes isolated. Some things that work for Japan don’t always work out abroad, and not just with technology. Sure, ear cleaning salons might be a thing in Japan […]

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We’ve all heard the term “Galapagos syndrome” paired with Japan before. It’s the idea that something (usually technology) that is available globally grows into something different when it becomes isolated. Some things that work for Japan don’t always work out abroad, and not just with technology. Sure, ear cleaning salons might be a thing in Japan (as well as some other Asian countries), but goat cafes? Stuffed animal travel? They’ve made appearances outside of Japan, but rarely to much success.

Other times, ideas stick. As an adult gamer and a teacher, it can be hard for me to meet other gamers offline, so when I found out about game cafes hosting “real meets,” I was intrigued. These “real meets” are usually just people playing games at game cafes, which are pretty much just internet cafes for gaming purposes. There are also more highly organized meets, like the Monster Hunter group I found last year. I decided to try a spectrum of “real meets,” and they ranged from the highly organized group I experienced before to a much more casual “do what you want” style of cafe.

Mobile Gaming Takes Over


Photo by: Joseph Choi

Our own Nathaniel Edwards touched on this a bit when discussing the less than stellar performance of the Playstation 4’s ability to attract Japanese buyers, but consoles, especially home consoles, aren’t doing as well as they used to. A quick look at the weekly hardware sales charts for games in Japan shows the 3DS and PS Vita selling at nearly twice as many units as the best selling home console for this generation.

Source: VGChartz, October 23, 2014

This shouldn’t be surprising for anyone familiar with modern Japanese culture. We’ve all heard about the long commutes, longer work and study hours, and required work “parties,” all of which means less time for console gaming. With that in mind, it also shouldn’t be too surprising that as mobile gaming is able to make deeper and more complex games, people shift to them. Even in the states I know people who are playing PC and console games less and less as their adult lives get busier and busier.

A solid example of this movement in gaming culture is the Monster Hunter series. Kotaku has a great article on why the series is popular in Japan, but it makes several points:

  1. Population density. Japan may not be one of the top ten most densely populated countries, but it is still in the top 40 .
  2. Mass, affordable, convenient public transportation. I can’t play games if I’m driving, but when Shinjuku is conveniently only 2 hours away by train, it means I have 2 hours of Smash Bros for 3DS to play.
  3. It’s a form of social interaction. Many people get into MH because one or many friends play it. Kotaku even spoke to a guy who went on a trip with 15 other friends and was the only one not playing MH. Poor guy really felt left out.

The article also mentions how, in the west, gaming is still a bit more of a solitary hobby. While MH does provide a single player mode, it’s mostly there to prepare you (both in terms of practice and gaining items) for multiplayer. If you pick up the game and don’t play with other people, it can feel pretty hollow.

Now, admittedly, the west does have a lot of online games. World of Warcraft is often cited as having had 12 million worldwide players at one point, but I’ve met exactly zero students in Japan (from kindergarteners to college students) who have ever heard of it, including students who play other massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs). Aside from the fact that PC gaming in Japan is still associated with adult games (there’s a reason many PC game shops here are pink inside). Most people I talk to simply mention not having time for games outside of playing on their phones or 3DS on the train, or sometimes after work or school with friends. Gaming in Japan really does seem to be getting more mobile.

This can more clearly be seen through this year’s Tokyo Game Show. I must admit I’m just as guilty as other western game journalists on this, but portable games certainly dominated the show, and last year felt the same. The only portable game I even looked forward to was Monster Hunter 4G. There were plenty of other mobile titles, especially cell phone games, but I didn’t take them seriously. I admit it, I’m biased, but even I have to confess that I’m feeling the pinch when it comes to free time for PC/Console gaming.

I’m also a fairly social gamer, or at least I used to be. Most of my Japanese co-workers admit they’ve played games, but had to give it up when they got married. Others have only mentioned it in locker rooms, and they’re usually the guys who’ve been out of college for five years or less. Even female teachers who have children and play games often hesitate to mention it, even when I proudly show students that, yes, I’m a gamer and I know the character on their keychain.

Where I live now, most of my social gaming has to be online. Most “meat space” gaming takes place in Tokyo, and since most people don’t walk around with a TV and wall socket, that means mobile gaming.

Paying to Play


Before I get into this, let me be clear when I say that you don’t always have to pay to play with other people. Because mobile gaming is so big in Japan, sometimes you can organically meet other people to play with. Kind of. I have a feeling part of it has to do with certain communities. For example, with Pokemon, I was constantly being challenged to battles and receiving offers to trade during local play, which can happen any time you play Pokemon X/Y in public. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had one of my students regularly kicking my butt on my ride to work for awhile.

However, I’d never seen anyone on the train with open sessions for MH or Smash Bros for 3DS. While MH missions can take awhile, Smash sessions can be as short as one minute so I don’t think length of time was the problem. During Tokyo Game Show, I saw many open rooms (public, mind you, not “Friends Preferred”) and attempted to play with people, in both the standard battles and the “Smash Run” battles in Smash Bros. I chose to try out Smash Run because I thought it seemed closer to something like MH, in that you’re trying to earn gear together.

But even though the rooms were public, they were routinely shut on me. At first I thought it could be a Tokyo Game Show thing, but the same thing happened when I tried to play with people in various spots around Tokyo, including Akihabara. I was only able to find someone willing to give Smash Run a go once, and it was with someone from South America. He didn’t seem to enjoy me being his only option either. I needed to find a place where people actually wanted to try to play games together and were open to the idea of playing with strangers face-to-face.

The Highly Structured Real Meet


Photo by: Guilhem Vellut

As I mentioned, last year I tried a Monster Hunter “real meet” for the first time. The actual event said specifically what game we were playing, and there was a bit of a plan of attack, including seat arrangements. It cost me about $25 US for a night of gaming and free soft drinks. More expensive than a movie for 3 hours, but lasted twice as long. Unfortunately it was held at night and often disrupted my sleep schedule. However, the people were quite sociable. One downside was that they were constantly bringing up that fact that I was one of only two foreigners to ever attend. The host was moderately organized and kept a pretty pleasant atmosphere. But another downside was that it felt like paying to play with friends. This was partially because there was an unstated rule that you shouldn’t be playing online during these meets, and that you shouldn’t exchange contact information.

That last part still stands out to me. I recall two Japanese players who were caught discussing meeting up to play online and exchanging their information. The host reprimanded them for attending a “real meet” with the intentions of playing online instead. That was what ultimately lead me to stop attending, but overall, it was a pleasant experience. I’d certainly like to try again, though admittedly, I’d probably try to see what would happen if I attempted to exchange contact information with other people after the event.

The Unstructured Real Meet


If you aren’t afraid of the internet, there’s Game Cafe Junk. Unlike the other places I visited, this one was set up for laptops too, and offered free Wi-Fi. Then again, it seemed to be more of a hangout than a place for gaming. You don’t pay until you leave, and the host isn’t really strict about time. I stayed for about three hours and forty minutes but was only charged for three hours, without any hesitation from the host.

However, the host also doesn’t have any sort of pairing system. You just have to go in and hope that someone has the same game as you. Avoid going on holidays though, since it’s incredibly slow. I went for three hours as one of two customers and the other guy was either a friend or a regular who just wanted to chat. If it’s a holiday, finding anyone in general is difficult, so finding someone with the same game as you is an even bigger challenge. One time I went to a meeting set-up to play there, held by foreigners, and we tried to invite Japanese players to join us, but those who were at Game Junk either didn’t have the game or had no interest in it.

It’s certainly an intimate setting, in that the owner seemed to recognize me as well as other previous customers, and if I were alone in the gaming room, he’d bring his gaming laptop in and play. But he’s human, and has his own taste in games and will make them known quite bluntly (he’s not a Smash Bros fan). So because it’s so hands off, Game Junk is probably best when you bring a friend or two.

The Middle of the Road Real Meet


In the middle of these two extremes is Shukaijo. Their system seemed the oddest to me, but was effective enough. You indicate what game you are playing on a card and then other people can join you or you can be paired with someone else based on that information. My very first visit got me immediately paired with people for Smash Bros. However, as I indicated above, the local Smash community here seems a bit insulated, and despite my best attempts, the encounter ended when the pair decided to change games without inviting me to join.

However, the staff is pleasant enough, and the price, while slightly higher than Game Junk, includes free beverages, though mostly soft drinks and the kind of tea you get from soda dispensers. It also offers free Wi-Fi so that people can download game updates if needed or do game research on tablets.

Unlike Game Junk, it’s much more active. Weekends are the busiest, but weekdays pick up when there’s a new, popular game out. Make sure you don’t come to Shukaijo expecting a small, relaxing environment. People are pretty upbeat, and while I’ve never seen another foreigner there, I did see quite a few women and even a man dressed as a woman (without any harassment), so it felt pretty inviting, despite my first encounter. The only problem was that no one seemed to want to play Smash Bros.

Overall, I think the highly organized setting suited me best. Though I disliked not feeling like I could genuinely make friends with the people I played with, at least I got to game. Game Junk certainly put the burden on me to find people to play with, but I felt it was more welcoming in that aspect, especially since the host provided free snacks of (mostly) candy and senbei. If you want a calm environment or a place that has lots of space for an event, especially for laptop gaming, I recommend Game Junk. However, I enjoyed Shukaijo’s pairing service, even if it didn’t quite work out for me. I saw a lot of happy people there.

Gaming Culture: How and Why


Photo by: Guilhem Vellut

One thing that I’ve been trying to hint at throughout all this is that there is a gaming culture you’ll need to pick up on in order to get the most out of your experience. Most of my Japanese gaming experience comes from online interactions, and even that’s a bit limited, since most of the games I’ve tried are created abroad and localized for Japan. Despite Japan’s image of promoting a group mentality and a desire for peace, I feel like gamers here prefer games that pit players against each other, at least from foreign companies. For example: Japan loves the Final Fantasy online games, but doesn’t know World of Warcraft. Instead, games by smaller companies with hardcore PvP, like Eve Online and Darkfall, somehow end up getting published. Just the same, in terms of mainstream gaming, games with cooperative mode have the advantage. Smash is quite popular, but the more cooperative Monster Hunter 4G sold better it’s first week, almost selling as many units as Smash did in total after three weeks of release.

Naturally, being able to speak Japanese conversationally is going to greatly improve your experience, as well as the experiences of the people around you. Very few people wanted to speak English, though my MH host tried to lead the way and eventually paired me with another foreigner. But to be honest, I’m not sure that made things better for anyone, though I did appreciated the gesture.

If you aren’t confident with your language abilities, there are some key phrases that can help improve your overall experience. With some MMOs and Monster Hunter say, “onegaishimasu” before starting a mission, or while the map is loading if you’re on voice chat or face-to-face. This “onegai” is supposedly toward the dungeon, asking for good loot to drop, as well as asking your fellow players to “be kind” to you. At the end of a mission, “arigatou” or “otsukaresama desu” can be used, the latter being preferred, as a way of thanking your fellow players for their help.


Photo by: MIKI Yoshihito

However, as a non-Japanese and with limited Japanese proficiency, I decided to ask an expert at Shukaijo for some help. A big thanks to my wonderfully intelligent girlfriend and our very own Mami for acting as translators.

I was told Shukaijo only has a few foreigners visit each year, most likely due to the language barrier.

However, it was noted that there are plenty of female gamers. People either come alone or with groups, so their reasons for coming are a bit mixed, and people do supposedly make friends here. There’s solo players, but also 乱入プレイ, people who join games that are already in progress. Supposedly, the face-to-face interaction makes it easier to trust people and build bonds, and I can say that I had similar feelings when I had positive encounters.

The biggest language tip I was given was to simply point at the mission you want to do and ask, “このミッションいいですか?” Meaning, “Is this mission okay?” This isn’t just for newbies, but because games often have lots of missions or quests, people don’t always have them all memorized. It’s better to show them what you want to do than to say, “I need to finish the ‘Blood of a Tengu’ quest.” If there’s a certain monster you need to kill or an item you need to get, you can mention it, but especially for those who don’t speak Japanese, it’s often best to know the mission you want to play with someone. This was actually some practical advice I was given at my first MH meet, since people often simply asked to see my 3DS and pointed at what I needed, who to kill, or where I should go. It’s one of the strong advantages of real meets when playing portable games, since you can’t do that kind of thing when you’re chatting online.

Shukaijo in particular is a good place to find people playing MH, God Eater, and Freedom Wars, which, I was told, were the most popular games there. That’s probably why I didn’t find many Smash fans, since these games are more cooperative than competitive. In fact, as I’m writing this, about 90% of customers are coming in with the new MH4G.

So, for those looking to try something new, looking for fellow gamers, or (if your Japanese is good enough) possibly making some new friends, try visiting a real meet. Whether it’s highly structured, unstructured, or somewhat in the middle, real meets are a good way reason to get out of single player mode and experience some multi-player action abroad. They’re mostly aimed at Japanese, so you can have an authentic Japanese experience with gamers, and hopefully have fun playing the games you love.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Spiders in Japan: The Tiniest Kaiju Wed, 10 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Arachnophobes be warned. Today’s article is all about our little eight-legged friends. Spiders, and monsters inspired by them, have held a place in Japanese culture for centuries. Japan is also currently dealing with the problem of a spider species from abroad. Meanwhile, a Japanese company has developed a spider-derived technology for the future.  Grab your […]

The post Spiders in Japan: The Tiniest Kaiju appeared first on Tofugu.

Arachnophobes be warned. Today’s article is all about our little eight-legged friends. Spiders, and monsters inspired by them, have held a place in Japanese culture for centuries. Japan is also currently dealing with the problem of a spider species from abroad. Meanwhile, a Japanese company has developed a spider-derived technology for the future.  Grab your flashlights, and let’s see what we can find in Japan’s nooks and crannies.

Tsuchigumo 土蜘蛛


Tsuchigumo means “earth spider,” and has been applied to both a yōkai and to certain people in ancient Japan. The creature tsuchigumo is basically a giant spider, though it is sometimes described as having the face of a demon and the body of a tiger. There are a couple of different stories about the warrior, Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021) and his slaying of a tsuchigumo. In one of these stories Yorimitsu was bedridden with malaria, when a tall, strange monk appeared to him and tried to capture him with rope. Ill though he was, Yorimitsu drew his sword and cut the monk, who fled. The next day Yorimitsu and his four closest men followed the blood trail left by the monk to a mound behind Kitano Shrine, where they found a spider 1.2 meters wide. They caught it, pierced it with an iron skewer, and exposed it to a riverbed, whereupon Yorimitsu’s sickness was cured. That story became the basis of one of the earliest Noh plays, appropriately titled “Tsuchigumo.”


Tsuchigumo has also been used to refer to groups or individuals in ancient Japan, such as bandits, who used guerrilla tactics. This also applied to indigenous leaders or clans who resisted the Yamato court as it spread and consolidated its control over Japan. Many of these groups lived in hollow earthen mounds and may have used caves as hideouts. There is a lot of ambiguity in the sources and it’s unclear if tsuchigumo was first used to refer to people or the monster. There are no large, burrowing spiders native to Japan, but they may have known of such a species from the continent’s tales of the Chinese bird spider. Still, it’s not known if the behavior of the human tsuchigumo inspired the monster, or if the Yamato felt the name of the monster was fitting for those who defied their rule.

Jorōgumo 女郎蜘蛛


Photo by nesnad

In Japan, the name jorōgumo is commonly used to refer to various species of the genera Nephila and Agriope, but Japanese entomologists use the name to refer specifically to the species Nephila clavata. Jorōgumo means “whore spider,” which may seem like a strange name until you hear the stories that go with the name. Like the tsuchigumo, it seems the name jorōgumo was used for a yōkai before it was applied to a real animal.

There are a number of Edo period (1603-1867) stories about the jorōgumo. She usually appears as a beautiful woman, but in truth she is a giant spider. She will lure a young man to her secluded home and perhaps entertain him by playing the biwa. While he is distracted, she will bind him in her spider silk, and by the time the victim realizes what is happening it is already too late. His fate as her dinner is sealed.


Sometimes the origin of the jorōgumo is said to be a spider that gained magical powers when it turned 400 years old (not bad for a spider). Again, she will take the form of a woman, sometimes to seduce a handsome young samurai into marrying her. At other times, she will appear to be holding a baby, which upon looking closer turns out to be a spider egg sack.

Mizugumo 水蜘蛛


Photo by tetzl

Mizugumo literally means water spider, and that’s just what they are. Argyroneta aquatica (AKA the diving bell spider) is the only spider known to spend all of it’s time underwater. It does this by creating a “diving bell” web filled with air, in which it spends the vast majority of its time. The spiders live, mate, and lay eggs, all within their cozy air pocket. They hunt by darting out to catch prey that strays too close to the bubble.


Photo by Katie

The mizugumo also lent their name to some legendary ninja equipment. These mizugumo consisted of four rounded wooden pieces making a circle, loosely connected to each other and to a rectangle in the middle of the circle, which was strapped to the ninja’s foot. Perhaps the idea is best described as snowshoes for the water, with the same idea of using surface tension to keep the wearer on top of the walking surface. The Mythbusters actually tested them out once, and concluded that they wouldn’t work for traversing open water, but might have potential for crossing marshy territories or rice paddies.


There’s also a mizugumo for the Miyazaki fans out there, though you’ll probably have to travel a long way to find him. The Miyazaki directed, “Mizugumo Monmon,” is a fifteeen-minute animated short, released in 2006, that can be seen at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. It’s about a water spider that falls in love with a water strider.

Spider Battles


In Kagoshima Prefecture there is a town called Kajiki where they have an unusual pastime. For over four hundred years people in Kajiki have been raising spiders to fight in their annual kumo gassen (“spider battle”). The spiders in question are Agriope amoena, but are sometimes known to locals as Samurai Spiders. They are raised and trained in the homes of their owners, then compete around June.

The tournament consists of one-on-one, round robin matches until there is an ultimate victor. There are referees for each match who judge the winner on the following criteria: the first spider to bite, wrap the other in a web, or in cases where both spiders entered the fight on silk threads, who severed the other’s line first. The refs use their hands to separate the contestants if they get too aggressive, or goad them into action if they aren’t in the mood. In the sources I’ve seen, the locals claim the spiders don’t hurt each other, but I remain skeptical.

Redback Spiders


Until quite recently Japan had no spider species that could be deadly to humans (not counting the eight-legged monsters mentioned above). That changed around 1995, when the first redback spiders were found in Osaka. Native to Australia, redback spiders (Latrodectus hasseltii) are in the same family as black widows and their venom is similarly potent to humans: mostly survivable, but occasionally fatal.


It’s thought that the arachnids made the voyage to Japan stowed away in cargoes of wood chips. There may have been more than one point of entry. At any rate, the spiders have now been spotted in 22 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, mostly in western Japan. They have spread because of the warm climate and the relatively low number of natural predators. Around 2007 they were seen in Fukuoka for the first time. They were spotted in Tokyo for the first time in September of 2014. There have been a number of bites reported since the redbacks came to Japan, but no fatalities so far. Most big cities are equipped with the proper anti-venom, but smaller towns where the spiders have been seen are not so well prepared.

Another factor in the spiders’ spread has been the lack of a cohesive extermination effort from the authorities. Under Japan’s Invasive Alien Species Law, it should be the responsibility of the central government, but they have been concentrating their efforts on protecting areas like national parks from alien species that threaten biodiversity. Therefore, controlling the redback spiders has been mainly left to local authorities, who haven’t planned their extermination attempts very well.

Spider Tech


Photo retrieved from

Spider silk is a remarkable material. Scientists have been trying to find ways to mass produce it for years. Spider farming doesn’t work because the spiders would eat each other. People have been farming silkworms for centuries, but their silk is not nearly as strong as spiders’. Therefore, scientists (successfully) attempted to genetically alter silkworms to produce silk like that of spiders, but the silkworms were unable to produce enough of the stuff to make mass production feasible.

In 2013, the Japanese company, Spiber Inc., revealed a dress they had made from spider silk. They had managed to genetically alter bacteria to produce the proteins that make up spider silk, and also developed a way to weave those proteins into silk of strength comparable to the real deal. They dubbed the new fabric QMONOS, after the Japanese word for spider web, kumonosu 蜘蛛の巣. By 2015, Spiber is hoping to produce ten tons of QMONOS per year from a factory in Yamagata Prefecture.

If they are successful, the potential is astounding. Spider silk is five times stronger than steel, but six times lighter than steel of the same strength. It’s also as elastic as nylon and can withstand temperatures up to 300 degrees Celsius. Amongst many potential uses it could be used to make artificial blood vessels, bulletproof vests, and stronger, lighter airplane fuselages.

The Wrap Up

We’ve come to the end of our thread, one that stretches from the monsters of the past to some Spider-man-like tech. If synthetic silk becomes the technology of the future, perhaps spiders can overcome their bad reputation. I think it’s undeniable that spiders strike a powerful chord in the human psyche. For many they inspire fear, but hopefully we’ve come to a point in history where people will view spiders with a sense of wonder and respect.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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